Tag Archives: John Exton

John Exton: an Appreciation

born Buckinghamshire, England 28 March 1933

died Perth 13 September 2009John  Exton

My first encounter with John Exton as performing musician was at a recital about 25 years ago in which he played a work that Bach had written for unaccompanied cello. John, though, most unusually, played it in a transcription for viola. I was at the time struck by the profound musicianship he brought to the task. It was a novel take on an established masterwork – but John, more often than not, approached life on his own, often unusual, terms.

Alan Bonds, who teaches violin at the University of Western Australia, recalls long ago domestic chamber music sessions presided over by John.

“It might start with a snack and a drink followed by an hour or two of  Haydn and Mozart quartets, more refreshments, then Beethoven or Schubert dragged out, then, after a midnight snack, Brahms might make an appearance – the quartets or sextets –  which often saw us to dawn. A swim at the beach might follow. I vividly remember John’s son Peter, then about 10 years old, appearing at the door of the living room around 2am, asking ‘Are you all totally mad?’ ”

John viewed the world through a singular prism, a man of very strongly held views, not easily swayed by a contrary opinion and not infrequently obdurate in defence of a point of view.

Young John took up the violin at the age of eleven and in 1950 became leader of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. He then read music at Cambridge, as a scholar, research student and later Fellow at King’s College.

He studied composition in London with Matyas Seiber who is believed to be the only composer to have met his end as a result of being sat upon by an elephant – and, after winning the prestigious Mendelssohn Scholarship for composition, he studied with Luigi Dallapiccola  in Florence.

Two years’ National Service, involving work in acoustics with the R.A.F.,  bore fruit some fifteen years later in connection with an electronic studio in Perth.

Returning to Cambridge in 1960, John married Gillian Chadwick, a cartographer at Clarendon Press, and spent the next three years composing in an ancient thatched cottage with roses over the door and a huge open fireplace. He was awarded a Doctorate of Music by Cambridge University in 1964. He was then Director of Music at Bedales School in Hampshire for three years, before coming to Perth with sons Peter and Stephen. Gill recalls “we saw there was more room here, so we filled some of it with Jane. We bought an old house in Claremont, and John did things to it which gave him enormous satisfaction.“

During study leave from UWA in 1972, John visited several electronic music studios in USA and worked in one in Cardiff, Wales – and bought a fine 18th-century viola, an instrument after which he had long hankered but only played consistently from this time.

John would often swim against the tide. Although a product of Cambridge University, where the retrieval and preservation of early music performance practice was an article of faith, John would have none of it. His interest was in live performance – and he disapproved of recordings which he felt fossilized the experience of a piece of music.

As Alan Bonds points out, however, although John might have had little time for the music of, say, Elgar or Vaughan Williams, he would nonetheless use some of their works for the Student Chamber Orchestra at UWA and direct them with diligence and fidelity to the score – and there were adventurous excursions into lesser known repertoire by, inter alia, Purcell and Skalkottas.

Bonds, too, recalls with pleasure John’s immaculately prepared recitals with, among others, Madame Alice Carrard in repertoire which ranged from Bach to Webern.

John’s compositions range from orchestral pieces such as “Ryoanji” for 40 strings and percussion to works for solo oboe and solo violin. There are also seven string quartets and some electronic music works. An affinity for instrumental music and instrumentalists did not deter him from creativity in vocal music, producing, for instance, a setting of Hilaire Belloc’s Bad Child’s Book of Beasts for a concert by Kings College choir and a “Story of Christ’s Nativity according to St Luke for Bedales School. A highlight of his work in Perth was presiding over a performance of Bach’s St John Passion.

John’s interest in Buddhism, mainly Zen, had its origin around 1970 and developed

steadily. After a second trip to India in 1993, he encountered Theravada Buddhism which became important to him.

At John’s funeral, wife Gill said: “Our family has always been close and dear to us and some of our most valued times have been around the candlelit dining table, camping in the bush together and building our house in Kalamunda which we completed as a family team.”

Gardening was a long term delight and wife Gill says “he admired nature taking its course and interfered minimally with a mower or hand saw when grass grew or trees fell down. He grew vegies in Kalamunda when the family was at home but not by method. Results were variable.”

His garden, John said, had no weeds, for weeds were plants you don’t want and his were all welcome – and kangaroos came regularly to keep the grass short.

John Exton is survived by wife Gillian, children Peter, Stephen and Jane and eight grandchildren.

