CONTEMPORARY composer James Heather is set to release his first collection of original works in four years in the shape of Modulations: EP2, which will be out on Coldcut’s other label besides Ninja Tune, Ahead Of Our Time, come May 28th.
Recorded in his homebuilt studio during lockdown, each track on Modulations: EP2 was performed in a single take and each has its roots in live improvisations.
The tracks were originally conceived while touring and performing; James memorised each movement then subtly adapted the basic framework of melody, adding more complexities over time.
He calls his approach to the new compositions ‘pulse music’, as they see him playing freely, with no metronome or official notation to dictate the piece; instead using muscle memory, feel and instinct to decide where each track will go.
James says: “The EP is executed with the use of only solo piano and is a love story to the instrument that was my first passion, now that I finally have the piano I dreamed of!
“I have resisted the temptation to enter and add to the electronic music world I so adore on this release; instead, my current music acts as a lived reaction to music that is more machine than human, but not in opposition to it; to be minimalist in an age where you can do everything so easily, can also hold power, to focus on our strengths. I am still obsessed with the compositional possibilities within a raw song.”
Modulations: EP2 documents not just his personal connection to the piano, but explores the winding, unmappable path through grief following the loss of his father – and all the waypoints on that journey: learning to cope, overwhelming existential rumination and ultimately, optimism; a journey which began in 2017 and during which the piano has been ever-present.
James’s musical aesthetic draws on the classical, jazz, post-rock, drone, electronica and ambient traditions and he’s amassing a fair canon of work, from his debut Modulations: EP1 and the critically acclaimed album Stories From Far Away on Piano; Cinematic Orchestra invited him to remix a track for last year’s To Believe (Remixes), on which he rubbed shoulders with Mary Lattimore, Kelly Moran, and Fennesz; his own Reworks from 2018 saw him bring his aesthetic to Sarah Davachi, Mary, Lattimore and Chihei Hatakeyama.
The artwork for Modulations: EP2 was created by long-time collaborator Suki. It was shot in the same room that the EP was recorded in; flowers were arranged and light-painted using an ultraviolet torch. Absorbing ultraviolet light, the flower emits a visible glow. Each flower is at a different stage of growth, indicating the themes explored on the EP.
The EP begins with “Passing Soul”: subtle, ringing, slowly unfolding, keyed beauty – a track which encapsulates some of the sadness James has endured since his last release, and that can be read as an elegy for his father, who died during that time. His father would surely be proud to have such an elegy in sound. Pretty, arpeggiating motifs on the piano gather cloudier undertones; the soul passes. The interplay of the left- and the right-hand melodies are stirring and beautiful. There’s a wintriness to the progressions.
And that’s tone set for this brief, 16-minute EP; necessarily, given the subject matter. “Glimmer” has a cold beauty, the kind of witnessing of something wondrous with heightened emotional senses, but with which you can’t quite fully connect from your darkened inner core – if you’ve grieved, you’ll know this remove in perception.
“Metal Machina” pays no regard to the infamous Lou Reed album, but burrows deeper into the established aesthetic; fragile, immersively observed, every note and moment fully lived and realised; here, in the heart of the EP, the right-hand glissando stumbles, begin to cut from the end of its phrase to a staggered repeat, a subtle unbalance; redoubles, intensifies and rises. I picture the subfusc of winter afternoon rain; not without its beauty but also full of introversion.
“Beginnings” seems to suggest those first, faltering steps of the moving on, a wrench in itself, if a positive one. As the force majeure of chess teaches us, we cannot stand still, cannot dwell, even if that place of immediate afterwards is remaining connection to the lost; I feel this pain, but I feel it powerfully, and this at least is a strength of connection. It develops a warmth in the higher melody, a beginning; looks back over its shoulder one last time, marking the place, noting a subtle change; gains tempo and strength and moves forward with a growing melodic vitality.
And the EP concludes in the moving, gossamer spun harmonies of “Happy Tears”; other emotional colours are permitted to the self, as is release. The musical warmth grows and this slight closer resolves in a final flourish.
It’s chronologically slight, you may say, but this EP has huge emotional and musical depth; given the subject matter, perhaps a longer work would be too much. Undoubtedly hugely personal, it speaks of a bravery in James sharing it more widely; it illustrates as well a huge degree of articulacy, an ability to communicate a powerful state without words.
It may not be the most emotionally comfortable listen you have this year, but the level of thought and beauty herein is undoubtable.
James Heather’s Modulations: EP2 will be released by Ahead Of Our Time digitally on May 28th and may be pre-ordered here.