Meet MTPD's resident composer James Banner

Our resident composer James Banner has just been selected as part of the Making Music Adopt a Composer Scheme, is currently writing a choral work using the words and stories of people living in Berlin and is busy keeping up a career as a performer and composer in Berlin and in the UK. In his role as composer at MTPD James facilitates and develops creativity in our workshop participants, creating collaborative compositions which have in our last few projects captured and reflected children’s sense of self and identity and produced a work comprised of different coloured themes. For this months blog we posed some of the brilliant questions asked by some of the children we have worked with and we asked a few of our own too. 

“I love to go and see my friends and peers play whenever I can; I think when musicians support each other it feels like a real community."


In our Who am I? workshops the children often asked the musicians What inspires you? Can you tell us What inspires you and why? 

In musical terms I would say that seeing a live performance is the most inspiring and motivating thing that gets me practising and writing myself, and also makes me want to play more. I try to see concerts of both people and works I know and don’t know. I think if you can see a live performance of a piece that you know really well, it will make you hear it in a different way, and you will notice things you never did before. Going to see something without knowing anything about it beforehand can also be inspiring, and help you to come to know yourself and your taste, which I think is really important for your voice as a musician. I also love to go and see my friends and peers play whenever I can; I think when musicians support each other it feels like a real community.

“I get inspired a lot by books and find great words can be life-changing and open your mind to viewing the world the way someone else sees it.”

Second to the musical sources of inspiration would probably be travelling and seeing interesting places, being inspired by a certain location or works of another artist, whether that be dance or painting or anything else. I find these things stimulate my brain in a different way to the physical act of composing or performing. 

I get inspired a lot by books and find great words can be life-changing and open your mind to viewing the world the way someone else sees it. As well as this, the conviction demonstrated by public figures and activists who really believe in something and give themselves fully to a cause, and the struggles that much of the world endures, always brings me down to earth and reminds me of how lucky I am to be doing what I do. I think it’s important to remember your roots and how different your life could be if you were somewhere else or in a different time.

We know its a difficult question but who is your favourite composer?

“… what I like about all of these composers and musicians is their connection to the childlike and folk, their integrity and commitment to every note, and the way they can make the same music sound new to me every time, almost as though it’s improvisation.”

I go through phases of listening a lot to certain composers (and musicians), I think this is normal. In the last few years it has mostly been 20th Century composers such as Bartók, Stravinsky, Ravel, Shostakovich and Ligeti, as well as great older composers such as Gesualdo or Bach. Then certain people who are sidemen/women with favourite bandleaders, or parts of larger ensembles, such as Israel Crosby with Ahmad Jamal. Listening to my favourite recordings of certain chamber pieces and finding out who is playing a solo part, such as Israel Baker in the Columbia recording of A Soldier’s Tale, or discovering new amazing soloists such as Patricia Kopatchinskaja or Pekka Kuusisto and following their trail is a great way of finding new stuff. Once you start looking into these musicians and composers lives you realise how small their world was, and still is for us today. I think what I like about all of these composers and musicians is their connection to the childlike and folk, their integrity and commitment to every note, and the way they can make the same music sound new to me every time, almost as though it’s improvisation.

Creative activities like composition can feel daunting to someone trying it for the first time - what do you think about when you are composing?

In most cases I am composing for a situation; a concert or a specific group of musicians. This helps to at least give me some parameters to work within and think about. Sometimes the hardest thing can be to write the first notes. Having a sound in your head, a concert date to aim for, or specific musicians to write for can really help give it all a frame. Other times I am working with words, either words that will be performed literally in the final piece, or as starting points for other aspects of the music, the rhythm or form for example. A former teacher of mine John Hollenbeck encouraged me to write lists of types of pieces I had already written, wanted to write, and that other people had already written, as well as lists of types of forms, rhythmic ideas, harmony etc. This is a great resource to refer to if completing daily free composition with no specific aim. Theme and variation and counterpoint exercises can also help me to keep in the mindset of composing and sometimes spawn compositions.

Stravinsky often began improvising at the piano to start his pieces, I have recently experimented with recording and notating piano or vocal improvisations and later changing certain aspects of them to create whole pieces - my recently released album was made mostly in this way. Other pieces on the album came from a compositional study of a harmonic or rhythmic idea for example. I worked on a concept and wrote down all my explorations, essentially creating a series of variations, some of them then become pieces.

