John Plant, composer

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What I've been up to

Posted by John Plant on September 8, 2022 at 8:35 PM Comments comments ()

It's over a year since I posted a blog entry. I'm rather appalled to learn that I haven't written anything about two major projects, both of vital importance to me.  Time to catch up with myself!

I spent three years on the project first mentioned in my entry of February 26, 2019, the composition of the music for Wanda R. Graham's magnificent libretto - with the help of a generous grant from Arts Nova Scotia.   During those three years the name of the work changed: it's now The Heart of Things, and we've defined it as a 'spoken word opera, for six actors and soundtrack' - the soundtrack being a virtual orchestra (with a score running to over 300 pages), coupled with musique concrète and my first ventures into electronic sounds.  We planned a live workshop of the opera, under the aegis of Heat Theatre, for the spring of 2022; COVID forced us to rethink our plans, and the workshop was ultimately entirely online, from April 18 to 24.  

The audition process proved to be an exciting confirmation of the viability of our concept, and the actual workshop even more so.  As planned, the actors worked from a rhythmically notated score, to be co-ordinated with the 'soundtrack.' The technology of 'Cleanfeed,' coupled with Zoom, made it possible to coach the actors individually and in groups, and we were able to rehearse and perform well over half the opera in six days of work.


We chose an extraordinary team of six actors from the multitude of excellent audition recordings we received.  Working with them was an exhilarating and rewarding experience.   The one technical hitch which we could not overcome was the co-ordination of several crucial ensemble passages of four to six voices; this seemed to have something to do with Cleanfeed's inability to cope with the variables of relativity! But I could not have asked for a more eager, devoted, and intuitive group.  Please visit Heat Theatre's website to learn more about the project - and to hear an excerpt.

Working with Wanda continues to be a thrilling adventure.  Though collaborating entirely through the internet - and occasionally resorting to the postal service! - we maintained an intensity and enthusiasm which often seemed to obliterate the reality of the pandemic.  

The other project has its origins even further back.  When I first met wonderful Louise Bessette to discuss my 'Three Echoes of the Odyssey'  (see blogs for January 8, 2018 and April 7, 2020) , she mentioned to me her inspiring project 'Un piano autour du monde' and invited me to contribute a work to it. I immediately suggested a portrait of the fishing village where I live, West Jeddore.  With the help of a very welcome Canada Council grant, I embarked on my first work for solo piano in something like fifty years.  Composing this work evoked something deep in me - something otherwise inexpressible that I very much needed to say.  In my preface, I wrote: West Jeddore is a small fishing village stretched along a thin peninsula on Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore.  It has been been a part of my life since 1970 and is now my home.  In this work... my intention was to capture in sound something of the deep hold this place has in my heart.  It has always been a place where I breathe more easily, where I am most in touch with the vastness and wonder of being.

Jocelyne, John Le Carré, and me!

Posted by John Plant on March 14, 2021 at 8:55 AM Comments comments ()

A lovely piece in the guardian by Nick Cornwell, John Le Carré's son, about the creative partnership Le Carré enjoyed with his wife Jane, put me in mind of my extreme good fortune in being married to Jocelyne, whose role in my work is strikingly comparable:


"For as long as I can remember, my parents have been defined by the work they did together, and by a working relationship so interwoven with their personal one that the two were actually inseparable. ... her listening, absorbing, only occasionally responding, but always with immediate effect.. Only they knew what passed between them and how much she reframed, adjusted, trained the novels as they grew. It was part of how it worked: he produced, they edited; he burned, she fanned. It was their conspiracy. ...At each turn, fresh problems to be solved, ..All along, at every step, was Jane, recalling the first moment of inspiration to refresh a tired passage, or asking whether a given phrase really reflected the intent she knew was behind it."


Replace 'novels' with 'musical compositions' in the above paragraph, and read 'Jocelyne' for 'Jane', and you have a vivid encapsulation of the situation here in West Jeddore. Though the initial work is solitary, the stage at which I show Jocelyne what I've been doing is crucial. It is a continuing blessing, and my music would not be the same without her.


Eating my words

Posted by John Plant on February 20, 2021 at 3:35 PM Comments comments ()

It is ten months since my last post!

I have been feeling lucky to be in Nova Scotia, and to have a large unwieldy challenging inspiring project to keep me occupied - intensely occupied! - during these difficult days and months. The project outlined in my April 2019 blog is very much alive, but its name has changed: it is now The Heart of Things, and I am working on the eleventh of its twelve scenes.

I was extremely happy to learn that my Concerto for Orchestra is a finalist in Kaleidoscope's 2020 call for scores. There were over 7800 entries from 86 countries.  And this wonderful orchestra in Los Angeles is a valiant and tireless defender of new music. Here is the link to the announcement:

The pleasures of eating one's words...

