John McDonald, composer

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


My first mentor – one of two people I consider my musical fathers (both of whom are Black) – was William Appling, pianist and conductor, whose last musical testament was an inimitable recording of Scott Joplin’s complete rags, waltzes, and marches (WASO label). I can’t tell you how influential it has been to have this document, released in 2017 more than a decade after Appling’s death. Bill had lost the use of his legs from a botched operation in about 2005, but he nevertheless recorded all the music on his Steinway D at home. He had no ability to use pedals – just the keyboard. Listening to this recording, I can SEE the music shaped by Bill’s hands – hands which I remember helping shape my own playing in the 1970s during my teenage years. How this music and Appling’s physicality while playing stays with me is inexplicably organic and remarkable.

Unbelievably, Appling was the first African American pianist to record this complete Joplin repertory – a full century after Joplin’s death. All previous recordings were by white pianists. It took that long.

More recent but equally formative influences on my own work come from T.J. Anderson, Jr., my living musical father (he is actively working at age 91 – through the pandemic and beyond). Appling and Anderson both worked closely with Robert Shaw – Appling as Shaw’s assistant conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus (part of the George Szell era), and Anderson as Shaw’s Composer in Residence with the Atlanta Symphony from 1969 to 1971. T.J. taught composition topics and African American music at Tufts University from 1972 to 1990. I knew him in the Boston new music community starting in the 1980s, but really got to know him after he retired and after I started working at Tufts. For several years now, I’ve been working on a biographical book and recording project about Anderson. We have an ongoing dialogue about his work and about music and creativity as well as just about any other subject you could name. His music and the music of many of his former students is, as you might imagine, a big part of my orbit and daily creative life.

I have been fortunate to encounter many more influential teachers and colleagues – too many to list here.


I’ve found rational number patterns enormously useful and even inspiring in my writing over the past couple of decades. Simple counting procedures of various kinds can be found all over my compositions. This counting can be discovered in the many balanced syllabic poem or verse forms that are ‘out there’ (ranging from age-old Japanese, European, and other Asian forms to many still being created, both ‘professionally’ and by amateurs), and is also front and center with prime number series, rhyme schemes (including musical “rhymes” or melodic “cadences,” if you will), and more. A few examples of “forms” or series I could point to that I’ve composed with include the “cadae,” a five-line verse form that uses Pi to determine syllable count (3,1,4,1,5); the “fib,” which uses the first six numbers of the Fibonacci prime number series to make a similar but longer stanza; or the Padovan Sequence (named for architect Richard Padovan by author Ian Stewart; it is similar to Fibonacci but not the same). So you could say that manipulating these procedures using musical parameters yields machinations, replications, weaves, knots, fankles, binds, loops, and such. But for me, overall, they represent a repository of potential formal markers or schematic outlines creating an order or density of musical fiber. There are automations or forces of habit peculiar to certain passages that determine specific characters within pieces. Even interval patterns, metrical change, and other musical sub-structures can easily and clearly follow simple or sophisticated rational number outline. Once you look, you find these kinds of patterns everywhere. They can even be randomly generated, but I like tinkering with those that others have invented or discovered to see what can happen – how they will change the action of the music.

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

Hand manuscript; publishing; reconciling a kind of fluency/prolificacy with ‘commerce;’ enormous trouble with the notion of ‘selling oneself’ (and hence a discomfort with what I’m doing here by answering these questions); have always believed that we simply don’t much hear or know enough about the most fascinating music being written right now even with all of our spectacular worldwide communication webs. I’m also frustrated that almost every new piece gets played once and not more. Second/third/fourth performances are too rare.

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

I have found many commissions congenial to work on and others that I needed to work against to feel Ok about. In all cases, limitations (implicit in the nature of any requests) are welcome. One can become more than the composing self one thinks one is when someone asks (requires) that you step outside a previous comfort zone.

