Travellin’ Light

Raymond MacDonald
Answers 20 Questions About Life on the Road

Raymond MacDonald at The Vortex                                                                Courtesy of Raymond MacDonald

Raymond MacDonald is a Glasgow-based saxophonist, composer and psychologist. MacDonald’s music is documented on over 50 CDs. He has written music for film, television, theatre, radio and art installations, with much of his work exploring the boundaries and ambiguities between what is conventionally seen as improvisation and composition. Collaborating with a diverse lot – including David Byrne, Evan Parker, Jim O’Rourke and Marilyn Crispell – MacDonald’s work is informed by a view of improvisation as a social, collaborative and uniquely creative process that provides opportunities to develop new ways of working musically. His ongoing collaboration with Scottish guitarist George Burt, both within and outside The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (of which they are among the co-founders), has produced over a dozen CDs. A Professor of Music Psychology and Improvisation and Head of The Reid School of Music at University of Edinburgh, MacDonald runs music and music psychology workshops and lectures internationally. In addition to publishing over 60 peer reviewed papers and book chapters, MacDonald has co-edited four texts – Musical Identities (2002) and Musical Communication (2005), Musical Imaginations (2012) and Music Health & Wellbeing (2012) and was editor of the journal Psychology of Music between 2006 and 2012.

MacDonald is featured on two Recent CDs: Parallel Lines, an album of duets with Marilyn Crispell (Babel Label); and Isotrope by sensaround, a trio with Australian pianist Alister Spence and singer/producer Shoeb Ahmad, released on Hello Square. He will be touring the UK in January with Spence’s trio. CDs in the pipeline include a program of new work with GIO, another duo album with Crispell, and a set of collaborative pieces with Burt.

For further information on Raymond MacDonald, visit:

* * * *

What is the most difficult airline to deal with in terms of instruments and equipment?

The obvious answer is Ryan Air because they are so restrictive, but you know what you are getting when you buy a Ryan Air ticket (a good kicking, albeit a cheap one) and so they are not difficult in the sense that most musicians know in advance what to expect.


Which airline has the worst economy seating and food?

I suppose Ryan Air in terms of seating and I don’t really think about airline food.


Which airport is craziest for making connecting flights?

Fate usually decides that by making your flight just late enough to give you a slim but forlorn hope of catching the connecting flight. Last time that happened was in Frankfurt.


What is the most important thing you ever forgot to pack?

I have left just about everything you can leave in various locations around the world. Once left my saxophone in Ben Tucker’s jazz club in Savannah after a gig and was half way to Miami on the train before I had to turn back. In terms of sheer stereotypical stupidity, I once, upon arrival at the airport, discovered I had left my passport at home, went back home to get it only to find I had it with me all the time. Once lost my passport only to be able to get a brand new one within an hour (I live near the main passport office in Scotland). Although I did miss my flight, I made the gig in Amsterdam. The next day I had a gig in London which I nearly missed due to a delayed flight and then, on the way back to Glasgow, I was literally 1 minute late to the airport (flying easy jet) and got stranded in London. All in all that 3 day trip required 2 passports, 5 flight tickets and an extra night in a hotel. I found the lost passport three months later under a pile of books.


What is your worst lost baggage story?

Ah well, I could bore everybody to sleep with lost baggage stories. Whenever I tour with Günter “Baby” Sommer my luggage usually wants to have it’s own (solo) adventure and over the years I have lost a soprano sax, three suitcases, 150 CDs and a wallet. Last time, we arranged to meet outside Berlin airport to make a quick dash to Chemnitz for a gig, but my case went missing and Günter had to come and find me in the airport. I can vividly remember Günter purposively striding towards me as I waited in the queue to declare my bag lost, and he shouted from 20 meters away “Raymond whenever I travel with you it is adventure, adventure, adventure.”


What country hassles musicians the most at customs and passport checks?

I have always been lucky going though airports and even if there have been questions they have always been good humored. I once arrived at Seattle with both my saxophones and when quizzed about the reason for my visit the policeman humorously called his colleague over shouting “Hey Hank, we got a saxophone playing psychologist here” (I was playing gigs and attending a music psychology conference). They took me off to ask some more questions and when they looked at my passport they fell about laughing saying that I looked worse than Mel Gibson when he was caught DUI and then they sent me on my way.


Which city has the worst cab drivers?

Not sure about the worst but I love Tokyo taxis, doors that open and close automatically yet very old retro style boxy cabs, called Cedric (I think that is the make) festooned with lace and drivers wearing white gloves, always friendly and smiling. Mind you there have been some life-passing-in-front-of-my-eyes moments while travelling in cabs. In Bogota I can clearly remember my taxi pulling out to overtake and seeing a lorry the size of a spaceship hurtling towards us. There is a famous road on the outskirts of Porto that always seems to necessitate death defying overtaking antics whenever I am on it. Having said that, what seems to the passenger as crazy cavalier seat-of-pants driving, is probably highly skilled and sophisticated decision making by experienced drivers who know exactly what they are doing ... Well that is the hope as the spaceship hurtles towards us.


What is the best hotel that a presenter has provided for you?

I don’t really care too much about swanky hotels – a bed, a shower and a Wi-Fi connection that doesn’t cost more than the room itself is just perfect. Having said that, when you are exhausted after long travels or in the middle of a grueling schedule, the odd night in a better than average hotel can be great. I had one night in The Hilton in Athens in the middle of a crazy schedule and lying by the pool in the sun for a day after two weeks of shoestring travelling was a very welcome and memorable luxury. Easily the most interesting hotel I have stayed in was the Palmyra in Baalbek. Overlooking vast Roman temples and with Jean Cocteau prints on the wall, it is a slightly dilapidated but endlessly fascinating majestic 19th century hotel that was once one of the most luxurious hotels in the region.


