Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Composer of the month: James Cave

Steve Crowther: Can you tell us something of your background? 
James Cave: I grew up in Lancaster: both my parents are musical, so I started singing in Lancaster Priory aged six, which was my first real musical training. My earliest musical memories are probably the keystones of the Anglican choral repertoire - Stanford, Parry et al - as well as my parents’ vinyl collection - particularly Beatles and Motown - as well as the sound of my dad practising trumpet late at night! I then became a cathedral chorister for three years; in my teens, I also developed an interest in jazz and indie, playing bass in a number of bands, as well as cello in youth orchestras. I also developed an interest in contemporary music as a child, largely because my Gran used to take me to a wide range of concerts at the RNCM in Manchester: I remember seeing Turnage’s Greek, for instance, at a relatively young age!
After university, I worked in London for a number of years, in a variety of different jobs tackling homelessness, crime and drug misuse in some of the most deprived parts of London. I had some fascinating, illuminating experiences whilst there, and learned a great deal about life. Ultimately, however, I decided to focus more on music, and so moved to York to study and to develop my composing and singing. 
SC: Can you describe your new work to us?
JC: It’s a song, ‘In Your Old Age’, for tenor and piano. I’ve set a wonderful poem by the York-based poet Shash Trevett, in which she details the disintegration of an elderly relative’s memories due, we presume, to dementia. Shash is originally from Sri Lanka, and the poem is full of evocative references to Sri Lankan landscape, food and culture. It’s a very powerful poem, too: the poet turns the idea of memory loss into a metaphor for the impact of civil war upon Sri Lanka’s people and way of life.  I’m very pleased that Shash gave me permission to set her words, and I hope that she likes what I’ve done with them!
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
JC: It depends on the project: I’ve worked in a wide variety of different ways. In this instance, I made extensive use of the piano, to try out different techniques and textures before committing them to paper; much of the piece was composed at the piano in my studio - a converted conservatory - whilst wearing my baby son in a sling! I often work with texts , and I tend to find that they quickly suggest musical and structural possibilities. For other pieces - particularly when I’ve been working as an improviser - I’ve made use of graphic notation, and pre-compositional sketches. Contemporary composers are often quite coy about the use of MIDI as a composition tool, which I find strange, as it’s standard practice in many areas of music: for orchestration, I find making a MIDI sketch of the piece invaluable. 
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
JC: Ideally I like to write for particular performers: in this case, the piece is written with the timbre of Christopher O’Gorman’s beautiful voice very much in mind. Chris is a colleague of mine in York Minster Choir, and so I’m used to hearing his voice every day, and that definitely informed my writing.   I’m fortunate to be working with two fantastic opera singers, Teit Kanstrup and CN Lester, on a new opera, Returns, based on a play by an Iraq veteran-turned-writer, Joshua Casteel. When I started writing, I didn’t have specific performers in mind, but, as we were able to try out some of the initial material in workshop, it meant that for the later stages of the composition process I was able to compose with the sound of their voices still in my memory.
I do, however, very often find myself writing without having previously heard the group I’m writing for: I’ve had a number of choral commissions recently, one for a Norwegian choir, the other for Worcester Cathedral choir, where this was the case.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
JC: I think it’s fair to say that I’m more a creator of different sound-worlds than one particular sound-world. I try to give each piece its own distinctive character and universe, and, following Charles Ives’ lead, I’m interested in staging confrontations between different styles of music.
The world of my opera, Returns, for instance, is markedly more angular and atonal than some of my other work, but at the same time draws on elements of Persian and Indian classical music in its more lyrical moments. In another recent piece, God’s Keyboard, I used elements of gospel and Sacred Harp singing alongside choral polyphony and rich ensemble writing informed by Sibelius, to explore the history of the civil rights movement in America. And another piece, Latrabjarg, juxtaposed birdsong-infused soundscape and electric cello (both realised by Chris Mullender) with rich symphonic and choral textures, to evoke the ecology and culture of Iceland. 
