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Letting the Holy Spirit in my Earphones

I listened to a great podcast interview between Evelyn Glennie and James MacMillan this week.

Dame Evelyn Glennie has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12 but is one of the world's greatest percussion-players. She plays barefoot and feels sound with magical precision. Sir James Macmillan is a prolific contemporary Scottish composer with a deep Catholic faith and a love of his native Scots folk music but unashamedly modernist. They have a working relationship that goes back to the amazing Veni Veni Emmanuel percussion concerto that MacMillan wrote for Glennie back in 1992.

I discovered that piece while I was living in Berlin and was blown away by the exhilarating muscularity of it. Especially the way those well known fragments of the Christmas hymn surge and drum their way through its noisy movements. I remember listening to the Dance:Hockets and Dance:Choral sections over and over. It made me profoundly happy.

In the podcast with Glennie, Macmillan speaks about having to be devoted to your inner world as a composer but also, necessarily, enmeshed in the social network of orchestras, choirs, conductors and audiences. He is enormously involved in grass-roots music education, folk music ensembles, international orchestras and broadcasters as well as running his own festival.

But what jumped out at me was his insistence on listening to the inner world. Of shutting out all the social and plunging into the richness of the inner world. And having an absolute devotion to that.

Strangely, that is what I feel that I have lost touch with lately. I recognise I'm in a familiar dry spell where I am busy doing lots of superficial things but evading the deep plunge.

Partly, I fear that if I plunge I'll just hit the bottom of an empty swimming pool. That all the water of creativity has run out. But, on another level, I know that water is everywhere. You just have to dowse it. To sniff the quiet air. To listen deeply for the trickle.

But in lieu of plumbing my own inner world, I let myself be watered this evening. I sat still and listened to James MacMillan's recent symphony, Le Grand Inconnu.

It's a choral symphony (which makes us think of Beethoven's 9th). It takes the Holy Spirit as its inspiration (which makes us think of the first movement of Mahler's 8th) and it has a direct and dramatic impact that makes me - at least - think of Benjamin Britten at his most public-facing - Spring Symphony or War Requiem.

The conductor Harry Christophers whose choir The Sixteen gave the premier (in a much expanded form) said it was a modern masterpiece and while I'm not sure one can say that at this early stage, I really wish I could go and hear it live.

Still, the recording is super rich. It's much more lyrical and expansive than some of his earlier works. He seems to be leaning into to sound world of beauty and creation inherent in the third person of the Trinity. And it's all a bit bonkers.

It begins with the whole chorus breathing in and out. Which sounds just like the sea. And within the 50 minutes there is roaring moments of Mahlerian tutti-fortissimo and then suddenly delicate webs of harps and bells. The choral writing is so skilled and masterful - including a 20-part nod to Thomas Tallis in the second movement.

But the puzzling and irrational structure is what interested me. There are three movements - Air, Wind and Fire - but none of the material is developed or carried through in the way of classical symphonies. Rather it is a tumbling mass of sound that seems to lift and swirl and change gear with visionary sharpness.

Even if you're not a fan of modern classical music, I encourage you to give it a go. With earphones. Undisturbed. And let the Holy Spirit of creativity blow through.

If you're a Macmillan fan, I'd love to hear from you. If you do manage to listen and have some reactions I'd love to hear those too. Please do pop something in the comments box below.

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