Thursday, April 13, 2006

Contemporary Sacred Masterpieces: James MacMillan's 'Seven Last Words From The Cross' And Stephen DeStaebler's 'Left-Sided Angel'

"It is interesting that James MacMillan has cited Kenneth Leighton as a formative influence from his teenage years, when he sang Leighton’s music in his secondary school choir. This is not a fact normally included in the many column inches devoted to MacMillan, in which more fashionably major composers are listed as principal influences. But then Leighton is currently an unfashionable composer. Nevertheless, emotionally and spiritually it is easy to see the depth of MacMillan’s debt to him and why he wanted to go to study at Edinburgh University, where Leighton was professor of music. Leighton chose to write in a style which was essentially melodic and even when using twelve-note techniques the emphasis would always be on lyricism. Additionally, and significantly for MacMillan, Leighton was a believer who concluded every score with the words ‘Laus Deo’. His music is passionately involving, wonderfully crafted and for those with ears to hear has the power to transform people’s lives. This description applies equally to MacMillan, and transformation through music is almost like a mantra in MacMillan’s feelings about his own work. He has even gone so far as to use the word ‘transubstantiation’ as a metaphor for the spiritual transformation which he wants the serious listener to undergo as a result of hearing his music. This is a strong claim indeed, and he admits that ‘taken out of context, it could seem rather immodest’. Immodesty, though, is not an issue when you feel such a passionate sense of compositional and spiritual vocation as MacMillan does.

Other contemporary composers write spiritually inspired music (it is almost a postmodern obsession), but the best known among them – Tavener, Pärt and Górecki – approach their music from a completely different point of view. In an interview which MacMillan gave to Rita Williams of The Australian in 2004 he outlined the essential differences between himself and the so-called ‘holy minimalists’: ‘The minimalists try to avoid conflict because they have a one-dimensional view of transcendence. Their view is spectacularly beautiful, but it seems to me to be an unnatural state. To me, the very sense of the sacred that we are talking about is rooted in the here and now, in the joys and tragedies of everyday life, in the grit and mire of human existence.’

To this end MacMillan cites Messiaen and Shostakovich as two of his greatest influences. Messiaen ‘looked to the heights, to the transcendent, to draw his inspiration and the other [Shostakovich] looked to the abyss, or couldn’t help but live in the abyss. The balance between them has always been important to me.’ MacMillan also cannot stress enough the importance of that moment when serious listener meets serious music: ‘A lot of music is not meant for deep encounter at all; it’s made as an accompaniment for eating or drinking or dancing. But when deep listening encounters music of a deep intent, where the mind [of the composer] has worked in a very intricate and profound way and the music requires a sense of silence and sacrifice in the listener, then I think that interaction bears the greatest fruit.’" ...

Hyperion Records. Excerpt from the sleeve notes to James MacMillan's "Seven Last Words From the Cross", commissioned by BBC television [Great Britain] for screening in seven separate episodes during [Western Christian] Holy Week in 1994.

"Left-Sided Angel" by Stephen De Staebler, Berkeley, California, United States
1986, Cast bronze, 8 ft. high on a 6 ft. base
South entrance, Parks Library, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, United States [Available for viewing 24 hours]

"The precariousness of man's place on earth and spiritual transcendence are themes that run consistently through De Staebler's work. His imagery evokes emotional responses; one feels, almost at once, the push and pull of the argument. Is the figure ascending or descending? What does this figure floating against the backdrop of library walls tell us about human history and the total accumulation of human knowledge?"

Photo and caption credit: © University Museums, 2002. All rights reserved. With thanks.


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