An Interview with James Whitbourn
Interviewed by Tom Manoff
James Whitbourn talks about composing, his musical background, and the ideas that underlie his art.
MANOFF: What are your earliest memories that opened music to your senses?
WHITBOURN: I don’t remember the first few years, but I do remember going to the recordshop aged eight to buy my first LP. I wanted Mozart 40 because I’d heard the famous 1971 arrangement by Waldo de los Ríos at someone’s house. The recording I bought was plain Mozart, however, and I remember at first being a little disappointed because the percussion and jazzy guitars were missing. It only took a few hearings to get used to it, though, and then I began to/ see the beauty of the scoring as Mozart left it, and it became a firm favourite for many years. I also remember hearing Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite on the radio and being bowled over by it. That was a revelation moment to a young boy.
MANOFF: Were you encouraged by your parents in musical pursuits?
WHITBOURN: Yes. My parents noticed that I had perfect pitch when I was little (I don’t remember this but my mother says I’d identified the pitch of a train horn when we were out one day), so I think they had an idea there might be something to encourage. They certainly gave me the opportunity to get started and it helped that there was already a piano in the house. My mother used to take me to the opera at an early age too. I lived in Kent, just South of London (still do) and there was a company called Kent Opera at the time. They used to perform in our town. It all sounds very local, but in fact the Music Director was Roger Norrington and many productions were directed by Jonathan Miller. Both of these figures went on to forge extraordinary careers. I can still remember very clearly the exact sounds of some of those performances even though I heard them more than thirty years ago.
“it is easy to write music for a broad audience but it is harder to do so when it also has depth and substance.” — James Whitbourn
MANOFF: Were your parents musical or musicians?
WHITBOURN: Neither parent is a musician: my father is a historical architect and my mother had studied history; but both enjoyed music. My father had been a chorister in his parish church as a boy and used to sing in the local choral society and my mother listened to Radio 3 (the classical music station) throughout the day – in fact I believe she still does! .
MANOFF: What and where were your first formal lessons in music?
WHITBOURN: I started to take piano lessons when I was four years old. This was quite young, but I think the reasons were a combination of the perfect pitch incident together with the fact that my sister – then aged seven (a more sensible age to start)- had been taking lessons and I kept trying to play her pieces. Clearly this was rather annoying, so my parents decided to take me to the piano teacher too!.
MANOFF: When did you first start composing?
WHITBOURN:There are little bits and pieces stretching back to about aged ten, but nothing substantial. I used to compose fragments and play them over and over again. I was always fascinated by chords – and therefore by combinations of sounds – as well as by melody. I recall having a couple of pieces of mine performed at Secondary (High) School but for the most part I did not display my compositions, even though I was writing away. I also liked to improvise at the piano, which of course is composition but without the writing down part. Later at Secondary School I wrote some more substantial pieces, especially for choirs, which by then were already an unstoppable passion.
MANOFF: Was there a time in your career when you faced a decision about what kind of style you would follow? Did you just follow your ears, so to speak, without thinking, or did you consider it objectively or both?
WHITBOURN: To some extent, yes. In the 80s and 90s I was commissioned a lot by the BBC so several of my compositions had a broadcast somewhere in their background. One reviewer has described my role as that of a modern Kapellmeister, with the broadcaster as the new patron, and I think there is an element of truth in this.
With an organisation like the BBC, there is more liberty than, say, when writing for a film, but still there is a known audience (and a large one, at that), and there is an imperative to write music that will keep – or even build – an audience rather than lose it. I wrote a lot of music for the Religious department, and this presented a challenge to write music that has both breadth and depth. This is the difficult combination: it is easy to write music for a broad audience but it is harder to do so when it also has depth and substance (and yet, for me, it is pointless to do so unless it has substance).
This is an interesting discipline. I do not always tackle it consciously but it is certainly there in my thinking and the background in broadcasting certainly shaped some aspects of my writing. Some composers feel they should not consider the audience, but this is comparatively modern thinking and was alien to earlier generations of composers. Having said that, I never write music just because I think someone else will like it: it has to excite my own internal gauge and I rely heavily on that instinct. That remains my starting point. The trick is to find something that sits well with yourself and with your audience.
