Read music at the University of Leeds where he studied composition under James Brown and Philip Wilby. He played piano and trumpet from the age of six, and his developing interest in composition was combined with a catholic taste and appetite for a broad diversity of different musical genres encompassing all strands of musical style. This now has a strong bearing on his stance as a composer who believes in pulling back together the fragmentation of music to paint a broad musical picture.
His musical career began as a freelance composer and orchestrator for film, being asked to orchestrate and record with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic orchestra straight out of college - he learnt the ropes of orchestration whilst simultaneously living and working as a freelance composer for film in Bologna, Italy. He then completed a post-graduate course (1990 – 93) at the Royal Academy of Music in London from where he graduated as the only student that year to be awarded the Dip. R.A.M. and a post-student fellowship. He has since mixed a diverse career of composing for film, television and concert hall, including working with Aardman Animations on the BAFTA nominated Creature Comforts, numerous BBC Natural History Films, and classical concert works for the likes of Sir Roger Norrington, Dame Evelyn Glennie, and Grammy winner Alison Balsom. He has a passion for writing to film and believes in writing music which takes the film onto a higher plane. He also believes resolutely that the two disciplines of music for film and the concert hall go hand in hand in complimenting each other.
Select concert works include his song-cycle Point of Entry, based on the subject of war, which was a collaboration with sculptor Bill Woodrow and poet Selima Hill, originally masterminded by and commissioned through English National Opera’s Contemporary Opera Studio and the Imperial War Museum, and featured on BBC Radios 3 and 4.
Sir Roger Norrington and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra commissioned him to compose a new work for symphony orchestra to mark the conductor’s 70th birthday. Conversation with Chet for symphony orchestra and trumpet was performed with Alison Balsom as soloist, in the Liederhalle, Stuttgart and the Konzerthaus, Vienna in March 2004, and was broadcast on radio worldwide to much acclaim.
He worked on a chamber opera entitled Beekeeper, which was supported in its development by the Royal Opera House Covent Garden through OperaGenesis, and for which he won an award from the Performing Right Society Foundation towards the music commission. The project is a multi-faceted opera, combining operatic forces with sparse elements of ballet and film, together with live chamber orchestra including mandolins, solo soprano saxophone, accordian, improvised piano and a more extensive sound world incorporating some cross-over into programmed use of sound effects and surround sound.
He received an award from Arts Council England towards the commission for a new string quartet in five movements for the Smith Quartet, entitled Stato d’Animo, premiered at St. Georges Brandon Hill in Bristol, then in the Aula Absidale in Bologna, Italy.
Toilers of the Elements, a concerto for Dame Evelyn Glennie, for percussion and string orchestra was premiered to critical acclaim in 2010.
In 2012 he completed a new work for Wells Cathedral Choir entitled Fisher of Men.
Over the past few years James has been commissioned by the BBC to score the music for two David Attenborough productions, plus other wildlife work for National Geographic. He is currently working on a new concerto for trumpet and string orchestra.
As a session conductor for film he has recorded with orchestras such as the Halle, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic, and Budapest Festival Orchestra.