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James Hardie

Coming back for Cumnock

Kevin Cummins / Getty Images

An interview with James MacMillan

As a child, I grew up singing a lot of music written by Sir James MacMillan. It’s full of sparkle and vigour, distinctive harmonic turns, and is a complete joy to perform. So it surprised me a little on meeting MacMillan, first thing in the morning in the lobby of his London hotel, quite how formal, almost stilted, he was.

Last year MacMillan’s 60th birthday was marked by a celebratory series at St John’s Smith Square in London, performances including a world première at Edinburgh International Festival, two new books (the first study of his music by Phillip Cooke, and a collection of writings by MacMillan himself), two New York premières, and all this alongside a whole host of conducting engagements, and the release of countless recordings of his music. After I meet MacMillan, he’ll be on his way to collect an Honorary Award from Trinity College London.

It’s a pretty dizzying list of activity that leaves me wondering how on earth they’ll be able to honour MacMillan for his 70th birthday, to which he chuckles, “it’s been quite exhausting but very enjoyable. The pinnacle in many ways was the Edinburgh Festival focus, it was wonderful seeing a big public engaged in the music, especially for the première of the Fifth Symphony.” Sub-titled “Le Grand Inconnu” it is a 50 minute work for orchestra, chamber choir, and chorus, that grapples with that most intangible of subjects, the Holy Spirit, explored through the three elements - wind, water, and fire - and while not a liturgical work, it is an investigation into the spiritual, which MacMillan feels there is more appetite for than might be supposed: “In this age of unbelief, there is nevertheless this very wide and quite serious engagement by people in matters of spirituality; and sometimes it’s vague and it can be mocked for being designer spirituality. It is there and people talk about it a lot, and certainly in the world of music, you find a lot of people talking about music being a spiritual experience.” The first performance was met with critical acclaim, and there was a real feeling that this was an important moment, a piece of work that had really lived up to its hype.

People are either nervous or dismissive of tradition because they think it’s reactionary. I certainly don’t take that position.

Born in 1959 in Kilwinning, North Ayrshire, James Loy MacMillan was born to Ellen (a teacher) and James (a carpenter). The family settled in nearby Cumnock, East Ayrshire, where MacMillan attended the local Roman Catholic school. His first musical instrument was a plastic recorder, and his grandfather, a coal miner, took him along to neighbouring Dalmellington to listen in on brass band rehearsals. It set him on a path of complete absorption: “I remember as a boy stumbling over a TV broadcast of Verdi’s Macbeth. I was so taken by it that I got my cassette recorder out and put it up at the television, so I could keep listening to it.”

Writing music quickly became MacMillan’s “obsession”, and after secondary school at Cumnock Academy (where he met his future wife, Lynne), he attended Edinburgh University to study music, where he had his first brushes with modernism in the form of Stravinsky and Messiaen. But it wasn’t just music that he soaked up; his political outlook too was porous. Growing up in a Labour heartland (Keir Hardie is buried in Cumnock), he horrified his grandfather by joining the Young Communist League aged fifteen, which MacMillan has described as “the worst thing I have ever done in my life.”

On leaving Edinburgh University, MacMillan pursued a doctorate at Durham and lectured in Manchester, before settling in Glasgow in 1988. His breakthrough came in 1990, when his work The Confession of Isobel Gowdie was broadcast on television from the BBC Proms. “The day after it was televised, I went to a Celtic [versus] Aberdeen [football] game, and at half-time I was tapped on the shoulder by another fan who asked ‘was that your première on the television last night?’ That was when I realised something had changed.”

Since then he’s developed into one of the world’s greatest and most prolific composers, having written music for Queen Elizabeth and Pope Benedict XVI. He is the first composer to have had a concert live-streamed from the Sistine Chapel. MacMillan’s most-performed work, his percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel (1992), has been performed almost 500 times.

In recent years, MacMillan has turned his focus back home to Cumnock, where his mother-in-law still lives. The town was decimated when its mines were shut in 1984 after a period of decline in output. MacMillan says, without wishing to denigrate the place, that it remains “very sad… there’s a beaten, defeated feel about the area sometimes.” In 2013 neighbouring village New Cumnock was named Scotland’s “most dismal town” by the Scottish Architecture and Design magazine, Urban Realm.

In this age of unbelief, there is nevertheless this very wide and quite serious engagement by people in matters of spirituality; and sometimes it’s vague and it can be mocked for being designer spirituality. It is there and people talk about it a lot, and certainly in the world of music, you find a lot of people talking about music being a spiritual experience.

In 2014, MacMillan founded his music festival, The Cumnock Tryst. “A lot of people said ‘why Cumnock?’ They couldn’t imagine why.” But there was no question: “I’m from there, and I’m a musician because of those early experiences working with teachers, friends, relatives, doing music with them, so I remember it as being a very musical place.”

Only six years old, The Cumnock Tryst was awarded the Festivals Prize at 2019’s Royal Philharmonic Society Awards, perhaps the most prestigious awards for classical music in the UK. Given special mention by the judges was MacMillan’s own composition All the Hills and Vales Along, which was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, and given its world première in Cumnock, by the combined forces of resident ensembles Edinburgh Quartet and Cumnock Festival Chorus, alongside Ian Bostridge, and Dalmellington Band. A string quartet and amateur chorus, with one of the world’s finest and most-famed tenors, and one of Scotland’s oldest and most decorated colliery bands? Well, why not?

