The 4BR Interview - John McCabe


4BR's Christopher Thomas meets up with one of the brass band movements most original compositional voices, John McCabe.

John McCabeFootball style riots may not be readily associated with classical music but such was the scene in Paris, 1913, when Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring prompted the audience to spontaneously uproot their chairs and hurl them to the four corners of the concert hall.

Fortunately brass band audiences are clearly restrained by comparison for despite the widespread condemnation of John McCabe's Images on the grounds of "outrageous modernism"; we were at least spared the more Milwallian than Parisian reaction when McCabe's work was chosen as the test piece for the 1983 Regional Championships.

Yet in a world that was already post Harrison Birtwistle's Grimethorpe Aria, why the fuss about a piece like Images? After all, like McCabe's music generally, it has a strong sense of tonality with little, if any, out and out dissonance. If ever there was a brass band work ripe for twentieth first century reassessment Images must be it.

In the twenty five years that have ensued John McCabe has added five further works to his brass band canon, yet with a total of just six band works to his name, McCabe is as talked about in the brass band world as many composers who have written considerably more for the medium. The paradox of course revolves around the two principal works that have polarized the band world's opinion of his music. Images has never been used again on the contest platform since that fateful round of area contests, whilst Cloudcatcher Fells had its second All England Masters outing at the 2005 contest (it was previously used for the inaugural Masters back in 1989) and is often deservedly spoken of as one of the finest works written for brass band over the last twenty five years.

Northern Lights
The Northern Lights - a musical inspiration for McCabe

Of the other four works that McCabe has written for band, Desert II: Horizon (an expansion of an earlier work for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble), Northern Lights, Salamander and The Maunsell Forts, none has received either the notoriety of Images or the critical acclaim of Cloudcatcher Fells, yet all carry the unmistakable fingerprints of their composer.

The scoring is endlessly fascinating, with a highly imaginative ear for texture and colouristic effect. Whilst occasionally gritty (often as a result of his fondness for overlapping instrumental lines), the harmony never loses its underlying sense of key with rhythms often multi-layered to complex effect as well as being used to propel the music forward (Cloudcatcher is a good example) with a tremendous sense of energy. Indeed, the mention of "energy" is an appropriate one given that Robert Simpson's band music has been admired by McCabe over many years.

Somewhat predictably The Maunsell Forts has received little attention since its 2002 premiere at the British Open, largely as a result of the competing bands muted response to its quiet opening and close. The music however deserves to be heard and like Michael Ball's …all the flowers of the mountain…it is to be hoped that in future fine music is not condemned simply for its failure to adhere to the unwritten rules of test piece conformity. Perhaps more surprisingly, Salamander and Northern Lights, both largely celebratory in character, have received equally scant attention since their first outings in the early 90's, the former as the 1994 British Open test piece.

Perhaps it is not just Images that is deserving of our attention and reappraisal.

Christoper Thomas:  Your early studies involved a period at the Royal Manchester College of Music. Were you aware at that point of the brass band heritage around you in Lancashire and what originally kindled your interest in the medium?

John McCabe:  I was singularly unaware of the band heritage and didn't hear a full brass band concert until the late Ifor James, the great horn-player with whom I was working a lot in the 1960s, persuaded me to go a rehearsal of the Carlisle St Stephen's Band with which his father and he were both associated. Then Ifor got me into working with bands – we did an arrangement of Mendelssohn's Capriccio Brillante (originally piano and orchestra) and then he got a commission for me from Besses o' th' Barn for what came to be Images. None of it would have happened without Ifor's enthusiasm and persuasiveness – one of many things he did for me for which I'm deeply grateful.

Christoper Thomas: Although a pianist rather than a brass player you have written a considerable amount of music for brass band and brass ensemble. What is it that you enjoy about writing for brass and is there anything in particular that has helped to maintain your interest in the medium over the years?

John McCabe: I may not have heard much band music as a child but I certainly got to know the orchestral repertoire very early through a large collection of 78 rpm records in the house and the fact that Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall was just around the corner from our house. I must have gone to pretty well every concert at the Phil during my schooldays (1950-57), and I was always drawn to the sound of the brass choir in particular. Other than that the French Horn has always been a particular favourite. I think this may well go back to hearing Bruckner's 7th Symphony at the Phil done by Eduard van Beinum and the Concertgebouw Orchestra when I was a child. I can still recall the wonderful burnished sound of the brass and especially the horns.

Christoper Thomas: Images was your first major piece for brass band back in 1978. Were there any particular "images" in mind when you wrote the work?

