Interview: James Heather

Stories From Far Away is James Heather’s debut album, a set of piano pieces documenting his emotional and musical response to contemporary news stories. It brings out the pianist’s more ‘classical’ side, a complement to the work he does heading up the communications team at Ninja Tune, where for the last 15 years he has supported the label’s output of pioneering electronic and experimental music. In this chat with Arcana he talks about how the two strands unite for powerful musical impact, and his hopes for the future as a performer. But first…

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

The most powerful memory is of a subscription we had to a magazine called The Great Composers Of Our Lives. It was a monthly, with 40 or 50 issues in a binder, and they were different colours for different composers. It started off with the big hitters, like Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, but it was aimed at kids really. It was quite thin and picture-heavy, but it had as much about the academic aspects of the music as it had about their life story. It added a more emotional side, and that seeped in at an early age. It showed me that behind these complicated pieces of work there is a human story. I collected each one in a binder and became obsessed with it!

On top of that my grandparents were very in to classical music. When they came round my dad would like to choose a piece and put it on at just the right level, and sometimes my role was to get the ambience just right with the classical music in the background. My granddad was into classical – personally I am more into the romantic era. My granny was also into Schubert and Schumann, and both of them used to come round and jump on the piano in our house. My granddad was good; he played in the Second World War when he and his colleagues had an off moment – playing in a hotel in Italy. That’s where he met my granny, who I think was a nurse out there. He was playing the piano and she fell in love with him!

My other granny played piano and had a tendency to go off on a mad one, which sounded like Debussy on drugs – quite wayward but had a very distinctive style, quite madcap. I think you can hear that somewhere in my style of piano playing. I used to love listening to them play, and my dad also sent me to blues piano lessons. We had a honky-tonk piano initially, and I learnt the boogie-woogie scales. I can still play them, though they are not what I’ve chosen to put on record so far!

A year or two later I did the classical grades, and got to about Grade Six before going on my own path. That was really good because I learnt some key skills, the scales and theory around it all. What I was most passionate about from 11 or 12 was playing my latest compositions. My teacher was patient with me, and I used to play my new songs for five or ten minutes before the standard lesson.

Even at that age I was composing. I learned to play Beethoven’s Für elise, the Moonlight Sonata, the more simple Rachmaninov stuff, but I wanted to do my own thing. Once a week I would go to my granddad’s house, and he taught me the simple rules of composition – how to change key into another key, the chord sequences – and I was faithful to the rules he taught me but then later on in life I bent them a bit. I always thought he was a stickler for some composition rules. He used to detune his piano so that it was equal temperament; we used to spend hours doing that, and it was really interesting.

How has your style evolved in that time?

Initially I was just improvising, so I would sit down and play for two or three hours, just going off on one, and just play. I loved getting totally immersed, and subconsciously I was training, going off on different tangents of scales and learning what was working. I think I have become more refined, as before I hadn’t worked out introductions and endings. This came later when I started to listen to popular music, and learnt tricks about recurring motifs / hooks, and having a proper end! My early stuff as a young teenager was too repetitive and loop-heavy. The loud bits got loud without a progression to the loud, it wasn’t subtle enough. Now I think I’ve found my style and a way to deliver it in a way that people might appreciate more. I think when playing live it’s good to have a good moment where you improvise, and show that side of you. As you mature as a person your sound evolves of course.

Do you find playing the piano cathartic?

In the early times it was primal; I would just get up and do it. Some people use yoga and meditation but for me if I’m going home and I know I’ve got time to step on to the keyboard I’m excited, because I know I’m going to be relaxed. It calms my centre, and for me that’s what it’s all about. It’s nice to share, and I never assumed that anybody would like it. That’s great, but I’m also sensitive that you should remember the struggle, that for many years nobody seemed to care. Just because people care now, you’ve got to keep it on a level plain.

Given your family history, that must bring an extra personal edge to what you do?

