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‘Let the music be the most important thing’ – an interview with composer James Sizemore – The Cross-Eyed Pianist


Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Rather than a particular person, I feel the greatest influence came from a breadth of musical experiences. In addition to playing in orchestras and performing solo piano, I performed in bluegrass, rock, and jazz bands, Balinese gamelan ensembles, West African drumming, Bowed Piano Ensembles, and live electronica performances. The biggest drive for me has always been curiosity, about music’s role in humanity and the connections to ourselves, our memories, and our emotions.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

As artists, we wear our hearts on our sleeves. When a song or piece of music comes together, it almost feels like a gift. In those moments, you can almost touch something bigger than ourselves, and that is an emotional experience, where words fail us, and music steps in. In this day and age, it is learning how to share that experience of music with others, and that means opening oneself up emotionally, and publicly, on the internet. Building a brand out of myself was the largest challenge that I’ve encountered so far!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece

Most of my commissions are for film and tv music productions, which I enjoy because it allows me to move from one music genre or style to another, experiencing different stories and different perspectives (again, with the curiosity!). The challenge is navigating the larger team dynamic, especially in the entertainment industry. I had
to learn how to create through the shared experiences and perspectives of my collaborators, which is a bit trickier than sitting in my studio writing music simply for myself.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

The greatest gift we have in music is the connection we can get through amazing humans performing. Every instrument on the globe has been meticulously recorded, sampled, and is available on my keyboard in my studio. Yet, working with a musician or ensemble who is a master of their craft is one of the joys of creating music. Whether it be coaching a school choir learning a choral piece, or hearing a film cue performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, the experience of connection though music is very meaningful.

Tell us more about your work with film composer Howard Shore.

I’ve worked with Howard Shore for 15 years, on over 25 films. I’ve worked as his right hand man (or Octopus man, as orchestrator Conrad Pope has called me) handling arranging, orchestration, and producing of his film scores. I started out within a technical capacity, and over the years was always quick to volunteer for more musical tasks. As we navigated the challenges of various film productions, Howard found me well equipped to handle the unique technical and musical requirements of assembling a film score. As part of my work with Howard, I’ve travelled to London, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Montreal, and many other locations to record orchestras and produce music for films. 

What are the special challenges and pleasures of working on film scores? 

Working on film scores is incredibly labour and time intensive. It requires many hours sitting at a desk to create the 1000s of notes heard in a film score. Not only writing the music, but producing the demos, “conforming” the music to follow picture changes and edits, revising the music based on filmmaker feedback, and orchestrating, recording, editing, and mixing the music makes for a very busy work schedule. One of the great pleasures of working on film scores is amazing resources. While I had to run a Kickstarter campaign and obtain grants to raise the funding for my album of piano quintets, on big budget film scores I have a hundred piece orchestra and any other resources I need. Twelve bagpipes? A group of Didgeridoo players? No problem!

How has your work in film music influenced your new album ‘Everything More Than Anything’?

Working in film music for so long has given me a very strong skillset in how to produce very high quality music. I feel very at home in the recording studio working with musicians, and all that experience makes the writing, producing, and recording of my albums much easier. As all musicians have heard, the more you practice something, the better you are at it!

What do you hope listeners will take from this new album?

I hope listeners will appreciate just how impactful music can be when made with highly skilled musicians playing acoustic instruments. So much of music production these days happens in front a of a computer, and technology has allowed us to create music easily and professionally. But despite these technical advances, making music with other musicians in a room all together has a certain magic which cannot be replicated with technology. 

Dark Before The Dawn – the first track from James Sizmore’s new album Everything More Than Anything, with pianist Stephen Gott

Of which works are you most proud?

All of my solo albums are dear to my heart, as they are closest to my artistic sensibility. I’ve got pieces of film music that have been heard by millions, but some of the songs I’ve written for my wife, my daughters, and my parents are the most meaningful to me. Even though they’ve only been heard by a handful of people!

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I pride myself on being a music chameleon for my film work, but my solo albums are rooted in the classical tradition, and certainly owe a debt to both the late French impressionists, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, and also the 20th century minimalists Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams. Probably some film music influence in the harmonies as well!

How do you work?

I am regimented in my schedule, actively working in my studio from 9am-6pm (when I can, some productions require constant attention!). Keeping to a schedule helps me to be able to write music quickly, often writing a new piece in a single day.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

When you’re able to do something you love doing for 33% of your time.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?

Let the music be the most important thing. At first, you must set aside your career aspirations, music business approaches, social media branding, and really focus on the passion for music. While all of that other stuff is important, the only way one can sustain a career in music is if you really love it. Fall in love with music before you try to make it your career. I doubt anyone was ever successful by approaching music with the intention to make a lot of money. If you really love making music, everything else is secondary.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

Live film music performances have done great things for building interest in orchestral music. The Lord of The Rings is performed live every month, and the experience is a nice gateway to the orchestral classics. I recently attended the new David Geffen Hall in New York City, and the experience was outstanding. I applaud NYC for rebuilding the hall inside out and recognizing that the home of the NY Philharmonic is a cultural institution that they want to support wholeheartedly. I believe that strong arts initiatives, and bridging the gap between traditional classical music and popular culture are important for growing audiences.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

How is it that the terms breve, crotchet, quaver, and minim, never caught on in the USA? My music would be 10% more fun if we had the proper terminology when making it!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Every moment (or at least most moments!) of our lives can contain perfect happiness by being present in the moment, and feeling gratitude and agency over this amazing life were given. We’re surrounded by beauty every day; one just needs to keep their eyes and hearts open to the world around them.

‘Everything More Than Anything’, James Sizemore’s new album created in collaboration with British-American pianist Stephen Gott, is being released track by track over the coming weeks. The second track is released on Friday 19 January.

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