Classical: There's a message in there somewhere

Damned if he does, damned if he don't. James MacMillan seems to fall foul of the critics whatever he does. Yet this left-wing, religiously inspired young Scot will keep on writing popular scores.

This is an age of transient success. Our consumerist society hungrily seeks out novelties, wrings all it can out of them, then quickly discards them for something else - on to next week's sensation. When the young Scottish composer James MacMillan first hit the New Music scene nearly 10 years ago, there were suspicious mutterings in certain corners. Surely the overwhelming popular success of the music-theatre piece Bsqueda, of the piano concerto The Berserking and especially of the orchestral The Confession of Isobel Gowdie couldn't be sustained. And anyway, how could any composer be so prolific today? It wasn't natural - he was bound to burn himself out sooner or later.

A decade on, and MacMillan is still very much with us. A special South Bank and Barbican-based MacMillan Festival, Raising Sparks, begins on Sunday, including a few older works (Bsqueda and The Berserking receive their belated London premieres) but mostly featuring music written in the last few years. A couple of weeks ago, MacMillan drew up a list of the pieces he'd composed since the first performance of his opera Ines de Castro in August last year; it included a symphony, a clarinet concerto, a 20-minute piece for strings and percussion, a piano trio, some choral works...

At this point, his wife stepped in. "She's been very concerned over the last year, because I haven't been sleeping well. I decided it was time to recharge my batteries, so I'm going on a retreat to a Benedictine monastery. After that, I want to hear some more music. I think I've also got to learn how to smile at my kids again."

It's hard to blame MacMillan for this. Since the triumphs of the late 1980s, there has been a steady stream of tempting commissions. Would he have written so much music if he hadn't been asked for it? "Yes. Some of these pieces were written because I just wanted to. I wrote my Galloway Mass for the Catholic church in Scotland, some pieces for my daughter's school, because I just wanted to help out. I read Wallace Stevens's poem, `The Man with the Blue Guitar' and just set it. So even if nobody wanted my music, I'd still be writing it."

It sounds as if music simply pours out of him. "I compose very quickly, but when I'm composing, I'm aware that the ideas have been worried away at, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously. Sometimes I work at more than one piece at a time; one is being planned while another is taking its final shape."

Critics and rival composers are bound to be suspicious of such facility - just as they were with Britten and Shostakovich. But there are other things about MacMillan that are likely to be controversial. If his approach could be summarised in one word, it would be "synthesis": modernist astringency combined with romantic folk-like directness; Catholic theology and left- wing politics with a strong Scottish nationalist accent. That's bound to offend purists, for a start.

"The range of reactions is wide, even extreme. One minute you get people wanting to throw their arms around you; the next minute they want to throw you in the Thames. You can never tell in advance what the reaction will be - even if you think you know where people are coming from. I find I get positive reactions from some so-called `conservatives' who are surprised how much they can engage with my music, while someone equally conservative will dismiss it as modernist rubbish. I remember the night Britannia got booed at the Barbican - I've still no idea whether it was the Hecklers, the reactionary element, or the New Music anoraks. Perhaps they were all sitting together."

A lot of the criticism in the New Music scene remains unspoken. People huddle together defensively in little groups and snipe at whatever's in the spotlight, or cultivate exquisite put-downs. But some of it gets into print. Does it ever bother him? "No. Well, not as it relates to the substance of the music. But when it gets more personal, if someone writes that my music is morally as well as artistically flawed - and there was a lot of that around Ines de Castro - well, my mother reads these things, and if she finds her son described as a pornographer in the papers, she begins to ask questions."

So to Raising Sparks itself. Officially, the festival, which takes its name from a new song-cycle to be heard on 5 October, begins on Thursday, but there is a gigantic curtain-raiser this Sunday when the LSO premieres the new symphony, Vigil, at the Barbican. There was always a chance that MacMillan would write a symphony one day. According to Mahler, this was the form that above all should "embrace everything". MacMillan has been throwing his compositional embrace wide for some time; nevertheless, Vigil is something of a milestone. "If you look at my earlier large-scale orchestral pieces - like Tryst and The Berserking - they're actually quite episodic, suite-like in a way. Isobel Gowdie is more through-composed. And it was there that I began to feel that the long-term paragraph, the long statement, was something I needed to work through.

"Even though the symphony can mean so many different kinds of things now, the idea of it as something long-breathed which tackles big issues like life-spans is what draws me. Vigil is the culmination of a triptych I've been writing for the LSO, based on the Holy Week sequence - this is the Easter piece, I suppose. The first movement is called `Light', but it's actually about 95 per cent dark. It's only towards the end that there are these flickers of light."

Religious imagery and extra-musical narratives figure prominently in MacMillan's own descriptions of his music. Are these the sources of the music, clearly identified in his mind before he begins, or things that emerge as he writes? "Nearly every piece I write has an extra-musical starting-point. That can be a point of controversy - you get cantankerous articles asking why no one is writing abstract music any more. For me, the connection between the pre-musical and the musical is unbreakable. The music has to exist on its own, but it would be a completely different animal if it had a different pre-musical stimulus. There's a transformation of one into the other - you could even call it a transubstantiation."

Does he insist on his pre-musical ideas, or are listeners free to hear what they will? "In a sense, they've got to be. People can encounter my music as pure music. But if they really want to get under the skin of it, they need to know something about why I wrote it in the first place. That's why I'm very careful now about the way I write programme notes. I can remember in some of my early efforts I used to rant a bit about Scottish politics and culture. Now I try to talk more objectively about the music. And yet, when you're talking about a symphony with movements called `Light' and `Water' - there are reasons for that, theological reasons - so people need to see what's emerging through the music."

Clearly it isn't simply a question of discovering a programme - words like "theological" suggest much grander ambitions. MacMillan may not be a musical evangelist, but he does have some kind of belief in a larger purpose for his work. Does he have a clear sense of what his music might achieve? "I have an embryo of a feeling about this. I feel there is a place for composers of serious music in the community - without being a social worker or a politician. I've seen and felt people's reactions - like when I conducted my Galloway Mass to a congregation of 3,000 people. I detect a thirst for deeper sustenance. I'm impressed by the way people from Russia talk about composers like Gubaidulina and Schnittke as prophets, as seers, who can disturb their listeners, and open up wonders. Contemporary music can't go on being the preserve of a small group of initiates. Everyone has right of access."

`Raising Sparks' opens at the Barbican on Sunday, with the premiere of `Vigil' (booking: 0171-638 8891), and continues at the SBC until 26 Oct (0171-960 4242)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

    £27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

    £19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

    Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

    Day In a Page

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor