Lexington, VA, USA

Having just heard of the death of John McCabe, a wonderful man and composer with whom we worked closely over the past 30 years, I thought I’d dedicate my blog today to John and all the composers who have written for the KS over the years.

Working with a composer on a commission carries with it a great weight of responsibility. The chance to create art out of nothing is a wonderful opportunity that takes a good number of people to fashion; the initial idea may come from the KS or the composer themselves, but from that point there are rounds of funding, seeds of ideas that need development, concert plans for the premiere and beyond, possible recording projects to immortalise the work… the list goes on and on.

John McCabe was a fascinating composer. You can read all about him in the BBC obituary today, and doubtless in many more in the coming days. For us, he wrote using his signature harmonic language and rhythmic fluency (echoing Stravinsky), and fashioned incredibly sensitive and evocative pieces. Perhaps the finest is his tone poem “Scenes in America Deserta,” written in the early 1990s and setting text by the architectural historian Peter Reyner Banham, describing life and scenery in the arid deserts of the USA. Continuing with the geographical theme, “Cartography” set a poem by Jo Shapcott that traces the ancient boundaries between England and Scotland (Hadrian’s Wall) and England and Wales (Offa’s Dyke). John expertly used music to convey the sentiment of the text in each piece, creating extraordinary atmosphere and poise throughout.

I clearly remember rehearsing with John in Sittingbourne, prior to the premiere of “Cartography,” and finding him an extremely easy man to work with, encouraging and gracious, as we created his work before him. Never afraid to offer comments or criticism, it was an utter pleasure to realise his vision in music, and I dearly wish we could have worked with him again before his death. He will be sorely missed.


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