At SOLO 03, James McVinnie will be taking us on a journey through eight centuries of music, performing everything from anonymous 14th-century works through to J S Bach and de Grigny, then onwards to Meredith Monk, Sufjan Stevens and a world première from Alex Groves. Ahead of his set, we caught up with him to chat about how he came to play the organ, his fascination with Bach and Philip Glass, and the music that’s soundtracking his summer.

First up, could you tell us a bit about how you came to play the organ and what was it that drew you to it?

I first encountered the organ singing in a church choir as a boy. I can’t really remembering it ever capturing my imagination until a chance visit to a church in Coventry when I was about 8 or 9 — the organist was practising — hearing a grand instrument in a large space was a thrilling and inspiring moment which made me want to learn at the earliest opportunity possible. I had to wait a couple of years until I was good enough at the piano and until my legs were long enough to reach the pedals to start lessons, age 12. I was inspired both by the music but also by the sheer beauty of the sound of well known organs on recordings (which were very different to the modest instruments I learnt on as a beginner!).

Every organ is very closely associated with the building it’s in. How do you approach playing such a range of instruments in such a variety of spaces and are there any that you’re particularly fond of?

Yes, every organ is voiced for the room it’s in — in abstract terms, it’s like a giant sound installation. There are many challenges involved in performing on such a diverse range of instruments in different spaces — every time you play a new instrument, you have to orchestrate each piece to fit the organ you’re playing. This can be incredibly time consuming and challenging and has to happen on top of learning and practising the notes in situ. Imagine being given the notes to a piece of music and having to adapt it for a completely different group of instruments each time the piece gets played! That having been said, it’s a joy to adapt each piece you play for each unique instrument — if it’s a good one then I’m often inspired and surprised by the myriad possibilities of sonority and colour which a particular instrument can offer.

I had the privilege of working at St Paul’s Cathedral when I was just out of university. That particular organ is one of the most spectacular instruments ever to be heard. For me though, the real beauty in that organ is to be found in the quieter registers — the softer colours of the organ are mixed up and spun around in the cavernous acoustic to produce a whole which is bigger than the sum of its parts. Everyone go and hear it!

Your work takes in a huge variety of music, from new works by composers like Nico Muhly and David Lang to collaborations with electronic artists like Squarepusher and Darkstar and, of course, works from the organ repertoire by Messiaen and Bach. How has this diverse range of music influenced the way you play?

I tend to have the same approach to playing regardless of who happened to write the music. I would say though — to my shame, and this is indicative of how we are conditioned in the Classical Music Tradition — I am often taken aback at how people from non-classical traditions have a much more innate and intimate connection with the music they are playing or creating than the average player in the classical music profession. It’s all too easy to become reliant on our abilities as ‘readers’ i.e. reading the notes off the page and playing them without really imbedding them in muscle memory and musical subconsciousness.

Since leaving the world of church music around six years ago, I have taken a huge amount of time unlearning all of those habits and processes I was taught and encouraged to develop, focusing on a very much small body of music and working at my technique. I feel entirely different as a performer, mentally and physically, to how I did only a few years ago. Crucially, it’s mostly people from outside the classical music world — Sufjan Stevens, Richard Reed Parry, Tom Jenkinson (Squarepusher) to name but a few — who have inspired me to do this.

I know that the music of J S Bach and Philip Glass in particular has had a big impact on you and both of them will feature in SOLO 03. What is it about their music that fascinates you and do you draw any parallels between their work?

Having talked about non-classical musicians so much, I should say that by far my biggest musical influence and inspiration comes from J S Bach. It’s hard to put into words what I feel about this music — precisely because his music is its own language, indescribable and impossible to experience in any other way than listening to it or playing it. As a performer, the music challenges you in three main ways: physically, intellectually and emotionally; it’s music for the body, mind and soul. It’s hard to play, it’s complex from a compositional point of view and, I think most importantly, it challenges a player’s ability to communicate the most intricate subtleties and nuances in the narrative of the music — an exotic fusion of the learned and the sensuous. Bach’s music encompasses the entire gambit of emotion and human experience — happiness, elation, joy, sorrow, loss, death you name it — but somehow there is always a sense of the profound and this I think is one of the reasons why I am constantly drawn back to it.

There is the sheer amount of it, too. In his output for keyboard alone, there is more than a lifetime worth of musical and artistic exploration. I feel also that it is incredibly generous music — you can play a piece of his at 15 different speeds and every one will work — Bach offers you infinite choices as a performer, more so than any other composer I can think of. And yet, and yet, every time I play a piece by him I always feel as though there is more to unearth, more to discover and more to communicate.

Finally, his music displays the finest and truest sense of integrity — we see very little of Bach’s ‘ego’ as a man through his music, much less so than, say Mozart or Chopin. It’s almost as if the music does not need to be played or heard, it’s enough for it just to exist. I think this is what makes Bach’s music seem so innately human — we feel through his music that he is one of us.

At first glance, Philip Glass has not much to do with Bach. Both though write contrapuntally, horizontally derived music: if you took a single note out of a Bach fugue the architectural musical structure would collapse immediately. The same is true of Glass — this sparseness and efficiency in compositional technique is something which attracts me to his music. The music from his early period (of which I am playing in SOLO 03) dispenses with the traditional idea of the music having a ’story’ and uses an entirely different technique — of repetition and change — which holds the attention of the listener. As Glass puts it: ‘The mechanics of perception tie you to the flow of the music in a way that was compelling and that made the ‘story’ irrelevant. When you get to that level of attention, two things happen: one, the structure (form) and the content become identical; two, the listener experiences an emotional buoyancy. Once we let go of the narrative and allow ourselves to enter the flow of the music, the buoyancy that we experience is both addictive and attractive and attains a high emotional level.’

I had the great privilege of directing the first ever performance of Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts by anyone other than the composer’s own ensemble earlier this year. It was an extraordinary journey of discovery in this different scheme of music making. Tonight, I’m playing my own rendition of Music in Similar Motion which comprises up to four simultaneous lines of music — the span of the music is physically greater than is playable by any one person on a single instrument, apart from on the organ: the bass line is taken by the pedals and is a real work out for the feet.

Finally, what tracks have you on got repeat at the moment?

In no particular order, I can fully recommend:

– The Following Mountain by Sam Amidon

– Planetarium by Nico Muhly, Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner & James McAlister

– Surface Image by Tristan Perich

– Music for Robots by Squarepusher

Join James in the organ galleries of St Andrew Holborn on Thursday 20 July for this very special set – more information & tickets are available at