James MacMillan in action.
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Conjuring sound: James MacMillan conducts a retrospective of his own works

Appearing at the Barbican with the BBC Singers and London Sinfonietta, the composer's hands seem to shape music out of thin air.

Opportunities to see composers conduct their own work are all too rare but to be seized whenever possible. There is something compelling about the idea that the person who conceived the harmonies is now on stage before you, coaxing the music out into the world. In the case of a concert by the Scottish composer James MacMillan, who habitually peppers his music with time-travelling stylistic and linguistic references, it feels like a chance to see inside his many-layered compositions and understand what drives them.

In collaboration with the BBC Singers and members of the London Sinfonietta, MacMillan presented on 12 February a brisk survey of his two decades as one of Britain’s most prominent composers. The choice to begin with After Virtue (2006) felt like a challenge to the audience – is there another composer living who would dare to set a paragraph of prose from a 1981 work of moral philosophy to music? MacMillan’s choice of text – a section from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory – also points to one of the composer’s great intellectual preoccupations.

MacIntyre writes of the moments in history when morality and civility struggle against darkness and barbarism, drawing a parallel between the end of the Roman empire and the late 20th century. MacMillan’s music is entirely guided by the words, the bass line chanting below the sopranos, who make stabbing interjections.

There is certainly darkness there in the dissonance – as MacIntyre has it, “This time . . . the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time” – but when the choral sound swells to the triumph of a new kind of spirituality, the refrain “St Benedict” rings out.

There are many dimensions to James MacMillan and they are all contained in this short piece. MacMillan is a Scot and a Roman Catholic, a man fascinated by spirituality and the way that language and music can express it. It isn’t always easy to see how they can coexist within one composer, especially one who occupies such a prominent place in British contemporary music. After all, it was to a fanfare of his devising that the Queen entered the newly reformed Scottish Parliament in 1999 and his setting of the Mass accompanied Pope Benedict’s service at Westminster Cathedral in 2010.

The playful and the passionate coexist in both Sun-Dogs (2006) and Catherine’s Lullabies (1990). The title of the latter was “a bit of a joke”, MacMillan tells the audience. It was written to mark the birth of his daughter but it would be difficult to imagine anything less likely to soothe a child to sleep. Replete with percussive crashes and piercing, high-pitched melodies, this is intended to communicate a different kind of solace. MacMillan is offering a “spiritual and social inheritance” to his daughter, he says – a lesson in how to live a good life.

The decision to include a selection of church songs by the Polish composer Henryk Górecki among MacMillan’s pieces was an intriguing one. Górecki’s reworking of these traditional hymn melodies has much in common with MacMillan’s style: although they mostly lack his trademark dissonances, their open harmonies are very familiar. Under MacMillan’s direction, the BBC Singers obey the sense of the text throughout, pushing lines onwards even when the music wants to phrase off to ensure the syntax works at all times.

Watching him bring reverence and contradiction to Górecki’s flawless musical miniatures, you come to realise that there is a very particular way that James MacMillan conducts. His gestures are not very expansive but nor are they unusually contained. Yet he seems to use his hands far more expressively than we are accustomed to seeing. Rather than being just a means of keeping time, the palms of his hands appear to shape the music out of the air, moulding the sounds that the singers are producing before they can reach your ears. Cymbal crashes and snare drum reports are triggered with the mere flick of forefinger against thumb.

His technique can be forensic in its attention to detail at times – the 2013 composition Alleluia is transformed from a shimmering wall of humming and vowels into a complex interplay of individual lines – but it is neither showy nor dramatic. More often than not, a simple jerk of the wrist indicates the second beat of a bar. Like his music, it holds many possibilities, both secular and spiritual, in parallel with a certainty that thrills.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era