The ‘elsewhereness’ of post-genre:

utilising playfulness of cross-genre references as a compositional device

Prof. Joe Cutler
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Birmingham City University

Work 1: Elsewhereness

for symphony orchestra (2018)

CLICK TO OPEN: full score

CLICK TO OPEN: full score

Work 3: Chords on the Shore

for electric guitar quartet (2014)

Three creative outcomes

Work 2: McNulty

for piano trio (2016)

CLICK TO OPEN: full score

CLICK TO OPEN: CD booklet of NMCD246 Elsewhereness (2018) which features a studio recording of Elsewhereness

CLICK TO PLAY: studio recording of Elsewhereness on NMCD246 Elsewhereness (2018)

CLICK TO PLAY: studio recording of McNulty on NMCD246 Elsewhereness (2018)

CLICK TO PLAY: Live recording of Chords on the Shore at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire on June 3 2014

CLICK TO OPEN: CD booklet of NMCD246 Elsewhereness (2018) which features a studio recording of McNulty

Research process

Summary of the research

This portfolio of three creative compositional works individually and collectively examines the ‘elsewhereness’ of post-genre composition. The three works in this portfolio are:

  • Elsewhereness for symphony orchestra (9 minutes)
  • McNulty for piano trio (10 minutes)
  • Chords on the Shore for electric guitar quartet (12 minutes)
This exposition provides contextual information to support the three creative outcomes.


Through practice-based research in music composition I have the following two research aims:

  • Develop a hybrid compositional aesthetic through the absorption, integration and referencing of a highly personal set of ‘influences’, many from outside the sphere of classical music.
  • Examine the role of ‘compositional play’ or ‘playfulness’ in unifying a multi-faceted compositional language. This is often manifested through intertextuality and the juxtaposition of diverse elements that are made to function at a structural or conceptual level. 


I obfuscate notions of genre, performance practice and content. Using the referencing of other musics as a compositional tool, I identify playfulness as a filter through which models of influence are transformed into something personal in an attempt to define what post-genre means to a 21st century composer. On a meta-structural level, reference becomes a parameter in its own right.

1 – Elsewhereness
For symphony orchestra (2018); commissioned by Royal Birmingham Conservatoire for the opening of the Bradshaw Hall and supported by PRS Foundation's Composers' Fund. Duration: 9 minutes. 

At the beginning of the research process I created a short text that underpins the structure of the piece:

Some place elsewhere, a city is envisioned, with hope and zeal it is constructed, with imagination and love it is inhabited, and eventually with stealth it is reclaimed by nature. 

I began conceiving Elsewhereness while still working in the old Birmingham Conservatoire building which was gradually being dismantled, just as the new Royal Birmingham Conservatoire building was emerging from its foundations. Birmingham is a city that always seems to be in a state of flux, with new buildings being constructed and old ones disappearing or morphing into something other. Whilst working on the piece, I experienced a heightened awareness of the impermanence of the cities we construct; how what appears solid and familiar, over time re-configures itself into something new. It's rather like when a new building is created, one enters into a negotiation with time, in a way quite similar to the act of composition. That was something I wanted to explore in this new work.


The piece is in three clear parts, informed by the three statements about the city in my short text:

  • "With hope and zeal it is constructed"

    The first section is set in the near-past. I collected a range of musical materials which could inform the referential nature of this section. I ‘collected’ brief harmonic progressions from Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin and used these as the basis for the opening brass ‘fast-chorale’ material. This musical reference is both generic and personal. The Sonatas and Partitas could be considered a 'jewel from the past’, a piece that has echoed through conservatoire practice rooms for hundreds of years. As a violinist myself, this music strongly connects to my own early life as a music student. Through the use of percussion and obsessive repetition, this opening section also references Alexander Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry (1926), a paean to construction and progress. 


  • "With imagination and love it is inhabited"

    The central section of the piece is concerned with the present, with the living building, and the society or communities that occupy that building. A quasi-minimalist transformative ostinato on Hammond organ acts like a genetic blueprint for the bright, colourist optimistic orchestration, which in itself is informed by works like John Adams’ Chairman Dances (1985) or Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986). There is a blind optimism, as if the present is unaware of the fast-approaching future.


  • "Eventually with stealth it is reclaimed by nature"

    The third and final section represents the future: a future where only relics of the previous sections remain (Beethoven-esque statue-like chords, which in themselves are derived from the opening brass material), rather like the fallen Statue of Liberty in the opening scene of Planet of the Apes (1968). Around this, a sea of ‘undergrowth’ grows, consisting of Lachenmann or Penderecki-esque unpitched string material (e.g scratchtones, ricochets etc) and instrumental gestures suggestive of nature ('seagull' effects on the cello, birdsong on the flute and a percussionist shaking branches with leaves). 


