Re-Drawing The Map - James McVinnie Interview

28 August 2015

Interview Internationally renowned organist and new music collaborator James McVinnie joins James Fleury from Glyndebourne to discuss his thirst for exploring alternative musical avenues, and the freedoms that come with it.

James! It excites me that we’ve already shared a stage together... albeit with 80 other singers. You’ve worked on some incredible live collaborations recently, but who have you most enjoyed playing alongside?

A recent highlight has to be playing with Nico Muhly and Dan Lopatin — aka Oneohtrix Point Never —at London’s iconic Union Chapel in February this year. We all played together last year in the Holland Festival and the Barbican asked us to repeat the show, so we got together with some dry ice and candles and it was very cool. Dan’s music spans a fascinating divide between ambient noise music but using a very traditional tonal harmonic language. A lot of his tracks feature synthetic organ samples, so mixing in a real instrument was a fascinating experiment.

The organ in the Union Chapel dates from 1877. It’s a striking instrument in that it’s almost completely hidden from view. The pipework is placed in right behind the stage in its own resonating chamber giving an all-encompassing effect in the room, and seems to come from all around you rather than one specific spot.

Go listen!

Your CV is impressive, but I notice that you don’t spend exhaustive hours in traditional classical avenues. What attracts you to working on a project away from what people have come to expect from concert organists?

I think that I have a very wide taste in music and constantly seek out new possibilities of collaboration in performance and with composers. I love the idea of not knowing what the end result will be of a project - but knowing that it has to be good. The most imaginative musicians over the ages have been innovators who look to the past but are not afraid to redraw the map, musically speaking. The organ is an amazing instrument: there are very few organists who are actually engaging in a lucid intelligent musical dialogue with other musical spheres and traditions.For me, this dialogue is a crucial part of what I do, and also informs how I tackle the traditional repertoire.

Who would be on your desert island disc?

Probably Bach!

You spend a great deal of time away in Iceland – what do you most enjoy about the music scene there?

I love the fact that the arts, and music in particular, plays such an important part in Icelandic cultural identity. It’s a very beautiful country, too.

The Icelandic record label and collective Bedroom Community has been described as ‘A creative hub of sonic geniuses that continues to evolve and produce incredible work’. Your debut album on this label ‘Cycles’ was released in August 2013. What makes your relationship with them so successful?

I guess all of Bedroom Community are my musical kindred spirits and very close friends. It’s often described as a group of very similar musicians, but in reality we are all strikingly different and singular musicians, and it’s this which makes the group so cohesive. Many of its members are composer/performers. I’m slightly different from that mould in that I play music written by others.The album is as music an exploration of the soundscape of the organ as an instrument as much as a representation of the music.

As a performer of works written especially for me, I think it’s important to be able to navigate that critical distance between obedience to the score and radical interpretative decisions. By ‘reclaiming’ these works, they become as much a part of me as they are a part of a composer’s output.

Who would you most freak out at seeing in the audience at one of your concerts?


Cinema; comedy, adventure or thriller?


Some people might describe what you do as niche, a word that many associate with funding difficulties and poorly attended concerts. Do you have a strategy for ensuring stability in your artistry?

​© Magnús Andersen 2015.

If you start from a pessimistic outlook on how you describe what you do, then you will have already lost the battle. For me, I just try to be clear sighted with the music that I choose to play. As long as you play good music which captures the imagination of a potential audience, advertise and present it well, then people — in my experience— will come.

Favourite holiday destination?


Nice. You’re currently tapping away at Glyndebourne right now, but what’s coming up for you later this year?

I’m playing Bach in the Kilkenny Festival next month, then in September I’m returning to the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall with Bedroom Community, and also playing in Sounds from a Safe Harbour in Cork, and also playing as part of an opera in London’s Corinthia Hotel, so it’s a busy time ahead!

You can see Jamie headline the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall with Bedroom Community on Thursday 24 September 2015:

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About the Author

James Fleury is founder and CEO of Nouvague, a cutting edge music marketing agency based in the UK & Los Angeles, specialising in marketing services for classical music. 

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