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

I feel I can get to what I imagine most directly when I write for a person or people rather than just the instruments they play or vocal range they possess. Then the composing becomes an act of learning about someone (and oneself) through musical dialogue.

In writing for David Holzman, for instance, I was consistently thinking about what he could do – the sounds he makes and how he makes them gesturally/physically. David’s unbridled intensity is unmistakable, and in my pieces intended for and entrusted to his hands, I tried to intuit and fashion passages that he would enjoy diving into and shaping, thereby displaying his myriad pianistic abilities uniquely.

I am a pianist, but a very different one from David. I work as a collaborative pianist with singers and instrumentalists, and have a long history of playing with modern-music ensembles as well as orchestral piano parts in all kinds of repertory. I also spend a lot of my professional energy supporting my composer colleagues by performing their works.

Equally important is my commitment to performing my students’ works. All this helps keep me honest, aware, and hopefully “current.” I have learned from this collection of experiences to create a balance of idiomatic writing and writing that “pushes” – an equilibrium of known, tried and true methods and experimentation or challenge. I try to find this balance in whatever medium I write for or for any solo performers or groups I work with.

Pushing the idiom by writing for what other pianists are good at pushes me as a pianist in the process. By working this way, I feel I can maintain an even exchange with performing colleagues; I am not the composer requiring that musicians “meet my needs,” but simply another musician initiating exchange with a new piece.

Of which works are you most proud?

I’m not sure I’m proud of any works in particular. I am grateful I can keep writing, however.

I don’t have “favourite” pieces from other composers’ repertories or from my own—I’m fond of many, many different musical achievements. I like my music enough to write it (the things I’m not happy with tend to remain unfinished), but don’t feel overly attached to any of it after a while. I tend to be most excited about pieces in progress or that I’ve just finished.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Is “warmth” tonal or atonal? Is “conflict” tonal or atonal?

I could keep listing these kinds of questions, and we’d probably get nowhere conclusive.

So my view is this: “tonality” and “atonality” are inadequate terms to describe what does or might happen across the greater gamut of pitch combinations, and they have become utility words to mean consonance (“pleasant” or “soothing” sounds) or dissonance (“conflicted,” “angular,” “disjointed” sounds). We ought to dissipate the polar associations that have hung on to these words parasitically. Consonance can be tonal or atonal; dissonance can also. And by tonality I mean the functional kind – diatonic or somewhat chromatic. By atonality I mean, simply, not functionally tonal. Then we get somewhere, realizing that consonance and dissonance are really much more specifically contextual, and overall not so different from one another – simply identifiable parts of a larger expressive palette. Think also of chromatic Bach or the centuries of pre-tonal European/Mediterranean styles that were chock full of dissonance and “strife;” modes and motivic groups of notes (hexachords, for instance) were mottoes that threaded richly through this repertory for hundreds of years before what we refer to as “tonal” music assembled an “appearance.” In this sense, “old” and “new” is confounded, but we as composers and performers still have all of it to swim around in, selecting our favourite pools, coastal locations, or deep ends.

I recall a colleague saying to me in the 1990s that they liked my music because it was “tonal.” The problem was that the music in question wasn’t tonal in any recognizable sense, but must have struck that listener as at least vaguely lyrical and expressive (therefore “tonal”). So you see my problem; my campaign to develop the specificity of our descriptive language for pegging what we hear in music.

I’ve worked consciously to make any music I write only as complex as it needs to be. But then there are the aesthetic things I like and want in the music (to varying degrees), and those things are many and often contradictory or at least a little unexpected. Take, for instance, my equally strong interest in keyboard music by Orlando Gibbons, late Liszt piano pieces, Tom Johnson’s melodies made with rational number manipulations, and Hale Smith’s bracing but careful vertical spacings of keyboard sonorities; what would happen if these influences all cropped up in the same short piano piece? I’m not sure such a piece would really be consistent with anything much, but it would certainly reflect some of my interests over the past couple of decades.

