Until last week only a limited number of people knew about my experiences as a carer towards the end of my mother’s life. But when I read in the media that some people were arguing that there is an unacceptable indignity in disability, illness and death I felt I had to speak out. Not having projected my beliefs into the public arena before I tentatively tweeted about my mother’s terminal illness and several people responded positively. So I decided to write a longer piece with more detail. What was important to me was to get across that we as a family had encountered something rather beautiful, and because of that unexpected finding our lives were enriched; I am not saying it was not difficult.
What kind of reaction have you had?
Largely a positive one. Many people have appreciated hearing a personal viewpoint. Others have felt the need to let me know they do not share my beliefs and do not want to hear from me again. Several peers have contacted me to thank me for writing the article, with one previously undecided now leaning towards my view.
What do you think the music world’s response will be to your outspoken intervention?
That remains to be seen. I might never know. Several people told me I was brave to publish the article. I think there is always a reaction when people break out of their usual environment. Then again, often we hear musicians perform but never get to know anything about them personally. I have always found the classical music world to be very secular and unconcerned with pro-life issues. It is rare to hear an artist speak on politics or religion: I think people do not expect it. But sometimes it is necessary to speak out.
Does faith play a role in your life?
I am a Catholic. I converted at the age of 21, from Anglicanism, when I was at university.
Could you tell us how your faith influences your life as a musician?
As a Catholic, I believe that musicians have a distinctive role in the world. Music can affect people profoundly. It can soothe or it can disturb. It can challenge. It can invigorate. And it can unite people. I never play music that I think audiences will not enjoy. I also see it as part of my vocation to help with the music in the Sacred Liturgy, so I teach and lead the chant at several churches from time to time. I am also interested in the roots of western art music and am researching the influence of plainchant in the classical repertoire.
You are a well-known interpreter of the works of Olivier Messiaen. What draws you to his work?
Initially, I was attracted to the music of Messiaen because of its sound and its colour. Then I got to know some of the religious inspiration behind it. When I was at school I began to learn the Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (“Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus”) and the Catalogue d’oiseaux (“Bird Catalogue”). As I played this powerful music more I became conscious of a unique blend of technique and Catholic theology. Messiaen was also interested in the natural world and particularly in birds. As it happens, my mother loved birds and birdsong, so I inherited that from her.
People are sometimes surprised that Messiaen was both artistically adventurous and deeply rooted in Catholic tradition. How do you think he was able to combine these traits, which some regard as incompatible?
Messiaen was special and he certainly developed new compositional methods. Moreover, as a teacher he encouraged his students to pursue new ideas. But Messiaen was not a modernist in musical terms. In the melodic and rhythmic domain he was influenced by plainchant. And, despite the complexity, there is nothing chaotic or unordered in Messiaen’s music. It reminds me a bit of Pope Benedict’s phrase “hermeneutic of continuity”, in the sense that Messiaen found a way to reconcile the past with the present.
Your latest CD is a recording of Ian Wilson’s Stations, a piece that was inspired by the 14 Stations of the Cross. Did recording this work give you any new insights into this time-honoured devotion?
Ian’s remarkable piece is built, in artistic terms, on an abstraction of the emotional peaks and troughs in the Via Crucis. The work can be heard in a non-religious way, or it can appeal on a more obvious level. Personally, I have found a greater love of, and greater stamina for, the Stations of the Cross since getting to know this work. I think the composer – perhaps unconsciously – has found a way of elucidating certain theological points in musical terms.
In your article, you mention that your mother’s terminal illness made you lose interest in music and put your career in jeopardy. Was there a point where you regained your interest in the art form and your career took off again?
When you are coping with serious illness your world view necessarily contracts. I found it impossible to focus on my own career at the same time as being enormously worried about someone else. I was very aware that I could not play at my best, which felt terrible while performing with others. I was also unable to build new opportunities because I was so focused on looking after my mother. I would say I am only now beginning to enjoy music again.
This interview first appeared in The Catholic Herald on 25 July 2014