Thursday, 25 February 2010

An evening with James MacMillan

The Thomas More Institute exists to promote a more informed ethical engagement in public and professional life. Last evening, James MacMillan addressed the institute on the subject of "The Musical Search for the Sacred in Modernity". Here is the summary from the STI website:
When John Paul II wrote his Letter To Artists in 1999 he said: ‘Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience’. Art music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has seen an astonishing resistance to the anti-religious consensus found elsewhere in the modern art world. The search for the sacred still seems to be central to the work of composers, even in unexpected ways.
On the way home, I had the satisfied feeling that this had been an evening very well spent. To my lasting dissatisfaction, I have never continued the study of music which began with some signs of hope in my childhood but terminated with the retirement of my piano teacher and the turmoil of moving to secondary school. Therefore attending a fairly highbrow lecture on musical modernity was a welcome challenge. I am sure that with many other speakers I would have been lost fairly quickly, but James MacMillan, as well as being an internationally praised composer and conductor, is also an excellent communicator.

He spoke amusingly of the influential French composer Pierre Boulez and his drive to control how twentieth century music is remembered, the subordination of everything to instrumentation, and the sidelining of artists who do not fit in (some of whom MacMillan has championed.) Within this orthodoxy, nostalgia is the greatest crime - at one festival, any work with a major chord was booed. MacMillan pointed out that despite this, and thanks to the greater freedom of culture that there is in Britain, teh question of aesthetics has remained important and the search for the sacred is still part of the work of modern composers.

It was interesting during the discussion afterwards, to hear references to Roger Scruton, whose work MacMillan admires: both of them are taking part in a Festival of Philosophy to be held next month at the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at St Andrews University. Roger Scruton has also just published an article in this month's American Spectator on Roger Scruton Music and Morality. The article is interesting in its own right, of course, but this passage did jump out at me:
Faced with youth culture we are encouraged to be nonjudgmental. But to be nonjudgmental is already to make a kind of judgment: it is to suggest that it really doesn’t matter what you listen to or dance to, and that there is no moral distinction between the various listening habits that have emerged in our time. That is a morally charged position, and one that flies in the face of common sense.
The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to a nonjudgmental approach to abortion.

As well as having the benefit of an informative and stimulating lecture, the Seminar yesterday gave me an opportunity to catch up with some old friends and meet some new ones. The Director of the STI is Andrew Hegarty: our paths have only crossed occasionally since we were up at Oxford together many years ago; it was good to catch up on the activities of Ciel UK with Michael Woolgar, and to hear from Jack Valero all about the Catholic Voices project to select and train people to speak on the media in interviews and debates on Catholic issues, especially in the run-up to the Papal visit - although the project will be able to continue afterwards with well-primed speakers. Most of all, it was good finally to meet James MacMillan and to be led to think a little more deeply about music, modernity and the sacred.
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