Composer James May on Ireland and Innovation
James May’s The Garden, which won SFCA’s New Voices Project prize in 2017, was described by the San Francisco Classical Voice as “arresting… intricate and intense.” At the time he described the piece as “the beginning of interests in new possible directions for my work.” He has gone on to pursue his passion for innovation as a composer and improviser, exploring extended vocal technique and alternative musical notation.
Since then, the Pittsburgh native has spent a year in Ireland, where he delved deeper into the world of experimental music as one of twelve recipients of the 2018-19 George J. Mitchell Scholarship, funding an M.A. in Experimental Sound Practice at University College Cork. He has also won two more competitions – in 2019 alone! His street after street alike won the Seán Ó Riada Composition Contest, leading to a premiere by Chamber Choir Ireland and Paul Hillier, and he also won the West Cork Chamber Music Festival Contest for his string quartet Sculpture VI. His work has also been performed and recorded by the JACK Quartet, Echéa Quartet, Longleash, and the University of Louisville Orchestra and Collegiate Chorale.
Also a writer about music, James contributes regularly to I Care If You Listen, Sound American, and RTÉ Culture.
How have you changed as a composer since winning the NVP prize?
Getting the NVP prize was really the beginning of my “professional” composition career, so quite a lot! I’ve finished two degrees since then and spent a very impactful year in Cork, Ireland, where I started working deeply in improvisation, electronics, and experimental music; beginning an improvisation practice has been especially important to me. All that has helped me figure out the texture-based sound world I tend to enjoy working in and has moved my creating from product-focused to collaboration-focused. I’m especially interested in finding different media I can work in to create fun environments for performers.
What did you find refreshingly different (or comfortingly similar) about the new music scene in Ireland, having experienced it both as a student and as a professional?
The biggest difference about being in Ireland – particularly in Cork – was how I interacted with the community. Our professors really pushed us to do as much as to listen while we were there. I wasn’t attending a conservatory-sized university program though, so instead of all my musical activity being based “out of” UCC’s music department it tended to be more rooted in the larger experimental/DIY music scene in Cork—which was super vibrant but ironically didn’t really intersect with the classical scene! At the same time, since the country is so small it was easy for me to attend and take part in the Dublin new music goings-on and get to know people by being consistently present.
In that way, Ireland was the first place I actually felt like an active member of intersecting music communities, rather than a student who happened to study in a city with a lot of music in it. And because the two cities had such different offerings, I had a wide range of opportunities; I believe I once had a noisy improv gig in the upstairs of a Cork pub one night, and then hopped on the Dublin train the following morning to catch rehearsal with a choir for a Tallis piece. I might be crossing timelines there, though—it was a busy year.
What are you working on currently?
I’m the commissioned composer for the Louisiana Music Teachers Association this year, so I’ve just finished a solo double bass piece for my friend Will Yager to be (virtually) premiered at their (virtual) conference in October. I’m also writing an electric-guitar-and-electronics piece for Jamie Monck, I just released my first album of voice-and-electronics improvisations on Bandcamp, and I have a few other projects in the works with friends stuck in quarantine.
How is the current pandemic situation affecting your life and career?
As of early February, I work full time for a tech company, so I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have a degree of stability throughout the pandemic; the material impact has not hit me in the way it’s affected others. I will say though, I’ve been amazed at the new methods of staying active and making space for diverse creation to come out of this rotten situation (I think especially of the virtual conversations and listening events I’ve attended).
I hope these practices stick around, because they’re bringing some fresh perspective on how we present this art form and build community around it. At a more fundamental level, though, I hope we get some proper funding infrastructure so that pursuing the arts in the States doesn’t cost you your security.
Helga Davis said it beautifully in her conversation with Ted Hearne* and Paola Prestini: such abysmal public funding is maybe a charge for us to manifest a scene that provides for ourselves. I think the imagination required to do that is the same imagination that has developed the best of these online events.
What do you like to do outside of composing when you need a break?
At the moment, composing is my break! Otherwise, I’ve been trying to read and learn as much as possible about social divisions in the US so I can be a useful voice—works by Michelle Alexander, Mariame Kaba, and George Lewis have been really important for me in that regard. I love reading in general (I also recommend The Yellow House by Sarah Broom and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy), and hanging out with my partner and our dog in a very muggy New Orleans.
* Ted Hearne was one of SFCA’s first New Voices Project winners and is profiled here.
James’ winning New Voices Project piece “The Garden” (2017). S.F. Choral Artists premiere performance
“The Garden” – by H.D. [Hilda Doolittle, 1886-1961]
from Sea Garden, 1916)
You are clear
O rose, cut in rock,
hard as the descent of hail.
I could scrape the colour
from the petals
like spilt dye from a rock.
If I could break you
I could break a tree.
If I could stir
I could break a tree—
I could break you.
JACK Quartet performs Sculpture VI (2019)