Rationalizing the Gimmicks of MacMillan

Okay, so, there are a lot of… ummmm… I’ll call them “gimmicks…”  in James MacMillan’s St. John’s Passion.  They are the sort of thing that occasionally have choristers shaking their heads, laughing out loud, or just wondering “What the…?”  It’s true, many modern composers have, in the interests of stretching the boundaries of what could be defined as classical music, done all sorts of strange things in their compositions.  I remember stories from my wife about singing a particular piece of “Chance Music” at Westminster that involved instructions like “solo bass leaves the stage,” “everyone whisper your phone number all at once,” “pick a note and sing it,” and “turn around in place and recite your address.”  It was just bizarre.

But unlike that craziness, I really think that all these unusual elements of this Passion really have a place.  I decided I’d throw down my thoughts as to why they exist.

The tone clusters in movement 1. Certainly the first time I heard this casually listening, it sounded like a train wreck.  Twelve parts each singing the same line a whole or half step above the previous one?  Put together there’s no discernable melody, just a massive movement of sound in a general direction.  Stupid, right?  Except look at the text.  This Latin is actually the entire raison d’être of the Catholic Mass — the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  For a devout Catholic like MacMillan who has heard the crucifixion story sung or recited every Good Friday  (as mentioned in the liner notes), this is a Big Deal.  This is something mystical, almost magical.  This deserves to be set apart from everything else.  I think the tone clusters do a great job of communicating mystery and mysticism, to say “hey — something’s going on here, and you aren’t quite going to figure it out.”

Jesus’s crazy ornamentals. The first time I heard one of Jesus’s lines, I found myself saying “spit it out, man, spit it out.”  The halted, extremely ornamented, wandering lines don’t make for the kind of tune you’d idly whistle as you worked on something.  But just like the strings provided a halo around the Jesus of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, I find that the grace notes, trills, glides, and bizarre rhythms provide their own sort of otherworldly halo.  It’s impossible not to know when Jesus is singing… just like Pontius Pilate’s 7/8 time signatures, odd near-octave intervals, and goofy snake-in-the-grass percussion effects give Pilate his own distinct voice in movements 3 and 4.

The frequent stretto entrances by the crowds throughout several movements. Regularly throughout the piece, the chorus takes on the role of crowds of people, and sing a canonical passage with entrances just a few beats apart.  Rather than interlocking together like a nice fugue or a Pachebel’s Canon, instead it’s voices falling on top of voices, making it hard to understand the text or see any rhyme or reason to the melody.  When we first started learning these, I thought they were just a pain in the butt.  Having now mostly absorbed the piece, I see how fantastic a job they do at communicating the concept of mobs of angry crowds.  Listen to the women accusing Peter, the Jews saying Jesus should be put to death, the chief priests complaining about the title above his head.  It’s raw, it’s visceral, it’s full of violence.  As it should be.  They’re crucifying the guy, for Christ’s sake (literally).  A fugue with a happy little motif wouldn’t cut it.

The “mmmm-ahhhh-mmmmm” figures in movement 3. The upper voices of the narrator chorus don’t sing the text along with the basses as Jesus confronts Pilate, they instead alternate between humming and ahhhing in a strange vocalise accompaniment.  I find that this, along with many other parts of the piece, really serve to give it more of a film score quality.  MacMillan writes himself that this composition was heavily influenced by The Sacrifice, opera music he had just finished composing.  There are many other ‘movie moments’ in the piece — I particularly like the shift in the narrator chorus from telling the story to its half-lamenting finish at the end of movement 4, when “he handed him over to them to be crucified.”  To me, that sounds like a fight scene from a violent movie where they suddenly screw with the shutter speed or go to slow motion, like in the movie 300, maybe with the addition of some sad music to mark the passing of a hero.  Boromir’s death in The Fellowship of the Ring is a great example of this; I’m sure there are others.

The “glissando of indetermine pitch” in movement 6. Now here’s a very distinctive moment in the piece.  The narrator chorus breaks off their narration and “winds down” like a broken clock at the end of many phrases.  This definitely elicits nervous muffled laughter in the rehearsal room whenever we first approach it.  But when I first heard it, I found it chilling.  I literally had goosebumps and felt a shiver go up my spine.  Here we are in the story, Jesus is hanging on the cross, slowly dying, life slipping away.  And to insult him even more, the guards start gambling to split up what possessions he has left.  His life has hit absolute bottom, and the narrator chorus reflects it with this depressing, draining, can-it-get-any-worse effect that just epitomizes the hopelessness of the situation.  It’s all in the setup.  This moment wouldn’t have worked if you hadn’t just heard over an hour and five movements of the narrator chorus plodding along, telling the story, with only a few introspective moments where they break character.

The bells sounding off at the end of movements 1, 7, and 10. I thought these very odd instruments to hear in an orchestral piece… until I thought back to my Catholic Mass going days and remembered the altar bells rung during “important” parts of the service to let you know the Eucharist was present.  They pretty much sound the same.  Hearing them in this context makes sense to me after 1 and 10… but I admit it’s a bit of a mystery after #7.  It does make for a touching end to a very emotional scene.

The “howling gliss” of the squealing and squawking woodwinds, in movement 3 and in the final orchestral movement 10. Oh, what is that awful noise?  Exactly.  These add a dissonance at just the right time, to highlight the madness of the whole story… a guy who reportedly is the son of a god, possibly The Only God, and he’s being killed by the people he was sent to save?  These howling clarinets, coupled with the somewhat strangled fanfare when Jesus talks about his kingdom, are a protest against how screwed up the whole situation is.  In fact, one of my favorite moments of the entire piece is in that last movement, when the low strings and brass pick up that majestic theme, and the woodwinds all try to drown it out with their clamoring repetition of the same short howling motif.  Emotionally to me it communicates that there’s a reason, a purpose, a master plan, and all the crowds and critics and conspiring forces that are trying to assault it can’t knock it off its moorings.

The “very fast recitation of text, continually repeated on given pitches, voices should not be together” in movement 3. Ummm… okay I can’t explain this one.  🙂  To me it’s the next level up from the sort of rhythmic hushed chanting of Liberame domine de mortae aeterna in die illa tremenda in the Verdi Requiem.  MacMillan did participate in a lot of liturgical chanting… I can only assume he wanted that same effect here.  Any ideas out there?

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4 responses to “Rationalizing the Gimmicks of MacMillan

  1. James MacMillan

    Wow! Well you have certainly whetted my appetite! I’m looking forward to hearing it, and meeting you all. I’ve been told your choir is fantastic.

    See you soon, and best wishes,

    James MacMillan

  2. Pingback: Great article about the Passion in today’s Boston Globe « Just Another Bass

  3. Pingback: More MacMillan (Jarrett House North)

  4. Hi Jeff, I’ve sung the piece of “Chance Music” you mentioned in the beginning of this post (“everyone whisper your phone number”, etc.). I’ve completely forgotten the tiitle, and I’m trying to find it again. Any chance you happen to know where to find the title? I’d appreciate any help you can give.

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