Yes. I do think of my family, and certain chord sequences my grandparents played that seeped into me, and my late Dad’s unparalleled enthusiasm for music. It’s a shame they never saw me have any sort of proper success, but I wanted to protect myself in my teenage years. Everyone heard me play at family gatherings, but I never opened myself up to a wider audience. I didn’t want to be criticised, but you get over that!

Was that partly because your work at Ninja Tune deals with the reception of records and music?

I did become acutely aware of that one, and maybe I was overanalysing what people might think of my stuff – but also I don’t think it was quite ready. I was so busy doing my job that I knew I would get round to it. Who knows why we do things in certain orders?! In the ‘electronic’ and ‘hip hop’ networks I was in a 23-year old classical pianist was slightly odd, but as you get older you find people becoming more responsive to it. I love a rave as much as the next person, but I also have this other side. People knew about it but I do believe in organic stuff, and don’t want to push things down people’s throats. If they want to hear it, then great!

I think it’s good I’ve left it late to let myself ‘out’, because there are intricacies in all composition, and I hope that mine sounds like ‘me’ now. I would hate to just be adding to things. As a solo instrumentalist it’s harder, because if you’re a producer you’re working with hundreds of different sounds. I think I had to find my ‘person’, what made me ‘me’, and sometimes you don’t know that until you’re older.

One angle I would like to potentially go down eventually is that I’d like to do a piano album with a grime MC. I listen to classical music, new classical musicians – maybe 10% – but I listen to all of Wiley and Skepta’s catalogue. Stormzy at Glastonbury was amazing! I don’t just want to put on a bow tie and play a classical gig. I would like to do that as well but it’s all about the flexibility.

There is a certain element of classical music that is very upper class and perhaps more elitist, but then you’ve got all the new people coming through like Nils Frahm, and earlier on artists like Amon Tobin and Cinematic Orchestra opening things up more from the indie world. Now you look at 6Music with the Proms, and people like A Winged Victory for The Sullen, it’s inspiring. There’s not really an obvious place for my current sound as a solo pianist whose brain is more in the electronic world, so I’m going to try and find that. Where I have to add other instruments, why not do more young facing, risky things? I don’t want it to be seen as elevator music!

Have the artists you work with at Ninja influence you musically at all?

Before I was at Ninja I had a keyboard in my room at university I was very passionate about what I did, but I had no idea how I could make it successful – a few friends liked some songs. Before that I tried to be in a band,  and also make electronic music with friends, but it was hard to get off the ground for various reasons. Then at Ninja I started to get a feel for how the industry worked. I think I’m a very loyal and hard working person, and I was surprised to get the job with no experience – but was in the right place at the right time. For many years I was very focused on not fucking it up, doing well in my position, and became very passionate about promoting the artists and was blown away by their music. Piano remained a hobby, and in London I was in small flats so had a keyboard, which wasn’t the real deal. I kept it going, and what it did for me was realising I had to up my game. Hearing Bonobo and Cinematic Orchestra, and then hearing one of my piano tracks, I was thinking that I need to up it somehow.

That’s how it influenced me, and I guess Ninja has given me a knowledge of how the industry works. I got signed kind of by accident, but had this network of people and could lean on a few for help. I never particularly sent it to the artists, I didn’t want to be the person who had a self-agenda. It made me more ambitious, because I see the ambition in our office. For the foreseeable I think I can put both hats on. Solo piano music is pretty different to what I’m doing at Ninja Tune. I’m going with the flow really, and I don’t pr myself, i got the great Duncan Clark @ 9PR for that – that would be slightly strange and not particularly healthy for me to promote me!

You played at Glastonbury this year – how was that?

It was a random one, because it was a connection through Greenpeace. I know the booker there, and he asked me to play – but there was no piano there, so I had to take my USB keyboard. It’s not my perfect performing situation, but I’m a believer in Greenpeace, so I wanted to help them. It’s also pretty cool to have said that’s my first ever gig! I’ve done Sofar Sounds and random singer-songwriter nights on the piano as a teenager, but it was my first real gig. The scheduling wasn’t perfect for my music, because the act before was a vocal-techno set, and before that there was a very upbeat brass band! Then I was playing my style of piano music, which is on one level very chilled but there are things going on in it. It was a small stage with 30-40 people but then lots on the perimeter. It was Sunday, around 5pm, the sun had just come out – and Shaggy was on the other stage, there was a skateboarding competition – lots of distractions. I had to keep going, and couldn’t hear myself properly, but did a 45-minute set and didn’t bugger it up. Some people zoned into it and contacted me afterwards. It’s not something I would rush into again but it’s an early sign of me not doing what’s expected.

