Since moving to Bend, OR in 2015 I have enjoyed getting to know many artists who make this a vibrant city in which to live and make music. I look forward to sharing more “Artist in Profile” interviews with members of the Central Oregon arts community. This week I had a chance to sit down with James Knox to talk about Bend Camerata’s upcoming concert on June 5 and the premiere of his piece, “Alleluia.”
M: So tell me about your background in music, what your first instrument was, and how you got started as a musician.
J: Well I was fortunate that in grade school I had a music teacher from Austria who required all of her students to take multiple instruments. So voice was always an instrument and I also played trombone. It wasn’t until middle school that I took it seriously. I started getting involved with musicals, taking voice lessons, going to district and state (competitions) and knew that music was the direction that I wanted to go. I went to a two-year college, then to a private college and transferred yet again to Portland State. I did two degrees there. At first I was in performance (as a voice major). While I was on my honeymoon in Ireland I started to think about my career and plans to audition for opera jobs. It didn’t feel right and I realized that I should go into teaching. I started off with a couple of part time jobs and then the position at COCC (Central Oregon Community College) came open. That’s where we’ve been for the past thirteen years.
M: Wow that’s amazing; it’s pretty unusual for kids to know exactly what they want to do at the high school level.
J: Yes it was a tough choice. I was always fairly athletic. My dad taught me boxing and I was brought up going to tournaments. I was a track guy too. But I had to make a choice during my senior year when the musical theatre schedule got flip flopped and overlapped with the track schedule. I had to talk to my coach and tell him that music was my first passion. He supported me. I’ve never regretted that decision. So in a nutshell that’s how I got my start.
M: In high school we have to make a lot of choices but it’s interesting how later in life our passions can merge together. Living in Bend we have the opportunity to be involved with so much at such a high level. I think of the mountain biking that you do, how athletic your kids are, plus your musical life. We really are fortunate to live in a city that offers so much.
J: Of course! Yes.
M: Talking now about your composition, Alleluia which we will perform on Sunday. Would you say it fits within your existing compositional style or does it take a step forward in your style?
J: I started writing the concept of Alleluia about seven years ago. In the midst of family life I put it on the back burner. I often have little bits of musical ideas that I work with and they come and go. But Alleluia has really stuck with me. It fits within my style; I write thematically but I also love blocked chords in the men’s voices. I love the combination of modern, Renaissance, and church modes at play. I try to use unexpected chord progressions and avoid the predictable. When I first started composing I always imagined having a grandiose type of choir at my disposal. The pieces I wrote would always fall short (since I wasn’t writing for my existing ensembles). I want my music to be attainable and not ask the basses to sing low Cs all the time, for example. I think that kind of transition comes with maturity. When Camerata started forming I stumbled across this piece and realized that it would be perfect for our group.
M: I like that idea. I think there are so many composers that look at manipulating a choir as an instrument. But there is a human element to the vocal instrument that is different from what you have with an orchestra or other ensemble. And the singers return their thanks when a piece is well-written for the voice, especially when it allows us to sing in a healthy way and not get burned out. I know the audience will appreciate that as well.
J: Yes well there are questions that come to my mind, with you as a part of the group. I’m interested to know what your experience was with the piece. Was it delightful? Did you wonder where this was going?
M: I felt an immediate connection to the energy of each of the pieces, with each of the three movements. Our friendship with you makes us want to please you of course. But there was a connection, especially with the third movement, that made us want to rise to the challenge. The energy of the rhythm is really infectious. The varying textures throughout the movements, for example the blocked chords in the men and the light, melodic sound of the women give a lot of contrast.
J: That’s good to hear. I didn’t want the text to get in the way. When I write music I really love rich colors and the contrasting elements. The third movement, even though it’s the longest of the three, took me the least amount of time to write. A lot of the material from the previous two movements become integrated in that final movement.
M: Just one final question for you. Bend Camerata works collaboratively, which of course means many things in our situation. The most obvious is that we don’t have one main conductor. What does this idea of working collaboratively mean to you and what unique strengths do you feel you bring to our group?
J: This particular concert was, I think, a big learning curve for all of us. This particular collection of pieces requires a true collaborative effort. What I mean by that is not just a group of individual singers, but an effort to collectively make a cohesive interpretation of each piece.
M: As opposed to looking up to a single director making all of the interpretive decisions for the entire concert.
J: Yes for sure. I enjoy that aspect of how we work. In the context of the group we have a variety of people who will step forward and be able to offer a well-formed presentation of a piece. I think that’s pretty special. And we all get along together too! Despite a lot of experience and musicality within the group there isn’t a sense of ego. We love singing together and we want to perform well. It such an enjoyment. I’m looking forward to the concert.
M: Yes, I’m really excited for the concert! It takes more time to work this way but it achieves a different result.
J: Yes I think it’s more rewarding. Ensembles survive when they’re always growing and finding new strengths. This was a big project for us and we had to work on the process all the way along. We really wanted to do things right and we believe the music deserves that. (Laughing) Even thinking about the number of kids we have (our children). We could probably run our own kindergarten.
M: (Laughing) Yes, how many do we have? I need to count. Plus your kids help out with the childcare.
J: Yes we’ll be singing Brahms with babies on the hips and we manage to sing in tune.
M: (Laughing) Yes I don’t think I’ve ever multitasked so much in my life; singing while having my newborn in the carrier, sitting at the piano during sectionals, conducting a little, discussing interpretation. It’s a new chapter in my music making for sure!
J: Its crazy, unique, fun… this kind of stuff makes it all worth while.
M: It’s very pure music making to me. Friends, doing it for joy.
J: Yes exactly. I’m looking forward to the performance.
M: Thanks for your time!
Bend Camerata will present their debut concert on Sunday, June 5th at 3:00 pm.
Location: Bend Church (United Methodist Church) 680 NW Bond St. Bend, OR
Admission is free, donations graciously accepted