Do you travel with a laptop or a PDA? If so, how many times a day do you check your e-mail?

I travel with a laptop and I check my email far too often. I have been in Gambia a couple of times recently and being cut off from email is bliss. It’s sad that I can’t seem to cut myself off from email.


Do you listen to music on the road? If so, what device do you use?

I listen to music all the time and use my laptop or phone.


Do you do your own laundry on the road?

I am very rarely away for more than three weeks at a time and apart from washing a few things by hand in hotel sinks I don’t do much laundry on the road. I usually look a bit crumpled by the end but I don’t smell bad ... honest! I was in Melbourne recently and stayed in a serviced apartment for a few days that had a washing machine and getting a complete set of clean clothes halfway through a tour was refreshing to say the least.


What is your most nightmarish sound check to date?

The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO) don’t sit in sections (strings together, reeds together etc.) and we don’t use a predetermined stage plan, preferring to see a venue and then working out a stage plan in situ at the sound check. It can seem haphazard but there is a robust internal logic behind the head scratching, chair scraping and shambling about. However, this can understandably cause some consternation for technicians. We were collaborating with a large German ensemble in Dresden, I think there was about 30 of us on stage and the sound check descended into a Monty Pythonesque clash of cultures. At one particularly fraught moment I was reminded that I was “disagreeing with the greatest sound engineer in all of Saxony.” However, the old cliché of a bad sound check leading to a good gig was clearly working for us that day and as soon the concert began the earlier tensions dissolved. The concert was a real triumph of collaboration and the party afterwards was all the more exuberant as a result. Having said that, I once got chased out of Biarritz at gunpoint during a sound check. The phrase “Tu foutre de ma gueule” was never so resonant ... but that is another story.

Another nightmarish sound check, and in my defense, I have to say this was over 25 years ago, involved a corporate gig in car show room for the launch of a new car. The stage had lots and lots of blindingly bright flashing lights, shiny brand new Ford Fantastico TurboZooms, or something, six models in bikinis and me and my fellow saxophonist Graeme Wilson dressed as mechanics playing a fanfare – it was a beautiful tableau. The sound check reached it’s nadir when the MC asked if we could put our saxophones in the trunk of the TurboZoom and pretend to be polishing the new car when the audience came in. Then we would grab our saxophones out of the car and – hey, presto! – the mechanics are suddenly playing goddam saxophones while the models writhe about and the lights flash. I can’t quite remember what happened but shamefully we obliged and what I do recall is silence and utter despondency in the car as we drove back to Glasgow together. I’ll stop there but there are more nightmare scenarios to tell: photo-shoot in a swimming pool, fancy dress buskers competition ...


What is the scariest food that has been laid out for you backstage?

Food rarely scares me ... unfortunately. I do remember a gloriously surreal meal with one-man band superhero percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani and his fantastically hospitable family in Osaka where all manner of seafood was served while Abalone was cooked (pretty scary to be honest) in front of us. The night ended with a Scottish country dancing display in the middle of the main road featuring me and Tatsuya’s mother.


What are your three favorite venues?

Pitt Inn, Tokyo; Bennetts Lane, Melbourne; Colony Café, Woodstock; An Tobar, Isle of Mull. These are all small intimate venues with wonderful people running them.


Which cities have the best restaurants for late after-gig meals?

Seoul, Berlin and Glasgow.


Which cities have the best after-hours sessions?

I tend to avoid after hour sessions (jam sessions). I would much rather go eating and drinking and hang out with friends after a gig and if the company is good it does not matter where I am. Dancing with George Lewis with my GIO comrades in a club called Nice n’ Sleazy at 2am definitely qualifies as a top after hour session. After hours drinking in GIO often involves whisky. We take our guests out (gatecrash their hotel) and everybody gets a different whisky. The guests get to try them all and pick the one they like best. There is a game element involved where people try to name the whiskies. Nobody ever get them right but it is fun trying. Fred Frith and Evan Parker are both past masters. One memorable after-hour session took place in the Tobermoray Youth hostel in the island of Mull in Scotland with George Burt and our band. There had been an oversight in booking accommodation and the five of us (including my sister Nicola) ended up in one tiny room with bunk beds. The rest of the building seemed to be filled with snoring youth hostellers. George and I spent the night drinking wine and playing chess.


What is the best city that closes down too early?

Surprisingly, huge swathes of central London become deathly quiet relatively early.


What is the best locale to have a day off?

Anywhere on the west coast of Scotland north of Glasgow. I recently had a day off in Woodstock while touring with Marliyn Crispell and the combination of getting to hang out with Marilyn and walk in the Catskills mountains was fantastic.


What is your cure for jet lag?

I just try to keep going and get into the time zone of wherever I am straight away. I don’t think about the time in the place I have just left. Usually works, but jet lag can creep up on you unsuspectingly. After four days of jet lag free gigging in Australia, out of the blue, I feel asleep into my burrito in a Mexican restaurant in Canberra. I was reliably informed it was an enchanting sight.


What is your best tip for the novice?

Keep smiling – I think travelling and playing music it is possibly the greatest way to experience the world and it’s always a privilege even if done on a shoestring. We are living a dream no matter what happens.

> back to contents