The therapy of forty voices

My attempt to emulate Tallis was initially terrifying, but now that the work is finished I am quite bereft

James MacMillan

I get asked a lot about what a composer’s life is like — what we do from day to day, how we work, how we plan ahead, how we keep the wolf from the door. Every composer is different, so there is no template; but life is based on each of our priorities and specific personal motivations, at least in terms of the kind of music we compose.

For example, I love choral music, but I have spent my life writing for orchestras too, including a number of concertos, and, so far four symphonies. Presently, I’m working on a Fifth Symphony, but it’s a choral one. It involves two separate choirs (one chamber, within which emerges a group of soloists, and a larger chorus) and orchestra. The premiere date is next August, so I will have to deliver it soon to my publishers, Boosey and Hawkes, who extract the performing materials (orchestral parts and vocal scores) from my original.

I have missed the computer score revolution where composers can now create beautifully crafted, completed, self-published works on their own. I write my music with pencils and pens, using rulers, erasers and Tippex; and then hand it over to the publishers, who do all the extra production work. My only concession to modern technology is my electronic pencil sharpener.

One fascinating current project grew out of my conversations with choral singers and aficionados about our great love and admiration for Tallis’s 40-part motet, Spem In Alium. This is a superhuman polyphonic feat, written around 1570 for eight choirs of five voices each, thought by many to be the greatest work of early English music. There was a craze for multi-part music at the time, and some have tried to resurrect the practice in recent times. My attempt is another 40-part work, Vidi Aquam, which is just about ready to deliver to the commissioners.

I had been terrified of writing this piece since I was asked a few years ago, but when I settled to work on it, it became strangely therapeutic. I became obsessed with making the counterpoint work — and like Tallis there was a superimposed “harmonic” outline which enabled me to control the structure, but  also to make the micro-polyphony palpable and fluid from moment to moment.

I broke off from my Fifth Symphony to write it, but felt quite bereft when it was over — its discipline and enforced limitations were invigorating and motivational: I felt I was back in Kenneth Leighton’s counterpoint classes at Edinburgh University, circa 1980. Nevertheless, I decided to work in some comparatively easy 20-part vocal polyphony to the choral symphony, just to keep the dream alive.

Presently I’m up to my neck in preparations for the fifth Cumnock Tryst festival (October 4-7). For this I have written a new, secular oratorio, “All the Hills and Vales Along”, based on poems by Charles Hamilton Sorley, who was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915. He was born in Aberdeen in 1895 and his body of work is small, although Masefield and Graves thought of him as one of the most significant war poets.

My work takes five of his poems and sets them for tenor solo, chorus, strings and brass band. There are two versions: one for a quintet of solo strings (performed in Cumnock), the other involving a full string section, which receives its London premiere on November 4. Ian Bostridge is the soloist in both premieres. My dream for my little festival is to bring together some of our starry visitors (Bostridge and the Edinburgh Quartet) with some of our local musicians, and to create work specially for the combination. The local performers for this new oratorio are our Festival Chorus (who are conducted by Eamonn Dougan of The Sixteen) and the Dalmellington Band, who have been entertaining audiences in Ayrshire for over 150 years.

In London the performance at the Barbican will be by the LSO and their chorus, along with the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain. Brass bands have been central to the musical life of some our industrial communities over the years. My grandfather was a coal miner; he got me my first cornet and took me to my first band practices. He had been a euphonium player himself in Ayrshire colliery bands and I inherited my love of music from him.

The Cumnock Tryst has become my new baby. There is a tradition of composer-led festivals in the UK — think Aldeburgh and St Magnus (Orkney). It was my admiration for what Sir Peter Maxwell Davies achieved at this latter festival which fed my imagination and inspiration to start my own, in Ayrshire. Over the last few weeks I’ve been dashing around, taking rehearsals with the band in Dalmellington, training young schoolkids who are singing and playing bells in other specially composed pieces of mine, overseeing a big composition and performance project involving young local musicians, dancers, actors and composers, and keeping in touch with our starry visitors, who include The Sixteen again this year.

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