These rather unlikely collaborations are what make The Cumnock Tryst so distinct. The intermingling of professional and amateur; the mix of community music-making and concert performance; high art and working-class rituals. But Beethoven and brass bands come together in Cumnock with seriousness and enthusiasm, and without a shred of tokenism: “I’ve seen tokenism and it’s obvious, and people taking part know. With All the Hills and Vales Along, it was as important a piece to me as anything else I’ve done, and the participants all knew that.”

The celebration of local brass brands, perhaps the only remaining evidence of East Ayrshire’s mining days, is particularly interesting at a classical music festival. The musical ability of these miner-musicians is nothing to be sniffed at but the rituals and way of life that these bands represent, as they perform in their braided jackets and bow ties, feels like a throwback to a bygone era. It’s a celebration of tradition that many would swerve, but not MacMillan.

“People are either nervous or dismissive of tradition because they think it’s reactionary. I certainly don’t take that position”, says MacMillan. “The analogy I like to use is that of a river. A river that has its source in the past, but flows forward to the future, maybe into a huge estuary, but runs past you as you stand on the bank of the river, and that river irrigates human experience at any given point in history. And that is a life-giving force, that is a forward-moving thing. It’s not a reactionary thing to value tradition, in fact to put a dam into that river causes its desiccation, and that’s what many on the kind of modernist, quasi-Marxist side of the arts and other things have tried to do. A living tradition is to be celebrated.”

Simone Padovani/Awakening / Getty Images

MacMillan abandoned his communist tendencies around the time of the Falklands War, prompted by hard Left extremism, and he’s since swung towards the right, becoming a vehement critic of nationalism in all its forms, with special antipathy reserved for the Scottish National Party (as a trawl through his once explosive Twitter feed confirms). While he’s accepted the establishment plaudits that have accompanied his success (he’s both a Knight and a CBE), he’s never been one to shy away from criticism, and clearly feels a sense urgency when it comes to Scotland’s poor education provision, citing the recently released PISA results which saw the country record its worst ever results in maths and science. “The so-called Curriculum for Excellence is not a knowledge-based curriculum anymore. It’s patchy, based on experience and making them [pupils] feel good. You can see knowledge seeping out of the curriculum.”

That’s surely the case: a recent Mail on Sunday headline decried that “Three quarters of young Britons have never heard of Mozart.” But what is the impact of this on music? Is knowledge of a dead white male relevant to its success? Not necessarily, according to MacMillan: “Okay, people don’t know who Mozart is, but there are new ways of doing it. Going into a class of teenagers in East Ayrshire and getting them to write their own music from scratch is an amazing way of teaching them the principals of music, and they can find their way back to Mozart.”

If you read some of the people who write about music, who are some of the worst snobs, they’re all from down here [London]. We work very hard to engage people and then they write this sneering, condescending rubbish. I’ll always remember in my early days–they’ll remain nameless–sneering comments made about Cumnock, as if no good can come of a place like this. ‘He’s from Cumnock, ha-ha-ha…’ And it’s still the same.

Throughout our conversation, MacMillan is utterly polite, and answers my occasionally rambling questions with grace and enthusiasm, but I can sense a little heat underneath these sentiments. MacMillan, the firebrand of yore who 20 years ago launched a controversial attack on anti-Catholic sentiment in Scotland at the Edinburgh International Festival, has cooled down a little it seems, but he still has the appetite to take aim at those who criticise the local music-making that defines places like Cumnock.

“If you read some of the people who write about music, who are some of the worst snobs, they’re all from down here [London]. We work very hard to engage people and then they write this sneering, condescending rubbish. I’ll always remember in my early days–they’ll remain nameless–sneering comments made about Cumnock, as if no good can come of a place like this. ‘He’s from Cumnock, ha-ha-ha…’ And it’s still the same. I see some of these people on social media, I’ve had to block a few actually. If people are seeing this, this kind of sneering drivel week after week, they’ll think it’s just as bad as ever.”

Evidence would prove them wrong. The festival increasingly attracts audiences from across the West Coast of Scotland, as well as a big contingent of supporters from America (who also, MacMillan tells me, support with their wallets). Elsewhere in the region, efforts to spark regeneration are yielding positive results. Dumfries House, a 1750s Palladian House previously inhabited by the Bute Family, but purchased back in 2007 by a consortium led by Prince Charles, is now the second-biggest employer in the region.

Perhaps most excitingly, a new school is being built in Cumnock, which will include a 500-seater auditorium. The council took advice from MacMillan on the building materials, and despite a small budget, was persuaded to take advice from an acoustical designer. MacMillan is writing a work for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble that gave him his first professional work, to celebrate its opening next year.

So what does 2020 hold for James MacMillan? The first priority will be catching up on his compositions. While he was busy globe-trotting last year, it was still what MacMillan thought about “first thing in the morning, last thing at night, sometimes during the night.” The current cause of his wakeful moments is a piece for baritone and orchestra, but he’s also near completion of his Christmas Oratorio, which will get its first performance next year in London, before going on to Melbourne, Amsterdam, and New York in 2021.

“I’ve been a bit of a sponge all my life, just absorbing everything. I sang Palestrina at school, I was playing in brass bands when I was ten, went to university and started playing gamelan. But I think the absorption stage is over.” That might be the case, but MacMillan, who has around 300 works to his name, is clearly now in a golden period of productivity and energy, and whilst he might now identify as a “grumpy old man” who “doesn’t like too much noise”, he’s certainly showing no signs of slowing down.