An Interview with James Wilson

In his last interview recorded shortly before his death in August 2005, James Wilson talks to Jonathan Grimes about his life and composing career.

Jonathan Grimes: Jim, are you working on any pieces at the moment?

James Wilson: Yes, I’m writing another opera -- my eighth in fact. It’s not easy because it’s intended to be a comic opera, and comedy is much harder to write than tragedies. I’m finding it hard going.

JG: You mentioned in your last interview in 2002 that you were planning to write an opera. How long have you been working on it?

JW: About four months. It’s two acts and I’ve got most of the first act done in piano score. I’m doing something that I disapprove of in writing a piano version first, but that is done for practical reasons because there is a chance of getting it performed fairly quickly -- only a chance, I add -- and if that should happen they’ll want a piano score. I do hate writing something that is going to be an orchestral work in piano terms, but I can’t help it now.

JG: So normally you wouldn’t do that?

JW: No, normally I’d write straight into the full score.

JG: You mentioned that this is your eighth opera -- this is quite an achievement. You wrote the previous seven over a time-span of forty years and your first opera was The Hunting of the Snark, which you wrote in 1963. How did you end up writing so many operas?

Interview with James Wilson (2005): clip1

JW: I’ve always enjoyed writing for the stage. Theatre has always fascinated me -- when I was as a very small boy I had a model theatre and had great fun writing my own plays for it. When I was about twelve I was living very near to Sadler's Wells and I started going to opera and ballet there; I was hooked on the stage. One night I was at a production of Britten’s Let's Make an Opera with Lady Mayer, who I knew pretty well, and during the interval she turned to me and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be splendid if you wrote something like this?’ I said, ‘Commission me and I will,’ and to my astonishment she said, ‘Yes, all right. Done.’ That’s how it happened! Of course there was instant panic on my part but the thing worked -- people liked it.

JG: That was The Hunting of the Snark?

JW: Yes.

JG: That must have been the quickest commission ever received for an opera!

JW: [laughs] We didn’t have anything on paper but it did work.

JG: And from then on you were bitten by the opera bug?

JW: I was, yes.

JG: Did you expect back then to have written so many operas?

JW: No. I always have a long-term plan on things I want to write, but they could be anything from a solo harp piece to a symphony. When I saw the opportunity for an opera [I took it]. That’s how the second one happened -- Twelfth Night. The moment seemed ripe, and there was a lot of interest in the people who would be doing it, so it went ahead.

JG: And if I'm correct in saying this: Twelfth Night was actually performed at the Wexford Opera.

JW: It was. It wasn't officially part of the festival but they lent us the theatre for a Saturday afternoon during the festival. We had one performance there and then the next winter we had two performances at the Abbey. It was the first opera ever done at the Abbey.

JG: As to the subjects of your operas, is there a connection between them? Are you drawn towards certain themes, for instance?

JW: I'm drawn towards oddball characters. I've written about three complete oddballs: Karen Blixen [Grinning at the Devil], Van Gogh[Letters to Theo], and Jonathan Swift [A Passionate Man], all of who are pretty nearly round the bend. They interest me as people and it starts from there. In particular the Van Gogh opera -- I didn't put in a word of my own; every word is in his letters chronologically.

JG: How long do you think you'll be working on this opera you're writing before you see a performance of it? What's the timeframe?

Interview with James Wilson (2005): clip2

JW: I want to get at least the piano score finished by late autumn and then I shall sit down and start on the orchestral score. If the fates are kind it might be a year or eighteen months away but I just don't know. With opera you never really believe it's going to happen until the curtain goes up. There are an infinite number of things that can and do go wrong, and only once in the preparation of an opera I've avoided the point where I've sat down and said, 'Well that's it -- it can't possibly happen now.' but somehow it does.

JG: Are you working with a librettist for this opera?

JW: Yes, Anne Makower, who was until very recently a TV producer for RTÉ. Anne has produced four of my operas and with Twelfth Nightshe was one of the leads.

JG: After your initial idea for an opera, how long does it usually take before you begin working on it?

JW: That varies. In the case of the Van Gogh one [Letters to Theo], it was about ten years, as there didn't seem to be any prospect of a production. The moment came when there seemed to be a chance of a bit of funding and two different organizations decided they'd put a few bob into the opera, and so I went ahead [and wrote it]. What non-professional musicians don't realize is how expensive it is to mount any opera. They forget that there are things called rehearsals, which can possibly go on for months, and you need not only singers but you need a pianist, and a producer in the later stages, and you need a hall which has to have lighting and heating, so that a lot of money is needed in getting opera off the ground.

