He played for Prince William and Kate Middleton's 2011 wedding in the hallowed precincts of Westminster Abbey. Now he's coming to Northrop auditorium for a collaboration with the electronic music duo Darkstar.
English organist James McVinnie followed an unlikely path over the past eight years, working with artists well outside the traditional confines of classical music — including English electronic musician Tom "Squarepusher" Jenkinson and Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry. Through it all, McVinnie continued playing straight classical concerts, including recent world premieres of Nico Muhly's Organ Concerto and Philip Glass' Symphony No. 12.
Part of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's envelope-pushing Liquid Music series, this week's Darkstar collaboration marks McVinnie's Minnesota debut. Reached by phone in the English countryside, he spoke about the project and why the organ is a particularly good stablemate for electronic instruments. The conversation was lightly edited.
Q: It's been eight years since you left a prestigious job as organist at Westminster Abbey in England to go freelance. Why did you do that?
A: I was lucky to work at the very top of the church musician's profession from a very early age. But I had become good friends with people from the New York new-music scene, like Nico Muhly and Nadia Sirota. And Valgeir Sigurðsson in Iceland. I wanted more time to explore other avenues musically.
Q: Are any of the skills you learned as a church musician relevant to the world of contemporary music?
A: For me, bringing new music into the world is exactly the same as bringing old music into the world. There's no distinction in my mind between playing a piece of Bach or Sweelinck to working with Darkstar. It's all part of exactly the same part of my brain.
Q: So how did the hookup with Darkstar happen?
A: They were suggested to me for this project via the Warp record label. We live in the same neighborhood of London, though we had never met previously. James [Young] and Aiden [Whalley] are very genial and great people to be around. So we just hit it off.
Q: Were they at all fazed by working with a classically trained organist?
A: I haven't asked them, actually. But working in electronic music with synthesizers and the way that you approach playing them, you learn that a lot of it comes from pipe organ models anyway.
Q: The piece that you're performing with Darkstar is called "Collapse." How did it come into being?
A: All the musical material is being generated by James and Aiden. It's not written out, it's sent to me as an audio file and I transcribe it. Initially there's no organ track — they write music which they imagine will eventually be me playing it on the organ.
Q: What do you do with the music Darkstar sent you?
A: I expand on it and send it back to them. So there's a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing, which is really interesting for me. Sometimes we end up with material which is much greater than we think we'll end up with, and greater than the sum of its parts. There's about an hour's worth of music in total.
Q: Will what you play Saturday evening be fully agreed on beforehand?
A: I imagine it'll be 90 percent written out by then, but there'll be freedom to improvise a bit. A lot of Darkstar's contribution will be prerecorded, but they'll also be playing live. And there'll be quite a lot of live manipulation of their sounds as well.
Q: How would you describe the feel of the music you have created in "Collapse"?
A: A lot of it is quite beat-driven, with repetitive structures that give a nod to Philip Glass' music, in a sense. But the harmonic language is very different — I'd describe it so far as pretty dark, intense music.
Q: Do you think the combination of pipe organ and electronically synthesized music works?
A: The interesting thing about the organ is that it is a massive sound installation in itself, but there's nothing synthetic about it. It's air going through pipes. But the way that you approach playing a synthesizer is very similar to the way you approach playing a pipe organ, where you "register" the music by choosing specific stops and pipes.
Q: How much of what we finally hear in "Collapse" will depend on the precise qualities of Northrop's historic Aeolian-Skinner organ?
A: Quite a lot. I'm really excited to go there and play, because those Skinner organs are absolutely amazing instruments.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.