Interview: James Weeks

This summer contemporary vocal ensemble EXAUDI present James Weeks’s Mala punica alongside the world premiere of Walled Garden for instrumental sextet. Ahead of the performance we asked James about EXAUDI, their work and his music.

EXAUDI

EXAUDI with James Weeks (centre)

For people who are new to you and EXAUDI, could you introduce us to your work?

I’m a composer living in Gateshead, and I also conduct and teach (mainly in London). I founded EXAUDI with soprano Juliet Fraser in 2002 and we’ve built it up into one of the leading vocal ensembles for new music in the world. We enjoy our life at the frontier, exploring aesthetics that lie towards the edges of contemporary musical activity such as complexity, microtonality, experimental work of all sorts.

I’ve no idea why I started doing it – probably out of curiosity
James Weeks

When did you first write a piece of music, and was there something that inspired you to do it?

I started early, maybe about age 5. My mother is a piano teacher so she helped me to notate some little piano pieces I had improvised. I’ve no idea why I started doing it – probably out of curiosity, or maybe boredom. Later it became a ruse to avoid piano practice.

Your new piece Walled Garden will be heard for the first time this June in our Summer Festival. What will the listener hear?

There are three pieces in Walled Garden and they’ve been designed to overlap with a cycle of eight vocal ensemble pieces I wrote in 2008-09 called Mala punica. They use a flute trio (two altos and a bass) and a string trio, a combination I’m very excited about hearing. Mala punica is a series of canons based on texts from the Song of Songs: each piece is very self-contained, highly calculated but also quite ardent and emotionally direct at the same time. I wanted to give them a context, like a landscape or a field for them to bloom in, so I started from the image of the medieval hortus conclusus that appears at the centre of the cycle, and created these new instrumental pieces as a musical ‘enclosed garden’ seen at different times of day. The idea is that each piece is a space that the players wander in: even though the space is highly constructed the paths they take through it are not, so it should have a looser feel to it than the vocal pieces – each one is a more-or-less static field of sounds.

Are there non-musical influences on the music that you write?

Certainly – the vocal pieces use text of course, and I was very much under the spell of the Song of Songs when writing Mala punica; and writing Walled Garden I was thinking a lot about the tradition of enclosed gardens in medieval Western and Middle Eastern societies, as spaces of reflection or refreshment, or possibly secret erotic delights. You will also be able to hear bees and breezes, though maybe they are a kind of music already…

What do you hope the audience will take away from their encounter with Walled Garden and Mala Punica?

The Song of Songs is a text that casts a powerful spell. It opens up an extraordinary, pure, sensual, natural space and invites us to lose ourselves in it: with Mala punica and Walled Garden I’ve tried to respond to this and create an hour of music where the listener can get lost in a similar sort of dream space, like wandering through an endless garden in early summer…I hope you’ll come and hear how it sounds!

 

 

EXAUDI
Wednesday 3 June, 9.30pm
Christ Church Spitalfields
Enter Exaudi’s sonic garden >>

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