10 for ’10: Daryl Jamieson

It’s been a while, and it’s closer to 2012 than 2010 now, but I thought it high time to revive last year’s ‘10 for ’10‘ series of composer interviews. In any case, we never got to 10, so there’s unfinished business to deal with at least.

I first encountered Daryl Jamieson‘s music in September this year, at the Pharos International Festival of Contemporary Music, in Cyprus.  He was born in Nova Scotia in 1980, but in recent years has made his home in Tokyo. I have elsewhere described his piano trio, Snow Meditation,  as containing hints of a 19th-century Romanticism, but “in a way that wasn’t kitsch, nostalgic, or even ironic”. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the best way to approach Jamieson’s music as whole. Remembering back to that piece, more than a month later, I think my specific response was born of a more generalisable sense that here was music that was sensitive to certain formal  habits or practices – and even contained  occasional surface allusions in terms of certain gestures or sounds – but that was capable of re-presenting these things, or perhaps moving between them, in a way that seemed much more generous in spirit than much, more cynical, postmodernism.

That’s still not a precise encapsulation, and Snow Meditation (heard just once) is falling further into memory now. For this profile, Jamieson has provided an altogether different piece, a Fugue in b for piano solo (2010). According to its programme note, it is ‘the third in [a] long-term series of fugues I am hoping to write over my life’. The attachment to fugue suggests a continuing wish to connect with and consider the values and objects of tradition. But there is an almost mystical allusiveness to this piece that may be characteristic. A sense that life is being breathed into or through something that is hardly really there. Jamieson also writes: ‘Donʼt expect to hear the fugal subject: it is played only with the mind of the pianist, not with her hands…’

Daryl Jamieson: Fugue in b | score (pdf)

TR-J: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Daryl Jamieson: I’m not sure that composing has ever been a sensible career choice. I seem to recall a great many composers throughout history becoming so against the wishes of their families, whether that be for reasons of finance or class or gender. But music is part of the human experience and always will be; likewise, people are naturally curious and like to experience things they have not yet experienced. There will always be new music, in some form or another, and so composers will always exist, regardless of financial reward.

Personally, I compose for a very basic reason: I want to express something about the world and my emotional reaction to it, and the tools at hand that are most comfortable, most familiar to me are musical. It’s not really a career choice, it’s just something I do. In high school and university I had many diverse interests that I could have pursued as a career, I suppose: I studied math and drama and poetry as an undergraduate, and my science marks in high school were higher than my music ones. But composing allows me to indulge and explore all these fields – drama with opera and music theatre, poetry with songs, science and math with the serial matrices I create to govern the harmonic fields in many of my pieces – and so I can develop all of those interests along with my musical technique.

TR-J: How do you think composing, being a composer, now is different from 20–30 years ago?

DJ: Composing, for me at least, still involves sitting at a desk with a sheet of blank manuscript paper and a pencil. Part of my practice involves matrices and series with moderately complex maths worked out on a computer, but nothing I couldn’t do by hand if forced. In the pure moment of creation, I don’t think anything has changed for centuries, not in the way that I compose.

However, there has been a growing crisis with the role of the composer in society, which has been steadily decreasing over the past century even as visual artists have recently become ever more prominent. In Japan, for instance, if you ask the average person about contemporary composers, most people can name only Takemitsu – who died more than a decade ago – if they can name any at all. Composers have mostly excepted themselves from the general public debate, despite the efforts of those few composers who write political music, such as Richard Barrett, or who are politically active, such as Pascal Dusapin. I went through a period of writing political music, mostly in my undergraduate years, but since then have largely avoided specifically political themes. I do think about how my musical organisation and structure can reflect their political and societal equivalents, though music is abstract enough that people who want to ignore that type of political message can and do. Political engagement, even by major composers, seems to be ignored by even the quality papers, let alone the general public, and so I’m not sure what the solution to this problem is.

That said, direct political or social action is something I personally would like to be more involved with in the future. Recently the mmm… ensemble (which I co-founded) embarked on a year-long charity project called the ‘hibari project’*, which will raise money for those who were orphaned or disabled by the Great East Japan Earthquake. We have given a hundred composers from around the world a platform to reflect publicly on a matter of international significance, while also helping the victims financially. I hope that this will play a small part in remaking the connection between composers and the general public.

