McCabe in Conversation
Composer John McCabe talks to the Chief Music Critic of the
Birmingham Post, Christopher Morley
6. All-rounders in the arts
<< Continued from part 5
CM: This is a question I really ought to ask at the end of this,
but it's come to me now and I'm going to ask it now. We tend to pigeon-hole
people - you're either a performer or a composer. Mozart was both and that
was accepted, Beethoven was both and that was accepted. A terrible question,
but obviously an extremely predictable question - which would you rather
be remembered as? I suppose you would rather be remembered as John McCabe
the composer and pianist, but what do you feel is the public's actual
perception of you?
JM: Oh well that varies. It's less true in this country but it does happen
here. It certainly happens in America, that if I go to a particular place
to play a concert, as a pianist, and somebody says 'Oh, you're John McCabe
the composer as well' or 'Are you still composing?' and things like that,
when you're composing away like mad, and go to another place and people
say 'Are you still playing piano?', which is more understandable because
I'm doing less piano playing at the moment than I used to. But nevertheless,
it's been happening for twenty years - people come across me more as one
or the other, and don't seem to be so aware of the other half of one's life.
There's a curious thing about all-rounders in this country.
CM: Here we go, Cricket!
JM: Yes, well it's a very good analogy, you see, because whereas in Cricket
the all-rounder is really the pivotal member of the team - if you've got
a great all-rounder, you put that name down first, almost, and then put
the rest around it, because you've then got a bowler spare - a bowling space
spare and a batting space spare - choose the rest of your team accordingly.
If you haven't got a dominant all-rounder, you really have problems, which
we have at the moment ... in the arts - it's not only in music, it's in
the arts generally, I think that people are very suspicious of all-rounders. They
think that if you play the piano you can't possibly be a full-time composer,
and if you're a full-time composer, you can't possibly be a proper pianist.
Now one thing I do which people seem to think proves that is that I play
from the music, always, never play from memory, but I do that because a)
I couldn't carry the repertoire that I do, which is vast, and b) I know
that I've got a very quick, superficial memory which I do not trust, and
really, if I'm going to play something from memory and forget, I'm not playing
the music - I'm playing something else - not playing what the composer wrote.
I've suffered from this myself as a composer, and I know that if somebody
leaves out half a piece, which happened with one of mine, the audience is
not actually going to hear what I wrote, and I don't think it's fair, and
since I'm liable to do that if I play from memory, then that's why I play
from music - it's not laziness, it's ...
CM: Like Richter, your hero
JM: Well Richter, Clifford Curzon, Myra Hess ... Klemperer actually admired
Myra Hess for playing the Beethoven Fourth Concerto from the music - he
said so. But there is still a mistrust of that, and it's very odd, because
in the 19th century the tradition grew up of the great composer-virtuoso,
from Mozart and Beethoven through Chopin, Liszt ... Schumann wanted
to be, Clara Schumann was - she was a very good composer and a virtuoso
pianist. Liszt is another one of my great heroes actually, but partly because
of his generosity to others - he was amazingly supportive to other composers,
and I think that was a fine thing, and after he retired officially from
the concert platform he did a lot of teaching, and I don't think he charged
for his lessons. He was just committed to music. But he was a great virtuoso
pianist and composer - and Rachmaninov in this century, and there are people
like Richard Rodney Bennett, who's a great friend of mine, and Richard is
an excellent pianist, but does he play classical music? No, he plays night
CM: and he sings, doesn't he, yes?
JM: He sings.
CM: What an all-rounder.
JM: Yes. He hasn't asked me
what I think of his singing, [Laughter] but he's a marvellous - I suppose
you'd call it light jazz - coctail jazz, but a really superb pianist, and
I have heard him at the Bath Festival years and years ago - Michael Tippett
got six composers to come and give recitals. Richard did one, Max Davies
did one, I did one, Roger Smalley ... can't remember who else, and Richard
played some Debussy preludes, beautifully, he played a John Ireland piece
- absolutely superbly, and I once asked him - he's very fond of Ravel, he
can play Ravel better than anybody else, if he cared to, but he doesn't
care to do that kind of playing. It's a great loss. I suspect it's partly
because he knows perfectly well that it would be taken as being slightly
amateurish, because after all, he's a composer, really, you know - and playing
night club jazz is fine, because that's just a hobby. It's a very curious
perception, and I think personally that's why he does that, and there are
plenty of other people who are very good pianists who never do it - Maxwell
Davies gave a splendid performance of one of the late Beethoven sonatas
in that series.
Copyright © Christopher Morley
/ John McCabe, August 29th 1999
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