Specifically, those I posted on September 6, 2016, concerning a production of Verdi's Il trovatore, which I had read about, but not seen. I cited an article in Diapason, in which "Christian Merlin is encouraged by stagings whose 'dramaturgical viewpoint is so strong that a plot which we considered superficial suddenly begins to speak to us,' such as Tcherniakov's staging of Verdi's Il trovatore - which is transformed into 'a role-playing game for idle members of the bourgeoisie.'  That anyone could experience Il trovatore as superficial takes my breath away; that a work of such intense, committed passion and vitality could somehow be improved by turning it into a role-playing game is beyond my grasp."


Well, I have now seen Tcherniakov's production, thanks to Marquee TV, and I hereby eat my words. Well, most of them. I still am astonished that anyone could find Il trovatore superficial. Tcherniakov clearly did not ; his production is the first one I have seen which does something like justice to the emotional and dramatic intensity which blazes through every page of this glorious score. He takes Verdi very seriously indeed; this production is driven by an unerring sense of what matters in this opera. It all takes place in a single room, and we never see the chorus: this is undoubtedly a loss, but the sacrifice is justified by the gain in concentrated intensity. All the lines of the minor characters (Inès, Ruiz) are taken by principals; this reinforces Tcherniakov's initial role-playing scenario. As Inès and Ruiz exist solely as foils for Leonora and Manrico, this actually chimes quite nicely with the director's vision.


What M. Merlin does not tell us is that the concept is rather one of a role-playing therapy that goes tragically wrong. All notion of role-playing vanishes quickly, as the characters are inhabited and even possessed by their 'roles.' The paradoxical result is that this story, so often mocked for its plethora of improbable coincidences, becomes utterly convincing, and the deep tragedy arising from the irreconcileable desires and obsessions of its characters is searing, inevitable, and utterly gripping. It is not a pretty production, to say the least, and I would not recommend it as one's first exposure to this opera. But for those who know and love Il trovatore, and are willing to be ejected from their comfort zone, it is as powerfully moving a production of a Verdi opera as any I have seen.

Three Echoes of the Odyssey

Posted by John Plant on April 7, 2020 at 12:50 AM Comments comments ()

On February 16, in Montreal - that is to say, on another planet and in a different era - my Three Echoes of the Odyssey were performed by two magnificent artists, percussionist Marie Josée Simard and pianist Louise Bessette. Between the intention to write about this event and sitting down to do it, coronavirus exploded on this continent - Montreal seems now as far away as the moon. It seems almost indecent to rejoice in my good luck at being able to hear my piece and share it with a blessedly appreciative audience. We were able to be with my wife Jocelyne's two daughters and their families. And we went to see a play, something I have not done in years, Dany Goudreault's haunting, magical 'Corps Célestes' at the Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui.


These Three Echoes are the culmination of a long series of experiences. Marie Josée made them the focus of her residence at Banff in January-February 2019. Wanting to make full use of her splendid instrumentarium, I did not stint! With the strategic genius of a general, she mapped out the position of the instruments, enabling her to move with breathtaking fluidity and grace from one to another, cutting and pasting the score as needed so that the required notes would be found in front of the correct instruments at the right time. The sorcery of Skype enabled me to be present when necessary, giving us a sense of onsite collaboration even when we were a continent's width away from each other.


The collaboration with Louise Bessette was also deeply rewarding and helpful; in the first of the three Echoes I was exploring the interior of the piano for the first time. Her immense experience and profound musicality were indispensable in this adventure. And the intuitive complicity of these two artists created a sense in the audience of almost visceral participation in Odysseus's adventures as I imagined them. I had the luxury of working with them for a week before the performance, and it is difficult to imagine a more rewarding experience for a composer.


In my notes on the piece I wrote: The quest of a wanderer to find a safe and welcoming harbour in a dangerous and often hostile world takes on particular poignance today. I did not realize how dangerous the world was about to become, though of course it has long been intolerably dangerous for far too many. I am deeply grateful to Marie Josée and to Louise, and to the audience who came to hear the piece... and to whatever gods made it possible for the event to happen. Wishing for a day, soon, when people will be able once again to gather to listen to and make music together, in peace and in safety.




I will fly like a bird in Chicago

Posted by John Plant on September 19, 2019 at 4:30 PM Comments comments ()

We've just returned from a wonderful week in Chicago, where an adventurous and resourceful company called Thompson Street Opera opened their new season with four performances of 'I will fly like a bird', the opera I composed in collaboration with J. A. Wainwright. We were able to take a train (the 'L') straight from the airport; the company's treasurer, whose guests we were, picked us up and drove us directly to the theatre, where the final technical rehearsal was in progress. From the moment we stepped into the magnificently resonant black box of the Athenaeum Theatre's Studio 3, it was clear that our work was in dedicated, professional hands; and that these hands were working in intense symbiosis. This impression was thrillingly fortified through the dress rehearsals and filming sessions which preceded the premiere.

The opera was given with two casts, each giving two performances. The singers, Nathaniel Hill and Jonathan Wilson as Robert, Jennifer Barrett and Marissa Simmons as the Mother, were not only splendid singers whose voices would grace any stage in the world, but deeply committed and skilled actors. They were also brilliantly paired, yet one more instance of the symbiosis which was the week's hallmark. Conductor Alexandra Enyart and stage director Ross Kyo Matsuda showed profound insight into the work, and reinforced each other's interpretations: what a joy to have a director whose musical instincts are so profound, and a conductor whose grasp of the work's dramatic pulse is so unerring!

The instrumental ensemble, led by newly appointed concertmaster Robert Alvarado Switala, was superb. I had imagined the orchestra as full participants in the drama, and so it proved. I must name and thank each one of them: in addition to Robert, second violin Angelica D'Costa, viola Kelsey Hanson, cellist John Rogler, clarinettist Lilia Olsen, and pianist Cody Michael Bradley. I saw all the performances but one, and all the dress rehearsals and film sessons, so that I had the full experience of my opera seven times. The freshness and power of this company's interpretation was powerfully sustained throughout the week. So too was the sense of tragedy: the opera has, alas, lost none of its relevance since the events of 2007 on which it is based.

The company's artistic director Claire DiVizio is clearly a person of immense vision and commitment - and not only because her company staged my opera! In fact, Thompson Street Opera is committed to performing only works by living composers, thus, in Claire's words, 'showing the potential of the art form through the diverse voices of our time.' It is a great honour to be one of those voices.

The production received two strongly favourable reviews, from Chicago Classical Review and Chicago Theatre Review. Links below:

All of Us

Posted by John Plant on February 26, 2019 at 5:20 PM Comments comments ()

Last July, just as I was completing the first draft of my Three Echoes of the Odyssey, playwright Wanda Graham sent me a play she had just completed, conceived as a 'music drama,' and dealing with a tormented family of fishers on an island off the coast of Nova Scotia. I found her concept so compelling, so original and so musically suggestive that I engaged with it immediately. As I wrote to Arts Nova Scotia in applying (successfully!) for a grant to work on this project: 'It deals with the ecological and economic realities of the fisher's life, the struggle for gender equality, sexual identity, suicide, sexual abuse, generational tensions, the intricate web of family relationships. It manages to do this without preaching, by creating indelible, moving characters and thrusting us into their very particular world.'

Just as with I will fly like a bird (my setting of Andrew Wainwright's tribute to Robert Dziekanski), this powerful, eloquent text is taking me in directions I never would have foreseen. Unlike I will fly like a bird, All of Us will not be an opera, though the work is of operatic proportions and intensity. As in opera, the music will carry the emotional thrust and sweep of the drama, creating a situation in which the actors are an integral part of the musical tapestry.

I will be exploring various styles of vocal delivery and implementing new 'user-friendly' notations for them; in this respect I will be developing and expanding terrain I first began to investigate almost half a century ago, in the scores I composed for the dance troupe Le Groupe de la Place Royale.

I will be venturing into realms which are new to me: mastering Logic Pro X, QLab, and other software, exploring electronically generated sounds, musique concrète, sounds recorded from nature or sampled from my growing collection of percussion instruments, and integrating them into a substantial virtual orchestra.

I cannot overemphasize my gratitude to Wanda for sending me her profound, moving and ground-breaking drama, and inviting me to join her in this inspiring collaboration.

Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018)

Posted by John Plant on March 27, 2018 at 8:50 AM Comments comments ()

A bittersweet epilogue to my last blog. I wrote to Ursula Le Guin last fall, informing her of my intention to compose an 'Earthsea' sonata. She wrote back expressing great interest, and asked me to send her a recording of the premiere. I mailed her a CD of the magnificent performance by Dominic Desautels and Tina Chong... and then received word of her death. So I thought sadly that she had never heard the piece - and then, two days later, I received a handwritten card from her in the mail. This is what it said:

17 Jan 18

'Dear John Plant -

Thank you for the recording of your Earthsea Sonata - The music is beautiful, and the performance is stunning. It's a treasure.

Email of course emanates from nowhere, and it was an addition to my pleasure to know you live in Nova Scotia. Was briefly there years ago, and remember the landscape vividly. (This card is a sketch from the high desert of E. Oregon - I liked the fences so much I just left the rest of the ranch out.)

Many thanks for your music - may you keep making it.

Ursula Le Guin

Needless to say, I was touched beyond measure to know that she heard and liked the sonata during her last days on earth. She has been an essential writer for me ever since I first discovered her. One of her great gifts to me was this sentence, spoken by Ged, in the penultimate chapter of 'A Wizard of Earthsea:' 'My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars....'

Of course it is sad to think that there will be no more books from Ursula K. Le Guin. But this sadness is tempered by the knowledge that her work is inexhaustible; each new rereading yields unsuspected treasures and discoveries. She's like Mozart in this respect. She also made a matchless translation of the Tao te Ching, and recorded it - listening to her voice, steeped in wisdom and rich with quiet humour, kept me sane and smiling more than once during Montreal rush hour traffic.

And it is good to think of her name slowly unfolding in the shining of the stars.

Thank you, Ursula K. Le Guin.

Happy New Year!

Posted by John Plant on January 8, 2018 at 3:45 PM Comments comments ()

Since my last blog, I've been happily busy with three projects. Dominic Desautels, who performed so magnificently in the Opera Nova Scotia production of 'I will fly like a bird,' did me the honour of commissioning a sonata for clarinet and piano. Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea stories have haunted and enchanted me for the last forty years or so, so perhaps it was inevitable that they would find their way into my music. Dominic, in addition to being principal clarinet of Symphony Nova Scotia, is now occupying the same post for the Canadian Opera Company. It was he who traced Violetta's breaking heart as she writes her farewell letter in La traviata; it was he who traced the contours of the human heart so plangently etched by Wagner throughout Götterdämmerung... Not the least of Mozart's gifts to humanity was making the clarinet an indispensable part of the operatic orchestra!

Well, a sonata for clarinet and piano can hardly claim to be an opera - but operatic ambitions seem to insinuate themselves into everything I write these days, and in this case I was aided and abetted by Dominic's breathtaking expressive virtuosity, and by the insightful and atmospheric piano of Tina Chong. Dominic is artist-in-residence with Cecilia Concerts in Halifax this year; he and Tina gave the work its premiere on November 25, performing it magnificently, and receiving a standing ovation from a full house.

And speaking of exuberant virtuosity, the saxophonist William Chien from Taiwan, one of the co-commissioners of 'Faustus: a SaxOpera' wrote to me to ask if it would be possible to create a version for saxophone, acoustic guitar and piano, to be performed at the World Saxophone Congress in Croatia this summer. Never having written for guitar, I promptly bought myself a second-hand one, and immersed myself in the literature, discovering works by such masters as Leo Brouwer, Nikita Koshkin (both new to me, and both wonderful), Ginastera, Henze, and so many others. I was encouraged to learn that Julian Bream particularly relished learning guitar works by non-guitarists, that in his experience the challenge of writing for an unfamiliar instrument (like that of writing in an unfamiliar language) often resulted in something unanticipatedly rich and strange. I hope this is the case in my 'Faustus' Suite.

My current project is a work for the percussion-piano duo of Marie Josée Simard and Louise Bessette - both renowned, fabulous musicians - to be entitled 'Echoes from the Odyssey.' Marie-Josée Simard and I have wanted to collaborate on an artistic project for a long time, and have been engaged in active discussions over the last four years as to the form such a project might take. Her desire for a new work with a narrative component corresponds well with my lifelong operatic obsession, and the choice of subject reflects my abiding interest in Homer and in classical Greek poetry.

Through the percussionists' arsenal of instruments, and the piano's wide range of expressive and technical resources, they will incarnate, successively, the lovely goddess Calypso, the Cyclops, Circe, the angry god Poseidon, Penelope, and Odysseus himself; while also shaping the extraordinary universe within which these characters trace the course of their destiny. The quest of a wanderer to find a safe and welcoming harbour in a dangerous and often hostile world takes on particular poignance in today's world. The opportunity to work with this splendid percussionist, and with the distinguished pianist Louise Bessette, is an inestimable gift. I cannot help reflecting on how lucky I have been with performers throughout my musical life!

Which brings me to saxophonist Jennifer Bill, who did me the honour of traveling to Middlebury College to perform 'A deep clear breath of life' with me on the occasion of my class reunion in June. It was the first time I've ever played the piano part, and I was a bit daunted by the cohort of superb pianists who've played it before me, but Jennifer's inspired performance seems to have brought out the best in me. Peter Kovner, who commissioned this piece, was in the audience; he came onstage to introduce the work in his own inimitable manner. Thanks to my classmate Charlie Tilford, you can watch this performance (though not, alas, Peter's introduction) on YouTube, under the 'Links' heading of this website.

I'd like to conclude with my heartiest wishes for a joyful and prosperous New Year to all, with a particularly fervent shout out to all you performers and listeners, so indispensable to the life of music!

Coastal Voices and my new choral work

Posted by John Plant on June 4, 2017 at 8:45 PM Comments comments ()

Last weekend, the men's choir which I accompany, Coastal Voices, gave the first and second performance of my setting of Lawrence Raab's poem 'Voices Answering Back: The Vampires' - the premiere in St. Genevieve's Catholic Church in East Chezzetcook, and the second in the historic old church in Sherbrooke Village. The work was commissioned by the choir, and is dedicated to its members and to its brilliant conductor Janet Gaskin. Janet had asked me to make the work a bit of a challenge, and I did.

The spirit with which the choir rose to the challenge, and the deep insight and wisdom with which Janet guided them every step of the way, was an immensely rewarding experience for me. The choir made me feel as if it was rewarding for them as well. Their faith in my music sustained us through the first few months of rehearsal, when the work's direction must have been glimpsed 'as through a glass darkly' - but growing steadily clearer and more confident week by week.

