»I would very much like to survive, thanks in advance«
James Black owes me an article. Except I’m no longer the one it’s owed to, it’s my successor as editor here at Seismograf, Andreo. Also, it wasn’t one article, but several. Long, elaborate articles requiring many hours of work. The conversation went somewhat like this over phone some two years ago: So, I want to speak to some other colleagues about religion, says Black. That might sound a little dry, I think, and isn’t it a bit much to sign up for, a single Seismograf article can be difficult enough to finish, so an entire series? I hesitate politely, but on the phone, I hear James insisting. A yes leaves my mouth because James sounds oddly motivated, and when James writes, it is usually like a raging fire of indignation and damned clarity: pure critic gold. Three or four articles on music and religion? Yes, please, James, you do that.
The words were too angry, the attacks on friends, colleagues, and the immediate surroundings were too fierce
But James Black didn’t do it. Time passed, a pandemic made it go extra slow, at some point I received a rather vague message that personal problems were involved. A close friend had died, suicide, don’t expect anything for the time being. I understood, pulled back, and didn’t expect to hear more about the project. It wouldn’t be the first time a good idea crumbled under the weight of its own ambitions. Not long after, corona-induced restlessness and a long-time urge for change – in thought, in writing, and in life, indecision must be the name for it – made me think what I thought I’d never think: I quit my job as editor. The last thing I expected was to ever hear about the failed series of articles again. But then, a few months ago, an email appeared: James had written a text but didn’t think it was suited for publication. The words were too angry, the attacks on friends, colleagues, and the immediate surroundings were too fierce. Maybe we could arrange for me to just interview James instead? Much, way too much, had happened.
So here I am. In James Black’s (barely) two-seater sofa in Nørrebro. A one-room, ground-floor apartment shared with Black’s partner, Julius, a flutist from the academy. Filled with potted plants (kept alive by Julius), scores (I see SPEAK on a table), and the mess that can’t be avoided when two people live together in a very small space. Behind a room divider is a bed, at the foot of the bed there’s a small desk, and over here, one metre away, is a tiny sofa setup under a sunny, open window. James is sitting in a lotus position, I’ve accepted a glass of water, and I’m cautiously looking around, trying not to look like a journalist searching for intimate objects to spice up his text. Two years ago, I moved into a three-room apartment in Amager, all by myself. This is a different world, a different life. More cosy, maybe more honest. A protective cave?
Too angry to be objective
Definitely a protective cave. We get right to it. I’ve heard the outlines of Black’s story before I got here; a homosexual boy’s Catholic upbringing in Bristol, a queer composer in a heteronormative Danish music scene, a young person whose friends keep dying, grief, anger, and, recently, reflections on nonbinary identity. What I’ve perceived as an extremely playful and undogmatic composer when I’ve seen Black’s works over the past five years was, in reality, an artist who – beneath the surface, often unconsciously – struggled to engage with a traumatic conflict between religion and queerness. When we agreed to do the infamous article series, it led to reflections that, all of the sudden, made several things seem clear: why Black was so concerned with Catholic hymns; why the performance piece POSY invented its own god – a nongender enigma with a cubist face – and, ultimately, why Black couldn’t, wouldn’t, write those goddamn articles.
Black had been raised in a small Catholic community where the father and Black took turns playing the organ or the saxophone, respectively, at Sunday services
James Black was, essentially, too mad to be objective. To speak constructively with more or less religious colleagues about their relationship to Catholicism or Protestantism, or to the church community. Several of the interviews had actually already been done. Some had said they weren’t religious themselves but that they were taken by the religious community and its rituals. Others had met Christianity through music alone, and they thought, »Jesus seemed like a cool guy«. What was this rubbish? Black had been raised in a small Catholic community where the father and Black took turns playing the organ or the saxophone, respectively, at Sunday services. The congregation consisted of 30 people, mostly retirees. What would their peaceful eyes and pleasant kindness turn into if the teenager confessed to being a homosexual? Black grabs a heavy, dusty book in the room divider that functions as a bookcase.
