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  • Writer's pictureSteve Crowther

James Williamson: composer

I admire James Williamson both as a person and as a composer. Like the man himself, I find his music generous. His sound world inhabits a contemporary, challenging one; yet one driven by an inquisitive mind as well as an integrity for both the subject matter and the compositional process itself. It is in this sense that the music matters, that it has its own, quite unique value.

James Williamson was born in Selby, North Yorkshire, UK (1984) and now resides in Pocklington, York with his wife Jodie, daughter Agnes and their cat Wendy. His performances and collaborations with ensembles and performers include the London Sinfonietta, Lunar Saxophone Quartet, Delta Saxophone Quartet, Manson Ensemble, National Theatre, CoMA London, Aurora Orchestra, Galliard Ensemble, Ensemble Firebird, Croatian Philharmonic Orchestra, University of Pula Symphonic Orchestra, Österreichischen Symphoniker, Quatour Diotima, Barry Webb (trombone), Franko Bozac (accordion) and was commissioned Modicum Momentum for percussionist Sarah Mason for the inaugural Kammer Klang series in 2008. James was also shortlisted for the Young Composers Workshop at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 2006 for his solo harp piece 10 Pages, performed by Rhodri Davies. Music for Six received its premiere at Canterbury Sounds New 2007 followed by subsequent performances including a Park Lane Group Composers’ Platform.

He was commended for his Aurora Orchestra commission Chamber Concerto for the RAM Eric Coate’s Composition Prize. James also won the inaugural Lunar Saxophone Quartet New Music Award in December 2007 with his piece In Memoriam. This piece was recorded for the LSQ’s album ‘Flux’ released February 2011 by Signum Classics. This was subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction. Franko Bozac and the Österreichischen Symphoniker performed James’ accordion concerto The Hole of Horcum in their 2014 “International Series” season, in Linz. The concerto was subsequently broadcast on Radio 3 Belgrade, Serbia. Current projects include a collaboration with visual artist Romey T. Brough and accordionist Franko Bozac.

When did you first have a wish to compose music, what were your first attempts.

I’ve always enjoyed making stuff up (musically) from a very young age. I used to improvise a lot on the trumpet, play around with chords on the piano and collaborate writing songs in rock bands with friends. I always enjoyed GCSE composition and in my late teens as an A Level student at Leeds College of Music, I got taste for writing more serious classical music (plus my trumpet playing wasn’t too up to scratch). Nonetheless, I went on to the University of Huddersfield as a first study trumpet player. It was at this time I got my very first taste of proper contemporary music sitting in seminars with composers Chris Fox and James Saunders and a very memorable seminar with Bryn Harrison. I was also very lucky to be exposed to the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, where I volunteered as a steward each year with the bonus of getting into concerts for free – and I went to as many as I could! However, one very memorable moment was a Q&A with composer Per Nøgård and Susanna Eastburn, who was festival director at the time. This was my first experience with a ‘real’ composer. He talked about his works and his life, and you could hear a pin drop as he had the audience in the palm of his hands (that’s how I remember it anyway) – I was hooked, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do, hopefully making a career out of it (how young and naïve…). I then switched my first study to composition in my final two years and started to find my “voice” as a composer.

What did you benefit from your time in academia?

I furthered my studies with a year of private tuition with Bryn Harrison before heading to the big smoke to study a Master’s in composition at the Royal Academy of Music. This was an intense but richly rewarding two years. Philip Cashian was my composition teacher, but I was very lucky to study with the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Simon Bainbridge, along with visiting composers Bent Sørenson and Hans Abrahamsen (there’s a Danish composer theme here I’ve just realised). Some years later I then began working toward my PhD in Composition at the University of York with Martin Suckling (coincidentally, Martin and I happened to by studying together at RAM at the same time. Martin was completing his PhD whilst I my Masters).

