John Plant, composer

John Plant, composer/pianist

I was born in Yonkers, New York in 1945.  Always torn between literature and music, I studied both at Middlebury College in Vermont, and began a Ph.D. program as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in comparative literature at Harvard.  Realizing I had made a wrong turn in not pursuing music, I  dropped out, dodged the draft and came to Canada in 1968, and continued studying composition at McGill. I owe an incalculable debt to all three of my composition teachers: George Todd at Middlebury, Bruce Mather and Charles Palmer at McGill. 

My compositional career took flight with a series of works for choreographers Peter Boneham and Jean-Pierre Perrault of Le Groupe de la Place Royale, culminating in the dance-operas What Happened, The Collector of Cold Weather; and Faustus: An Opera for Dancers.  These works were premiered at the National Arts Center in Ottawa, and subsequently performed on tour throughout Canada, England and France.

My vocal work includes settings of Lorca, Sappho, E.E. Cummings, Göran Sonnevi, Catullus, Ungaretti,  Trakl, Lawrence Raab, Gaspara Stampa, and many others, for combinations ranging from piano trio to full orchestra.  My Yeats opera, The Shadowy Waters, was performed in Montreal in 2005. Recent works include a song cycle entitled Babel is a Blessing, eight songs in eight languages; and two settings of Elizabeth Bishop's poems for soprano Suzie LeBlanc: Sandpiper and Sunday, 4 A.M. These works appear on her Centrediscs CD 'I am in need of music'which was voted 'Best Classical CD' at the 2014 East Coast Music Awards. My concert opera I will fly like a bird, about the Robert Dziekanski tragedy, to a libretto by Halifax poet/novelist J.A. Wainwright, was performed at Scotia Festival in Halifax on May 31, 2012. And a setting of Gaspara Stampa's sonnet 'Rimandatemi il cor, empio tiranno' was premiered by Anita Krause and the Talisker Players in Toronto on October 31, 2012.

Until 2010, my music was overwhelmingly vocal, reflecting my fascination with literature, languages and the human voice. Much of it was directly inspired by the radiant voice of my life partner, Jocelyne Fleury; though she has recently retired from singing, she is deeply entwined in every note I write; her imprint on the DNA of my music is as strong as my own.  She has encouraged the shift of focus to instrumental music; though I have always rejoiced in the constraints and challenges inherent in setting poems to music, I have found it quite liberating to plunge into the world of 'absolute' music.

A Capriccio for flute and marimba, for Derek Charke and Mark Adam, was premiered at the Shattering the Silence Festival in Wolfville on February 3, 2012, and has since appeared on CD.  My fantasia for saxophone and piano, A deep clear breath of life,commissioned by Peter Kovner in memory of his beloved sister Kay, was performed at Boston University on February 15, 2013, with Jennifer Bill, saxophone, and Yoshiko Kline, piano.  The work has since been performed in San Diego, Tanglewood, Halifax and elsewhere.   My Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned for the fortieth anniversary of the Montreal Chamber Orchestra, received its first performance under conductor Wanda Kaluzny,  at Salle Bourgie on April 15, 2014. Blue Engine String Quartet recently commissioned and premiered my Piano Quintet and String Quartet in Halifax. 

A return to vocal writing came with a most welcome commission from Michael Couper and Jennifer Bill: Insomnia, a setting of poems by Marina Tsvetaeva in my own translation, for soprano, alto sax and piano, premiered at Carnegie Hall on October 31, 2015, magnificently performed by Yungee Rhie, soprano; Michael Couper, saxophone, and ChoEun Lee, piano. 

My music has been performed by the Molinari and Blue Engine String Quartets, the Montreal Chamber Orchestra (Wanda Kaluzny, conductor), the Talisker Players, l'Ensemble du Jeu Présent (Paolo Bellomia, conductor)  Ensemble Phoenix, Ensemble Prima (Mélanie Léonard, conductor), clarinettists Mark Simons and Micah Heilbrunn, saxophonists Jennifer Bill, Michael Couper, and Tristan de Borba; singers Suzie LeBlanc, Anita Krause, Jocelyne Fleury, Benjamin Butterfield, Krisztina Szabo, Alexander Dobson, Clayton Kennedy, Yungee Rhie, Patricia O'Callaghan, pianists Robert Kortgaard, Yoshiko Kline, Hannah Gruber, ChoEun Lee, Simon Docking... and myself.

I taught composition and music history at Concordia University from 1993-2008; I have also taught music at St. George's School (1976-2006), The Priory School and Vanier College. I retired in 2008 to devote myself to composition. I now live by the ocean in West Jeddore, Nova Scotia.

 

REVIEWS: A SELECTION

 

COMPOSITIONS: CRITICAL REACTIONS

The next two songs on the album, each by John Plant, are the stand-out works of the group. Sunday at 4 am, for which LeBlanc performs with the Blue Engine String Quartet, opens with a short passage for the quartet in harmonics followed by an extended vocal solo written without text. This vocal solo sets the mood for the remainder of the work, which unfolds brilliantly through a constantly-changing development of musical material. Plant’s approach to the string quartet and voice as an ensemble is delicate and sensitive, and the performers expressed that sensitivity well. Plant’s second song, Sandpiper, begins with more energy than anything before it...