»Here it is, Hymns Old and New in the organ edition. I was playing off this every other week with a guitarist who also sang. There was no choir, the church I went to was really small. This idea of religious music being grand, I don’t have this link. For me it is crappy, low-quality, people are nearly dead, they can’t sing, my dad is upstairs playing the organ. I didn’t want to be there because I was struggling with growing up queer in a Catholic church, but my parents wouldn’t let me quit. I’m still pissed about that,’ Black says, laughing bitterly. ‘I was so angry in church, knowing that none of this was meant for me. It wasn’t discussed, homosexuality, but the Pope at the time had said some awful things. He thought he was saving the world, but I knew what the Catholic church believed. The pain of not knowing if these nice old people in the church – and my family – would hate me if I revealed myself … it was just shit. All of that, for me, got mixed up with music.«
Escape to Copenhagen
Nevertheless, James Black the teenager wanted to become a musician. The awful saxophone accompaniment on Sunday mornings had led to good sight-transcription skills, and before that, countless hours had been spent with the music notation programme Sibelius to turn the organ scores into something that could be played by an E-flat saxophone or a B-flat clarinet. Fun? No, on the contrary. But useful. »It was a good musical education, but it was fucking weird,« says Black, turning the pages of the hymn book. When the TV series Skins – one of the biggest fictional loves of my late youth – was about to be filmed, in Bristol, the production team paid a visit to Black’s youth orchestra to find a real musician to play one of the leading roles. Ultimately, it didn’t work out; the role went to a real actor who, according to the internet, thought a clarinet was some kind of flute.
»I hated playing in church but you saw those hymns, that’s not very interesting. When you’re playing in an orchestra it’s something else, then we’re talking serious power of music. I remember very vividly the first time I played saxophone in a local wind band; of course, we played James Bond medleys and stuff, but I was just looking around, being like: 'This is fucking great, I want to do this forever.'«
Black also had to escape the Catholic school where the young musician was unhappy. The solution was a Protestant school with a good music department. After that, the slip-resistant conveyor belt that is the English educational system continued: sixth form college, off to Oxford to study music at 18, away from Bristol and church, a change of scenery, but also a too-soon arrival at the finish line. It’s not unusual for Brits to have a PhD at age 25.
»I did bachelor’s and master’s at Oxford, and I could see where this was going, and I was like: I don’t like this, I’m not ready to stop my education now, what the fuck.«
Somewhat by chance Black began to compose. An ensemble workshop had received a cancellation, they needed some music. Maybe Black could step in? Well, why not.
»I was doing composition, and I submitted a piece to the workshop, and they played it and were like: “Oh, this is quite good, maybe you should think about this a bit more.” It was good attention for me since I had lacked the confidence to put myself forward in any way.«
Later on, in second attempt, Black managed to get enrolled in the Royal Danish Academy of Music’s composition programme, earning another master’s degree before entering the academy’s soloist programme. It was more a question of getting out of Oxford and London than a question of getting to Copenhagen, Black admits, being just a little familiar with Bent Sørensen’s music after working at Oxford’s music library, but that was more or less the level of knowledge of Danish music. First and foremost, it was an escape.
»When I moved to Denmark, I decided I was going to make the infinity series my little bitch«
Thank God for Per Nørgård
One of the first things James Black did after moving to Copenhagen was, perhaps a bit surprising, to study the infinity series. Per Nørgård’s old system for creating eternal variation, almost some kind of prototype of musical algorithms, promised a freedom.
»When I moved to Denmark, I decided I was going to make the infinity series my little bitch.«
This is where my recording from the interview gets a bit rough, I have to admit, since I’m about to burst from laughter. Black spent a month writing out the series to get familiar with it. Suddenly it became possible to stretch ideas infinitely without running out of material or losing their core. At first Nørgård’s invention was used to structure pitch, then also rhythm and form.
»I’m still using the infinity series in everything I do.«
At the same time, Black started to use Catholic material in works. The first example being Doxologia, premiered by Athelas Sinfonietta at the 2014 Pulsar Festival.
»It was so bad. So bad, Sune! It was called Doxologia because I was 23 when I wrote it. After the piece was done, I just went straight to the bar and snapped at a friend, also a composer, who said something. Then he looked at me and said: 'You need to calm down, James. You just had a bad piece played. It’s okay.'«
It wasn’t consciously that Catholicism – very much an unresolved trauma for the composer – suddenly appeared in the music. Maybe it was just a matter of taking some familiar material, something traditional, and creating something new out of it.
