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A Celebration of the Life and Music of John White.

Round Chapel, Hackney – 14 April 2024

By Anthony Howell.

Blue bells under the plane trees at the Round Chapel — John might well have composed a piece for them. Now that he is dead, we will never hear the sound that might be made by blue bells. Spring is in its first light leafage. The rest of Clapton is looking clapped out. There’s a kid climbing around the Chapel’s wrought iron gates while his mother texts. How would John have played the blue bells? Possibly you could play them with the stalks of daisies if you first plucked off their petals. I recall John and Chris, at some loud event, playing on their psalteries. This was invisible music. Unhearable sounds clumsy. It was invisible music in an age of massive electronics. John composed a piece for solo double-bass for Jenny and me to dance a tango to in Bunhill Fields, where Blake is buried. This was performed beside an open grave. Impressed by the way tango can be danced to a regular beat or twice or four times as fast or twice or four times as slow, we wished to dance ourselves into utter stillness — and I suggested to John that we needed a piece which slowed down until a single movement of the bow across the strings could take forever.

He told me that he was interested in musical accidents, and you couldn’t really get a better accident than when the trombones came in two bars early in the second act of Swan Lake.

I met John when I was nineteen or twenty, while dancing with the Royal Ballet. Touring had been my choice. Clemency had joined the touring section of the Royal Ballet — known as ‘the other company’ — and I wanted to be with her. I was reading Petrarch and I wanted to be with her forever. She was as pale as a Botticelli. The plan had been that we would share digs together as we toured the provinces. A week before the tour began she told me that she was going to share digs with a big Australian ballerina. John was playing the French horn in the brass section of the orchestra. He had dropped out of teaching composition at the Royal College of Music. I asked him why he had chosen to be employed by this not-terribly-distinguished orchestra. He told me that he was interested in musical accidents, and you couldn’t really get a better accident than when the trombones came in two bars early in the second act of Swan Lake.

Sunderland in the sixties was too much for me. I was sharing with no one, and my Hampstead flat was so expensive that I ended up sleeping in working men’s hostels after dancing as a gipsy in Deux Pigeons — partnering Clemency, who said ‘Well done!’ Drunken men snored or rose every few minutes to get to the lavatory and swore at me if I dared to complain. I had never made entire love to Clemency. We had petted heavily twice. Once in the dark, in my grandmother’s basement at a party I had thrown, aged eighteen where we met. And once in the dark, in my grandmother’s bed at my mother’s farm, a few days before she told me that she was going to tour with Jane. In Sunderland, I gave her a necklace of lovely green stones, which she refused to accept. The next morning a tall soloist called Piers informed me that I was facing the wrong way at the barre. It was true. I realised that I was facing him as we did our pliés. I dropped out of the ballet. I just left and that was that. The ballet master informed my mother that he could forgive my having a breakdown, but could never forgive me as an artist.

Now musicians and composers with silver hair are gathering at the Chapel. We get ushered inside for this memorial concert of John’s music. With its thin pillars supporting its roof from the balcony, while fewer pillars support it from the floor, this Dalston chapel (which should be, poetically, Clapton), is a wonderfully airy structure. I’ve been here before to witness solid light installations by my friend Anthony. The concert begins with a trio playing quadrilles, waltzes and mazurkas by Eric Satie arranged by John. The music takes the breath away. “Satie’s a great representative of the quality of independence. He’s independent in a very unaggressive sort of way. He will give one things that are either very graceful or very thorny with an absolute lack of worry about what people will think,” says a programme note by John.

I am reminded of another John here: John Ashbery, who always said that he preferred the by-ways of literature to its highways – and where John W loved Satie and the percussive qualities of Southeast Asian music, John A loved Raymond Roussell and Adolfo Bioy Casares.

Dropping out was a thing that one did in the sixties. It was damaging to one’s career but it offered independence. John had dropped out of establishment composition. While deeply versed in classicism, and often referencing the canon, his is a conceptual music that goes beyond the ‘classical’ modernism of Britten and Tippett. John was creating systemic music at the same time as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. But at that time he had an aversion to electronics and his music was far quieter than theirs, so he never caught the fashionable wave that swept Glass, Reich and Riley into popularity. But perhaps popularity was never quite what John was about. I am reminded of another John here: John Ashbery, who always said that he preferred the by-ways of literature to its highways and where John W loved Satie and the percussive qualities of Southeast Asian music, John A loved Raymond Roussell and Adolfo Bioy Casares.

The Wine Connoisseur’s Shoot Out (2014) is scored for stylophone, any four percussion instruments for each player (including bottles in this performance) and two speaking voices. The text is drawn from a list of four red and two white wines available from Borough Wines, and one separately listed very expensive Pauillac. Obviously, there is an element of dadaist absurdity here, but the resulting music is far from being ridiculous. It has a very precise structure. The sounds are sharp as pin-pricks, the spoken verses weird as runic chants. It is as if your ears had been invited into a Southeast Asian restaurant where the most esoteric sound-dishes had been prepared. Underneath the frivolity there is a serious purpose. Just as the French artists introduced Japanese art to the West, while Ezra Pound brought us versions of Chinese poetry, John has gone further than Debussy or any composer before him to introduce the music of another part of the globe to us and incorporate tonal percussion into composition here. I recall John and Chris playing wonderful systemic duets for a variety of wooden xylophones, tiny gongs and chimes. The notes were like tesserae, creating a mosaic that happened inside your ears. Never to be forgotten events!

