“I think that why I work with less apparently fixed notations is that my material (in most of my pieces) is just one temporary politics of how a group can be together.”James M. Creed
James M. Creed is a British-American composer and guitarist based in London. James’s music is concerned with simple materials and processes, unfixed structures, clowning, and experimental notations; recent commissions and collaborations have included performances at IKLECTIK, Café OTO, AMOK, Klangraum Festival, and a residency in Lower Austria with AiR Niederösterreich. James studied composition at Goldsmiths University and the University of Leeds, where he is currently pursuing an internally-funded PhD, studying with Scott McLaughlin and Martin Iddon.
We sat down with James M. Creed in a community café in Telegraph Hill, south-east London, and talked about a whole host of things including indeterminacy, études, clowning in notation and performance, and James Tenney and Alvin Lucier (sort of)…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi James! Thanks for joining me today. I’ve been listening to a few different versions of your piece ‘Lomond’, it’s a wonderful piece!
James M. Creed: Hello, thanks for having me! ‘Lomond’ is probably my most performed piece, at this point. It’s quite a generous score. It’s highly indeterminate, in a way that gives people a lot of agency. But I think it’s inevitable that someone will read it and know what they think it is asking them to do, specifically; even though it will be unrelated to what someone else’s reading might be. Things to do jump out of that score, I think.
Of course; but it’s that flexibility that makes the piece so powerful. How have you found experimenting with different ways of performing that piece?
When I pick up instruments I’m not familiar with… My partner’s just got an accordion, for instance — I’m not an accordionist, and I won’t be, but picking it up, experimenting with it, ‘Lomond’ is a piece that’s nice to bring to it.
You’ve mentioned that quite a few people have performed this piece — do you see any kind of trend when it comes to performance of this work?
Some of [my] scores are much more specific than others, and much less direct than others, but my notation generally has a certain register of communication — a certain kind of “slight clowning” always makes its way onto paper, somehow. But with ‘Lomond’ specifically, just because so many people have played it, there is quite a clear performance practice that’s been built by people who know me well — “James makes quiet sounds when he improvises” — which had become imprinted on the score. And now there have been a few lovely versions done by strangers that I’ve heard the recordings of, that I’m now getting to see what that score actually is when I’m not in it. When it’s not my voice people are reading.
There was a recent version done by Markus Reineke and Frank Wilke on Soundcloud, where it was bass recorder and trumpet. They recorded a short version each, stretched them to half an hour, and then improvised over those slow recordings — so the pitches are unstable, and the sustaining is unstable. It’s gorgeous; probably not one I could have ever come up with!
I’d be very interested in what a large ensemble or orchestra could do with a score like that…
Yeah. The largest recorded version is a septet, which is on my Soundcloud — and the same seven people, plus me and a few others, did a 12tet that wasn’t recorded. Maybe this is the same with all indeterminate pieces where the ensemble size is undefined, [but] the more people are involved in it, the piece becomes something else. I’m hesitant to say what the score is about, because someone might read this and add that to the score… But for me, it was about identifying that urge to find something specific to do in a score, and then reflecting on it and saying “what if I held it at arms length?” Trusted it, in a way. A solo version is always self-reflective in a certain way. As soon as it’s two or more people, it’s about how they share a space, and how they exist in a room together — which is what a lot of my scores since ‘Lomond’ are about, frankly.
I think that why I work with less apparently fixed notations is that my material (in most of my pieces) is just one temporary politics of how a group can be together. The larger the ensemble gets, the more it’s about figuring out these social questions of: how much space am I taking up? How am I adding, subtracting, giving, [or] offering to the others? So it was very interesting doing it with twelve. I think that’s the largest version so far. I’d be really interested to hear the typical ‘In C’-size ensemble [perform it]. It’d become something very different.
There’s an infinity of possibilities. In terms of your more recent output — you’ve recently released an album entitled ‘Six Studies’?
Yeah. There is one ensemble piece, and five solos — including the prelude to the ensemble piece. The ensemble piece is called ‘Piano and Accompaniment: after an étude by Camille Saint-Saëns, composer’ — a comically long title… -laughs- That is a new thing in my work, having silly titles.