The other big change in the past thirty years, a more positive one, is in communications technology. mmm…’s main concert series, the ‘Circle of Friends’, features young composers from around the world. [Coincidentally, they have performed pieces by three composers in ’10 for 10’ series – Evan Johnson, Timothy McCormack and James Weeks – as well as one other hopefully to come in the near future – Ed.] We’ve only met eight of the twenty-five featured composers in person, and all of our interactions, including rehearsals, have taken place on the internet. This is undeniably new, and even ten years ago, in an age before Skype made long-distance phone calls irrelevant, our ensemble could not have existed in its current form. The opportunities to meet composers from abroad and have pieces performed in countries where you’ve never set foot seem to be greater now than ever before, and that must be a good thing for world culture.

TR-J: How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?

DJ: I like collaborating with performers, and I like workshopping pieces, and I’m quite jealous of the method choreographers use to create new pieces (teaching the piece to the dancers in small bits, moulding those bits into a whole over weeks or months, with the dancers learning everything by rote as you create). But in practice, I usually work briefly with the musicians before I write, hearing them play and learning their limits, and then present them, a few weeks or months later, with a nearly-finished piece. That’s as much a limitation of performers’ schedules and/or distance as a choice of mine.

In rehearsal, I’m content to not be in total control of things; I like to let the performers bring their own artistic sensibility to the music, and not be overly concerned with what I think is the ‘correct’ way to play it. After a piece is first performed, I’m creatively finished with it. I don’t do revisions, neither am I protective of my initial intentions. I sometimes don’t even recall my original intentions, as I’m already writing the next piece. So if a new performer takes up one of my pieces, I encourage them to trust their own judgements about the music, and not rely on my critiques. The composer is only one-third of the necessary minimum number of intelligent beings needed to create musical meaning. Both the performer(s) and the listener(s) bring their own experiences and interpretations to the music, and their’s are not less important than the composer’s.

TR-J: A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

DJ: I have two different methods of approaching composition. One is serial (neo-serial?) with regard to pitch, one is comparatively free (structured improvising on the page). The series and matrices I use in the first method tend to be derived from natural phenomena – such as mountain heights – or arcane numerological analyses of poetry. The soundworlds created by the two methods are not so dissimilar, but the neo-serial pieces tend to have more notes. In both cases, I first plot a structure – indicating textures and durations of sections – and as I compose the details of the pieces, I’m principally concerned with rhythm and colour. That is not to say I don’t care about pitch or harmony, just that I separate my harmonic thought from my rhythmic and timbral thought.

Since the overall structure (and sometimes pitch) has been predetermined, while I compose I can focus on the individual moment, the individual note, its colour and duration, the balancing of irregular rhythms with regular ones to avoid the tyranny of pulse and barline. I try to infuse each moment with what I consider beauty. This emphasis on colour, beauty, and ‘the moment’ is something I have in common with Japanese aesthetics, though this has been a dominant strain in my music ever since I discovered Feldman in the early 2000s, long before I moved to Japan. Certainly whilst in Japan I’ve been consciously developing this aspect of my music, and have been greatly influenced in this by Japanese art, especially Noh theatre, and by learning to play the koto.

TR-J: What projects are on your desk at the moment?

DJ: I’ve got a series of piano miniatures to write that I’ve been putting off for the best part of a year, as well as a piece for the next mmm… concert on 27 March (this will be an alto flute and violin duo), and a piece for koto (with voice) and viola for the third concert in an on-going series called Music Without Borders, which is a collective of five composers who write for Frankfurt-based koto player Naoko Kikuchi along with various other instruments, both Western and Japanese. All of my upcoming projects are influenced by, or are settings of, Japanese poetry, which has been an abiding interest since the mid 2000s.

TR-J: Here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

DJ: There is no dusk here. There is a moment when it is day, then there is a moment when it is night. The day is over. There is a sound that was a middle C, but its middle C-ness has gone. When did it go? you ask. I didn’t notice either. It was here a second ago, you say. Never mind, it’s gone now. The moon is bright tonight, you say. There is the illusion of rain. The middle C, stripped of its middle C-ness, lingers.

*The Hibari charity project  launched on 25th October. It will be updated every Tuesday for the next year with two new pieces of contemporary music. The pieces are available to stream through the site; to download, all that’s required is a charitable donation. All proceeds go to the Asahi Shinbun newspaper’s Social Welfare Organization, helping children who were orphaned by the Japanese earthquake, as well as elderly and disabled people who were affected.

Hibari’s first week features pieces by Sunao Isaji and Nicholas Deyoe; future composers include Ben Isaacs, Evis Sammoutis and Ken Ueno. You can also keep up with the site through Hibari’s tumblr.

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