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Baker's Dozen

Magical Experiences: James Holden's Favourite Albums
Rory Gibb , June 5th, 2014 15:08

Following last year's feral The Inheritors album, Border Community label head James Holden is about to take his newly developed live show on tour, including to Field Day and Sonar Barcelona. Rory Gibb catches up with him to discuss thirteen favourite and formative albums, improvisation and atheist spirituality


Claude Debussy - Children's Corner

This was something I learned to play right towards the end of when I was learning piano, before I left home; my dad taught me. So it's really in the list because of the score, the notes, [it could be] anyone's performance of it - apart from a dodgy Russian guy I heard playing it too fast on YouTube, not that one [laughs]. This is the oldest on the list, but also the one I discovered first. Although I enjoyed playing it, a massive proportion of what I played in the course of learning piano as a teenager I didn't really think much about. The music's so full of signifiers, and Bach [for example] is so open about presenting how clever it is, it's sort of showy. On the violin I'd played quite a lot of twelve-tone serialist things, and sort of felt the same about that, that it was showy in signifiers and didn't really connect with me in any way.

Debussy was incomprehensible in a way, nothing before had felt like it [for me]; the way he put close clusters of notes together in little clouds, and quite dissonant things that sounded so beautiful. And at the same time as being incomprehensible it affected me, I thought it was amazing just listening to it - it was something I really wanted to be able to play well, not that I ever managed that. Looking back, both those things have stuck with me: trying to make music that you can't understand when you listen to it, that you couldn't work out the score to, that you can't quite see why it's working or why it's beautiful, or there's too many things coming together at once that you can't... It's just a magnificent work. The first piece in it, 'Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum', the descending section, when it reaches its climax at the end, just dancing down a hill through chords, it's so amazing, the momentum of it. It's hypnotic as well. Basically everything in music that I try and do is in this collection of pieces.

I've definitely drawn subconscious influence [from it]. But there was a point where I realised and started trying to learn it again, and listening, looking at it as a grown up with everything I know now, and trying to understand it. I don't think I really do understand it, it's still subconscious, even though I've tried to 'get it' [laughs]. It's just perfect. There are no missteps in it.

It's also quite pure. What I was saying before about Bach or even serial stuff, it's full of signifiers and it's saying something, it's so full of class meaning, even the kind of people that listen to it now. It's laden with that stuff, which is really off-putting. Whereas Debussy seems quite clean, in a way that Steve Reich or Terry Riley get to. It doesn't sound like it's made of signifiers and cultural stuff, it's just notes and tone and texture. It's only very slightly abstracted relative to Bach or Beethoven or whatever - it's still songs, it's still very obviously music - but it's not overburdened with trying to say what it is. It's just elegance.