In Tapping the Source, the author brings different times and diverse musical cultures right into the heart of contemporary music making. This extraordinary book brings to life a concept which the German philosopher Helmuth Plessner referred to as Fern-Nähe: the faraway comes closer and merges into today's understanding of the superdiversity of music as theory and practice. Perusing the histories and cultures of the systematisations of rhythm, temperament and modes, and tapping the very earliest known sources from ancient Greece and early India, Wood unfolds the sheer infinity of present possibilities. In so doing, he has produced a book which bears resemblance to few theoretical works in music history and theory, although it could without effort be compared to the rigorous and explorative attempts of Harry Partch in the twentieth century, or Gioseffo Zarlino in the sixteenth century. These are as much treatises as they are narratives to be taken up and continued not only by composers, but by readers from many fields.

Lennart Dohms

This astonishing book gives us a thorough and perfectly lucid exposition of ancient music theories, especially Greek and Indian. That, however, is only the beginning. Tapping the source, James Wood finds it has by no means run dry. Matters of tuning and scale, of rhythmic order and definition, may be as crucial to music today as they were millennia ago. By proceeding from these basic questions, Wood sketches a music history in which Aristoxenus and Sarngadeva are far more imposing figures than J. S. Bach, post-Renaissance European civilisation loses its privilege, the works of recent and current composers (Messiaen, Partch, Xenakis, Ligeti, La Monte Young, the author himself) are seen in a new light shining from a distant past, and the future is full of possibility.

Paul Griffiths

In a rarely beautiful combination of lifelong experience, highly reflective knowledge and conceptual courage, the admirably persistent author succeeds in creating a reference work that, on the one hand, will enrich theoretical discussions as a comprehensive guide and, on the other, may stimulate and provoke the artistic imagination of composers in a profound way.

In Wood's multi-perspective approach, ancient harmonic and rhythmic systems, otherwise studied in the isolated fields of musicology and composition, take on an unparalleled actuality and colorfulness. His perfectly focused analyses of 20th century compositions vividly introduce us to the aesthetic potential of ancient techniques.

This book is a gift that accompanies one for a lifetime, a truly inexhaustible source that I look forward to tapping again and again.

Hanspeter Kyburz

For at least the last 300 years, Western music has been mostly based on the major and minor modes - tuned in equal temperament - that we call tonality. And yet, these modes represent just two instances amongst a vast range of modal possibilities meticulously researched and clearly presented by James Wood in this remarkable book.

Tapping the Source is essential reading for any composer who wants to investigate the ancient sources of our modes, tunings and rhythms - and their effect on the marches and counter marches in music composition - with the intention of embarking on a new creative direction at a time when art music appears to be facing its most challenging crisis. A definitive book on the subject.

Alejandro Viñao

Tapping the Source available here

To read John Palmer's interview with James Wood about the book's background and genesis,
click here

New CD recordings

World premiere recordings on Sargasso and Orpheus

for mixed chorus, percussion quartet and piano

Autumn Voices
for violin and electronics

Children at a Funeral
for prepared piano

Khamush was recorded in October 2019 the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall in Budapest by RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, Amadinda Percussion Group and Philip Mayers (piano), conducted by the composer

Autumn Voices was recorded by Mieko Kanno in the composer's studio in October 2021

Children at a Funeral was recorded in the Wigmore Hall in February 1997 by Andrew Ball

In Memoriam

It was a tragic, cruel and ironic stroke of fate that, barely two months after this recording was released, this truly great musician crossed the very threshold of life and death that is the subject of Children at a Funeral, which he had premiered and recorded twenty-five years earlier


available from Sargasso here

Elanga N'Kake singing to his craft
for solo percussionist/actor

recorded in November 2020 by Garrett Mendelow

available from Amazon here

Upcoming performances


for panflute and darbuka, is to be premiered by Matthijs Koene and Rafaël Simon
at the Concerts Hameau Fleuri in Normandie on 21 January 2023


an 80-minute Oratorium commissioned by Collegium Vocale Gent
for singing soloists, speaking soloists, chamber choir, seven saxophones and organ
is currently planned to be premiered in autumn 2023

Watch this space for more details as they unfold


Orchestra | Large Ensemble | Chorus and Ensemble

Chamber | Instrumental | Unaccompanied Voices

Voices and Electronics | Voice and Ensemble | Voice and Percussion

Percussion Ensemble | Solo Percussion

Chronological List of Works

Music Store


Programme notes [pdf]