He went on to teach woodwind instruments, and then composition at the University of Glasgow. An early influence was the European avant-garde, particularly Karlheinz Stockhausen, though he returned to tonal composition in the mid-1970s. His work is strongly influenced by traditional Gaelic music and jazz.
His works range from opera, choral music, and songs to orchestral pieces, concertante works, chamber music, electronic and multimedia pieces. He has received commissions from such organisations as the BBC, Paragon Ensemble, St Magnus Festival, Musica Nova, Cappella Nova, Mayfest, the STUC, Glasgow University, RSAMD, Moving Music Theatre, McNaughten Concerts, Theatre Cryptic, The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and the Jim Henson Organisation.
In 2005, Sweeney won a prestigious Creative Scotland Award, for which he created Schemes, Blues and Dreams (premièred in June 2007), a collaboration with blues artist Fraser Speirs and with technical advice from Dr Nick Fells. String Quartet No.3 (2004) was recorded by the Edinburgh Quartet and is issued on the Delphian label.
In 2010, a new edition of a ninety minute musical setting of Hugh MacDiarmid’s epic poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle was toured around Scotland to great critical acclaim.
Granted a residency at the Kone Foundation’s Saari Manor in Finland, he completed a large-scale Sonata for Cello and Piano which was premièred in Scotland by the Finnish Cellist Erkki Lahesma and pianist Fali Pavri and then in Turku, Finland by Robert Irvine and Fali Pavri.
It is this Cello Sonata that has been recorded on a new release from Delphian Records www.delphianrecords.co.uk along with two other works, The Tree o’Licht for two cellos and The Poet Tells of his Fame for cello and electronics
The Tree o’Licht for two cellos (2008) was commissioned by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama for its cello-themed Stringfest in March 2008 and is dedicated to the composer’s mother.
The work opens with a distinctively Scottish feel, beautifully created by the two cellos, drawing one in immediately with its entrancing atmosphere. Sweeney tells us that the inspiration came from ancient freely weaving Gaelic psalm singing. As the music progresses the cellos weaves a melody around each other. There are dissonant chords as the music becomes more agitated with some lovely timbres from the two cellists. As one cello soars to the upper reaches, the playing is superb. The music becomes increasingly virtuosic as it becomes even more dramatic. Birds are evoked flying high in a section that represents, according to the composer, the entrancing nocturnal birdsong emanating from ‘the tree o’licht’ – a description from Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem ‘By Wauchopeside’. Strumming chords signal the slow return of the quiet opening melody, though the work still ends on a slightly dissonant harmony.
It was a poem by Jorge Luis Borges that inspired Sweeney’s The Poet Tells of his Fame for cello and electronics (2003). The excellent booklet notes by Edward McGuire, a composer himself, tell us that at an early stage of the composition of this piece, cello sound samples were pre-recorded for playback as the soloist performed in the studio. These pre-recorded sounds were modified by the use of filters. The soloist, in this performance, Robert Irvine, had three types of musical material, Melodies, Ostinati and Textures with the freedom to play them in any order thus making this an aleatoric work.
Astringent chords from the cello with electronic harmonies open this work with Robert Irvine weaving around the electronic accompaniment as though improvising. His cello really sings as the drama increases with some terrific playing. Occasionally there are sounds heard of a disembodied cello. It is astonishing the sounds, timbres and colours that Irvine manages to extract from his instrument. Whilst the overall arch of this music has a static quality, such is the drama and activity that takes place during its progress, the attention is always kept. Towards the coda there is a magical moment as the electronic sounds become quiet and delicate and the cello quietly plays the theme.
It is something of a tour de force for the cellist and engineer in creating this amazing performance.
Written for Erkii Lahesmaa and Robert Irvine, the two movement Sonata for Cello and piano (2010) was given a dual première, by Lahesmaa in Scotland and by Robert Irvine in Finland with Fali Pavri accompanying at both performances.The cello opens alone, ruminating on a theme, before the piano joins in a florid accompaniment. The music moves forward with a repeated motif for both cello and piano as they work the material around each other. A long held note on the cello precedes a change of tempo as the music becomes more passionate then thoughtful with a lovely, long drawn melody against which the piano plays shorter chords. Midway a dramatic section arrives with massive piano chords before the cellist announces a cadenza like passage with pizzicato notes. As the music becomes faster and more agitated, it leads to a slightly quizzical coda.
In the second movement the cello opens with a rich theme slowly worked out with lovely playing from Irvine. Eventually the piano joins for a few short notes before the cello continues its way working out the material. Later the piano enters again, this time slowly helping to work out the theme for a few bars before the cello takes over alone. Around halfway through the movement, the piano suddenly enters and turns the music into a more flowing theme. There follows an argument between the piano and cello with the cello providing sudden outbursts until both the piano and cello join in a more violent and passionate section. When the music slows to a meditative section there is some glorious playing from Irvine, with a lovely, sensitive contribution from Pavri. The music develops into a gloriously passionate melody reminiscent of the fifth movement of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps before leading to a hushed coda. This is a substantial, beautiful and engrossing sonata.
The ample acoustic in the recording of the sonata does have the effect of slightly distancing the piano but, nevertheless, it is still a fine recording.
This is an extremely rewarding release of works that are often quite beautiful and affecting.