WITH ANGUS MACRAE
During this interview, I change seat, place myself in front of another artist and ask him the questions I wish people asked me. Today, I speak to British composer Angus MacRae who has just released a compilation with some of his finest works of the past year.
Angus, tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you consider as the highlights of your career so far?
I’m a composer, producer and pianist based in London. My solo work explores the intersection between classical and electronic music and has been released by labels including !K7, Deutsche Grammophon, 1631 Recordings, and my own imprint, Nation of the Sea. I also compose scores for films, theatre and dance productions and have been fortunate to work on some amazing projects with directors including Rebecca Frecknall, Salomon Ligthelm and Charlotte Regan.
Outside of my solo work, a recent career highlight was working on a stage production of Tennessee Williams's Summer & Smoke, which premiered at London's Almeida Theatre, transferred to the West End, and won two Olivier Awards. The score was composed for nine upright pianos, which formed a semicircle onstage. It was performed live and from memory by a cast of actor musicians. It was a one of a kind production created by an amazing team that I was fortunate to be a small part of.
Now, what about MMXIX? Tell us about your latest project. What made you decide to compile these pieces together?
MMXIX started life as a series of singles, released throughout 2019. At the end of 2018, due to film scoring commitments, it had been some time since I had found time to write and release my own music and I was hungry to write some standalone music. Film scoring is an amazing process in its own right, but it is liberating to balance the commitments of writing music that serves a bigger artistic vision with composing pieces that can stand on their own two feet, so to speak. At the start of 2019, I committed to releasing singles throughout the year. It was an amazing way to focus my attention and forced me to write quickly.
Unintentionally, the pieces became a snapshot of the year that was passing. I can connect the feelings underlying each piece to specific moments in the year, an unintended but pleasantly surprising outcome of the project! It wasn't until this year that I began to consider releasing them all as a complete album. Having spent some time away from the pieces, I really felt like they told a story when brought together into an album. Especially in light of the events so far in 2020, it felt appropriate to frame them as a series of snapshots and collect them together into an album.
The final two pieces are reworks - new pieces reimagined from the original recordings.
What is your creative process? Is it physical, intellectual, is it spontaneous, structured? Tell us about how you find inspiration around you.
I've always been wary of over-intellectualising music. I studied composition to degree level and always pushed back against the ingrained wisdom that music could articulate complex intellectual arguments. I'm just not convinced that it can, or that it should. I think the most successful music speaks to our emotions. That doesn't mean all music needs to be beautiful — emotions are complex and so too is music, but I've never set out to convey anything other than an emotional argument in my music. For me, words are the best device for intellectual arguments, music is the best device for emotional ones.
I've realised that my inspiration always comes from a very similar spring — it's a place of childlike wonder, fear, magic. I have such a clear emotional memory of the feeling of being a child and not having a full grasp on the world - both the excitement and fear that creates, which you lose as an adult. I've never been able to articulate that feeling in words, but sometimes I strike upon a musical idea that taps into that seam of feeling, and those are always the ideas I feel most excited about and the most compelled to realise musically.
Like many artists before me, I haven't found a way to guarantee that my muse will appear every day, but I do work in a very structured way — I have set working hours and really respond to limitations and deadlines. That approach doesn't correspond to the romance of the artist waiting around for inspiration to strike, but it's an approach that works best for me.
What is it like to be an artist, composer and performer in the 21st century? What are the challenges, what are the benefits?
I'm optimistic that this is still a good time to be an artist and composer, but it is a challenging time to make a proper living from it. It's a double edged sword — on the one hand I'm hugely grateful that streaming platforms have opened up access to an audience that was very difficult to reach in the past, and injected fresh life into the genres of more classically minded music. On the other, I do worry about the almost casual relationship with music that has become the by-product. In some ways, the power of the playlist has become corrupting artistically, and created a false economy where play counts are perceived to reflect artistic merit, when perhaps in many cases the opposite is true!
I think ultimately it's up to the artist to determine their relationship with the way music is consumed, and artists have always had to evolve to sustain a living from the music they create. Streaming services have greatly democratised music making, and empowered artists to distribute music to a global audience on their own terms.
How do you define creative success? What about artistic success?
I have to be honest, I don't see a huge distinction between the two! For me, creative success is being able to find a musical language that feels truly your own, and to find creative and artistic fulfillment in that language. Artistic success is surely just the product of creative success. And who ultimately decides whether artistic success has been achieved? The artist? Or their audience? I think it can only be the artist - the measures of artistic success are so arbitrary, I can only rely on myself to judge.
Which artists do you find the most interesting and influence you the most at the moment?
I've always drawn a lot of inspiration from film scores, since that's a world I spend a lot of time inhabiting myself. I love the work of Johann Johannsson, Thomas Newman, Nicholas Britell, amongst many others. I think Hildur Guðnadóttir is doing some amazing work, and her albums are pretty sensational too. I loved the score that Bobby Krlic recently wrote for the film Midsommar. I'm a big fan of Jon Hopkins - I think the way he crosses the boundary between classical and electronic music is incredible. I also grew up listening to a lot of Classical music and that's still a big influence — Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Vaughan Williams.
So, after MMXIX, what’s next?
I've been working on a much bigger project for some time that is pencilled for release in spring 2021. Plans are still coming together, but it's an ambitious album project which will pull together my love of music and imagery. It's more ambitious than anything I've done before, and I've already invested a huge amount of time into its creation. I'm really excited to share the results — it feels like a big step forward for me artistically.
Thanks very much Angus. Last one for the road — one book, one album, one film — tell us about your latest cultural pearls?
Book — The Hobbit. I decided to spend lockdown reading Lord of the Rings and this is an amazing entry point into the Tolkien universe.
Album — Saman, Hildur Guðnadóttir.
Film — The Farewell — such a beautifully observed film and I loved the score from Alex Weston.
Bouncing on Angus’ words; some music is worth intellectualising, and some of it is better off treated with the heart. Just like his! Read my review of MMXIX.