Angelic modern music

10th March 2000 at 00:00
THE COMPANY OF HEAVEN. Composer James MacMillan. CD available for pound;5.99 from the Iona Community, tel: 0141 445 4561

The Company of Heaven was given its world premiere performance shortly before Christmas in the noisy spaces of the Bute Hall in Glasgow. The fact that it has already appeared on CD shows just how accessible digital recording technology has become. The recording cannot be compared to a commercial disc, but it demonstrates how in conditions far removed from the ideal world of the studio it is possible to capture an event with startling accuracy.

The event in question was a millennium celebration dreamed up by the ecumenical group Partick 2000. James MacMillan, who lives in neighbouring Jordanhill, was asked to compose some music for performance by local school children. For his text he turned to John Bell, music leader of the Iona Community, who intermingled the words of the Latin Mass with his own verses offering a modern vision of the "kingdom of heaven", a place where food is plentiful, humans of all races enjoy each other's compny, and injustices are corrected.

The music begins with a chanted Kyrie Eleison, sung by the younger voices in the choir, which then forms the backcloth for gentle song sung by the older voices, all with a mellifluous organ accompaniment. MacMillan's writing does not shirk discord or modernity but has that magical simplicity that one associates with Britten's music for young voices. The serenity is blown apart, however, by the weird primaeval braying of the carnyx, a form of ancient trumpet in the shape of a boar's head, which in turn leads to improvised fanfares from the wind and brass players of Hyndland secondary.

At the event, the effect of this noisy interlude was spectacular, but listening to the recording, unable to see the carnyx held aloft like an instrument of war, it is a somewhat unwelcome interruption to the progress of the music.

MacMillan has apparently approved subsequent performances of the song by itself, in which form its attractive music and clear message should find a ready audience.

Christopher Lambton


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