The music of James Wood

Gerard McBurney

James Wood is at once one of the most distinctive composers of his generation and a percussionist and conductor of remarkable force and authority.

He was born in 1953. He began his musical studies early, on the cello and organ, but soon became interested in composition as well as the possibilities of other instruments. Before proceeding to Cambridge as an organ scholar in 1972, he spent a crucial year in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger. She was his first and last serious composition teacher. Once at university he threw himself into playing and conducting every conceivable kind of music and composing for every kind of ensemble. He also began his collection of percussion instruments.

Photo courtesy Mike Skeet
What is most remarkable about the triple career he has pursued since is not its diversity but its sense of single-minded purpose.

That sense of purpose is audible in the very sound of the New London Chamber Choir, the group which Wood founded in 1981. With this virtuoso ensemble, which, incredibly, is made up of amateur singers, Wood performs both modern choral music and mediaeval and renaissance works (occasionally in his own editions).

Not surprisingly Wood has put his choral experience to impressive use as a composer. Perhaps his finest achievement in this field is Phaedrus (1985/86), an extended Cantata for singers and instrumentalists to texts by Plato. But several other works, including Drama (written for the Kings Singers in 1983) and both Incantamenta (written for the New London Chamber Choir in 1991) and Phainomena of 1992 show the range of his mastery of vocal writing.

In the instrumental field as in the choral, James Wood almost invariably composes for performers he knows well. For instance his String Quartet of 1984 was written for the Arditti Quartet and he has collaborated closely with the oboist, Robin Canter, the soprano, Sara Stowe, and the percussionists Robyn Schulkowsky, Steven Schick and Robert Van Sice. His activities as Professor of Percussion at the Darmstadt International Summer Courses (a post which he held from 1982 until 1994) not only enabled him to develop lasting friendships with percussionists throughout the world, but also, significantly, resulted in the composition of his largest scale work to date, Stoicheia, a 65-minute work for fifteen percussionists, four keyboard players and electronics.

But it is in the music he writes for himself to perform that he is at his most characteristic. Here the emotional intensity that he brings to the actual performance is allied to an almost messianic devotion to discovering the precise sound he needs. For him this is a very part of the composition. He must search for the right material (whether a huge trunk of bamboo or a block of some exotic hardwood), build the instrument and then play it. The writing goes hand in hand with the whole process.

But he is not just an inventor of instruments. He is a composer with strong views about pitch and rhythm, views which have decisively influenced the way his music sounds. In the case of pitch, this has led him to a fascination with many different aspects of microtonality, and in particular the effect these have on timbre, and the relationships between pitch and rhythm. This fascination, together with his friendships with many like-minded instrumentalists, led to the founding, in 1991, of London's Centre for Microtonal Music and its virtuoso ensemble Critical Band.

The most important works in which James Wood first pursued this interest in microtonality were his two song cycles Ho shang Yao of 1983, for soprano and percussion, and T'ien chung Yao of two years later, the first of many works to include a part for cimbalom. The ancient Chinese poems, celebrating the dignity of work and love in a peasant village, are set to some of the composer's most beautiful music, at once austere and hauntingly intimate.

However - and this is not surprising for a percussionist - Wood's most personal discoveries have been in the domain of rhythm. Drawing on his experience as a performer but also on his interest in Asiatic musical traditions, he has evolved a rhythmic language combining astonishing complexity with a powerful sense of underlying pulse.

A critic once wrote that Wood has the capacity to endow timbre with meaning. Interestingly, Wood has noted the sympathy he feels for the way in which, in many Oriental and African cultures, musical instruments are credited with powers to change and transform people's lives and, especially, with the power to heal.

But if this composer is recreating events and ideas that might at first seem of the utmost remoteness, he is nonetheless doing so in terms that are definitely of our culture and our time. Wood is no condescending collector of the quaint and the primitive. The language he has made, his utterly characteristic rhythms and microtonal chords and melodies, could only have been imagined here and now. This is the voice of an artist who yearns to make us, too, like the instruments he plays, ring and resonate from the touch of something we might always have imagined to have been beyond us.

Gerard McBurney (1989)


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

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Programme notes [pdf]