John Plant, composer

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A deep clear breath of life

Posted by John Plant on February 28, 2013 at 12:35 AM Comments comments (3)

I've just returned, exhilarated and inspired, from the premiere of 'A deep clear breath of life,' composed in memory of my friend Peter Kovner's sister Kay, and brilliantly performed by saxophonist Dr. Jennifer Bill and pianist Yoshiko Kline.  I was deeply moved by the intensity, sensitivity, and virtuosity they brought to the piece, and by their profound intuitive comprehension of my work.   It was part of a magnificent program at Boston University,  including wonderful works by Shih-Hui Chen (also a premiere), Jun Nagao and Jennifer Higdon.  Kenneth Radnofsky, who has probably commissioned more great works for saxophone than anyone on the planet (check out his inspiring website at www.kenradnofsky.com) was in the audience and was gratifyingly enthusiastic about the work.


The audience included many Boston University students - from all disciplines, not just music. For the second time in a month I've been revitalized and rejuvenated by the powerfully positive energy generated by a community of the young. And my gratitude to Jennifer and Yoshiko is unbounded - not only for mastering its considerable technical demands but also for conveying its emotional landscape so eloquently, and for placing it in such a stimulating context.


I have posted a recording of the performance in the 'Listen' section.


I have been haunted by a memory which properly belongs in my 'Beginnings 3' blog. (N. B. for those who are newcomers to the blog, I've just inserted in in its proper place.) Several days after arriving in Canada in February 1968, 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.

Shattering the Silence

Posted by John Plant on February 5, 2013 at 6:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Jocelyne and I have just returned from an amazing jewel of a music festival - Shattering the Silence, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, on the campus of Acadia University. Shattering the Silence is an annual festival organized by composer/flutist Derek Charke and conductor Mark Hopkins.  In residence this year were the agelessly inventive composer Michael Colgrass and the scintillating, fearless Quasar Saxophone Quartet from Montreal. I was one of seven composers invited to contribute a work for flute and percussion to the closing event, a memorable Nova Scotia-style Kitchen Party in Dr. Hopkins' home.  Each of us was given the same ten-second fragment, and we were asked to embed this on our work; the result was a panoply of seven beautifully varied works within a unified context, performed by Derek and percussionist Mark Adam The performances were interspersed with breaks for wine and Dr. Hopkins' irresistible pumpkin soup and chili.


The night before the Party, Dr. Hopkins had assembled the Acadia Youth Band, Symphonic Band, and Wind Ensemble for a gala concert with Quasar, culminating in a stupendous performance of Colgrass' Urban Requiem, conducted by Dr. Hopkins -  this work is now an indelible part of my musical landscape. Earlier in the day we heard the Acadia Gamelan - yes, this small university has a topnotch gamelan, under the direction of Ken Shorley. - They chose to perform in their beautiful, tiny, resonant studio, offering a program including two fine student works (Liam Elliot and Lucas Oickle), one by Shorley, and a classic by Lou Harrison. 


We had arrived on the third day of the festival; we'd been invited to critique Dr. Jennifer King's performance class.  This was a perfect point of entry (even though we had already missed two wonderful days); it was a real joy to me to resume contact with young  musicians, particularly when they were as receptive, sensitive and talented as these. In fact, the flavor of the entire Festival was pervaded by the effervescence and enthusiasm of Acadia's music students.  The day concluded with a breathtaking recital by Quasar, including a richly textured work by Derek Charke, and concluding with a wonderfully raucous Frank Zappa encore.


This Festival owes its existence to the indomitable mix of gusto, energy, and mind-blowing organizational capacities of Derek Charke and Mark Hopkins, as well as to the dedication they inspired in all the participants, and their inspired decision to invite Michael Colgrass and Quasar.   It was a rare and precious experience, and one which has left me with a strong appetite for getting back to work!