»I don’t think I was really engaging with it. Maybe in some kind of very abstract way, not in some way I can really pin down. My whole approach has always been to do something uncritically first, intuitively, and then look back on it when it’s finished. That’s also something I got from working with the infinity series. Then a couple of years later I realize, oh, I think I was working through some stuff in the music.«
»It took me a long time to enter a relationship with someone because I was just so repressed from this fucking Catholic upbringing«
Reclaiming Catholic trauma
Now we’re getting closer to the anger that shadowed working with the article series. When Catholicism kept appearing in the music, it was always on an unconscious level – Black has been in therapy for years now – because everything that had been suppressed growing up had to be expressed.
»I had thought about it more as folk culture, like: This is my background, and I’m using it. But in therapy we’ve really opened that box of Catholicism, and I’ve started to see how I was using it to get in touch with the pain it’s given me. All these hymn tunes, Catholic stuff, ritual atmospheres, it’s something I’ve been dealing with unconsciously in my music for a very long time. It sounds very pretentious when I say it but in that way my music is always several years ahead of where my actual brain is.«
When James Black came out to family members – earlier on, at 18, a few days before leaving for Oxford – their reaction was unexpectedly warm.
»They were loving and supportive, it could have gone so much worse. Even when they told my very Catholic grandparents, they had the common sense to not bring it to me that they struggled with it … whatever fuck that means. But it took me a long time to enter a relationship with someone because I was just so repressed from this fucking Catholic upbringing, where I was repressing a lot of stuff. Using Catholic stuff is kind of a way of reclaiming that for myself.«
That reclaiming has taken many forms. In a piece like This Piece Will Improve Your Life, part of Black’s debut concert in 2018, traumas were taken up consciously for the first time. I see – so that’s how the title was meant to be understood, not as sarcasm but as concrete reality.
»In that I had the potential to help myself through some things because I was doing stuff on stage from my extremely unhappy childhood in front of my family who were three rows away. I felt, oh, I can actually do this for myself.«
Straight people …
I begin to understand why James Black was so keen on writing the article series. And why it could never work out. For a person who has always been measured on a petty, religious scale, there can be no understanding of the romantic view on religion that people with other backgrounds might have. Trying to explain their views and acting as a somewhat objective interviewer would almost be like adding a new trauma to the collection.
The impossibility of the project wasn’t lessened by the fact that repression was only one side of the story. As we’re sitting in the sofa – me nervously checking all my recording devices while also trying to act as a Socratic mediator for the criticism Black has had a hard time putting into writing with nuance – I realize that this isn’t just a matter of religion.
»This is also about the rest of the fucking world,« says Black, trying to frame it by sharing an experience. One time Black came home from an ‘extremely boring’ concert of new music. When Julius asked how it was, Black looked at him with a dead stare and just said: »Straight people …« Julius understood immediately.
»I didn’t really know what I meant by that comment but he was like: 'No, I think I understand.' Then I started to reflect on that.«
When Black has spoken to fellow composers about this, the straight ones have become upset. Oh well, shots are being fired, you could say. »Straight people«, what’s that supposed to mean? Aren’t you crossing the line? No, says Black. Sincerely. Justified.
»Well, how does it feel to be profiled?« was Black’s response. The 32-year-old composer has always been criticised for being a certain way, talking a certain way, moving a certain way, having a certain identity.
»I’m very used to being profiled. Growing up queer, you get really used to hearing people’s opinion about you. I remember seeing my male or female peers taking up space, and the moment I tried to take up the same space it was not allowed because of how I acted. This was something I just accepted. Just talking loudly or doing the same things that other people do, existing, essentially, not having to hide yourself … this is something I think every queer person understands.«
But here I have to write what I see: Black’s lips are trembling
In 2016 a big depression hit. Black had encountered a traumatic event involving a friend, which we’ll keep at a vague level of description out of respect for the people involved. At the time, Black didn’t connect this depression with the questions of Catholicism or queerness, but later on, it became clear that mental health issues were to be taken deadly seriously. Confronting Black’s Catholic upbringing was exactly as important as one could imagine.
»| knew that either I had to accept all this bullshit that I was an evil being, or I had to find my own way and make my own place. It was survive or die. Quite literally, because people do kill themselves a lot.«
I promised Black that this won’t be a sob story. And it’s not going to; our conversation isn’t just full of frustrations and regrets, it’s also full of laughter (alright, sometimes of the bitter kind) and kindness. Black has arrived at a good place, it seems. But here I have to write what I see: Black’s lips are trembling.
