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 head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

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

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist