John White


Occasional Writings
December 2, 1996

1. I first heard John’s work at the end of the 1960’s (I first heard him as a performer playing tuba in a Feldman piece in 1965) but the first piece which made a deep impression on me was Tuba and Cello Machine. Victor Schonfield, of Music Now, organised a performance of this by John and Cornelius Cardew at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in, I think, 1970 or 1971. For me it was one of the most stunning concerts of that period. I got to know his work better through his performances with the PTO – a group which occasionally admitted me, and others, as guests – and I admired the combination of rigour, wit and extraordinary musical scholarship which was apparent in his pieces for the PTO and which has been a feature of his work over many years.

2. My recommendation to Nicholas Kenyon was on the occasion of Nick taking up the mantle of Proms programmer from John Drummond. Along with a few other people I was asked to send a memo, through the Independent, to guide him for future action. It would be great if John were to be given a commission but I think that the standard BBC Symphony Orchestra commission would not be right for him. They would be hard-pressed, I think, to comprehend something like his earlier orchestral piece Orchestral Snapshots, a sequence of tiny fragments of orchestral juiciness.

3. I don’t think that John is a perennial outsider, but that often it is his choice to work in a quite perverse, or low key fashion (I use ‘perverse’ in the strictest sense, not in a pejorative way). Witness his use of deliberately lo-fi technology, his pleasure in working in the tiny Austrian town of Hall in the Tyrol, the way in which he will devote himself to theatre music and produce the most apposite musical choices.

4. He has had a great influence on many composers, musicians and theatre performers. I was greatly influenced by him and value his musical companionship and personal friendship (I was pleased to be able to employ him as piano teacher when I ran the music department at Leicester for many years). Cornelius Cardew was influenced by him, as was Dave Smith, Christopher Hobbs, Ben Mason (although, to his shame, he doesn’t mention John in his biography now) and countless actors and theatre directors who studied at the Drama Centre over the last 20 years. It is easy to forget, too, that he is a tremendous performer. It would be very good to get him to record his own piano sonatas since he is the only person, ultimately, who can decode the intricacies of their musical reference.

John is a genius of the highest order. I don’t often use this term.

Gavin Bryars

Gavin Bryars