»When I see people who haven’t been forced to engage with their identity like I have, I can smell it. Then I get very mad, and that’s my shit, my bitterness, that I need to work through.«
The trauma got repressed. That’s how Black was raised to handle these things. Quite literally, in fact: At the age of five, Black lost a cousin who died suddenly, only 18 months old. There was never a chance to really process the loss, it was simply not discussed back then. In hindsight, it’s easy to connect that experience to Black’s tendency to repress stuff.
Following the 2016 incident, music was, for a long time, less important to Black than getting well again. Having to stay in England for a while to get better, Bristol and the childhood home became Black’s new escape.
»I started getting really serious panic attacks, three or four a day. It got to the point where all I could do was lie and count back from a hundred, it was so bad. I went through a process of re-evaluating what was important to me, also musically. Why was I buying into this system? I became very angry, basically I think it was some kind of PTSD. I was not communicating very well with my family so there were moments where I was just crying out in pain, emotional pain. My therapist says this a lot: Defence mechanisms, they work until they don’t work.«
Now they didn’t work any longer.
Music with a safety net
Black was never suicidal but developed an anxiety towards knives and belts. On a plane from Poland – where Black had met German composer Johannes Kreidler and discussed the possibility of following two aesthetic streams at once, both a serious, high-art style and a trashy, lo-fi one, eventually leading into what Black calls a »fuck-you music« – the first panic attack set in. Having tried to ensure all friends and acquaintances that everything was just fine, the breakdown hit. When Black returned to Copenhagen, having stayed a few months in Bristol, it became necessary to use the experience in music.
They think I’m going to Hell
RAUS, which was premiered by Athelas Sinfonietta at the 2017 Klang Festival in Tivoli’s Concert Hall, thematized a breakdown in communication in several ways – with bodily gestures and a wordless tune. And the tango quintet Everything Is Gonna Burn, We’ll All Take Turns (I’ll Take Mine Too), premiered at the debut concert in 2018, used the melody of »I’m Feeling Fine« from Bugsy Malone, imitated a panic attack by attacking the instruments, and ended with a piano pedal going up and down: grief.
We have to return to the anger. Maybe now we understand it better. What was it about?
»With the Catholic church it’s quite obvious. They think I’m going to Hell. With the broader society it’s not that people hate me, but all the structures and systems just aren’t really made for me. I’ve been thinking about it in terms of new music and what I see as this straight male approach, which I guess is not a very good phrase for it … it’s more kind of this 'inside the institution' approach. What makes me angry is that new music is supposed to be this space where you’re supposed to take risks, but a lot of my straight colleagues – and plenty of queer composers, too – are not engaging with the serious things of life like I’ve had to. If you’re going to make art it’s vital for you to engage about your own identity. People just aren’t doing it, and that’s been pissing me off.«
I let Black talk for a long time. What’s being said is true. A lot of composers have a tendency to hesitate, I just made the same point in the magazine Klassisk, criticizing Niels Rosing-Schow for treating climate activism and Black Lives Matter as a conversation topic on his new album which he calls a political release. It won’t be truly political, I think, until you feel the composers actually taking a stand, baring themselves.
»It’s very frustrating when I see people who have all of the safety net in place, all of the privilege that I also have a large amount of,« Black points to a massive beard that gives access to traditional male spaces, »but they don’t use this to take the risks, and they’re scared of going outside some kind of imaginary comfort zone because it might reveal something about themselves. They are the exact right ones to leave their comfort zone because it’s so big. They are going to be fine. If it’s just because they’re scared, then find another job. Nobody said art was easy. Just do it.«
Would very much like to survive, thanks
One year ago, James Black stood on a stage at City Hall Square in Copenhagen. World Pride Week had come to town, and maybe it wasn’t a surprise to find a work by Black for the guitar sextet CRAS on the programme – well, maybe a little – but having it performed at the City Hall Square? Before noon, with tons of people passing by?
The 40-minute work, Winterhead, was performed three times. At first you heard a 20-minute movement that Black describes as »very loud«. Then Black grabbed the microphone, singing and taking up the space that wasn’t allowed while growing up. Wearing a dress and a white flower crown, ‘because I felt like dressing like that’. In the last movement Black spoke, in broken Danish, about growing up. It wasn’t easy.
