John Carbon, composer

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Although he wasn’t a professional musician, my father played the piano and saxophone. I was exposed to classical music at a very early age. I started to play piano and clarinet as a young child. My father took me to a series featuring famous pianists who presented recitals in Orchestra Hall in Chicago. I was able to hear Rubenstein, Horowitz, Gould, Landowska, and Argerich. These concerts made a huge impression on me. I remember wanting to be a composer whose music might be performed by great musicians in Orchestra Hall and wanted to write pieces like the ones I heard in these recitals. Although I studied piano throughout graduate school and continued to perform I didn’t really want to be a performer, instead always a composer.

I also heard quite a bit of jazz growing up as my father played jazz sax and had a record collection that included Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck. I played clarinet in the orchestra and enjoyed performing works such as Bernstein’s West Side Story. In grade school we had an entire hour every day in which we sang a variety of vernacular music. I also enjoyed collecting records. I had all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and a very large collection of popular music, including British rock and roll. Later, during a break from college when I was living in San Francisco in the early 70’s I lived around the corner from the Fillmore where I heard performers such as Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix and later Bob Dylan. I also enjoyed Joni Mitchell and collected all of her albums.

I started to compose as early as age six (a song for voice and piano) then solo piano music when I was about eleven. I remember my father telling me that my Piano Sonata was good, but not as good as Prokofiev, which made me more ambitious. I started to study with the British composer Peter Fricker when I was eighteen at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He was exacting and taught me a great deal about orchestration. I had three other teachers, Paul Cooper, Thea Musgrave and Emma Lou Diemer. After the rather conservative chromatic motivic manipulation that characterized Fricker’s work, exposure to Thea Musgrave’s dramatic abstract experimental music introduced me to an entirely different world. It came at just the right time in the early 1970’s when I was able to absorb a more improvisatory language. She taught me to write for the orchestra, that is, instead of translating my piano music into orchestral colors, she encouraged me to conceive the work directly for the orchestra. She also freed me from a strictly linear approach to composing, showing me new ways to shuffle and rearrange my ideas. I was very influenced by her Ivesian dramatic abstract concerti and her operatic writing.

In the end though, although these teachers were very influential, a large part of my language was developed independently after I finished my formal education. The fusion of a more tonal, lyrical, post-modern language with more chromatic and less tonal sections developed gradually after I was on my own. Much of the tonal language I incorporate in my works was always something I employed, but when I was younger that style was something “different” that didn’t belong in what I thought were my most serious works. Gradually these two stylistic bents fused into a more inclusive language that I think is less calculating and more natural. I gradually was able to feel free to use whatever vocabulary that I felt was natural and not forced.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve enjoyed working with quite a few superb musicians who have worked very hard to give me excellent performances and recordings. Like most composers I would like to get my works into the hands of more musicians and have more people hear and hopefully enjoy my music. I’ve never been particularly good at promoting myself. I’ve spent so much time composing and teaching that little time was available for the time-consuming job of disseminating my work.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

I’ve found it particularly exciting when performers make a work their own through interpretation or collaboration. I enjoy working to create music that suits a particular performer’s temperament and abilities. Some of my most exciting collaborations have been operatic. I particularly enjoyed being part of the realization of the operatic roles in my comedic Franklin opera ‘Benjamin’. I also have enjoyed my collaborations with librettists. There’s nothing like the excitement of being asked to add a storm to a scene overnight.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

I’ve very much enjoyed being present at the recording sessions of my orchestral work. Interacting with conductor Gerard Schwarz and clarinet soloist Richard Stoltzman and working with legendary orchestras such as the Warsaw Philharmonic have been peak experiences and I will always cherish those memories.

During one of the most active parts of my career I had a recording session and concert in Prague and had to fly the next day to a recording session and performance at Lincoln Center in NYC. It seems that high-profile activity often bunches close together on the schedule and then fortunately there are long periods of inactivity so there is time to compose. I don’t know how I did it. I was much younger then and in some ways I’m happy that things are much less busy now.

