When I posted my introductory article to the “Not Another Minimalist!” series I got the suggestion on Facebook from composer/writer Walter Zimmerman that I do a piece on John McGuire. Many will remember Zimmerman for his important book of interviews called Desert Plants (1976) in which he interviewed a series of 23 American composers in the early to mid-1970s. His choices virtually defined an era much like Robert Ashley’s Music with Roots in the Ether would later do. He is also a fine composer in his own right and will be featured in a future essay on this blog. I am honored to receive a challenge from him and I also thought it was a fine selection of a minimalist-type composer whose work deserves wider dissemination so I am using McGuire as my first article in the series.
Unfortunately there is precious little to be found on this American composer. In Zimmerman’s book he gets only one page so I am essentially updating his earlier efforts. However, even 38 years later, McGuire does not appear to have a web page and I have been able to find reference to only a few recordings of his music.
John McGuire (1942- ) studied with Robert Gross at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he earned his BA in 1964, with Ingolf Dahl at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and with Seymour Shifrin at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his MA in 1970. He also studied composition privately with Karl Kohn, composition and orchestration with Krzysztof Penderecki at the Folkwang Universität der Künste in Essen from 1966–68 and composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Ferienkurse in Darmstadt in 1967–68. He then studied computer composition with Gottfried Michael Koenig at the Instituut voor Sonologie of the Universiteit Utrecht in 1970–71 and electronic music with Hans Ulrich Humpert at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz in Cologne from 1975–77.
I came to know the work of John McGuire when I found a remaindered copy of a Largo CD containing his 48 variations for two pianos in the great though now sadly gone Rose Records store in Chicago in the 1980s. It was a gamble as I had never even heard of this composer but the album somehow spoke to me from the CD bin.
My gamble paid off because I had found in that piece a new take on minimalism and pattern music. It seemed to be closer to classical variation form than to strict process-oriented patterns but clearly there were rhythmic cells being subjected to development. It clocks in at about 48 minutes and is a tour de force.
As it turns out McGuire makes use of minimalism as only one of his compositional techniques and has a distinctly different take on it which appears to be informed by the various techniques gleaned from his teachers. After finding and bonding with this CD I began to look for more of this man’s music.
The intelligent vigilance of Richard Friedman and the Other Minds organization broadcast McGuire’s 1974 Frieze for 4 pianos and his 1985 Cadence Music for 21 Instruments in a RadiOM program dedicated to the composer’s music. Both recordings were broadcast from a 2 CD release on the RZ label. Again the unmistakable sound of minimalism in a very unique approach.
The east coast equivalent of RadiOM is WNYC’s New Sounds hosted by John Schaefer. The program of November 12, 2013 included McGuire’s Pulse Music III from 1978. This is a great example at the composer’s facility with electronics. This piece realized on tape was apparently originally for a multiple speaker installation but is mesmerizing even in the stereo presentation which was broadcast. Another inspired new music show, Kalvos and Damian did a program on the genesis of this music which remains available as streaming content.
McGuire spent 25 years living and working in Germany returning to the United States in 1998. He then worked for Carl Fischer music as an editor and was a visiting adjunct professor at Columbia from 2000-2002.
I’m not sure I’ve been able to do much more than Walter Zimmerman did in his book but it is my hope that this article may spark interest in musicians, producers and broadcasters to keep this fascinating composer in mind for future projects and performances.