Tafelmusik: Tell us a little about yourself, and how you started composing music.
James Rolfe: I grew up in Ottawa, and began playing trumpet in the sixth grade. I was playing in orchestras, counting hundreds of bars' rests, listening to all the music going on around me, and thinking it'd be more fun to write that kind of stuff. On speculation, I enrolled in composition at the University of Toronto. Writing that kind of stuff was a lot harder than I'd imagined, but after a while (ten years or so) I began to get the hang of it.
TM: What do you hope the audience will take away from the composition you are writing for Tafelmusik? And the flipside, what do you hope to take away from the performance of your work?
JR: My piece is a look at the Sanctus from a personal angle, relating it to the Hebrew prayer from which it is taken, with the English version thrown in for greater immediacy. I am searching for the root meaning of sanctus, trying to embody the idea of holiness. I hope the music will create in the listener a sense of the holiness that lives within us all, in our very voices, relating and connecting to the voices and souls of each other. And, I hope I will be moved in just this way too.
TM: What inspires you when you start writing a new composition?
JR: Almost anything will do—especially snippets of other music, anything that catches in my ear and commands attention. After that, I follow my nose, taking that snippet on some kind of journey into the unknown. I try to keep the journey engaging, using materials which make strong emotional connection, or a whimsical playful one—or both if possible.
TM: What top tracks (any genre) would we find on your Spotify playlist?
JR: Early music (eg. Byrd, Dowland), Schubert, Reggae (eg. Burning Spear), funk (eg. Sly, James Brown), disco, contemporary music (eg. Gerald Barry, Louis Andriessen), and much much more—I thrive on variety!
TM: If you were introducing someone to baroque music for the first time, what would you get them to listen to?
JR: Start with Purcell—the well-known like Dido and Aeneas, and lesser-known like the Funeral Sentences and Fantasias for Viols. Then Bach, both epic (the Passions) and intimate (any of the solo works for keyboard or violin or cello). And the oldest chestnuts—Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Handel's Messiah—are wonderful the first time.
Toronto composer James Rolfe has been commissioned and performed in Canada, the US, Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand by soloists, ensembles, orchestras, choirs, theatres, and opera companies. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the K. M. Hunter Music Award, a Chalmers Arts Fellowship, Choral Canada's Outstanding Choral Work Award, and the Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music. His operas have been performed in Toronto, Halifax, Vancouver, Banff, Edmonton, and New York. His opera The Overcoat was premiered by Tapestry Opera with Canadian Stage and Vancouver Opera in 2018, and was nominated for 10 Dora Awards. Two solo CDs (raW, 2011, and the JUNO nominated Breathe, 2018) are available on Centrediscs. This is James’ second commission for Tafelmusik.