We are deeply saddened to hear the news that John McCabe died today after a long illness. We have many fond memories of working with John through the years and our thoughts are with his wife Monica.
Friday, February 13, 2015 John McCabe (1939-2015)
Press release from John's publisher, Novello & Co.
It is with great sadness that Novello & Company Limited announces the death of John McCabe. John passed away peacefully, after a long illness, in Rochester, Kent on Friday February 13, aged 75. He is survived by his wife, Monica. James Rushton, Managing Director of Novello & Company Limited, comments: With John McCabe’s passing we have a lost a man of great wisdom, humour and integrity and a complete musician. A composer and pianist of the highest calibre, he shall be greatly missed. I am struck, when thinking back over John’s career, and over a period of twenty years in which I have had the privilege of working with him, by his constancy. He was devoted as a pianist to the music of Haydn and Scarlatti, Rawsthorne, Bax and many other 20th century composers. John’s recordings were the first introduction that many of us had to such repertoire. He was steadfast in accordance to his core beliefs as a composer. His scores were highly crafted and technically immaculate. But John’s paramount aim was an immediacy of communication and expression. It is the greatest tribute to him that he achieved that in a comprehensive range of forms and mediums. My abiding memory of John will be his acceptance speech when receiving the Classical Music Award at the Ivors last year. It was quite extraordinary - self-deprecating, loyal to fellow composer colleagues, and immensely humorous - leaving everyone on their feet, cheering. That is as it should be.
John McCabe enjoyed a long career as a composer. He decided upon this vocation as a young boy in Liverpool at the age of just five and a half. He went on to compose continuously until his final months of recent ill health. After studies at the Royal Manchester College of Music, now the Royal Northern College of Music, and in Munich, he embarked on an international career as composer and pianist. His complete CD survey of Haydn’s Piano Sonatas for Decca has become a landmark recording. McCabe worked in almost every genre, though large-scale forms lie at the heart of his catalogue. His most recent work, Christ’s Nativity, was commissioned by the Hallé Choir and was premiered in Manchester in December 2014. His compositions, published by Novello over a relationship of more than fifty years, number in excess of 200 works. A formidable catalogue of works spans full-length ballets such as Edward II and the two-part Arthur for Birmingham Royal Ballet, symphonies and concertante works, and music such as Notturni ed Alba for soprano and orchestra and The Chagall Windows for orchestra placed him at the centre of the repertoire. His output of chamber music is equally outstanding and he made a major contribution to piano music. McCabe was appointed CBE by Her Majesty The Queen in 1985 for his services to British music. In 2004 the Incorporated Society of Musicians honoured McCabe with the Distinguished Musician Award in recognition of his 'outstanding contribution to British musical life'. Then, in 2006, Liverpool University awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in Music. Most recently, during his 75th Birthday year in 2014, he was presented with the Ivors Classical Music Award.
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Originally printed in the NMC Friends Summer 2014 Newsletter
NMC Friend and Musicologist Bob Gilmore shares his thoughts on listening …
It may be a truism to say that each of us listens to music in our own way, but it is inescapably the case. No one starts from a blank slate: we are all conditioned by numerous factors including taste, upbringing, musical education or lack thereof, age, nationality, sexual orientation (discuss), and much more. This is only normal, and as it should be. But until recently the manifold implications of this have received little attention in the critical writing about music.
Music psychologists have long studied the mechanisms of hearing and perception but (with some honourable exceptions) have paid scant regard to genuinely new music. And only very recently has the idea of a “history of listening” become a real subject within musicology. A research project entitled The Listening Experience Database (LED), currently underway as a joint project of the Open University and the Royal College of Music, is attempting to build an expandable database of records of the “private and intimate” listening experience: we wish them well.
I have been reflecting on how I myself listen to music. Within the context described above I can justify this not so much as an exercise in narcissism but as a form of proto- (or, more likely, pseudo-) research. The question is hugely complex: beyond the already knotty problems of perception we must take into account the ever-shifting sands of cognition, of understanding. I “hear” Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony differently now than I did when I first made its acquaintance more than forty years ago, partly as a consequence of the many different interpretations I’ve experienced in the meantime, but also, more crucially, because my sense of what music is has expanded so much since my youth. The encounter with twentieth- and twenty-first century music has long since eroded the sense I once had of the normativity of Beethoven’s language: the present, as always, influences our perception of the past.