MANOFF: I hear various kinds of tradition on this CD. One is certainly the English Tradition. Another, Russian. I’d say that they are fused most often, yet experiencing them, for me, is a delight. Am I close to your experience on this ? How do you view tradition, or should I say how deep do various choral traditions run in your ears and your sensibilities ?
WHITBOURN: I think you have hit the nail on the head! I love Russian music, and although I have no special intention to write Russian-influenced music, I have noticed that it often turns out that way. I have worked in Russia a little in the past and have particular memories of one series of Orthodox Easter services I attended in Moscow. I found them exhilarating because they were extravagantly passionate. Elderly women – in their seventies – arrived about five hours before the service began to get a good position and stood for all that time (no seats) and then for the four-hour liturgy as well. The choirs and priest were overlapping at times, creating a kind of sonic kaleidoscope and an energy that I have not experienced before in liturgy. These sounds have certainly stayed in my mind, as have many other moments that have touched me at different times of my life. The composers of late medieval and renaissance England also created sounds that excite me and stay with me, and I guess all these sounds get mixed into the music that comes out. Even without a conscious effort to mix traditions, what is inside will somehow emerge in the music..
MANOFF: What kinds of music do listen to ? Do you listen to artists in various styles? If so, which artists, groups and composers?
WHITBOURN: My listening habits are rather irregular, but I do spend a proportion of my time working also as a producer and so work with a wide range of music, especially opera and ballet (I love the interaction of the human body with music and see a synergy between dance and singing in the physical way a body either creates or responds to music). Once I’m working seriously on one of my own pieces, though, I tend not to listen much to other music, because it clashes with what is in my head at that point and I need to give a developing piece room. Sometimes I like to listen to music in the car and have a collection of discs that includes Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and others. I think the Rachmaninov piano concertos are masterly, because they never lose their energy: whatever the tempo or dynamic, there is always something moving the music forward. I would rarely skip forward when listening to these. I admire and enjoy good music of many types, though, instrumental and vocal. I tend to be drawn to music with passion and soul. .
MANOFF: How does religious purpose affect your music in the broadest sense ?
WHITBOURN: In the broadest sense, I suppose it affects most of what I write; but certainly not in just the narrower sense of organised religion. I think a deeper knowledge of that creative force of Love is an imperative from which I cannot escape – and actually don’t want to escape. My own particular religious background rests within the Abrahamic faiths, through an upbringing in Christianity and a subsequent exposure also to Judaism. A few years ago, I worked on a large-scale choral setting of the Diary of Anne Frank (Annelies) which occupied my mind for some two years and during that time I felt especially close to Judaism, a link which has remained and which comes through some of my output still. I think it caused me to re-examine some of my Christian assumptions, such as when writing the Magnificat for King’s College Cambridge: I started to move my thoughts away from the Anglican or Catholic Mary and rethink her as the young Jewish girl she was – not much older than Anne Frank, probably – and consider the momentous news she had had revealed to her. Even though it resulted in the birth (literally) of Christianity, it is in fact a Jewish story. My music constantly searches for the Spirit, even if it appears in many different guises..
MANOFF: How do you compose? Do you write on manuscript paper or computer notation ? Do you use studio technology as part of your creative process ?
WHITBOURN: The composition process for me happens at the piano and in my head. I jot down sketches on manuscript paper and eventually sketch out the whole piece either on paper or in my mind. Only then does computer notation come into it. I never compose straight into the computer: I have to know exactly how the piece goes before I start to write anything down for real. Having said that, the notation stage is when the refinement of dynamics etc go in for the first time. My jottings on manuscript paper never contain such details: they are just for me to remember how it all goes. I only started computer notation a few years ago and up until that point I wrote everything out by hand and presented a manuscript copy to my publisher for typesetting. I must say I much prefer the system of doing it myself, simply because I find proof-reading of (my own) scores very difficult and the ability to play scores back – even though the sounds may be very misleading – presents a very good way to check for mistakes.
I do some work in the Film and TV sector, so I do run a small studio (I work with Sibelius and Cubase) for that part of my work. When you are writing to picture it is essential to have that facility and it is expected nowadays that you will offer ideas with a standard of demo that is quite close to the final result. I still much prefer to work with real musicians for the final master, even if it is in combination with tracks. A combination can be quite a good compromise to balance budget and quality. Good players invariably take even a simple titles track to a higher level. .
