James Harley is a Canadian composer teaching at the University of Guelph. He obtained his doctorate at McGill University in 1994, after spending six years (1982-88) composing and studying in Europe (London, Paris, Warsaw). His music has been awarded prizes in Canada, USA, UK, France, Austria, Poland, Japan, and has been performed and broadcast around the world. Recordings include: Neue Bilder (Centrediscs, 2010), ~spin~: Like a ragged flock (ADAPPS DVD, 2015). As a researcher, Harley has written extensively on contemporary music. His books include: Xenakis: His Life in Music (Routledge, 2004), and Iannis Xenakis: Kraanerg (Ashgate, 2015). As a performer, Harley has a background in jazz, and has most recently worked as an interactive computer musician. 2017 performances include: CubeFest, Blacksburg, Virginia; Remembering Pauline, Montreal (with Gayle Young); Beast Feast, Birmingham, UK; Creative Music Symposium, Guelph (with Gayle Young, Jeff Bird); Thursday at Noon, Guelph (with Joe Sorbara).
This interview has been edited for length and concision.
Annie Corrigan: Music has taken you all over the world. What is special about Canada’s music scene?
James Harley: There are many special things about music in Canada, but these are relevant to our work: “soundscape” was developed by R. Murray Schafer, with a focus on listening to the world around us, and applying principles of acoustic ecology to develop awareness of issues around sound and noise. Soundscape Composition is very strong in Canada (Barry Truax, Hildegard Westerkamp, Claude Schryer, Andra McCartney, etc. These are primarily studio-produced works based on field recordings. The work of Schafer to bring the music out into the world (Patria cycle) has inspired musicians around the world, including the folks at Sound Symposium with activities such as the Harbour Symphony.
AC: I will be attending your sound gathering workshop (presented with Gayle Young). When you enter a space in the hopes of recording sound, what are you listening for? Are some spaces better for sound gathering than others?
JH: I am interested in interesting sounds, and by extension, interesting spaces. “Interesting” is of course subjective. I am more attracted to non-human/non-machine sounds, but my “Northern India Soundscapes” includes all kinds of sounds, kind of like a travelogue. It also explores different spaces: outdoors, on a lake, inside the resonant Taj Mahal, etc. The critical element is to try to listen closely, and pay attention to the sounds/spaces you become aware of.
AC: Looking at your bio, I wonder how your research on the music of Iannis Xenakis has influenced your composing and/or performing.
JH: I think I have been especially influenced by Xenakis’s deep and original investigations into what music can be, focusing on the sonic elements over abstract processes. He used abstract processes, but almost always in order to transform sounds and create multi-dimensional musical structures in tine. I do not have his background in engineering and mathematics, but I am inspired by his approach. I have explored applying chaotic functions to musical processes, especially because they model processes that exist in nature.
AC: What can Sound Symposium attendees expect from your “Lithophonics One?”
JH: A lithophone is an instrument made of stone. Gayle has collected some slate stones from the shores of NL, and the sounds they make when she plays them are really beautiful. What I do is to take her sounds, process them on the computer in various ways then spatialize them, so you are immersed in this sound world.
James Harley At Sound Symposium XIX*
- Concert — Thursday, July 5 at 8:00pm (LSPU Hall)
- Workshop, Sound Gathering — Tuesday, July 10 at 2:00pm (begin at LSPU Hall)
- Concert — Wednesday, July 11 at 9:00pm (LSPU Hall)
- Workshop Creations — Thursday, July 12 at 7:00pm (LSPU Hall)
*Times and locations subject to change.