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James O’Callaghan

How do we listen to the environment? How do we listen to music? And how can these modes of listening inform each other? These questions run central through the work of Canadian composer James O’Callaghan. How to be sensitive of sounds we do not perceive as musical?

O’Callaghan didn’t start as a musician or composer. He went to an interdisciplinary school and got training in theatre, visuals arts and film studies. His first steps in music were experiments in electronic music. He became interested in sound and took courses in electro-acoustic music. “That was more about the crafting of sound directly. That was good, I was not keen on making melodies.”

Through one of his teachers, Barry Truax, O’Callaghan got acquainted with the world of soundscapes, acoustic ecology (the study of the auditive relationship between living beings and their environment) and recorded sounds. “Coming from this background, I became interested in everyday sounds, their environmental context and how we interact with them. I wanted to bring something that was more connected to everyday life. Thus I tried to come up with tools and finding ways to imitate or transcribe those sounds for acoustic instruments.”

Another strand in O’Callaghan’s music is the use of found objects in a performance. In his work pre-echo (after empties), for example, the musicians use small shovels and little buckets filled with dry earth.

It relates to the Duchampian objet trouvé or readymade, how an object takes on a different meaning in another context. For O’Callaghan, it is a way to think differently about traditional musical rituals. “When I see a solo cello recital for example, at one point I stop seeing the instrument as an abstract deliverer for a musical concept and suddenly there is a person on stage with this wooden, strangely shaped thing.” This also relates to the social ritual of concert listening. “When someone rustles a candy wrapper, coughs or squeaks a chair we switch very easily and think that it is not part of the performance. I am interested in playing with and disrupting these boundaries.”

Photo © Anna van Kooij