To read more about the festival, go here: www.music.acadiau.ca/shatteringthesilence/


Beginnings 4

Posted by John Plant on October 22, 2012 at 8:40 AM Comments comments (0)

The thrill of a splendid performance of 'The Palace at 4 A.M.' at Place des Arts, as one of three composers representing McGill at the International Student Composer's Symposium, provided a strange counterpoint to the realization that academia and myself made an extremely uncomfortable fit.  I was once again a dropout. But by a lucky chance, I met a visual artist at a party, Suzanne Swibold, who was working on a project with a modern dance company, Le Groupe de la Place Royale. Learning that I was an aspiring young composer, she encouraged me to come down to the company's headquarters and meet the two directors, choreographers Peter Boneham and Jean-Pierre Perrault. 


The beautiful loft in an ancient building with metal spiral staircases, adjoining Place d'Armes in Old Montreal, seemed to me like an enchanted space. It turned out that Peter and Jean-Pierre shared my interest in the spoken word.  And they had recently created a work using the music of my teacher Bruce Mather! From him they learned that I could be safely entrusted with a commission.  The first collaboration was a 'Poem Dance', using texts of Rimbaud and Gerrie Grevatt, and making use of the dancers' voices over pre-recorded piano. Most of my subsequent work with the company involved voices; the next work, more ambitious, involved two singers, piano, harpsichord and percussion.  The culmination was a series of works inspired by Gertrude Stein: dance operas in which the vocal parts were taken by the singers. In the first of these works, 'What Happened,' I was careful to provide time for the dancers/singers to breathe, by not having them all sing at the same time; but when I saw Peter's brilliant choreography, I realized that he was requiring the dancers to execute complex and dazzling movements while singing.  By this time the company had relocated to Ottawa, and 'What Happened' was performed at the National Arts Centre, where it was gratifyingly well received.


Like most composers of my generation, I was struggling with the issue of tonality. Most of the works I composed at McGill, and my earlier works for the Groupe, were deliberately atonal, but the nostalgia for the Lost Triad was perceptible even in the spikiest works, and I soon began experimenting with series which would yield triads - either by omission or by direct statement.  This was at best a provisional solution; but the exuberant linguistic brilliance and gusto of Gertrude Stein encouraged me to a more  spontaneous utterance.  My final work for Le Groupe was a setting of her magnificent version of the Faust story. In 'What Happened' the vocal demands were, I think, perfectly tailored to the dancers' capacities (and their astonishing musicianship). But 'Faustus' demanded a more operatic treatment - and I still intend to write a fully operatic version of this thrilling text.  In the initial version, I probably went overboard in my quest for simplicity, but it was a crucial step toward recovering a language of my own. 

September 27, 2012

Posted by John Plant on September 27, 2012 at 10:20 AM Comments comments (1)

During the past week I've completed two very rewarding commissions, which have kept me busy all summer - so much so that I've only just now begun the spring cleaning of our shed. One was for the Talisker Players, a marvelous vocal chamber music ensemble in Toronto whose interests are uncannily like my own: all of their concerts involve singers, and consist of settings of poetry in combination with readings.  They had already performed (magnificently) two of my works: the Invocation to Aphrodite and La notte bella, as well as my transcription of Wagner's Wesendonk-Lieder for voice and string quartet. The new piece is a setting of a passionate sonnet by the Renaissance poet Gaspara Stampa, mentioned by Rilke in the First Duino Elegy, for mezzo-soprano, violin, viola, cello and piano.  The mezzo-soprano is Anita Krause, whose richly coloured voice is equally at home in Mahler and Vivaldi. The concert is on October 30 and November 1.


The other commission , from my dear friend Peter Kovner, was to compose a fantasia for saxophone and piano as a memorial to his beloved sister Kay. In it,  I attempted to evoke something of the exuberance and the poignance of her life as I understood it.  The music traces a path through the joys, hopes,  tribulations and torments of childhood, nostalgia, melancholy, exuberant Dionysian abandon, frenzy, illness; and concludes with a sense of the radiant spirit which survives and which, perhaps, represents her true legacy. Peter expressed the wish that I would at some point pay tribute to my love of vintage Motown, which is why the work includes an homage to Junior Walker. Her sojourn in Rome is evoked by yet another homage, this time to Nino Rota, the composer of the matchless music for most of Fellini's films, including 'La dolce vita.' Neither homage involves any conscious quotation,  but I enjoyed the challenge of integrating multiple styles and emotional states within a twelve-minute span.  Schnittke's coinage of the word 'polystylistic' seems tailor-made for 'A deep clear breath of life'  -(the work's title, taken from a moving e-mail from Peter).


