Composition Seminar – James Saunders

In daily life large groups of people regularly co-ordinate their actions, whether they are voting, jostling to leave a building, or selecting a restaurant, and as individuals we read each other’s movements, facial expressions and utterances in order to negotiate our encounters with the people we meet. These behaviours govern our relationships with others and our engagement with the world around us. Equally as musicians we form complex interpersonal relationships both with each other when playing together, and with an audience. Such relationships are often by-products of the necessities and conventions of musical performance, but they also offer opportunities to control musical material and the interaction between players and audiences.

The social behaviour of groups can be used as a means to articulate musical structures and processes, embodying decision-making in live performance and exploring the way choices and actions by individual performers affect the behaviour of the whole group, and the resultant music. Recent work using recorded instructions (Nickel 2016), performance practice training (Sdraulig 2013) and cueing networks (Saunders 2017) suggest approaches to group behaviours that rely on different frameworks to construct relations between performers, including decision-making and heuristics (Gigerenzer et al 2002; Saunders 2015), intergroup conflict (Forsyth 2013), community forming (Brown 2001), and the mode of delivery of instructions (d’Heudieres 2015). Such work uses group behaviours to suggest methods for harnessing specific motivations of players, bringing art and life closer together by ‘mapping the two onto each other by using people as a medium’ (Bishop 2012: 127), facilitating ‘the process of engaging with the world and oneself through play’ (Sicart 2014: 84).

James Saunders is a composer who makes open form compositions that explore group behaviours and decision making. His music has been played at Borealis, Darmstadt, Donaueschingen, hcmf//, Music We’d Like to Hear, Ostrava, Spitalfields, SPOR, Ultima, and Witten. James has worked with Apartment House, Arditti Quartet, asamisimasa, EXAUDI, London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Modern, Neue Vocalsolisten, Plus-minus ensemble, ensemble recherche, and SWR Sinfonieorchester. He studied at the University of Huddersfield and the RNCM, and is Professor of Music at Bath Spa University. James is currently working on a new commission for Arditti Quartet and Ensemble Modern to be played at Wien Modern. For more information, please visit