I have a Solidarity of Arts Festival gig coming up in Gdansk, with Johann Johannsson, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Penguin Café. It’s like a Barbican vibe, I’m playing a 400 capacity room on a grand piano. I’m also playing at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, not in the main room but the equivalent of the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall. I’m going to be the first gig in that room, and I’m really looking forward to it. Hopefully that will open up a new world. After 25 years of composing I’ll believe it when I see it, but hopefully those gigs will be the true James Heather experience!

Does the classical music you listened to growing up still resonate now?

Of course, yes. I grew up with Beethoven’s Pathétique Piano Sonata, and the whole grandiosity of it – but then it gets so quiet. Debussy, I have his ‘best of’ – and I just love it. The other day I was listening to the John Cage piece Landscapes, one of the first example of classical music and turntables, and loops. Then I put on a Gangstarr record – which shows how anything goes!

Finally, what does classical music mean to you?

It’s very hard to articulate in words. When classical music hits me in the right way it’s very profound, a transcendent experience. I think it means independence. In indie music you have bands, and in electronic music you often have duos, if you have an orchestra a lot of the time it’s coming from one composer, and it feels like a staunchly independent thing. This is the vision of one composer, and it’s like a big statement, and here are 50 musicians playing it. I think you possibly get less ‘bands’ or ‘duos’ in classical music so for me classical music means Independence. That’s a random on the spot theory!

James Heather’s album Stories From Far Away is out now on Ahead Of Our Time. For more information on James Heather, head to his artist website

On record: A Winged Victory For The Sullen – Iris (Erased Tapes)



For their third album A Winged Victory For The Sullen, the duo of Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran, have turned to film. Given the deeply atmospheric music of their first two extended works this was perhaps an inevitable move, though was made at the suggestion of Iris director Jailil Lespert, who had discovered their music online.

The film Iris is a remake of Hideo Nakata’s mysterious thriller Chaos, and speaks of unexpected sightings and unexplained appearances. Ideal, you would think, for a moody soundtrack laden with menace.

What’s the music like?

The Prologue sets the brooding scene and establishes the duo’s sound, a combination of beautifully scored strings and subtly used electronics. The slowly oscillating harp and long chords set a wary atmosphere, which by the time of Retour Au Champs De Mars arrives has spilled over into outright threat.

There are no obvious melodies in this music, but as you listen more the harmonic movements become ever more inevitable, the conviction of the music increasingly strong. Galerie is especially effective, the sheen of strings broken by a striking, mottled piano, while in Le Renversement there is the effect of distant gunfire, a chilling effect over static held notes.

Does it all work?

Yes. The music is very slow moving, so is not ideal for every listening situation, but the quality of writing for strings and the ability to paint dark pictures make Iris an increasingly compelling listen.

The combination of subtly used modular synths and the strings is an effective one, especially on bigger sound systems, and the music has enough about it for each part of the soundtrack to stand on its own.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Once again A Winged Victory For The Sullen show their ability to create unique and rather eerie sound worlds, and while some might find their approach a bit too dark and foreboding, there is always a shaft of light to pierce the relative gloom.

Ben Hogwood

Listen on Spotify

The 6Music Prom – Nils Frahm and A Winged Victory For The Sullen

Prom 27: Late Night With … BBC 6 Music: Nils Frahm and A Winged Victory For The Sullen

A Winged Victory For The Sullen at the 6Music Prom Picture (c) Chris Christodoulou

Watch here:

The story behind the second BBC 6 Music Prom was a gratifying one, built on a desire for classical music to make itself more available. Mary Anne Hobbs was the catalyst, playing music by Nils Frahm to enthusiastic listeners worldwide. Their response encouraged her to introduce them to his Erased Tapes label mates, A Winged Victory For The Sullen, a duo comprising Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie.