By the final week the choir was deploying a rich range of colours, singing with sustained intensity and projecting the work with such vividness that many audience members spoke to me of the 'frisson' - of the 'spookiness' and dark musical imagery of the work.

Ken Vaughan, one of the basses and a considerable poet in his own right, set the stage by reading Raab's poem beautifully and eloquently beforehand. Janet's rare blend of intuition and technical mastery, working in synchrony throughout the whole process, brought out the best in this fine ensemble. The choir intends to keep the work in its repertoire next year; I am delighted and deeply grateful at the prospect of continuing this adventure.

Faustus in Pennsylvania, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and California

Posted by John Plant on April 16, 2017 at 5:10 PM Comments comments ()

On February 10 Jocelyne and I traveled to Wolfville to hear the first Canadian performance of 'Faustus: A SaxOpera' - neatly sandwiched between blizzards. Wolfville only regained power at noon on the day of the performance, and some of the musicians (incuding the indispensable - and splendid! piccolo player) arrived just in the nick of time. Once again I was moved and delighted by the skill, imagination, virtuosity and utter commitment which saxophonist Tristan de Borba, conductor Mark Hopkins and the Acadia Wind Ensemble brought to this work.

Tristan wished to bring Faustus to the North American Saxophone Alliance congress in Sackville, New Brunswick, on the following Saturday - one week later! - but of course he could not bring the 34 Acadia musicians with him. So he commissioned me to make a chamber version. Following the brilliant suggestion of Jennifer Bill, I settled on sax, piano and harp, and had a wonderful time reworking and rethinking the sometimes massive sonorities of Faustus into this very different context. The result was an independent work, shorter and more intimate. Unfortunately the flu prevented us from traveling to New Brunswick, as we had intended, but luckily the piece was recorded, and I am deeply grateful to Tristan and to the wonderful musicians who performed with him: Ellen Gibling, harp, and Jennifer King, piano.

Distance and time prevented me from flying to San Diego for the West Coast premiere of the full version, but once again a Recording Angel came to the rescue and preserved the magnificent performance of Michael Couper with the San Diego State University Wind Symphony, brilliantly conducted by Shannon Kitelinger. I am richly blessed to have encountered this wonderful double triad of saxophonists - Jennifer Bill, Tristan de Borba, Michael Couper - and conductors: David Martins, Mark Hopkins, Shannon Kitelinger, not to mention the fine ensembles under their direction. Each one provided new illuminations; it is the most priceless of gifts to hear my work sparked into life by the intersection of such profoundly committed individual sensibilities.

I have not yet heard the performances of Joseph Murphy and the Mansfield University wind ensemble under Adam Brennan, which included not only performances at Mansfield and Keystone College, but also at five high schools in northeastern Pennsylvania. But I have been promised a recording, which I await with great eagerness. I spent a large chunk of my childhood in rural Pennsylvania and it's lovely to think of my music being performed there. 

Still to come in 2017-2018: performances in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Calgary and Taiwan! Watch this space....

Faustus: a SaxOpera, in Boston

Posted by John Plant on November 14, 2016 at 6:05 PM Comments comments ()

It seems incredible that the first performance of Faustus: A SaxOpera happened six weeks ago. Traveling to Boston to attend the dress rehearsal and the performance was a brief but shining moment. I already knew that Dr. Jennifer Bill, the saxophone soloist, had an intuitive insight into my musical, expressive, dramatic intentions; but to find a similar degree of profound comprehension in the conductor, Dr. David Martins, with the ability to convey that understanding into the hearts, minds and fingers of his brilliant young musicians, surpassed my expectations.


The first burst of inspiration came when I connected this project to Gertrude Stein's inimitable

version of the Faust myth, a text which I have lived with for well over half of my life. That the saxophone was the ideal voice to personify her wonderfully idiosyncratic transformation of the archetypal principal figures in this myth: Faust himself, the restless, frustrated seeker of knowledge who knows everything except who he is; Marguerite, lost and terrified in the world of her potential desires, longing for clarity of vision; Mephisto, the ultimate deceiver, the bearer of false promises. And the wind ensemble could evoke the dark corners of Faustus's studio and of his soul; the wild wood of Marguerite's terror and desire; the luminous landscape of enlightenment; the self-inflicted solitary torment of hell and the faint, poignant promise of liberation. (For more on the genesis of this work, see my 'SaxOpera' blog.)


The marvel for me in those early days of October was to hear how thoroughly and intensely Jennifer, David, and those valiant young musicians grasped the colours and shades of my intention, and projected them so atmospherically into the beautiful acoustic space of the Tsai Center.


My joy was immeasurably enhanced by the presence of so much of my family: Helen, Norman, John and Mary Elizabeth from Scotland; Mary and Jim from Arlington; my ancient friend Peter Kovner, whose commission of 'A deep clear breath of life' introduced me to Jennifer and started me on a new and adventurous path, in company with Larry Raffel; and Jocelyne, whose trace is palpable in every note.


