James O’Callaghan came to music rather late in life, especially for someone who has already, at age 26, achieved some major milestones. Those include sharing the John Weinzweig Grand Prize in the 2014 edition of the SOCAN Foundation Awards for Young Composers and a nomination, also last year, for a JUNO Award in the Best Classical Composition category. Both were for his orchestral work Isomorphia.
“I have no family background in music and I never studied an instrument as a kid,” he reveals, looking back on his childhood in Currie, BC. “I started making electronica in my basement just before university, and the inter-disciplinary degree I got from Simon Fraser University was my ‘in’ to music. I was beginning to experiment with manipulating sounds, really working with the timbres of sound, and thought at first that I should go into production. But I then learned there is actually a type of music that was about that!”
“I have no family background in music and I never studied an instrument as a kid.”
At Simon Fraser, O’Callaghan studied electroacoustic music with Barry Truax and took classes in instrumental composition with David MacIntyre and Rodney Sharman. “I might not have found an entry-point into composition without such a unique and open-minded program,” he notes. “Studying afterward at McGill was certainly a change of pace, but one that offered many opportunities while working with Philippe Leroux.”
Isomorphia, his first orchestral commission, evolved from his 2013 stint as composer-in-residence with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, and the JUNO-nominated recording features that orchestra under conductor Alain Trudel. “The NYOC players are exceptional musicians,” says O’Callaghan. “It was a fantastic experience and I was really pleased with the performances they gave during their national tour.”
O’Callaghan completed his Master of Music degree from McGill just last year (Isomorphia served as his thesis) and plans to enter a PhD program at some point in the near future. Meanwhile, he’s pleased that “a large influx of opportunities have come along. I’m now having to say ‘No,’ or postpone some requests for new works.”
First up is his completion of a commission from the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (INA-GRM), in a co-production with Montreal’s Le Vivier. This work will be completed as part of a residency at the GRM studios in Paris, where it will have had its world premiere on Jan. 24, 2015. A second performance, coordinated by Le Vivier, is scheduled for June 11 back in Montreal, where O’Callaghan continues to live.
Also on the horizon is a new commission from Montreal’s Ensemble Paramirabo, set for a premiere on June 4. And in a different vein, O’Callaghan is one of 12 composers working jointly on an opera based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a production of Montreal’s Bradyworks, which hosts the premiere on May 6.
“Each composer is contributing a scene to the opera,” says O’Callaghan, “akin to the way the various body parts of the monster were assembled. The composers are all, more or less, working independently, so it will be interesting to see how these different styles come together.”