Composer John White, considered a pioneer of ambient and British minimal music, dies in London.
British composer John White (Berlin, 5 April 1936 – London, 4 January 2004), sometimes referred to as “the invisible man of experimental British music”, died on Thursday in London. The son of an English father and German mother, his family settled in London at the outbreak of World War II.
Although he was always interested in music from an early age and became a pianist capable of performing the music of Liszt, Rachmaninov, Satie and Busoni, White did not begin to study music formally until the age of 19, abandoning the visual arts to which he wanted to devote himself after attending a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony.
White enrolled at the Royal College of Music between 1954 and 1957 and his first compositions were still written under the influence of Messiaen, but he soon came into contact with Cornelius Cardew, the founder of the influential Scratch Orchestra, which White joined as a tuba and trombone player. It was Cardew on cello and White on tuba who premiered Cello and Tuba Machine on 17 May 1968 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall of London’s SouthBank Centre, a work by White that can last up to five hours. This was the first of John White’s systems music compositions, considered, moreover, to be the seminal work of British minimalist music, a year before Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic. Ten years later, White would release a joint album with Bryars, Machine Music, one side for each of them (it was a vinyl Lp), on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label. The title refers to the existence of a common method for each of the pieces composed by White –Autumn Countdown Machine, Son of Gothic Chord, Jew’s Harp Machine and Drinking and Hooting Machine-: a sort of systems or machine process that starts up as soon as the tape starts to turn. In the last of these pieces, in a truly Cageian and minimalist spirit, the five performers -Brian Eno, Christopher Hobbs, Gavin Bryars, Susan Dorey and White himself- drink a bottle of beer and alternate between gulps and blowing into the bottle’s mouth, generating a kind of chorus of mournful owls.
Although described as ‘invisible’, White composed three operas, twenty-five symphonies, 180 piano sonatas and thirty works for ballet, as well as countless works for vocal and chamber ensembles.