Composers Edition is delighted to be working with Vision Edition to publish James Wood’s detailed, fascinating investigation of the ancient sources and development of the musical modes, tunings and rhythms which underpin all major musical practices and philosophies. Combining technical rigour, fascinating historical detail and personal insight backed by decades of compositional and performance practice of the highest calibre, Tapping the Source stands to become a go-to text for scholars and a delightful touchstone for anyone fascinated by the fundamental nature of music. Here Vision Edition’s founder John Palmer talks with James Wood about this extraordinary book.
John Palmer: In this extraordinary book you have managed to bring together your personal experience as a composer, conductor and percussionist, and an astonishing knowledge of the most important musical systems of the past 3000 years up to contemporary compositional techniques. At the end of this amazing journey what are you hoping to convey to the readers?
James Wood: From the very beginning of the journey, it was always my hope and intention to elucidate the results of my research in a way that would be interesting and compelling not just for specialists—composers, students, musicologists, performers—but also for non-specialist readers with a more general interest in the fascinating history and evolution of music and philosophy from the very earliest times. Perhaps it was naïve of me to imagine that I could achieve this without either being too technical for the non-specialists or too simplistic for the experts. But I became greatly encouraged by the realisation that much of what I have learned and uncovered is still very little known among the global community of composers. So in that sense, at least as far as the historical aspects of my research are concerned, both ‘specialists’ and ‘non-specialists’ are likely to find themselves starting out on the same page. For example, even those many experts in the sophisticated and complex field of Indian music admit that they know little of the very earliest Indian music—that known as gāndharva—and similarly, many contemporary composers are surprisingly little acquainted with the fascinating and widespread experiments in microtonality in sixteenth-century Europe, which have considerable implications for modern-day microtonality. Of course, when it comes to the detailed analyses of contemporary works in Part II of the book, it is likely that I risk losing the attention of the general reader, but this information has to be there, at least for the specialists, in order to substantiate and illustrate the application of those techniques that are directly derived from ancient theory. My solution to this has been to construct Part II of the book so that readers can skip the most detailed analyses (which are encased in a frame on a light grey background) without losing the thread of the more general discussion.
JP: What perspectives or opinions do you think you may have challenged with this book?
JW: First and foremost the notion that musical traditions from the East and the West are fundamentally separate. During my extensive period of research, one of the most exciting revelations for me was to discover not only that Indian music theory has its roots in that of ancient Greece, but also precisely how, when and why the two traditions diverged. The reason why we tend to think of India and Greece—and by analogy ‘the East’ and ‘the West’—as totally separate cultures lies simply in the fact that the two traditions made different choices and followed different paths from the available options revealed by the ancient Greeks. And these choices merely reflect the psychological, philosophical and also religious make-up of the different peoples and their respective cultures.
Instrumentalists are constantly developing and advancing the technique of their instrument, just as composers do in their imagination; in fact it is of course the demands of composers that, throughout history, have always advanced instrumental technique.
JP: Your book clearly shows how composition and musicology are not separate disciplines but can be sources of mutual inspiration leading to better creativity and more effective musicianship. You certainly embody the notion of the complete musician: a living example of a unifying understanding of theory and practice, knowledge and creativity. How does this awareness affect your daily work?
JW: Probably the most important aspect for me has always been to approach composition not only from all the normal ‘compositional’ preoccupations we all have, such as harmonic, melodic and rhythmic style, colour, form and structure, and so on, but equally importantly from the perspective of the performer. Speaking as a percussionist, I can refer to Partch’s insistence on the ‘corporeality’ in the way a performer engages with the music he plays. That’s perhaps superficially more evident in the case of the percussive arts, but on deeper level, the music must be such that the performers—be they oboists, singers, pianists or trombonists—respond naturally and irresistibly to the act of playing or singing the music with their whole body, rather than sensing that the music they are playing is alien to very soul and body of their instrument. This is only possible when the music has been composed with the performer and the instrument prominently in mind. I deliberately do not use the phrase ‘well-written’, because unfortunately this excludes a great deal of music that, at the time of composition, was considered ‘unplayable’—not just Xenakis or Ferneyhough, but also even Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and many others. Instrumentalists are constantly developing and advancing the technique of their instrument, just as composers do in their imagination; in fact it is of course the demands of composers that, throughout history, have always advanced instrumental technique. So the composer has to imagine what might prove to be ‘well-written’, even though this might not at first seem to be the case; and this he can only do with a thorough knowledge not only of each instrument’s technique but also of its ‘spirit’. For this reason, I have always enjoyed writing music for musicians I know personally, and with whom I have worked closely at some time or other. If I find myself writing for an instrument that I do not know so well, my very first step is to get to know as much as possible about that instrument—how it works, its natural resonant qualities, the different potential in intensity in different registers and countless other characteristics—and, if possible, to consult a renowned performer.
