“After confronting my anxieties about myself, I came to the conclusion that my music ‘is’ me; my perspective will always be part of my music, whether I try to or not.” -Jake Adams
Jake Adams is a composer, guitarist, teacher, and ethnomusicologist based in West Yorkshire, England, and is the founder and artistic director of new music initiative Arc Project. Jake’s music has been performed in the UK, Russia, and USA at festivals such as reMusik.org, Twisted Spruce, and CoMA; his work explores the field of cross-cultural composition, with a focus on collaborative approaches to microtonality, aleatoricism, form and timbre from different cultures, as well as creating new works for non-western instruments. Jake spoke to PRXLUDES about his approach to collaboration, cross-cultural composition, rock and metal upbringing, and his work as director of Arc Project.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Jake — thanks for chatting with me today! Tell me what you’ve been up to recently; what creative projects have you been involved in lately?
So my most recent project that I’ve completed… I was recently involved in the Twisted Spruce Online Symposium, which is a three-to-four month symposium going over various dates online. I’ve been collaborating with a guitarist from Kentucky called Liam Hedrick; we’ve been working on a new piece for guitar and electronics, which draws from Japanese gagaku and north Indian classical music. In terms of things I’m working on at the moment, I’ve been working on a few pieces for Javanese gamelan, which are gonna feed into my PhD work, [as well as] one piece for gamelan and voice, a piece for electric guitar, alto saxophone, bass guitar, rebab, gendèr, and colotomics… and [I’m] planning out a bigger project, which is very much in the future — about a year — of a cross-cultural ensemble with gamelan and some Western Classical instruments. [It’s] a kind of music drama, taking the myth of Achilles and Patroclus, and doing something with that. But that’s very much still in the planning stage.
Tell me about your experiences in writing for gamelan; what drew you to the instruments?
The original thing was [that] during my undergraduate degree, you had to be part of a department ensemble. I was in one of the choirs, and pretending that I was a singer. -laughs- I was working at the same time — I was working as a music teacher — [and] I rearranged my teaching schedule a bit and realised that I couldn’t fit the choir in anymore. So I had to find something else to do. I looked through the list of things and went “ah, the gamelan ensemble…sure, I’ll have a go at that!”
I was always interested in the music [of the gamelan], and always wanted to play it, but couldn’t find the time around work. As I went into my Masters’ course, it became a bigger part of what I was doing. I got an assistantship in the department to work with Emily Crossland — the gamelan director at York [University] — [and] help her out as much as I could. It was at that point I wrote my first piece for the gamelan, as well; ‘Redshift’, for piano and Javanese gamelan. That really got me loving writing cross-cultural music, studying different cultures, and trying to synthesise a new sound — and work out how the different sonorities work together to create something that isn’t Western, that isn’t Javanese, and isn’t whatever else I’m working with. It’s its own core thing. Whilst, of course, gaining a better understanding of it; developing an understanding of the culture being important in order to reach the synthesis.
How did you go about gaining that cultural understanding?
Collaboration. Collaboration is the first point I start with [for] any of these pieces. When it came to ‘Redshift’, I was already in the gamelan ensemble, playing the music, but there was a group of four people I was particularly close to in the gamelan group. I just turned around and said “can we book out the room one evening, we’ll bring some snacks along, and we’ll sit and I’ll scribble some ideas down?” — and at that point, as well, you’re getting feedback from them; they’re saying, have you considered this, [or] normally you wouldn’t play that, maybe we could alter this slightly? I mean, ‘Redshift’ is not a traditional piece — it doesn’t follow the tradition closely at all — but at the same time, there’s definitely still elements that I drew from, that I consider [traditional]. As that was my first cross-cultural instrumentation, it has things that I look back [on] and go “I would have approached that slightly differently”… But yeah. I cannot stress enough [the importance of] collaboration. It really is core to the whole process.
Of course — being in a room with people who are from the culture, who understand it more intrinsically than you, is just so important.
And it shows you, as well, [how] the cultural elements — as well as the musical elements — become very important. One of the things that most people know about gamelan is not [to] step over the instruments. But that kind of element could easily be missed if you’re not working with someone who plays the gamelan, or has worked with it at least a bit. There’s other things, like where the strong beat in the gamelan lies — with it lying on the fourth beat rather than the first beat of the bar — that isn’t just something that comes [from] perception, it’s something that leads you on the gamelan to play on the last beat, and makes you feel like you’re travelling towards that point. So even those small elements that maybe can come across as on-the-layer and traditional, actually do affect the performer as well.
