James Harley, born 1959, Vernon, B.C., Canada, began studying composition in 1980. Prior to that, he was active as a pianist, jazz and classical, played percussion, and also studied electroacoustics at Western Washington University. After graduating Magna cum laude in 1982, he took up residence in the UK in order to study composition with Paul Patterson at the Royal Academy of Music.
Recipient of grants from the Canada Council and the Leverhulme Trust, among others, Harley remained in London for three years, benefitting from a number of performances and prizes. In 1985, having been awarded the prestigious Mendelssohn Scholarship, he moved to Paris. There, Harley studied aesthetics with Iannis Xenakis, musical acoustics at the Université de Paris, attended seminars at IRCAM and the College de France (Pierre Boulez), and worked extensively with the UPIC computer music system at CEMAMu.
While in Paris, Harley won a number of prizes, including two in the 1986 CBC Radio Young Composers Competition in Canada. Then, in 1987, Harley moved to Warsaw, thanks to a Polish Government Scholarship, to spend a year at the Chopin Academy of Music. He attended the composition class of Wlodzimierz Kotonski, participated in the Summer Courses for Young Composers organized by the Polish Society for Contemporary Music, and had a piece premiered at the 1987 Warsaw Autumn Festival. In 1988, Harley returned to North America, taking up doctoral studies at McGill University in Montreal. Under the guidance of Bruce Pennycook and Bo Alphonce, he pursued research there in the domain of computer-aided composition, developing CHAOTICS, compositional software based on functions derived from chaos theory. Harley graduated in 1994 with his D.Mus. in composition. Over the next year, supported by a major Artist's Grant from the Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Quebec, he composed a series of chamber works, also teaching part-time in the Faculty of Music at McGill University. In 1995, Harley took up a sabbatical replacement position as Assistant Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, teaching composition, electronic music, and contemporary music history/analysis. At the same time, he completed a major commission for the Musiques-Echanges festival in Montreal.
In the fall of 1996, Harley moved to Los Angeles, and taught part-time at University of Southern California and California Institute of the Arts. In 1999, he began teaching in Minnesota, directing the Music Technology program at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He was granted a McKnight Composer Fellowship in 2002. The university awarded him a Faculty Award for Research/Creative Activity in Fall 2003. In 2004, Harley took up a new position at the University of Guelph. There he teaches digital music and composition, among other courses. In 2008, Harley was awarded a Leaders Opportunity Fund grant from the Canada Foundation of Innovation to launch the Advanced Digital Audio Production and Performance Studio at the University of Guelph. He has continued to compose to various commissions, among them March Music Moderne—Portland, Norman Burgess Memorial Fund, NUMUS, New Music Concerts, Open Ears Festival, Transit Festival-Belgium, Transmission Ensemble, Vancouver New Music, and Windsor Symphony. Various of Harley’s compositions have been released on CD, and can be found on labels such as Artifact, ATMA, Centrediscs, CMJ, McGill, PeP, Soundprints. Most notable is the monograph disc, Neue Bilder (Centrediscs CMCCD 16010), done in collaboration with New Music Concerts, Toronto. Harley has scores published by PWM, and most of the rest can be obtained through the Canadian Music Centre.
Harley has written widely on new music, publishing articles and reviews in Computer Music Journal, Contemporary Music Review, Leonardo, Musicworks, Musical Times, Organised Sound, Tempo. His book, Xenakis: His Life in Music (Routledge) was published in 2004, and a second book, Xenakis: Kraanerg (Ashgate) in 2015. He also has chapters in various books, including Lutoslawski Studies (Cambridge), The Oxford Handbook on Computer Music, and Art of Immersive Soundscapes (Regina).