Sometimes I can hear a whole piece in my head, or certain aspects of it that are usually textural and rhythmic, with melodic shapes. Or I hear a short idea with specific instruments or a certain way they are orchestrated or interact together. For me it’s then a matter of writing as much of this down as possible as soon as possible! I usually start with the form, writing down purely descriptive words and approximate lengths of time, as well as how I imagine certain parts transitioning to the next, alongside specific musical elements such as a rhythm or a melody. These don’t always become entire pieces, but usually give me something to consider when composing.

Personally I try to record or notate every idea I have, when and how it came about (if possible) and come back to them later. I think having your own archive of ideas is great for future material and also keeping track of your own development as a composer. Coming from a jazz background I also try to consider the relationship between the composed elements and the improvised, and what room there is for the musicians themselves to have input into the music and put their stamp on it.

What are your top tips for a young composer or musician?

1. Be open to composing and performing in new contexts and listening to different music; even if you may not like it at first, there is some value in knowing why you do or why you don’t. This could be as simple as getting together with a friend and playing duo for an hour, or typing a name of a composer you’ve heard of into youtube

2. Write lists! Lists are great because you can come back to them later as a resource, as well as see how things have changed or stayed the same

3. Discover what you want to achieve or put across as a performer or composer. The more music you know, the more influences you are opening yourself up to, and at some point this all gets reduced down and becomes your own individual style. Don’t forget you probably started to do music because it was fun!

4. Appreciate non-musical things (reading books, cooking etc.) This can provide perspective for life outside of the music bubble, and can serve as inspiration for music making and a great way to take a necessary break. 

5. Don’t forget about the audience! Consider what aspects of what you’re doing might be attractive for an audience, how are you going to connect with them during performance?

Who is your favourite artist and why?

Marc Chagall! His work just seems so honest and what always amazes me is how he seems to have painted and created things exactly how he wanted throughout his whole life with very little compromise. At the same time, he showed development throughout his career and has also worked with some of my favourite composers in some of my favourite places. I love how his work connects nature and specifically animals to music, how fantasy and the unreal is united with the real world in vivid colour, and the childlike nature which runs through his work is captivating. Something to be experienced in a museum or gallery for sure. Other favourites are people like Gillian Ayres, Anselm Kiefer, Matisse, Barbara Hepworth, Picasso, Cezanne.

Tell us about a project you are involved in which you are really excited about?

I have recently been selected to take part in Making Music’s Adopt A Composer scheme, in conjunction with Sound and Music, PRS Foundation and BBC Radio 3. This is a great opportunity for me to collaborate with an established ensemble and create a new piece of music across an extended period of time (albeit with a deadline!), as well as receive mentorship from a great composer Emily Crossland. I am excited about the amount of things I am going to learn by working with such a large group and composing for an instrumentation that’s new to me, and I’m looking forward to the opportunities that this scheme may bring in the future. Emily is also a Gamelan performer and this is something I hope to get involved in too at some point! I’m also excited about writing for my choral project Voices of Berlin, as well as touring with my band USINE in 2019 - and of course embarking on some new adventures with MTPD!

To end our interview we wanted to find out What is the best thing about being resident composer at MTPD?

I love seeing the moment when children who may have no strong direct connection to music realise that they have worked together to compose a piece of music, and I have been there to help facilitate that. It’s also very fulfilling to see incredibly creative children who may struggle in other subjects being given the opportunity to excel in music and art, to truly be themselves and be rewarded for that, increasing their self-confidence and effecting a real change within them. 

“The ideas that come from children’s imaginations are quite often very outside the box for an adult; this I find inspiring!”

The focus of using often non-musical elements such as words, daily lives, and interpretations of various stimuli is a great starting point for creating music and compositions, and often being quite young, participants don’t have as many preconceptions about the way things ‘should’ be or what music or art actually is. The ideas that come from children’s imaginations are quite often very outside the box for an adult; this I find inspiring! Letting the children run with their ideas and really direct the flow of the workshop is a non-traditional way of working as a teacher, but actually makes the most sense from a artistic point of view, since they are the creators. I try to bring this openness and into my own world of improvising and composing and always remember what it was like to be in the imagination of a child.

Find out more about James and his latest projects at -

www.jamesbanner.com 

https://voicesofberlin.de/blog/ 

https://www.makingmusic.org.uk/news/first-thoughts-adopt-composer 

Adopt a Composer is run by Making Music in partnership with Sound and Music, in association with BBC Radio 3, and funded by PRS Foundation and the Philip and Dorothy Green Music Trust.

Megan Jowett