Elsewhereness draws closely on the narrative forms employed by author David Mitchell to create a musical structure that alludes to a concept of ‘time-hopping’. The meta-structure of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas consists of a number of short stories, from:

  • 18th century;
  • early 20th century;
  • 1970s;
  • present-day;
  • near-future;
  • post-apocalyptic distant future.

In doing so Mitchell references a broad-range of literary styles. Despite seemingly disparate, these interconnected stories all strongly connect through recurring themes, concepts, ‘things’ (e.g birthmarks) and even characters.


Elsewhereness contributes to a furthering of our understanding of post-genre composition, showing how the underpinning of reference and compositional play can provide both rigour, cohesion and medium in this unchartered musical world. Through a lightness of touch, reference and compositional play coalesce to explore profound questions relating to Man’s relationship with its environment.   

Elsewhereness shows how the literary devices used by David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas can be applied to musical contexts.                        

Originality lies in the use of ‘compositional play’, creating meaning from the interplay of musical materials that wear their references overtly. In attempting to find originality, Elsewhereness delves inside my musical memory, bringing to the fore half-remembered musics that have become freed from their original contexts.   

The demolition of the old Birmingham Conservatoire building

Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conducting a rehearsal for the premiere performance of Elsewhereness in the new Royal Birmingham Conservatoire building

2 – McNulty
For piano trio (2016); commissioned by the Fidelio Trio with the support of the Britten-Pears Foundation. Duration: 10 minutes

This work came about through close collaboration with the specific performers in Fidelio Trio, in particular violinist Darragh Morgan who himself is a leading exponent of Irish traditional fiddle playing. The piece also stems from my own experience of playing fiddle in an Irish traditional music group in the 1990s. A highly developed system of ornamentation is a key facet of many types of traditional Irish music. In McNulty, ornamentation is allowed to function outside its normal environment, becoming fused with repetitive riffs and figurations, or placed alongside spectral-inspired harmonic-based textures. Through isolating one feature of traditional music, and placing it within an alternate context, ornamentation is allowed to function at a conceptual level, at odds with its normal “supporting” role.  


The piece takes inspiration from the American TV drama series The Wire, concerning itself with ideas as to what constitutes pertinent and non-pertinent material within Police surveillance procedures. Two other themes derived from the TV series inform the piece at a conceptual level, including an exploration of 2nd generation heritage, in this case Irish-American, reflecting the background of the lead character in the Wire, McNulty, and musical structures that go off the rails, reflecting McNulty’s ‘fall from grace’ through subsequent series of the Wire. These three identified ideas coalesce within a transformative musical discourse rich in musical and genre references. 


This output draws upon the ornamentation and melodic features of Irish traditional music, placing them within a largely prevailing post-minimal context. Gradually, through the developing musical discourse, the initial grace notes (non-pertinent) from the initial solo violin material take on an increasingly important role, until, by the climax of the work, grace notes and ornamentation become the dominant material (pertinent). Along the way, these ornamentations pass through a sequence of musical ‘zones’, in which they are required to re-shape themselves. Within each of these zones, the original ornamented ‘faux’ traditional material encounters new, contrasting materials which themselves reference a range of composers including Britten, Zorn and Rzewski. This leads to a re-shaping of the original material in order to assimilate within the new-found contextual environment. 


I was also interested in exploring the notion of ‘faux’ folk music, which connects to both the lead character in the Wire’s relationship with his heritage (celebration of an artificial notion of homeland) and also my own relationship with Ireland (as someone who grew up in Irish London, has some Irish heritage myself, played fiddle in Irish Pubs in Warsaw). This composition explores the blurred line between what is authentic and inauthentic. 


The piece draws upon experiences gathered from a number of field trips to Ireland (taken with Darragh Morgan), hearing at first hand, leading exponents perform live at traditional sessions, in Co Sligo, Co Kerry and Dublin. Whilst developing the piece, the Fidelio Trio provided a number of workshop-type development sessions where draft materials were performed and discussed. Prior to this piece, I have written a number of previous works for members of the ensemble and this has provided a strong foundation into understanding their individual musicianship. 



