James McVinnie – Counterpoint

Acclaimed UK organist James McVinnie returns to Bedroom Community to release Counterpoint, a double portrait album of music by Philip Glass and J S Bach recorded at the organ of Trinity College, Cambridge.

The James McVinnie Ensemble features material from Counterpoint in a headline show at London’s Barbican Centre on 23rd November 2021.

McVinnie writes: “This is in some ways an album by mistake. I’d made two tracks of music by Philip Glass during the lockdown, using organ samples, and didn’t quite know what to do with them. Lockdown also allowed me to revisit some of Bach’s most austere and extraordinary keyboard music which I’d learnt over a decade ago: I realised in an instant that the minimalist primers from the 1960s I’d made share so much of the same emotional directness and intensity of Bach’s music that was so deeply imbedded in my muscle memory and musical consciousness. From this kernel flowered the central tenets of my Counterpoint album.”

McVinnie’s new record offers a deftly skilled and powerfully expressive union between these two cornerstone musicians — its unique contrast becomes a mesmerising and uniquely affecting experience. The strength of the musicality throughout Counterpoint — both academic and intuitive — yields a clear bridge between the disparities of its starting material, but, as its title notes, counterpoint is at the centre of its presentation. It is not intended to be seamless, but instead casts two brilliant and equal lights, different in hue and tone. McVinnie names it “a unique musical alchemy.”

McVinnie’s performance of these pieces represents over a decade of work. His deep, penetrating understanding of their intricacies and subtleties, of their challenges and demands, of their cohabiting beauty and friction is evident throughout. In the Bach pieces we find moments of yearning, mellifluous prettiness and angelic elegies; regal stateliness and florid melodic embellishments; sonorous flutters and breathtaking, ecstatic grandiosity. By juxtaposing these individual, symphony-in-miniature pieces with a single twenty-minute Glass arrangement McVinnie aims to “prompt a deeper understanding and conversation about how one area of repertoire can influence the listener in appreciating another.” Music In Fifths, a seminal piece of 20th century minimalism, was composed by Glass in 1969. It is here rendered as dynamically as flowing water: sometimes sweet, sometimes driving, but always moving.

McVinnie recorded Counterpoint at the Metzler organ of Trinity College Cambridge, an incredible instrument built for the performance of German baroque music of the 17th and 18th centuries. “Its piquant accent is perfect for Philip Glass’s early works too,” McVinnie tells us. “I recorded Bach’s music live, often in a single take in a single day of recording. Conversely, the Glass pieces I made in the studio over the course of several months, using digital samples of the organ. I manipulated and sculpted the sounds of each single register or combinations of registers of pipes; in effect, re-voicing this grand instrument in a way which would be impossible in real life. Counterpoint is also therefore a dialogue between analogue and digital processes — of acoustic and synthetic. It shows how I play and think about this music as an instrumentalist but also how I think about my instrument as a sound source.”

James McVinnie’s musical background is in church music, having held organist positions at Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, St Albans Cathedral, and Clare College, Cambridge. In recent years he has effortlessly moved across genres and eclectic musical spheres, regularly collaborating with leading figures in new music including Philip Glass, Squarepusher, Angelique Kidjo, Nico Muhly, Martin Creed, David Lang, Richard Reed Parry, Bryce Dessner and Darkstar, many of whom have written large scale works for him.

Counterpoint is his second full length album for Bedroom Community.


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