James May is the First Prize co-winner of the San Francisco Choral Artists New Voices Project in 2017, for his setting of “The Garden” by H.D. His composition receives its premiere performances as part of Witches, Saints, and Mothers: Music By and About Women in March 2017.
San Francisco Choral Artists: What made you choose to set “The Garden” to music?
James May: I initially came to “The Garden” through my interest in H.D. as a poet. I think her descriptive language is beautifully stark, her work is always more complex than it initially appears. She was of the modernist era of poetry where writers like T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound really began to put the genre tropes of the past behind them in favor of language they thought was more applicable to their day and age. In general I find that era of writing to be extremely beautiful and fun to set – there’s no preconceived notions of meters or rhyme to force some sort of musical reproduction, I think it really frees the language.
When I first heard of the New Voices Project and the program for the concert, I immediately went to H.D. as a historically significant female voice and I eventually found “The Garden.” The message was clear but nuanced, very simple to approach but open to a lot of deeper questions about stereotyped images of femininity and the implications of changing or re-addressing those stereotypes. It really just seemed like the perfect text for the situation, perhaps bringing up a side of acknowledging women that can get lost amidst the more usual tropes.
SFCA: How does this piece relate to other works you’ve composed?
JM: This is actually the second piece I’ve written using text by H.D. – the first was an extended song for solo soprano that set the poem “Sea Gods.” That was my first exposure to H.D.’s work, though I worked with her poetry not long afterwords in a modernist lit course. Like I mentioned earlier, I was immediately attracted to her sparse but piercing descriptions, especially of nature, so she became a go-to source for possible texts.
Musically, I think this piece was one of the first steps in the direction of my current aesthetic interests. I think being a composer is often just a matter of spiraling through other people’s musical ideas and trying things on, with varied success, and hoping that you land in something you can call your own. I’m absolutely not there yet – but some of the harmonic and procedural decisions I made in “The Garden” were early manifestations of ideas I’ve been returning to as of late. In some ways, this was a both culmination of styles and the beginning of interests in new possible directions for my work.
SFCA: Who have been your greatest influences as an artist?
JM: This is definitely a question that varies by the day, haha, and also one that can be answered at a lot of different levels. Compositionally, some of my favorites right now are Nina C. Young, Donnacha Dennehy, Tyshawn Sorey, Anna Thorsvaldsdottir, Ted Hearne, Kate Soper – they all have incredibly original, beautiful takes on music that are almost bewilderingly cool.
Realistically though, some of my strongest influences lie far outside the realm of concert halls. There’s a lot of unacknowledged beauty in music like rap and punk and screamo and indie/alt music, and I think many of my most impactful musical experiences came from those realms. So, for specifics, artists like Foxing, Kendrick Lamar, or letlive. demonstrate a musicality and energy that made me interested in music in the first place. Whether or not my music “sounds” like a hardcore punk band doesn’t matter to me too much, but I have to acknowledge how that pervades my general ideas about music.
SFCA: What is one exciting thing that you see happening in new music today?
JM: I think what most excites me about new music are the possibilities for innovation, by which I mean social and organizational innovation. We are in an incredibly powerful position to bring our world to brand new audiences, to more purposefully include those who have been historically excluded, and to reinvent what it means to be a “classical” musician. I think there’s now a mentality that everything is fair game for performance and we don’t necessarily need to censor our programming decisions for the sake of the audience, which is a problem in larger orchestral organizations. And I don’t mean to sound like I want legions to suddenly realize classical music is “cool” – though it is – but it’s certainly relevant, and New Music could make itself increasingly relevant to an increasingly diverse audience in a way that is very exciting.
SFCA: As a composer, where do you hope to be or what do you hope to be doing ten years from now?
JM: I would be thrilled to be involved in the operations of some sort of New Music organization or venue. Writing music and getting performances would be great, but it would be a lot of fun to be organizing and enabling these events. It seems that, in this day and age, you can’t avoid a multiplicity of roles so it’s almost naive to talk about doing one thing instead of another. If I was any combination of active composer, teacher, director, or manager of new music, I would be pretty pleased. If I’m continuing active composition, I want my music to exist in a realm of collaboration and cross-genre presentations, both within different genres of music and different realms of artistic media.
James May (b. 1994, Pittsburgh, PA) writes a variety of concert works that focus on the evolution of timbre and space. The obliqueness and increasing social-consciousness of his work reflects the broad spectrum of his musical influence, including hardcore punk, rap, Irish folk music, and the always evolving world of contemporary classical music. Ongoing and recent projects include works for chamber orchestra, solo clarinet with live electronics, and various chamber groups with vocalist.
In addition to this premiere by the San Francisco Choral Artists, 2017 will see the premiere of many new works by James including “Mni Wiconi” for Pierrot Ensemble plus percussion, which sets text Zitkala-Sa (an early 20th century Sioux woman) and presents it in light of the recent political protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota. He will also participate in the Charlotte New Music Festival and the Loretto Project over the summer before diving into his masters’ thesis. His works have been performed by the Wooster Chorus, Lauren Vanden Broeck, and the Alunos chamber orchestra (upcoming).
James attended The College of Wooster where he earned his B.Mus. in Theory & Composition and his B.A. in English, studying composition with Jack Gallagher. While at Wooster he organized and directed the New Music Showcase, performed as a pianist in the Wooster jazz trio and as a bass in the Wooster Chorus, researched musical semiotics as applied to the work of James Joyce, and studied in Belfast, Northern Ireland as an undergraduate Fulbright grant recipient. James is currently earning his M.M. in composition at the University of Louisville as a Bomhard Fellow, studying with Steve Rouse.