In Conversation with James MacMillan: Part one of a three-part series

James MacMillan is a classical composer and conductor known for his orchestral, operatic and choral works. In May 2018 MacMillan met with Phillip A. Cooke to discuss the work on his biography of the composer, The Music of James MacMillan, published by Boydell Press in 2019.

The following is a condensed and edited transcript of the interview.

PAC: In the episode of The South Bank Show from 2003, you were shown spending time in a Benedictine Monastery, was that Pluscarden Abbey and do you still go there?

JM: I haven’t been there for a while, but I used to go very regularly. They have co-opted me onto one of their committees for building something, so I am in touch with them, but I haven’t been for a while.

PAC: So is it just that life has moved on and you don’t have time to do that anymore?

JM: More or less. I would love to go back. One of the reasons I did go (apart from spiritual and religious reasons) was that you had incredible time to work. I actually worked a lot whilst I was there. I composed things, there was total silence. For someone from the city it was a frightening silence to begin with, there was just nothing. It was great for work.

PAC: Did you find that you moved into the monastic timetable?

JM: A little bit. I wasn’t up for the early in the morning things…maybe once I made the 2.00 am service. I used to go to everything: I would eat with them. I would go to most of the services during the day, right up to compline. The music was wonderful.

PAC: Are you still working with the British poet Michael Symmons Roberts? Might you work with him again?

JM: Yes, we are talking about possibilities, though there hasn’t been anything on the horizon for a while. It is partly because (and this doesn’t affect our working relationship) I have gone off opera and he has been writing librettos for me. However, there are loads of other things we could still do.

PAC: Did you feel it was an important thing in the late-90s to work with a contemporary poet, because prior to that you hadn’t and then there was a concerted period of working with him – is it something you felt you needed to do?

JM: It emerged, actually, from our friendship. I met him in 1993, in those days he had a job at the BBC as a producer of TV and radio (I think he was one of the main producers for the Arena programme) making a lot of in-depth documentary-type programmes for BBC1 and BBC2 on a whole range of issues: arts, religion, politics. He also wanted this direction in his work that he would write radio plays as well, so he was basically a poet but using the power of words in very different ways. Since then he has written novels, radio plays, dramas and the kind of things he was written for me has changed and evolved. At the time we had just become friends and he came to interview me for a programme called Contemporaries of Christ, meaning men and women in their early 30s at the time (the same age as when Christ died) and what their take on the story was. They got a whole range of people. Simon Mayo [Radio DJ] and atheists and agnostics as well and ever since then we have been friendly and eventually I said, ‘well, maybe I should set some of your work’ and ‘could you write something.’ Quickening, I think, was the first collaboration, or was is Raising Sparks?

PAC: Yes, it was Raising Sparks…The piece The Company of Heaven for carnyx and wind band — is that a piece that is based on a religious theme?

JM: Yes, basically it has a slightly chequered history in that the original thing was for carnyx, children’s choir and organ — that’s the original scoring. It was cobbled together because of something that I had been asked to do — the kid’s stuff can kind of work on its own — though it’s odd to have these interludes for [mimics carnyx] in the middle. Actually, it’s written in such a way that a band can improvise along with the carnyx. I thought, ‘there’s two different worlds here’ and I’ve actually ditched all the choral stuff though some of it has ended up in different pieces over the years. The Company of Heaven was so impractical so I’ve pilfered and plundered it.

PAC: So it had a text at one time?

JM: It did, it was by John Bell who is a Church of Scotland minister.

PAC: The ‘John Bell’?

JM: That’s right, you probably know him from the Iona Community, and I knew him quite well back then.

PAC: Seems like a collision of different worlds?

JM: Yes, it was! The carnyx music, with wind band, now exists as The Company of Heaven and I think Boosey will publish it. We did it at The Cumnock Tryst with local kids, as you can really get them to improvise and make noises — it was just a harmonic series that they play, so they can play fanfares and so on. We did it at the Scottish Parliament, and there was another performance at the RCS [Royal Conservatoire of Scotland] and it ended up in a big jazz improvisation — it’s kind of open-ended really and useful for compositional workshops.

PAC: Another piece from a similar time that appears to have disappeared in the Fanfare for the Opening of the Scottish Parliament— I know that you used it in A Scotch Bestiary— was it a piece that you never intended to publish and have further performances?

JM: I might revisit it, its two fanfares for symphonic brass, timpani and percussion — it’s kind of Gebrauchsmusik really. I keep getting asked about it for performance, but it might give a skewed idea of what I do to people that have never heard my music before — it’s not very adventurous, I was trying to make it work for the occasion.

Finish your conversation with James MacMillan… read part two here and part three here.

The Edinburgh International Festival hosts five concerts in August 2019, celebrating James MacMillan’s sixtieth year, including a performance by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Edward Gardner, of MacMillan’s Quickening on Saturday 10 August 2019, 7.45pm, and a performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra of Woman of the Apocalypse and A Scotch Bestiary on Saturday 17 August 2019, 5.00pm, conducted by Joana Carneiro.

Follow latest news on other events at #JMacMillan60 or

Phillip A. Cooke is a Composer and Senior Lecturer and Head of Music at the University of Aberdeen. He has previously co-edited The Music of Herbert Howells for Boydell.

The Music of James MacMillan
by Phillip A. Cooke
Hardback / 9781783273706 / £22.50 or $29.96

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