How We Met: James MacMillan & Michael Symmons Roberts

'People talk about artists mellowing with age, but I think the opposite is true of James'
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The Independent Online

James MacMillan, 49, is a classical composer and conductor known for his accessible style. When the Scottish Parliament reconvened in 1999, his fanfare accompanied the Queen into the chamber, and he was commissioned by Westminster Cathedral to record a Mass for the Millennium. He lives in Glasgow with his wife and children

I met Michael 13 years ago when he came to interview me for a documentary he was making for Radio 4 called Contemporaries of Christ. He was speaking to all sorts of people – actors, DJs and composers – who were around the same age as Christ at the time of his crucifixion, to get their take on the story of the Passion. It was intriguing and I was keen to know more about Michael and how he'd arrived at the idea.

As soon as I began to read his poetry I recognised a compatibility between us. His work is very complex – it doesn't immediately communicate its sense to you, but lingers and resonates. It's not what you would call "pop" poetry. It's a search for the sacred that needs to ruminate in your mind, which is something I think music can enable and enhance.

Initially I set some of his existing work – a collection of poems called Raising Sparks – to music, but I really wanted to work with him from scratch on a piece so that we could both have some input into the other's work. Since then we've worked on two BBC Proms choral commissions, a song cycle and an opera, and it's been a privilege to be part of the poetic process.

We spend a lot of time talking around our subjects, trying to get to the root of it before we start work. It's intense but we have had some fascinating discussions.

When I first met him he had been on quite a long journey of faith, from being an atheist at university to becoming active in other denominations and finally finding Catholicism. Seeing someone on that trajectory is delightful. You never really know what happens on these private journeys of the soul, but the provocation and joy it's brought to his work is tangible.

Since I've known Michael he has begun to write novels as well as poetry, and his ability to work across different forms is impressive. I am reading his second novel at the moment and I recognise the pulse and lilt of his poetry in the subconscious of the text. Phrases resurrect themselves in different ways and it's rewarding to come to his works with a knowledge of his territory.

Michael is a complex person but also someone with whom I'm able to share a huge amount of laughter. Historically, the librettist-composer relationship has been quite fraught, and even among my contemporaries I don't know anyone who has formed the kind of friendship we have, and that it is something to be celebrated.

Michael Symmons Roberts, 44, is a poet and novelist. In 2004 his anthology Corpus won the Whitbread Poetry Award and he has twice been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. He lives in Macclesfield with his wife and sons

I'd heard James's work before I met him and thought it was extremely powerful. I also knew that he came from a faith background, which was why I asked him to get involved in a documentary I made while I was working in the BBC's religious broadcast department in the early 1990s.

When we met in person we hit it off instantly and kept in touch, sending each other updates on our work in progress. A few months later James got a commission from the National Ensemble, and the soprano Jean Rigby and he chose to use one of my texts. When I went to see it performed, I was bowled over.

After that we began to work together more consciously. At that point I don't think either of us could have imagined we would still be working on new projects over 10 years later, but our relationship – both personally and professionally – is effortless. I think it's quite unique to be able to spend so much time together and still get on well while also getting a huge amount of work done. We work at the same pace so we'll happily work most of the day, then clock off to go to the pub.

At the heart of the writing process – whether you're a writer or a composer – is solitude. James and I still work by hand so we both spend a lot of time alone with only pen and paper for company. Because of that I think we both like to enjoy ourselves and make the most of it when we do get out.

We have similar interests but there are huge differences between the work of a poet and a composer and we are respectful of that. There are stages when you don't want to talk, and we know when not to ask.

We take a yearly break together to work on shared projects. We seem to have settled on Skye, although wherever we go, the main proviso is that there is a TV to watch the football. I'm a Manchester United fan and he supports Celtic, which is fine until we meet in the Champions League – they've embarrassed us a few times!

People always talk of artists mellowing with age, but I think the opposite is true of James. His work now is more intense than ever. Working with him has been a gift.

Michael Symmons Roberts' latest novel, 'Breath', is published by Jonathan Cape at £11.99. James MacMillan's St John Passion will be performed by the London Symphony Orchestra at The Barbican on 27 April (