Music and Vision homepage


McCabe in Conversation

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

5. Composer or Performer?

 << Continued from part 4 

CM: You've already said somthing about the fact that you feel that composing in this special year of yours has been something which might take up too much time from other things. How do you manage to achieve the balance between piano practising and composition? I was talking to someone who says he composes for two or three hours in the morning, then he stops and does an hour's practice, then goes back to composing, and then stops and does a further hour's practice, and he finds the two things keep him fresh.

JM: Gosh.

CM: What do you do?

John McCabe and Christopher Morley in Conversation. Photo copyright (c) 1999 Keith BramichJM: I do the exact opposite. [Laughter] I can't imagine ... mind you, I can't imagine writing at the piano anyway - lots of composers write at the piano - I don't, and never have. No, I try to keep them absolutely separate. I don't even play the piano when I'm composing. I used to, and I really ought to play some Bach or Scarlatti in the morning, just before I start work, but I really do find that if I start playing the piano, I start thinking like a pianist, and it's a very different mental approach to music.

CM: You were hinting at this last night, weren't you, in what you were saying?

JM: Yes. You have to be absolutely blinkered on what you're doing. So if I'm composing a large-scale piece, I will spend weeks doing nothing but that, and I won't write letters, even, except maybe one or two letters, but the bulk of correspondence piles up - either my wife does it John McCabe in Conversation. Photo copyright (C) 1999 Keith Bramichor it piles up, and I deal with it when I've reached a point when I can turn my attention to other things. I sometimes borrow a cottage in the country from somebody and go away for three weeks, or in one case three months, though I did make little trips from it. Basically, I borrowed a cottage from a composer friend and wrote like mad every day. I don't write from A to Z - I write in bits and gradually put it all together, which of course helps one to do it all quickly because if you get stuck with one bit you simply move on to another bit - because I know exactly where the whole piece is going, I know what it is. It's a question of getting it out of the mind as quickly as possible, and to do that I have to concentrate on it absolutely. If I start playing the piano, I find that it dissipates my concentration. And similarly with piano playing - I will stop composing and then start playing the piano for however many hours a day it needs - eight or whatever.

CM: So what happens then if you're committed to a performing tour, and in the middle of it you feel 'no, I really must get this musical idea out of my head and onto paper'?

JM: No. I can't do it.

CM: What discipline.

JM: Well it's desperation really, usually. [Laughter] It may not appear so, and certainly if you visited my home, it would certainly not appear so, but I am actually quite organised in terms of my work, and I know pretty much to the hour how many hours I'm going to need to get back into playing mode and to revive or to learn that particular programme. Sometimes it goes wrong, but usually it works - I know pretty precisely how long it's going to take. Therefore I know on what date I can stop composing, and if I've finished the composition slightly early, then I can either take a little time off, which very seldom happens, or I start practising a bit earlier, and start preparing something for later. It's all very very organised.

 Continue >> 

Copyright © Christopher Morley / John McCabe, August 29th 1999

McCabe in Conversation

was recorded at the 1999 Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts in Wales. The whole talk is also available as a Real Media presentation. (Christopher Morley's biography is also on this Real Media page).

 << Music & Vision homepage         John McCabe website >>