So the traditions go beyond the aesthetic…
Yeah, definitely. And that ties into why the myth of music being a “universal language” is complete rubbish, in many ways. If you approach the gamelan [as if] you’ve played in a Western orchestra your entire life, your perception of how to play it won’t be “correct”.
Speaking of the myth of the universal language — how have you navigated the tuning of the gamelan, as someone from the Western idiom?
It’s something that’s always interested me. I remember coming to university and hearing this idea that there’s not just twelve notes. It was like “what? There’s more than twelve notes? It’s either the note, or I have to retune my guitar…” — it was just such an exciting idea for me. [With] the gamelan, you strangely adapt to it quite quickly, I’ve found — adapting to the idea that what you’re hearing isn’t what you’re used to hearing, as someone growing up in the West. In terms of the microtonal approach to it, there’s a lot of difficulty with the gamelan, because most gamelans are tuned different. You have the two tunings — sléndro and pélog — but at the same time, sléndro and pélog on one set of instruments is not the same as sléndro and pélog on another. So you do have to consider that when you’re writing the piece.
To go back to ‘Redshift’ again — it’s a good example of where my thoughts were first approaching it — I was quite fortunate that a past PhD student at York, Ginevra House, made a little chart of what the tuning for Gamelan Sekar Petak was. So I was able to sit down and identify the notes that were reasonably close to Western tuning — which it had four of — and use those [as] a rooting point, or anchor point, for the rest of [the piece] to go on. So you had these four notes that were your main focuses, that were then adapted onto the harmony of the piano, and were used as most of the sèlèh points — sèlèh points are goal tones.
So in a sense, you’ve been able to find a way to find the intersection of Western tuning and that of the gamelan you were working with?
The alternative is that because each gamelan is different, you start considering how to compose music that doesn’t concern itself as much with exact pitches. Which is easier to do when you have a piece that is just for gamelan. The piece that I’m doing for gamelan and voice is gonna be quite simple to do that for, because I don’t need to worry too much; the singer will just adapt their tuning to the gamelan. The piece is in pélog, so any pélog gamelan set will be able to play this piece — it will just have slightly different tuning.
Whereas a piece [such as] Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto… It’s notoriously difficult for different gamelans to play, because Lou Harrison’s gamelan was tuned in a particular way which then matched up with his piano. It means that if you leave the piano tuned how he had it tuned, it won’t work with the gamelan and you end up with a horrid mess, which apparently happened during a performance at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival a few years back. -laughs- So it is a lot to think about. As soon as you add any instrument from outside of the gamelan into the gamelan, tuning is immediately [an issue]; you’ve gotta work out the best approach to it.
How are you working your way around that tuning problem in your own practice?
I’m playing around with the idea of a spectrum of tuning at the moment, for the piece for guitar, sax, bass, rebab, gendèr, and colotomics, where you have two instruments on either end — being the sax and the gendèr — that are somewhat more fixed in their tunings, and the guitar and rebab in the middle, where you can play around a bit more with the tuning. I’m trying to see whether that can create a spectrum of tuning, where you have four instruments that have different priorities of tuning within it.
I think that it’s important when I am composing for gamelan, that I don’t try and force the gamelan into a Western mould. I don’t try to write for string quartet and it just so happens to be for gamelan. If you’re writing for an instrument, you’re writing for an instrument, at the end of the day.
Tell me a bit about your musical background — what drew you into the field of composition?
I started on classical guitar, sang as a teenager, went into rock bands, and then went into classical [composition]. I didn’t grow up listening to classical music. My parents claim they had more than this, but the only album of classical music that I remember being in our house was a CD of Grieg that my parents had got with a magazine — and they’d got it because In the Hall of the Mountain King was the theme music for Manic Miner, which was one of my dad’s favourite games. That is the only CD of classical music I remember. I grew up listening to Iron Maiden, KISS, Motorhead, Metallica, Magnum… rock and metal bands, basically. And then when I came into classical music, being more aware of it, [that] came through being in choirs as a teenager — but even then, I was more interested in rock music, or hearing something gospel, than when we sang Handel or the Brahms Requiem.
But my interest as a teenager was much more in music that did cross the boundary between genres, or between styles. One of my favourite songs is ‘Paint It Black’, which has the sitar in the background; [and] one of my favourite bands is Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish, who mix orchestra with a heavy metal band — and now they’re including uilleann bagpipes and folk elements in there. So my interest was always in music that didn’t stay within its genre, or stay within its style — though I don’t want that to sound like a criticism of Motorhead, cause that was always a constant as well. -laughs-
Do you feel like there’s any different perspectives you may have coming from a more rock-oriented background?
