Welcome back to Subito’s “Composer’s Corner.” This issue features James Lee III, a sought-after composer and pianist in American contemporary music. During this challenging era of how the pandemic has effected artists, we talked with him about: composing in a virtual world; his compositional process; some of his favorite works, and the desire to “compose music to reach the inner soul.”
S: How has Covid-19 impacted your work?
Lee: Covid-19 has impacted my work only in the sense that all the concerts for 2020 were cancelled as a result of the pandemic, as is the case with so many other composers and performers.
S: Have you been able to collaborate with other composers/artists during the lockdown?
Lee: I’ve been able to collaborate with other composers during the lockdown mostly by presenting my music at composition seminars via Zoom. Last April, I was a guest composer with Dr. Joel Puckett for his orchestration class at the Peabody Seminar; and in November 2020, I was a guest of Dr. Alexis Bacon for her composition seminar at Michigan State University.
S: What technology have you used to continue composing in a virtual world?
Lee: My work with technology has been the same as before the pandemic. I use Sibelius notation software to input my musical compositions.
S: You compose in every medium ranging from orchestral and band works, to chamber ensemble, sacred choral and vocal pieces, and works for solo piano. Do you have a favorite genre and how do you compose from one genre to the next?
Lee: By far, my favorite medium to compose for is writing for the orchestra. Most of the time, I am writing for an orchestral commission that I received; but, when I do switch to a different medium, I try to think about what I’m most interested in communicating through the chosen medium. I also think about what would be idiomatic for the new piece and how I can expand the emotional and dramatic spectrum of the work.
S: Can you tell us a little about your composing process?
Lee: First, as a Christian, I pray to God for help and inspiration before I start to compose. Next, I think about my objectives for the new work. I often write a type of graph to outline special events that I’d like to have appear at certain moments in time throughout the piece. I then think about layering and textual counterpoint. I’ve found that I like to derive melodies from the harmonic language that I am employing.
S: Let’s revisit a defining moment in your career. In October 2006, the National Symphony gave the world premiere of Beyond Rivers of Vision at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Please tell us about this experience.
Lee: October 2006 was a wonderful moment. It all started in either late January or early February 2005 when I attended a National Symphony Orchestra concert, and I thought about how wonderful it would be if I could have the orchestra perform my orchestral dissertation from the University of Michigan. I sent a message to my professor William Bolcom, who was a friend of Leonard Slatkin, and I asked him to please put me in contact with Maestro Slatkin. Remarkably, I met with Slatkin in February 2006, and he ended up programming the work to premiere in October 2006. The rehearsal experience was wonderful and I was able to learn more about orchestration from it. This concert also led to more opportunities to have my orchestral music programmed.
S: Of the hundreds of pieces you have written, is there one that you are most proud of?
Lee: There are various works that I think that I can be proud of. In terms of orchestral music, Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula and Amer’ican make me the proudest. I think that from my chamber music output, my Piano Trio No. 2 “Temple Visions” and Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano make me the proudest.
S: As a composer, you get to see many of your works in performance. Has there been a moment in your career that surprised or inspired you while watching one of your works being performed?
Lee: In 2008, after hearing the Detroit Symphony Orchestra — led by Leonard Slatkin — premiere my work A Different Soldier’s Tale, I was really inspired to continue pursuing my desire to be a composer and obtain commissions and performances. That was the first orchestral work that I composed after I earned my DMA from the University of Michigan in 2005.
S: As a black man, has it been difficult to excel in an industry with little diversity? How has your heritage impacted your work?
Lee: I don’t know if I can say that being a black man has made it very difficult to excel and receive opportunities. I’ve been blessed to have had my music performed by a professional orchestra only one year after my graduation. Since then, I’ve been able to have many great experiences. It is a known fact that many black Americans have American Indians in their family [tree]. Since I was a little boy, I’ve heard and seen family members from Missouri and Alabama that are descendants of American Indians or Aboriginal Indians, and I’ve also explored these ideas in various works of mine.
S: Your artist statement notes, “I want to compose music to reach the inner soul of the listener that elevates them regardless of race and religious affiliation.” This seems more important today than ever, no?
Lee: Since music is an international language, I want my music to be communicated to the listener in such a way that they are deeply moved and enriched because of what they have just heard.