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.

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

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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge