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Rock Psalms to be heard on South Bank

21 November 2018


Andy Mackay performs with Roxy Music in 2011

Andy Mackay performs with Roxy Music in 2011

AMONG the melancholy lyrics in Roxy Music’s back catalogue is the assertion that “there’s nothing more than this.” But today one of the band’s founding members is looking forward to the live performance of a work based on the Psalms.

Andy Mackay, who co-wrote hits for the band, including “Love is the Drug”, has been working on 3 Psalms — settings of Psalms 90, 130, and 150, described as “a post-rock symphony or oratorio, or simply the product of 40 years of rock-and-roll experimentation” — for 25 years.

Last week, he described how he set about completing the work in 2012, conscious that he was “approaching the three-score years and ten the Psalmist was writing about”. The world première is due to take place at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, on the South Bank, in London, on Monday, and features a band, a choir, and the Czech National Philharmonic Orchestra.

While he can trace the roots of the project back to the “vigorous singing” that he encountered at the Methodist chapel he attended as a child, and his time as a chorister at St Margaret’s, Westminster, he began writing the settings in the mid-1990s, “a time in the world, and in my personal life, of a lot of change and turmoil”.

The AIDS crisis of the 1980s, during which friends became ill, and some of whom died, prompted “a slight turning towards the spiritual”, he recalls. Reaching his forties, and living in the west of Ireland (where it was “easy to be spiritual”), also played a part. He was confirmed, considered ordination, and completed a theology degree at King’s College, London, in 1991. The following year, his wife died suddenly, leaving him as a single parent. Later in the decade, he married again, “very happily”, and returned to the psalms project.

The psalms, he suggests, can be “easier to approach than the Gospels, which I think have a lot more doctrine that is hard for people, whereas the psalms seemed to be speaking a broader human language. They deal with themes that everyone can understand.” His own favourites include Psalms 90, 98, and 139.

“People of faith will find themselves in familiar territory of praise and mystery and worship, while atheists and agnostics can join the extraordinary debate in which the psalmists sometimes turn from a feeling that God is totally absent or unknowable to arguing with him because he isn’t doing what they want,” he says.

The composition reflects Mr Mackay’s musical influences, from the choral tradition to the synthesiser and saxophone solos that will be familiar to fans of Roxy Music. Eerie electronic sounds, white noise, and stuttering spoken words feature on an “interlude” that includes verse 10 of Psalm 90 (“The days of our years are three-score years and ten”).

The words, sung by Harry Day-Lewis, are written in Latin, Hebrew, and the English of the Book of Common Prayer, and a climax is provided by the choral conclusion to Psalm 150 (“O praise God in his holiness”). Among the contributors to the programme for Monday’s performance is Professor Sue Gillingham, Professor of the Hebrew Bible at Oxford.

Today, Mr Mackay attends an Anglican parish church, St Anne’s, Soho, in London. That still makes him “unusual” in rock-and-roll circles, he says. “There is a certain amount of militant atheism that is still quite fashionable, although it strikes me as slightly out of date now. . . People sometimes raise an eyebrow, and maybe quietly think I am just mad, but reactions to the piece have been incredibly good. . .

“As you get older, most people’s lives have got some fairly serious problems . . . The world is a pretty disconcerting place, and sometimes it strikes a chord.”

In future, he hopes that 3 Psalms will be used in cathedrals and churches. “That would make me very happy.”

More information about the performance here.


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