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.


Elliott Carter: the obituaries

Yesterday, Elliott Carter’s publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, announced the news that one of America’s greatest composers had passed away at 103. Carter’s centurion career was so enduring, his output so age-defying, that new terms – ‘late maturity’, ‘post-maturity’ – had to be invented to capture the work of his ninth, tenth and eleventh decades. Some of us even began to wonder whether we would ever hear this news, sad though it is. When I received the email from Boosey’s this morning the headline seemed so improbable I passed over it at first.

Here are links to some of the best obituaries that are coming out:

Boosey and Hawkes:

The great range and diversity of his music has, and will continue to have, influence on countless composers and performers worldwide. He will be missed by us all but remembered for his brilliance, his wit and his great canon of work.

Ivan Hewett, Guardian:

Urban and “machine-age” sounds and gestures did not interest him; they were too much of the moment. He wanted a modernism beyond fashion, rooted in a new kind of syntax, and to achieve that some European sophistication would be necessary. All the things he had absorbed would eventually find a place his modernist idiom: the idea of dramatic personages found in Mozart operas, the independent layers of English madrigals, the syntactic rigour of Arnold Schoenberg – and the combination of strict and free rhythm in jazz pianists he admired, such as Art Tatum.

Hewett has also written an appreciation for the Telegraph:

One felt more sure of things in his presence, as if his own amazing single-mindedness created its own aura. He was able to be so genially tolerant of music we all knew he must despise, like minimalism, because he was so sure of his own path.

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times:

The third of “the three Cs” of American music, Carter, like his contemporaries Aaron Copland andJohn Cage, did much to define the American sound in the 20th century. Restless, inquiring and perpetually up to date, his music tended to be ever-changeable, and his most important contribution was rhythmic invention. He resisted a constricting regular pulse, seeking instead a more organic way of thinking about time. […]

Carter’s sense of rhythm and meter had its mathematical component as well. He experimented with the effects of playing different melodies at different speeds at the same time. But this technique, rather than making everything sound at cross purposes, rewarded anyone willing to concentrate hard enough with the experience of relativity without the bother of space flight.

Allan Kozinn, New York Times:

“As a young man, I harbored the populist idea of writing for the public,” he once explained to an interviewer who asked him why he had chosen to write such difficult music. “I learned that the public didn’t care. So I decided to write for myself. Since then, people have gotten interested.”

Anne Midgette, Washington Post:

Mr. Carter’s career was like some of the towering cathedrals of Europe: so long in the making that it reflected the dramatic shifts in artistic style that take place over a century.

Stephen Walsh, The Arts Desk:

It’s hard to imagine that a composer’s death at the age of 103 could be a loss to music, in the sense of possible future work, as well as a personal loss, which of course death will always be. But Elliott Carter was a unique exception. Not only was he still writing music up to a few weeks before his death on the 5th November, but the dozen or so works he had completed since his hundredth birthday showed none of the negative traces of old age one would normally expect to find in the music of somebody even four-fifths his age.

Paul Griffiths has one of the best stories of them all, in the OUP blog:

I must have seen Elliott Carter several times in London from deep back in the seventies; perhaps the earliest of my mental photographs has him standing at the kerbside at Oxford Circus, waiting to cross the road, his head slightly turned and raised to look at his publisher who was with him, Janis Susskind, his face (as it would always be) smiling, his white hair lifted by the wind. But an occasion to meet him properly did not come until June 1995, at the Aldeburgh Festival, when I had to interview him for The (London) Times about the piece he had written for the coming Proms: Adagio tenebroso, the middle movement of hisSymphonia. Already then his continuing productivity was remarkable, and that was certainly on my mind as we sat together in an area of the lounge at the Wentworth Hotel, where we were both staying. Here was Elliott Carter, whose first published works, though by no means youthful, were by now almost six decades old. Here he was: sitting, smiling, waiting for the first question.

“Mr. Carter,” I began, “now that you’re eighty-seven—”

“Eighty-six!” he promptly and cheerfully intervened.

The Guardian has produced a really excellent collection of reminiscences and tributes.

ulyssestone has compiled a reverse chronology of Carter’s music on Spotify:

Hans Werner Henze: the obituaries

Hans Werner Henze

Hans Werner Henze, after Stockhausen possibly the most important German composer of the late 20th century, died on Saturday at the age of 86. His death was announced first by his publisher, Schott, and the obituaries soon followed. Here is a selection.

