McCabe in Conversation
Composer John McCabe talks to the Chief Music Critic of the
Birmingham Post, Christopher Morley
<< 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.
CM: And then you also borrow titles from other composers. You've
written a Metamorphosen for example, a Nocturnal ...
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?
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 ...
CM: ... to you in your profession?
JM: And I learnt the music program in two days ...
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
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
<< Music &
Vision homepage John McCabe website >>