James Clarke

This text is based on one written for the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2003, where Final Dance, a work for fifteen instruments written for Klangforum Wien and commissioned by Southwest German Radio, was premiered.

Written in a diary when I was eighteen are the words, ‘It is my intention in my music to work towards a style which retains the subtlety and complexity of certain post '50s music, but which has a clearer, more direct, more communicative form and structure.’ I had already set out then an aim which I have never altered nor deviated from. It seems essential to me that we celebrate the richness of human achievement, the complexity of the mind, skill, craftsmanship, precision. Those works of art which imitate the primitive or attempt some banal simplification of life's complications seem to me to be pointless, sometimes even damaging, because they lead to the acceptance of the idea of the straightforward, easy answer to problems, to lack of choice, ultimately to political and commercial domination by a few over the rest.

Some composers seem to unite a rigorous and clear philosophical investigation with the resultant music, so much so that they can talk eloquently about philosophical or perceptual matters and, in the best of such cases, the music not only stands up as great music from every independent perspective, but seems also to be an example of the investigations carried out verbally which have just been expounded. I have nothing but admiration for this. But my own approach is perhaps less clearly driven by the philosophical ideas which are undoubtedly subsequently central to the music that I write, so much as driven by musical impulses which coalesce as clear intellectual argument during the act of composition and can be described only afterwards. Musical ideas form like a magma, erupt like larva, spread like a virus, explode, splinter, are drawn together as if by magnetism, swell like diseased skin; only after this is it clear what the music is about, not where it is going but where it has gone. My music drags me kicking and screaming after it.

In 1991 I wrote a work called La violenza delle idee, the violence of the ideas. We speak normally about the force of ideas, but not of their violence. It was in a book by a Sicilian philosopher, Nunzio Incardona, that I came across the expression. It summed up perfectly what had just been happening in my music. I set out on one road, working out alliances of instrumental groups and material, only to be abducted, kidnapped and bundled into the back of a black car by the notes themselves – gangsters, damn them! – which drove me, the composer, to write the music that they, the notes, demanded.

In 2001 I wrote a work called Delos. Mention of the Greek island was made in texts I had set by the Finnish poet Pentti Saarikoski, who apart from being a great writer was also a great translator of many important works, from Joyce's Ulysses back to the ancient Greeks, Euripides' Heracles in this case. The sentence ‘On Delos the girls are dancing before the temple in honour of Apollo’ appears among many other fragments in my work Deformierte Texte. This image led to a separate piece for ensemble which I called Delos and which ‘unearths’ dance rhythms, as if they had been found among ancient archaeological ruins. Just as much as the force or strength, or, perhaps it would be better to say, the ‘independence’ of the musical ideas has led me as composer down new paths, so new fascinations, sometimes even obsessions, take hold and my work is concerned with journeying down certain pathways finding ever different ways of exploring them. This is central to the work of almost all composers, it seems to me, and is the linchpin of what we come to recognise as their individual pursuits and interests. But it is still musical ideas and their potential that seem to guide me, first and foremost, towards goals of their own choosing, even if they might at first be blurred, as with an image distorted by confusions of memory, in this case strange and ancient dance rhythms which well up and fade.

Composition for me is an act of journeying and exploration, grappling with sounds, ideas, connections. It is above all supremely logical and precise. It expounds no theory; theories and explanations run after the music just as sea-gulls follow a trawler.

I see the arts, sciences and philosophy as companions moving concurrently, side by side, feeding one another in often intangible ways which cannot and should not always be explained in words. It is a quality of music and some of the visual arts that they do not communicate ideas in the same dimension as words. The substance is different. Music can produce in us a greater understanding of the connections within other disciplines just as validly as other disciplines can lead to our understanding of music.

My work involves throwing fireworks in the air and trying to catch them. When the music is white hot it burns my ears and my eyes: I must get up from my desk and leave it. Then I return to the desk and resume the journey.

Thus I imagined Final Dance, a diseased dance about ending, an echo of a broken ceremony, an endgame, a Totentanz, a lament for those cultures whose music and dancing, knowledge and philosophies are being buried by the new global uniformity.

As in a number of my other works, an allusion is made to musical forms and ceremonies that are to be found the world over in many different manifestations. The opening call, or announcement of the start, may take the form of a clear exposition of a scale to be the basis of the music in many cultures (such as in Indonesia), or, as in this instance, a soloist (here a solo bass clarinet) calls, as if inviting a response, before the entire ensemble explodes riotously into action.

Dance rhythms emerge and are shattered, splintered, distorted, deformed, thrown together, rent apart. They surge, swell, diminish, disintegrate, decay, melt, dissolve.