Daily Telegraph

For some, Henze changed musical skins too often to have a convincing and recognisable musical personality. Others felt that in an age when stereotypes were all too common in the arts, his prodigality of invention, willingness to take risks, and loyalty to an ideal of beauty that could be discerned at the heart of each of his works, were qualities for which to be thankful. In his duality he personified the enigma of post-Hitler Germany and of the music of the 20th century in its latter half.

Deutsche Welle

In an interview given near the end of his life, Henze said he had always been obsessed by the desire to “make modern man as familiar as possible with music as a wonderful means of expression.”

Henze’s life revolved around creative people, those who sang or played an instrument. For him, humans were fundamentally musical beings: if a person is encouraged, he said, he or she will sing and play music for an entire life, alone and with other people. And, because he found this musical life better, Henze never lost sight of the musical community.

Los Angeles Times

a leading composer of the late 20th century whose prolific and wide-ranging work included a wealth of operas and 10 symphonies

Guy Rickards, Guardian

The connecting thread between this vast array of works in so many disparate genres was politics, a commitment to which never left him, although varying in degree over time. Henze adhered throughout his life to leftwing ideologies, a reaction to his youth in Nazi Germany, which left an indelible mark on his creative psyche. He was not afraid of courting controversy, even as recently as last month: “So long as there are people living in Israel who endured the Nazi concentration camps, Wagner should not be performed there. I see no pressing reason to play Hitler’s favourite music.”

Andrew Clark, Financial Times

No composer of the modern age was more haunted by the past than Hans Werner Henze, who has died in the eastern German city of Dresden, at the age of 86. Henze spent most of his life grappling with Germany’s musical tradition on one hand and trying to exorcise its Nazi past on the other. And yet, of all the leading lights of the postwar era, none contributed as much to the future as Henze did – by encouraging young talent and leaving a performable oeuvre.

Die Welt (German)

Man pfiff ihn früher aus. Man brüllte ihn nieder. Hans Werner Henze war aber auch der einzige, der unerschrocken sich immer wieder dem traditionellen Publikum stellte, die Opernhäuser, die Pierre Boulez, einer seiner schärfsten Gegner, in die Luft sprengen wollte, von innen heraus mit seinen Werken eroberte.

Musician Deathwatch | About this list

This week we bid farewell to the following members of the musical community:

:: Beth Anne Newdome Violinist
:: Otmar Suitner Conductor
:: Doug Fieger Singer and guitarist with The Knack
:: Dale Hawkins Singer, songwriter and guitarist
:: Ariel Ramirez Pianist and composer
:: Kathryn Grayson Actress and singer
:: Michel Glotz Classical music producer
:: Jacques Hétu Composer

RIP, everyone.

Musician Deathwatch | About this list

This week we bid farewell to the following members of the musical community:

:: Irina Arkhipova Opera singer
:: Sir John Dankworth Jazz saxophonist
:: Dorothy Gibbs Musicologist and singer
:: Jack Rose Improv guitarist
:: Kate McGarrigle Singer-songwriter
:: Jay Reatard Punk rocker
:: Eric Woolfson Singer and songwriter with the Alan Parsons Project
:: Carl Smith Country singer
:: Bobby Charles Rock ‘n’ roll songwriter
:: Earl Wild Pianist
:: Jane Jarvis Jazz organist, played at New York Mets games
:: Ed Thigpen Jazz drummer
:: Tony Bellamy Redbone guitarist

RIP, everyone.

Musician Deathwatch | About this list

This week we bid farewell to the following members of the musical community:

:: Michael Lee Rock drummer
:: Davey Graham Folk guitarist, composer, multi-instrumentalist and singer
:: Alex McEwen Folk singer
:: Richard Van Allan Opera singer
:: Elmer Valentine Founder of Whisky a Go-go
:: Dennis Yost Classics IV singer
:: Christel Goltz Operatic soprano
:: Buddy Harman Drummer
:: Joza Karas Musicologist and violinist
:: William Dowd Harpsichord maker
:: Odetta Folk and blues singer
:: Nico Rojas Jazz guitarist and composer
:: Sam Bor Violinist and founder member of the BBC Symphony
:: Gerald Schoenfeld Lawyer and Broadway impresario
:: Luderin Darbone Cajun fiddle player and bandleader
:: Rob Partridge Island Records PR
:: MC Breed Rapper
:: Robert Lucas Singer with Canned Heat
:: Richard Hickox Conductor
:: Lawrence Wheatley Jazz pianist and composer
:: George Jones Jnr Doo-wop singer and songwriter
:: Irving Gertz Film composer
:: Guy Peellaert Sleeve designer
:: Alan Hazeldine Conductor and pianist
:: Ryan Smith Opera singer
:: Marjorie Thomas Opera singer
:: Jheryl Busby Former chief of Motown records
:: Jody Reynolds Rockabilly singer and songwriter
:: Rosetta Reitz Jazz record label owner
:: Mae Mercer Blues singer
:: Mitch Mitchell Jimi Hendrix drummer
:: Merlin W. Shorb Singer and minister
:: Byron Lee Ska bandleader

Rest in Peace.