So, what did I get from my time in academia? For me it was a chance to try different things, to figure what I wanted to say as a composer, and more importantly what I didn’t want to say. Music is of course subjective, but from attending lots of concerts and hearing lots of new music, there’s a lot of tosh out there but of course there are many gems and wonderful new music being written, performed, and championed. The real lessons are learnt here, and this is where I go back to what I do and don’t want to say as a composer and to figure out where my “voice” sits I suppose. On the flip side, many listeners may think my music is tosh, which is fine, and as I get older with priorities as a father and looking after my family, I tend to care less about this and in seeking approval from peers and listeners (okay, perhaps a lie…).

Can you identify certain influences on your work? Which composer do you admire?

I listen to lots of music of different styles and genres, particularly jazz, funk, pop, film music and classical. I think this is important as a composer of contemporary classical music. I always remember a seminar with Bent Sørenson, who said to go out and listen to rap music. I think what he meant here was to keep an open mind and explore all types of music, which of course would filter into one’s own creativity. I also remember one of my composition lessons with Phil Cashian who said you cannot compose in a vacuum, again encouraging to listen to as much music as possible and to dig out and read lots of scores. Not only does this help to broaden your mind, but also practically it helps with notation and orchestration.

The composer I most admire is Morton Feldman, a master of less is more, repetition and bending time. His music is quiet, slow and demands both the attention of the performer and listener. His music has certainly influenced mine in many ways. I also love Salvatore Sciarrino for his delicately exquisite use of timbre and extended techniques. More recently I was introduced to Austrian composer Bernhard Lang, who uses extreme repetition through experimenting with loops.

Which early work you feel is authentic and why?

The first piece I feel is ‘me’ was Memory Stacks I-X for violin, cello and piano, written in 2014. This piece was inspired by minimalist artist Donald Judd, in particular his works “Stacks”. In my recent work, I have been using minimalist visual art as a creative stimulus, and my PhD was based solely around this. This is the piece I really began exploring repetition and creating music through minimal means. In other words, pairing back the musical material and getting the most out of it to create a whole work. I also became interesting in non-goal orientated music (first brought to light when studying with Bryn Harrison) and the idea of creating musical mobiles, I suppose inspired by the mobiles of Alexander Calder, which I have great admiration for. I have continued with this as I feel there is much more music I want to get out of my system. However, not all pieces have been successful.

To go off-piste a little, as mentioned, I’m a father of a beautiful four-year-old daughter and husband to an amazingly supportive wife. My day job is working in insurance and this together with family life; it is difficult to balance time with my creative commitments. I don’t get much time to compose at present, and therefore pieces are written over evenings and weekends and often very quickly (in hours, but not days/months). So, what’s my point here? For me the most important thing to remind oneself is you can’t get it right every time with each piece of music, and that doesn’t really matter. I have written some stinkers and it’s important to remember that, reassess and aim to do better next time.

Can you list three of your works, giving each a context and description?

In Memoriam for saxophone quartet (2004, revised 2007) – as the title suggests this was written in memory of my father, who sadly passed away in 2004 from pancreatic cancer. Also, to add in the previous year, my girlfriend at the time also passed away with a brain tumour at the age of 18. Following this I also lost other close family members within a year. It was a very challenging time to say the least. I don’t talk about this openly very often, but due to this, it is a very important piece still to this day, as it’s a piece written in memory for those lost prematurely and was also the first “proper” composition I’ve written. I’m pleased to say it was awarded first prize in the Lunar Saxophone Quartet’s composition competition. This was subsequently recorded on their album Flux, and broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction, which I feel is a perfect tribute.

