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McCabe in Conversation

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

8. Variants

 << Continued from part 7 

CM: You mentioned Boulez and how much you admire his conducting. He's someone who does not use traditional forms at all, but you do - you've composed in most traditional forms except the grandest of grand opera, and some of your piano pieces have got historical type titles for each movement as well. I think I'm right in saying that you haven't yet composed a piano sonata?

JM: That's right, yes.

CM: Is there ever going to be one?

JM: No. Funnily enough, Robert Simpson used to regularly have a go at me about this, because Bob Simpson was a great friend, and very supportive, and he used to say 'when are you going to write a piano sonata?' and I would say 'never'. I haven't got one.

CM: There are enough good ones?

JM: Well there are enough good ones, yes, play somebody else's. But no, I don't know why. I can't answer that.

Christopher Morley. Photo copyright (c) 1999 Keith BramichCM: And then you also borrow titles from other composers. You've written a Metamorphosen for example, a Nocturnal ...

JM: Yes.

CM: ... you've written. I like this sort of thing. It shows that there's life in the old structures yet?

JM: Yes. Well also it's a slightly self-referential thing. I like to explore my own musical tastes in my music in some way or other. Even if it's just by a title which refers to a composer or a work I'm particularly fond of, or which I admire. For instance the third String Quartet, which the Vanbrugh also recorded on the CD - the first movement is called 'Variants', which is partly a description of the form, but it's also a tribute to Alun Hoddinott, because one of his finest orchestral works is called Variants and it's a work I like very much. So little references ... I also like sometimes to take a structure which is very much influenced by - well there's a Schumann piano work which influenced a couple of pieces, including that third quartet. There's a particularly curious way of balancing big movements with three very short inner movements and somehow the balance between these two blocks and this central little tryptich works - they form a unit which balances the two outer blocks.

CM: Which Schumann piece is that, John?

John McCabe. Photo copyright (c) 1999 Keith BramichJM: That's the Faschingsswank aus Wien - the 'Carnival Jest from Vienna', which I've played a lot, so it reflects my piano work as well, and there's a quote in one piece from Ravel's Miroirs which I've also played a lot. So I like to sort of slip in little references, which I do not expect anybody else to spot. It's a kind of code, I suppose, or private joke or whatever, but I like that - it's all part of me, you see, and the music reflects me - it's bound to anyway - but that's an added ingredient.

CM: So you work and you think as part of an ongoing tradition and cultural context? But you also aren't above making use of the latest in helpful technology. You have a website, I believe? I have a website which I don't run. A friend of ours who is sitting here operating all sorts of machines works it for me. I'm not on the internet at all. I'm very computer-literate if I really want to be, like using a music software program. Otherwise I don't think I'm computer-literate at all. I'm very good at what I absolutely really want to do. Otherwise no.

CM: You are making use of what is helpful ...

JM: Yes.

CM: ... to you in your profession?

JM: And I learnt the music program in two days ...

CM :Wow.

JM: ... because I wanted to, I think. It does help if you want to.

CM: It's the kind of help that I think that Haydn would have welcomed too, actually, in his work.

JM: Oh yes, I'm sure he would.

CM: That's a nice point at which to stop, I think, unless there are any questions?

Christopher Morley. Photo copyright (c) 1999 Keith BramichJM: Well I've got one comment to add to that. Just think how many pieces Telemann could have produced ...

CM: Indeed. [laughter] Yes, yes. A couple of minutes for any questions, if anyone would like to ...

Member of audience: I just wondered whether you'd like to say which music program it is that you learnt ...

JM: Sibelius 7.

CM: There's a plug for that. [laughter] So we've had a plug for the music program, Sibelius 7, we've had a plug for the Birmingham Post, we've had a plug for the website ... is there anything else ...

JM: Shell Oil.

CM: Oh yes, Shell as well - that was the important plug, wasn't it.

JM: Yes - that's where the money is.

CM: Right, John, thanks very much - it's been marvellous talking to you.

JM: Thank you.

CM: Thank you. [applause]

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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