Both acts were part of an extended mix for this late night event, aided by atmospheric lighting and smoke to turn the Royal Albert Hall into an after-hours club. Into this already heady environment came A Winged Victory, playing much of their second album ATOMOS. They were joined by an unnamed string trio and London Brass, their task to provide sonorous colour and slow but far-reaching melodies. O’Halloran and Wiltzie were on keyboard duties, drawing out chord patterns and soundscapes to give the listener an airborne sensation. This was further enhanced by members of the Random Dance Company, whose chief Wayne McGregor provided the stimulus for ATOMOS. Their relaxed interpretations of the music belied the effort required to contort their limbs!

The music was expansive, like a slowly changing cloud formation, and crucially had beauty of timbre to match. From the simplest of melodic cells came music of primitive meaning, evoking memories of pop music’s ambient craze twenty years ago but without any vocal samples. Here music was stripped back to its basics, and was all the more moving for the lack of incident and chatter. The crowd was thoroughly absorbed, most stock still but some perceiving the latent energy running through the music.

In truth London Brass could have been used more, their potential to add brightness only sparingly glimpsed. The string trio were more gainfully employed, the cello particularly beautiful when raised above the textures. As their set came to an end so Nils Frahm joined the stage, the two acts uniting in an improvised piece that brought more rhythmic definition – a sign of what was to come from the German pianist.

Nils Frahm at the 6Music Prom. Picture (c) Chris Christodoulou

Frahm used a team of keyboard instruments, including two ‘prepared’ pianos – that is, with keyboards, hammers and strings all modified to secure the all-important timbres required. Frahm’s music is more obviously derived from classical music, with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Chopin and Debussy all discernible influences. It has more obvious kinetic energy, moving quickly during Hammers to imply a strong beat, even before the introduction of an incredibly warm bass note to rattle the ribcage.

Frahm was a hyperactive presence, rushing urgently between his pianos and synthesizer, occasionally looping small clumps of chords in the manner of Steve Reich or even Dave Brubeck, but always intent on carrying his music forward. It was largely successful, though the introduction of two toilet brushes for the closing number felt like a gimmick.

What really carried, though, was the intense desire for discovery on the part of the audience. 6 Music had been playing classical music in the lead-up to this Prom, sensitively chosen with the pop music lover in mind, hoping to arouse curiosity – and that is exactly what this sort of Prom should be doing, bringing in people who find classical music and its terminology a daunting proposition.

It was a handsome success, Hobbs having found a way of communicating its appeal while showing how electronic and classical styles are on a fruitful collision course. We should not just be limited to Erased Tapes, though, as Warp, Glacial Movements, Bella Union and One Little Indian are just four more labels excelling in this area.

It is to be hoped that at the very least we will have a sequel. Tom Service presents a program along these lines on 6 Music this Sunday, showing how the two stations do on occasion overlap. Both have open musical policies, and in their current state show the BBC at its best, providing musical stimulation for a clearly hungry crowd.

BBC Proms 2015 – 10 to try


BBC Proms 2015 – 10 to try

It’s nearly time for the BBC Proms. The world’s biggest classical music festival – which seems to get bigger every year – starts this coming Friday at the Royal Albert Hall.

With so much to choose from Arcana has taken on the task of choosing ten Proms to attend, watch or listen to – which you can read about and preview below. The idea is to mix up a few obvious recommendations and a wildcard or two.

The Arcana coverage of the Proms is going to be a little bit different from your average review site. For a start any Prom reviewed in person will be experienced from the Arena rather than from a seat. This is for two reasons – the Arena has arguably the best acoustic in the notoriously tricky hall, and it’s also the place where the biggest cross section of musical public brush shoulders.