Some dark days have ensued since those luminous, warm, sunny days in early October, and it seems that a shadow has passed over the land. I am reminded that Gertrude Stein wrote her Faustus in 1939, and her work reflects the darkness of those times, and yet it concludes with a faint intimation of hope, as does the Doctor Faustus of Thomas Mann, another inspiration for my SaxOpera. The fragile wisp of hope in the final notes of my piece is now perhaps more poignant than I intended or foresaw, but I'm glad that it's there.

Words and music

Posted by John Plant on September 6, 2016 at 5:50 PM Comments comments ()

My friend John Barnstead, discussing Julian Barnes' new novel about Shostakovich on Facebook, said something so precious and precise about what should happen when a composer sets words to music, that I can only add a fervent Amen. After quoting Pushkin's poem in Russian, he very kindly appended John Fennell's prose translation, so I shall follow suit.


'Barnes really does have the kind of fine, unobtrusive control of language, allusion, and narrative voice that is one of the signs of a master craftsman. Where I find he falls short of mastery is in his use of aphoristic language, "для констатации факта," as it were, when the facts asserted are in fact not facts at all, and run contrary to what we know of Shostakovich as an artist, e.g. (on the same page) "Let Power have the words, because words cannot stain music. Music escapes from words; that is its purpose, and its majesty." No way José, folks. It's not an escape: music doesn't *escape* words; words *release* music the way the prisoner dreams of releasing the eagle in Pushkin's poem "Узник" ' (J.A.B)--


The Prisoner (Pushkin, trans. J. Fennell)

I sit behind bars in a damp prison My sad companion, a young eagle reared in captivity, flaps its wings and pecks at its bloody food beneath my window.


It pecks, then stops, and looks in through the window as though it shared the same thought as I. It calls me with its look and its cry and would say 'Let us fly away!


'We are free birds: it is time, my brother, it is time! Thither, where the mountain shines white behind the cloud, thither, where the expanses of the sea are blue, thither, where only the wind roams - and I!'

After reading John's inspired words and Pushkin's poem, I was haunted by the appropriately soaring key phrase from Janacek's Dostoevsky opera, From the House of the Dead: Orel car lesu! The eagle, king of the forest!

The prisoners free the caged eagle just as the hero is released from prison.


And this brings me, circuitously, to a mild rant. The current issue of Diapason, an indispensable French monthly devoted to 'l'amour du classique' contains a stimulating debate on operatic staging. Christian Merlin is encouraged by stagings whose 'dramaturgical viewpoint is so strong that a plot which we considered superficial suddenly begins to speak to us,' such as Tcherniakov's staging of Verdi's Il trovatore - which is transformed into 'a role-playing game for idle members of the bourgeoisie.'

That anyone could experience Il trovatore as superficial takes my breath away; that a work of such intense, committed passion and vitality could somehow be improved by turning it into a role-playing game is beyond my grasp.


I do not wish to place any limits on a director's imagination. Even the most outrageous transpositions of time and space in the work of Peter Sellars are clearly inspired by a profound love and knowledge of score. The same applies to many inspired radical stagings by Katie Mitchell, David McVicar, Harry Kupfer and others. I am objecting to the kind of reductionism whose purpose seems to be to disenchant the listener, to persuade us that what we thought was beauty, passion and truth was in reality a cheap, empty, lifeless husk. Brünnhilde and Waltraute can eat corn flakes in their trailer park, whose entrance is posted with warning signs: 'Transcendence Forbidden.'


Posted by John Plant on August 4, 2016 at 6:00 PM Comments comments ()

My ever-intensifying love affair with the saxophone is intimately bound up in my mind with the discovery of the amazing expressive resources offered by large wind ensembles. Just a week before the premiere of my first work for saxophone, I was in Wolfville for the 2013 "Shattering the Silence" festival, when I heard Dr. Mark Hopkins conduct Michael Colgrass's Urban Requiem, a thrillingly revelatory experience. Then I traveled to Boston, for the premiere of my 'A deep clear breath of life,' for alto sax and piano, magnificently played by Dr Jennifer Bill and Yoshiko Kline. I've written about these life-changing experiences in previous blogs.

 But my great adventure of the past eight months has been the invitation, from 'World Wide Concurrent Premieres Commissioning Fund,' to compose a full-scale concerto for alto saxophone and large wind ensemble. The result was Faustus: a SaxOpera. I've been obsessed with Gertrude Stein's powerfully idiosyncratic revisioning of the Faust myth for years. This commission inspired me to imagine a work in which the versatile and passionate voice of the saxophone could incarnate the characters in Stein's drama, with the instruments of the wind ensemble evoking the haunted, mysterious world in which that drama unfolds.

 WWCPCF is an beautiful initiative of the pioneering American saxophonist Kenneth Radnofsky. Among the composers who have received WWCPCF commissions are John Harbison, Michael Colgrass, Frank Ticheli, David Amram, Shih-Hui Chen, Chris Theofanadis and Gunther Schuller - I am humbled and honoured to be in such company.

