We Don't Do God

Matthew Schellhorn writes about his latest album, Ian Wilson: Stations.
Classical musicians ‘don’t do God’. That’s what sprang to mind when Ian Wilson asked me if I was interested in a large-scale solo piano work inspired by the Stations of the Cross. Not that I wasn’t interested; I was. But secularism is rife in the music world. I feared that any piece inspired by a religious devotion but intended for the concert hall would never catch on.

True, it is easy to take in a concert of Masses, Requiems and motets. ‘Easy-listening’ CDs of plainchant are all the rage. Latin is making a comeback.

However, the proper context for sacred music is often lamentably evaded. It is preferable to dissociate location and experience. Listening to sacred music in the concert hall or in the car is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it compromise: we can be made ecstatic but under no obligation.

Don’t get me wrong, we must be thankful the repertoire has been preserved. There are sadly only a handful of churches in Britain where you can hear sacred music in the context for which it was written. James MacMillan has written that for decades ‘mind-numbingly depressing banality’ has been favoured in the Catholic Church, with the ‘vast repository of tradition ignored and wilfully forgotten’. Thankfully, the situation has improved in recent years, but it will be a long time before church will be the logical preference to concert hall.

So it is perhaps inevitable, therefore, that in his Stations Ian Wilson has felt it necessary to try to ‘distil the emotional content’ of the Stations of the Cross and ‘transpose them onto dramatic musical frameworks that carry the movements forward unhindered by dogma or imagery’. The result is a ‘journey-type piece’ that ‘creates its own sense of musical drama as it proceeds’.

Yet, with this piece I think the compromise between composer and listener has been radically altered. Gone is the tension between differing expectations: a devotional sequence is embedded in the creative process, but there are no ‘portrayals’ to be grappled with or, worse, to risk being ignored. Gone, too, is the confrontation between different ‘meanings’: no titles are used, and no subtext other than musical implication is suggested. Ian Wilson has created a level playing field where religion is no longer a game we play when it is convenient.

When performing Ian Wilson’s music I am very conscious of encountering a dimension that seems to speak to the soul. I hope this disc communicates the joy of that artistic and spiritual encounter.

This article was first published on Sound and Music's The Sampler blog in 2014.