Meet the Artist……James Francis Brown, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I don’t recall a specific moment when I thought of becoming a composer. It’s something I have always done, as far as I can remember. Singing my own little tunes on long family walks was probably the way it emerged.

There was, however, a significant event when I was around nine years old. I had been playing the piano all day and searching for new harmonies (or new to me at any rate) on a rather gloomy day. At a particular point in the progression of chords the sun suddenly filled the room with golden light. I can’t remember what the notes were now and I wouldn’t have attributed this event to a supernatural cause but I do remember the jolt of pleasure at the coincidence and I have imagined music as a force of nature ever since.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Moods and emotional states affect me more than events, although they are naturally interlinked. Internally I have an almost constant flow of music which seems to shape itself to my environment. I don’t suppose this musical flow is of any great quality – that is the aim of the process of refining and reinforcing. Of course, I’m influenced by powerful creative encounters and it must be apparent in my music but I rarely experience this as direct emulation; it’s more like osmosis.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

I don’t want to be too negative but sometimes the challenges of being a composer seem overwhelming. Leaving aside the difficulties of the creative process, which are usually absorbing, intriguing and rewarding, there are the difficulties of offering the results in a world which has less regard for the values I hold dear. The current cultural climate, at least in the West, seems to favour the extrovert and I often wonder whether someone like Schubert would have attained even the modest success he did if he were alive today.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

Ideally, perhaps, composers would write what they want or need to write when ready to do so. This is the old notion of ‘having something to say’ – and there is something to be said for that. There are innumerable practical reasons why this is rarely the case but, if one has a supple enough imagination, it is often possible to work under the illusion that the premise for the commission is entirely one’s own. For me it is essential to feel this way in order to generate confident ideas. I don’t think it’s just ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome. As for the pleasure, it’s always a fascinating sensation bringing something into existence – perhaps a feeling that it was waiting to appear like the sculpture in the marble block.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras? 

To my mind, nothing represents the internal state as revealingly as music. When people play my music with insight and sensitivity there is a strong feeling of transformation, even if it differs from my own way of thinking. It’s important to say that this is not fundamentally a matter of ego or self-importance; flaws are equally revealed. It’s a sense of joining with others.

Which works are you most proud of? 

As with many artists, I tend to think of my works as offspring; I have an affection for them all – even the less successful ones. The most recent piece is, probably naturally, the one I’m most interested in. I’m preparing my piano quartet for publication and I must admit to being quite pleased with it.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Beethoven is evergreen for me. His music is nearly always open at the piano. Others who give me ‘nutrition’ as well as pleasure are Sibelius, Bartok, Britten and Tippett. Actually the list could go on and on and spans the centuries. As for living composers it’s more complex because you have to disentangle friendships, admiration of technique, bravery and determination from the mix, as they are different things. I’m more inclined to think of favourite works by contemporary composers than a list of favourite composers. Any composer with a feeling for the best qualities of tradition as well as a restless search for freshness is likely to appeal to me. A snapshot of what’s in my mind at the moment would feature the symphonies of David Matthews and Kalevi Aho

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Hearing Bernard Haitink conduct The Midsummer Marriage at ROH in the late nineties was unforgettable. The performance was wonderful and Tippett was there to receive some of the warmest applause I have ever witnessed. Many things came together for me, in that moment, which reaffirmed my own sense of purpose.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

It’s more important than ever to value the non-verbal intelligence of music and not to let material exigencies and social politics dominate this precious form of communication. It can be used as a prop for ideas but we shouldn’t forget that it’s a wonderful idea in itself.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

So many of the supposed satisfactions in life are illusory. Just as in music, there is the anticipation of an event and then the receding resonance of it but the event itself can be practically non-existent. I find I’m at my happiest when I’m in a state of effortless concentration and ideas and abilities seem to come almost without the sensation of thinking – alas all too rare. Oh – and then there’s throwing my seven-year-old daughter in the air and making monster noises. Now that’s fun!

James Francis Brown studied composition firstly with Hans Heimler (himself a pupil of Alban Berg) under the scholarship from the Surrey Scheme for Exceptionally Gifted Children and subsequently at the Royal Academy of Music. From 1994, James Francis Brown’s major works have been heard regularly at the South Bank and Wigmore Hall and have included a Piano Sonata (1994), a Viola Sonata (1995), and the String Trio (1996) for the Leopold String Trio which, following its première at the Deal Festival, has enjoyed numerous performances in London, Glasgow and as part of a British Council tour.

The English Chamber Orchestra with soloist Jack Liebeck gave the première of his Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra at the Barbican in February 2001. His Sinfonietta, commissioned by Faber Music, was performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in February 2002 by the London Chamber Orchestra. He has been a regular visitor to the Presteigne Festival and his song ‘Words’ is included on a CD of the collaborative song-cycle ‘A Garland for Presteigne’, on the Metronome label.

In March 2003, he was awarded a five-year NESTA fellowship. Recent works included a Piano Quartet for the Fidelio Piano Quartet and a piece for the Philharmonia Orchestra premièred at the 2004 Three Choirs Festival and subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins. In 2005 he scored a short film “The Clap” which has won several awards at major international film festivals and he was invited to be the first ever composer-in-residence at the International Musician’s Seminar, Prussia Cove.

2006 saw the première of the cello and piano version of Prospero’s Isle at the Hampstead and Highgate Festival as well as the Trio Concertante for the string trio and orchestra at the Presteigne Festival. Prospero’s Isle has subsequently been recast as a symphonic tone poem, which was performed by the State Academic Orchestra of St Petersburg in November 2007 as part of a major British music festival.

An accomplished arranger he recently reconstructed and orchestrated sketches for Wagner’s projected opera Männerlist großer als Frauenlist for the Royal Opera House, which was performed in October 2007. He has also arranged Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll for the 2008 City of London Festival. His Clarinet Concerto for Catriona Scott was performed at the 2008 Presteigne Festival.

In 2009, James was the composer-in-residence for the Ulverston International Music Festival, the composer-in-residence for the International Musicians’ Seminar in Prussia Cove (at the request of cellist Steven Isserlis). He also gave a talk with David Matthews on the inspiration of dreams in music in August that year.

In 2010, the Badke quartet premièred James’ String Quartet (which was commissioned by the London Chamber Music Society), and 2011 saw the release of his CD Prospero’s Isle.

2012 was a good year for the composer, there were world premières of the piano solo version of Dunwich Bells (performed by Clare Hammond), the Piano Trio (by the Barbican trio who later toured it), Fanfare and Chorale (at the Jersey International Music Festival, by Jersey Premier Brass), the song Ozymandias (by Simon Lepper on piano and soprano Gillian Keith). James became an associate of the Royal Academy of Music in July 2012, and – in 2013 – the world première of A Dream and A Dance (by the Nash ensemble) took place in honour of the composer David Matthew’s 70th birthday.

Successes in 2014 included a stunning performance of the string quartet at the London Chamber Music Society, and a new theatrical version of Prospero’s Isle performed by Matthew Sharp and Clare Hammond at Sharp’s RE:naissance festival. His new work Rigaudon, part of a collaborative anthology ‘Le Tombeau de Rachmaninov’, was premiered by pianist Noriko Ogawa at Bridgewater Hall in April 2015.