The Working Classical Music Orchestra regularly performs unusual pieces of music with a classical leaning; a recent performance included parts for a bingo caller and a terminally ill patient. Xstream East Radio’s Nikk Quentin Woolf spoke to its leader, composer James Hesford ahead of the orchestra’s performance at the Vortex on 29th September.
Tell us about your current project.
It’s called Squeaky Singles, which is basically working with short pieces of music, three minutes long in the main, like pop singles but I should say that you wouldn’t recognize them as such. The repertoire for WCMO is a very strange mixture. I’m not sure if I like the word ‘eclectic’ but I’ll let it go.
So, a bingo caller and a terminally ill patient. Not normal instruments for an orchestra.
It’s a strange composition. It’s basically a six-minute play, part of Squeaky Singles, but the bagatelles for a chamber group and a terminally ill patient and a bingo caller was a departure from that. The bagatelles are like TV or radio stings. In my life I’ve written a few of those. In between that we interject dialogue: numbers, read by the bingo caller. I went up to Yorkshire and I taped my bingo caller from my old village who really camped it up for me
And the terminally ill patient?
The terminally ill patient is a very serious idea. It comes from two experiences; one was my mother’s death and suffering and one was my own near-death. It’s the realization that when you’re in this dreadful situation you are actually on your own. However compassionate you are as a person I don’t think you can ever understand how much someone is suffering. Every bingo number called out means something to someone who is dying, very personally. So the bingo caller calls ‘one and four, number fourteen, I need some morphine’. There’s this contrast between this mundane daily life and the suffering… well, its sounds very heavy doesn’t it? Gosh.
You also collaborated with an artist, in Berlin, to create a haunting cello piece inspired by images of blood and the crucifixion. Is all of your work imbued with this darkness?
No, no. Most people think of my work as quite joyful. And I suppose it’s just recently that I’ve taken this turn, not into darkness but just the way I approach the work. I tend to work synchronistically: whatever comes to me I work with it. And I suppose the things that have come to me lately have been quite dark. I think the twelve-piece cello circle piece was incredibly dark in many ways, but it was something that was presented to me rather than something that I sought to find.
Could you talk about your collaborative work with painters?
Yeah, I’ve been working with Ivanov and Chan who are two fantastic artists and two of my best friends. They set up a metre-circular canvas and work inside it for twenty-four hours and I work alongside them, composing for twenty-four hours. At the end we have a piece of work to present. Every time I work with them in this way I take a left hand turn, compositionally. When you’ve been working for about sixteen hours you are really questioning what you’ve done before. The clichés go out of the window. And that’s why Ivanov and Chan work like that. Although it sounds pretentious and sometimes a bit pompous, there is a point where you go ‘wow! What am I doing? What did I just do there?’ and then about a week later you think, ‘yeah, that sounds really good’. Also, you bypass what you think about yourself. I was brought up playing soul music, blues, rhythm and blues and jazz, and that can be a real burden, to think ‘I fit in that box’. Then suddenly you start thinking out of the box, whether you want to or not. And that process, from my experience, takes about 16 hours.
You seem to approach contemporary classical music from an unusual angle.
It took me a long time to actually connect ‘Art’ with music. I know it sounds really strange. But I wasn’t trained in the colleges as a composer or a musician. I was a musician and then I went to Goldsmith’s College as an artist simply because my wife at the time was a student and she couldn’t take the noise because she was working for an exam. But you become so bogged down with harmony… and then it becomes…well, dare I say the word art? You know.
Now you’re working with a large group of musicians in the WCMO. How do you find marshaling the forces of all these different musicians?
Logistically playing a gig is very difficult, as you can imagine, trying to get people together to do the gig – but they are fantastic musicians and fantastic people and so it’s a great thing to work with them. Also, compositionally, it gives me a lot of room.
What have been the high points through your career so far?
Oh, that’s hard. I suppose the high points have been, dare I say it, creatively I suppose. I mean winning Young Jazz Muscian of the Year was kind of cool – a good accolade. But I think it’s actually the work. I think the highest point in my career is actually now because I feel really happy with what I’m doing.
By Nikk Quentin Woolf.