‘Stick to the music’ | Sir James MacMillan interview

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

As the composer is celebrated for his impact in the art and craft of music creation, we find out how it all began

How does one define success as a composer? Writing for the BBC Symphony Orchestra? Or perhaps being given a knighthood, or composing a piece for a royal event? For the average composer, any one of these would be remarkable, but for Sir James MacMillan all of them are a reality. Three months into 2024 and the Scottish composer has added to his accolades with the announcement of his Academy Fellowship from The Ivors Academy, placing him among the ranks of other household names: Judith Weir, Sting and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

MacMillan speaks to me just days before he is due to be given his Ivors Academy Fellowship which will be awarded following his premiere performance of Fiat Lux at the Barbican with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Sitting across from me in a hoodie and jeans, he has a calm energy about him, and the relaxed air of a man unfazed by official titles and royal associations. It supports what I had read about his character; most notably, that he had stayed at home to care for his wife after she broke her foot, instead of accepting an invitation to Westminster Abbey for the Queen’s funeral where his music was being performed. From humble beginnings growing up in Ayrshire, MacMillan was introduced to music by his grandfather who was a coal-miner and played the euphonium when he wasn’t singing in the local church choir. He cites his formative musical experiences as playing music with friends and family and going to see amateur productions of opera, revealing his love of collective music-making early on.

Sir James MacMillan receiving his Ivor Academy Fellowship during his premiere of Fiat Lux with BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus | Photo credit: Viktor Erik Emmanuel

‘It was a delight and an honour to hear about the award,’ he says. ‘I'm not in London too much, so the opportunities to receive it came and went, but it's turned into quite a significant presentation during my concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. They’ve laid out a lovely little reception and party after so they’ve invited lots of my colleagues, and friends and family, too so it will be a lovely way to celebrate.’ Going on to express his admiration toward the previous awardees: ‘yes, when I saw the list of previous fellows, it’s an amazing array of some of the most wonderful names, not just in classical music, but right across musical world.’

'I didn’t know I was going to be a conductor until I was well into my 30s, but that has since become a big part of my life.'

Thoughtful and quietly self-assured, MacMillan’s passion for composing and the wider musical world is tangible as we talk at length about early music; Palestrina, Byrd and Bach; the foundations upon which his musical voice was formed. His PhD in music composition rears its head as he describes the intricacies of early fugal writing: ‘I’ve always valued early music. I had quite a traditional university training at Edinburgh University, where my teacher was the greatly revered Kenneth Leighton, and his style of teaching, which is perhaps now regarded as a little old-fashioned, was the study of counterpoint and harmony. The study of older composers, pre-Baroque composers, for example, was essential.’ He goes on to explain the training - species counterpoint exercises, imitating Palestrina and Byrd, and getting the distinction correct. 'A lot of other students find it really boring, but I loved it,' he enthuses. 'Fugal writing, how to make disparate lines come together and make sense, fascinated me. So, the study of counterpoint, the study of complexity and music, even though it was part of an earlier age, had a huge impact on the way that I think about modern music.’

'Every composer's career is different' Photo credit: James Bellorini

Many musicians have strong opinions as to whether artists should pursue higher-education and academia instead of committing that time to the creative act itself, but Macmillan lays all doubt to rest, having completed a PhD from Durham University in 1987 which laid the foundations for a varied and glittering musical career. As we reminisce about MacMillan’s musical beginnings, the subject turns to young composers as I ask if he has any advice for the next generation. ‘I meet a lot of young composers’ he says, ‘and I can pick up on their anxieties about things. Every composer’s career is different, but I think the most useful advice I can give is to make use of a portfolio of skills. I do several other things other than being a composer. I didn’t know I was going to be a conductor until I was well into my 30s, but that has since become a big part of my life. I also have one foot in academia. These different things can support each other.’ 

Education is of great importance to MacMillan, whether it is for himself or for the younger generation. In 2014, Sir James set up the Cumnock Tryst, a music festival in Cumnock, Ayrshire which has announced its first international summer school this year. The week-long course, taking place at Dumfries House, will guide 8 aspiring composers through the process of producing a work for a selected ensemble, culminating in a public performance at the end of the course. The participants will have the opportunity to work one-on-one with composer Sir James MacMillan as well as Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir.  

Our conversation concludes with the answer to my last question: ‘if there is one piece of advice you could give to your younger self, knowing what you know now, what might that be?

'Stick to the music,' he says.

The Cumnock Tryst returns October 2-6 2024. More information can be found here

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