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McCabe in Conversation

Composer in Residence John McCabe talks to the Chief Music Critic of the Birmingham Post, Christopher Morley

Music and Vision at the Presteigne Festival

The following conversation between John McCabe (JM) and Christopher Morley (CM) took place on Saturday 28 August, 11.30am in Titley Village Hall, as part of the 1999 Presteigne Festival.

CM: I'm sure we'd like to start this morning by first of all thanking John for the wonderful string quartet that we heard last night, which really gripped me, actually, and you can read all about the way I felt about it in the Post on Monday morning. [Laughter]. John, I'll just begin if you don't mind with a few words of introduction about the way your career has unfolded, and then we can come down to talking about specifics. John is a composer whose career has unfolded quite steadily and naturally. His music has not really ever been out of the public eye, or should I say public ear, in all his composing career, and in the last few years, his music has taken off in a different direction with the music he's composed for the Birmingham Royal Ballet, so that looks set to bring an even larger public into awareness of John's music. And yet, in this his 60th birthday year, I think I'm right John in thinking that you've only worked on three completely new works - two works for the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Arthurian works, and the Cello Sonata for Alice Neary here.

JM: That's right.

CM: Perhaps you would like to say why you have restricted yourself to only these three commissioned works - is this proving an extremely busy year for you in this kind of event?

JM: Well it is, yes - there are several reasons. First of all, it is a busy year, and although I've cut down the amount of piano playing I'm doing - I'm still doing some, I would hate to go without playing the piano at all - but I'm having to be very careful about repertoire so that I don't have to work on too many different pieces all the time, and there have been a lot of extra concerts and so on, which has been great - a wonderful year, but the other thing is that actually the two ballets for Birmingham are both two hours long, and they're for full orchestra, and if you want to write those in the space of basically two and a half years, taking the whole project, there isn't a lot else you can do. The cello sonata was by way of light relief, you know. Actually it's quite a tough piece as it turned out. There really hasn't been time to do anything else. If you're working on some huge thing like a two hour ballet score, it really does consume your attention completely for most of the time, and well, you know, I'd like to take time off occasionally.

CM: And watch some cricket?

JM: Well yes, I managed one day this year so far.

CM: That's all it's worth watching this year, I think. [Laughter]

JM: No, this was very good - it was Lancashire against Surrey at the Oval. It was good - I saw everybody.

CM: But you do work usually a good deal to commission and you've often composed music for organisations in this particular part of the country - Three Choirs Festival commissions, three works which have been premièred, including one by the CBSO - we heard the introduction last night, to Notturni ed alba - the Hereford Three Choirs commission for 1970, I think it was, was that right, yes? Your second symphony was commissioned by the CBSO. The CBSO also played in the première of your second violin concerto with Eric Gruenberg as the soloist. Commissions for the Malvern Concert Club, for Madeley College, for the Birmingham Chamber Music Society. Working to commission is an extremely practical way of going about things isn't it? Do you have much music which you've written purely for yourself, which is still perhaps lying in a draw?

JM: No. I want to make one thing clear about this because people think that if you're working to commission you're writing pieces you don't want to write, but somebody's paying you to do. Or, you don't do that, and you have enough money to be able to exist, or you don't eat at all, but you simply write for your own pleasure. Now actually I've tried very hard to get commissions to write the pieces I want to write, thereby getting the best of both worlds. I didn't actually get into writing ballet music - the second of these two ballets for Birmingham will be the fourth full-length ballet I've written, and I didn't get into that because I suddenly thought 'Oh I must write ballet music' - I was approached with an idea which struck me as being something I really wanted to do, and if I hadn't wanted to do it I wouldn't have done it. So people come to me with ideas, and if I get a musical response - a sense of a musical response to it, then I'll do it, or at least investigate it, and if not, not. Ideally one would get commissioned - I mean I've got about thirty six pieces I want to write ... if you know of anybody who'd like to commission ... [laughter]

CM: There are thirty six people here I should think. [laughter]

JM: You know, all sorts of things - quartets, symphonies, other ballets, and so on, and I hope that I will eventually get half of them done.