This year in its Proms coverage Arcana will also be focusing on new music, offering an appraisal of each premiere at the festival. This is a surprisingly demanding task, because there are 32 new pieces from the likes of Eric Whitacre, Hugh Wood and even a newly discovered work by Olivier Messiaen. An early interview on Arcana will feature percussionist Colin Currie talking about the new concerto into the open…, written for him by HK Gruber. So here we are then – ten Proms and tasters for you, however you intend to experience them. Happy Promming!

18 July: Ten Pieces Prom (Prom 2 – repeated on 19/7 at 11:00am) (TV)

Ten Pieces is the BBC’s initiative to get classical music into schools – but of course the learning need not stop there! This prom, presented by Dick and Dom, Molly Rainford and Dan Starkey, is comprised of all ten pieces, from John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine through to the end of Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird. Here’s a link to a preview of all ten pieces:

20 July: Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium (Proms Chamber Music 1)

Once again Proms Chamber Music will visit the Cadogan Hall every Monday lunchtime – but to begin with The Cardinall’s Musick will perform sacred music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad – a world premiere – and the jawdropping Spem in alium of Thomas Tallis, a 40-part choral piece that simply has to be heard. Here is the Tallis Scholars’ conductor Peter Phillips discussing the work:


28 July: Prokofiev – Piano concertos 1-5 (Daniil Trifonov, Sergei Babayan and Alexei Volodin, London Symphony Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (Prom 14)

Not one for the faint hearted, this! Prokofiev wrote for the piano both as a percussion instrument and a lyrical one, so some of his works feature stabbing but often jaunty tunes. The Piano Concerto no.2 is particularly epic:


3 August: MacMillan – Symphony no.4; Mahler – Symphony no.5 (Prom 24)

The world premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s Symphony no.4. Donald Runnicles will also conduct the underrated BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony no.5, which promises to bring new life to the old warhorse:


4 August: Monteverdi – Orfeo (Prom 25)

Described as ‘the first great opera’, Orfeo will be sung in Italian and conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who will, to quote the BBC Proms website, ‘transform the Royal Albert Hall into the 17th-century Mantuan court of the Gonzagas with some of Monteverdi’s loveliest melodies and most colourful instrumental writing’. Here’s what we have to look forward to:


5 August: Late Night with 6Music (Prom 27)

Following the successful 6Music night two years back, the station returns – this time with Mary Anne Hobbs at the helm to explore new music from two composers on the Erased Tapes label who write with classical music in mind. These are Nils Frahm

…and the duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen:


17 August: Osmö Vänska conducts Sibelius – Symphonies 5, 6 & 7 (Prom 43)

An obvious recommendation perhaps, but if you wanted to see a Sibelius concert and had a choice of conductor, Osmö Vänska would surely be it. His interpretations of the composer are both incredibly detailed and deeply passionate, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra will no doubt fall under his spell for three of the composer’s symphonic masterpieces:


19 August: Elisabeth Leonskaja plays Mozart (Prom 45)

Elisabeth Leonskaja is quite simply one of the best pianists in the world today – and in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.22 her performance should be sublime. Charles Dutoit and the RPO will no doubt prove sensitive accompanists – but in Debussy (the Petite Suite) and Shostakovich (Symphony no.15) they should also be rather special. Here is Leonskaja in solo Mozart:


9 September: Nielsen and Ives (Prom 72)

This intriguing night of music takes two wildly different forces from twentieth century music – anniversary composer Carl Nielsen, born 150 years ago, and the maverick Charles Ives, gradually revealed as one of the most influential composers of modern times. The former is represented by the impressive Violin Concerto, which will be played by the extravert violinist Henning Kraggerud. The latter by Symphony no.4, which really is best experienced in person. It contains a number of hymns, performed by a choir beforehand. Andrew Litton will be the guiding hand.


11 September: Elgar – Dream of Gerontius with Sir Simon Rattle (Prom 75)

Sir Simon Rattle returns for a second night at this year’s festival, leading the Vienna Philharmonic and a starry trio of soloists in Elgar’s magnificent choral work, with Toby Spence, Roderick Williams and wife Magdalena Kožená. Here’s an excerpt from the Berlin Philharmonic: