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James MacMillan describes the composition of Symphony No.3: ‘Silence’, premiered in Tokyo on 17 April with the NHK Symphony conducted by Charles Dutoit.

The new symphony receives its UK premiere at the BBC Proms in London on 24 July, and its Dutch premiere at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw on 22 November, both with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by the composer.

How did you decide the new work was to be a symphony?
Some of my works have a quasi-narrative emphasis, such as The Confession of Isobel Gowdie or Ninian, making them akin to tone poems. Others tackle larger-scale philosophical issues in a more abstract manner, often with a dialectical opposition of ideas, making them closer to the symphony in a traditional sense. The new third symphony is, like the first, on an ambitious scale and scored for full orchestra. The second was for chamber orchestra and was something of a special case in being a negative image of the symphony, not focused on organic expansive growth but instead exploring decay and desolation. All three in a way examine emptiness and they all seek life and presence to fill that void.

Though some composers in the 20th century fought shy of calling a work ‘symphony’ I have never had a problem with applying the title if it is appropriate. I’m encouraged and provoked by many composers of symphonies including Maxwell Davies, Henze, Schnittke and Ustvolskaya, none of whom were reactionary figures, but were instead exploratory composers seeking continuing relevance in the form.

How did the subtitle ‘Silence’ appear?
Several years ago I read Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, and it quickly became clear that one of my future works should address the issues he raises in the book, particularly that challenging question that has resonated for 2000 years: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" The decision that the right work would be Symphony No.3 came when re-reading the preface to Endo’s novel, as translated by William Johnston. There are constant allusions to music and the word ‘symphony’ crops up a lot, making a light ‘click on’ for me. The book describes the 17th century cultural collision in Japan between the Hellenistic Western Christian tradition and the animistic non-theistic Eastern culture. This dialectic conflict seemed perfect as a metaphor for symphonic thought. Knowing that the work would be premiered in Tokyo was also a crucial aspect.

Why does struggle – for liberation, faith, redemption, or coming into being – play such an important role in your output?
I view it as being deeply rooted in Western artistic and religious experience, and I am not just talking of Modernist provocation. This is what sets me aside from composers like Tavener who effectively reject the whole history of Western music to reconnect with an age that can never be fully known. Struggle for me is a vibrant, living thing, and the battling with ideas is a vital aspect of spiritual as well as philosophical life. I see it as wholly positive, and this friction caused by the juxtaposition of opposites can also be found at the creative heart of all the great composers.

This struggle is one of the things that drew me to Endo’s writing. He experienced it personally as a Christian growing up in Japan, and he was not afraid to tackle the difficult issues of faith. Though problematic and often controversial, by the time of his death in 1996 he was at the forefront of Japanese writers, despite the seeming cultural remoteness towards his subjects of faith, betrayal and mercy. He has often been referred to as a Japanese Graham Greene and there are parallels between Silence and Greene’s The Power and the Glory, which similarly depicts a priest being hounded by the regime and challenged to reject his faith.

Suffering seems to be an increasingly present motif in your recent works.
Yes, this is partly because of the world around me at this time. I don’t think people should close their eyes and retreat into an isolated comfort zone. I think it’s right to face up to the issue of suffering, and artists, writers and musicians are uniquely placed to do this. Also, though, the presence of suffering has forced me to confront what I am as a musician and what faith means to me. I discovered when writing my violin concerto A Deep but Dazzling Darkness that Job was the patron saint of music preceding St Cecilia and this was something of a revelation. I began to examine the role of music as comforter to the suffering, just as musicians are depicted on medieval woodcuts soothing the physical and spiritual pains of Job. The early 17th century political setting that Endo depicts in Silence, with its persecution, torture and executions, is just as relevant in the world today. And the seeming Silence of God is just as challenging.

What does Endo mean by the Silence of God?
Rather than being the perceived lack of response by God to the suffering in the world, interestingly for Endo this silence is not ‘absence’ but ‘presence’. This was really my creative starting point for the symphony. The author describes the silence as ‘accompaniment’ rather than as ‘nihil’. The crux of the book comes towards the end when the priest, after being captured by the authorities and tortured, can no longer stand the sound of the persecution of his fellow Christian inmates. He rejects his faith by trampling on an image of Christ, but then has a vision of the Lord’s face filled with trust, and a voice saying "I will not abandon you". He tries to hear the voice again, but there is only the sound of the turtle doves. It is a sacramental glimpse of purification. At the very moment of defeat and failure, with the Crucifixion being the most extreme case, there can be renewing strength and spiritual refreshment.

How did you transform this silent presence into music?
For a composer silence is something pregnant with expectation. The music grows out of silence and returns to it, and so it is with the symphony. Silence also provides the climax of the work and punctuates the progress of the single movement form at key structural points. Music has always been intimately connected with the numinous and the immaterial. I increasingly believe that the non-corporeal quality of music can mount a direct challenge to the world and its materiality.

So is the act of composition an essentially contemplative one for you?
There is a clear distinction between sleeping silence and waking silence for me. I’m sure I’m not alone in waking in the night and finding myself wrestling with a particular thought. Let’s say that my music more and more grows out of an idea I’m struggling with. To say that composition is contemplatively based gives the impression that it is a purely serene, meditative experience. This isn’t usually the case for me – more often the emerging thoughts are troubling and things I have to battle with.

Does the cultural battle in Endo’s book find a place in the symphony?
Although the Western and Japanese worlds collide and seem mutually exclusive, I was interested that Endo saw this as a possibly fruitful encounter on both sides. He refers to ‘The Swamp’, a scene of desolation and emptiness which can never produce life, and yet there is a possibility of new growth even in this barren environment, not dissimilar to the wintry landscape of my second symphony. Though the story implies that it is the tree of Hellenistic Christianity being pulled up and transplanted into Japan and struggling to grow, the swamp can also refer equally to the difficulty of faith to survive in Western materialist society. I try and create a musical equivalent to this swamp in the slow section of the symphony, after which a new start with a deliberate allusion to the opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold signals a new life, or a new world emerging from the depths and darkness.

Does the soundworld of the symphony demonstrate Eastern influences?
I’d been listening to a lot of shakuhachi music and toyed with the idea of using the instrument in the work. However I decided against it, as I feel uneasy about the integrity of mixing eastern and western instruments. I have a genuine problem with many of today’s cross-cultural and multi-ethnic musical encounters, which can have an unpleasant imperialist air, and at their worst can smack of cultural tourism. The engagement between western and eastern musicians is not often deep, and perhaps can’t truly be made. So, though I didn’t use a shakuhachi I tried to retain its expressivity and melancholy in the melodic inflections. This isn’t really a new departure but a journey further down the route I’ve already travelled with my growing interest in Scottish folk music. I have to be honest that this was my first encounter with Japanese culture, and I only felt comfortable opening a small window onto it, yet it provided me with many new vistas.

Your recent music also shows an increased use of microtones.
Only up to a point. There has always been a flavour of microtonal inflection in my music, right from The Confession of Isobel Gowdie and Tuireadh, but there it is mainly derived from Gaelic psalmody. Microtones for me are not an abstract expansion of the pitch universe as they were for many modernists. Rather it is their expressive nature that appeals - a real tugging of the heart. This is why they are found in the folk musics of many cultures. Perhaps the shakuhachi music has again brought this to the fore in recent works, advancing my desire to explore the bending of pitch for emotional purposes.

The symphony seems to explore orchestration at the extremes of sonority.
When approaching a large-scale symphonic work there are two paths open. One is to shift into Bruckner-mode with vast slabs of sound, the other is to view the orchestra as a vast resource of delicate, intimate sonorities. It is the latter path I’ve pursued in the symphony. For instance, the first quarter of the work only employs an ever-shifting chamber ensemble, made up sometimes of only two or three instruments, or spotlighting an isolated instrumental colour. In the symphony and A Deep but Dazzling Darkness, I’ve tried to widen the sonic dimensions by focusing on distinct colours rather than using blocks of sound.

You’re conducting Symphony No.3: ‘Silence’ n London this summer and in the Netherlands next season. How does your work on the rostrum feed back into your work as a composer?

Rather than changing my musical language it has given me practical insights in an expressive sense. I’ve learnt an enormous amount about how the notes on the page can affect the way music communicates, from the players to the audience. And this is from conducting other composers’ music, perhaps even more than conducting my own. It is interesting that the orchestral musicians tell me that my recent music is ‘easier to play’ than my old pieces like The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. This is not a linguistic thing as much as a notational thing. That said, my recent works do explore a different sort of complexity in which I am exploring new ways to layer the music and add contrapuntal depth.

Interviewed by David Allenby

>  Further information on Work: Symphony No.3: 'Silence'

MacMillan Photo: © Boosey & Hawkes/Barry Marsden. Book Cover: Endo's Silence published by Taplinger Publishing Company Incorporated

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