James Black. © Niklas Ottander

Shouting, naked. James Black, the composer

Five years ago the British-born composition student James Black moved to Copenhagen, mainly to get out of Oxford. Unlike most of his fellow young composers, he ‘tends to write loud music’, Black tells Andrew Mellor ahead of his debut concert.
7. February 2018
Interview with James Black three weeks before his debut concert

You may have spotted the poster for James Black’s debut concert. It features the composer standing completely naked in a room filled with household objects, a stuffed raven apparently turning its gaze towards his exposed groin with its beak open in readiness. ‘We did the photos in the shop Quriosa on Rantzausgade,’ Black says. ‘I’m glad you asked, as I promised them some free publicity.’

Like any other student preparing to graduate from the soloist class at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, Black must organize every aspect of the concert himself, right down to renting a venue for the poster’s photo shoot (as a composer, Black has the additional task of writing all his concert’s music). The poster might look like a confident this is me. But the 27-year-old claims he was ‘absolutely terrified’ when the photos were taken. ‘I didn’t want to feel comfortable doing it. I never want to feel comfortable or complacent,’ he tells me underneath the vaulted roof of the Academy’s canteen. ‘I imagine each piece of mine will be the last – the end. If I’m on stage and I see people I know in the audience, I can feel myself apologizing to them in my head.’

Black was raised in the southwest of England and came to study at the Academy in 2013 after four years in the music department at Oxford University. It was his second application to the school. ‘I wasn’t drawn to Denmark by the composers, although I knew Bent’s [Sørensen] music quite well and Hans’s [Abrahamsen] a little, and liked it,’ he says. ‘It was more that I wanted to leave Oxford. I could have ended up anywhere but I’m glad it was here. I definitely think that for such a small country there is a disproportionate amount of really good music going on.’

His master’s voice
Black studied with both those composers for his master’s degree and, subsequently, in the soloist class. They are imposing figures, in Denmark and increasingly outside it too. ‘Yes and they became idols for me,’ admits Black. ‘But there isn’t that sense of teacher worship here that you get elsewhere. You can take anything to your teachers and they’ll respect it and help it be the best it can be. They’ll challenge you on your reasoning and want to know why you’re doing things. But they are also there to notice if you’re not being honest; my teachers would say “this is too academic” or “this sounds like someone else”. That’s helpful.’

The question therefore, as Black prepares to be ejected by the Academy’s revolving doors for the last time, is whether he has discovered himself. As a composer, at least. ‘I didn’t arrive here fully-formed; it was certainly a break-down/build-up situation,’ he says. ‘The aim of the master’s degree is to find your voice through developing your technique. I’m still not entirely sure what my ‘voice’ is. But I’m not sure you should know, not clearly anyway. I know what I want to do in this moment even if I don’t have a description for it. I once met a composer who said to me, “I used to write microtonal music and now I write non-rhetorical music.” I was like, okay… why don’t you just write music?’

Even so, certain trends or preferences can be discerned in Black’s works. He has often taken tense, sparse ideas or naïve, pure ones and imposed elements of chaos upon them. In some pieces, as in the three-movement Ground Moves (2015-16), we clearly hear the steady emergence of symphonic resolution from beneath a surface orchestral weave. ‘I think that’s how the human mind works in general,’ says Black: ‘you have this chattering chaos at surface level, and then you have this deep thought underneath. Something I have taken from Hans is that everything has to be structured, so I’ve become very adept at making number systems. I don’t really leave anything to chance when it comes to details like pitch or instrumentation, and rhythmically I systemize literally everything. In other words I keep the chattering part of my mind busy, then the deep-thought part is free to make bigger decisions about form and poetics or whatever.’

Composer as performer
But increasingly there is a third element, as presented in naked form on that concert poster: Black himself. ‘I’ve been going in two directions in the last couple of years: one creates quite traditional notated music, and another produces works that are a bit freer – stuff I will perform personally or which will include free notation, quotation and elements of physical performance. In some pieces I have started to combine the two approaches.’ When Black’s music was sprung from the confines of the Academy in May 2017 and presented at Tivoli as part of Klang festival, we heard one of them. Black appeared on stage as a vocal soloist and keyboard player in his piece Raus, which shunts innocent folksong and schoolroom recorders up against the directionless mania of computer-game music.

