Bachtrack is asking the same six questions to many composers this month as part of its focus on contemporary music. Here’s what James MacMillan had to say.

© Philip Gatward
© Philip Gatward
1. What influences are important to you and your music? Do you choose them, or do they choose you?

As a student I made a conscious study of major developments in recent music and I think there are still subliminal influences from the likes of Messiaen and Shostakovich at work in my music. However, the counterpoint from deep history in the work of Palestrina and Tallis remains an important thread in the way I think about composition.

2. What (if anything) do you want listeners to take away from your music?

I don’t really think of it that way! I like the idea of a listener being hungry and thirsty for engagement with music they don’t yet know. That is an ideal listener. If he or she is open to the possibility of new music speaking to them, then the communication process is likely to work.

3. Is there a composition of yours which you are most satisfied with? What makes it successful?

My mind is always caught up with the last piece I have written! At the moment that is a viola concerto for Lawrence Power. Not having heard it yet, I can nevertheless say that it is the piece that has advanced my ideas most fully so far. But that will no doubt change soon...

4. How important is new technology to you as a composer?

I’m afraid I can’t use technology. I wish I could, but I have a bit of a block with these things. Nevertheless I have written a couple of pieces that required a very simple and basic electro-acoustic dimension. For these, I employed some students who knew what they were doing, so they could tell me which buttons to press, etc! I needed to manipulate some natural sounds for simultaneous playback in my music-theatre piece Parthenogenesis and in my concertante violin piece A Deep But Dazzling Darkness. Having said that though, my main concession to modern technology is my electric pencil sharpener...

5. What music do you enjoy listening to?

If pressed, I would say choral music. The human voice, singing in conjunction with others is a sonic miracle. The British choral tradition is something to be proud of, but I am gradually discovering the choral sounds of other countries. I heard the SWR Stuttgart Vocal Ensemble, conducted by Englishman Marcus Creed recently, and they are amazing.

6. How is composing changing, and where do you want new music to go in the future?

It is interesting what has changed even in my lifetime. I didn’t foresee the growing popularity of choral music when I was younger, but living composers seem to be the object of some curiosity and interest in the huge audience for choral music today. Also, there seems to have been an explosion in styles and aesthetics in the last 20 years, which has changed my world substantially. That can bring confusion as well as freedom, and it is up to each individual composer to filter out that which is superfluous and focus on what is important.


James MacMillan read music at Edinburgh University and took doctoral studies in composition at Durham University with John Casken. After working as a lecturer at Manchester University, he returned to Scotland and settled in Glasgow. The successful première of Tryst at the 1990 St Magnus Festival led to his appointment as Affiliate Composer of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Between 1992 and 2002 he was Artistic Director of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Music of Today series of contemporary music concerts. MacMillan is internationally active as a conductor, working as composer/conductor with the BBC Philharmonic between 2000 and 2009, and appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic from 2010. He was awarded a CBE in January 2004.

In addition to The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, which launched MacMillan’s international career at the BBC Proms in 1990, his orchestral output includes the percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, premièred by Evelyn Glennie in 1992 and which has since received over 400 performances worldwide. MacMillan’s music has been programmed extensively at international music festivals, including the Edinburgh Festival in 1993, the Bergen Festival in 1997, Southbank Centre’s 1997 Raising Sparks festival in London, the Queensland Biennial in 1999, the BBC Barbican Composer Weekend in 2005 and the Grafenegg Festival in 2012. A documentary film portrait of MacMillan by Robert Bee was screened on ITV’s South Bank Show in 2003.

Works by MacMillan from the 1990s also include Seven Last Words from the Cross for chorus and string orchestra, screened on BBC TV during Holy Week 1994, Inés de Castro, premièred by Scottish Opera, a triptych of orchestral works commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra: The World’s Ransoming, a Cello Concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich, and Symphony: “Vigil” premièred under the baton of Rostropovich in 1997, and Quickening for The Hilliard Ensemble, chorus and orchestra, co-commissioned by the BBC Proms and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

MacMillan works composed over the past decade include Piano Concerto no. 2 first performed with choreography by Christopher Wheeldon at New York City Ballet, A Scotch Bestiary commissioned to inaugurate the new organ at Disney Hall with soloist Wayne Marshall and the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, and The Sacrifice premièred and toured by Welsh National Opera in 2007. His St John Passion, co-commissioned by the LSO, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Berlin Radio Choir, was premièred under the baton of Sir Colin Davis in 2008.

2010 featured the premières of two new concertos; a violin concerto for Vadim Repin co-commissioned by the LSO, Zaterdag Matinee and Philadelphia Orchestra, and an oboe concerto toured by Nicholas Daniel and Britten Sinfonia. 2011 highlights included premières of MacMillan’s Piano Concerto no. 3 for Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Minnesota Orchestra and a new one-act opera, Clemency, commissioned by the ROH2, Scottish Opera, Boston Lyric Opera and Britten Sinfonia. First performances in 2012 include festive settings of the Gloria (to mark the 50th anniversary of the consecration of Coventry Cathedral) and of the Credo, which received its world première at the BBC Proms.

In terms of recordings, the Koch Schwann disc of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie and Tryst won the 1993 Gramophone Contemporary Music Record of the Year Award, and the BMG recording of Veni, Veni, Emmanuel won the 1993 Classic CD Award for Contemporary Music. MacMillan discs on the BIS label include the complete Triduum conducted by Osmo Vänskä, the clarinet concerto Ninian and the trumpet concerto Epiclesis. A MacMillan series on Chandos with the BBC Philharmonic includes The Berserking, Symphony no. 3: “Silence”, which won a Classical Brit award in 2006, Quickening, and The Sacrifice. Other acclaimed recordings include Mass and Seven Last Words from the Cross on Hyperion and discs on the Naxos, Black Box, Coro, Linn and LSO Live labels.

James MacMillan is published exclusively by Boosey & Hawkes.

Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes

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