Fault-Klang for solo bass clarinet (2016) – This was the product of being selected for Psappha’s ‘Composing for…’ scheme with clarinettist Dov Goldberg. The narrative of 'Fault-Klang' is centred on two concepts. Firstly, I took the opportunity to really immerse myself within the instrument and explore some of the possible extended techniques, of which I hadn’t tried before. This, in turn, made me think about the German word ‘klang’ and its philosophy. ‘Klang’ translates to English as ‘sound’ or perhaps more specifically ‘timbre’, which sums up the sound world of the piece. Secondly, ‘Fault’ which forms the first part of the title came to fruition within the last few bars. Geologically, a fault is a fracture in a volume of rock formed because of mass movement. The energy released in the movement is often the cause of earthquakes. I felt the idea of an accumulation of energies culminating with a sense of release (or eruption) is, for me, what the journey of this piece conveys. Again, I was lucky to be asked by Psappha if they could feature the piece in one of their concerts, which was also recorded and broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Hear and Now – which was a composition career goal ticked off (by the way the other two are a portrait concert at HCMF and a Proms commission…we can but dream…).

Happy are they who dwell in your house, for orchestra, soprano and tenor (2018) was one of my final compositions written for my PhD portfolio. It’s a big piece and like the PhD itself, it took a lot of soul searching, mental capacity and resilience. Written for large orchestra is an entirely different beast to writing smaller chamber pieces. The piece was commissioned for the University of York Jack Lyons Award, with the idea of writing something inspired by Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. On researching the function of the Psalm, I discovered the term Ashrei. In completeness, Ashrei is composed primarily of Psalm 145. The meaning of Ashrei in Hebrew is Ashrei yoshvei veitecha, od y'hallelucha, selah!, which translates to Happy are they who dwell in Your house; they will praise You, always! This is said three times throughout the day in Jewish Prayers as it is said to guarantee a place in the World to come. So in essence, the piece is a about ritual, not only in religious terms but also in the rituals we have in our daily lives, including people coming together as an audience to listen to music together and have a shared experience.

Can you describe writing a piece for Stephen Altoft and the microtonal trumpet.

It was a pleasure to write for and work with microtonal trumpeter Stephen Altoft. Not only is he lovely guy and champion of his instrument, but he’s also a phenomenal trumpet player. I did have a foot in the door when writing Falling/Rising as a trumpet player myself, however Stephen’s 19-division trumpet was a slightly different kettle of fish. Put simply, the 12-tones of the scale are instead divided into 19-tones, giving a close correlation to just intonation, which is truly fascinating. The piece was written by process. The first four pitches heard which make up a short melodic phrase are repeated in a fashion. I divided the phrase into two, and with each reiteration of the repeat, the first two notes move down the 19-division and the second two move up. Essentially, the range starts off very closed to very open towards the end of piece.

Can you tell us about curating this piano recital for Ian Pace. Can you give us a window into the piece you have composed for Ian?

It was a joy curating this concert for Ian. I write more about this in my recent blog for Late Music, but in a nutshell, as previously mentioned my day job is working in insurance but then my limited spare time, I compose. The main idea of the concert was to celebrate Xenakis’ 100th birthday. Xenakis was also a trained architect and engineer. I then thought, wouldn’t it be fun to programme composers who also had other day jobs. The programme then came very quickly. I knew Charles Ives also worked in insurance and that Feldman works in his parents clothing factory. I then learnt Glass was a taxi driver and plumber and Cage was a graphic designer and mushroom collector (of course).

Going back to my main source of creative stimulus. More specifically, my interests lie within self-similarity, creating musical mobiles and non-goal-oriented music. The creative stimulus for Neon is the work of artist Dan Flavin, minimalist pioneer of fluorescent light sculptures, who dubbed his works as “situations”. To respond to this musically, I liked the idea of taking a "situation" (in this case a singular musical idea), to try and get the most out of the same material to last the entirety of the piece. Neon is perhaps one of my most paired-back compositions, only using three ideas (situations); these being grace-note led chords, bell-like chords, and bell-like dyads. For me, these ideas simulate the shimmering and reverberating directness of light. Much like Cage’s In a Landscape (which will be performed in Ian’s concert), the sustain pedal of the piano is held down for the entire piece until the end of very last bar, the idea being that the resonance fills the performance space, as Flavin's sculptures’ flooded their spaces.

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