The work is composed for the brilliantly versatile and sensitive saxophonist Dr. Jennifer Bill, who will perform it as part of her Boston University Faculty Recital in February (exact date tba). You can hear this fine artist at  www.myspace.com/jenniferbill/music.


This has been a real voyage of discovery for me: I have been enjoying close encounters with many unsuspected masterpieces. It seems that Japanese composers have a particular affinity with the saxophone. My library has been enriched with scores and CDs of works by Takashi Yoshimatsu, Ryo Noda, Fuminori Tanada, William Bolcolm, Christian Lauba, Robert Muczynski, and many others.. not to mention some splendid books, such as Jean-Marie Londeix's indispensable 'Hello Mr. Sax', The Cambridge Companion to the Saxophone, and Paul Harvey's more traditionally minded introduction to the instrument in the Yehudi Menuhin Music Guides series.


And last night I attended my first concert since the Scotia Festival in May/June - apart from Janice Jackson's magnificent adventure 'Opera from Scratch' -  and I can't imagine a more rewarding return. It was a 'Totally Togni' concert, devoted to the work of Peter Togni and featuring the world premiere of his setting of three odes by Pablo Neruda for soprano and string quartet.  The setting of Neruda's Ode to My Suit is, I think, nothing less than a masterpiece, gloriously performed by soprano Stacie Dunlop and Blue Engine String Quartet - a work fully worthy of the pulsing, earthy vitality of its source. All the music was richly imagined and deeply felt.  A memorable evening!

 

 

Beginnings 3

Posted by John Plant on July 10, 2012 at 6:10 PM Comments comments (0)

... To start with a p.s. to the 2d chapter, about my Middlebury composition teacher George Todd - he invited me to his house to listen to Boulez' Le marteau sans maitre over a bottle of Scotch - an utterly new world for me - and as I left he pressed the record into my hands. This impetuous generosity set the tone for our relationship. When I dodged the draft and came to Canada in 1968, he was one of the first to write to me - a beautifully balanced and very wise letter.


Now, to continue from Beginnings 2: My gig at the Bonnie Scot Club came to an end - none too soon! - when the tenor was engaged for a week-long gig at the Avalon Lounge in St. John's, Newfoundland, and invited me to accompany him.  We were not a success: Charlie was an old-school tenor, and he wore a sort of semi-military Scots uniform, which went down beautifully in Montreal - but did not impress the fishermen of St John's; our operatic rendition of 'Bonnie Scotland, Scotland aye sae braw' was received in glacial silence. The next day I ran down to the nearest music shop and bought a collection of local folk songs, which we learned in haste but performed with enough gusto to garner a few desultory claps. I later learned that the club's previous act had been The Platters - the contrast must have been rather startling. Charlie had a beautiful voice, and we performed together on several subsequent occasions in Montreal - he would perform in both Irish and Scottish pubs, using his father's name (O'Leary) for the former, and his mother's (Greville) for the latter.


My parents realized that I was serious about music, and that nothing else would really ever satisfy me, and thanks to them I was able to attend McGill.  It was not a good match: despite my intense (and, from current perspective, entirely fortunate) disillusionment with Harvard, I was expecting to enter a sort of Parnassus full of enthusiastic, utterly devoted, passionate young musicians.  (I later learned that the Conservatoire was such a Parnassus, with students such as Michel-Georges Brégent, Michel Gonneville, Claude Vivier attending our concerts and engaging with us, with the kind of intensity I'd hoped to find at McGill). I was fortunate, however, in several of my teachers, particularly Bruce Mather (composition) and Alan Heard (analysis).  Bruce was a perfect combination of rigor and sensitivity; he sensed one's capabilities, as well as the particular nature of one's talent, and with gentle implacability he helped one's voice to emerge. It helped also that his own music was so limpid, so exquisitely and unashamedly beautiful. As for Alan, I particularly remember his classes on Brahms 4 and of the Berg violin concerto; it was not possible to have one's love for these works immeasurably strengthened by confronting their innermost depths, and perceiving the breathtaking structural unity underlying their beauty. During my second year, Bruce was on sabbatical and I studied with Charles Palmer, who gave me a freer hand, encouraging me to work in larger forms; the sequence of contrasting teaching styles was, I think, extremely fortunate.