But there are also John’s sonatas for piano. I think there are over 150 of them. Some are simply one movement, and that movement may be very short or very long, some have from two to at least five movements, so far as I can tell. At this concert in the Round Chapel, as the wine flows in the intervals between its sections, at least half a dozen of these sonatas are played by at least as many soloists. Some pieces move along quietly, sinuously; rippling like sunlight on water, while in other pieces one note simply follows another as in the words of a poem. Others are formidable abstract structures, steps of pure timbre, reminding me of the sheer slabs of colour to be found in the paintings of Mark Rothko. John’s comments on particular sonatas are to be found in the programme notes: “The Rustic” – owes its nature to instructions given by a session keyboard player on how to do the accompaniments of Country and Western Waltzes.” “The Caledonian” maintains a climate of beefy exuberance which was inspired by an article on Scottish football supporters that appeared in the Observer.”  Then there is a sonata “to be played as if written for strings by Berlioz and conducted by Beecham.” Another piece, for soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, violin and cello was “originally intended to be a dark and sinuous waltz. But following a sun-drenched holiday in Spain it has become a rondo in the Fuengirola-Gothick idiom.”

John extended a charitable sympathy towards underprivileged instruments. 

John extended a charitable sympathy towards underprivileged instruments. There are several astounding Concert Duos for tuba and piano. The juxtaposition and congruence of these two wildly different species of sound very much demonstrates John’s originality as a composer. Again I am reminded of some refined notion of haute cuisine two extraordinary tastes being brought together to create an unforgettable combination. And then there are exhilarating piano duets, and although it is now four and we started at one pm, and we are all of us getting more drunk, I think to myself, This is just the tip of the iceberg! What about the brass quintets? What about the object trouvé ensembles? John’s output was a veritable cornucopia. The concert continues until 6 o’clock.

John’s happenings “work” – being meticulously composed, each capable of generating an original kind of sound in a developing way which goes far beyond being a mere gesture.

I am enthralled. All the pieces selected to be heard this afternoon are played by such excellent musicians, far too many to be mentioned by name, all gathered here to celebrate a dearly loved champion of musical integrity as well as musical humour. All willing to participate in a fair sample of his  musical happenings such as the Newspaper Reading Machine — an ensemble work written for the New Arts Lab in 1969, and the point is: as music, John’s happenings “work” being meticulously composed, each capable of generating an original kind of sound in a developing way which goes far beyond being a mere gesture. Later his aversion for electronics changed into enthusiasm, so long as it was not just about generating volume but about generating previously unheard sounds. About all his work, whether played on conventional instruments or on found objects or machine generated, there is a certain inimitable quality of distinctness. And that is even the case with the bottles blown across in the Drinking and Hooting Machine — for which the flautist had by far the best embouchure and since, as this concert drew to its close, the Live Batts weird electronic sampling session invited the audience to dance, I did get up and danced enthusiastically, if alone, ending, by the purest chance, just as the session ended with my jacket with its blue bell coloured lining inside-out, hung over my head.










Edward John White, composer and pianist, born 5 April 1936; died 4 January 2024

Edward John White was born in Berlin in 1936 to an English father and German mother; he arrived in London in 1938. According to his mother’s biography: “His musical tendencies showed quite early: fundamentally cheerful and content, he was always humming tunes, mostly inventing them, and singing to his toy animals. One grey morning it was pouring with rain outside — he was heard bouncing about in his nursery… skipping around a heap of toys he had piled up in the middle of the room, singing to himself. Asked what he was doing at six o’clock in the morning, he replied ‘I’m trying to cheer myself up!’

He took piano and theory lessons from the age of 4 with Hélène Gipps, a second-generation pupil of Brahms and later with Elisabeth Lutyens, Kenneth van Barthold, Rosamund Ley, Arthur Alexander, and Eric Harrison. He took a lively interest from early teenage in the musical exception rather than the rule and his interests at that time included Satie, Milhaud, Busoni and Hindemith, later, early Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Skalkottas and Stockhausen.

As a teenager he was an avid cyclist, built his own sports bike and took 5 months off school to cycle around Switzerland, meeting Ferdi Kübler and Hugo Koblet, winners of the Tour de France in 1950 and 51. He left school at 16 and went to work in the display department at Harrods while taking evening classes in interior design. His paternal grandfather and aunt were both painters in the artistic community in St. Ives and were, perhaps, the source of his lifelong passion for visual arts. Through them he met Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, who fuelled his interest in sculpture. Nonetheless, his interest in music continued — he gained a performer’s certificate from the Royal College of Music and entered the college in 1955. At age 19, while still a student at the RCM, he encountered the enlightened tonality of Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony, which inspired his first piano sonata (1956). John later commented: “all the arduous and scholarly aspects of composition which had been apparent to me before were swept away by the immediate delights of work within the chromatic modes (with their inbuilt choice of paranormal melody and harmony, or a more fragmented musical texture in which the most diverse elements could become related through modalexclusivity). Messiaen’s rhythmic apparatus seemed infinitely liberating in that it contained the creative possibilities of the squarest of repetitive figures and the control of great rhythmic fluidity.”1

(from A Celebration of the Life of John White) 

For a full biography see John  White’s Wikipedia page here.

Anthony HowellANTHONY HOWELL, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of  The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbookThe Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and PracticeDetails about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Editions, are here. In 2019, his exploration of psychic chaos, Consciousness (with Multilation)was published by the Fortnightly’s imprint, Odd Volumes. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window). His epic The Runiad is currently being featured in serial form in The Fortnightly Review.

Image: photos courtesy of Margaret Coldiron. Round Chapel image via Wikimedia Commons (Tarquin Binary, CC BY-SA 2.5).


  1. From A Celebration of the Life of John White, St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, compiled with the following listed sources: EJ White, M. E. White, John Tilbury, Virginia Anderson, Sarah Walker, Brian Dennis, Chris Hobbs, Dave Smith.

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