An Interview with John McLachlan

John McLachlan, approaching his fortieth birthday this month, speaks on video to Bernard Clarke about his music, his theories of composition and the continuity of tradition. Originally published in 2004.

Bernard Clarke: John, the last time we spoke you had recently become a father. Has fatherhood changed the composer?

John McLachlan: Yes, very much so. When we had Dan, I felt I had to get cracking and really get organised if I was going to continue composing. Because he was, of course, going to be a bit of a distraction on the one hand, but also I had this vision of him as an older person saying, ‘Well, what have you done with your life?’ and I felt that I had better have something to show. So it was really a bit of a spur in that way. And then of course personally to anybody, becoming a father is massive, and [there are] the other terrible issues that may come into your mind from your own father and so on. So yes, of course it has me spinning around, but I am very happy about my relationship with him as well as the fact that it has done something for my composing.

BC: Did the birth of Dan impact on your style then?

JMcL: You can’t really tell sometimes, unless you look back later on. I would say that there were changes in my style around that time partly to do with that but also to do with the fact that I had just finished a PhD. The PhD drew away far more of my creative energies than any child ever could: a lesson to all! So there were a few years when I wasn’t composing and when I got the PhD out of the way I was back in with a bang. As a result of that hiatus I started to compose many pieces quickly and started to reassess my style very deeply. I think that has nothing to do with Dan.

BC: Just timing?

JMcL: Yes -- a bit of a coincidence. There was one piece I wrote with a more user-friendly effect and dedicated to him, called Here Be Dragons.

BC: That leads us to a question that has just occurred to me: who is John McLachlan and can we define that composer?

Interview with John McLachlan: clip1

JMcL: Well, I would say in my own self image I would love to be ‘out there’ and ‘cutting edge’, completely revolutionary and taking the world by storm. But the evidence would seem to suggest that I am more conservative than that by nature. I would like to think that I am reinterpreting tradition and doing so in a very relevant and exciting way. My attitude to composition is very heavily laden with pursuing issues of mastering technique, and I am not afraid of re-interpreting old techniques like fugal forms and so on. But at the same time I would never write something that everyone can see is ‘just’ a fugue because I would find that very boring.

BC: Can one be in thrall to technique? Is there a danger of that?

JMcL: Well, I wouldn’t know because if there is a danger of that then I must be a huge candidate! I hope there isn’t, you know.

BC: You specialised in the composition techniques of Boulez, Xenakis, Lutoslawski and Carter for your PhD. Do you think there is a similar aim from the four of them?

JMcL: You can always find a way of grouping any set of themes and objects together but if you take those four, they are incredibly different; there is no question about it. But if you look at someone like Cage then suddenly those four begin to seem a little more similar, because they are all quite traditional about the centrality of the composer whereas Cage subverts that and asks the audience to complete the work. They don’t want to do that, the four we mentioned there, except Boulez, occasionally. So aesthetically they are all very complicated, high modernists.

BC: When you sat down to write some early works like the Concerto for Chamber Orchestra, or the Five Movements for Piano for instance, did you sometimes feel Carter or Lutoslawski looking over your shoulder?

Interview with John McLachlan: clip2

JMcL: Much more so than that actually. TheConcerto for Chamber Orchestra was written after a period of intense study of Ligeti. So it is actually Ligeti who comes in there, not the others, but I don’t think that that is a problem. That does not mean that it is weak or derivative.

BC: No, I’m not suggesting that...

JMcL: No... I was even encouraged in my studies by a professor inTrinity [College, Dublin], who told me not to be afraid of using or absorbing ideas, whether they are techniques or structural procedures or orchestration, because by the time they have been through the mill of your mind they won’t resemble those past examples. But in actual fact I do think if someone was listening to my Concerto and had a really encyclopaedic knowledge of those great orchestral pieces of Ligeti and Penderecki and Xenakis, they would say ‘yes, he’s out of that stable at that point in time’.

BC: The quote at the top of your composer biography on the Contemporary Music Centre’s web site reads ‘Music has not changed all that much, it is still concerned with the balance between intelligence and imagination, the anchor of technique and the flight of expression, getting that balance right, while renewing both is the challenge we set ourselves.’ How do you renew what hasn’t changed that much?

JMcL: Well, maybe I just used bad English there! The important thing is that music hasn’t changed in the fundamentals. Maybe there are people out there who can say the opposite, but if you take the concert audience and the social situation and the instruments, none of that has changed very much in the last 150 years. I believe also that there is tremendous continuity of tradition in what we call ‘art music’. Maybe I am attracted -- I don’t want to come across as conservative -- but I suppose I am often attracted to music where I can hear the continuity of tradition. I am more ready to latch onto Ligeti than I am to some of the harder -- you might say more challenging -- multi-hour works of Feldman, and so on.

BC: Turning to your own music, tell us about the string trio, Radical roots, Racines radicales.

JMcL: Well, that’s a great piece! I really liked writing that piece and was very happy with the result. It is a very recent piece and I have only written one more work since then so it is difficult to know, but it could be a turning point in my style.

BC: Do you think that it fulfils some of those tenets that are central to you as a composer, that this is in a sense getting the balance right?