Of which works are you most proud?

I think my Rhapsody for clarinet and orchestra (1997) is one of my best works. It is available as a re-release on Zimbel recordings “John Carbon, Music for Clarinet” and the performance by Doris Hall-Gulati, clarinet, and Gerard Schwarz conducting the New York Chamber Orchestra is particularly good. Smaller works might include the Three Impromptus for piano (2014) available on Convivium recordings (released 2020) and performed by pianist Steven Graff.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I think it is a fusion of more tonal, lyrical music with sections of more contrapuntal chromatic language. There is a strong tendency towards melody. People have observed that all of it is in some way vocally conceived.

How do you work?

I compose at the piano, even when working on an orchestral work, then I transfer sections to Sibelius so I can get a better idea of pacing. For a longer work like my oratorio Soldiers of Remembrance (1 hour 20 minutes) it can take as long as 12 months to complete everything. For a smaller work (say a 10-minute chamber work) it might take a few months. I usually start with a general feeling, search for the meaning (what is this about?) and then extra-musical conceptions can often guide the formal structure. For example, my Astro Dogs (2019) is a piano work about dog agility classes and the zodiac signs. Once I realized that this was the idea at hand the piece developed hand in hand with the extra-musical conception. I do quite a bit of shuffling and rewriting – I don’t write from measure 1 to the end. Ideas emerge out of order and need to be sorted out. I haven’t written anything that wasn’t requested since graduate school, so much of the work is predetermined (length, instrumentation, topic, performance situation and performer).

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To feel that I have written music that is the best I can write and to know without a doubt that it is really good music. I also think providing the listener a meaningful experience is very near the top of my priorities.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

For performers, don’t be afraid to interpret new works. Composers usually want something more than “the notes and nothing else.” For composers, don’t be afraid to write what you really want to hear. Also, don’t write only what you think other people want to hear.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I think the way in which classical music is presented might be off-putting to some people who might otherwise be surprised at how much they could enjoy music that they have previously pushed away. By that I mean the too-often formal, claustrophobic, uncomfortable setting of the concert hall is a non-starter for many people. Things that have now become more common, such as performers speaking to the audience, a less formal presentation in general, and inclusion of music representing a wider mixture of styles can help. Audiences enjoy visual stimulation. One performance of a recent work of mine included the inclusion of a commissioned visual artwork inspired by my piece that was displayed in conjunction with the premiere during a wine and cheese reception. The artist was available to discuss the collaboration before the piece was played in the round. Instead of being crammed into a tight commuter jet styled seating space, chairs were spaced around the orchestra in small groups and the chairs could be moved into clusters. These kinds of freedoms might help generate more interest.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Somewhere where I can see the Milky Way and hear the crickets.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I think perfect happiness is something indestructible that is not dependent on external events. Maintaining this kind of happiness takes continual effort but it is worth it, particularly when life is challenging.

What is your most treasured possession?

I think my great grandfather’s pocket watch is special.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Lately I’ve been enjoying streaming opera performances, language study, genealogy and long walks with my dog.

What is your present state of mind?

I’m very aware of how quickly Spring passes.


John Carbon (born 1951) began to play the piano and compose at a very early age. His first composition for voice and piano was written at the age of five, and he continued to write music during his childhood and adolescence. Coming from a musical family, he was exposed to a wide variety of musical influences including classical music, folk music, operettas and rock and roll. His eclectic musical background accounts for the wide variety of styles that he now embraces in his work. During his high school years he played and wrote for a rock band, but he also performed standard classical repertoire as a pianist and composed orchestral works that were influenced by Stravinsky and Prokofiev. His father played jazz saxophone, and some of Carbon’s works, notably his Clarinet Concerto (1993), written for Richard Stoltzman and the Warsaw Philharmonic, incorporate bluesy harmonies and rhythms. 

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