Specifically, though, I am more interested in the basic ways I (and others) listen to music – listening in an intuitive, rather than intellectually mediated, sense. Some people like a tune, some crave rhythm, some enjoy colours, some want “emotions”, and so on. My own primary way of listening, the one that gives me the most satisfaction, has to do with harmony. It is the nature of the harmony that most attracts me to a piece of music, or puts me off it. By that I don’t mean that the harmony need necessarily be complex: sometimes one chord is enough. I also don’t mean that I can’t enjoy music that operates on a wholly different basis - music for untuned percussion, say. It’s simply that, finally, harmony is the aspect of music that most entices me, convinces me, that most fully engages my heart and my brain in the experience of listening.
I wonder if we are “better” listeners now than we were in the nineteenth century. Clearly, we hear far more music today than at any earlier period in history, but that doesn’t mean we listen more, or more intelligently. If anything, we suffer from the problem of overload, of too much choice – from a promiscuity of information, from the proliferation of contemporary sounds, styles and aesthetics. I doubt that this overload has improved matters. I would argue that over the past half-century or more we have witnessed the growth of the opposite phenomenon, a troubling one: a deterioration in our listening skills. To have a vibrant new music culture that evolves in interesting ways we need not merely good playing and composing skills, but also, crucially, composers, performers and musicologists with the ability to hear clearly and accurately. I believe that of all the parameters of music it is harmony that has taken the hardest knocks in this situation.
The deterioration in our listening skills first became a real problem with respect to non-tonal music. Simply put, it is more difficult to hear wrong notes in Schoenberg than in Haydn, both when one is playing and when one is listening. There are numerous reasons for this. One is that Haydn’s music speaks a language that is extremely familiar to us, for all his characteristic development of it, whereas it might be said, exaggerating slightly, that every post-tonal composer is post-tonal in his/her own way. Schoenberg’s music also springs from a general language - diatonicism and tonality-conscious chromaticism - but his departures from it are highly personal. His music has lived on, albeit in relative obscurity, because those departures seem persuasive to us - or at least some of them do.
In post-tonal music – whether that music is “atonal”, serial, “free”, or based on personal systems of interval relations specific to a particular composer or even a particular piece – it can be hard to judge wrong notes not merely aurally but also, at times, conceptually. More than forty years ago the musicologist Hans Keller argued that, even though “a rich variety of replacements for tonal organisation has been discovered in [the twentieth] century”, nonetheless “harmonically, none makes sense unless it audibly contradicts that which it replaces; and it is, ultimately, in terms of these contradictions that notes are heard as right, however difficult the task may, at times, appear to be”. Is his argument still valid today?
Thinking of more recent music - some experimental music, say, or free improvisation – we may well ask what counts as a wrong note in an aleatoric situation where sounds collide accidentally without pre-planning, harmonic or otherwise. (Here a “wrong note” means a harmonically and/or melodically inexplicable choice, not the “classical” sense of something different than is written in the score; this kind of music will often not have a score, at least not a conventional one.) In these contexts, is the concept of a wrong note still meaningful? Arguably, no: the distinction between right and wrong notes here becomes irrelevant. This is fine as long as we can then accept the fact that the resulting music is, in this specific sense, incomprehensible – and not just incomprehensible with regard to the laws of modal/tonal music, however broadly defined, but incomprehensible in the sense of deliberately declining to propose any new form of aurally intelligible harmonic logic. We could of course say that, in such music, other parameters have replaced vertical listening as the main dish: rhythm, timbre, texture, “gesture”, and so on, and that we should be content with that – why should harmonic relations be dominant, anyway? Well, perhaps not necessarily “dominant”, but I can suggest one compelling argument in favour of their continued importance, one that the American composer Ben Johnston expressed many decades ago: that harmonic listening is simply “too basic a parameter to be allowed to fall into disuse”. With a lack of concern for harmony other musical values bite the dust too, such as a careful approach to intonation; one cannot play really in tune if one cannot predict the pitches one is supposed to tune to. (Good intonation presupposes a form of inner pre-hearing of a pitch or pitches immediately ahead in the music, a fascinating but little discussed aspect of good performance practice.)
