A few weeks ago, Juliette Furio sat down with contemporary classical composer James Maher, and learned his creative passion lay just as much with words as it does music.
Also a poet under the alias “James Kenneth,” James Maher is one of the more brilliant minds of this generation’s emerging creative souls. All in all, he can be said to be a fervent believer in the transcending powers of music and offers up one hell of an interesting conversation.
James’ compositions are deep, complex and layered with the flavours of diverse Eastern styles of music. His love of the moment has its roots in India, particularly traditional Hindustani music. “I love the way the rhythm is treated, the way melodies are developed and the sense that symbolism is in everything that music is about.”
He goes on to explain the term “raga” – which refers to a song form. Traditionally it is performed at different parts of the day. “There is a raga in the morning, which is completely different to the raga of the afternoon and that of the evening. It is tied into their ontology – the way that they define themselves.”
As he talks, it becomes apparent that what James values is the manner in which music and the self are bound as one in this community.
“I like the stability,” he confides, “the way it’s just a part of them and permeates their lives! In the West we look at music as a separate entity, as a leisurely pursuit. I think should be fully, holistically incorporated in society.”
When asked about the origin of his musical works, James ruefully admits that it started out as an act of teenage defiance. “Everybody goes through that generic rebellious teenage phase,” he says with a twinkle. “I wanted to write music for myself and I wanted to play all the instruments myself, it was quite narcissistic. But I started composing music to transcend my experience, which I felt was dismal. We often have so many emotional experiences that we can’t pin down. I can’t put them into the writing – these impulses – so I put them into the work and I structure them and give them harmonic language. It’s almost subliminal. I don’t feel present when working my process.”
Maher recently completed a choir work titled The Eye of the Sahara, an homage to the mysterious rock formation in Africa. “It’s about this 40-kilometre radius eye that has been peering up at the cosmos for millions of years. The harmonic language is very evocative and it’s meant to take the audience away from where they are sitting.”
Work-shopped by the Echology Chamber Choir at Newcastle University (to be performed next year), Maher would like to see his works at music festivals and in concert, “but that’s years away,” he says with a grin, spirits never dampened by the prospect of the challenge.
Persevering in the exploration of the more experimental hemisphere of contemporary music, James Maher’s work was recently featured in the Create2308 Arts Festival as part of The Tone Collective (now The Tone Camerata). The group performed Switch, an interactive piece that could be described as a sound instillation. “What we did, once we started composing, was to think – how are we going to get the audience involved?
“Well, we had this idea of having touch lights. So, each musician ended up with a touch light in front of them and when the audience comes up to the performance space – which is shrouded in darkness with a trail of lights leading up to our little stage – and activates one of the lights, it acts as a trigger for a variable in the performance. When one light is turned on, we will go into a different section. So the composition process itself has real audience interaction!”
The purpose of this project is, very simply, to break down the seemingly inscrutable process of composition and, in effect, give it back to the audience. Here is the very simple want for connection, to share in one another’s experiences and transcend this world together, through music.
In respect to his poetry, Maher’s writing began much like his music as a means to vent. High school proved an alienating experience and thus music was a way to deal with the world as an absurd and confronting place. “I always felt…” Pausing, Maher takes a frustrated, disbelieving breath. “Excluded! I feel like I was lacking the cultural capital you needed, I wasn’t a fashionable kid. I didn’t have the right clothes – I didn’t have anything! It became a lifeline for my emotional survival.”
Recounting his senior year, Maher talks of typical teenage restlessness, of skipping class when things got too much (perhaps more often than he would like to admit) when one day, walking into his English class, they happened to be talking about William Blake. “I loved William Blake because he was self-educated he was alienated, he was chaotic, he was a beautiful idealist and a little bit deluded…it just seemed to tick all the boxes for me. To find somebody in the stratosphere of poetry or writing who might be a little bit like you, who might share some resemblance to you…it might be a tenuous link but it’s still there!”
That same afternoon, the teenaged James Maher went to the library and stole all the William Blake books they had. “I don’t know if I should admit that. We just won’t name the school. I took them in defiance as a 17-year old and I ran out of the school and I was so happy! That was the big moment for me – William Blake – that’s when started to be more serious.”
The next major event in James Maher’s poetic career happened years later on a trip up to Nimbin where he found himself at a poetry reading at the Oasis café. A beautiful space filled with lovely, eccentric characters, he remembers a young girl reading a graphic poem about suicide, and an old man, shaking and inaudible, who followed with an epic poem of 200 lines. “I got up and read this little thing I had written in the car, The Faun in Rapture, which was still rooted in Romantic writing. I read this piece and one of the guys said ‘Good work’. That meant a lot to me and I’ve just kept writing.”
Having written several large-scale pieces since, Derailment is the latest instalment of James Maher’s prose poetry. About a relationship collapsing over six months, it is a dry recount of financial difficulties and emotional strain that lacks his youthful idealism. The piece is made up of 22 parts, comprised of 10 poems in each. Paralleling a protagonist’s journey to a city on a train, certain junctions in the trip trigger memories or association. It is both a commentary of the character’s experience, while talking first person of the experience.
“In the end they come together and the piece resolves…sort of. There are some very candid things in there. My fears, paranoia, anxieties. They are in it.”
With roots in Romanticism and a love of Beat poetry, James Maher wants to make his writing less dense. “The post-beats like Bukowski removed all the high-esteem from the writing. Rhyme was thrown out the window alongside stringent metric devices and hierarchical ideas of what constituted good poetry. I like that idea that you can incorporate anything and be straightforward. But I don’t like being completely straightforward. I like ambiguity. I’m trying to find a balance between dense mysticism and, say, a laconic recount from old Joe down at the pub,” he says with a self-conscious, genuine laugh.
“Do you know what I mean?”
Check out James Maher’s works
And you can see Juliette’s blog here.