JP: You have explored the most important music traditions of the world, starting from China and India, through Greece and the Middle-Ages, illuminating the readers about the gradual evolution of temperament and the most crucial developments of the current century. You then contextualise your own music within such a detailed account and give the readers a clear idea about the roots of your techniques and the thinking behind your compositions. How has it been for you to merge such a profound awareness of tradition with a more introspective description of your music?
JW: You first invited me to think about writing a book about my music back in 2015. I remember telling you, almost immediately, that I very much doubted that I would write a book just about my own music. The context would have to be much broader, so that I might be able to show, for example, how my enthusiasm for very ancient musical theory and philosophy could reveal itself through my music. But that was only my very first thought. Once I started to think more seriously about the idea, I decided to turn everything around, and approach the phenomenon from the other direction—from the beginning, in fact. This, in turn, led to a long period of extremely intensive research aimed at substantially broadening and deepening the small amount of what I already knew about ancient music theory, so that I could create a context in which I could discuss my own music and philosophy as well as that of other composers with similar interests. Having done that, the process of discussion and analysis of my music and that of others would be a completely natural consequence.
JP: It has taken you over four years to complete such an impressive tome. What have you enjoyed most about writing this book?
JW: First of all, of course, the research. When I first embarked on the project, I had absolutely no idea just how far my research was going to lead me. I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to write about, and that I just needed to put my thoughts into some logical order and write what I already knew. How naïve that was! But also, after the many months and years of seemingly never-ending research, it was a huge challenge to make sense of everything I had discovered, and write about it in what I hope is a logical and coherent manner.
JP: What was the trickiest thing you have faced during the process of writing?
JW: Your question indeed leads directly from the last point: without doubt, the hardest thing was to achieve a balance between, on the one hand, allowing my research to lead me further and deeper away from each individual subject that I was researching, and, on the other, knowing when to stop, in order to stay focused on the matter in hand. For there were many occasions when I would set myself a specific target for a particular week, and by the end of that week I had completely forgotten where I had started from, and had achieved nothing in terms of concrete text. But there is also no doubt that the book has profited enormously from my allowing myself to get drawn further into the unknown, even though it was frustrating and time-consuming at the time.
JP: Your book shows a remarkable passion for music heritage, and you have clearly indicated that the present and the past are not separate realities, but can be interlocked in a fertile artistic connection. The reader is made aware of music as a unifying and evolving art, rather than an exhibition of diversified compositional practices. Perhaps this is one of the most striking achievements of Tapping the Source. One has the feeling that the past is still alive in the present and that any musical evolution is a living patrimony that defies time…
JW: Yes—in his excellent Foreword to the book, Lennart Dohms refers to the term Fern-Nähe (distance-closeness) invented by the German philosopher Helmuth Plessner. Dohms writes that the book ‘manifests Fern-Nähe: the faraway comes closer and merges into today’s understanding of the super-diversity of music as theory and practice’. I was of course delighted to read this reaction, since it is exactly what I wanted to achieve, even though perhaps I was not aware of it in such succinct terms.