John McCabe: It was originally going to be called Reflections and the images in my mind were really just abstract concepts. I talk sometimes about the imagery in, say, Robert Simpson's music when I mean the musical imagery per se and not specifically any pictorial or colouristic thing: and that's what the title means – the musical ideas have, I hope, a particular musical kind of significance and present a musical character. I never mind if people put their own pictures to my music though – if they do all it tells you is that they're responding to the music and that's what it's all about.

Angle Tarn
Angle Tarn - a musical portrait of the Lake District

Christoper Thomas: It is perhaps somewhat ironic, given that your music is closer to Bartok and Stravinsky than any avant-garde school, that Images was met with fierce opposition from some sectors of the band world.

Did the initial reaction to Images make any impression on you and was it on your mind when you set about your next major piece for band, Cloudcatcher Fells?

John McCabe: The real rumpus about Images came when it was chosen as the test piece for, I think,
the Regional Finals of the National Championships. It was highly amusing – having been for years regarded by the concert classical world as a bit reactionary (unfairly, I think!) it was very entertaining suddenly to be cast into the role of the revolutionary criminal. What was revealing to me was that a number of conductors who hated the piece at the start came to like it and indeed programmed it occasionally thereafter because they wanted to. They probably wouldn't be allowed to today. None of this had any impact at all as far as Cloudcatcher was concerned. I simply wrote the piece I wanted to write.

Christoper Thomas: Cloudcatcher, like so many of your works, is based on strong visual imagery drawn from the natural world. Do you find that you often have an extra-musical starting point for a work before the process of composition begins?

John McCabe: I get ideas from all sorts of sources, even literature. But certainly visual stimuli are important whether it be paintings (there are a couple of Paul Klee inspired pieces), stained glass (as in The Chagall Windows) or landscape, which has been particularly important to me. There is a series of Desert pieces, three Rainforest pieces, and of course the Lake District – not only in Cloudcatcher but also in the finale of my 3rd String Quartet. Actually, I sketched my 1st Violin Concerto in the Lake District in 1959 so I suppose that counts as well!

What I'm doing is expressing my response to the landscape – I don't try and do specifically pictorial pieces though some aspect of the natural sound might give me a musical idea, but rather to find a way of expressing what I sense to be the character of the place in musical terms. Ditto with paintings etc. Several films have also influenced me, most directly in a piano quintet The Woman by the Sea, inspired by the Japanese film Sansho Dayu, where again I got some of the melodic material from tiny bits of the soundtrack. The quintet, however, wouldn't have taken that form, or possibly even related to that film had it not been for personal things as well which affected the choice.

Christoper Thomas: Could you explain something of your compositional processes? As a pianist do you tend to work at the keyboard and once started does a work progress rapidly?

John McCabe:  I don't work at the piano – it gets in the way. Of course, once a piece has got towards being written I go to the piano to check what I've written and I do occasionally try out chords and so on, but basically I work in a room without a piano. It helps to keep the two activities, playing and composing, as separate as possible – partly because you think about music so very differently depending which hat you're wearing. I tend to prefer to think a lot before starting a piece, writing perhaps the beginning and end first and then leaving them for a while to marinate in my mind.

Then once I really get to work I usually feel I'm drawing out of my head what has already been worked out inside it. Of course, there are wrong turnings and so on, and not every day is productive – I sometimes try to hire or borrow a country cottage so I can do, say, 3 weeks' worth of solid composition without interruption and I've noticed that I tend to have 3 good days, 2 bad, 3 good, 2 bad and so on. On a bad day, I simply give up about 4 in the afternoon and read a book! I also like to work on different sections of the piece – once I'm ready to go, I want to get as much on paper as possible. I can't do what some composers do and write from A to Z in a straight line – I'm more inclined to write in a mosaic fashion, as if it were all the blue bits this week, all the red bits next and so on.

Christoper Thomas: Are there any works for brass band by other composers that you consider to have been a particular influence on your own band music?

John McCabe: There are plenty of pieces and indeed composers I admire whose brass band music gives me enormous pleasure but actually I think that though I've learnt a lot technically from listening to Gregson or Simpson for instance, I don't think their way of laying the score out has affected me. I tend to think of the band rather as I think of the orchestra, i.e. several instrumental choirs, and use them that way – and of course, since I love the sound of any one of the orchestral groupings, I tend to use the band in that way also. One thing I have particularly enjoyed is combining the harmonies with melodies that go from one instrument to another, sometimes rather a challenge for the players.

Christoper Thomas: Of your own works for the medium do you have a particular favorite and for what reason?

