Meet the Artist – James Erber, composer


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

I began writing music during my first year at my secondary school, William Ellis School in North London, and received help from three of the teachers there.  I showed my early compositional efforts to the school’s Head of Music, Douglas Potts, who gave me some practical advice and programmed several of my works in school concerts. Lois Rycroft, my flute teacher, visited my (initially somewhat sceptical) parents with her husband, Frank  (then principal horn with the RPO), and managed to convince them that I should pursue a career in music.  Julian Silverman taught me A Level Music as well as piano and composition during my last two years at the school, and was the first truly inspiring musician I ever met.  Julian was hugely talented and very knowledgeable: to this day I look back on his teaching and encouragement with immense affection and gratitude.

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

I first became aware of the music of Brian Ferneyhough during my last year at school, and eventually met him in 1976 while working as Music Editor at Peters Edition, London.  Although I had barely begun writing music I felt to be satisfactory at this time, Brian was incredibly encouraging, and was largely due to him that I gave up full-time work in publishing and went to study with him at Freiburg between 1981 and 1982. It has been an enormous privilege to know and to have worked with one of the finest minds in music today, the creator of music that is among the most beautiful, sensuous, powerful, original, and provocative work produced in our time.

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

Like many composers, I have always found writing music to be immensely difficult.  I usually work very slowly, and find it very hard not to be over-critical during the composition process.

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

During the time I have been active as a composer, I have come into contact with a sizeable number of musicians to whom I owe a great deal both for their hard work in making my music come alive in performance, and for the help they have given me in overcoming technical and other problems I have encountered during composing.  It is also a pleasure to share an after-concert meal or drink (or both) with the people who have played my music, and, of course, some of the performers with whom I have worked have become close personal friends.  Like most composers, I imagine, I have found the internet to be incredibly useful, for contacting performers during the composition process, researching into extended techniques, fingerings and so on and for sending scores and promoting my work.  It is hard to believe that, at one time, much of this was done by letter, or by phone (which could involve very expensive international calls).

Of which works are you most proud?

I am proud of all my work, but I would like to mention the following five pieces in particular: Music for 25 Solo Strings (1981-84), Tacciono i Boschi (1981) for soprano and piano, The ‘Traces’ Cycle for solo flute (1991-2006), Das Buch Bahir for 9 players (2004-5) and Elided Dilapidations (after C.P.E. Bach) for piano (2014-15).  I also have a special fondness for my “prodigal son” piece, Passeggiata for orchestra (1989-2017)

How would you characterise your compositional language?

As a Ferneyhough pupil, it is difficult for me to avoid using the “complexity” word.  However, while my music certainly features nested tuplets, microtones, extended performance techniques, and other elements of the armoury of the complex composer, it is not defined by them.  I like to think that the notable features of my music are harmonic clarity, structural integrity and lyricism, as well as a tenuous sense of optimism and a concern with intellectual and spiritual continuity diametrically opposed to much present-day musical culture. Underlying what I write are a wide range of references, including Renaissance and Baroque music, the music of South-East Asia, Jazz, Blues, Mediaeval and Renaissance philosophy, Kaballah, green politics, recent scientific developments, film noir, Jacobean tragedy, the Gothic novel and historical slang.

How do you work?

I have always had to combine writing music with teaching jobs and other activities, so I soon learned to fit composing into any available time slots.  I gave up teaching in July 2016, but, presumably owing to some special composer-related variety of Parkinson’s Law, I still find that there are many demands on my time, which take me away from the composing desk.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I love the music of a large number of living composers.  Of those no longer living my special favourites include Dunstable, Dufay, the composers of the Eton Choirbook, Tallis, Victoria, Monteverdi, Schütz, Corelli, Bach, C.P.E Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Liszt, Brahms, Mahler, Scriabin, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Janacek, Varèse, Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis, Maderna, B. A. Zimmermann and Dallapiccola,.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It would have to be a toss-up between Boulez conducting Stockhausen’s Gruppen, Berg’s Altenberg Lieder and Three Fragments from Wozzeck and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in the Proms on 3rd September 1967 and Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the Festival Hall on 5th July 1970.

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

Though (as stated above) I find composing to be difficult and often frustrating, it is ultimately rewarding. If you are sure you possess a gift for it, stick with it, and build up a body of work to show to potential performers or concert promoters.  Be generous to your fellow composers, even if you are jealous of their success, and try not to waste your energy getting depressed about the unfairness of the system that appears to reward other composers (who you may well consider less talented than you) with performances and commissions.  Don’t be put off by those who tell you that, if you are earning little or no money from writing music, you are somehow not a “proper” composer.    Above all, be grateful to those who perform your work.  They spend long hours practising in order to be able to play to the highest standard, and will often be performing new music because they believe in its importance, rather than for financial gain.

James Erber was born in 1951 in London. Having gained Music degrees at the Universities of Sussex and Nottingham, he spent a year studying composition with Brian Ferneyhough at the Musikhochschule, Freiburg-im-Breisgau. He has worked in music publishing and education.
His music has been widely performed and broadcast throughout Europe and in the USA, Australia and New Zealand by many eminent soloists and ensembles. It includes Epitomaria-Glosaria-Commentaria for 25 solo strings (1981-84), The ‘Traces’ Cycle for solo flute (1991-2006), two string quartets (1992-94 and 2010-11), Das Buch Bahir for 9 instruments (2004-2005), The Death of the Kings for 11 instruments (2007) and Elided Dilapidations for piano (2013-14).
Matteo Cesari’s recording of The ‘Traces’ Cycle and three other shorter works for solo flute is available on Convivium Records.  Other works can be found on NMC, Metier and Centaur Records (USA).