in Collaborations | 12 MAR 18

Music In Its Broadest Sense

An interview with Frieze Music artist James William Blades

in Collaborations | 12 MAR 18

To celebrate the UK premiere of Fly Paper by Kahlil Joseph in ‘Strange Days: Memories of the Future’, on Saturday 9th October Frieze London, The Store X and Vinyl Factory presented Frieze Music with Bang & Olufsen. Frieze Music featured sets and performances by Sampha, Grace Wales Bonner, Anaïs and James William Blades, who here talks about his work in production, composition and sound. Today you work as a composer, a producer and a sound artist – as well as sometime DJ. Where did your journey start? 

James William Blades I’ve always been interested in different forms of music and the sounds they can take. I began studying music production but while I was at university I naturally gravitated towards composing – such a freeing experience. I went on to do a masters in composition at the Royal College of Music. Those two years were extraordinarily important – to think about music in its broadest sense is inspiring. I wanted to test myself in different ways, and certainly at the beginning, trying to be versatile can keep your mind open. And how did your career develop from there?

JWB I’m still in the starting chapters of my career, but I think it’s developed by exploring different mediums. A sound installation is different to a film score, or a commercial project. But they can inform and inspire each approach. I’m very lucky to have worked with inspiring collaborators. Those collaborations gave me the confidence to push my ideas forward. For example: I had always liked to involve samples and field recordings in my compositions, but it was only during my first collaboration with Grace Wales Bonner, I understood their potential in soundscapes. Composing and researching with them is different to doing it with music, but the focus is the same. How does this help the story? What’s its function? Where does it sit in the harmony? Working with Kahlil Joseph and his team on Fly Paper (2017) and Sampha: Process (2017) also gave me insight into the potentials of music, sound and narrative together. You’ve scored very different films – from the searing, lo-fi portrait of homelessness Halfway (2015) to Finding Saint (2015), a warm meditation on and by three members from Jamaica’s Saint Models agency, directed by James Hemingway. How do you balance responding to the content of a film you’re scoring and creating music that has its own coherence and logic? 

JWB Research is a huge part of the process. The real joy in working as a composer and collaborating with different artists is the amount of subjects you encounter: they differ from project to project. Last week, I was researching at a centre in Hounslow running a music workshop for children with autism, learning about music and sound as a form of therapy. This week I’m studying music and colour theories, in relation to synesthesia. I enjoy delving into the subject matter and trying to understand the subjects as best I can.

Most importantly, I want my compositions to tell a story. I think respecting the subject matter at hand and getting into the narrative of a piece naturally conjures its own coherence and logic. It draws parameters and constraints, which fosters creativity. The music can end up writing itself, as it takes on its own identity. I would go mad if I had too much of a blank canvas. Research provides you with the colours to paint with. 

James William Blades at Frieze Music 2018. Courtesy: Frieze In 2016, you were runner up in the CINE Marvin Hamlisch Film Scoring Contest, named for the composer behind iconic scores such as The Swimmer (1968) and The Way We Were (1973). Are they are any cinematic scores that were particularly influential on your practice, and which you hold as singular inspirations today?

JWB Many. In today’s cinema I am a big fan of Ryuichi Sakamoto, and I think his score with Alva Noto for The Revenant (2015) was beautiful, and so embedded in the texture of the landscape. It’s as if the music is coming from the nature around the story. I find that inspiring. I’m interested when the visuals, sound and music all feel bound as one. The music and sound from Hereditary (2018) by Colin Stetson was very interesting and unique too. The arc of the sonic world alongside the edit felt refreshing.  I’m inspired when film scores suddenly create different perspectives or emotions. Jonny Greenwood’s ‘Convergence’ is a really special moment in There Will Be Blood (2007). To the layman, terms like “soundscape” and “score” and “soundtrack” might all seem interchangeable. How would explain the differences?

JWB I think they very much are interchangeable. Obviously, you can have more traditional film scores that have a more literal function, and soundtracks that can contain individually sourced music or contemporary tracks are used in the same way. For me, soundscapes are interesting where these worlds crossover. For instance, Alice Smith’s rendition of ‘I Put A Spell On You’ was part of the soundtrack for Fly Paper and Black Mary (2017). I was given the stems of the song, and rearranged it with different music and sounds recorded on location by the team. When this re-imagining happens, tones and perspectives shift from the original setting. Soundscapes in this way can be another tool used by filmmakers to create with. It’s another layer. Pauline Oliveros apparently defined the word as ‘all of the waveforms faithfully transmitted to our audio cortex by the ear and its mechanisms’. What does it mean to you?

JWB It’s a broad term. It can be used to define any and all sound, whether musical or not. As a composer, sound for me is another part of the frequency spectrum to draw upon. Sounds have affiliations and connotations that differ to that of musical keys or scales, so I like to explore combinations of sound and music, and see what moods you can create. There is an ambiguity in listening to soundscapes that I think makes them so interesting, they operate in between music and sound. They can break down musical form and structure. The product by its nature feels undefined and alive. What are you listening to at the moment?  Do you find you change your listening depending on season?

JWB I love a wide range of things, and feel musically bi-polar. Right now I am listening to Pan Tone (2011) by Hauschka and Hildur Guðnadóttir. Guðnadóttir is an inspiring composer, I love the moods and atmospheres she creates in her music. I also have Tizrah’s album Devotion (2018) on repeat. And finally: what projects are you working on next? 

JWB I am currently working on a score/soundscape based around synesthesia and the relationship between music and colour.