Or redundant titles… -laughs-
And titles that make themselves increasingly redundant. There’s this percussion suite I’ve recently finished; the collection is called ‘For Percussion’, but the first piece is ‘Having only seen the score for James Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion whilst having never seen the score for Alvin Lucier’s Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra’ — that was written as a joke, and then it was performed, and it was quite a lovely piece. It’s a ripoff of the James Tenney, an inversion of it. And then it suggests, of course, ‘Having now seen the score for Alvin Lucier’s…’ -laughs- You complete the set.
What’s the underlying concept of the record as a whole?
So ‘Six Studies’ has one ensemble piece, which is ‘Piano and Accompaniment’. The prelude to that is a piano solo — and then there’s four solos. They’re all little études, essentially; even the ensemble one is a study of that politics of being together. The ensemble piece seems a little like an outlier at first look — because it’s the ensemble work — but it’s doing simple material things, until the ear starts to listen to how specific people are playing them. You can’t see the pianist, you can’t see the string players, but you become increasingly aware of the idiosyncrasies of how each one plays. That’s what the solos are about, as well; they become studies of someone’s particular fingers, rather than the instrument.
What interests you about the étude as a musical form, and how did these pieces engage with the idea of the étude?
The reason why the album is named ‘Six Studies’ is partly because that’s what it is — but ‘Piano and Accompaniment’ is after an étude by Camille Saint-Saëns… composer. -laughs-
As opposed to Camille Saint-Saëns, the…
There’s this wonderful étude from ‘6 Études’ — I think he published two collections of six études, it’s Op. 52 I’m borrowing from. I get drawn to études because they’re quite modern, in a way; you get a composer, separate from their concert language and their way of writing for ensembles, just thinking about “here’s an interesting musical artefact, technique, element of what a body does, what a body could do.” You get composers at their most honest, in a way, at least in how they think of instruments and people. They also work a lot like process music; a lot of études could 1960s, 1970s, whenever they were written. Hélène de Montgeroult has some incredible études that could be early Terry Riley etc. Her études are gorgeous.
The Camille Saint-Saëns that I’m referencing — ‘For the independence of digits’ — is this gorgeous one where you have these seven-voiced chords. You’re just doing this over and over… -James taps his hands on the table in a shape of a piano chord- But you weight each finger differently to bring out a melody. It’s about exactly what ‘Lomond’ is about: let’s see what happens if you try and balance these things, and it’s actually gonna be really complicated. The album essentially came after that.
In terms of the notation — how did the scores of these pieces develop alongside your relationship with the performers?
I’ve been reflecting on this a lot recently. My PhD is loosely concerned — for now, being three months into it — with “what does notation actually do?” We familiarise some elements of what we expect it to ask of us when we read it, but it’s entirely figurative, whatever it is. For what are really six quite similar pieces, those scores are all very different from each other.
Essentially, all [of] my music from the last three years is almost comically simple material, using notation — and simple processes, and durational experiments — to try and pretend [the] simple material is something else. Or see what happens if we agree to pretend what it is.
Why do you see it as “pretending” in that context?
I just think it’s interesting. A large part of that is the music I got most interested in. Listening to my music, it’s apparent that I’m a fan of Laurence Crane and Ryoko Akama, and they do these incredible [pieces] where they take these familiar (more than simple) materials, and bother to say “what if we missed something? Here’s what we didn’t know about a C major triad…” Their music does that incredibly. I’m obviously very influenced by that, but I also like the idea [that] simple material becomes an object, a familiar object, in a certain way.
I’m interested in the social histories of the distinction between an object and a thing. There’s the object that is “familiar”; and then that object is also every way it’s ever been used, and it’s every different way that everyone’s “met” it. I think there’s some of that in why I try to do these things with notation — [because] there’s no stable definition of what [for example] a C major means to anyone. There’s a really good Karin Knorr Cetina quote: “a stable name is not an expression or indicator of stable thinghood”…
That’s a wonderful quote — as someone who’s background didn’t primarily involve notation, I find it’s always important to question the ontological functions of different notations and techniques.
I think that’s fascinating. ‘Lomond’ is a very concise example of that. The material of the score for ‘Lomond’ is this very familiar song which is rich in history — amongst all its history, it’s also a tourist song (‘Loch Lomond’) — and then if you fold it up, it becomes a chord. But it is the song, and it is everything else, and it is every way everyone’s used it. And Loch Lomond — referring to the song, and the loch — is used in poetry as a shorthand for all of Scotland. These things are beautiful, I think.