One example of a new approach to harmony that is very much concerned with aural intelligibility, and with tuning, is to be found in the “spectral music” that originated in the Parisian new music scene of the 1970s. (The term is in scare quotes for the reason that not one of its leading practitioners accepts its validity as a descriptive term for what they do.) This approach has evolved in the music of subsequent decades, and informs the harmonic language of such recent works as Julian Anderson’s Eden (NMC D121) or Donnacha Dennehy’s Bulb (NMC D147). In contrast, it seems to me that quite a lot of new music today exhibits what composer Roberto Gerhard memorably called “pitch fatigue”: “at long last”, he wrote in the late 1960s, “‘atonality’, in the literal meaning of the word, has become a stark fact in our day and age, owing to [this] puzzling phenomenon”. Of course, few composers will admit that they don’t care about pitch, or are bored of it; and, sometimes, repeated listenings to an apparently impenetrable piece will begin to reveal a form of harmonic logic that was not immediately evident. And there is a lot of music in which what happens on other levels is so compelling that our listening mode shifts accordingly. I greatly enjoy listening to Jonathan Harvey’s Bird Concerto with Pianosong (NMC D177) or to Richard Barrett’s Dark Matter (NMC D183), even though much of the time I draw a blank at what’s going on harmonically (without, it must be said, having studied the score of either piece).
The difficulty of hearing wrong notes in post-tonal music, and the irrelevance of the concept of a wrong note in most forms of aleatoric music or free improvisation, has made some listeners sharpen their listening skills in a different way so they can navigate these new musical contexts with some confidence – contexts in which the presence of a clear harmonic superstructure would be an irrelevance or an anachronism. But I suspect many listeners – perhaps even the majority – experience something closer to what I experience: the harmonic incomprehensibility, or semi-comprehensibility, of some new music, where I can’t fathom the logic of pitch choice even after several attempts, only dulls my perception. Frustrated in the attempt to understand the music harmonically, I slip into more passive, less demanding modes of listening, letting the music do its thing and abandoning the difficult task of really trying to follow it. Is this a problem? Maybe not, if the music is still enjoyable to listen to. But it seems to me that in such circumstances what I experience is a form of mental laziness, akin to giving up the struggle to follow an intricate philosophical text and simply admiring the choice of font or enjoying the smell of the pages in the book. Some people may well be content to listen to music in this way; but they belong to a club that would probably not accept me as a member.
Bob Gilmore died 2 January 2015. He was a musicologist and keyboard player living in Amsterdam and a Research Fellow at the Orpheus Institute in Ghent and Editor of TEMPO: a Quarterly Review of New Music. His biography of Claude Vivier has recently been published by the University of Rochester Press
 Hans Keller, “Wrong Notes in Contemporary Music”, in Tempo 90 (autumn 1969), p. 11.
 Ben Johnston, Maximum Clarity and other writings on music, edited by Bob Gilmore (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006), xiv.
 Gerhard cited in Keller, “Wrong Notes in Contemporary Music”, in Tempo 90 (autumn 1969), p. 9.
Here is a list of award nominations, end-of-year 'top 10' albums and magazine 'picks' for our releases over the last 12 months.
