JAMES GARDENER, INTERVIEWED (2001): From Buzzcocks to Jack Body

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JAMES GARDENER, INTERVIEWED (2001): From Buzzcocks to Jack Body

James Gardner, director of the contemporary classical ensemble 175 East, downplays his former musical career. Despite being in "teenage bands of doubtful competence" and becoming a keyboard player "because I was the least worst at it," he can claim some pretty good post-punk credentials.

In the mid-80s he played in the backing band for Pete Shelley, formerly (and latterly again) of the punk-pop outfit the Buzzcocks.

He was also a member of Luxuria which was fronted by Howard Devoto, who had previously helmed the art-school punk band Magazine and coincidentally had also briefly been a Buzzcock.

Even today Gardner still receives modest royalty cheques from his time in Apollo 440, a 90s dance act which sampled power chords from Van Halen and jazz drummer Gene Krupa, and did remixes for the likes of U2 and reggae singer Shabba Ranks. Despite leaving the band in 1993 he co-wrote the title track of their latest album.

Are these ideal credentials to direct a classical ensemble, particularly given Gardner also concedes he has had no classical training and everything he knows is entirely self-taught?

"Contemporary classical music was always a parallel interest," he laughs.

"I'm a bit like Frank Zappa in that regard. I found it was easier to learn bass guitar than it was to learn how to write all the other stuff. So the other stuff has taken longer to do. I discovered Deep Purple at the same time as I discovered [classical composer Edgar] Varese."

Liverpool-born Gardner has done some rapid catching up, however. He modestly doesn't mention his 1991 solo piano piece was runner-up in the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival Composer's Competition or that he studied under Brian Ferneyhough's composition classes in Finland during the early 90s.

Today, alongside organising concerts for 175 East, which were founded in 1996 and have a reputation for premiering works by international and local composers, he corresponds with composers and publishers internationally and makes a living from copying scores.

His present focus, however, is 175 East's concert at Hopetoun Alpha which will feature pianist Dan Poynton in a programme which includes works by Jack Body (Nocturne, for cello and piano), John Cage (Living Room Music, "from 1940, quite a funky little piece for percussion and speech quartet"), the New Zealand premiere of gloVe by Gerard Brophy, and a new work for piano by Phil Dadson.

"Our mission statement with 175 East is two-fold: to give a platform for New Zealand composers to get performances of stuff which they wouldn't otherwise get. And to bring contemporary music - that is usually from the past five or 10 years - to New Zealand, again something which you otherwise wouldn't get to hear live.

"And the live component is such a big part of this stuff. Stylistically I try to be as broad as possible."

With a core group of six players, but a flexible line-up which can expand to 10 performers, 175 East - with Hamish McKeich as principal conductor - have established themselves firmly at the vanguard of presenting new music.

At a concert last year they premiered 26 new "microscores" by New Zealand composers, each piece lasting no more than 30 seconds, and during their 1999 season offered first performances of six major local compositions.

These are exciting times, even for a former post-punk pop rocker and dancefloor remixer. He is modest about his work, though, and says he is largely a non-playing director.

"As it happens, I will be in the Cage piece on the night.

"Normally I don't perform because I've never learned an instrument well enough to read with it. My keyboard playing is, I'm afraid, all done from chord charts and by ear."

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