Musician Deathwatch | About this list

This week we bid farewell to the following members of the musical community:

:: J.C. Black Rock drummer
:: Miriam Makeba Singer
:: Kunnakkudi Vaidyanathan Violinist and Carnatic musician
:: Rabbi Moshe Cotel Composer and pianist
:: Gloria Saunders Overall Musician and CIA secretary
:: Jez Bird Mod singer with the Lambrettas
:: Thomas Dunn Early music conductor
:: Dennis Burkh Conductor
:: Merl Saunders Jazz and rock keyboardist
:: Gianni Raimondi Opera singer
:: Muslim Magomayev Soviet-era pop and opera singer
:: Peter J. Levinson Publicist and biographer
:: Rudy Ray Moore Comedian, actor and singer
:: Gail Robinson Opera singer
:: Bryan Morrison Music publisher and manager
:: Dave McKenna Jazz pianist
:: Dee Dee Warwick R&B and soul singer
:: Levi Stubbs Four Tops singer
:: John S. Drabik Opera singer and museum director
:: Edie Adams Actress, singer and comedienne
:: Robert J. Holloway Violinist and teacher
:: Russ Hamilton Pop singer-songwriter
:: Neal Hefti Jazz and TV composer
:: Pehr Henrik Nordgren Composer
:: Richard ‘Popcorn’ Wylie Motown pianist, songwriter, producer and bandleader
:: Alfred J. Gallodoro Jazz saxophonist and clarinettist
:: Alton Ellis Reggae singer
:: Bernadette Greevy Singer
:: Ruedi Rymann Yodeller
:: Arne Domnerus Jazz saxophonist and clarinettist
:: Pat Crumly Jazz saxophonist and bandleader
:: George Jones Doo-wop singer
:: Nick Reynolds Folk singer
:: Hayward Blackledge III Jazz drummer
:: Mahendra Kapoor Playback singer for Hindi musicals
:: David Cooper Organist and music director
:: Larry Eanet Jazz pianist
:: Dick Sudhalter Jazz cornettist
:: Charlie Walker Honky-tonk singer
:: Connie Haines Jazz singer
:: Nappy Brown Blues and R&B singer
:: Dorothy Monson Horton Church singer
:: Marjorie Thomas Singer
:: Thomas Richner Pianist and organist
:: Yma Sumac Singer
:: Krystyna Moszumańska-Nazar Composer
:: Yonty Solomon Pianist and teacher
:: Michel Waisvisz Composer and improviser
:: Horaţiu Rădulescu Composer
:: Monica Zetterlund Singer and actress
:: John Peragallo Jr. Organ curator
:: Richard Sudhalter Jazz musician and critic
:: Laurence Gilgun Pianist
:: Norman Whitfield Motown songwriter
:: Jerry Finn Record producer
:: Peter Glossop Operatic baritone
:: Vernon Handley Conductor
:: Mark Lundberg Operatic tenor
:: Paola Saffiotti Pianist
:: Jerry Reed Country singer and actor
:: Robert Bass Choral director
:: Roy Shirley Reggae singer and songwriter
:: Jack Hutton Melody Maker editor
:: Ralph Young Singer with Sandler and Young
:: Pervis Jackson Bass voice of the Spinners
:: Johnny Moore Ska trumpeter
:: Lita Roza Singer
:: Jim Johnstone Accordionist and band leader
:: Ronnie Drew Lead singer of the Dubliners
:: Jerry Wexler R&B record producer
:: Leonard Pennario Pianist
:: Henry Steinway Piano manufacturer
:: Hector Zazou World music producer
:: Géo Voumard Founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival
:: Rick Wright Pink Floyd keyboardist
:: Earl Palmer Jazz drummer
:: Dorival Caymmi Brazilian singer and songwriter
:: Donald Erb Electronic composer
:: David Hammond Film-maker and singer
:: David Gahr Folk, jazz and rock photographer
:: Clea Bradford Jazz singer
:: Buddy Harman Drummer
:: Bob Florence Jazz composer and bandleader
:: Bill Colleran Music publisher with Universal Edition
:: Bheki Mseleku South African jazz pianist
:: Frank P. “Frankie” Tam Sr. Bandleader

Rest in Peace.