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Sunday, 6 September 2015

James MacMillan and Van Morrison

There is a great selection of music on BBC4 tonight with the premiere at the Proms of James MacMillan's Fourth Symphony, Laura Mvula on Nina Simone, and Van Morrison's Cypress Avenue concerts.

A Guardian review describes MacMillan's Symphony well: 'Donald Runnicles’s second Prom with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra opened with the world premiere of James MacMillan’s Fourth Symphony, written to celebrate Runnicles’s 60th birthday, which fell late last year. MacMillan describes the symphony as “essentially abstract” rather than programmatic, though it also anchors itself within traditions of Scottish sacred music by paying tribute to the Renaissance polyphonist Robert Carver, whose 10-part Missa Dum Sacrum Mysterium – MacMillan sang it while a student – is liberally quoted in the score.

Lasting around 40 minutes, the symphony is effectively a single-movement variant on traditional sonata form built round a cluster of ideas heard in succession at the outset: ritualistic timpani throbs; a fanfare-like chorale; thickening string dissonances; and spiky, aggressive rhythmic figurations from woodwind and piano. Carver’s Mass is then introduced by low solo strings, and the development weaves its way through and over it, the textures alternately clotting and clearing, the mood turning increasingly tense.

Eventually serenity is achieved in a slowly unwinding cello melody accompanied by the exquisite yet eerie sound of overtones on eastern temple bowls. At this point, the emotional trajectory feels complete. But MacMillan pushes on to a big coda, complete with a series of grandiose climaxes that feel curiously forced after all that has gone before. Densely, at times exotically scored, it was grandly played. Runnicles conducted it with great affection and dignity.'

Stephen Johnson writes that: 'MacMillan is Roman Catholic by birth, and today his faith remains central to his life. His early involvement with Marxism was strongly coloured by Latin American Liberation Theology, and its impact can still be sensed in his work today, right up to his latest opera The Sacrifice (2005-06). At the same time MacMillan is keenly aware of the divisions partisan religious thinking can cause. While his works often draw on Catholic liturgy and chant for their basic formal and melodic material, he can also include elements from the Jewish Passover rite in his second string quartet, Why is this night different? (1998), or instrumental colours associated with the Japanese Shinto religion in Symphony No.3: ‘Silence’ (2003).

The result is music that embraces a startling variety of musical styles. Dense, thorny atonal textures can suddenly yield to soaring tonal melodies, reminiscent of Wagner (another crucial early influence). Jagged, complex, muscular rhythms may similarly melt into free-floating improvisatory lyricism, or fine-spun polyphony recalling Bach and the renaissance church composers. Thrillingly garish or abrasive colours sit alongside delicate, fragile patterns or velvety warmth. Hymn tunes, folk laments and brash marches float as conflicting layers in vibrant musical tapestries. One may be reminded of the teeming orchestral kaleidoscopes of the pioneering American composer Charles Ives, or the Russian ‘polystylist’ Alfred Schnittke.

What draws all this together is MacMillan’s deeply ingrained feeling for musical storytelling. Today grand narratives are often derided as outdated, irrelevant. MacMillan however has proved through works like Isobel Gowdie, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel and the massive orchestral trilogy Triduum (1995-97) that this kind of spiritual journey in music, as exemplified by Beethoven in his symphonies and Bach in his great ‘Passions’, can be recreated in terms which speak both to sophisticated musical intelligences and ordinary music lovers.'

Van Morrison recently returned to Cyprus Avenue, the quiet, leafy street in east Belfast that inspired two songs on one of the greatest albums of all time (Astral Weeks), to perform two concerts on his 70th birthday.

This was particularly appropriate for Morrison as a key theme in his work is the importance of memory. As he wrote in 'Got To Go Back' - a song in which he recalls gazing out of his classroom window in Orangefield and claims that the love he carries within from his childhood meditations remains within him and carries him through - 'we've got to go back ... for the healing to go on with the dreaming.'

Earlier in the year, the March edition of Uncut explored the making of many of Van Morrison's best albums from Astral Weeks (Lewis Merenstein - '... it was immediately clear to me that he was being born again') to Back on Top (Walter Samuel - 'I'm not sure how he does it... it just comes out of him. It just happens'). From the musicians who played on these albums there is much talk about 'looking for the spark,' 'channelling,' 'transcendental telepathy,' and 'intuitive communication'. When he channelled or connected with the spark Morrison set everyone else on fire so that the atmosphere was truly transcendental.

In his interview Morrison described this as 'creating space.' The key to the creation of space - the stretching out of time - is listening, watching and absorbing. Most musicians, he says, don't understand this. They 'might be great technically; but they don't have the feeling;' the ability to listen in order to be in the same space and have 'a collective experience,' The phrase he regularly used for the times 'when he felt it was working' was, 'I think it's all coming together.'

My co-authored book with Peter Banks, The Secret Chord, is essentially an extended exploration of this experience common to artists and musicians, which is often described in spiritual terms, of things coming together - gelling, coalescing - into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Jef Labes, a longtime associate of Morrison, notes that: 'He once said to me that he sees all his work as variations on one piece of music that he channels. He doesn't sit down and work on songs, he gets a rush of energy. He'll grab a guitar and start playing, switch on a recording device, and whatever comes out, he'll write down. It arrives as almost a complete work ... when that goes away he's sad and exhausted, and when it's there, when he's visited by the spirit, he's compelled to get it out. It's scary. He has no idea where it comes from.'

At their best Morrison's songs blend memories, visions, literature and musical genres (blues, folk, jazz, gospel, r&b, soul and pop) in order to take us to a point of silence, a moment of communion, a spiritual core. He has spoken about this in terms of switching off what's referred to as the constant voice: "That's what meditation is supposed to do - turn off the constant voice, all them thoughts you have, y'know, the refrigerator hum, did I leave the lights on? Or, is the dog crossing the street? What about my tax problems? When you switch off all that, that's what I mean by transcendence."

In Summertime in England, for example, the orchestration and vocalising circles the song's core, ebbing and flowing with the movement between ecstasy and silence. Lyrically, we are on a journey from the Lake District through Bristol to Glastonbury picking up on the literary and spiritual references as we travel. We have a companion who could be a human partner or, to quote T S Eliot, "the third who walks always beside you". Our journey ends, or begins afresh, in the Church of St John with a revelation of Jesus as the one who underpins spiritual life. "Can you feel the light in England?" Morrison asks. Have you felt it in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Eliot, Yeats? Have you felt it in memory, in landscape, in church, in drug induced visions, in the gospel music coming through the ether? And, as the music stills and the vocalising pauses, he asks us to touch the silence, the core of revelation. Don't touch, don't question, don't disturb, he pleads, just experience;

"It ain't why, why, why, why, why
It just is."


Van Morrison - Cypress Avenue.

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