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.

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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 head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

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