These sound-worlds are all quite different from one another, although friends of mine who know a lot of my music say that there are elements they recognise in all my pieces: I’m hard-pressed to say what those are, though.
SC: What motivates you to compose? 
JC: I always want to make a connection with the audience in some way: I don’t particularly mind how people react to my music - whether they laugh, cry, yawn or want to scream and shout - but I want to feel that I’ve at least moved them to some kind of response. I suppose I feel - perhaps naively - that music has the power to change society for the better, and to move people to action: I’ve always loved the old story about the audience of one of Verdi’s operas being moved to paint his name all over town following one particularly exciting performance. One theme that I’ve found myself increasingly exploring is the idea of music as a way of celebrating the diversity of the world, and as a bridge between it’s different cultures. I often make use of elements of non-Western classical musical traditions in my work: I used to worry about this being ‘appropriation’ until I was lucky enough to study briefly with the composer and Persian classical musician, Kiya Tabassian, who told me that this wasn’t an issue as long as the musicians involved had respect for each other, and the traditions within which they worked.  
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
JC: I most admire a number of inspiring composers with whom I’ve been able to work on an ongoing basis. I’ve been fortunate to have premiered a number of works by Gavin Bryars and to tour with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble as a countertenor. I love Gavin’s music, and his tireless energy,    and generosity of spirit have been a great inspiration to me. Gavin has an amazing ability to create new projects by forging durable friendships and working relationships with musicians from all kinds of different countries and traditions.
Recently, I’ve been working with a wonderful South Indian classical composer and singer, Supriya Nagarajan, and her organisation Manasamitra, to develop and tour a number of projects. Supriya has a wonderfully refreshing creative approach, fusing her Indian classical training with an interest in contemporary music, digital media and sound installation, and this has resulted in some amazing recent commissions and projects, including one forthcoming for Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. I’m very lucky to have been able to collaborate with her and to draw inspiration from her approach.
I also learned a great deal from the North Indian composer and sarangi player, Dhruba Ghosh, whose classes I attended briefly. Dhruba was a very generous musician, with an extraordinary philosophical approach to creativity: he died quite recently, and is very sadly missed.
Then there are a number of other composers who I don’t know personally - Saariaho, both John Adamses, James Macmillan, Magnus Lindberg amongst others - whose work constantly dazzles and amazes me. And Bjork: she’s always been an inspiration. 
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
JC: It would have to be Morton Feldman, although if one went drinking with Feldman if would be for substantially more than one beer! Feldman’s collected essays, ‘Give My Regards To Eighth Street’ is one of the wisest and funniest books about music I’ve read. Although my music sounds nothing like his, these writings - and some of his works, particularly Rothko Chapel and Coptic Light - left a real impression on me. And he has the best jokes of any composer, of which Boulez and Stockhausen are often the butt: there’s a great one involving Stockhausen and a Chinese restaurant which is too long to recount here.
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
JC: This changes the whole time, but at the moment I’d say: 
-     Bach: Ich Habe Genug, sung by Thomas Quasthoff
-     John Luther Adams: In The White Silence
-     Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel
-     Gavin Bryars: Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet
-     Mahalia Jackson, performing ‘Come Sunday’ from Duke Ellington’s Black Beige and Brown Suite.
-     Esbjorn Svensson Trio: Goldwrap (live in Hamburg)
-     Sibelius Violin Concerto (Viktoria Mullova version)
-     Father John Misty: Pure Comedy
If I had to choose one, I think I’d take the Feldman: it’s an amazing piece.
SC:…and a book?:
JC: If I was on a desert island, I’d have time to finish Karl Ove Knaussgard’s vast autobiography, ‘My Struggle’.
SC:…a film?
JC: I loved Maren Ade’s 2016 film, Toni Erdmann, about a father-daughter relationship. It’s both extremely funny and extremely sad. And it has one of the most poignant musical numbers I’ve seen in the cinema.
SC:… and a luxury item?

JC: Decent coffee beans, a grinder, and a pour-over jug. Is that three items?