Preview: The Time Machine: Interview: James McVinnie

rsz_sbc02_organ_08cnick_rochowskishopthumb300x300-james-mcvinnie-outdoors-c-magnus-andersenNext Wednesday, October 5, will see an unusual performance of HG Wells’ The Time Machine at Royal Festival Hall as part of Southbank Centre’s 10th London Literature Festival, Living in Future Times. The season kicks off with the classic tale performed by Christopher Eccleston, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Emma Hamilton with James McVinnie at the Royal Festival Hall organ. As he prepared for the event, the accomplished organ soloist chatted with Paul Simpson…



It seems such an unusual idea to use the organ as an accompaniment to The Time Machine

I think they have a very imaginative approach to programming at Southbank Centre and they spent all this money on restoring the organ, so they’re keen to use it in is as many contexts as possible. I didn’t have the idea – I was just approached to be the organist for this project – but it was Ted Hodgkinson [Senior Programmer, Literature and Spoken Word] who suggested using the organ as a fourth character. Southbank try to get as much crosspollination from departments as possible. This is the literary part of Southbank meeting the music department, as it were.

The HG Wells novel has been dramatized into a three character script, and they wanted the organ to be a fourth character as the time machine. The organ in the Festival Hall looks and sounds a lot like a space ship, and so it was a really inspired idea. I love it.

I’ve played there several times over the past few years, so I was approached by them to do this.

05-10-16_rfh_time-machine_christopher-ecclestonHave they scored it or left it to you to improvise?

It’s going to be a little bit fluid in terms of what I’m going to be doing.The idea is that the organ plays more or less all the way through this play; the voices are going to be amplified, and I’ll be playing down when the dialogue is taking place.

The idea is to have music appropriate to the time of the setting in the novel itself: there being Gothic sounding Victorian organ music for the bits where the books are set in that kind of period and that kind of style was very much something they wanted to explore and have. Then as the time traveller goes forward, that’s the moment where I am going to be playing some more modern music.

I’m not entirely sure if this is going to end up in the final version but there’s some music by Philip Glass, and a piece by Giles Swayne called Riff Raff. That’s about twenty minutes long, so I’m not going to play all of it, but excerpts from that. It sounds like very futuristic music and the organ can be made to sound a little more like a synthesizer in that context musically. Certainly the way that the Royal Festival Hall organ is voiced lends itself to that kind of music as well.

It’s really to add a soundtrack to the proceedings with existing repertoire and probably a little bit of improvisation as well over the top.

I did wonder if you’d go the 1920s silent movie treatment with it, and improvise underneath…

I could, but apart from anything else, I’m not very experienced in doing that. I feel that I’ll leave it to the pros to do that – David Briggs and people like him who are so brilliant at it.

Nikki Amuka-Bird by Pip for CLD CommunicationsThe Royal Festival Hall organ has been refurbished – are there particular sides to the instrument you’re going to be able to show off because of the nature of this piece?

I probably will play some Bach as well – it’s not Victorian Gothic music but it has a certain grandeur to it which fits that bill. Really the repertoire is going to be far ranging: I’ll probably play some English 19th century, early 20th century music, probably some Parry, or maybe some Stanford as well. That kind of thing to give it a George Gilbert Scott kind of feel to it.

I’ll be using all of the organ, and of course the great thing about the Royal Festival Hall organ is that it’s a unique instrument. It speaks with its own particular accent but it can play everything equally well.

It’s an eclectic instrument that doesn’t quite make sense to the uninitiated player or observer, but once you get to know it, it does allow you to play anything on it successfully, with its own unique voice. I’m a huge fan of [organ builder] Ralph Downes and his work, and love the way that he trail blazed into the organ playing world when he did and the way that he did it – it’s very admirable.

With the sci-fi element: are you going to go Radiophonic Workshop in any way? Obviously with the Glass there’s an element of that without it playing off Doctor Who/Star Trek

I’m keen to not even engage with the Doctor Who thing. I think that’s a little bit of a cliché. I know Christopher Eccleston played him but I think we can leave that one be.

faye4It’s interesting: HG Wells wrote the proto-science fiction piece of literature. You can’t get away from it. As a musician, I’m much more interested in presenting music with its own integrity that fits the bill rather than try to improvise a score with lots of geeky nods to lots of TV series. That’s not really what I’m about, and I don’t think it would go down terribly well. I think it would become a bit of a joke if I did. I’m trying to be able to find and play appropriate bits of repertoire.

The Glass music and this piece of Giles Swayne sounds very retro futuristic, in the way that 80s music is back in fashion now, in terms of the electronic music scene. I’m really interested in the way that relates to the organ as an old instrument, especially in a secular context at the Royal Festival Hall – I think that’s another facet to the instrument. I’m really excited.


James McVinnie will be performing the organ at a special adaptation and live reading of HG Wells’ The Time Machine directed by Cedering Fox of Word Theatre, and starring Christopher Eccleston, Emma Hamilton and Nikki Amuka-Bird. The performance takes place at Royal Festival Hall on 5 October as part of Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival and marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of HG Wells. For tickets and more details click here
Thanks to Naomi French for help in arranging this interview.
RFH Organ photo by Nick Rochowski, James McVinnie portrait by Magnús Andersen, Nikki Amuka-Bird by Pip for CLD Communications, Emma Hamilton by Faye Thomas, all used by kind permission.


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