James B Wilson Interview

A graduate of the Royal Academy of Music James is a composer, pianist and occasional singer. He has written a short ballet premiered at Roehampton Dance Festival, and has recently been working with the Chineke! Junior Orchestra, who performed his arrangements of music by 18th Century black composer Ignatius Sancho at Kensington Palace.

Tell us more about what you do, and what you’re trying to achieve overall as an artist.

As of late, I find that I am very much focused on composing rather than any form of performance, and like many composers I would say that my focus is just to write as much music as possible, to the highest standard possible.  Other than that I wouldn’t say I have an overall aim as an artist. My artistic preferences and priorities are constantly shifting and evolving. Each project and piece I write is a unique challenge and the way I respond is quite dependant on the musicians I am working with and so many other conscious and unconscious factors.

I loved performing your piece ‘These Dreams We Soon Forget’ with Ensemble Entropy a couple of years ago at IKLECTIK. The ensemble like to challenge our composers to explore new aspects of their compositional practice away from the fully composed when writing for us. What was your approach?

Before writing anything for Ensemble Entropy I had a look at other composers’ music that allowed some form of musical freedom. I found that notation was quite a pivotal part of the process of creating this music. One example of that is Water-Ways by Takemitsu.  The rhythmic freedom in notation enhances its drifting watery feeling but Takemitsu’s complex harmonic language is not compromised.

My approach developed out of my initial musical sketches, which played with intervals, specific chords and instrumental colours. From there I developed my own notational style that, much like Takemitsu, allowed rhythmic freedom but facilitates clear vertical sonorities in the music.

Relinquishing control to performers as a composer can be a difficult thing. Were you happy with the ensembles interpretation first time? and will you be making any changes for the upcoming April performances of the piece at Listen! Cambridge and Café OTO?

Ensemble entropy is a fantastic group to write for because of their incredible musical sensitivity and commitment to the works they perform. They played the music last time with a wonderful poetic quality. I felt they understood what I had written, from my notation, to conceptually what my aim for the piece was.

I have made a few small changes to the music for the upcoming concert at Cafe Oto and Listen! Cambridge but it will be the same for the most part.

We first met at the Cheltenham Music Festival Composers Academy. Your piece ‘Lullaby’ is beautifully delicate and impassioned, a trait found in your EE piece. Is this timbral approach of particular interest in your writing?

As I have evolved as a composer I have been more resolved to trust my instincts and let my heart lead my music. I think that if a lot of my work shares a feeling of delicacy or passion it is just a symptom of that reliance on instinct and allowing the sounds that I love to surface.

Are you working on anything interesting right now?

Yes. I was lucky enough to be commissioned by Chineke! Orchestra again recently. I am finishing off a piece for String Orchestra and Wind Quintet, inspired by the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 and dedicated to the inspiring Paul Stephenson. That will be performed in Bristol in May of 2019.

For a composer new to writing for EE or looking to incorporate improvisation or elements of improvisation into their own work is there any advice you’d give?

There is a challenge when writing music that has an element of freedom. I found I had to adjust my normal approach but once I found a starting point it was quite liberating.

This is a chance to be adventurous, don't be afraid to re-write the book so to speak.

And finally rely on the ensemble. Get them to answer questions and discuss what you need to write the piece. They are incredible helpful!

EE look forward to performing James' piece 'These Dreams We Soon Forget' at Listen! Cambridge Fri 26 April & Café OTO Sun 28 April!

Questions from ML April 2019