The music of Inverness-born, Edinburgh-based Stuart MacRae first appeared on BBCSSO music stands when, still in his early 20s, he was made the orchestra's composer-in-association from 1999-2003. Since then he's been kept busy elsewhere: premieres at the Proms, at the Royal Opera House – last year a new opera at the Edinburgh International Festival as well as the birth of his first child, Esther.
MacRae teaches composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Edinburgh University, and, with any spare time left between composing, teaching and childcare, he's also finishing off a PhD. But he's stayed in touch with the BBCSSO, and on Saturday they will premiere his latest orchestral score, Earth, under conductor Richard Baker.
Sipping tea after lectures in Edinburgh, speaking with the kind of gentle clarity that makes it easy to imagine him as an excellent teacher, MacRae talks me through the fabric of his new score, the recurring themes behind his recent work, and how fatherhood has helped to focus his mind.
"David Lynch compared the process of coming up with ideas to catching fish. You can wait for hours and nothing happens, but you have to be ready to reel in the fish if it bites. In that sense composing is like a state of being. When I have other things keeping me preoccupied – like looking after my daughter – the only solution is to not think about composing at all. I'm learning a kind of on-off switch, because there's nothing more frustrating than having an idea come along but not being ready to realise it."
That on-off switch is a new trick, he says. Previously his mind was fishing constantly and any play, film or concert might filter into his work. "I'm always noticing how things are structured, how patterns emerge and how we interact with what's going on around us. All that can manifest itself in composing, which is essentially about a series of decisions."
Rather than abstract and absolute, MacRae thinks of his music as totally integrated in the world and its contemporary concerns. Much of his recent work has reflected his own ecological stance, pondering the natural environment and the impact of human actions on it. Earth is no exception. In his programme notes MacRae quotes a verse by the 12th-century mystic Hildegard of Bingen: "The earth has a scaffold of stones and trees./ In the same way is a person formed;/ flesh is the earth,/ the bones are the trees and stones."
And that tree becomes the central image of the 25-minute score, both as a metaphor and the nitty-gritty technical structure. The piece starts with a single musical idea, like the seed of a tree. The idea starts to grow, and gradually branches off in different directions. "I'm interested in being able to jump from one branch to another," MacRae explains, "as if an ant walking along one of the branches waves hello to an ant friend on another branch. They're on the same tree but they've taken different journeys to get to where they are."
Saturday's premiere takes place at the Old Fruitmarket, where members of the orchestra will be positioned around the balconies for a surround-sound effect. The intention is to immerse the listener in the foliage – we become those ants rather than standing back dispassionately to see the tree as a whole. "It's not a linear journey," says MacRae. "The way we listen to music is generally linear, and a lot of my music in the past was like that: essentially goal-orientated with a few digressions along the way."
However, he's now trying out what Stockhausen called "moments" (in the 1950s Stockhausen honed in on single sounds, or "points", that could gather together to create textures, or "pointillism". An agglomeration of points became a "group"; an agglomeration of groups became a 15-20 second "moment").
"A moment has its own shape," MacRae explains, "but doesn't necessarily lead to or from anything else. You're not supposed to listen to moments with narrative expectations – in fact Stockhausen said he'd be quite happy for people to dip in and out of his pieces." Similarly, MacRae's score jumps from one branch to another. But crucial to his message is that every branch is connected to that initial kernel of an idea.
MacRae's music is deeply thoughtful and intricately crafted (spare a thought for conductor Richard Baker, who steps in at a few weeks' notice to conduct Saturday's premiere after Martyn Brabbins withdrew). But the intention is in no way didactic. "Art can't necessarily provide answers but it can ask questions," MacRae says. "It can prompt us to think. Sometimes music comes across as so abstract that it's tricky to say it's making any particular point at all. I'm not going to pretend that my piece is adding much philosophical argument to the climate-change debate. But it might draw attention to the fact that we're just a part of the planet and it's not a commodity for us to exploit."
There's more to Earth, too, with inspiration from texts on nature, humanity and war. MacRae draws on Bingen, Solzhenitsyn (part of his August 1914 novel) and Ted Hughes (the poem Crow's Account of the Battle). All three make parallels between bones, trees and twigs. "They emphasise that battles and explosions are the point at which humans are absorbed back into the earth, about coming face-to-face with the stuff we're made of."
One of the benefits of being a composer is that you don't have to be entirely consistent, says MacRae. "You're not creating logical arguments the way a novelist might, so you can set several ideas going at once. It takes months to write a piece during which any number of things go through your head. Earth is as much about war being the ultimate confrontation with our physicality as it is about how our everyday actions relate with the environment."
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