After playing some new stuff recently for one friend/colleague, I was told the pieces sounded like “new music light.” I do like the short pieces of the type selected for At All Device to be personal, inviting in some way, sometimes even offhand or pedestrian on the surface, not often overtly or overwhelmingly imposing. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t turn quickly toward more threatening or challenging emotional or technical terrain.

I try to hold everything I think I’ve learned to do in reserve for the moment or moments at which a given “something” can be used effectively, and in a “right” way. So I’m a miniaturist but maybe a stylistic maximalist? I’m here to explore radically different surfaces, because we humans often feel and experience things radically differently from day to day. But I want to interpret and present those different surfaces clearly and with concision.

How do you work?

I compose as much as I can during faculty meetings. Otherwise, I work on paper near a piano or use sketchbooks when I’m trying to stay away from an instrument to conceptualize or get clear on ideas I’m using. I never use software of any kind, though I scan and send manuscript and work with copyists if performers are uncomfortable working from manuscript. Paper size, pencil type, kind of writing surface, etc. etc. are actually all part of the expressive musical language when all is said and done. I don’t find screens or clicking implicitly musical. I prefer simple analog technology.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

The ability to keep on keeping on; remaining challenged and motivated to record one’s experiences through honing expressive techniques in the service of music.

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

Here I offer a few aphorisms I’ve written over time in response:

As composers/music workers, we can keep saying the many things we have to say, working to articulate them with precision and commitment each time we speak. But we can’t ‘make’ people believe us, or ensure they ‘like’ what we say.

Writing music is not a display of prowess. There is nothing to win aside from the opportunity to do what we practice doing–i.e. to simply keep practicing, and to experience the ongoing value of hearing our ideas talk back to us through performers.

Try a new composing pencil; there might be new notes in it.

Creation and analysis are two things; trying to be ‘original’ and belittling yourself when ‘originality’ inevitably connects with other music are two other things. Just do something that involves you, and which is involving.

Music is hard, and can be heavy. When it ‘sounds like work’ as it happens, is something wrong? When it flows and becomes itself, music lightens, no matter how strong or complex its contents or fibers.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

Direct, deeply skilled communication with musical materials devoid of edifice or false spectacle+honest sharing, broad awareness, willingness to experiment and to be wrong=freshness for new listeners. Money helps too. From public cultural organizations, not private foundations and/or banks.

I’ve heard from many audience members over the years that a personal, conversational approach “from the stage” can go a long way toward understanding.

Dosage is important. Too much or too little can be dangerous; the prescription has to hit the spot. It might be true that practically anything can work for two minutes.

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

Wherever ‘here’ is

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I don’t aspire to anything ‘perfect’ or ‘happy;’ I am content when able to learn.

What is your most treasured possession?

I value congenial surroundings but have no desire to possess or own them.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Composing (in its early phases especially: sketching; imagining; initial sounding); walking wooded trails; Chi Kung breathing and exercise; practicing piano; spending time with grandchildren and talking/walking with my spouse

What is your present state of mind?

Anxious; depleted; finding slim pathways to positive action.

Recently described as “the New England master of the short piece,” John McDonald is a composer who tries to play the piano and a pianist who tries to compose. He is the current Director of Graduate Music Studies and Professor of Music at Tufts University, where he teaches composition, theory, and performance. His output concentrates on vocal, chamber, and solo instrumental works, and includes interdisciplinary experiments. Before coming to Tufts in 1990, he taught at Boston University, Longy School of Music, M.I.T., and the Rivers Conservatory. He has served as Chair of the Music Department at Tufts University, as an Artistic Ambassador to Asia, and is on the advisory board of Worldwide Concurrent Premieres, Inc., and other cultural and academic organizations. He was the Music Teachers National Association Composer of the Year in 2007, and served as the Valentine Visiting Professor of Music at Amherst College in 2016-2017.

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