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A Soulful Body of Work

Scottish composer James MacMillan's music has been labeled as religious, leftist and nationalist. Whatever it's called, it is widely celebrated and loved.

April 21, 1996|Mark Swed | Mark Swed was recently named classical music critic of The Times

NEW YORK — You've got to see it to believe it.

Not Evelyn Glennie's performance of "Veni, Veni, Emmanuel," the percussion concerto by the young Scottish composer James MacMillan that the Los Angeles Philharmonic will present during its subscription concerts this week. That you won't believe even when you do see it--for Glennie, who has been delivering riveting theatrical performances of "Veni, Veni," is a percussionist who is also deaf.

But almost as unbelievable is the broad reaction that the work has been provoking. At a recent performance by the New York Philharmonic, an audience normally as impatient with new or unfamiliar music as any you are likely to encounter anywhere appeared understandably mesmerized by the soloist but uncharacteristically embraced the composer, when he took his bow, as well. And then there was the spectacle of the orchestra, which is rarely shy about letting the audience know how its feels about a piece, playing at its dazzling peak.

It would, in fact, be possible to talk about "Veni, Veni" in terms of the miraculous. MacMillan is an intensely devout Catholic, and the work is, like much of his music, deeply spiritual. "Veni, Veni" is also, for all it visceral excitement, a work of a certain complexity that has, nonetheless, had a universal success. Since its premiere at the 1992 Proms concerts in London, it has been played by 24 orchestras in 13 countries. And it has done so--another miracle--without controversy. Audiences and critics agree on this one.

But MacMillan, in New York briefly for the "Veni, Veni" performances, professes little interest in miracles. "There's no real mysticism to my Catholicism," he says, explaining that his work is really miles apart from that of the so-called holy minimalists like John Tavener or Arvo Part. "What inspires me most is the possible fusion, both in a theological and in an artistic sense, between the political and religious."


MacMillan was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, in 1959 and now lives in Glasgow. He has achieved his success--and he is, without question, the most celebrated, performed and loved British composer of his generation--by combining his steady Catholicism with a commitment to the Scottish nationalist movement. He also professes the belief that music cannot represent humanity without also being a corporeal, even erotic, art.

If that combination sounds unlikely, MacMillan concedes that it can make for some confusion.

"I've got a funny feeling that these labels--like 'religious composer,' 'political composer,' 'left-wing composer'--are merely labels that a lot of British writers use to find pigeonholes for me," he says. "And because there are so many labels, they've lumped them all together into one nonsensical [one]: I've seen myself described as the Scottish Roman Catholic left-wing nationalist composer."

MacMillan says that although he is trying to do many things in his music, he is not necessarily trying to do all those things at the same time. His music might well have a political dimension, or an erotic one, without being overtly spiritual. It can also be abstract.

But these things do have a way of coming together. One of his most popular works is the rapturous tone poem "The Confession of Isobel Gowdie," which the composer describes as a sort of requiem for a victim of a Protestant witch hunt during the English Reformation, a woman who was burned as a witch for her devotion to Catholicism.

MacMillan, a prolific composer who turns out two or three major works a year and many smaller ones, has to find room, as well, for many purely stylistic interests. And these can include a kind of post-minimalist rhythmic propulsion, a lavish neo-romantic sense of melody and harmony and an intricate weaving in of ancient liturgical or folk musics.

Likewise, MacMillan does acknowledge that the spiritual, the social impulse and the physical are not entirely unrelated.

"Even the religious pieces are very rooted in humanity and our time, our experience, the corporeal experience," he notes, explaining that the holy minimalists tend instead to be "essentially reflective and transcendent, avoiding worldly conflict, deliberately avoiding the dialectic of the Western tradition."

Indeed, for MacMillan, the religious and political are often inseparable, in the form of liberation theology.

"I suppose in the popular mind liberation theology is associated with Latin America, where rightly or wrongly a political dimension has emerged in the teaching of the gospel," MacMillan says. "The teaching of the gospel has stressed the political dimension, the fact that the gospel is good news for the poor. And since a preferential option for the poor was being preached through the gospel during the fascist time in South America, there was [a] strange alliance between figures in the church and figures on the left.

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