Maunsell Forts
The Maunsell Forts

John McCabe: I think possibly The Maunsell Forts, because like Cloudcatcher it has an added element. The earlier piece derived from deep love of one particular corner of the Lake District around Patterdale, which I've known since 1947 – Maunsell derives from the second world war anti-aircraft defensive forts, rather H G Wells-like tetrapods in the Thames Estuary and the reflections which seeing them conjured up for me (and they are only just offshore near where I now live, so it's a more personal thing for me than writing about, say, a war memorial in some other country).

Christoper Thomas: When specifically writing a contest test piece do you find that you need to reconcile any issues of technical challenge versus musicality?

John McCabe: I don't think I do – for the most part I've managed to write exactly what I wanted, such as Salamander and the other commissions gave me the opportunity to do so. In fact I ran into trouble, which I fully anticipated, with The Maunsell Forts. I'd decided not to write any more band pieces, partly out of disillusion with the band world which has certainly gone back 30 years in depth of musical appreciation, and then got the idea for this piece, an idea that I felt I had to fulfill.

The Salamander - a composition that turned out exactly right

However, I warned them all that (a) it would begin and end quietly and slowly and (b) as a result, all the bands would hate it. Well, not all the bands did hate it and it got some good performances (not all of which were placed by the adjudicators!) but most people did hate it. But it was a piece that I had to write and I'm not somebody who wants just to churn out yet another loud, fast collection of thousands of notes.

Christoper Thomas: Have you ever felt the desire to adjudicate on your own music in the contest arena?

John McCabe: Absolutely not – life is too precious to me!

Christoper Thomas: Band contesting has often divided opinion outside the brass band world. Do you consider contesting to a musically beneficial pursuit?

John McCabe: It can be, but quite often the obvious preference is for loud and fast and the most musical performances are sometimes overlooked. It is prejudicial to good music-making – even though sometimes a really musicianly interpretation does get a good placing it very seldom actually wins. It's a bit like the Oscars – I remember an executive from BMI came over from New York and we had a drink in London and he said to me that winning an Oscar made no difference; it was being nominated that counted.

Actually, for the most part my experience of contests as far as my own works are concerned is that the judges have tended to get the first two places much as I had them, often in the reverse order, but then miss the really significant performances. I've also noticed that they seem wary of the sound of bands from abroad, yet they sometimes give performances of very special quality. But then, I remember somebody from the LSO saying they wanted to sound like a crack American orchestra – this is the reverse of this process! What's wrong with sounding like a crack British orchestra, or sounding like a brilliant band with a different sound? It's the music-making that counts, not adopting a different identity like a coat.

Christoper Thomas: Do you have any strong feelings about the system of adjudication used in contesting and if so are there any ways in which you feel it could be improved for the better?

John McCabe: I think the system itself is pretty good, actually – it certainly seems fair, though I'm sure there are ways of letting the judges know which band is on the podium (the way they tune for instance). But what of it? The judges seem to me pretty impartial – if I disagree with some of their decisions, it's because I think they have their own stylistic agenda. After all, so do I (but I wrote the music...)

Christoper Thomas: Do you feel that your music has changed stylistically over the thirty years or so that you have been writing for band?

John McCabe: I hope so – otherwise I'd be writing the same stuff all the time. I think I have changed stylistically and even technically, but one hopes that would happen anyway. One of the things that made a big difference, and in a sense freed me up to encompass a wider range of harmonies and even rhythms, was writing ballets, especially the ones from the 1990s, Edward II and the two Arthur ballets. The research I did for Edward involved listening to a lot of medieval music and I think this also freed my imagination in a way that wouldn't have happened without my being forced to widen my horizons.

In any case, I like finding new musics to enjoy, or new composers (I discovered how to listen to and play William Byrd in the 1980s, and as a result a theme of his underlies the whole 4 hours of the two Arthur ballets!). I've never believed in sitting still and drawing a line under my experience and saying "Right, now, I've heard all I want to know". I am aware there are people who take draw line and on the whole I feel rather sorry for what they're missing out on.

Christoper Thomas: How would you essentially sum up your own music?

John McCabe: I wouldn't. I'm far too close to it. I also think it is too diverse to be summed up easily – but then, I'm biased!

Christoper Thomas: Given the opportunity, do you feel that you would like to write more for brass band in the future?  

John McCabe: There are so many other pieces for which I have specific ideas and I don't have any for band pieces, so the answer must be "No". In any case, I've found the band world less interesting recently despite the presence of some wonderful musicians. And it is a difficult medium because of the lack of a real top register – maybe I should devote a bit of time to write for piccolo choirs and then I'd feel the need for the bass register again!

Christopher Thomas


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