James MacMillan

Written by: Colin Anderson

”Darkness into Light”, the BBC Symphony Orchestra features James MacMillan for its January Weekend, 14th-16th, about which the composer speaks…

London’s contemporary music agenda for January now regularly includes the Park Lane Group’s recitals (Purcell Room until the 14th) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s composer weekend at the Barbican. This year it’s James MacMillan. The publicity is fuelled by his reputation for emotional and dramatic music, grabbing listeners by scruffs of necks. Is this how he sees it? “These are other people’s observations. When I’m writing music I have an ideal listener in mind, someone thirsty for an engagement with something unknown and new. I have my own thoughts about music’s power, the way it connects deeply with our secret selves. The music throughout history I like has that powerful core. There is a deeper priority that has to be at work, an indecipherable priority, that deals with spiritual matters; I always find that people, if they are truly listening actively to any piece of serious music, open themselves up to having their lives impacted upon or changed even.”

The Weekend embraces established MacMillan scores and London premieres, including A Deep but Dazzling Darkness and Parthenogenesis, the former a “violin concerto. I made the discovery that before St Cecilia was the Patron Saint of Music the medieval music guilds throughout Europe regarded Job, from the Old Testament, as the patron: an intriguing and baffling connection; there’s not many musical references in Job. The musicians of ancient times made woodcuts of musicians visiting Job, the violinist represents Job, and they saw music as healing physical and spiritual wounds. In our time, Tippett spoke about the connections between music and compassion.” Parthenogenesis is a “music-theatre piece dealing with human cloning, a very vibrant and troublesome issue. My antenna is always bristling. I see the importance in my music for the inspiration that comes from extra-musical sources. These are the only two pieces of mine that use tape. I’ve never been very comfortable in studios but there were aspects of the instrumental palette that I wanted to extend, meaning some sort of manipulation in an electronic or computer-based way. I took an assistant and he pressed all the right buttons.”

James MacMillan will be conducting two of the Weekend’s concerts. “I love doing it. I have a composer’s solidarity with my colleagues, whether it’s Birtwistle or Haydn, an insider’s perspective.” The Weekend is actually MacMillan-plus. Other composers include Birtwistle, “a composer I admire greatly; there’s an uncommon energy to his works. Exody is an incredible piece teeming with ideas, sonorities and excitement.” John Casken’s Violin Concerto is scheduled, too. “I studied with John, a marvellous, humane and inspirational teacher. He has a painterly approach to writing music; there’s a love of textures and the artistry of orchestration. The violin line in this concerto sings beautifully; it reminds me of Berg and the great twentieth-century melodists.” There’s also the triumvirate of Gubaidulina, Schnittke and Ustvolskaya, similar if distinct worlds. “My deep concern with a lot of Western avant-garde music is that it has focussed on the surface so much that it’s turned surface details into a highly-crafted fetish in which an emotional, deep core is absent. The opposite is the case with these Russians; their surfaces are raw and ham-fistedly crafted, but there’s a burning desire to connect.”

Typical of these Weekends, starting Friday evening (Barbican Hall, St Giles and Guildhall School of Music) is concerts, films and talks; and, late-night Saturday (from 10) brings Ceildih – a free dance and drink in the Barbican foyer. Is James going? “I should. Scottish country dancing is something I’ve grown up with, but I don’t want to be the only one making a fool of myself! Might be good fun.”

James MacMillan conducts the BBCSO and the BBC Philharmonic; he is composer/conductor of the latter. Just issued is his third Chandos CD in this role; CHAN10275 includes The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, which put MacMillan on the musical map, and is included in Saturday evening’s concert (televised on BBC4). One work from a vivid and communicative catalogue: “Music is completely immaterial, it exists in the ether; but it’s palpably real and powerful and analogous with spiritual dimensions.”



  • BBCSO
  • Barbican
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 12 January 2005 and is reproduced here with permission

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