GRAMMY NOMINATION 2015 http://www.grammy.com/nominees
'We need to know this music - this tells us so much about the development of this composer, about where his musical voice comes from ... the performances are superb and the recording frames them beautifully' BBC Radio 3 CD Review‘
Samuel West narrator | Andrew Kennedy tenor | Jean Rigby mezzo-soprano | Mary Carewe mezzo-soprano | Ex Cathedra / Jeffrey Skidmore conductor | Mervyn Cooke, Lucy walker piano | Matthew Dickinson percussion | Huw Watkins piano | Harry Ogg assistant conductor | Hallé / Sir Mark Elder conductor
THE SUNDAY TIMES TOP 100 BEST ALBUMS OF 2014
'Causton is among our most imaginative composers, and these five works, all substantial, often with flaring brilliance, are almost too much to take in. They will repay many listenings' The Sunday Times
Hallé / Nicholas Collon conductor | Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Gerry Cornelius, Ryan Wigglesworth conductors
'These splendid performances come in Casken's 65th birthday year and afford a powerful distillation of his musical thought' The Sunday Times
Sophia Jaffé violin | Hallé / Markus Stenz conductor
‘A sharp ear and a vigorous imagination. […] the music’s inventiveness and textural control are unmistakeable’ The Sunday Times
Aldeburgh World Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder conductor | Lucy Schaufer mezzo-soprano Alexandra Wood violin | Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Oliver Knussen conductor | Huw Watkins piano | Claire Booth soprano | Andrew Matthews-Owen piano
‘Glittery, incisive, full of leaping lines and incandescent climaxes’ The Sunday Times
Lynsey Marsh clarinet | Hallé Soloists | Hallé Orchestra / Jamie Phillips, Sir Mark Elder conductors
GRAMOPHONE MAGAZINE EDITOR'S CHOICE
‘The eccentricity is so carefully controlled by both composer and conductor – I started off completely perplexed but soon found myself laughing out loud’ Martin Cullingford, Gramophone Editor
Barbara Hannigan soprano | Peter Tantsits tenor | Joshua Bloom baritone | Katalin Károlyi mezzo-soprano | Hilary Summers contralto | Alan Ewing bass l Benjamin Bevan bass Joshua Hart speaker | Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Thomas Adès conductor
‘Near Midnight, with its strangely amorphous activity – made audible through the assured orchestral handling – amply evokes the fatalistic poem by DH Lawrence that inspired it. A strong recommendation' Gramophone (Editor's Choice)
Lynsey Marsh clarinet | Hallé Soloists | Hallé Orchestra / Jamie Phillips, Sir Mark Elder conductors
'Tavener’s Akhmatova Requiem is a masterpiece' Gramophone (Editor's Choice - reissue/archive)
Phyllis Bryn-Julson soprano | John Shirley-Quirk bass-baritone | BBC Symphony Orchestra / Gennady Rozhdestvensky conductor | Elise Ross soprano | The Nash Ensemble
BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE CRITICS' CHOICE 2014 | LIMELIGHT MAGAZINE 'RECORD OF THE MONTH' 2014
‘A serious tour de force in technical and dramatic terms … brims with moments where the level of atmospheric storytelling is mesmerising’ BBC Music Magazine
INTERNATIONAL RECORD REVIEW 'OUTSTANDING RECORD'
'The first comment to make about this disc is ‘not before time’. Richard Causton has been a significant figure in contemporary British music for almost two decades now and this is the first release devoted entirely to his music. As an overview of his output over some 15 years, it confirms both the singularity and the consistency of his musical vision. An invaluable release’ IRR
Hallé / Nicholas Collon conductor | Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Gerry Cornelius, Ryan Wigglesworth conductors
I looked forward to composing Sterna Paradisaea, Returning very much. It felt like I was waiting for this piece for a very long time. I was expecting a conclusion of a very long journey and personal experience through the compositional process. At the same time, I had so many things in my mind and heart. How does it feel to remember something you once meant to forget? Can I tell a true story through music to myself? Will I like it and be moved by it? I was also seeking the answers to my questions and perhaps the challenges to my fears. Sterna Paradisaea, Returning is an important piece for me. Yet the expected conclusion didn’t happen and it has become a new memorable and inspirational experience that keeps surprising me till today. I guess that is the transformative power of music and joy of making music.
It was not easy to find the right expression for this piece. The first workshop didn't go so well for me. I was lost in the shadow of culture cliché, my granted expectation of sound, the story I wanted to portray, and perhaps my fears. I sometimes used to stay in “silence”- a break from writing, and allowed myself to try to find a path to get out. My project mentor, composer Richard Baker, supported me with enormous amounts of patience and understanding during this seeking process. I felt a strong trust between us and was very much encouraged by him. Eventually, I decided to take a fresh approach to the work, and I think I got it! I may not be able to answer all my questions through this piece, but I was truly moved by it. I am happy to overcome some of my fears and be honest to myself.
I felt very lucky to be one of the twelve composers selected to take part in the Next Wave project. It was wonderful to meet all the mentor composers during the workshops. I was so inspired from their attitude towards music as real artists. I was deeply impressed by their passion and love for music, their care and support for the young composers and their visions. I have learned not only to compose, but also something far beyond. It was really beautiful to be able to express myself and communicate to others in every sense.
