The Wire JANUARY 1997 - by John L. Walters


It's time to recognise the prodigious output of John White, a musician whose influential body of work joins the dots between lo-fi electronics, The Scratch Orchestra, and the birth of Ambient music.

Is John White the invisible man of British experimental music? His particular blend of "systems and sentimentality" (to borrow Michael Nyman's description) has never become trendy, nor was it seen as politically or academically correct in a New Music scene dominated by near-contemporaries such as Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle. The big prizes and honours have eluded White (born in Berlin in 1936 but brought up in London), and heavyweight music critics have routinely rubbished his work: 'Rachmaninov without the tunes'; 'Satie without the humour'. Contemporary music guru Paul Griffiths wrote something to the effect that "anyone with a name as bland as John White will have to sharpen up his act". But some consider him to be one of the greatest musicians of his time, Satie to Cornelius Cardew's Debussy, and a direct but rarely credited influence on Brian Eno and the whole Ambient movement. As Gavin Bryars puts it: "John is a genius of the highest order."

Descriptions of White's music can confound: an odd mixture of decadent romanticism, serenity and humour; a touch of Feldman, Cage, Satie, Grainger, Kraftwerk. Deep inside his beautifully constructed pieces is something tough and enduring. He's a great pianist, and performs Satie, Liszt and Busoni with the same dedication he applied when recording music by Christopher Hobbs and Harold Budd for Eno's Obscure label in the 1970s.

When John Cage died, White made a thirty-second elegy from the words "Bye-bye John Cage". It's so simple, performed on a battery-powered toy sampler and mastered to chrome cassette, that it felt as if anybody could have done it, yet the piece is timeless, funny and full of musicality. White's music makes many other composers sound foolish, their compositions stuffed with unnecessary notes.

White's discography, a handful of hard-to-find low-budget recordings, adds to the confusion. Fashion Music, featuring clarinettist Ian Mitchell accompanied by keyboards and 'little machines', is like a genetic experiment performed on Michael Nyman by members of The Yellow Magic Orchestra. White's new NMC CD - containing eighteen of his one hundred and thirty-one piano sonatas performed by Roger Smalley - is full of wonderful tunes and historical references, but just another tip of the White Iceberg.

Composer Ian Gardiner, who has orchestrated some of White's piano sonatas, says: "He's extremely subversive, you can't pigeonhole him. In Frank Zappa's music the satire is very up front, in every note he writes, but with John, the humour is in the small nuances."

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White didn't compose until he was nineteen, but had a thorough grounding in the practice and theory of music from the age of four. He received tuition in theory and analysis from Elizabeth Lutyens, whom he describes as "a lone wolf who scratched a meagre living from Hammer soundtracks and theatre music". White was a student at the Royal College of Music from 1954-57, a significant time for full-frontal exposure to New Music. Hearing Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony was, he says, "like the first hit of crack. And his early, Messiaen-influenced works were met with glowing reviews.

But White's individuality - what Bryars calls his "perversity, in the strictest sense" soon put him out of joint with the time. He side-stepped contemporary music academia by working extensively in theatre and ballet productions, where he felt himself to be "just one of the workers".

"I am very conscious of the musical needs of the theatre," says White, who is both professional notesmith, hacking out music for the theatre, and romantic artist, churning out sonatas and symphonies (twenty-five) and all manner of concert works from his East London garret "A cue either works or it doesn't. It never bothered me or seemed like a limitation to do pastiche. Being trained to listen from an early age has enabled me to pick up the basics of any style."

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After a period in the wilderness in the early 1960s White met Cornelius Cardew. He had given a performance of Cardew's graphic score Octet 61, and the association led him to discover Cage, Feldman and a host of experimental composers. "The innate theatricality of it appealed to me," he explains. "I became critical of Stockhausen later on when he became too serious."

White played tuba and trombone in Cardew's Scratch Orchestra, and performed his Cello And Tuba Machine with Cardew at a South Bank event in the early 1970s (Up to five hours in length, the piece is immortalised in one of the Guinness books as the longest ever written for cello and tuba). Bryars says it was "one of the most stunning concerts of that period". Dave Smith, a Scratch veteran who has catalogued White's vast musical output, elaborates: "Cello And Tuba Machine is art Muzak. It's very long and very flat, but fascinating to listen to. The whole Brian Eno Ambient thing, Music For Airports and so on, comes from John White."

"I remember recording an hour's worth of Cello And Tuba Machine for Eno in the Island studio," says White. "Eno was moving towards that Ambient stuff he was doing, which was pretty closely linked to the musical environment of that time: the very spaced-out music some of us were toying with, and the use of readymades by Christopher Hobbs and myself."

White parted company with Cardew during a concert at Liverpool. "He addressed the audience and asked how many of them had a truly working class world consciousness, at which point I saw I had to jump ship. I collected up my parts [for a piece entitled The Chairman's Enemies' Favourite Things] and walked off."

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White summarises his approach to orchestration by saying, "I eat what's on my plate". If the budget is tight or non-existent, he's happy to make music with whatever players are to hand, or with no instruments at all, as in The Drinking And Hooting Machine (1971), scored for a bunch of drinking companions who blow across and drink from bottles of alcohol, becoming progressively more inebriated in the process. White's party piece.

Economic factors also triggered his interest in electronics, when a National Theatre production of the early '80s required the sounds of fifteen musicians from a budget for two. So White bought a Tandy Realistic synthesizer, followed by some Casio home keyboards.

Live Batts, the group he runs with Italian composer Andrea Rocca and American keyboard player Jiggs Coldiron (occasionally augmented by flautist Nancy Ruffer) continues his interest in lo-fi electronics. The name refers to the battery-powered synths that White claims to prefer. This is another example of White's subversive agenda: Live Batts makes gentle fun of both laborious, expensive, institutionalised electroacoustic music and the home-keyboard market.

White is not a composer who presents a finished, polished 'product' in the way that more successful contemporaries such as Nyman, Glass or Reich have done. Like Kurt Schwitters, White's life and work make up his life's work. And as with Frank Zappa's 'project/object' (to borrow Ben Watson's phrase for the totality of Zappa's output), there's a complex web of arcane musical cross-references, quotations and inferences that few can expect to grasp in total There's a turntable artist in his head. "There's an element of cruising in what I do," he suggests. "I run into someone who is an enthusiast for some particular area of music and know that I'll end up making music with them."

"He could have taken more care of himself," says Bryars. "He has no sense of his own history." Yet White dismisses the idea of being a superstar composer who produces masterpieces, saying: "Composition isn't something for everybody, but it's not work for intellectual giants. A lot of people like myself just have a physical love of handling music."

A foreign journalist once asked White to describe his position in the British musical establishment "I just work here," came the reply.