I think coming from that background — that feeling of being an outsider from the tradition — does give a different perspective. I’m less interested in re-creating the sound of Mozart, or whoever, than I am in looking at what is around me and saying “I want to explore this now, I want to explore [that]”.
One thing that’s stuck out to me about your work is its exploration of contemporary sociopolitical themes — it feels very much in the “now”. Do you think this aspect of your work is related to your perspective as somewhat of an outsider?
It’s been kind of a thing from my work in the last year — since probably the end of 2020, [when] I started to move more towards this. Some of it came about from gaining more confidence in feeling like I could speak my mind. I’m a very anxious person, I’m a quite quiet person day-to-day, and I wasn’t that keen on putting my view forward that frequently, unless I felt very passionate about something. And that reflected in my work, where everything was very abstract; I was writing pieces like ‘Redshift’, that were influenced by quantum phenomena, or taking other peoples’ texts and using those as bouncing-off points (such as Emily Bronte or James Joyce). But in the last year, after confronting my anxieties about myself, I came to the conclusion that my music “is” me; my perspective will always be part of my music, whether I try to [include it] or not. And looking back at those older pieces, it will have been in there somewhere. So I [thought]: “I have very strong opinions on things, why not talk about it?”
It’s interesting you mention the mental health angle; has any of your work explicitly concerned your anxiety?
I worked with the Aulus Duo at the start of this year — a guitar and flute duo based in Cardiff — and I did a piece called ‘Remembering Bells’, which is influenced by my anxieties that I had in school. I wouldn’t have done [that] up to that point. It’s quite cathartic to confront these things, and to think about these things through my music — which is the main thing that I do on a day-to-day basis.
It becomes cathartic, once you’re confident enough to make it so.
I’m sure it’s like this for many people, but the way I try to think about it is that I am only one of three points [with regards to a] performance. Any piece of music is the composer’s ideas, interpreted by the audience, through the filter of a performer — and at all three points, you have different perceptions. ‘Remembering Bells’ could very well be interpreted very differently once it gets through those filters, or at the point of the filter of the performer; they could find something else that they feel comes out of that piece. I very much welcome people to express what they feel within my music. I don’t write programmatic music — I always struggle with [it], I feel like the perception of an “exact” narrative can sometimes be quite difficult to follow.
I get that. Narrative serves to amplify; if the narrative is required, then it’s failed at being programmatic.
I always think about how Debussy’s ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune’ was first explained to me as a ‘programmatic’ work… -laughs-
So tell me about the organisation you run, Arc Project — what spurred you to found this initiative?
Well, it started as a passing comment at lunchtime to a couple of friends. “Oh, would it be a good idea if we took a group of composers, and a group of performers, randomly paired them up and told them ‘you have until this date to write a piece together’?” — which I said, and then everyone sat around the table went “alright, get on with it, then”. And then it became two years of my life. -laughs-
I formed the group with my good friend and co-director Jan Li Tan, and our marketing officer Jess Lloyd. Our main focus throughout has been to give people a platform to create collaborative new music, without a limitation of genre, style, [or] expectation. We really want the music to be what the artists want to create, not what we expect them to create. I think that has reflected in the music that has been produced for Arc. You have people who create pieces that are very ‘contemporary’ — in the contemporary music mould — and you have people [like] Cameron McArthur, [who] created a piece with harpist Eleanor Dunsdon that was quite folky and jazz-y. That’s what we want. We want people to create music that isn’t limited by our preferences.
Do you see Arc Project as predominantly people-centric?
Yeah. I think it’s very people-centric. I remember the last lecture of my Master’s, which was given by my supervisor Martin Suckling — and he said that musicians on their own can’t thrive in the current climate. Having a group of people to promote each other, and to support each other, is so core to the music industry now; if you just promote yourself, you’re not gonna get anywhere. So having not only this idea of people coming together to create music, but to come together and get to know each other, get excited about what each other’s doing, is core to what I want Arc Project to be. Once it’s safer for people to travel, I’d love to book out a church hall somewhere and have drinks with all the people who’ve been involved with Arc, from all over the place. It’d be so nice for us to meet in person and talk — for everyone to be in one place.
What’s exciting you currently about the future of Arc Project? What plans do you have in the pipeline?
