An interview with James Hoyle

Ahead of the world premiere of his piece Thymiaterion on Thursday 27 February, we caught up with James Albany Hoyle to ask about his compositional process, the people and music that inspire him, and what a thymiaterion actually is...

What is it like to be a young, emerging composer in the 21st century?

The great challenge and opportunity for any composer today is that, aesthetically speaking, everything is possible. There are no rules or expectations to conform to any particular style, so there is an incredible artistic freedom. But that also means that there is no universal syntax to work with or push against – every piece has to find its own niche and define its own terms. For an audience member I think that’s extremely exciting – you never know quite what to expect from a completely new piece!

What are your first steps when you start writing a new piece of music? Where do you find your inspiration?

It’s a different journey for every piece, but I usually spend a lot of time gathering materials, planning, and sketching before I commit notes to the score. I am often inspired by sounds from the outside world. In the case of my 3-minute piece Marangona for the LSO Panufnik Scheme in 2017, I was fascinated by the sound of bells and how they could be transformed into orchestral materials and sonorities.

> Read more about James Hoyle's Marangona here

This new piece Thymiaterion was composed as a companion piece to Marangona, so rather than starting with a blank sheet of paper I decided to take pre-existing ideas and rework and refract them to produce a piece that pursues a different journey to Marangona, but that is nonetheless closely related to it. 

Thymiaterion 400x400

What does the word 'thymiaterion' actually mean?

A ‘thymiaterion’ is an ancient Greek incense burner that was used for ceremonies and rituals. I was attracted to the image of it dispensing plumes of scented smoke – all in varying shapes and drifting in different directions at multiple speeds – as a metaphor for the way sonic colours move, evolve, and interact through time. This piece explores more explicitly its auditory equivalent: bells and bell ringing, focussing on the more sensorial aspects of the sonic colours produced by bells and the emotional associations evoked by them. 

How would you describe the finished piece? 

Thymiaterion is cast in three main sections that represent three time-stretched strikes of an imaginary tolling bell, with the music taking the form of a journey through these three bell strikes to explore their inner workings and associations. Each section starts with extremely high-pitched material, representing the clang of the bell’s clapper against metal, and ends with a refrain played by the solo strings, representing the bell’s lingering resonance. Listen out for the opening of the third section, when a previous passage is re-orchestrated to sound like a music box!

Looking back on your compositional process for this piece, are there any stand-out moments? 

With so much material in a relatively short time span, I was in need of a passage that would act as a focal point to ‘clinch’ the piece. I had an idea for a passage inspired by ‘Pachinko’, a type of Japanese slot machine arcade I heard in Tokyo which makes the most overwhelmingly cacophonous yet colourful noise! It was one of those ideas to which my first reaction was, ‘no James, you can’t do that, that’s absurd!’ But often it is those seemingly absurd ideas which prove to be the most fertile. Working out how to transcribe this extraordinary sound for orchestra in a way that works in the context of the piece and seems to grow organically out of it was one of the most enjoyable moments in the composition process!

Your piece is being premiered in the same concert as a performance of All These Lighted Things by Elizabeth Ogonek, herself an LSO Panufnik Scheme alumna. Are you familiar with her music?

I have been for a few years and really admire its eloquent poeticism and meticulous craftsmanship. As well as being an alumna of the Panufnik Scheme, she is also an alumna of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where I am currently completing my doctoral studies in composition with the same wonderful teacher, Julian Anderson. So I am definitely looking forward to sharing this concert with her!

What do you think to the rest of the concert programme?

I always enjoy seeing how different parts of a concert programme can communicate with each other, how well-known pieces from the repertoire can give context to a piece whose ink is still wet, and how a new piece can offer an audience a fresh perspective on music which may be many decades or centuries old.

I am particularly looking forward to Ravel’s Suite No 2 from Daphnis and Chloe. It begins with a musical depiction of a sunrise, which in my opinion is one of the most magnificently orchestrated passages in the orchestral repertoire. I have always adored Ravel’s music and it has had a strong influence on my own work. When I joined the LSO Panufnik Scheme in 2017, I had one of my first ideas for the way I would approach composing for the orchestra whilst watching the LSO rehearse Daphnis and Chloe

Are there any composers in particular that you look up to? 

James Hoyle's score for Thymiaterion

I am continually fascinated by Sibelius, especially his later orchestral pieces. As a teenager I was fortunate to play in a youth orchestra at the Barbican coached by LSO players (many of whom are still in the orchestra!) and conducted by the late Sir Colin Davis. We played Sibelius’ Symphony No 5, which made a formidable impression on me at the time and continues to be a bottomless well of inspiration still. I am fascinated by the way Sibelius’ music is so often in a state of flux and transition, with completely different passages or even entire movements seeping into each other without ever revealing where the join was, and how nonetheless there is an elemental sense of ‘oneness’. In this way Sibelius was very much at the forefront of my mind as I composed Thymiaterion. As this interest stems from my first encounter and involvement with the LSO and the Barbican many years ago it does seem rather special for all this to come full circle in this way!

What is the last piece of contemporary classical music you listened to?

I have been listening to Roberto Gerhard’s Symphony No 4, a piece which displays an extraordinary forcefulness and fluidity of imagination. Although it contains no electronic sounds, Gerhard’s treatment of the orchestra is almost entirely derived from electronic music (in which he was a pioneer). This is skilfully, and touchingly, infused with the Catalan folk music that Gerhard knew from his youth before he fled to Cambridge due to Franco’s regime.

Aside from composing, what keeps you busy?

In my downtime I am still a keen violinist and particularly enjoy playing in orchestras. Composing is, for the most part, a rather solitary activity so it is nice to make music as part of a group of people.

I am also kept busy teaching composition and related subjects. I have been so lucky to have benefited from learning from many wonderful teachers and mentors, and feel it is a privilege to be able to pass that knowledge and enthusiasm on to the next generation.

Hear the world premiere of James Albany Hoyle's Thymiaterion on Thursday 27 February, alongside Elizabeth Ogonek's All These Lighted Things, Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto and Ravel's Suite No 2 from Daphnis and Chloe, conducted by Elim Chan. Click here to find out more or to book tickets.

Thymiaterion was commissioned through the Panufnik Composers Scheme, generously supported by Lady Hamlyn and The Helen Hamlyn Trust.

Helen Hamlyn Trust 50


Related reading

> An interview with Elim Chan

> Explore the score of Elizabeth Ogonek's All These Lighted Things


LSO Panufnik Composers Workshop
Thursday 26 March, LSO St Luke's

The LSO performs and discusses works by the latest cohort of Panufnik composers in this free public workshop. Click here for more information or to book.