I think I understand what you mean by “pretend”, now.
I mean “pretend” in quite a generous way. I don’t mean it as false, necessarily. The way people build stories together is interesting. There’s a bit of a child’s play in my work, I think; when you see kids have a brick, and they pretend it’s a ship, and suddenly they’re at sea, that’s wonderful. Maybe that’s what my scores are. People that pretend bricks are ships. -laughs-
So on ‘Six Studies’… for instance, the ‘Prelude to Piano and Accompaniment’ is looking at repetition, and inevitable variance. That prelude, and ‘[untitled guitar piece]’, which comes later… In terms of what [the] material is, and what I’m doing with material, they’re identical — but the notation expresses it very differently, and the pieces emerge very differently. It’s because [I’m] pretending they’re different.
There’s a practical element to that; I don’t mean this in a gimmicky way, necessarily, but it means I can go from having an idea to having a finished piece very quickly. I can generate material quickly through that. Because as soon as you write one way of looking at this bit of material that sounds nice, the inverse is already apparent — and then that’s a different piece, because it’s a completely different way of thinking of the familiar thing.
Let’s talk about your approach to notation; in your recent works, how have you developed different methods of communication through score-making?
This is an interesting time to ask that — because it’s at a point where I’ve stumbled on some things that seem quite clear, and now I need to unpack them and find out why, and how I got there. What it means to me that I’ve arrived there, I suppose. For all the work I do with scores — if someone encounters my work in the abstract, [if] they don’t know anything about me, the scores are probably what they’re gonna remember first rather than the recordings — I like how my music sounds. I wouldn’t do it otherwise… -laughs- But the scores are perhaps the initially interesting thing. It’s not to say that the scores are the most important part — the score is, as it’s always been, a means to an end, and an object that is almost obsolete until someone decides to make it into sound.
This is sort of the meat-and-potatoes of my PhD. I’m not quite happy with the terminology yet — I’m currently playing around [with it] — but: notation is an object, notation could be a thing, but a score, “score-ness”, is a property of a thing. It comes from someone finding a notation (but it doesn’t have to be a notation) and saying “that’s something I can do.” That could be a painting on the wall, or that could be a Bach partita, or that could be one of my scores. That is a way that musicians look for things in the world, look at things in the world, to find something to do.
That’s an immensely fascinating and refreshing perspective on notation. In terms of your own scores, how do you see yourself realising this?
The defining thing recently is this certain register, and this certain kind of clowning. I’m currently playing with trying to contain every possibility I can in the notation — including possibilities that I don’t know [about] — whilst also having this comedy in the communication that makes it clear the notation itself isn’t particularly important. It certainly is not “the work” — a very loaded term… -laughs- I think a score that suggests something to do, but asks itself to be held at arms’ length — which is a consistent emerging through-line. For example, ‘[untitled guitar piece]’ — which officially doesn’t have a score, it has a piece of paper that says “this is not a score, but if you wanted to play the piece, here’s how”, which maybe is a score…
What makes it a score, or not a score?
It becomes a notation that is resistant to becoming the definition of the piece. I don’t think that’s successful — I think that’s an irony, more than anything else — [but] these self-aware scores have been some recent explorations. Notations that are aware of what they are, and what they risk doing to the sounds people might make. ‘Nomond, or, no more Lomond’ is a very silly piece; it’s a piece of paper, and it’s got marks for you to cut out sections so that it sits perfectly on top of the score of ‘Lomond’… and asks you to please leave ‘Lomond’ alone. -laughs-
I love that — it’s almost like there’s a conversation in the score between itself and the performers.
Yeah. Some of that came from when I [first] started thinking “I’m a composer, I want to be a composer.” I was writing scores, and they were familiar [and] more “standard” — but particularly at the point where a performer would read them, there was always this uncertainty of how much of myself was on that paper. That doesn’t need to be important, but it felt important to me. I knew a lot of me was in the piece — I’d been living with it for four months — but there was some personal anxiety of how much [of me] was or wasn’t retrievable on the paper. So then there was a period of experimentation, which eventually became ‘Lomond’, of: what if I was literally on the paper? It’s just a stream-of-consciousness text that contains my anxieties quite retrievably.
