Music is a vast landscape. It seems like it has no boundaries. It can touch anyone in the world emotionally without translation. It can be simple or complex. It can be full of depth or just make people dance for fun. I truly love the fact that this universe can be explored when writing a new piece of music. I consider music a language of pure human emotion, and emotions are difficult things to navigate. But somehow, music can capture those nuances and express them through sound — whether using traditional instruments, electronic manipulations, or even just the sound of nature. I feel I could use almost any sound which can provoke an emotional response, and that is the aspect I love to play with when composing music.
My name is Joshan Mahmud, and I’m a software engineer with 16 years of experience — I am currently the director of software consultancy JMSquared. I am also a composer and musician with a Master’s degree in Composition from Goldsmiths University. I live, work, and perform in London in the UK.
I was originally interested in computers after watching movies about hackers (The Net and Hackers come to mind) — I always thought it was like a superpower how they used their intelligence and technology to solve complex problems and defeat the ‘bad guy’. Once I actually got into programming and realised I could model real-world problems with code, I found it amazing how powerful it was to create solutions that instantly helped others (rather than hacking into classified databases and taking down evil empires!). I remember one of the first things I built was a simple database with Microsoft Access to help my mother track which pills to take daily, as she was quite ill at the time and she was overwhelmed with the amount of medication she was administered and the frequency at which to take them. Using some simple database structures and VBA code, I was able to generate a daily report of what she should be taking. I felt I was doing something that really helped her, which was hugely rewarding.
I was born and brought up in London. I studied Computer Science in Bath, but wanted to come back to London as it offers great work opportunities within the IT industry and has a fantastic music scene across many genres that I’m interested in, like jazz and classical (and everything in between!). When I started working in London, in a single day, I was able to attend a Tai Chi class at Somerset House in the morning, go to work all day in Canary Wharf, attend a classical concert on the Southbank in the evening, then finish with a drink at a jazz bar along the River Thames. London truly is a cultural hub!
I have two bright and inquisitive young daughters and an extraordinary, wonderful wife, so family life keeps me pretty busy after work. However, once I have that last hour or two to myself before bed, it’s usually spent working either on composing a new piece of music or just old-fashioned practice on either guitar or piano — music plays a big role here as relaxation & mindful stimulus.
I started playing classical guitar at 8 years old. However, it wasn’t until I was 14 and turning into an angsty teenager that I realised that I really wanted to express myself creatively. I attempted poetry, having come from a very literary family (my father is a Bengali author & poet), but I found words too rigid and difficult to articulate with — it was also really, really bad poetry!
I wasn’t good at art, and realised I always responded to music naturally — it spoke to me on an emotional level, and I had the means to express myself when playing the guitar. I was listening to a lot of drum’n’bass & hip-hop at the time, so I bought a keyboard and started messing around with sounds and effects. At school, there was a good music department that had a computer music room with Cubase & Logic, which meant I could learn the basics of recording, sequencing, and production. However, I ended up just playing the keyboard/piano more, as I did not have the equipment at home to make electronic music. I just enjoyed improvising, which got me into jazz, classical, Indian Classical, flamenco, and then performing songs with others (as I wasn’t much of a singer). The music itself interested me more than lyrics, so composing became a huge part of my life.
I debated whether to study music at university, but I lacked the academic qualifications needed (I did not have a Grade 8 on an instrument, and I didn’t study it at A-Level). My parents were also not too keen on me doing a degree that didn’t have large monetary prospects! After completing my degree in computer science (which they approved of), I took some private composition lessons with Bushra El-Turk — after a few years, I decided to study for a Master’s degree in Composition at Goldsmiths University in London, studying with Roger Redgate and Ian Gardiner. I was able to massively expand my compositional skills & technique. I got to study lots of 20th Century composers, including Ligeti, Messiaen, Xenakis, Boulanger & Tansey Davis, as well as getting to write for musicians & ensembles including the Eunoia Ensemble and Allegri String Quartet, which led to rehearsals and performances at venues that included Queen Elizabeth Hall.
I use many things to compose my music — sometimes, it’s through improvising on either guitar or piano. I have a Kawai ES-5 digital piano at home and use headphones (as the kids are asleep!). Other times, it might be some material that I have just notated (I usually use either pen & paper or Sibelius) and start playing around with that. Other times, it can be a sound source — perhaps a recording of a friend’s vocals, used as a sample that sparks the rest of the track. My main DAW is Logic Pro on my MacBook, but I also like to use other software like Max/MSP to get into the more generative / signal processing side of things.
I have had some fantastic experiences with composing music. I was fortunate enough to work with an Arabic vocalist named Abdul Salam Kheir on a project for a computer game. Not only was he an extremely talented vocalist, but an accomplished Oud player, and we were able to workshop a number of melodic lines with his vocals and Oud. The game was never developed, but I was able to use the recordings in my own compositions and created a track named ‘Where The Grass Is Greener’, which juxtaposed his vocals against an atonal brass arrangement and electronics.
There was a time I was fascinated by extreme vocal performances, and I listened to pieces like CRY by Giles Swayne and Sequenza III by Luciano Berio. As such, I composed a piece for 8 voices called ‘Laughter Music’, which consisted only of laughter! This ended up being performed at a small concert in London with musicians from Goldsmiths University, which was great fun to perform and watch!
