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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 

Christopher Morley. Photo copyright (c) 1999 Keith BramichCM: 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, John McCabe. Photo copyright (c) 1999 Keith BramichI 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 club jazz.

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.

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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.

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