James Francis Brown, composer

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

As a child I had no notion of there being a ‘career’ in music. It gradually occurred to me that I had been relating to my surroundings in musical terms – just as the formation of verbal communication is unconscious and not specifically goal-orientated.

I remember, on an early family holiday to the Lake District, feeling that the mountains had an intrinsic quality, even a personality, and that they must somehow have their own ‘tunes’ within; it seemed a wonderful thing to try to reveal them. Since then, my feeling of wonder at nature and the nature of music has vied with a sense of duty, linked to financial independence, that we call ‘work’. I still can’t entirely reconcile the two concepts.

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

When I was eleven, still barely able to write any music down, I was encouraged to play my compositions to an established composer with the prospect of a scholarship to study composition. The composer’s name was Hans Heimler and he had studied with Alban Berg in the early 1930s. This meant little to me at the time, but I do remember suddenly feeling understood in a way that was extraordinarily reassuring and encouraging.

As a teacher, Hans had the ability to marry an instinctive approach with the technique of constant refinement in a way I hadn’t encountered before. He helped make it seem a worthwhile thing to do.

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

The recent period of confinement has been one of the most soul-sapping experiences of my life. Previously I would have imagined such a time might be conducive to reflection for someone rather reclusive like me, but I discovered how particularly important it is, outside a loving and encouraging family, to have contact with a wide variety of musicians and imaginative people. My imagination can’t feed on itself forever and fresh views are necessary to me – just as breathing in is the precursor to breathing out.

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

Despite the necessary technical labour, music emerges in a dream-like fashion for me. Without the unusual characteristics of certain musicians, enveloped in their idiosyncrasies as people, there would be little for my subconscious to get to work on. Musicians who display uncanny insight provide a sense of orientation and confirmation. Their personalities are like the soil from which new things can grow.

Of which works are you most proud?

It varies. In one recent piece of mine, The Hart’s Grace, for violin and piano, I like to think I captured and maintained the original, delicate thought. I wrote it for Tasmin Little to play at the inaugural concert of the Hertfordshire Festival of Music and her recording of it for Chandos recently won the Chamber Music category of the BBC Music Awards. I’m particularly looking forward to hearing Chloë Hanslip perform the work at the Festival this June. It’ll be the first live performance of a piece of mine (that I can attend, at least) since February 2020. Just as Zoom meetings are no substitute for seeing friends in reality, recordings, however beautifully performed, have their limitations. I shall be so pleased to hear this piece ‘in the flesh’ again.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I don’t like to be too conscious of the actual properties of my musical language. Music can look quite simple when written down, especially in the initial drafts. I would say that intervals such as 2nds 4ths, 6ths have a particular effect on me and seem very much more powerful entities than they appear on paper. I listen to the tensions within intervals and marry them to what I like to call the ‘personality of form’. When the shape emerges, I try to make it more substantial and memorable.

How do you work?

All too sporadically at the moment! I spend a long time gathering moods and sounds and then go through a pain barrier writing the first ideas down. Once the ideas reach a critical mass, there’s little stopping me. If I’m engrossed in work, I need to switch off the phone and ignore emails. Then follows the round of apologetic phone calls to friends I have ignored…

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Any musicians who make me feel that I’m somewhere other than the ordinary world are especially attractive. Those who can convey a sense of the numinous, uplifting or unsettling, with just a few simple notes, feed my imagination like nothing else. I’m sure that’s platitudinous but it bears repeating.

As far as composers are concerned, I have a very long list but one’s I return to again and again are: Bartok, Beethoven, Britten, Mozart, Sibelius, Tippett

What do you feel needs to be done to grow and maintain classical music’s audiences?

Many people are giving all their energy and expertise to this important question. As Artistic Director of the Hertfordshire Festival of music, together with my friend and colleague, Tom Hammond, we try to encourage musicians at all levels and provide imaginative programmes, while making it as affordable as possible.

I’m not sure I have a special insight or solution to this issue, but I would say that it is very important not to give way, too easily, to lazy journalism about the concept of elitism – that classical music is only for a certain type of person. If it’s worthwhile, music has the seeds of understanding within itself and shouldn’t need any explanation. All music requires is an open mind and heart on the part of the listener, and that can’t be forced.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Digging deep and completing a piece that subsequently conceals or heals the creative struggles involved – without appearing merely competent.

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

Remember the moments when music, whether imagined or heard, had a transformative effect and allow that state of mind to be as present as possible.

What is your present state of mind?

Uptight, but hopeful.


British composer James Francis Brown is co-Artistic Director of Hertfordshire Festival of Music which this year runs from 4-10 June. Further information & tickets

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