Neville Cohn

Stuart Hille contributes this recollection:

On, or very close to, John’s last teaching day within the (then) Department of Music, I came into his office to ask him a question about a particular student.  By this time, I had just returned from my studies in the USA and had taken up a teaching fellowship at UWA.  Of the many tutorials and lectures I gave, at least four were related to John’s course titled ‘Techniques of Musical Structure’.  Every student undertook this course over his/her first two years of the Mus.B. program.  It was a rite of passage about which, even to this day, I have never heard a word from a past student that wasn’t praiseworthy.

Without this two year course students would have had no understanding of modern counterpoint (or how counterpoint, in general, functioned, for that matter), harmonic and linear – including dodecaphonic – negotiation of atonality, and a assortment of related areas of creative techniques of prolongation.  John had designed and re-designed the course in his quest to make its content as creatively and mentally stimulating as he could, mindful of the knowledge he would, initially, need to clear away the musty, derivative and lazy thinking of the secondary school system.  And it was presented to students with a wit they wouldn’t have previously encountered, and in a manner that left no doubt about the depth of knowledge, and adoration of the art of music, of its presenter.

So, on this final day, I knocked on the door and entered the room.  There was John, standing up and leaning on a floor to ceiling bookcase (a position he often adopted when completing the cryptic crossword of The Australian newspaper) and he was discarding, what I assumed to be, a clutter of useless papers and files….clearing out the premises, as it were.  But, to my astonishment – no, my horror – he was throwing out ALL the folders and sheets, two year’s worth of indispensable education, of the entire course.

“What are you doing?” I asked with genuine dismay.  “It’s useless now.  This ‘lot’ (sic) won’t know what to do with it” he replied.  I then responded: “Well I do and I’ll take it” as I, presumptuously, reached into the rubbish bin and rescued every file.  I added: “And I’ll take these too” as I reached across for the other files awaiting to be similarly disposed of.  John then said: “You’re welcome to them Stuart.  Good luck!”.  My telling of the incident is poor because it disguises the fact that he and I were both somewhat outraged that such a vital body of information had nowhere else, other than the trash bin, to go to be further utilised.  The reader would need to have been present to hear the tone with which these words were spoken.

Over the years since, I have browsed through this course material and I have thought of ways to up-date it in places and to extend its reach to include ways of rhythmic variation, timbre as a unifying parameter, and even, during an additional year to start to introduce some higher level analysis (rather than the usual abrupt bolt to Schenkerism).  On the whole, I think John would have been pleased with the evolution of his course and I feel it’s about the finest tribute I could make to commemorate such an intensely gifted and creative thinker.

Each page brings back a memory of the day it was presented to me, as a student in class: “Stravinsky went slowly downhill after Le Sacre” or, my personal favourite: “The organ’s nothing more than a box of whistles…it’s true, think about it”.  So many gems, as they appear now, that felt like nasty stings at the time.  These memories show an important part of John’s educative strategy: to hit them when they least expect it and, while the gap thus created – between conscious searching and shock – is there, insert the new information.  This is the essence  of masterful teaching.

I don’t know what I’m going to do the new ‘Techniques of Musical Structure’ and perhaps, for the time being, it doesn’t matter.  I didn’t extricate the files to assuage John’s dark feelings about the department, for that was not my concern.  I delivered them for what they contained and how they could be further enriched.  It was unimaginable to me to try to visualise this mass of intelligence, insight and experience being ditched with the daily collected refuse of sandwich wrappers and cigarette butts.

Guitar Dreaming: Australian Music for Guitar (and Beyond)

WAAPA staff and students

Spectrum Project Space, Beaufort Street, Northbridge

September 2009

reviewed by Stuart Hille

l to r: Sidney Brien, Brendan Biddiss, Courtney Hilton

photo: Jacqueline Auty
leubbers 01

The actual space of Spectrum Project Space, for a concert audience, is very small, completely unadorned and has an ambience which relies wholly on the mood the listener brings.  It is much akin to ‘burrows’, still found in Manhattan, where groups cluster  to hear aleatoric music performances, and where listeners are encouraged to move around the players as if taking part in a sonic, glyptic exercise.  However, when one has no option but to find (and I impress ‘find’) seating, as on this occasion, the dynamics and sense of freedom change.  The players might be within half a meter of the first row of listeners but a barrier is drawn nonetheless.  And that barrier affords the ear to pick up all sorts of surrounding sounds – the desirable and not so desirable: the cars  outside, strings not quite in tune, musical lines which start but then break, musical shapes which are either rounded or lack definition…whatever the sound, when we’re seated we hear it more acutely.

