John McCabe, 1939-2015

Earlier this month the British composer John McCabe passed away from a brain tumour.

I owe him a debt. When I was a young teen, first exploring my way into 20th-century music, I used to scour my dad’s collection of recordings he had taped off the radio. His tastes ran a little more conservative than mine, so I mostly had to latch onto whatever bits of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and, especially, Bartók he had. But there were a handful of newer things buried within: Le marteau sans maître, for example, although I didn’t understand it at the time; a live performance of Carré, which I had more joy with; and a recording of John McCabe’s Fire at Durilgai. I have no idea why Dad had this; there was no other McCabe, and very little other contemporary British music in his collection. Perhaps it was fortuitously partnered with something else. (I do vaguely remember there being some Bartók on the same tape, which may be how I came upon it in the first place.) Anyway, I was thoroughly gripped by this piece, must have listened to it a dozen times. I think its structural clarity – an evocation of a fire building from a single spark to a huge conflagration – appealed to me. As did its orchestration: rich, dense strings, haunting brass, rattling percussion. I used to listen closely to every turn in the music, trying to track the progress of that fire.

I’ve just found a recording (from the same radio broadcast?) of Fire at Durilgai on YouTube. I don’t think I can have listened to it in two decades, but a lot has stuck with me. Particularly striking are the quasi-canonic layers of lamenting horns and strings, which aren’t dissimilar to some things in James MacMillan’s Veni, veni Emmanuel, another piece that captured my imagination back then. And there’s a particularly haunting ending that owes much to Bartók, and then Shostakovich, which must also have struck a chord at the time.

Anyway, here it is. One of the first pieces by a living composer I ever truly loved and, I suppose, one of my first steps on the path to where I am today.*

*Interestingly, a similar statement was made on Facebook by a friend of mine, with regard to a different McCabe piece. It’s interesting how influence works.

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