»My Danish is not great but I was saying stuff about how I was raised to believe my walk is wrong, my voice is wrong, my gender is wrong, my face is wrong. I had to do it in Danish because it was too painful for me to do it in English; it would feel too vulnerable. But I had to be vulnerable to get through all the things I’ve repressed. So I could survive. That was a line I said in Danish: Jeg vil meget gerne overleve, på forhånd tak. ('I would very much like to survive, thanks in advance.')«
The experience led to new reflections. People from the audience approached Black after the performance to tell the composer how it had moved them, how they felt seen by the piece and the words spoken. A sleepless night of pondering made it clear to Black that he – no, they – actually felt at home in the nonbinary identity without gendered pronouns.
»It was literally over one night, and normally I try not to pay too much attention to it if I’m really obsessing about something, but this felt different. I called my partner and was like: 'I think I might be feeling like I might be a nonbinary person.' Of course, my brain was thinking, then we have to break up now. But he was like: 'Cool!' Then I just realized, it doesn’t fucking matter – if this feels more right, I’ll try it out for a while. It doesn’t have to feel right forever, identity is not set in stone, that’s okay. It’s a new journey, so yeah,« Black laughs, »please they/them, thank you.«
This has led to many reflections on the beard, Black says. And we cannot avoid talking about it: the beard!
»It’s made me reflect a lot on what I’m putting out to the world with my physical appearance. The beard gets mentioned a lot in reviews, and I’ve been thinking more and more about it as an armour that gives me access to some kind of straight male privilege. I can enter different spaces and worry less about how I’m going to be perceived. What I describe here is privilege, which, like I said before, I have a large amount of – I’m white, I pass for Danish in Denmark, I’m Oxford educated. I cannot with a straight face claim serious oppression on the same level that a person of colour, or a non-European immigrant, or even that a female composer may experience.«
»Because I’m now in this long-term relationship for the first time, this is something I’ve been reflecting on for the first time: As a queer couple, you’re not safe in a lot of spaces, even around here, this fucking liberal utopian country. If I’m walking down the street holding hands I will check because you just don’t know. A lot of people are living their truth in a more visible way – transgender people going around proudly – and I feel humbled by them. It’s because of the work they have done that I have the luxury of choosing to use a »they/them«, to experience my gender as a space for play and self-actualisation rather than an oppressive feature. It’s a privilege, and I need to make myself visible in some way to wield this privilege responsibly and, in my own way, move the conversation forwards. But I’m not going to force myself to do something. I’m going to do what comes natural to me.«
»It’s been a fucking nightmare to work on Mushroom. It’s explicitly about the incident that gave me that mental breakdown«
Awful but extremely important
That leads us back to the article series that never happened. Something did come out of it; some thoughts were put in motion. At the same time, tragedy hit. Again, we’ll leave out the specifics as the pain is not Black’s alone to process. But I will say this: Black has had a lot to deal with when it comes to loss. With a morbid sense of irony, it all coincided with working on a scenic piece, Mushroom, for this year’s Spor Festival in Aarhus – a piece processing the trauma from 2016 which was directly related to the recent losses. When we met, the premiere was one week away.
»It’s been a fucking nightmare to work on Mushroom. It’s explicitly about the incident that gave me that mental breakdown, and then this happened when I was halfway through. So it’s just been awful but also extremely important.«
The piece doesn’t describe the whole context in specifics but a slideshow lets the audience know that two people have died and that Black ‘has been feeling pressure’. At one point, the composer sings a song in English, and it still hasn’t been possible to get through it without crying, Black tells me.
»It’s been exhausting. Every day of the rehearsal period with Scenatet I’ve been confronted with hardcore grief. You know, that’s my choice, except it wasn’t a choice at the same time. Does it make sense? I was really close to cancelling, and I went through a lot of conflict with myself: Is this self-exploitation? How much of this pain am I allowed to own? But then I realized I had to be honest. It’s also about my childhood understanding of death which I think has been stalking around in my music the entire time.«
Black mentions three of their works that have, unintendedly, finished with the musicians leaving the stage.
»Why am I so obsessed with this gesture? And I thought back and was like: Oh, because the message I got was that people can just disappear for no reason. They can just go, and no one will try to make sense of it for you, you have to deal with it on your own. In Mushroom I was going to do it again, I was going to finish with me walking off stage. And I just thought, no, I’m not going anywhere. So I’m staying on the stage now.«
Following this interview, which took place in April, James Black was recently appointed Artistic Director of the Klang Festival in Copenhagen. We’re looking forward to seeing Black take up more cultural space and shaking things up a bit. Good luck, James!