This concert, titled ‘Guitar Dreaming’ (and, I hope judiciously, I’m not going to discuss the word choice) contained many promising features and a portion of disappointments.  It also had a couple of surprises, one of which was the realisation of how quickly guitars can lose their tuning, assuming they are correctly tuned to begin the performance (which wasn’t always the case on the night).  This was made even more potent by the limited space of the auditorium.  String tuning is a notorious problem in any concert.  I think it was John Exton who once summed up the inherent difficulty: “There’s only thing worse than two violins, and that’s three violins”.  Violins only have four strings whereas guitars have six, so whenever like instruments are multiplied it is essential to maintain vigilance in tuning.  Then there is the additional problem of intuiting how long it should take to tune or re-tune on stage, before the audience begins to shuffle with impatience.  What’s the solution?  I don’t know, but I observe professionals, like Jonathan Paget (the principal force behind this concert), are able to tune up much faster and more accurately than students.  Perhaps tuning should be made more of a rigorous exercise within the guitar pupil’s panoply of technical armour.

Another surprising aspect of the concert was the choice of the opening item.  Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with an introspective style to raise the curtain, so to speak, nor was there anything seriously amiss with Melissa Branson’s sensitive reading of a reasonably proportioned composition, titled ‘Distant Mirages’, by Jeremy Poole-Johnson.  However, given the features of the space, including a perceived hesitation getting the concert started, a more robust and confidently styled lead-off might have made a better choice.

But perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of the concert was unwittingly exposed by Thea Rossen (a UWA percussion student) in her decision to perform ‘Marimba Dances’ (1 and 2) by Ross Edwards.  This music plays to the gallery like few others.  Quite frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear its Madagascan strains pumping through the speakers of an elevator one day!  Aurally judged, it has strong   similarities to his ‘Laikan’, written some three years prior for the ‘Fires of London’ (under the direction of Peter Maxwell-Davies), except in these ‘dances’, notably the first, things have been trimmed down to the tonal bones.  So of all the works Rossen could have chosen, including something by a UWA student composer, it was disheartening to find her making this her prime option.  Additionally, with recorded performances by, for example, no lesser an artist as Evelyn Glennie, she faced the uneviable task of attempting to shed new light on a latter day warhorse.  Rossen’s reading was proficient and tidy, although somewhat over-stylised in gesture.  But no matter how neat the performance, one became overwhelmed by a sense of a wasted opportunity for some young composer.  And there is a lesson here for student percussionists: ‘hot off the press’ writing by contemporary composers, with something interesting to say, may not become their bread-and-butter  but will provide some of the most fulfilling experiences they will have.  A performer shouldn’t be turning his/her back on this at such a young age.

Similar to Edward’s ‘Marimba Dances’, Westlake’s ‘Six Fishes’, at least judging by the three ‘fish’ performed, flamboyantly declared its quasi-tonal affiliations.  However, Westlake is more cloying in his choice of gestures, and more ostentatious in style and rhythm.  Also, despite what many might assume, and despite an apparent subjection to linearity, this music reveals little sense of processive harmony, particularly long-range harmonic relationships.  Consequently, the ‘Plectrum Alpha’ (Jonathan Paget, Brendan Biddiss, Melissa Branson and Claire Bonner) could have been partially forgiven if their performance had been somewhat lacklustre.  And yet, as is – depressingly – so often the case, they showed good rapport and a relaxed, comfortable approach.  The tuning was good and the eye contact was excellent.

Plectrum Alpha’s second appearance, later in the concert, was in a performance of a composition by one their own: Claire Bonner’s ‘Hope Cottage’.  One was grateful for the spoken introduction by the composer (an excellent prelude to any performance, the sustained practise of which in this concert is to be commended) and the sincerity of her sentiments.  However, this music needs to be considered, at best, to be a draft because it is painfully, stylistically ambiguous, rhythmically unadventurous and, most importantly, shows little grasp of quartet thinking.

Yet one can’t honestly lay the blame for these compositional weaknesses at the feet of the composer.  The genuineness of the expression was enough to tell the informed listener she did her best with the creative technical tools at her disposal.  One can say, however, that the hardware –  (in this case) modern counterpoint, functional harmony, rhythmic/motivic variation, and style studies – need to be more carefully introduced and developed so they become part of her consciousness.  Intuitive dabbling is fine, laudable, and can yield very interesting results, but a satisfying artistic product is only possible when intuition and learned discipline or skill are hand in hand.