JG: Leaving opera aside for one moment, I want to go back to your early years. You mentioned you were born in London -- did you grow up in a musical family?

JW: No, there was nobody in the family who was really interested in music, though I do owe it to my mother. I did mention Sadler's Wells: I remember when I was twelve years old I was going to the cinema on a Saturday afternoon and I couldn't get in as it was full. I went home, very disgruntled, and my mother said, 'Why don't you go to Saddler's Wells?' I said, 'Isn't that opera or something awful?' and she said, 'Go and see what it's like.' So I did and it was La Boheme and I was hooked -- the rot set in there.

JG: It must have been great to be so close to a theatre.

JW: It was. I was incredibly lucky because in those days they did new operas like Vaughan Williams's Hugh the Drover and Ethel Smythe'sThe Wreckers -- these are two that I remember. I saw a lot of opera and ballet over the years.

JG: Obviously that was your first experience of opera at the age of twelve. In terms of musical studies, did this follow after that -- did you begin to get lessons?

Interview with James Wilson (2005): clip3

JW: I started piano lessons when I was about nine years old with a piano teacher who was reasonably good -- she wasn't all that good. Her taste in music was rather pretty -- she loved people like Coleridge-Taylor. She did give me a bit of Beethoven and so on but that wasn't the kind of music that interested her. I don't think she knew about form -- you couldn't play a Beethoven sonata unless you know how it's put together, and that I had to find out later. As regards studies, I went on studying on my own through the war. When I was in the Navy there was an organization called The College of the Sea and I did a correspondence course from the destroyer I was in. When I came out of the Navy I had a few bob from my post-war gratuity, and I spent a chunk of it on decent instrumental and composition lessons in London. But I never took an exam in my life and I'm not going to -- I have no letters after my name of any kind.

JG: Was becoming a composer always something that you had at the back of your mind?

JW: Well it was. I do quite honestly remember during the war saying to myself, 'I am going to be a composer -- I don't know how but I am.' I was a civil servant before and after the war, working in London in the admiralty. After the war, I did about eighteen months in Whitehall and then I said, 'No this is not for me any longer -- I'm going to drop it and do what matters.'

JG: And then you moved to Dublin. What made you want to move to Dublin?

JW: Well, during the last part of the war I was stationed in Derry. I suppose I fell in love with Ireland. I used to go across the border whenever I could because you could get nice steaks and things, which you couldn't anywhere else; it was a very beautiful country. When the moment came for me to decide on the break I wanted to get completely out of what I had been doing and where I had been. By that time I knew people in Dublin -- I'd been down here on holidays. I said, 'Well, why shouldn't I go and live over there?' which I did.

JG: And you've never looked back?

JW: No, I've never had one moment's regret.

JG: I remember you said in a previous interview that you came to Dublin to be a composer. This was the late 1940s?

JW: Yes.

JG: A completely different country, compared to today. What was it like starting out as a composer in Ireland?

JW: It was very difficult. After I arrived, it was fifteen years before I got a public performance. I got one from the Dublin Orchestral Players under Brian Boydell and a BBC broadcast of a string trio. It was The Hunting of the Snark that changed things because when I sat down to write it I said, 'I'm going to put everything I know into this, and if it fails maybe I'll take up knitting or something instead of writing music.' Fortunately it did work.

JG: It wasn't until the 1960s that performances of your work began to take off?

JW: No, [by then] people even started asking me for music instead of me going cap-in-hand to them.

JG: The earliest works that we have of yours date from that period. Looking at the list, you wrote numerous pieces during the 1960s across all different genres. Was this a particularly productive time for you?

JW: It was. I got extremely interested in writing vocal music because my instrumental music at that time was freely atonal, which didn't work with voices. Then I found I could write for voices, and I wrote quite a number of sizeable choral works like The Pied Piper and Tam O’Shanter, and a big choral work for children called A Canticle for Christmas. I enormously enjoyed those. I still write choral music.

JG: Yes, the National Chamber Choir has just done one of your recent pieces [Almanac] in Cork.

JW: Yes, lovely performance.

JG: Looking back over your works from the early 1960s, or even if you just take your choral writing, can you see a progression towards what you're writing today or a development in terms of how your approach has changed over the years?

