Waart, Edo de. 56 Wachmann, Eduard 56

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White, John

(b Berlin, 5 April 1936). English composer and performer. He studied composition with Bernard Stevens and the piano with Arthur Alexander and Eric Harrison at the RCM (1955–9). He has been professor of composition at the RCM (1961–7), teacher of composition and improvisation at the Yehudi Menuhin School (1974–7), head of keyboard studies at Leicester Polytechnic (1979–87), and was appointed head of music at the Drama Centre, London in 1991.

A performer of versatility, White established himself as an interpreter of avant-garde music in the 1960s and took part in many performances of the music of Cardew and American composers, including Cage, Feldman and Wolff. In the 1970s he played the tuba in the London Gabrieli Brass Ensemble (1971–2) and co-founded a number of small ensembles with fellow musicians such as Christopher Hobbs, Dave Smith and John Tilbury: the Promenade Theatre Orchestra (1970–72), Garden Furniture Music Ensemble (1977–9), Instant Dismissal Symphony Orchestra (1980–81), the Zhdanov Duo (after 1989) and Live Bats (after 1990).

As a composer White first attracted attention with his Piano Sonata no.1 (1957) and he has since written a further 135. These are mainly short, one-movement works, so called after the example of Domenico Scarlatti. White has described them as constituting a kind of musical diary in which his musical enthusiasms and instances of amusement have been observed. The unique ability of the piano to suggest a variety of instrumental timbres other than its own has been a constant source of inspiration. Satie is a central figure of influence and the works of lesser known, but pianistically articulate composers such as Dussek, Alkan, Reger, Busoni, Szymanowski and Medtner have also played an important part in the development of White's compositional language in respect of gesture, figuration and form.

White's involvement, as a performer, with the English experimentalists informs a number of ensemble pieces called ‘Readymades’ for which he has drawn on a wide range of source material from The Mulliner Book and Bach's Musical Offering to tutors on rock drumming, electric bass guitar playing and breaks and riffs from jazz piano and swing. Elements from these sources, all of which avoid any kind of ‘heightened expressivity’ are subjected to all manner of deconstruction: mechanistic repetitions, bizarre juxtapositions, and various systems of encoding material; for example, every F to be played on a woodblock, every semibreve to denote switching on the radio for that duration, changing clef to involve moving to another instrument. The systemic treatment of material is not confined to the ‘Readymades’; in White's extended Piano Sonata no.50 (1969), dedicated to Cardew, the sparse texture is totally organized by means of chess moves across grids containing information on pitch, register, number of notes in chords, placing and duration of rests, etc.

White has compared the spirit in which these works were written to the rebellion of Les Six; but while the French group had turned to the music of the cabaret, circus and military band, White entered into a sound-world of reed-organs, toy pianos and small percussion instruments. He also adopted compositional methods based, for example, on the procedures of traditional change-ringing within a regular pulse and on American minimalism.

The series of ‘Machine’ pieces, which also incorporate the use of ‘Readymades’, was inspired by the sculpture of Jean Tinguely with their comic and sometimes dysfunctional mechanisms, the early percussion pieces of Cage, the musical research of the futurists and dadaists, the ingeniously crafted work of Spike Jones and the City Slickers and, in particular, the works of Satie's Rosicrucian period.

White has written extensively for the theatre including incidental music in diverse styles and 30 ballet scores. The music for They are Not Like Us (1980), choreographed by Virginia Taylor for her company Kickstart, includes an electronically enhanced piano that heralded a period in which electronic instruments figured prominently in his work. Since 1982 White has produced a large number of compositions for ‘low-tech’, home electric instruments, such as Casio miniature keyboards. His first work in this medium was music for the Royal National Theatre's production of Kleist's Prinz Friedrich von Homburg.

In the latter part of the 1990s White turned to vocal writing, having written little since the Christian Morgenstern settings 25 years earlier. In particular he has employed dada and surrealist texts translated into English; this creates a double distancing of meaning leaving the composer free to create a wide range of musical imagery unhampered by the demands of more expressive, traditional poetry.


(selective list)

Stage: 35 ballets, 1957–93; 3 operas, 1974–80

Inst: 136 pf sonatas, 1957–96; Hpd Conc., 1957; 8 pf sonatinas, 1959–63; 26 syms., 1965–90; Pf Conc., 1966; Conc., 11 brass, 1967; Sym., org, 6 tuba, 1967; Machine, tuba, vc, 1968; Brass Qnt, 1969; Les enfants de Salieri, brass qnt, 1991; Doggerel Machine, brass qnt, 1996; Concertino, b cl, str trio, 1996

Many other works for inst and vocal ens

Vocal: Galganlieder (C. Morgenstern), 1v, 2 tuba, 1967; Caveat emptor (K. Beyer), 1v, pf, 1994; 4 Japanese Nonsense Songs (S. Tanikawa), 1v, pf, 1996; 8 poems, 1v, pf, 1997; Rutherford and Co. (R. Hogan), 8 poems, 1v, pf, 1997; 10 Songs on Newspaper Advertisements of Erik Satie, 1v, pf, 1997

Principal publishers: Forward Music, Leduc, Novello


B. Dennis: ‘The Music of John White’, MT, cxii (1971), 435–7

M. Nyman: Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (London, 1974)

B. Dennis: ‘Repetitive and Systemic Music’, MT, cxv (1974), 1036–8

M. Parsons: ‘Systems in Art and Music’, MT, cxvii (1976), 815–17

D. Smith: ‘The Piano Sonatas of John White’, Contact, no.21 (1980), 4–11


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