And after listening to the works of the other student composers on the program – Gareth Koch, Chris Kotchie and Jeremy Poole-Johnson – these same observations, generally, held true.  Clearly though, each writer focussed on different aspects – according to his personality.  Kotchie’s ‘Autumn’ (where, by the way, the instrument should have better tuned) nicely established a background mood but the painting on the canvas had disconcerting textural breaks and a barely identifiable harmonic discourse.  But again,  as we found in Bonner’s work, the sentiment was earnest and for that, one was grateful.  It was the lack of craftsmanship that was the central problem.  With the right inculcation, I’m sure he will emerge as an interesting creator.  Koch’s “Walls of Jerusalem” needed a strong, decisive stroke to be suddenly hurtled, Jackson Pollock style, across its wary and insular landscape.  A more confident approach by the performer, Claire Bonner, might have helped on this occasion.  But the composition, from its early stages of creation, needed better overseeing so the ideas could be reorganised and shaped with a greater sense of purpose.  As mentioned, Poole-Johnson’s sense of climax placement gave his writing some dynamic balance but the weaving of individual strands, upon which the climaxes rely, required a stronger knowledge of linear development (pitch and rhythm) so the listener’s aural perception could find a convincing musical discourse.

The other more established composers on the program – Philip Houghton and Richard Charlton – were presented, on the whole, with with adequate proficiency and stylistic insight.  If the listener had problems grasping the unity of composition + performance they laid mostly within the compositions.  One of these, probably the most important because of its potential for negative influence on student composers, was the use of colouristic gesture without any sort of context.

The guitar, so it seems, has the ability to produce many such ornaments but problems wade in when the composer breaks the line for no reason other than to insert a gesture.  If he wants the gesture to have  raison d’etre then he needs to make this aurally perceptible.  In other words: it should be heard to develop in an interesting way.  Otherwise, he should use the gesture as a splash of colour and nothing more (exactly like an eighteenth century ornament).  Houghton, arguably, more controlled in this respect but there were some passages, nevertheless, such as in his ‘Brolga’ (performed by Jonathan Paget and Craig Lake), where lines, disagreeably modal/tonal as they were, were supplanted by gestures.  The result, nicely highlighted by the excellence of the performance, was colour on colour…and the listener is left wondering: “What happened to that line I heard?  Where did it go?”.

Charlton’s ‘Legend of Fire’, well executed by Courtney Hilton, highlighted the same polarisation, except here it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between what was line and what was ornament.  A less than decisive performance by the ‘Plectrum Ensemble’ and percussionist Thea Rossen of two movements from Charlton’s ‘Three Distractions’ was sufficient enough to convey the notion that the compositional writing was very odd.  At odds with itself, is perhaps more accurate.  One appreciates the circumstances under which it was written, and the difficulties scouring the Australian ‘contemporary’ repertoire to find something tailored to fit the ensemble.  But this wasn’t the answer.  Moreover, given the fact that there were nine guitarists, the texture was far less rich than it could have been, had the composer thought more in terms of counterpoint.

So if the answer wasn’t ‘Three Distractions’ then, to me, the obvious choice would have been to get one the student composers to come up with a closing fanfare.  Perhaps a semi-aleatoric concept?  In fact, guided improvisation with adequate rehearsal, so to speak, could have created something quite magical.  All the players have talent, rapport and, one assumes, imagination, so why not harvest and combine these qualities?  All it would have required was a composer’s bright idea and a willingness to experiment, and, of course, a solid background in improvisation.  And this causes one to note a few final thoughts.

With the encirclement of the limited space of the venue, the critic was confronted with having to make some firm decisions.  Where the student composers need to focus attention has been discussed already: coming to grips with essential technical aspects in the learning of their craft, but not losing sincerity or naturalness.  In a sense, both the young performers and the young composers need also to have a greater awareness of the hierarchical nature of music and which of these hierarchies they wish to project in either performance or composition.  Few will either have or develop the in-built, intuitive feel for hierarchy displayed by Jonathan Paget, their instrumental teacher at ECU, but they can learn, through linear analysis, to shape their statements more persuasively.  Such questions as: ‘Where is the principal climax? What and where are the subsidiary

climaxes leading to it – on the same hierarchical level? What is process? What is closure? How does this affect tempo and the use of rubato?’, need to be asked and resolved, and always done so on the same hierarchy.

Many touring professional performers, be they pianists or violinists or guitarists or whatever, present renditions that are (increasingly) digital masterstrokes, but, because of a confusion of hierarchies, their readings remain in the shallower waters of interpretation.  Now is the time for student composers and performers (remembering that finesse is as much a part of composition as it is of performance) to recognise and avoid this duality – digital expertise/illustrative unity – before they, too, become part of the roundabout.