John McLeod | Dancing with the sun

- 2 June 2014

Easy to listen to but not easy listening – that is John McLeod’s assessment of his music, which is enjoying welcome exposure in his 80th birthday year.

John McLeod: ‘It’s always nice to get surprises’ © WOJTEK KUTYLA

John McLeod: ‘It’s always nice to get surprises’

Celebrations of significant composer birthdays tend to generate a flurry of performances and new commissions, providing an opportunity to reflect on and reassess a body of work anew. Although this is a busy year for the Scottish composer John McLeod, who turned 80 in March, he believes the additional exposure is indicative of how new technology has helped draw attention to his work.

Twenty years ago, McLeod took Britten’s advice that a composer if he can help it must also be an entrepreneur, and took all his publisher contracts back, setting up his own independent publishing company, Griffin Music. The Aberdeen-born composer says promoting and having control of his own work has made a huge difference to reaching a wider audience as has being online. The 20 tracks he uploaded on to SoundCloud last year have so far received more than 4,000 hits.

Describing his music as post-modernist, McLeod is delighted that this type of music is at last attracting attention. ‘In the 1960s there wasn’t an appetite for composers who didn’t write in a post-Darmstadt way. My music is the opposite of that, fairly easy to listen to but by no means easy listening, it can be quite challenging.’
Over the years the influences on McLeod’s music have been rich and varied. When he started composing in his teens his heroes were Shostakovich, Debussy, Ravel. After he studied with Lennox Berkeley, McLeod’s horizons widened further with the study of Boulez, Messiaen and Birtwistle during a year-long fellowship at the Royal Northern College of Music. But the biggest shift in style came in the late 1980s when he got to know Witold Lutosławski and was hugely influenced by his new ideas, particularly aleatoric music.
‘It gave players tremendous freedom by taking away the barlines and creating textures which were very exciting,’ says McLeod. ‘It was probably the turning point for me in developing a new musical language. My music is a mixture of French, Russian and Polish; a bit of a melting point out of which a style emerges which is hopefully my own.’

Over the years his music has kept evolving, as his confidence has increased. He says this first crystallised in the 1980s with three symphonic song cycles: Leider der Jugend, which won the Guinness Prize, The Seasons of Dr Zhivago, and The Whispered Name. These critically acclaimed pieces gave him the confidence that he could write for orchestra and were swiftly followed by The Gokstad Ship and The Song of Dionysius, his percussion concerto for Evelyn Glennie, performed at the 1989 Proms.

This year’s Proms will see Donald Runnicles and the BBCSSO perform McLeod’s 2001 work, The Sun Dances. Inspired by a small west of Scotland community’s belief that the sun dances on Easter Sunday, McLeod says the work contains all his musical trademarks. ‘It’s a tone poem, not just an abstract piece of music with aleatoric bits, big tunes, all sorts of things.’

Indeed, many of McLeod’s titles for works reflect his passion for art and literature – outside music his big hobby is writing short stories. Although he hasn’t yet published any of the contents of his bottom drawer, McLeod says he would love to write the music and libretto for an opera. It is surprising that a composer of such stature and experience has not had an opera performed. He came close in the 1990s with a work he wrote for Scottish Opera which was unfortunately a casualty of a company crisis and a change in management.

McLeod hopes there is still time to fulfil this ambition and takes heart from the experiences of other composers. ‘Janáček wrote his best works towards the end of his life and Elliott Carter was 101 when his last work was premiered. It’s always nice to get surprises such as new commissions and revivals of other works, so hopefully this won’t be a one-year wonder, as I just want to keep on writing.’ 

John McLeod’s The Sun Dances is at the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, on 3 August

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