                           - Justin Rito, I Care If You Listen, October/November 2013,                                                   review of 'I am in need of music' Centrediscs CMCCD 191413

 

 .. This reveals a major talent that deserves to crop up in international recitals... 2001’s La notte bella is a fascinating setting of Giuseppe Ungaretti, scored for piano, violin, and cello. The sparse text...  is set to soaring melodic lines before the strings turn this soulful piece into something more shivery and frenzied. Plant gives himself a bigger canvas for Romance sonámbulo, a 20-minute semi-cantata, set to one of Lorca’s Gypsy ballads. With the mournful, funeral brass writing, sparing use of Sprechgesang, and fretful tension conveyed in the strings, Lorca’s bleak, unsettling tale of a smuggler returning to find his lover dead is masterfully told. ...Loud atonal clusters open the chilling 'In the world of zero'... (Plant) is that rarest of modern composers, someone who writes sympathetically for the voice. His word setting is similarly impeccable ...This must not just stay in the Canadian music scene.

-Barnaby Rayfield, Fanfare, January/February2011, review of CD 'Vocal Works in Eight Languages by John Plant'

The composer has the task of shaping a coherent musical structure to that narrative.It seems that only the really great vocal composers bring it off: Brahms, Mahler, Wagner, Strauss, Stravinsky, Mussorgsky, Vaughan Williams, Debussy, Fauré, Britten, Barber, and so on. Plant succeeds in every item here.
First, Plant's literary taste is not only impeccable, but shows a fellow who reads widely and deeply. Babel is a blessing uses texts in Alexandrian Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Russian, and English. ...If I had to compare him to another composer, I'd say Barber, especially the Barber of the extended vocal works: Dover Beach, Knoxville, and Andromache's Farewell. There's that same integrity of vocal line and an essentially Romantic outlook without eschewing the grit of dissonance and the ambiguous key center. Three poems get settings ranging from ten to nearly twenty minutes. It takes real control to keep something that long together. My favorite setting was probably of Lorca's Romance sonámbulo. Plant takes advantage of textual repetitions to suggest ballad structure within something essentially organic form. The point is, however, that it does have form.
Most of the performers, including the composer himself at the piano, do really well. The songs sweep along….. Jocelyne Fleury's voice reminded me of the incomparable Jennie Tourel …

        -Steve Schwartz, Classical.net

With a regard for language that is purely metaphysical and a skill in handling words musically which is uniquely his own, John Plant has selected music he has written in memoriam. It is an inspiring sampling of music... The music shares a predilection for crystalline textures and harmonies that space out briefly before trailing wistfully away. Yet each eventually attaches itself to the poetry and takes on an asymmetrical emotional life and a faint cultural accent, perhaps mythical. At the end, "In the world of zero," Plant's sad resignation finally gives way to rage punctuated with violent drum beats and elusive woodwind accents..'

             -Laurence Vittes, Gramophone, July 2010, review of CD 'Vocal Works in Eight                                     Languages.'

 (Romance sonámbulo) John Plant nous propose une musique colorée et mordante...        -            -Claude Gingras, La Presse, 18  June 2006

(Shadowy Waters)   M. Plant sait écrire, cela est sûr. Il fait bien sonner ses percussions, harmonise efficacement ses cinq voix.            -Claude Gingras, La Presse, 1 March 2005

 “Extraordinary...Plant’s setting of this poem (Canciones del alma) succeeds in transcending limits of musical style to give articulation to experiences which are almost beyond the realm of language, verbal or musical...John Plant, a composer who has a significant message for our time. 9/10                                                
            -Wolfgang Bottenberg, Montreal Mirror, 20 January 2000

Canciones del Alma” est un essai en musique minitieusement conçu.. austère et exigeant, d’une rare authenticité.”            
            -P.M. Bellemare, La Scena Musicale, December 1999

"The Collector of Cold Weather   illustre une bonne douzaine de poèmes de Lawrence Raab .. sur une texture musicale de John Plant, qui depuis What Happened  est devenu plus debussyste que jamais. Gentiment tiraillé entre le voyeurisme, l'humour, l'hu-mort, la mort, l'oeuvre fait rire, fait écouter. Que demander de plus d'un spectacle? ...Et sur du Debussy légèrement schoenbergisé, mille et une choses se passent ... C'est un spectacle. Un vrai. D'aujourd'hui."
            -Jean-Jacques van Vlasselaer, Le Droit, 10 0ctober 1980

(What Happened) "Partition interessante que cette structure musical qui trace à un second niveau le jeu de la langue de Ms. Stein. Cet étudiant de George Todd,de Charles Palmer et de Bruce Mather a de la technique, une approche fraiche, sait être versatile, sait mettre en valeur les danseurs ...  autant que le texte .... Les interludes enregistrés au piano emploient des themes reliés les uns aux autres et qui se retrouvent tous dans celui qui precède le dernier acte. John Plant a de l'admiration pour George Crumb et Luciano Berio: le sourire musical qui passe dans la partition et la technique vocale le révèlent ... l'oeuvre n'arrête pas de plaire.  
            -Jean-Jacques van Vlasselaer, Le Droit, 6 October 1978

(Une danse maigre pour trois voleurs)  ".. a fascinating musical score by John Plant..  an astringent and oddly refreshing work..."               -Myron Galloway, Montreal Star, 9 Jan.1975

(Marche sur glace)  "La partition de piano de John Plant est translucide comme une voile."                 -René Picard, Le Devoir, 18 January 1975

Une danse maigre pour trois voleurs ) ...une magnifique musique pour deux voix de femmes de John Plant ...              -René Picard, Le Devoir, 9 January 1975