John Plant, composer

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Beginnings, 2

Posted by John Plant on March 15, 2012 at 4:45 PM

This blog seems to be turning into something like a musical autobiography...

My attitude toward popular music underwent a dramatic change during my high school years. My friend Pete and I used to spit ritually when walking past the doors of WIBG, Philadelphia's legendary rock station. But radio was ubiquitous, and some of the songs of the early 60s were surreptitiously working their way into my psyche, particularly Little Eva's 'Locomotion' (on which I recall writing a set of piano variations, now fortunately lost), the Isley Brothers' 'Twist and Shout' - and the Damascene revelation: Heat Wave, by Martha and the Vandellas, which carved a permanent rhythmical niche in my psyche. So when I went to Middlebury College in Vermont, I would frequently hitchhike to New York for a weekend, going to the Met on Friday night and the Apollo Theatre on Saturday - I saw the joint Met debut of Monserrat Caballé and Sherill Milnes at the Met on one night in December 1965, in Gounod's Faust  (after waiting in line eight hours for standing room), and James Brown at the Apollo the next.  But it wasn't just opera and soul - I can remember seeing Martha Graham dance Phaedra, discovering Magritte at the Museum of Modern Art, hearing the Mothers of Invention in the East Village - and gasping as their raucous polyphony/cacaphony morphed seamlessly into a flawlessly executed bit of Petrushka. 

On the academic front, I decided to major in Classics after hearing Professor Ursula Heibges read Catullus - I wish I could recreate the liquid rhythmic suppleness with which she invested those poems. I took no music for two years, but at the end of my second year a new composition teacher arrived, George Todd, and transformed the department. There was a Mozart seminar, focused on  Don Giovanni - and there was the welcome prospect of independent study in composition.  I had fulfilled most of my core degree requirements and was able to focus largely on music for the last two years. My friends Lawrence Raab and Peter O'Neill created a film, called 'The Distances', and invited me to compose the score. The conflict of priorities became acute. I rationalized it by deciding to go into comparative literature, and making the sources of opera libretti the subject of my dissertation. I was accepted at Harvard, and was awarded a Woodrow Wilson fellowship - but my advisor, the noted critic Harry Levin, saw through me right away, and tried to redirect me into music. Thoroughly confused and utterly lacking in confidence - and causing great distress to my parents, who thought they saw a clear career path into academia for me -  I dropped out, thereby exposing myself to the draft at the height of the Vietnam War; and on February 2, 1968, I emigrated to Montreal. (My acceptance to the U. of California at Berkeley as a graduate student in musicology came through a month after I arrived!)

Several days after arriving in Canada, I found myself in the coffeeshop run by Montreal's underground newspaper, Logos - (which I recall as visually gorgeous, psychedelic to the point of illegibility). Instead of hearing the strains of Jefferson Airplane or Jimi Hendrix or Country Joe and the Fish, the music on the speakers when I entered the warm dark candlelit cellar was from Verdi's Aida - it was the aria 'O patria mia, mai più ti rivedrò'.  The startling strangeness of hearing this music (O my country, I will never see you again) which I have loved with all my soul since i first heard it, was unbearingly poignant  - devastating and consoling at once, as I truly did not know then if I would ever see the USA again.

For me, however, Montreal was a blessing in disguise - I needed to discover who I was, and I needed some distance from my beloved and loving parents - and their hopes, fears, and expectations -  in order to do so. I worked for five months in a factory, and then landed my first music gig: pianist at the Bonnie Scot Club, boul. de Maisonneuve - accompanying a fine old-school tenor and leading singalongs between sets. Seven nights a week, 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. 

... to be continued -  with intermittent interjections on other subjects! -

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Reply Sarah Griswold
12:50 PM on March 27, 2012 
John, I am loving these blogs - and learning things about you that I never knew! This site is a gift.
Reply John Plant
1:50 PM on March 27, 2012 
Dear Sarah, I'm so glad you're enjoying the site! THAT'S a gift as well!
Reply Jonathan
2:33 AM on April 14, 2012 
Hi John, what a wonderful story--from the outside it seems utterly romantic. I can't imagine hitchhiking from Vermont to NYC for a show (or anything else). Or waiting in line for 8 hours for standing room. Please keep writing these notes when time allows--whether you do it on the blog (and let it become autobiographical as opposed to musical) or elsewhere; I'd love to hear more!
Reply John Plant
8:35 AM on April 14, 2012 
Well, Jonathan - I can't imagine anything so wildly romantic as the life you've been leading, with your adventures in Azerbaijan, India, and so many farflung corners of the world - you seem to be marvelously at home everywhere! Hitchhiking from Middlebury to New York seems like a jog around the block in comparison - it must be admitted that the sixties and seventies were far more hitch-hiker-friendly than the 00s. But I'm delighted that you like the blog! I hope your travels bring you to Nova Scotia some day - it would be terrific to see you.
Reply Patrice Lacroix
10:16 PM on May 26, 2012 
Hey John,
Good stuff, love the site and the blog!
Feel free to drop more recommended readings & sounds of things that influenced you... It's great to get those in context with what is indeed turning into a musical autobiography.
Reply John Plant
9:40 AM on June 2, 2012 
Patrice, so glad you're enjoying the blog! As soon as I recover, I'll probably write something about the premiere of 'I will fly like a bird' on Thursday - it went very well indeed. à bientôt
Reply Dan
9:15 AM on June 28, 2012 
Well old friend I stumbled upon your blog. And as usual you have amazed me. For a kid that grew up listening to the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, this is so foreign to me. I was very a fortunate young guy when I became your friend those many years ago in Montreal. Keep writing John it is a pleasure to read.
Reply John Plant
9:26 AM on June 28, 2012 
Double good fortune then - mine as well! Glad to hear it, Dan. As for the Beach Boys, I resisted until 'Don't Worry Baby' won me over. Was horrified to hear a jazzed-up version of it recently - it's such a pure outpouring of affection with just the right tinge of melancholy and insecurity. Still as fresh as when I first heard it - well over forty years ago... I've always had a particular admiration for the line 'I guess I should have kept my mouth shut when I started to brag about my car...' That's a LONG line - and as a composer I know how hard it is to make a long line sing and flow naturally, but they sure nailed it....