CM: And you sometimes work for specific performers - I mentioned Eric Gruenberg with the concerto and James Galway, Barry Douglas. Do they sometimes themselves commission from you or are they chosen by the commissioners, and then do you sort of tailor your music towards their particular strengths?

JM: Well that's a fairly complicated question. The actual mechanics of it are varied - you've mentioned three people who were all different routes, funnily enough. Eric Gruenberg and I had a violin and piano which we don't have now, because I haven't got the time to carry that repertoire as well as solo repertoire, but I enjoyed it very much - it was great fun, and I wrote a violin and piano piece for us to play, and then he wanted to commission a violin concerto so he set the performance up with the Birmingham orchestra and he got a grant to commission me to write the piece, which I wanted to write. So that came as an initiative from the artist.

James Galway was looking around for another composer to commission to write a concerto, after the American John Corigliano, who's a friend of mine, and he commissioned one from him called the Pied Piper Fantasy, which was very successful. He was wanting somebody else, and he happened to be talking to Corigliano one day, and he suggested me. So then we had James Galway wanting a concerto from me, and if James Galway wants a concerto, any orchestra in the world is going to be very happy to commission it, since the commission fee is probably considerably less than the fee Galway actually gets for playing it. That was set up because Galway wanted the concerto and he's in a position where people are delighted to make it possible for that to happen. So that was then commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra through a sponsorship - it was one of the petrol companies.

Monica McCabe: Shell.

JM: Shell, thank you. Give them an extra plug. Their price has gone up since they commissioned me. [Laughter.] And Barry Douglas: I'd been awarded by what I think is a semi-private charity, an amount of money towards helping me to write anything that I wanted to write, and I particularly wanted to write a large-scale piano work. Now I could probably have written it for myself to play, you know, get a festival recital somewhere and say 'would you like to commission this piece?' and they'd say 'yes, fine'. But in this case I wanted to write it for somebody else, so I approached Barry Douglas. We met at a festival in Prague, when I had an orchestral piece played and he played a concerto, and we got on like a house on fire, so I suggested that he might, you know, would he be interested in giving a first performance - he wouldn't have to pay for the composition because there was a small sum of money for it, and he agreed, and he's played it several times since, and he's done some of my chamber music as well, and become a great friend. So those are different routes - that's how that happens.

As for the strengths and weaknesses of the players, I don't really know how to answer that. I've been asked this before, and I usually say 'Oh well, yes, well of course, if you know the performer, like I knew Eric Gruenberg when I was writing things for him - yes of course, it's bound to affect the way you write'. I'm not sure actually. Not in my case.

CM: I was thinking of somebody like Mozart, for example, who would take a great deal of trouble to find out the technical abilities and the particular strengths of the performers for any one commission, and you can actually trace in his music these particular characteristics. Perhaps with you it happens but subconsciously?

JM: I think it probably is, I mean I knew Eric very well. If you're writing for somebody you really know very well with and play music with on a regular basis, you get to know instinctively how they - even when you're sight-reading new repertoire - a new Mozart sonata, let's say - you know instinctively what they're going to do in certain types - if you're writing for them, you're bound to do that. Galway, I know I did - I went to some of his concerts and got some of his records, and one of the things that struck me, I remember, was the enormous variety of staccatos that he commands. I think I counted about fifteen different types of staccato - something quite amazing. Just slight differences, but they're all staccato. So I tried to exploit that to some extent in the piece, by featuring staccato and deliberately over a wide dynamic range, so that he could use that aspect of his technique. But I think that, I mean I know that there are instances of people working very closely with people, and doing this. I think I tend to think that if I'm writing for a professional virtuoso, unless there is a specific physical limitation, which there would be with me, because I've got a small hand, so if I'm writing for a pianist I find out if they've got a small hand or not. Other than that, you tend to assume they'll be able to play anything. And really, the music that comes out is the music that has to come out, rather than imposing something on it, which might in fact limit it.

CM: Indeed, it could cause difficulties then for subsequent performers, couldn't it, who didn't have those capabilities. Thank you for that answer to a very long and, as you say, complicated question.

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Copyright © Christopher Morley / John McCabe, August 29th 1999
(Transcription from taped conversation by Keith Bramich)

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