 The work is co-commissioned by ten saxophonists and/or ensembles, and they have exclusive rights to the work for the 2016-2017 season; each of their performances counts as a premiere. Three of them are already expressive, committed, brilliant advocates of my music, my wise and valiant mentors as I took my first steps into the deep and dazzling world of the sax : Jennifer Bill, Michael Couper, and Tristan da Borba. You can imagine how eagerly I await their performances, as well as those of the distinguished artists who are joining them in the commission!

Jennifer Bill's performance with the Boston University Wind Ensemble, conducted by David Martens, is scheduled for October 6. As soon as I have dates for the other performances, I will post them here and on Facebook. I can't overemphasize my joyful gratitude toward all the commissioners for their interest and support.

Here is what I wrote in the preface to the score: This work is inspired by Gertrude Stein's magnificent libretto on the Faust myth, 'Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights".  The saxophone personifies and brings life to the principal characters, delineating the individuality of each by stylistic means, while the wind ensemble establishes the atmosphere -both emotional and physical- and participates in the action of the 'plot' - even sometimes taking on the function of chorus. At certain passages, the music articulates the precise rhythm of Stein’s prose.

It is not necessary to know the narrative of the SaxOpera to follow and enjoy the music, any more than it is for Schoenberg's Transfigured Night, or Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel . But in each case the story adds an extra imaginative dimension.  Though of course there is a precedent for concertos with narrative content (e.g. Berlioz' Harold in Italy, Strauss's Don Quixote), my intention is to imbue the work with an authentically operatic idiom, together with the theatrical intensity inherent in the form: hence the designation: SaxOpera.

 The short passage which concludes the opera was inspired not only by Stein's ending, in which a boy and a girl appeal to the Man from Over the Seas, (Please Mister Viper, do not forget to be), but also by the moving penultimate chapter of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, in which the narrator describes the final moments of the fictional Faustus cantata: 'The work admits of no consolation, no reconciliation.. but if the entire work produces lamentation, perhaps there is a paradox: so that from hopelessness and irremediable despair, hope (in the form of a whispered question) might germinate...’
I've been obsessed with Stein’s text for many years; I used it as the basis for a dance piece in 1980, and a chamber opera with piano in 1988. The music (apart from a few motivic germs) is quite new; I see Gertrude Stein's masterpiece with new eyes (and ears) after many decades of marinating!!  

Here is the complete (and very exciting) list of commissioners:

1) Jennifer Bill, soloist/ Boston University Wind Ensemble, David Martins, conductor;  Joshua Thomas; Joseph Murphy, soloist/ Mansfield University Wind Ensemble, Adam F. Brennan, conductor; Michael Couper, soloist/ San Diego State University Wind Symphony, Shannon Kitelinger, conductor; William Chien; Amy McGlothlin, soloist/The Gordon College Wind Ensemble, David W. Rox, conductor; Emily Cox; Tristan de Borba, soloist/ Acadia University Wind Ensemble, Dr. Mark Hopkins, conductor; Adam Pelandini, soloist/Central Washington University Wind Ensemble; The Calgary Wind Symphony.


Two premieres

Posted by John Plant on November 10, 2015 at 7:55 PM Comments comments ()

The past month has been one of the most rewarding times in my compositional life. Two premieres: my Piano Quintet, in Halifax on October 4 with Blue Engine String Quartet, and Insomnia, at Carnegie Hall on Hallowe'en, with saxophonist Michael Couper, soprano Yungee Rhiee and pianist ChoEun Lee. Two peak experiences with matchless musicians; in the first I was a nervous and happy participant, in the second, a wide-eyed and goggle-eared member of the audience.

To experience two collaborations with two groups of musicians, who devote their breathtaking musicality, insight and intensity to my music, and who display an uncanny ability to meld themselves into a psychic unity - this is to be richly blessed.

i had never met Michael Couper, though I felt that we were old friends; we had corresponded extensively on the preparation of ''A deep clear breath of life'' for publication, and throughout the gestation of 'Insomnia.' He made many recordings for me of various extended techniques, alternate multiphonics, Aeolian sounds. Just a few days before our arrival in New York, Michael learned that he was a finalist in the prestigious Concert Artist Cuild's Victor Elmaleh Competition. He played my 'A deep clear breath of life' in the final concert. I was unable to attend, and expressed my wish for a TARDIS, so that I could travel backwards in time to hear him. He responded with a photo of himself wearing a t-shirt 'Trust me, I'm the Doctor...' He was wearing the same T-shirt when we met, in the studios of Opera America where the initial rehearsals took place.

That rehearsal began with a complete runthrough of the first movement. I was astounded, not only by the superb musicianship of all three performers, but by the unmistakeable communicative current which flowed among them, as if they were burning with a single flame. In my notes for the piece, I had written: Throughout the work the intensity and intimacy of the poet's encounter with the night are reflected in the intertwining of the saxophone's melodic line with that of the soprano, while the piano evokes and reveals the mysterious world in which she moves, at times echoing the sound of the poet's footsteps, at times providing shadows or glints of light.