How does that idea of putting “you” in the score relates to your interest in simplicity of process?
I get infatuated with really simple things, because I don’t understand them yet. A lot of the composers that are influences on my work — some of the Wandelweiser lot, and then Crane and Akama etc. — some of what they do is about this “let’s look at this triad again”… And I’ve almost childishly [gone] “oh, I’ve missed something!” — a sort of childish echo of what they’re doing, in a way.
The other complication in that meshwork is that I definitely don’t want it to be about me. -laughs- So I think some of why I’ve started doing that with notation is [that] there’s some sort of inevitability; what I can’t do is pretend to be someone else or pretend not to be there. But there’s a potentially very successful meeting of that approach to notation with much more complex material, that I don’t think I’m the person to do. I think it’s as simple as that.
There’s something to be said about how accessible working with simplicity can be.
I’ve got a bit of a background in community music, as well. It’s a very specific practice that I’ve interfaced with, and been a part of; I feel very lucky to have been tangentially involved in [it]. Music doesn’t need to be simple and neither does community music — but it’s always been important to me that my music is available to amateurs, and beginners, and that it doesn’t take a lot of time to get “ready”. Most of my work is now performed either with one rehearsal, or no rehearsal, whoever’s playing it. There’s a sort of instability built into my pieces that lends itself well to people’s early encounters just as much as their more familiarized ones.
I get that — the immediacy of the first look at the score.
Exactly. There’s nothing against harder music — I like a lot of harder music — there’s a sense of rewarding to learning something, and having a process of learning something. [But] I am interested in the immediacy of my work being approachable.
Do you feel like using indeterminacy can sometimes help / hinder this ease of access?
Some of the apparent indeterminacy in these pieces, and the apparent simplicity in them, is the implication that it’s not that deep. -laughs- Here is a nice thing to do, and show to other people, but to try [and] construct something impressive out of it doesn’t really work. There’s other music that does that very well and did it way before mine. But there’s a risk too that it’s quite alienating for some people; that can seem quite inaccessible, in a way. And certainly, if it’s in concert performance, that kind of “I’m up here, and I don’t even know what’s gonna happen” — not quite knowing where the gravity is — can be quite disarming and uncomfortable for some people. Simple music isn’t very simple. -laughs-
Or there’s complexity within it.
Yeah. When I’m trying to write in a more formal way about notation, the important thing I always lead with is that there is no non-specific notation. There are [notations] that locate their specificity in different areas. ‘The Tiger’s Mind’ is a very specific piece, it’s just not interested in being specific about whether you play a D5 at the beginning. But socially, it’s far more specific than most staff notations, and equally complicated.
Absolutely — I always find that leaving things out deliberately in your notation has just as much of an impact as adding things in, or making things specific.
Negative space does as much to define things as positive space — a lack of presence, and a lack of implied specificity, informs something greatly. I can’t remember who I heard this from — it was informal, it’s not a quote, necessarily — but the way something is written down should reflect what it is, as much as it describes anything. A piece of paper that’s largely empty might be useful for a piece that’s also largely empty, or uncertain. I think that’s present in a lot of how I try to write things down.
How much do you feel like your practice as a guitarist, and as a performer, impacts your work — or vice versa?
I’m still trying to reflect on this at the moment. The way I notate things that I have written for myself to play is strange; I learn a lot about my performance practice by then having to write it down. I grew up playing in bands — I was in rock bands, gigging in London, and I was working as a sound engineer for years. The pipeline from there to what I write now is a relatively common one for people from pop and rock backgrounds, which was: I got into Sonic Youth. -laughs- And also simultaneously, [I got] into some of the 60’s minimalist stuff — which is not so present in my work now, I don’t think, but was a very significant stepping stone into the stuff I listen to now.
I was mostly a rhythm guitarist before. As a guitarist — even when I was in those bands — I was never particularly interested in doing anything complicated. I’ve always been focused on trying to get one note to sound really nice on guitar. I have a very good right thumb… -laughs- Which is why I think I’m now quite a useful guitarist for very sparse music; because how do we make one note that’ll only last six seconds on a guitar feel like it fills a minute? How do I make the really simple stuff feel natural, and sound natural?