JW: I think it's become a lot simpler. One thing I've always been very interested in is rhythm, and I had the best part of two years after I came to Dublin pottering around the Mediterranean in a small boat. I got involved in Spanish flamenco, Sardinian music and Greek music. I got a feeling for the kind of rhythms that people in this part of the world weren't writing -- they were all writing in 6/8 -- so I started writing in 7/8 and 11/8; once the performers got over the shock it seemed to be all right.

JG: And you were never tempted back then to set traditional Irish music?

JW: Not really, no. Basically I agree with Vaughan Williams -- he said that the only thing you can do with a folk song is play it again louder. Folk music is its own thing and I've never been drawn to the idea of arranging. I don't arrange things at all -- I don't like the idea.

JG: So, at this stage you've written well over 150 works, and I think the term 'prolific' can be used to describe that level of output. Do you write pieces fast or is there another reason for this large output?

JW: I do write fast but I never start writing until I know what I'm going to write. So I never have this problem of scribbling things down and throwing them away because they're wrong. I wait until I know what it should be and get the overall shape of it in my mind, and the kind of harmony.

JG: So you wait until you have the idea formed to a reasonable degree before you begin working on something; so by that stage you have a very clear conception of what you want to achieve?

JW: Yes.

JG: Are you composing regularly -- is this something that you do all the time?

JW: Yes, I am at it all the time and if I'm away for a day or two I'm still thinking about what comes next; it doesn't stop.

JG: And in terms of how you work, do the methods that you use change according to what you're writing for, or is there an actual pattern around how you work?

JW: I wonder. I don't think I have any sort of inflexible scheme -- it varies quite a lot. Years ago I used to write regularly, starting at such a time in the morning and going on through. Now that has stopped because I'm living alone and I've got to do the laundry and wash up last night's dinner things, and occasionally sweep the floor if someone's coming to see me. So it's all pretty flexible.

JG: And do you find now that you react or respond differently to ideas than you did, say, twenty or thirty years ago?


Interview with James Wilson (2005): clip4

JW: Yes. I have, over the years, experimented with all kinds of composition techniques -- twelve-note cells, particular scales. Nowadays, I use a mixture of them. Without wanting to sound pompous, it's what Debussy did -- he incorporated plainsong and whole-note scales in his music when he got older. That I do. I very much use curious scales -- I did in the two choral pieces you mentioned for Cork.

JG: So there is a mix of approaches and techniques, which you have experimented with over the years that you're now bringing into your compositions.

JW: And of course, there's the business of writing for specific instruments -- finding out what you can do with them. Recently, I was writing for bass clarinet for the first time, which is a gorgeous instrument -- just finding out what it can do is a lot of fun.

JG: Going back to vocal writing, and in particular text setting, looking back over your list of works setting text has been a very important constant: rarely has a year has gone by that you haven't set some piece of text or written some vocal piece. Has your approach to setting text changed much over the years?

Interview with James Wilson (2005): Clip5

JW: Yes, I think it has. A lot of it depends on whom you're setting it for. I never just sit down and say 'I will write a song or a cycle.' -- it's always for specific performers. I have been incredibly lucky with the people who have sung my songs -- people like Dorothy Dorrow, Jane Manning, Virginia Kerr and so on; really top singers. Naturally they influence the way you write. Dorothy has three perfect octaves under her belt, so you make use of that if you're writing for her. As regards choice of words, very often, I set words that were drummed into me at school, when I thought nothing of them. For instance, The Rape of the Lock, chunks of which I have set: it never occurred to me that it was a good poem when I was at school.

JG: That's interesting. It didn't have the opposite effect that it may have with some people in that they just couldn't bring themselves to read material that was drummed into them at school -- you were able to stand back and see it's beauty.

JW: I remember the first poem at school that suddenly, to my great surprise, I found I enjoyed was the Lake Isle of Innisfree. I thought, 'Gosh, this stuff is not written just for you to pass exams. It actually means something.'

JG: And are there particular poets or writers that you enjoy setting over others?

JW: Yes. By and large, I avoid setting great poetry, apart from Yeats, because it doesn't need any help from you -- it has got its music. People like Burns, Alexander Pope or Browning -- people who aren't quite at the top... you can cast a new light on the poems or possibly add something. That's my theory anyway. Particularly Burns: when you study his poems they are incredibly clever -- they're so beautifully written technically. People in general think he was a country bumpkin but he was an extraordinary writer.

JG: Another part of your career has been teaching. For many years you taught composition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music and you were a founder member of the IMRO Ennis Composition Summer School. Teaching is obviously something you enjoyed very much over the years.

