James Stephenson

With just one week to go before the Sequenza 21/MNMP Concert, we’re all very excited. Music is being rehearsed, friends and loved ones have been invited, and, for some from out of town, travel plans have been made for a visit to New York. But one composer will be making a particularly long journey to hear the concert. James Stephenson is joining us from the United Kingdom. He tells us more in the following eloquent essay.

When my duo Oracle Night is performed at the Sequenza 21 / MNMP concert on 25 October, it will be my first performance outside Europe.  A work being played overseas – on another continent even – means flights, hotels, jetlag, and – worst of all – funding applications.  This comes as quite a shock to someone who is used to either conducting my own works or, at most, hopping on a train and speeding up or down the (rather small) British Isles for a couple of hours to go and watch a performance.

Writing funding applications might not be the most enjoyable way I can think of to pass a Saturday afternoon, but it does make you reflect on things. After all, as composers it’s not very often that we ask ourselves questions such as “what will you gain from this experience in terms of professional development?” let alone draw up a detailed budget. But in the never-ending quest for the next performance and the next commission, how often do we really think about composing as a career with a plan and a trajectory?

And so, whilst trying not to explicitly mention how much I wanted an autumn holiday in the Big Apple, I filled in my funding applications with reflective paragraphs about exposure and widening my profile, about networks and contacts, about the creative growth and technical development which will surely come from working with such high calibre musicians. However, by the end of it I realised that there was something else I was overlooking, and though the funding agencies might not be too impressed, it is nonetheless a thing of vital importance for the 21st Century composer.

That thing, of course, is the Internet. I am old enough to remember the days before I had my first email account, before we had dial-up internet access at home. But only just – the World Wide Web has certainly pervaded most of my adult life, and I count myself amongst the first generation of composers where the accessibility of information and communication which the Internet brought about has opened up literally a world of influences for each and every one of us. Oracle Night, as an example, makes use of Scottish and Japanese influences. Now it happens that I have visited both countries, but nonetheless the difference between having to travel somewhere to experience indigenous and traditional music as opposed to firing up your web browser and typing in a Google search is remarkable indeed. Every type of music imaginable is at our fingertips – to hear, to read, to analyse and to internalise and incorporate into our own output. And of course, I would never have seen a call for works for this performance if I couldn’t access the Sequenza 21 website from my desk in Manchester.

But beyond information, there is the communication aspect of the web: the social network. My greatest hope for my trip to New York actually isn’t that I will meet people who could be inspiring, influential or otherwise useful contacts. What I’m actually hoping for is to meet as many as possible of the people I know through facebook, twitter, websites and email discussions. A number of musicians who I greatly respect live on the Eastern seaboard – some old friends and collaborators, but many who I’ve only met through the internet, and the chance to meet them, argue with them, buy them a drink and put the world (of music, at least) to rights, that’s what I’m looking forward to most of all.

As a tool for bringing composers and contemporary performers together, as well, the web has opened up unimaginable avenues in recent years. Beyond the websites, blogs and tweets, there’s the interactivity of forums and facebook groups, some of which create rich opportunities for the web-inclined composer (I am writing for an ensemble in continental Europe at the moment, who I met through facebook earlier in the year after they saw a YouTube video of my oboe quartet). What a remarkable thing it is to meet a few of these people, with whom you have exchanged ideas, challenged and supported each other – with whom only 20 years ago you could never in a lifetime have shared a conversation.


The Sequenza 21 Concert is free.

October 25 at 7 PM

Joe’s Pub in NYC

Tickets and Tables are still available by phone.

Call 212.539.8778 to make your reservation