WHITBOURN: Melanie approached me with the Annelies project, though we worked on it together and shaped it in collaboration. Mel is a remarkable young writer who had been working in Bosnia with some schoolchildren on Arts projects and she realised the power of music in what was then a war-torn country. It was this that turned her to the Anne Frank text as a source of inspiration for a musical work. My name was suggested to her by the Jewish Music Institute in Britain (part of London University) with whom I had already been working. She got to know some of my music and wanted to work with me on this. We both came at the collaboration slowly, each wanting to be sure that the partnership was right (it turned out to be wonderful). At first we thought it would not be possible to use the actual diary text, but we both gained the trust of Anne’s (her real name was Annelies) remaining family and they continue to be wholly supportive of the work. They graciously allowed us to use the diary text itself, which had not been done before in a full length work, and it was an enormous privilege. Buddy Elias, Anne Frank’s cousin, came and introduced the world premiere, and one of her schoolfriends – whom she wrote about in the diary – came to introduce a concert before that, which presented excerpts of the work. The whole process took a few years and was not easy, which is probably how it should be for a work of that intensity.
MANOFF: What other poets or sources might there be in your future plans?
WHITBOURN: I have worked with other poets on various projects: Michael Symmons Roberts and I have written several pieces together for the BBC and I have collaborated with Robert Tear (better known as a singer but also a poet and writer) and with Andrew Motion. I hope to work with all these people again at some stage. And I also have another possible collaborator for a bigger project we are currently working on and trying to shape. But I also like to draw on the works of the great luminaries. I find Saint Augustine (the African one) a great source of wisdom and very broad in his thinking. I tend to be drawn to broad ideas rather than anything too narrow. .
” I think Western choirs have much to learn from the sheer physicality that comes with often with African choirs, who connect their vocal chords with their whole body..” — James Whitbourn
MANOFF: I’ll continue to make the case that music such as Luminosity shouldn’t be termed “multicultural,” a term that promotes an “exotic” perception for both listener and composer. I’ll call Luminosity “pancultural,” acknowledging a global aesthetic in which non-Western musical traditions no longer seem exotic. There remain many challenges composing pancultural music –one of them, how many traditions can a composer explore without becoming a cultural tourist. I wonder how (or if) you might continue explorations of global styles as one part of your work. Are there plans for future projects that you can share at this moment –pancultural or not?
WHITBOURN: It is surprisingly difficult scoring for anything outside the ordinary. Practical considerations are often the reason for this rather than a principle objection. Different cultures come to music in different ways and the introduction of the visual sense – which comes with writing down music on a score – brings as many problems as it does solutions. Musicians who rely on their aural sense to learn and convey music to one another come to the whole process of preparing for a performance from a different place. Usually the commitment that comes with that far outweighs the inconvenience of not having something that is “sight-readable”.
“For me, pancultural writing is not a conscious goal. It is just that I am attracted to sounds that come from the soul (often the sort with an improvisational quality about it) wherever these come from.” — James Whitbourn
At one stage, I had in mind to write the solo part of Luminosity for Sitar. I eventually ended up with the viola, as an instrument that has the same range and possibilities of “rounded” note to note movement. I am happy with what I did, but I would still like to write a piece for sitar and choir at some point, because the sitar is such a vocal instrument.
For me, pancultural writing is not a conscious goal. It is just that I am attracted to sounds that come from the soul (often the sort with an improvisational quality about it) wherever these come from. Bringing together the musical possibilities of different cultures ought not to be that difficult, but the reality is often that rehearsal time is short and the extra bit of time that these ideas need is not always available.
I think Western choirs have much to learn from the sheer physicality that comes with often with African choirs, who connect their vocal chords with their whole body. For me, pancultural writing is not a conscious goal. It is just that I am attracted to sounds that come from the soul (often the sort with an improvisational quality about it) wherever these come from. I will continue to seek and pick up influences wherever I hear beautiful or powerful sounds that move me, and somehow they will find their way into my music..
More information about James Whitbourn and his music at his website.