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.
CM: What do you do?
JM: 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
CM: You were hinting at this last night, weren't you, in what you were
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 or 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.
Copyright © Christopher Morley
/ John McCabe, August 29th 1999
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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).