So the big thing that is fast approaching is the Arc Project Online Festival, which is gonna be between December 11th and December 19th. It’s a week of concerts every night, from different artists all around the world. At the weekend, we’ve got other events going on; we’ve got workshops, lecture recitals, [and] panels. We’ve got a 24-hour concert going on — as long as we can get the venue for that one! -laughs- We’ve got a project called Tokyo to New York, which is based in New York and features Japanese instruments, [and] we’ve got a jazz drummer from South Africa who’s going to be presenting some of his studio work; there’s things going on all over the place, which is really exciting.
In terms of going forward in 2022, hopefully we’ll get back to doing things in person. Arc only managed to do one concert outside of the pandemic, so we’ve entirely existed online for the majority of what we’ve done — which is really strange to think it’s grown as it has, despite not actually having put anything on in person. So hopefully we’re gonna get back to the plan of three projects next year: an applied project, where people apply to take part; an open project, where anyone can be involved, no matter who they are; and an invitational project, where we bring in people we’ve worked with before [onto] a larger-scale project.
When everything you do is online, I guess you can forget that what you do has a tangible impact… -laughs-
It’s been a weird thing. We’ve been running the Digital Editions over lockdown, where people have been working with people that they’ve never met online. Again, it was randomly assigned, [and we said] “you’ve got until this date, write and record a piece and we’ll publish it for you”… as you know, because you were in it. -laughs- I’d be sat doing my own thing, and get a notification saying someone’s filled in [my] form — one day, I clicked on it, and Lore Lixenberg had signed up! I was blown away. And that’s happened a few times, like, “how has this person found this?”
I remember talking to James McIlwrath — him and his group, flxnflx, had worked with a composer called Ralph Lewis from the US. James was saying [that] whenever they were talking about things, [Ralph would] drop them a message to say how much he was loving what they were doing. [That’s] exactly what we wanted: for people to be listening to each other, and working with each other, wanting to work with each other again. There’s a lot of people who’ve been involved in Arc who I listen to and go “oh, I really want to work with this person”. Despite it being something where I [curate] composers, I’ve not actually composed anything for Arc for a year. I’m sure I’ll write something again for a project soon.
What kind of ideals do you see yourself and your role in Arc aspiring to? What role do you feel Arc plays in contemporary music discourse?
We had a discussion about this recently! Two of the members of our organisation team decided [that] they were gonna start a music school through Arc. For me, I want to carry on building and promoting, and getting to bigger, in-person concerts. We’re very project-based, so it’s difficult to imagine a “spot” to go to. I’m very chamber music focused — I’ve done one piece for orchestra, and it’s never been performed because I wasn’t that into [the idea] — but I quite like the idea of more projects bringing people into doing things that they’ve never tried before. Doing strange things, too — we did a cross-medium project at the end of last year, where you had composers working with artists from different mediums. We had a composer working with a dancer, with a visual artist… One of the most exciting ones was [that] we had a composer working with an improvised comedian, which produced something really interesting. So we want to be somewhere where people can try things out [which] are slightly different to what other groups might offer, in a welcoming environment, where people are supportive of that.
We also want to do more youth-based projects. A lot of us a very driven by outreach, providing opportunities to young people — particularly from backgrounds where they might have less access to music — and give them the opportunity to work with professional musicians to create new music, and new music that isn’t of a specific style for their GCSE [or] A-level compositions. It’s for them, and what they want to create.
That’s the beauty of an initiative like Arc Project, isn’t it? That having such a diverse range of people can lead to so many opportunities for those around you…
We’ve been so lucky to work with different people. I just want to keep getting more and more people involved, [and] seeing what they can do and what they create. I think the thing with it is having an open point where people can get involved. There’s a lot of opportunities where people [have to] apply for things, but having the open projects where anyone can get involved — where [it’s] just “put your name down and we will find you people to work with” — is important. I hope [we] can be a small step for people to have an opportunity, and build on that opportunity.
Find out more about Arc Project, including the Arc Project Online Festival this coming December, at the links below:
You can check out more of Jake’s work at:
- House, Ginevra (2014) Strange Flowers: Cultivating new music for gamelan on British soil. PhD thesis, University of York. p. 296.
- Lou Harrison – Piano Concerto (1983/5)
- The Rolling Stones – Paint It Black (1966)
- Nightwish – Wish I Had An Angel (2004)
- A demonstration of uilleann bagpipes, performed by Gay McKeon
- Claude Debussy – Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune (1894)
- Cameron McArthur – 9127 Unfolding (2020), performed by Eleanor Dunsdon