I’m never quite sure whether this is me wanting to project what I do now on what I used to do, and find a logic in it — which is always tempting, but isn’t necessarily there — but I used to think about rhythm guitar a lot. It’s sort of linked to how I would write for the violin now, I think. But what that means for me as a performer now, I’m not completely sure of. My guitar pieces — my extended duration, looping guitar pieces — are usually devised from improvisation, and then I would reverse-engineer how to write them down. Which is very much the opposite of how I would write anything else. I think this is very common for composers writing for the instrument they play, but I find the guitar a very hard instrument to write for. What I can do is make the plinky-plonks until something cool emerges, and then find a way to write it down that I think contains what it is about it that I’m interested in.
How do you see your compositional ideas developing in the future?
The simple stuff seems to be getting simpler. There’s sort of an emerging friction. There’s been this trajectory of doing a simple thing, being a bit silly about it, and doing simple stuff to that simple thing. And those things are all proceeding along; it’s a lot sillier now, and it’s a lot simpler, and the thing I’m doing to the simpler stuff is even simpler again — to the point where they’ve emerged as being in friction with each other. The silliness almost gets in the way of the simplicity.
Like that percussion piece: ‘Having only seen the score for James Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion whilst having never seen the score for Alvin Lucier’s Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra’ — to give its full title. -laughs- The piece in performance is just hitting a tam-tam, basically; there’s no “material” in the piece. It still sounds nice, if you’re interested in those things, but it doesn’t sound very different to the Tenney, except maybe not quite as good… -laughs- Which is fine, because the joke is the main material. But to get the joke, you have to know these two quite niche percussion pieces in the already quite niche contemporary percussion music repertoire. The joke is almost alienating.
There’s something very fun about carrying that joke all the way through, though — I understand you’ve also put a programme together for the For Percussion series?
Yes! So the collection is: ‘Having only seen the score for James Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion whilst having never seen the score for Alvin Lucier’s Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra’; followed by, ‘Having now seen the score for Alvin Lucier’s Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra (which I had already heard) while still having only seen the score for James Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion’; and finally, ‘Having at last heard James Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion (which I had already read) and also seen the score for Alvin Lucier’s Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra (which I had already heard)’. And then this also-supplied programme order walks the audience through it all, whether they know the pieces or not: you show them the score for the James Tenney, then you play the Alvin Lucier, and then you play my piece ‘Having only seen the score…’ and so on — and that is the piece, in a way. Sharing that experience of not knowing these things. It’s very silly.
I think we should see when funding applications open! -laughs-
And then the silliest part is that the last piece — ‘Having at last heard James Tenney’s…’ — that piece is then just playing the Lucier to perform the Tenney. The James Tenney is just a very long crescendo and then a very long diminuendo on a single sound, or that’s how it’s normally realised; and the Lucier is even quavers for a long time, aimed at different points of the triangle. You can combine those pieces and perform both of them simultaneously by having an audience in a long corridor, with the percussionist at one end of it. They play the Lucier while walking through the corridor, realising the James Tenney in the process, and then walking away again. Playing one piece becomes the other, and I’ve written nothing, and maybe I’m open to being sued. -laughs-
All of James M. Creed’s scores are available for free – you can access his scores here:
James’s most recent album Six Studies is now out on Sawyer Editions – stream and buy the record at:
More of James’s work can be found at:
- James M. Creed – Lomond (2020), septet performance by Outline Ensemble at Goldsmiths University, 2021
- Terry Riley – In C (1964)
- James Tenney – Having Never Written a Note for Percussion (1971)
- Alvin Lucier – Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra (1988)
- Camille Saint-Saëns – 6 Études, Op. 52 (1877)
- Camille Saint-Saëns – 6 Études, Op. 52: No. 2, Étude pour l’indépendance des doigts (1877)
- Hélène de Montgeroult – 7 Études (1788-1812)
- Karin Knorr Cetina, ‘Objectual Practice’, in The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, ed. Theodore R. Schatzki et al. (Routledge, 2001), pp. 184-197
- Ella Roberts – The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond (2019)
- James M. Creed – Nomond, or no more Lomond (2022), performed at the University of Leeds, 2022
- Cornelius Cardew – The Tiger’s Mind (Nightpiece) (1967)