As I listened, Yungee and Michael were indeed like the voice of a single soul, while ChoEun at the piano created - with mastery and mystery - the strange nocturnal world they inhabited. This impression only intensified as they worked on details, then rehearsed the movement again. This culminated in a performance of great intensity and beauty, one which continues to resonate in my mind. In a sense my wish for a TARDIS has been fulfilled!

Speaking of time/space travel, our Montreal friend Marsha sent us a long-distance celebratory treat: high tea at the Russian Tea Room, right next door to Carnegie Hall! - Given Jocelyne's Slavophilia dating from early childhood, and our love for Russian music, art, and poetry, this was a richly evocative feast in intoxicating and inspiring surroundings.

...instead of Russian and flamenco....

Posted by John Plant on September 4, 2015 at 10:25 AM Comments comments ()

I have been deliciously, insanely busy this summer. Many of the projects I envisioned for my 'retirement', such as learning Russian properly and taking flamenco lessons, have been put on indefinite hold.

Ma il furto non m'accora - the loss doesn't disturb me, as Rodolfo sings to Mimi in a different context - because they've been utterly supplanted by the joys (and occasional agonies) of making music, writing it and performing it.


It's my immense good fortune to be blessed with magnificent musicians to work with. On October 4, with mezzo-soprano Marcia Swanston and the Blue Engine String Quartet, I will be performing in a concert of my own music - this is a first for me - as part of the St. Cecilia Concert Series here in Halifax. Marcia and Blue Engine were both part of Opera Nova Scotia's presentation of 'I will fly like a bird' in May of this year; they also took part in the Scotia Festival premiere in 2012. Their insight into my intentions and their poignant, heart-stopping performances constituted a powerful blessing.


The concert will include three of my vocal works, all new to Halifax: Canciones del alma, an evocation of spiritual experience through the metaphor of physical love, to a poem by San Juan de la Cruz, a 16th century Spanish mystic/monk/poet; Invocation to Aphrodite, to a poem by Sappho, greatest of classical Greek lyric poets; and Somnus et Amor, a hedonistic hymn to the joys of physical love, to the magical transition from lovemaking to sleep - and back again to love. This poem comes from the medieval Carmina burana manuscript, the same collection from which Orff drew his famous cantata of the same name. The fourth vocal work is my transcription of Haydn's cantata 'Arianna a Naxos' for voice and piano trio.


The event also includes the world premiere of my Piano Quintet, composed thanks to a grant from Arts Nova Scotia, and written with Blue Engine's expressive virtuosity, versatility, and matchless musicality in mind. I've given a detailed description of the work in the 'Program Notes' section of this site. For more information, please consult St. Cecilia's website:


Blue Engine and Chris Wilcox have also very kindly invited me to compose a new quartet, commissioned by Blue Engine, for the Music Room Chamber series. To compose a string quartet is the most exciting and demanding of challenges, not only because of the form's illustrious lineage, but because the relative homogeneity of timbre impels a concentrated emotional intimacy, a kind of distillation which requires maturity and truthfulness of expression. It is, after all, the medium to which composers from Beethoven to Murray Schafer (and beyond) have confided their deepest thoughts, intuitions and aspirations.


Preparation for this work involved immersing myself in the study of quartets of all kinds. Along with many new discoveries, the opportunity to deepen my acquaintance with this inexhaustible repertoire has been irresistibly inviting. New to me were the magnificent quartets of Grazyna Bacewicz; the terrifying and moving quartets of Helmut Lachenmann; the irrepressible vitality of both Ginastera quartets. And it was essential to plunge again into all six of Bartok's quartets, to continue to explore those of Ligeti, Penderecki, Murray Schafer, Carter; and to deepen my acquaintance with those of Schumann, Borodin.... and Beethoven.


The Music Room concert is scheduled for February 3; and I've recently learned that in January the extraordinary team of saxophonist Tristan de Borba and pianist Simon Docking will be giving the Canadian premiere of my 'A deep clear breath of life' in the same series!


And I would like to add an important postscriptum to my 'Pecorino' blog: my Insomnia, commissioned by Michael Couper and Jennifer Bill, for soprano voice, alto sax and piano will be premiered at Carnegie Hall on the afternoon of October 31.

I will have more to say about these events in a future blog, ideally to be written shortly after the October 4 concert.


So if Russian, classical Greek and flamenco have taken a back seat to all this, I certainly cannot complain, though I'm inclined to join in the immemorial kvetch about the shortness of life, not to mention the vertiginous brevity of every single day! And I'm full of gratitude to the incomparable artists who have immersed themselves in my work with such devotion and enthusiasm; to Larry Bent and Missy Searl of St. Cecilia Concerts, and to Chris Wilcox of The Music Room Chamber Series; and finally to my wife and life partner Jocelyne, who is an integral part of my creativity and the deepest source of my inspiration.