It was both exciting and daunting to be asked to write for The Hermes Experiment – exciting, because, after a few years of writing almost exclusively in a jazz idiom, it was a chance to reconnect with the world of contemporary classical music, and daunting, because I had not written for a ‘classical’ group for some time. As a jazz performer, I was also excited to write for musicians who could improvise, but were not jazz musicians. From seeing them perform in November 2014, I had an idea of the Hermes Ensemble’s improvisational skills, and I knew from the off that I wanted improvisation to play an important structural role in my work for them.
The idea for the piece began with an exchange with the group on Twitter – I joked that I would write them a piece of purest, darkest misery and call it A Joyful Noise. What started as a weak pun led to a real aim for the piece – to make something which was truly joyful, embracing elements of freedom and ‘roughness’ valued in jazz and in folk music. As a teenager, I had intended to become a ‘new music’ composer, but had found myself feeling constrained by the language of the music I encountered into writing pieces that sounded miserable and negative. The more time I spent listening to and playing jazz, and later Latin American, Middle Eastern and African music, the more my compositional language opened up and I felt more able to express positivity in my music, without feeling like I was rehashing or imitating old styles.
In A Joyful Noise, I have set out a sequence of musical events, but for certain sections left the timings of these and the detail for the musicians to improvise. Other parts are set and give the piece landmarks from which to hang the freer stretches. As a composer I enjoy the process of collaborating with performers, so rather than setting everything out for them in advance, we had a workshop in December 2014, to which I brought the kernels of the final piece’s three sections. This gave me the opportunity to test how well my ideas translated onto the group, but also to see how well the musicians could balance the individual freedoms of their parts with the need to listen carefully to the others in order to synchronise events. Fortunately, they were well up to the task, and I knew I could give them a finished piece which still left them a lot of freedom.
My recommendation to the listener would be not to try and work out what is improvised and what is not, but rather to keep an eye out for the interaction of the musicians. This is, for me, one of the most exciting aspects of seeing a great jazz group (or for that matter any kind of music in which improvisation plays a key role), and my aim with A Joyful Noise is that The Hermes Experiment and I can bring some of this spontaneity back to contemporary music.