But I was an erratic student, acing my courses in composition, orchestration, piano, and analysis, and utterly neglecting everything else.  The highlight of my second year was that my setting of Lawrence Raab's poem 'The Palace at 4 A.M.' was one of three works chosen to represent McGill at the International Student Composers' Symposium. It was scored for soprano, three percussionists, cello, harpsichord and piano. Margo McKinnon, a reigning figure on the contemporary music scene, took on the very demanding soprano part, making frequent visits to my hovel of my apartment on rue Napoléon to rehearse; her kindness and generosity are a shining memory.  The musicians were splendid, and I remember with particular pleasure a visit to the studio where the three percussionists dramatically expanded my awareness of the magic which might emerge from their amazing arsenal.


Still, I could not have continued at McGill without a dramatic alteration in my attitude toward academia, an unlikely development in this particularly bohemian stage of my life.  It was necessary to earn a living. I answered an ad for a teaching assistant at a private elementary school - out of sheer economic necessity - and got the job. I quickly discovered that teaching suited me, and that I was good at it.  And I was extremely lucky that the person whose assistant I had become, Mme. Zora Srepel, was a brilliant teacher and an inspiring mentor.


I will fly like a bird

Posted by John Plant on June 28, 2012 at 8:05 AM Comments comments (4)

In June 2009 I received an e-mail from Halifax poet and novelist J. A. Wainwright; he'd written the text for a song cycle on the Robert Dziekanski tragedy. (Dziekanski was the Polish immigrant who was moving to Canada to live with his mother; he was fatally tasered by RCMP officers at Vancouver Airport, after a heartbreaking series of misadventures and failures of communication. (Those who want to know more about the incident are directed to the thorough, dispassionate and devastating Braidwood Report, commissioned from the B.C. government,  available at http://www.braidwoodinquiry.ca/report/P1Report.php/)

 

The story is told entirely through the imagined voices of Robert and his mother. When I showed Jocelyne the beautiful text that Wainwright had written, she said 'You have to do this.' It soon became apparent that the text was the libretto of an opera - and it's just been performed, at the Scotia Festival in Halifax, on May 31.

 

I've posted the program notes in the 'Texts and Translations' section.  I want to use this space to pay tribute to the marvelous singers and musicians I had the good fortune to work with: baritone Clayton Kennedy, mezzo-soprano Marcia Swanston, clarinettist

Micah Heilbrunn, the Blue Engine String Quartet, with me at the piano.  

 

The rehearsals were intense and intensely gratifying experiences; the intuition, musicianship and passion of everyone involved were electrifying.  It seemed to me that every note, rest, tempo change had been so deeply assimilated that the performers were able - individually and as a group - to charge the piece with 'duende' - that ineffable quality of energy which Garcia Lorca, in a famous essay, regarded as

indispensable.  And this was palpable in the audience response.

 

We were honoured by the presence of Zofia Cisowski, Robert Dziekanski's mother, who flew in from British Columbia for the premiere.  I had the pleasure of meeting her at a reception after the performance.    To encounter in the flesh a person whose experience we had been imagining through poetry and music was an extraordinary experience. She told us that she wept through the entire performance, but that she was happy that we had chosen to remember her son in this way.

