James Black's Colossi was commissioned by Duo Dan/Nie for the project HoMe together with works by Aya Yoshida and Xavier Bonfill. Common to the three composers is that they all live in countries that are not their home country, and HoMe is a study of how encountering new cultures, new languages and new sensory impressions affects the compositional work. Three deeply personal and very different works have come out of this. We asked James Black a few questions about Colossi.
In short, how will you describe Colossi?
"Death and grief have been a lot on my mind lately – I recently lost my second friend to suicide in 2 years. Although Colossi was written before these losses, the current grief I’m in has given me perspective and insight into what I was trying to do when I wrote this piece back in 2020. I think what I was doing with Colossi was trying to work through feelings surrounding the death of my grandmother – Jill Jones - in 2008. There are hints to this all over the piece, some abstract, some extremely concrete. For example, the last movement (‘Another Room’) is a recomposition of Schubert’s G flat major impromptu. Jill Jones loved Schubert, and I remember playing the G flat major impromptu on the piano downstairs while she was dying upstairs. The room I was playing in was a small, closed room with no one else in it, so it was in some senses a private performance. However, I could sense that Jill Jones could hear me playing, and when I was done playing my sister thanked me from the other side of the closed door. This was an intensely emotional experience that I am still untangling, and I think this piece is part of that untangling process."
What lies behind the title?
"The title was stolen from the New Pornographer’s song Colossus of Rhodes. I mostly just like the sound of the word. But, looking back on the piece, there is something about playing with size and ‘bigness’. My grandparents’ house, where Jill Jones died, is a place I have very strong early childhood memories of. I remember it being full of objects, statues, tiny art pieces, little games – a lot of stuff that seemed to me at the time to be impossibly luxurious and mysterious. Colossi starts with the two musicians presenting similar tiny objects to the audience."
The theme of the concert is about living in another country than ones homeland. How is this expressed in your piece?
"I am an immigrant to Denmark but I am not so interested in national identity outside of how it contributes to personal identity. That is to say, issues of ‘Britishness’ or ‘Danishness’ are less interesting to me than the feelings and emotions brought up by interacting with these ideas. I think this has something to do with growing up queer – I felt shut out by the traditional, colossal categories of ‘man’ or ‘woman’, and this instilled in me an innate distrust of identifying with such large labels."
"I have always felt that my ‘national identity’ as a British composer in Denmark, or a Danish composer that happens to be British, or whatever, is not so interesting to me, because nine times out of ten, it is being imposed from the outside and has very little to do with my inner experience. My privileged status as a white immigrant contributes here – I am able to ‘pass’ for Danish, so I can move between the two categories (until I open my mouth and my inelegant Danish tumbles out). Colossi relates to my home country only in the sense that it relates to my past, which took place another country than the one I currently live, in or that the majority of the audience at Klang festival is from. But, as an immigrant, even a white one, even from what Danish society rather uncomfortably deems to be a ‘correct’ country, I am still forced to confront my national identity in a way that people who live in their home country are not (for example, I legally need to carry an ID card everywhere I go – a physical token of my ‘foreigner’ status). In a similar way, I identify as queer and non-binary, so I am forced to confront my sexuality and gender in a way that other people may not be. National identity, then, is just one thread of a much larger, richer, and (to me) more interesting tapestry - but the immigration department take a different view."
Listen to a podcast produced by AUT featuring Fei Nie and Sofie Thorsbro Dan of Duo Dan/Nie speaking about the project HoMe here >>
Duo Dan/Nie: Project HoMe
13 June 21.30, KLANG Festival, Koncertkirken, Copenhagen (DK), Info and tickets >>
- Aya Yoshida: Decode
- James Black: Colossi
- Xavier Bonfill: 2x2
- Bára Gísladóttir: Prussian Blue