Monday 18 August 2014

Composer of the month: James Williamson

James Williamson studied composition at the University of Huddersfield and Royal Academy of Music and is now working towards a PhD in Composition at the University of York. He has had performances and collaborations with ensembles including the London Sinfonietta, CoMA London, Aurora Orchestra, Galliard Ensemble, Croation Philharmonic Orchestra, Österreichischen Symphoniker, Rhodri Davies, Barry Webb and Franko Bozac. He was commended for his Aurora Orchestra commission Chamber Concerto for the RAM Eric Coate’s Composition Prize. James won the inaugural Lunar Saxophone Quartet New Music Award in December 2007 with his piece In Memoriam. This piece is recorded on the LSQ’s album ‘Flux’ and was subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction. Franko Bozac and the Österreichischen Symphoniker recently performed James’ accordion concerto The Hole of Horcum in their most recent “International Series” season, in Linz. The concerto has recently been broadcast on Radio 3 Belgrade, Serbia.For more info visit:

James Williamson's Staten Crossing I-VIII will be premiered by Delta Saxophone Quartet at the next Late Music concert, Saturday 6th September.

Steve Crowther: Can you describe the work to us?
James Williamson: I visited New York with my wife for the first time just after Christmas this year, as I was best man for a friends wedding in Central Park. I’ve always been fascinated with buildings and structures (perhaps because my dad was a builder) and I was in ore and overwhelmed by these magnificent skyscrapers around me. We did lots of touristy things including taking the Staten Island Ferry to get a chance to see the Statue of Liberty. One thing that struck me as we left the dock from Manhattan was that these huge structures that dominated us as we walked next to them, and could only see an aspect of, suddenly came to full view and complexity. Equally on the return, as we approached Manhattan, these buildings grew like giants. It was this play of perspective that inspired the piece and its title.
I am increasingly interested in creating small fragments or cells and using to these to create pieces with longer durations (although this piece is only about 5 minutes). Therefore the piece has eight movements, which are basically a set of variations based on one simple melodic phrase that you will hear in the very first movement.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
JW:I guess my compositional process changes every time I start a new piece and I must say, that I find composing a very difficult process. Sometimes I’ll have a strong sense of what the piece will sound like in the end, which can be a luxury as the piece can come together very quickly allowing me to get on with next project. However more often than not, I’ll start and have no idea where it is going. This can be extremely frustrating at times as its like getting blood out of a stone. I usually start be improvising on my old out-of-tune upright piano to work out chords and melodies etc. I can spend hours and hours doing this. Once I’ve got my ideas in place (melody, sonority, discourse etc), usually on a couple of sheets of A3 manuscript, I tend to work through them using the manuscript like an artist would use a palette (not to sound too cheesy) to start sketching out the piece. Once I’ve written out the piece in full by hand and whack it on Sibelius and then try and iron out the creases and get a very rough idea of how it might sound, using a lot of imagination.
Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
JW: I don’t think it’s necessary to know the performers but it certainly helps. The more you can work closely and collaborate with the performer the better the piece you can potentially write. It can be a great learning curve for both parties as you can learn from each other’s strengths. If I am lucky enough to write for a particular ensemble or soloist, I do try and write with the sound in mind. A good example of this was working with a fantastic accordionist friend of mine Franko Bozac on my accordion concerto ‘The Hole of Horcum’. In the pre-compositional process we sat for hours in rehearsal rooms exploring the instrument and trying to get as much out of the instrument as possible and learning that it’s such a versatile instrument. In the end I managed to write a piece that really shows of the performer and the instrument by only using simple techniques that are actually very “simple” to play but sound incredibly difficult and complex to the listener.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
JW: I always find this question very hard to answer when asked as I think my pieces tend to change each time. However, there is one running theme, which is ‘static’. My pieces, particularly more recently (although a couple of odd ones from the past) tend to circulate within their own harmonic and rhythmic juices and don’t really go anywhere in a traditional teleological manner of guiding a listener toward particular points of climax. This doesn’t really answer the question of sound, but I think it gives an idea – I think I’ll leave this question and rather let the listener decide. I guess it’s often easier to look in from the outside rather than in from the inside (that makes sense in my head). One critic described my music as “rich and sexy”, so I think I will go with that…
SC: What motivates you to compose?
JW: I ask myself this question everyday. As I said earlier, I find composing really difficult at times, but I think what really motivates me is when I hear the piece being performed in concert, it gives me real buzz. I also like the idea of leaving some sort of legacy behind and that me music will (hopefully) outlive me and continue to live on. This is what I find fascinating about buildings, that someone has built this amazing structure and years later it is still standing, living, breathing and being used, just like my dad’s buildings do to this day.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
JW: Whilst at Huddersfield University, composer Bryn Harrison gave a seminar about his music and I was hooked. I was so intrigued by his music and philosophies, I asked him for a few lessons when I had finished my studies and he was very happy to oblige. So I had a few lessons for a year before I went on to the Royal Academy. I learnt so much in such a short time and I am still thinking about these lessons today. I should probably mention Salvatore Sciarrino too, I love his music. His sound world is so beautiful and unique, it’s like a living organism.  
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
JW: Morton Feldman. We’d probably have a cigar too. I’d like to think we’d hang out in a trendy New York loft or some dingy bar somewhere, maybe start off in the bar. I love his music and take great inspiration from him. I’ve just finished reading his collected writings and lectures “Give my regards to Eighth Street”, he has such a great sense of humor and a sense of what music and art is about, and I find his digs against Boulez very amusing (I should say that I like Boulez).
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
JW: Toughy, there are many but at the moment –
Miles Davis - ‘So What’
Gregory Porter - ‘No Love Dying’
Faure - ‘Lebera me’ (the baritone solo from his ‘Requiem’)
Feldman ‘String Quartet no.2’
Enno Poppe ‘Kielshrift’
Sciarrino ‘Lo Spazio Inverso’
Elton John ‘Your Song’ (Ellie Goulding version as this was my first dance at my wedding)
Dowland – ‘Flow, My Tears’
As a romantic (my wife would disagree, haha) I would choose ‘Your Song’. I imagine being deserted on an Island would be pretty tough, so I would like to be reminded of that happy time and that would get me through.
SC: …and a book?
JW: "The Hundred year old man who jumped out of the window and disappeared" by Jonas Jonasson. A very funny read! Although I might be inclined to take a recent purchase of a John Cage collected writings and lectures book. If I’m stranded for long enough I may start to understand what on earth he is on about.
SC: …a film?
JW: The Goonies. "Goonies Never say die!"
SC: ...and a luxury item?
JW: A tuned!! piano. As well as being able to write music, I might be able to learn to play it properly too.

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