Through allowing folk-derived ornamentation to become the prevailing element within a musical composition, McNulty contributes to an understanding of how various elements from Irish Traditional music and post-minimalism can come into dialogue with one another, and in doing so, how a unique compositional aesthetic can be created in which original contexts are significantly altered. The piece also demonstrates how elements from popular culture (i.e TV) can provide a conceptual framework and rationale for multi-referential musical structures.

Rehearsal with Ensemble Krock at the Elektron Musik Studion in Stockholm

3 – Chords on the Shore
For guitar quartet (2014); commissioned by Ensemble Krock with the support of the Swedish Arts Council. Duration: 12 minutes

Chords on the Shore developed from two research trips to Stockholm during which I workshopped material for this work with Ensemble Krock. The first trip took place from 1–3rd November 2013 at Ensemble Krock’s own studio, whilst the second visit took place at EMS Studios from 2nd–5th May 2014.


This piece is inspired by the surrealist/magic realist literary devices of Haruki Murakami (specifically his 2002 novel Kafka on the Shore). I present an assortment of carefully catalogued multi-genre references, including:

  • Country and Western inspired guitar glissandi;
  • Post-Rock asymmetric riffs;
  • Feldman-esque statuesque chords.

These elements are presented and re-assembled before being deconstructed, and could be seen as the equivalent of musical ‘flotsam and jetsam’.


A recurring conceptual feature throughout the piece is descent. For instance, the exposition of this piece (initial four and a half minutes) presents three different types of descent, identified through glissandi of varying speeds, before presenting a sequence of generally-descending Feldman-esque chords. This descent could be seen as the tide pushing objects towards an imaginary shore-line.  



Like Elsewhereness, Chords on the Shore shows how contemporary literary approaches (Mitchell, Murakami) can be adapted to create a compositional framework that allows for the assemblage and deconstruction of a range of multi-genre materials, each with their own referentiality. Meaning and originality stems from the manner in which these materials (references) coalesce to create playful intertextualities.


In terms of context, the piece builds upon the body of electric guitar repertoire developed by post-minimalist composers such as Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, whilst using a literary framework to create a compositional logic for multi-genre referentiality. 

How the creative outcomes were shared

Live performances:

11 March 2018, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Royal Gala Opening of Bradshaw Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra, cond. Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (conductor).

21 October 2016, Fidelio Trio, Sound Scotland Festival, Aberdeen
28 March 2017, Fidelio Trio, Frontiers Festival, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire
3 March 2018, Fidelio Trio, Cardiff University
19 November 2018, Fidelio Trio, Austrian Cultural Forum, London
20 May 2019, Fidelio Trio, Beijing Modern Music Festival
23 April 2020 Trio NZ, 2020 ISCM World Music Days, Christchurch, New Zealand (postponed until 2022 due to COVID-19)

Chords on the Shore
3 June 2014, Ensemble Krock, Frontiers Festival, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire
11 July 2014, Ensemble Krock, National Concert Hall, Dublin
7 December 2014, Ensemble Krock, Fylkingborg, Stockholm


Commercially released recordings:

Released by NMC Recordings, October 2018, cat. no. NMCD246 (reaching no.10 in the Classical Specialist Charts on 20 October 2018). Available as CD, digital download and via streaming platforms.

Released by NMC Recordings, October 2018, cat. no. NMCD246 (reaching no.10 in the Classical Specialist Charts on 20 October 2018). Available as CD, digital download and via streaming platforms. 



12 March 2018, BBC Radio 3 (live recording)
19 November 2018, Portuguese Radio (CD recording)

19 January 2018, BBC Radio 3 Record Review (excerpt from CD recording)
27 October 2019, Swedish Radio (excerpt from CD recording)



Selected to represent ISCM British Section at 2020 ISCM World Music Days (postponed until 2022 due to COVID-19).


Published scores:

All scores published by Composers Edition



Chords on the Shore


Supported by:

