White: Sonata No 104  [3’54”]

Roger Smalley, piano

42 John White at Tate Modern 2005

Lo-fi: unsung John White performing at Tate Modern (©Tate 2005)

It’s always a pleasure to encounter the unconventionally conventional music of England’s most unjustly neglected living composer John White (born 1936).  Taught music from the age of four, it was the impact on him of the first British performance of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie in 1956 that propelled him into composition.  Only several years after that, though, did he regard his musical education as beginning in earnest, as a result of taking part as pianist in some of the early realizations of his exact contemporary and close associate Cornelius Cardew‘s radically open score Treatise (1963–7).  Later still, when not conducting musicals in the West End (of London), he participated in the early activities of Cardew’s legendary Scratch Orchestra, his enthusiasm only evaporating at the “leaden moment” Marxism–Leninism entered into the picture.  Leaving the Scratch, he filled the space by co-founding an equally unstuffy but less unwieldy vehicle of his own, the Promenade Theatre Orchestra, with the aim of presenting a “sort of English version” of the repetitive American music then gaining ground,  later to be labelled minimalism.

The experience of taking part in events such as the first London performance (May 1968) of Terry Riley‘s In C was for White as liberating as encountering Cardew’s work had been, albeit it a different way.  Instead of the free improvisation he had become used to there, “suddenly this very orderly music that sounded fresh and new”.  His own music for the PTO included a number of the ‘machine pieces’ he had started to write, more or less experimental in instrumentation and notation, each the working through of a carefully considered process, though often prey to dissolution or disorder, like the ramshackle kinetic sculptures, useless machines, of another of White’s inspirations of the time, Jean Tinguely.  Vanishingly scarce on CD, this series of works may be sampled on YouTube in performances of the Drinking and hooting machine and  of a brief extract from the very long, Cardew-commissioned Cello and Tuba Machine, superbly described by an early reviewer as “the most private, esoteric, numbing and entropic piece I have ever experienced” – which must have made the composer proud indeed.  The magnificent, Tinguelyesque masterpiece Autumn countdown machine, once available on vinyl, like the rest of Brian Eno’s Obscure series never made it to CD, though the LP from which it comes, and indeed the full 10-release catalogue, is nowadays available free, gratis and for nothing on Ubuweb in mp3 format.  We live in enlightened times.

Among the many influences White has embraced are a number of Romantic piano specialists.  Some we have met here (Alkan, Schumann, Scriabin, Satie), others not (Medtner, Reger, BusoniSorabji).  They occasionally pop out at the listener in the piano sonatas he’s composed throughout his career – more than 170 and counting.  Less speculative than some of the machines, they are typically, like Scarlatti’s, single-movement pieces of short duration, which makes their quantity less surprising; there are 33 from 1973 alone, but lasting on average only three minutes.  My pick here, number 104 from 1983, is as individual as it is typical: not in the least esoteric or entropic (or numbing), certainly not ironically postmodern, but not a throwback either.  None of these things; simply a marvellous piece of piano music exquisitely crafted for our listening pleasure.  Which is surely enough.

White has suggested a simple programme underlying this particular sonata – “a dangerous journey with a happy and triumphant ending” – and cited two specific musical influences on the piece.  Distinct evidence of the first, Liszt’s organ Fantasia on Meyerbeer’s chorale ‘Ad nos ad salutarem undam’, may be heard by comparing 5’36” in this version of the Liszt first movement with 1’06” of the White.  The other acknowledged source, Sibelius’s orchestral Night Ride and Sunrise, is a more obvious model for the sonata as a whole, not just because both pieces share the  scenario of an urgent journey through a changing landscape, ending well, but musically in their use of comparable repeating figures to convey a sense of onward motion sustained over long stretches.  The sonata’s momentum never really falters, in fact, and while there is no attempt to compete with the grandeur of Sibelius’s sunrise, in its final quarter the piece works up to what White calls the “triumphantly heraldic gesture” of its ending.  Heraldic is somehow the mot juste for such a clinching flourish, and we could have done with it earlier to describe the climaxes of the Ives and Tippett pieces in this playlist (Track 26 and 32).

The only White on Spotify – the odd song and a Satie recital aside – would appear to be this excellent selection of sonatas superbly brought off by his (later, Stockhausen’s) composition pupil Roger Smalley.  Elsewhere, YouTube has a fittingly modest but valuable little film (part 1part 2) posted by ‘untitledparkinson’, who we also have to thank for a similar interview with Cardew’s Scratch co-founder Michael Parsons, and more besides.  Other than that, there’s a bit about White and quite a lot about his 1960s milieu in Michael Nyman’s indispensible history Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, while his occasional colleague Dave Smith has a 1980 article about the sonatas up to number 98.  We could really do with a memoir from the man himself, whose music might appear to contain all there is to say about him but who – as that YouTube film reveals – has observed over half a century of musical history, English and beyond, from a very particular angle and with a very shrewd eye.  This is probably asking too much of someone who keeps himself very busy and appears to lose some interest in his own music once it’s written, so someone needs to put a voice recorder in front of him and transcribe the results while there’s still time.

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