Interview with John McLachlan: clip3

JMcL: Yes absolutely, that is why I am pleased with it. It is quite entertaining but not patronising. It does bring in Modernist things that I hold dear like a certain level of -- dare I say it -- cognitive opacity, if you can bear the term. And yet it has also married some incredibly simple means. It uses rhythmic structures that are endlessly non-repeating and therefore it sounds very modern. But it is monodic, so there’s only a melody most of the time. There is some heterophony but it is very thin, and that of course makes it very easy to listen to. It is also based on continuous movement in one time value so on the surface you are getting the message, ‘This is simple, this is very transparent’ but underneath, ‘Oh wait a minute, the rhythm is totally opaque’. So it is a lovely marriage of the best of Minimalism and the best of Modernism. This is my own personal, highly egotistical reading. I am very excited about that piece, as you can see!

BC: Your fortieth birthday is approaching and for many this is a watershed in their lives. How do you feel?

Interview with John McLachlan: clip4

JMcL: Yes, I have talked to other composers who would agree with that... Well, it tends to be that simply by that stage you have got quite a substantial number of works that you would look back on and that you can assess. There are so many things that have changed in my output and yet I can certainly see a unifying mindset, or love of, complexities. And then of course there is the general human thing that everybody gets into a bit of a crisis when they reach forty.

BC: I am looking forward to post-forty John McLachlan!

JMcL: Well, I am too! You know, all I want from my birthday is another birthday.

BC: John, do you write at the piano or the computer? Or do you write away from them?

JMcL: All of those things really. I tend to conceptualise freely at the outset. If I am working at a new piece for specific instruments at a specific length, that is a given and then everything else tends to be free. So I need to remove some of that freedom. I start to conceptualise about sound worlds and what kind of dramatic or psychological effect I want the piece to have on the listener. And then I start to remove choices, to remove various freedoms one by one until there is nothing left. It is like Michelangelo, if I may be so pretentious, saying ‘I just chipped away until David was left; you know I started with a rock.’

BC: When you get your teeth into a piece the piece takes over?

Interview with John McLachlan: clip5

JMcL: Yes, that’s true. I start with this kind of raw conceptualisation, where I hear raw sounds in my imagination and I write down in English my impressions first, and then diagrams.

BC: In written words? Language?

JMcL: Yes, and then that will go along with diagrams which are graphical pictorial ideas, shapes and so on, and at any point I may also begin writing on manuscript. But this will all be away from the piano or the computer. It will be at a desk, or in the back garden, or when I am walking or in a train. So I can be composing virtually anywhere. Very often I have my absolutely best ideas walking to the shops!

BC: Do you have a composing routine? Would you have breakfast and get a couple of hours done?

Interview with John McLachlan: clip6

JMcL: I have an amazing ability to juggle time, if that is not too self-congratulatory. When I was younger the problem was, if I wrote and then had a break of two days I would be going, ‘Where was I? What was I thinking? What does this mean?’ But now I have devised methods, as I said to you -- writing in English and so on -- and I can snap right back into that place instantly, which saves a lot time. I just have to disentangle the unfinished sentence that I have left for myself and then I’m rolling.

BC: If we might turn to your work as the executive director of theAssociation of Irish Composers, some of the aims of the AIC are to develop international audiences for Irish arts and to bring international arts to Irish audiences. Can you tell us about some of those aims in more detail?

JMcL: The Association of Irish Composers is under the umbrella of the International Society for Contemporary Music, and there is an annual international festival [the ISCM World Music Days] of eight to ten days of music with four or five concerts a day. Myself and maybe some Irish composers who are featured, get to go and hear that. There is a great opportunity there to make contact with other representational bodies, AIC’s parallels in other countries. We also have bilateral partnerships so we have had exchanges with Switzerland and Romania, for example.

BC: Are there any other forms of music that you like? Jazz or dance or rap or blues, or...?

JMcL: I often say to people, there are only two forms of music: good music and bad music. I enjoy listening to a lot of different kinds of music: rock, and so on. But there would be so much that I couldn’t bear to put on. If you took a random selection from HMV or any record store and made me sit down and listen to ten CDs at random, especially newer stuff, I would probably find half a track and I’d say, ‘there’s something interesting here, but I really hate the rest of it, it’s appalling!’ You know? So there’s good music and bad music and the bad always outweighs the good. I’d like to say that the same isn’t true for my genre, but the majority of music that you’ll hear at new music concerts is probably bad in the sense that it’s not going to have much of a future and it doesn’t deserve much of a future. But that to me is a positive point -- which is a thing that the audience very often misses -- because the audience is in the position of having to go to a concert and decide for themselves, ‘is this good or bad?’ If they can’t handle that, fine: go and find a concert of Bach and Beethoven and leave us all alone. Because the people who come to a concert and want to have it all pre-approved and guaranteed brilliant are bringing no contribution whatsoever.

BC: 2005, John: any more plans?

JMcL: I am writing a piece for flute and guitar for John Feeley [guitar] and Bill Dowdall [flute] so that is a definite. Then a Danish ensemble called Nordlise, which means Northern Lights, wants me to write a piece for 2005 and it happens to be the centenary of Hans Christian Andersen so I’ve read his entire collected folk tales and chosen one. David Adams[keyboards] is going to produce a CD that will have a piece of mine on it, and John Feeley likewise. There may be others in the pipeline so yes, there’s always plenty to keep me going.

BC: Well, here’s looking forward to the post-forty John McLachlan!

JMcL: Thank you very much.

John McLachlan was interviewed on video by Bernard Clarke at the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 6 February 2004.

The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.