AMN Interviews: James Saunders

James Saunders ( is a composer who makes modular compositions and series. He performs in the duo Parkinson Saunders, and with Apartment House, and is Head of the Centre for Musical Research at Bath Spa University. His music has been played at numerous international festivals, including Bludenz Tage fur Zeitgenossiche Musik, Brighton Festival, BMIC Cutting Edge, Darmstadt, Donaueschingen, Gothenburg Arts Sounds, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Inventionen Berlin, The Kitchen, Music We’d Like to Hear, Ostrava New Music Days, Rational Rec, Roaring Hooves, Ultima, and Wittener Tage fur Neue Kammermusik. His edited book The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music was published in 2009, and Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation (with John Lely) was published by Continuum in 2012 (and reviewed by AMN). We recently had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his work.

There are many facets to your compositional output, but I want to focus on what appear to me to be perhaps the three most salient features—the use of words, modularity, and an interest in the sound qualities of material. So, to start with words: How did you come to verbal notation, and what avenues did you find it opening up to you?

My first exposure to verbal notation was, like for so many people, through Michael Nyman‘s book Experimental Music. My first reading, as an undergraduate, left me somewhat baffled but intrigued: the concepts seemed so strong but at that time I felt inclined to work with stave notation so didn’t take my interest any further. On rereading it a few years later, the time was right, and in combination with a developing interest in British experimental music and a trip to the first Ostrava summer school in 2001 where I met Alvin Lucier and Christian Wolff, I began to explore it more actively. I should say that this was at this point primarily from the perspective of realising the pieces, and also teaching a class. This practical experience taught me a lot and revealed a need to know more about the range of performance practices associated with the various approaches taken by composers. I put together a research project in Bath which led to the book on verbal notation written with John Lely. At this point I was still not considering writing verbal scores. My focus was on open form and modular work, but always using stave notation. On completing the project in 2010, I began working in a slightly different way, keeping notebooks and thinking more generally about ideas for pieces, some of which were not enacted (and still aren’t). I think it was at this point that I began to use verbal notation seriously for the first time. My motivation was driven by the need to generalise: I was thinking through the nature of my decision making and tended more and more towards situations in pieces where the arbitrariness of specific choices seemed to be superfluous. Verbal notation provided a solution. It allowed me to frame concepts, and particularly relationships between material more than the material itself, in a way that prioritised the essence of the piece over the detail. I think this is still the case for me at the moment, although at times I find it difficult to be so distant from some of the specifics, making me consider a more hybridised approach, but on reflection this always seems unnecessary.

Much of your work is based on a modular conception of composition. Can you tell us a bit about how modularity informs your engagement with structuring sounds?

Modularity predates my interest in verbal notation, but has informed everything I’ve done since about 2000. I wonder if I just find it hard to make decisions! Again it can be reduced to a consideration of why a particular choice might be the only possibility from the near infinite range. I use modularity to create pieces which can be configured differently each time, rather than in one fixed structural relationship. I like the way this allows different facets of the material or a concept to be revealed each time. Of course, that can perhaps be said of all open form work, and arguably all pieces where interpretation is necessary, but modularity is a mid-point, allowing this flexibility with a grounding in something fixed and proven. In the modular piece #[unassigned] which I worked on from 2000-9, I produced about 400 modules – mostly short fragments or scalable drones for solo instruments- which could be recombined using a time structure for each performance. I made a new version for each performance, but some of the modules were present on a regular basis, helping to give the work some kind of sonic identity. I tended to weigh modules against each other, matching sounds in different ways based on timbral similarity, or through identifying other points of contact (such as pitch, register, or articulation). So it was very intuitive really, and I began to identify certain correspondences between the modules on this basis, writing new ones to work alongside in subsequent pieces.

Since finishing working on #[unassigned] I have continued to work in a modular way occasionally, although this has perhaps been replaced by a more general interest in open forms and indeterminacy. In the series divisions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole (2009-11) the 13 pieces each use a consistent structure, comprising a sequence of A4 pages, each lasting between 40″-1’20”, and subject to reordering and recombining in different ways. This model is now more useful for me, and a number of other recent pieces use the page as a module.

You have a number of series devoted to the exploration of the sound qualities of materials, the implication of which is that the tactile is or can be a crucial factor in sound art. Can you elaborate a bit on the role of touch in your work?

It’s present in the #[unassigned] pieces from about 2002 when I began to be more interested in quiet sounds. This was not driven by a desire to create quiet music – this was certainly in the air for me, with my first exposure to the Wandelweiser composers building on my experience of some of the London/Berlin improvisers at that time – but more through necessity. The sounds I was interested in were fragile and only apparent on the threshold of sound. By playing a bowed sound on a cello with a very slow bow for instance, it has a tendency to fragment and can be paired with a barely blown flute sound to make a correspondence. This intimacy naturally focused on the subtlety of touch, and developed into an interest independently. I made a piece in 2006 which was originally part of #[unassigned] but was subsequently retitled with paper. It initially involved specifying ways of touching and manipulating paper with the fingers – striking, rubbing, scratching, flicking etc. – but later included drawing and cutting. Later pieces, such as the one for paper cups and more recently the collaboration I did with Simon Limbrick, touch is a means to explore the inconsistency and specific properties of materials in a direct way.

And finally, a quick question about influences. Your use of verbal instructions and modular construction seem to recall, or perhaps harmonize with is the better way to put it, the conceptual art of the 1960s-1970s. How did that moment in visual arts come to be an inspiration to the development of your own aesthetic?

This is more difficult to explain. Superficially the titles for the divisions series all come from statements by (mostly) artists from that period. They are all quotations, and were either used as a starting point or applied later after working out what the piece did. I guess other than that I’m just drawn to the work. I like the simplicity, the efficiency of the medium and the use of instructions to generate it in some cases. It’s a period in art which is rich in ideas though, and I found that useful as a way of thinking through what I was doing, what I am doing, and so the reference acknowledges that I guess. It’s not supposed to be representational, although it is there in the background.

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