My most cherished musical experience has got to be when I was shortlisted in a competition by the BBC Concert Orchestra in 2013 to ‘remix’ Henry Purcell’s Rondeau from the Abdelazer Suite, using the orchestra as the palette. This ended in a 45-minute rehearsal at Maida Vale studio in London, with the whole orchestra and the renowned Charles Hazlewood conducting. The experience was unforgettable — to hear your music played by so many people and get feedback was invaluable. I probably didn’t stop smiling for the entire rehearsal!
I am also currently a pianist with the contemporary jazz piano trio Moda Trio. After university and coming back to London, I was keen to work with other musicians as, up until that point, I had only been in one band. I met bassist Sylvain Menaux in 2008. We jammed and got a feel for the sort of music we liked. We played with a bunch of other musicians, but things really came together when we met drummer Paul Blakemore through a friend. On our first rehearsal, we just gelled together. We started out playing a bunch of jazz standards and getting musically acquainted, but we quickly progressed to writing our own material.
What I liked was that we were not traditional jazz musicians — I had an unconventional improvisational approach to piano, whilst Paul was a rock drummer. But somehow, this really defined our sound when we played together.
Our tracks fused together with our influences — some tracks were very slow and ballad-like, and others were fast/dance-oriented.
In 2016, we released our debut album called ‘Bricks & Mortar’. We were building quite a large repertoire of originals and covers and knew we wanted to do an album. We only wanted original material on there, so we filtered our repertoire down to our best 11 tracks. All of the tracks were composed in a very similar way: one of us would bring the basics of a track—a chord progression, a simple line, or even a whole piece—and we would play it together and work it until it formed a whole track. We relied on quite complicated structures, so we used whiteboards with diagrams to ‘notate’ the tracks. We seldom used traditional notation — sometimes, if one of us wrote something complicated, then they would notate it and bring it to our rehearsal and show it to the others. Moda Trio was a real collaborative effort (which it should be in a band) and very democratic, which made the album a true reflection of us as a collective.
We were lucky enough to know some student musicians at the London School of Sound who were keen on getting experience recording a live jazz band. We were able to record and mix at the school’s studio in Clapham over a few weeks, and got a few of the guys there to help mix and master the tracks, which was great fun!
We launched the album in 2016 on the independent label Demerara Records, headed by Neil March — a label dedicated to the promotion of independent and niche artists.
I have had some other great experiences and gigs with Moda Trio. We gigged a lot around London, playing at various venues including The Troubadour in West London, on a boat pub in Central London, as well as a few weddings. We’ve even played in some more obscure venues — a Peckham record shop and at a 1930s-themed pub. After the release of our album, we were interviewed by Nadia Ali on the BBC Asian Network radio station. It was fun to head to the BBC and talk about the album to a huge audience!
Finally, I have a few future goals with music (both as a musician and composer). I will always be composing and trying to further my craft. I’m already working on a new solo album and trying to collaborate with as many musicians as I can, working around COVID restrictions. I have also taken up playing the cello, and my tutor has played a number of my compositions. The ideal for me would be to compose for a large ensemble again and to get as many performances as possible.
I definitely think my experiences with music have been a benefit to my technological career, and vice versa. Writing music to be performed by other people is a collaborative and intense process — you want to write out music to be as clear as possible so that a musician’s interpretation of your score is accurate and conveys the emotion you’re trying to express. As a parallel, a software engineer should be writing code as clearly as possible so that another engineer can clearly understand what a particular algorithm is doing so that it is executed efficiently. Both are instructions to others that need to be actioned — so there are many parallels in how one approaches them.
Collaborative ventures like playing in bands and working with musicians have definitely given me confidence in how to work with and empathise with others. This is a very useful skill, particularly as a consultant, as I work with a client and want to understand their business problems from their perspective in order to deliver the best technical solution. Likewise, being an engineer has given me the tools to be able to think logically and structure my music in a coherent fashion — as notating and composing music, particularly for very large ensembles, is a challenging technical exercise, but one that I relish.
My advice to anyone who wants to get more into music is the same advice I have been given by my past composition teachers:
- Find your own voice. Irrelevant of whether it’s popular or fringe, your music should sound unique and identifiable to you. This is so you build a genuine audience who appreciate your work.
- Never stop. Music and the industry are constantly evolving — therefore, you should always continue to work with it. Whether it be writing, publishing, or promoting, it’s very easy to get lost and dejected, but persistence is very important and things will always ebb and flow. Keep going!
Finally, I’d just like to say that there is always more than tech. Technology enables humans to achieve more, quicker and more efficiently. It should allow us to do more than just develop more technology, which is why discovering the passions of technologists helps us paint a much richer picture of who people are. It also allows us to realise that people are multi-faceted in their skills and knowledge. Anyone who is starting out in their career should always know that your other interests do not have to take a back seat; they can continue to be an important part of your life.
It is actually extremely rare to have the opportunity to talk about music and technology in the same space — both are huge passions of mine and rarely crossover day-to-day, so writing this article for Otia Magazine has been great fun!
Joshan’s Website: https://www.joshanmahmud.com/
Joshan’s Twitter Page: https://twitter.com/joshanmahmud
Joshan’s Instagram Page: https://www.instagram.com/joshanmahmud/
Joshan’s Music Page: https://www.facebook.com/joshanmahmudmusic
Joshan’s Solo Album: https://joshanmahmud.hearnow.com/
Moda Trio Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/modatriomusic