 

 

Here is a link to the Lorca essay:

http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Spanish/LorcaDuende.htm

Beginnings, 2

Posted by John Plant on March 15, 2012 at 4:45 PM Comments comments (8)

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! -


Beginnings

Posted by John Plant on March 9, 2012 at 7:15 AM Comments comments (1)

It all began with 'The Marriage of Figaro'. At the age of ten I caught sight of a dual-language booklet, the libretto of the Metropolitan Opera Record Club recording of the opera; and two lifelong obsessions were born - opera and language.  My parents played the LP for me, and I was hooked - Giorgio Tozzi singing 'Cinque, dieci' changed the course of my life. Piano lessons soon followed, and shortly therefter I made a stab at my first opera, 'Il Mago di Oz'. The 'opera' was not in Italian, but it had to have an Italian title. I still have the score, with the opening 'Apertura' - for some reason I thought that was how you said 'overture' in Italian. The first three-chord opera - anticipating the minimalists by several decades? - Definitely NOT the work of a prodigy.


We lived in rural Pennsylvania. I remember my intense disappointment at not being taken to a production of Aida in Altoona, 75 miles away. When we moved to South Jersey a year or so later, my parents richly compensated for this by taking me to Rigoletto at the Academy of Music, with Cornell MacNeill, Eva Likova and Eugene Conley - second row center.  Beautiful painted sets, and I still think it must have been an amazing performance. My father spoke years afterwards about the awe aroused by the first notes, one trumpet and one trombone articulating the theme of the curse.


I was blessed with music-loving parents - not musicians, but passionate music-lovers. Dad came home late for work on Friday nights, and they celebrated with steak, wine and music. I would creep out of bed and listen on the staircase while they played Liszt's Les Préludes, Bizet's 'L'Arlesienne' suites, Franck's D minor symphony, the Brahms horn trio, or Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel.  One day Dad came home with the London (Decca) recording of Don Giovanni, complete with score. And then I began ordering records myself, from The Record Hunter in New York; I think my first purchase was the Gigli/Dal Monte/de Fabritiis Madama Butterfly. 


As a teenager in South Jersey, I soon discovered Philadelphia and spent many Saturdays there, dividing my time with the Free Library (still an image of Paradise for me), with its astonishing collection of scores and its listening booths, where I heard Stravinsky's 'Rossignol' for the first time, bookstores, and Elkan-Vogel's gorgeous little hole-in-the-wall music store.   I encountered like-minded friends in high school, and discovered the thrill of buying my own tickets to the opera - $2.50 for a balcony seat - with Bob Gordon or Pete Waldo or John Davis, and later with girls - Lohengrin, Aida, Un ballo in maschera, Die Walküre, The Ballad of Baby Doe.   And in the bookstores I was finding the wonderful Penguin bilingual anthologies of Italian, Spanish and German verse. 


My friends were extending my musical horizons on both ends of the spectrum: Berg and Stravinsky on one end, and Bach and Vivaldi on the other.


I should mention that Woodbury High School offered four years of Latin, three of German and Spanish, all of which I took.  And that free tickets to Philadelphia Orchestra concerts were often available - so I was able to hear the first American performance of Shostakovich's 4th; the immense washes of orchestral sound in that work were a revelation to me.  Our high school also had a choir, conducted by James Freund; we performed at least one Bach cantata (BWV 142 - I sang the bass solo), and lots of Brahms, including 'How lovely is thy dwelling place' from the Requiem. I was not in the orchestra, but I remember that they performed the overture to Die Meistersinger at our graduation.


I learned enough Italian from following libretti that I was admitted to a third-year course at Middlebury; and the French I picked up from Gounod and Bizet served me in good stead when I moved to Montreal in 1968.


I should also pay homage to our church choir, conducted by my piano teacher, Dr. Starke: we sang a very mixed bag - I should say a deliciously mixed bag - ranging from Handel and Mozart to some pretty fusty Victoriana (Olivet to Calvary, by J. H. Maunder, whose name, I fear, was sadly self-descriptive). A major thrill was hearing the organist's wife, Iris Starke, our soprano soloist, boldly flinging out her laserlike high C in the Inflammatus from Rossini's Stabat Mater, recast as 'None else shall deliver us!' 

To be continued!


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