John McCabe - composer and pianist

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Landscapes of the Mind

Landscapes of the Mind

Landscapes of the Mind

Landscapes of the Mind is the title given to a three-day festival of John McCabe's music, which the Guildhall School of Music and Drama presented on Wednesday 22nd through to Friday 24th February 2006. There were three public concerts, featuring Guildhall students or ex-student groups, and McCabe also played a prominent role as a pianist, performing not only his own music, but also works by Haydn (the G minor sonata), Robert Saxton (Chacony) and young composer, Emily Howard (Sky and Water).

Landscapes, both actual and mental, have always been important to McCabe, and the heart of the first concert, at 7pm on Wednesday, is probably his massive piano work, Tenebrae, a depiction of the dying poet Virgil being brought by boat to Brindisium, taken from the opening of the book 'The Death of Virgil' by Herman Broch. This deeply angry piano masterwork displays also McCabe's despair at the untimely death of three friends, but ends with a degree of peace and reconciliation. Another major work in the first concert is his Concerto for Piano and Wind Quintet of 1969, in which the composer was also the soloist, and which also seems to imply some possible landscapes of the mind.

The second evening concert, on February 23rd at 7pm, featured McCabe's compositions for brass and wind ensemble, along with Henze's Ragtimes and Habaneras. Here the landscapes depicted were less 'of the mind' and more overtly natural. Deserts and rain-forests have always exerted a strong fascination over the composer, and they were here represented by Canyons, a celebration of the desert country of the south-western USA, for Wind Band; while Rainforest III:Dandenongs (for 13 wind instruments), with its ritualistic and hierarchical character, implies the almost cathedral-like feel of the giant trees of this rainforest area outside Melbourne, Australia. Far away in time and atmosphere, however, another landscape is depicted in The Maunsell Forts, for brass band. This, the latest (and possibly the last) of McCabe's notable series of brass band works, is inspired by the mouldering grandeur of the various groups of sea forts set out in the shallow seas of the Thames/Medway estuary, which were built as a first line of defence in the Second World War. This atmospheric work travels back to the times of their greatest danger, and seems to suggest battle, flak and searchlights, before a return to their lonely present state, out in the swell of the sea.

The final concert, on Friday 24th, took place at lunchtime (1.05pm), and here McCabe's Rainforest I, for 10 players, was perhaps the major work, depicting vividly the intense and busy insect and bird life, yet sense of alien loneliness, of the rainforests of Queensland. A different sort of landscape, this time purely of the mind, seems to occur in the often agonised Cello Sonata, apparently a 'spin-off' from McCabe's ballet, Edward II, though the basic material of the sonata actually pre-dates the larger work. While of his two piano studies, Scrunch (No 8) and Evening Harmonies (No 7), the latter is a landscape of soft nocturnal noises, some soothing, others threatening.

Other public items in this GSMD festival devoted to McCabe included a Piano Masterclass, and a Question and Answer session, in which McCabe talked with long-time friend and fellow-musician, George Odam. For the full range of festival items, see the John McCabe concert archive.