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Guest of the Month June 2010: James Weeks

James Weeks takes on the role of Artistic Associate for Spitalfields Music’s Summer Festival 2010, curating a strand of events which thread through the festival, exploring his own music and that of Aldo Clementi and Chris Newman, all in the context of the visual arts. In this role he combines his skills as composer, conductor and programmer.

‘Weeks, for my money, is one of the most inventive young composers and conductors out there: founder and director of the brilliant young vocal group EXAUDI, his own music is a vivid mix of the unpredictable and experimental.’  Tom Service, The Guardian

James Weeks read Music at Cambridge before completing a PhD in Composition at Southampton University studying under Michael Finnissy. As a conductor he is known for his championing of both contemporary and early music. He founded EXAUDI Vocal Ensemble in 2002 with the soprano Juliet Fraser, and maintains a busy international touring and recording schedule with the group. He was appointed Musical Director of New London Chamber Choir in 2007 in succession to James Wood, and is also Musical Director of Orlando Chamber Choir (London) and Artistic Director of Kürbis Ensemble. In great demand as a freelance conductor, he works regularly with groups such as BCMG, BBC Singers, New Music Players, Endymion, L’Instant Donné and Scratch the Surface.

His music has been performed worldwide by artists such as Endymion, EXAUDI, Uroboros Ensemble, Zephyr Quartet, Alison Balsom, Christopher Redgate, Anton Lukoszevieze and Finchley Children’s Music Group, and is represented by Sound and Music’s New Voices programme. For the past few years his works have explored the most elemental or primary musical materials and processes, either left bare or built up into polyphonic structures of considerable density; some major recent works include Stacking, Weaving, Building, Joining, the Harmonies of South London series (ensemble, 2008-), Burnham Air (oboe d’amore, 2008) and Mala punica (for eight solo voices, 2008-9).

Here’s what Jame Weeks has been listening to recently:

Aldo Clementi: Music with Guitar (Mode Records)
I’ve been doing some programming for Spitalfields Music recently and one thing I definitely wanted to feature was music by this brilliant but too-little-known Italian composer. His pieces are like mysterious objects full of tinkling and chiming instruments, very serene and rather other-worldly. This disc is a fairly new release from Australian new music legends ELISION on the ever-enterprising Mode label. The performances have an amazing clarity, I find this music extraordinarily inspiring.

Chris Newman: New Songs of Social Conscience (Review Records, rere 185 cd)
Another of my current obsessions, Chris Newman is a truly Protean artist, part post-punk bard of the everyday, part high-minded contemporary composer, part painter, part video-maker…This was my first CD of his work and it’s still my favourite. My wife and I put it on when we need to cheer ourselves up: it’s provocative, infantile, disgusting, more than a bit mad, and very very very funny. It’s available from a tiny German label.

Out Hear, Kings Place
London needs a home for concerts of new music, especially after the much-lamented demise of bmic’s old Cutting Edge series, and this could be it: Monday evenings at Kings Place, throughout much of the year. I only caught two of the current season but I wish I could have gone to more: the brilliant Plus-Minus Ensemble’s concert of Xenakis and Bryn Harrison, and Scratch the Surface’s mixed bag of a concert that also had a piece of mine in it. What I like about Out Hear is that it’s not curated very strictly, so all sorts of different groups can get a platform including some very new names, making it a bit of a risk but also a lively place where you might find something totally unexpected, unknown and brilliant. Definitely worth investigating.

Pierluigi Billone: 1+1=1 (Kairos)
Being a working composer with a pretty-much full-time sideline in conducting, I really miss the Listening Days I used to treat myself to when I was a student. When I do get the time I am trying to catch up on developments in music outside the UK as I feel really behind the game in that field. The Austrian label Kairos is a good place to start: recently I’ve discovered Bernhard Lang and Peter Ablinger (neither of them for the faint-hearted) and now Billone, an Italian living in Vienna who studied with Lachenmann and Sciarrino. I’m conducting some of his pieces for large ensemble at this year’s Festival d’Automne in Paris; this disc is a 70-minute piece for two bass clarinets, an exploration of the far reaches of sonority and technique with an almost ritualistic, mystical feel to it. A fascinating discovery and we should hear more of it in the UK.

Schutz: Symphoniae Sacrae III (Harmonia Mundi)
A bit left-field for the PRSF maybe but I do listen to a lot of early music, which has always been a passion of mine, and more often than not find myself reaching for the music of Schutz. It has a cleanness and direct sincerity, but also the most unbelievable sense of spiritual uplift – he has a way of making you feel the pure beauty of a cadence or chord progression like no other. Incredibly intense expression from the simplest materials – isn’t that the very essence of the greatest art?