James Weeks Interview
Posted on 16 September 2009. © Copyright 2004-2014David Bruce
C:T talks to James Weeks, music director of the New London Chamber Choir, who perform Saariaho, Xenakis and Ligeti at the Church of St Andrew in Holborn, London on 25th Sept
Tell us something about your background.
I have always had a dual career as a composer and a conductor (predominantly of voices), but I think of myself very definitely as a composer who conducts! It's a subtle distinction, perhaps, and many people know me best as a conductor, but I trained as a composer (with Michael Finnissy at Southampton after my undergraduate years at Queens', Cambridge, as organ scholar) and it's what I spend most time doing. As well as conducting NLCC I direct EXAUDI, a professional consort of singers also specialising in new music, which I founded with the soprano Juliet Fraser in 2002. I also direct (and play in) Kurbis Ensemble, which is a small instrumental group of varying size dedicated to post-experimental repertoire (including, I confess, a lot of my own work!) and I freelance with groups like the BBC Singers and BCMG.
Tell us about NLCC, and its raison d'etre.
NLCC is a remarkable institution, a group of amateur choral singers that sings contemporary music of the most knotty and complex sort to the highest professional standards. It oughtn't to be possible, but mainly owing to the work of James Wood, who founded it in 1981, it somehow is. More and more I realise what an extraordinary thing James achieved with NLCC - their recordings of Xenakis, Scelsi, late Stravinsky et al are the standard versions and unlikely to be bettered for many years, I would think. James' focus was on the wilder shores of contemporary vocal repertoire - Xenakis was a particular favourite and he wrote for the choir, but really anything with real modernist grit and challenge was what he thrived on. And amazingly, he took everyone with him.
You took over from James Wood in 2007 as Musical Director, how if at all has the group changed its focus since then?
It's a very hard act to follow - James was NLCC for a quarter of a century, so we all plunged into unknown waters when I took over. Principally I have tried to continue his work - my aesthetic preferences are similarly 'hard-core', though perhaps a bit wider and more sympathetic towards experimentalism. The main challenge has been to preserve and perhaps revitalise the enthusiasm and focus of the choir after a fairly lengthy interregnum, finding new talent to replace those who had left in James' wake, and maintaining the astral standards of performance he instilled. Overall, it wasn't necessary to do things radically differently.
Does the group focus on singing specific types of music?
As I've mentioned, we are interested in very challenging music - high modernism, if you want to give it a label - and all that has come out of that strand since the 1950s and 60s. I think this really marks us out from choirs that do 'contemporary choral music' but of a much softer kind - and there's a lot of that around.
How do you go about programming your concerts?
I have a vast pile of scores to look through - and as a composer of course I do know a lot of repertoire anyway. The hardest and most interesting thing about programming is making things work next to each other though, not just doing any old piece that looks good. Sometimes I programme new music with early music (I've done this a lot with EXAUDI) but that's in danger of becoming very clichéd now. I feel that programmes grow, rather than get made all at once - it's an organic process that happens over months, even when you're thinking about something else.
How do you respond to unsolicited work- do you give feedback? Do you ever commission new work yourself?
I will always acknowledge receipt and will give feedback if requested. It's only polite. Yes, we do commission work - a whole roster of great names have written for us in the past, and that process continues.
What do you see as the role (intended and actual) of new music in the modern world?
Is it different from any new art? I don't think so. Making and experiencing the art of today keeps us alive individually and collectively, as a civilisation; particularly at this period of history, when we are in danger of being brainwashed into a state of unthinking, non-engaging, conforming, merely passively consuming the world around us (how ironic to think that capitalism has bred the worst sort of cultural totalitarianism - that in which we acquiesce), what we are doing provides necessary resistance. I think the artist of today should be kicking and screaming against this all the time: it's our only hope.
Tell us about the ensemble's current projects and plans for the future,
On Friday 25th September we are promoting a concert of Ligeti, Saariaho, Xenakis, Dusapin and Evan Johnson called Nights, Farewells, with the brilliant cellist Oliver Coates. This is in St Andrew's Holborn (near Chancery Lane tube) at 7.30 (tickets £10 on the door - see our website for details).
We're taking the Saariaho pieces to Huddersfield in November as part of HCMF, where we're also doing Harvey's The Summer Cloud's Awakening (another NLCC commission from a few years ago). Finally this year we are providing the chorus for Crumb's Star Child with the BBCSO in December in London. 2010 sees a trip to Macedonia, a Handel collaboration with ENO and a new piece from Michael Zev Gordon based on the DNA of members of the choir (as scraped off the insides of our mouth by a leading geneticist!).
How can people find out more about you?
Come to a concert, or look on our website, http://www.nlcc.org.uk. We're auditioning all the time if you think you might want to join - or just sign up to the mailing list.
Interview by David Bruce © Copyright 2004-2014
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