JW: Yes, I've loved teaching. It's a curious business -- looking back over the years, some of the people who, at the time I said to myself, 'Now this moron -- I'm totally wasting my time on this one. He will never be any good; it's time I sent him home.' I didn't do so and they blossomed into quite good composers since, but gave me no indication whatever when I was teaching them that they'd ever do anything.

JG: Well I won't ask you for names, because I know you won't tell me!

JW: No, don't. [laughs]

JG: From your unique perspective as the doyen of Irish composers -- I'm not sure if you're comfortable with that expression...

JW: I think it only means oldest [laughs].

JG: What are your thoughts on the current state of Irish composition and the scene today in Ireland?

JW: I would hesitate to pronounce on it. What I do think is that there are facilities for composers now that were beyond my wildest dreams when I was twenty. If you've got a bit of get up and go, you can get performances in Ireland now of substantial works. You've got to have a brass neck and you have got to carry on organizing what you want, even when everybody is telling you to drop it. That is one of the hardest things when you start -- you don't believe in yourself and you've got to convince some hard-headed conductor or whoever that your music is worth doing; you hate that part of it. Now we've got an extraordinary range of composition going on from electronics to folk and jazz, and good luck to all of them. Frankly I do not understand electronic composition -- it will have to get on without me, I'm afraid.[laughs]

JG: You're not tempted to take it up?

JW: No, I'm not. I have not especially enjoyed what I've heard. Nobody likes everything -- I can't stand Wagner but I know he was quite good in his way. There are some very fine composers working nowadays in this country and making reputations abroad.

JG: You mention not liking Wagner -- what composers have influenced you most over the years?

JW: Mozart, and then there’s probably a gap until you get to Debussy and Ravel. Stravinsky, Prokofiev... What I love in music is economy and clarity. I want to hear everything that is going on, which is why, to my mind, one of the best twentieth century composers was Henri Dutilleux, in whose music -- may it be for an enormous force -- you'll hear every note. He's been an inspiration.

JG: And are there any other twentieth century composers who have inspired or influenced you, even in passing?

JW: Yes, Lutoslawski. In fact, it has been said that any music you hear influences you, and that I think is true. For me, the names I've given you are the ones I'm conscious of as influences. Again, one of my deities is Schubert but I would not presume to write like Schubert, wish I could!

JG: Looking back over the last forty years or so, what are the pieces that would stand out for you and would be milestones along your career?

JW: Probably the Accordion Quintet because it was unlike anything else I'd done; the operas, in particular Grinning at the Devil -- that I think is the best of my operas. Then there's a piece I wrote calledAngel One for string orchestra, which I think is a good piece; one or two song cycles -- Carrion Comfort, in which I set Gerard Manley Hopkins -- not easy! Those are some of the things I do remember.

JG: As to the future, presumably the opera is going to take up a large part of you time, but aside from this are there any other works that you plan to write?

JW: I've no plans at the moment. The way chamber music and song cycles happen is that I meet somebody who's got a recital coming up, and they say, 'I've got a concert coming up next November -- can you write me something?' and then they look at me and say firmly, 'Not more than twelve minutes.' That's usually how it comes about. I'm incapable of working on two things at once; some people can but I can't.

JG: I remember John Kinsella telling me this before -- that he could only work on one piece at a time and he envied people who could write simultaneously.

JW: Different kind of mind.

JG: So far this year you've written two works -- The Lion Tamer's Night Off and Two Pieces for Bass Clarinet and Piano. Are there performances of those likely to happen in the future?

JW: I think they will happen. I haven't got a date for either of them. The bass clarinet pieces are for a specific performer who I'm sure will do them. The Lion Tamer's Night Off I'm hopeful -- I think it will be done. I had great fun writing it.

JG: This is for speaker and orchestra?

JW: Yes. I mentioned Anne Makower, who I've worked with over the years. She's a buddy of mine, and we were talking one day and I was saying how much I hatedPeter and the Wolf -- I think it's a deplorable piece. Anne said, 'Everybody does it all the time because there's nothing else for speaker and orchestra.' We looked at each other and said, 'Let's write something.' She wrote me a libretto.

JG: Fantastic -- an Irish version of Peter and the Wolf.

JW: [laughs] Let's not go into that.

JG: Well that's all I wanted to ask you, so thanks very much, Jim.

JW: Thank you.

James Wilson was interviewed on video by Jonathan Grimes in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 11 July 2005..

The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.