Interview: James Black and the summoning of POSY

When James Black speaks about his new piece POSY it seems like a long line of associations carefully arranged: From Scientology to Schubert with detours to a British nightclub, the Catholic mass and wind band music.

The process of writing POSY started in a different way than most other compositions. When James Black received Pelle Prisen at Klang Festival 2018 he met with festival director Christian Winther Christensen to discuss the possibilities of doing something for Klang 2019. "Christian said: We have a boat! You can do with it what you want," James Black tells and continues: "It has now spun wildly out of control into like 20 different things." 

Whenever James Black writes a new piece he takes a closer look at it afterwards, to see what he did by way of pure instinct, and then works consciously with those things for the next piece he writes. That might be in terms of systematizing a pattern of pitch or rhythm, but also more fundamental issues. The composer’s debut concert in February 2018 brought quite a few things to the surface.

"I have been thinking a lot about what happens when I perform my own pieces," James Black says. "There was something about my debut concert where I was using a lot of stuff from my childhood in the final piece: 'This Piece Will Improve Your Life'. My family was in the audience, and I spoke to my dad afterwards and told him, I felt really angry when I did that piece, and I didn't know why. He said: 'Oh I think you did that on purpose. Subconsciously I think you designed that whole piece so that you could get angry at the end - like some kind of vessel.' So I thought: Okay what happens if I take this idea about transformation and make that even more literal?"

James Black was raised Catholic, he is not religious anymore, but the idea of transformation is essential to Catholicism, and in POSY he draws on inspiration from that, as he explains: "At the mass when you eat the bread and the wine, Catholics literally believe that that becomes the flesh and the blood. It is high camp drama when the priest holds the bread and the wine up and someone rings a little bell. So I thought; I will go all in on this and make my own religion based around this character called POSY." The boat hosts an art installation, which will be open in the daytime for people to visit, displaying various POSY relics. The actual piece will be performed on dry land as well as on the boat and is an attempt to summon POSY through a series of rites.

“I thought about all these little songs or ideas for pieces that I've collected, and I wanted to try and shape these into some kind of transformation vessel similar to the debut concert,” James Black explains and goes on to describe some of the many elements of the piece.

"The starting point was that I wanted to do something with arranging songs because that is what I like to do - and I like to sing a song at the end of a piece," James Black tells. That brought him back to Percy Grainger, whom he did his master’s thesis on in Oxford and his piece 'A Lincolnshire Posy' which is a collection of arranged folk songs. "So I just stole the title directly, and I also included some British folk songs." 

Contemplating boats and religion, Scientology and their cruise ship came to mind - a floating religious prison according to some - and that added an element of aggressive street preaching to POSY, with loudspeakers on the boat.

Cut-out from James Black's POSY flyer
Another boat association brought the composer back to his very first job, handing out flyers for a nightclub on a boat in Bristol, so obviously James Black wanted to make a flyer that will be handed out to the audience. In a stereotype new age design the flyer proclaims the coming of POSY, and – importantly – gives the audience full responsibility for the success of the summoning: “If you do not believe truly with all your being, then POSY will not appear in her complete form” the flyer states. “It is kind of a trick because then people are not allowed to dislike the piece. If it is bad then I can just say: Well it is your fault, because you didn’t believe,” James Black laughs and moves on to the next association: "The nightclub boat was called Thekla - and I found out, that there is a Schubert lied called Thekla, and I thought: Well that is lovely!" he exclaims and adds: "So I want to sing that Schubert lied at the end of the piece."

Besides from James Black himself, another four performers are involved in the piece, each of them friends of the composer, whom he has also worked with before. “A lot of the stuff I am doing in this piece is stuff that only these people can do,” James Black tells and explains that this includes Bára Gísladóttir shouting in Icelandic, and Lorenzo Colombo interpreting Black’s graphic notations. “I am doing everything so structured and systemized these days, so it is nice to do something different,” he says and pulls out a piece of paper filled with what looks like random squiggles. “Usually it is all ones and zeroes, but now I just want to do something like this which is just instincts. I know what I want in my head, and traditional notation is fine but it is also completely inadequate and time-consuming, so drawing is a nice way to get this out. The part just says Lorenzo at the top because I know he can do this. I will just give this to him and see what happens,” he says and adds with a grin: “and then I will be like: NO that is wrong! And then we’ll do it again and try and figure something out together.”

Lorenzo Colombo's percussion part for POSY

To the question of how POSY relates to his previous and future works, James Black answers: “One thing is that now I have more confidence to say: This is what I am interested in. It doesn't necessarily matter if it is good or bad. I was studying for f***ing ages, and now I'm not trying to pass an exam."

“In terms of looking at what I did in the debut concert where a lot of it was just instincts - like this should happen here, and this should happen here - I systematize that instinct bringing it up to the surface in a way where I can play with it some more. And that will bring other stuff up. That is how the human mind works. There is so much shit bubbling down there, that I don't know, so in that way, I can find out more about myself,” James Black says, and another element of the piece comes to mind: “Oh and then there is the marching band...” 

We will leave it there. Join James Black for the summoning of POSY at the quay outside The Black Diamond on Tuesday 4 June at 18.30.

Read more and see the full programme for KLANG festival 2019 here.