Dissemination and reception



  • “Cutler pulled if off brilliantly with a piece entitled Elsewhereness, which meditated on the changing cityscape of Birmingham. That sounds a serious topic, but Cutler has always had a gift for evoking serious things with a light touch. This one danced entrancingly on the spot, the strings and woodwind created a shimmering haze around an obstreperous rhythmic pulse that teased us by being almost regular but not quite. Round and round came the dance, each time intriguingly rescored, like an object seen from a different angle. Perhaps this was to symbolise the way the cityscape is constantly changing while always being more-or-less the same; perhaps the amusing ending where the piece collapsed into cobwebby sounds was an evocation of the way bits of modern cities decay entirely and go back to nature. But in the end, it was the intriguing musical argument that seized the attention.” – Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph, March 2018 ****
  • “Full of brilliant achieved flamboyance” – Classical Music, January 2019 *****
  • “British 50-year-old Joe Cutler writes music of quirky dancing energy mingled with mystery..the title piece on Cutler’s CD (Elsewhereness) is delightfully unpredictable..” – Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph, December 2018 ****
  • “The disc opens with an occasional piece, Elsewhereness written for the move to Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s new home and performed by the Conservatoire’s orchestra conducted by Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, as such the piece explores the idea of moving elsewhere, dismantling and re-assembling. Yet the piece is full of fascinating textures and rhythms, is engaging and characterful and certainly sounds fun to play” – Robert Hugill (Planet Hugill), November 2018 ****
  • "Emerging from Kuniko’s spotless palace, I felt the need for something ragged and dirty. Joe Cutler’s Elsewhereness fitted the bill. This lively British composer writes jumbled, sometimes crazy pieces produced by hurling many kinds of music – minimalist, jazz, folk, the “classical” classical – into the pot and giving them a quizzical stir. The title track (Elsewhereness), composed for the opening of the spanking new HQ of Cutler’s employer, the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, naughtily suggests in musical terms that the building might totter and fragment" – Geoff Brown, The Times,  November 2018 ****
  • "Following his arresting debut Bartlebooth (9/08) and the Drempel miscellany as co-director of Noszferatu (1/11), Elsewhereness is Joe Cutler’s second NMC release devoted to his music and features a no less distinctive or appealing cross-section of pieces from the past decade. Written for the opening of the new Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (where he is Head of Composition), the title-track evokes the dismantling of the old then erecting of the new with that mingling of affirmation and ambivalence at which Cutler is so adept. It audibly pervades the content of McNulty, alluding to a character from the TV series The Wire through a workout on Irish traditional music where the constituents of the piano trio become characters in this increasingly ominous mini-drama” – Richard Whitehouse, Gramophone,  November 2018
  • “The first work, Elsewhereness, by Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s Head of Composition, Joe Cutler, is a cracker and brilliantly orchestrated – including a Hammond Organ and a tree branch – and fizzles with energy and wit, superbly dispatched” – Classical Source, March 2018
  • "Joe Cutler's wonderfully bonkers, zany Elsewhereness on the pioneering NMC label, with the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra. Everyone is clearly having a ball. Think Stravinsky Circus Polka on steroids with a sprinkling of John Adams, and do stick around for the false ending followed by a most unexpected coda” – Classical Explorer, October 2020
  • "Conceived during the demolition of the old Conservatoire in Paradise Circus, it bustles like the sonic equivalent of Lego building-blocks before disintegrating into an enigmatic ending, a brave antithesis to Britten's somewhat smug Building of the House overture”. – Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post, March 2018



  • "Experimentation is the thing [at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire], and it’s not experimentation in the sense of cerebral experimentation like the Darmstadt Serialism world. This is a whole new thing of ‘Music can be anything!’. As long as it’s someone bringing sounds together it can be anything, and that’s what Joe Cutler does. He’s incredibly eclectic, and McNulty is wildly chaotic Irish fiddle music!" – Tom McKinney, BBC Radio 3 Record Review, January 2019
  • McNulty (titled after a characted from The Wire) invokes a kind of fractured minimalism, containing much beauty in its textures” – Classical Music, January 2019 *****
  • “The work was commissioned by the Fidelio Trio, and the piece’s title is, in fact, the name of a character in the TV Programme The Wire, this gives Cutler the opportunity to explore various personalities, and the music combines the catchy, the rhythmic and the repetitive, as if someone had put minimalism and popular music in a boil wash together, with Irish traditional music in the mix too" – Robert Hugill (Planet Hugill), November 2018 ****
  • “Cutler is a post-minimalist lending the repetitive style new contexts. Alongside folk, pop and jazz influences are those, less likely, of football (Karembeu’s Guide to the Complete Defensive Midflelder) and TV drama (McNulty)” – Paul Driver, Sunday Times, October 2018
  • "Having just read about actor Dominic West’s performance in BBC1’s Les Miserables, it's cool to learn that Cutler's Irish-tinged piano trio McNulty does actually have links to West’s troubled character in The Wire. The music’s fluidity of style and shifting identities never become wearing: one of Cutler’s strengths is his timing, both comedic and musical. The works on this enjoyable NMC anthology are all neatly proportioned, Cutler knowing exactly how much mileage he can extract from his ideas” – The Artsdesk, January 2019