In fact, the starting point of the book was triggered by the very strong feeling of dissatisfaction, which I have had since the early 1980s, with the automatic assumption that creative artists of all kinds simply follow unquestioningly the course of their own evolving patrimony: the generation-to-generation hand-shake. I felt that far too little was known about music from the very earliest times. In my student days, music was taught as if it began in the fifteenth century—Machaut and Ockeghem were somehow archetypes, and that anything earlier was ‘dark ages stuff’ which wasn’t worth learning about. In some cases it was even considered taboo, rather like the traditional Catholic attitude to pre-Christian culture. When I started playing percussion in the mid-1970s, I became increasingly aware of the more genuine musical archetypes, and this led inexorably to the idea of ‘bypassing evolution’ and going back to the very beginning in order to develop a musical philosophy based on the earliest known principles. I was also very conscious that I was not alone in this quest: Harry Partch, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Lou Harrison, Messiaen, Xenakis, Ligeti, Murail and many other twentieth-century composers were also demonstrating the same frustration and interest, and coming up with extraordinarily diverse results. I felt that Western music had reached an impasse, especially in the context of the floundering of post-serialism. A new start was needed.
JP: In retrospect, what has this journey meant to you and where has it led you to?
JW: Friends who know about the intensive work I have been doing sometimes ask me: ‘will your research on this book change you and influence your future composition?’ I tell them: ‘it already has’. As it happens, during these last four years I have also completed a large-scale ‘Oratorium’ for Collegium Vocale Gent, for soloists, reciters, chorus, 7 saxophones and organ, entitled Apokalypsis. It sets texts from St John’s Apocalypse alongside contemporary texts which demonstrate the alarming similarities between the catastrophes predicted by St John and those we are already experiencing today. Naturally enough, it invokes the so-called ‘antiquity’ of St John’s world in the first century, but set within an entirely contemporary context. The vast catalogue of modes and rhythmic models I have assembled in the book has already served me well in the work’s modal and rhythmic structure, which promotes exactly this idea of bringing ancient techniques and their ‘spirits’ into a modern context. Of course this is not new for me, but the application in this case has been far broader and more informed.
JP: By reading this book musicians will be invited to listen to music with a renewed awareness of form and content, idiom and technique. You induce composers, performers from all traditions and music-lovers to question our listening habits and re-contextualise the way we write and play music. Can you tell me more about your thoughts on this?
JW: I am often approached by percussionists who are learning my percussion pieces—especially Rogośānti—and asked for detailed analyses. Some of them are not just learning the piece but also doing dissertations about the work. This I have found most encouraging, and so one of my aims in writing the book was to satisfy that apparent hunger for analysis and deeper knowledge. One or two people had made their own analyses of Rogośānti and had sent them to me for my comments. The fact that, in most cases, these analyses were very wide of the mark in terms of what is really going on in the work’s rhythmic structure, determined me to set the record straight once and for all, and at last offer an explanation myself. I notice that, in her Foreword to your own book, Looking Within, Anna Roguero writes ‘to thoroughly understand a composer’s music, one must go beyond listening and towards the written word’. This challenges what I observe as a dangerous trend among many who are involved with the promotion and dissemination of new music today, that all that matters is what the music sounds like. The ‘two-minute soundbite’ is becoming much too prevalent and influential in the evaluation of new music. A musical work must not only sound good, but it must be modern, and robust enough structurally to stand the test of time; likewise in architecture, a building must not only look beautiful, but it must also be strong enough to withstand a hurricane. Unfortunately, many of those responsible for the commissioning and programming of new music today have neither the time, inclination nor the expertise to evaluate prospective commissionees properly, relying solely on that two-minute soundbite and the even more suspect ‘band-wagon’ phenomenon.
JP: And finally, what advice, if any, would you give to both young and accomplished readers of your book?
JW: Always question and be ready to challenge the status quo.
Tapping the Source is available now in hardback from Composers Edition
Vision Edition was created in 2013 as an independent publisher with a focus on contemporary ‘classical’ music. Its roots go back to the first Vision Studio and Archives founded by composer and author John Palmer in South Norwood, London, in 1991. The archives include studies, analyses, books, scores and articles mainly on contemporary music, and more than 500 literary texts written in the past 45 years. The catalogue of Vision Edition consists of writings on composition, aesthetics, musicology and applied musicianship of an educational nature. Details of all titles available may be found at visionedition.com.