Black’s own participation in Raus was not planned. ‘The keyboard part was originally for someone else to play. But when writing it I was just banging the keyboard with my hand, which threw up the question of how to notate it. I could have notated the rhythm very systematically, but I liked the flow of it when I did it naturally so I concluded I would play it. And then it became me singing too. I hated singing when I was a child, so there was a little bit of therapy in that decision as well as just wanting to go for broke. I suppose I have a certain feeling that if I’m going to do something, I’ll do it completely – all the way.’

Is the future of Black’s music the combination of these two approaches – traditional, notated music and music as performance art? ‘I’m still figuring that out, and I think I will be figuring it out for a long time,’ he says. ‘I’ve spoken to my teachers and various other composers about this, and people say to me, “This is where you are now, and that’s okay.” In a piece like Raus, I was using exactly the same structured processes as I have in other pieces but including myself as an extra – putting one thing on top of another. When I was programming the debut concert, I realized I should perhaps take a step back from being on stage in every piece, especially as there is a concerto. In that piece the soloist is kind of my substitute.’

A traditional concert 
Black describes his debut concert as ‘kind of in a traditional format: overture, concerto and symphony’. It will open with the piece in which he first combined strictly notated music with elements of physical performance, Everything is gonna burn, we’ll all take turns (I’ll take mine too) (2016). ‘The other two pieces go off in these two directions again but also feed into each other,’ he says.

They consist of an accordion concerto written for Maciej Frackiewicz in which there will be ‘movement and quotations from other people’s material’ and, after the interval, an ensemble work Black is still writing, conceived for an ensemble of 12 musicians ‘from all over Europe – people who I met in my first years here and who I’ve met from other countries’. Part of the score will be notated; part of it will be devised by the members of the ensemble themselves.

Can he tell us any more? ‘Well, I’m quite excited to have stumbled upon this idea of music as medicine,’ Black says sheepishly. ‘I’ve been doing lots of yoga recently and the teachers make all these claims: if you lie on your right toenail then it will stimulate your kidney, stuff like that. I have no way of proving them wrong, and I don’t know enough about anatomy to challenge them. So I feel I’m also free to make outrageous claims about what I’m doing. But I do believe music is good for you, and that watching a musical performance can have positive effects on your life. I mean, if nothing else, it will get you out of the house.’

The concert is three weeks away when we meet, but it is evidently occupying the composer’s every waking hour. ‘It has been a learning process. It still is a learning process,’ he says. ‘Obviously that’s what this course is for: professional training. But the fact remains that if you’re a pianist it’s just you and a piano. If you’re a composer, it’s a fucking nightmare. You have a lot to organize. You have to source people, equipment and materials. But I’m happy with it right now. I’ve got two big ensembles playing, which is great. I’ve been forced to use my network, which I appreciate. It’s been horrible but I’m glad I’ve had to do it.’ And what then? You walk out and into the real world? ‘Yeah! Bye-bye. Jesus!’

Here to stay
After that, Black plans to stick around ‘for the foreseeable future’. ‘I have some projects lined up that mean I should be able to live,’ he says. ‘And I really like it here. I like the society and I have a certain network despite the fact that I knew nobody when I arrived. I’ve had opportunities. I would never have had the chance to be a featured composer at a festival like Klang if I was still in England or to have my music workshopped and performed by an orchestra like the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. I mean, that’s ridiculously good.’  

We discuss the occasional sparseness – the distillation of notes – apparent in the music of his primary teachers. There are similar qualities in some of Black’s works, particularly in the streamlined tension of his piece for recorder and organ, Bind us together with unbreakable cords (2016). Did the Danish ideal of care with noise – of resolute focus on the idea – come to influence him technically or aesthetically? ‘I’ve never really thought about that, but you are right to make the comparison,’ Black says. ‘I guess if something is getting in the way then it has to go. But I think what I wrote before I came here was quite streamlined. I know that I tend to write louder music than everyone else. The other composer who has a debut concert coming up is Jeppe Ernst. His music is incredibly quiet. I’m probably the other end of the spectrum. I like loud. Maybe that’s the un-Nordic part of me.’

James Black’s debut concert takes place at the Royal Danish Academy of Music on 28 February, 7.30 PM. Free entrance.