I’d like to express my thanks to the composer workshops. I had the great opportunity to spend time and meet other selected young composers, with whom I shared music, laughs and all things we enjoy. I also want to express my gratitude to: Hannah Bujic and Richard Whitelaw from Sound and Music, my supervisor Simon Emmerson, conductor Garry Walker, soloists Sarah Nicolls and Loré Lixenberg, the fantastic musicians from London Sinfonietta, as well as producer David Lefeber from NMC Recordings and to everyone I have met and talked to during the project. I felt that I had a team that provided the best support and guidance a young composer could ever get. I was not alone. I was really happy that I have made some friends too.
Listen to an extract from Weiwei's Sterna Paradisaea, Returning
Interview with Weiwei
Weiwei's Top 10 Playlist
1. Karin Rehnqvist: Who's That Calling? (happening for a concert hall, two sopranos and instrumental ensemble)
Karin was one of my composition teachers at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. But I just had two lessons with her as I was in the transition from composing instrumental music to electroacoustic music. I caught Who’s That Calling in London at the Southbank Centre’s Music of Today. I loved it. I loved the pure and honesty of this piece. This piece is such a fantastic mixture of folk element with cutting-edge contemporary ensemble music.
2. Kaija Saariaho: NoaNoa (for solo flute and live electronics)
Kaija Saariaho’s music is magic, elegant and natural. Her sonic world and sonic images are so powerful and I often find myself melt in between my darkest and most dazzling dimensions of my subconscious. I spend lots of time listening to NoaNoa and lots of her other music. NoaNoa was definitely the entrance path for me to Saariaho’s music. I studied the Max/MSP path of NoaNoa for a long time and I was worshiping the live electronics part of this piece.
3. Jonathan Harvey: Speakings (for large Orchestra and electronics)
Speakings by Jonathan Harvey was the very first inspiration of my piece Sterna Paradisaea, Returning. I was very fascinated by this work of how Harvey transforms and sonifys the human speaking sonic materials into a full orchestral sound. The orchestra then “speaks” back to us.
4. Trevor Wishart: Imago (acousmatic music)
Trevor Wishart is one of my favorite acousmatic music composers. He is the pioneer in sound design and I mostly admire his artistic “logic” – his way of combining sonic elements, full of improvised yet poetic beauties, full of surprises.
5. Karin Rehnqvist: Beginning (for piano trio)
Another Karin’s piece I loved. I was so impressed by her effortless transition between wildest brutalities to the most exquisite simplicity. I also enjoy Karin’s music, as it is always something unique and different in each of her piece. Her music can be in very contrasting styles and that is what I am attracted to.
6. Simon Emmerson: Ophelia’s Dream (for voices and live electronics)
I am currently doing a Ph.D. in Music under the supervision of Prof. Simon Emmerson. I really enjoy all his vocal and electronics work. Especially the way he handles text through vocal writing. Of course, the electronics part of his music is always very stylish, subtle and seamless.
7. William Brunson: Creature Comforts (acousmatic music)
I meet Prof. Brunson when I was 17 years old and was studying at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. After I moved to Sweden, Prof. Brunson was my teacher and I have studied composition with him for over a decade. His influence to me is definitely beyond music. He supported and encouraged all my choices of changes in my music career and guided me through lots of difficulties. His music is so different from mine and it is so cool the way it is.
8. Colin Matthews: Oboe Quartet (for oboe, violin, viola and cello)
This piece is very interesting as the oboe substituted for the first violin of the standard string quartet. This has added the vibrant colour and unique texture of wind instrument to the string texture. The way of writing is very collaborative and intimacy in this piece and it is very inspiring.
9. Richard Baker: Los Rabanos (for clarinet, violin and percussion)
Richard Baker was my composition mentor at the Next Wave project. I have had the most inspiring lessons with him. He supported my project with enormous amount of patience, understanding, trust and encouragement, as well as detailed guidance and care. I really enjoy Richard’s composition Los Rabanos. In one of the lessons, we were looking into heterophony as a method to develop my piece. I think I have found a beautiful example of heterophony in Richard’s Los Rabanos.
10. Anna Meredith: Axeman (for electronic bassoon)
I came across this piece very recently as my next project is to compose a piece for solo bassoon with electronics. This is a very cool piece and I really enjoy it. Never heard anything like that before. What if play bassoons in this set but with baroque music?