After more years than you can shake a stick at, the BBC Promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall (the premiere British summer concert series), fondly called the ‘Proms’, will finally play music by John White. White’s Chord-Breaking Machine will open a concert of music by Frederic Rzewski, Morton Feldman, and, lest you think that they lost their heads and abandoned other music, the premiere of a piece by Gerald Barry.
This will be White’s first Prom. It’s a late one, of course, but it’s a Prom. And Cardew only got a Prom last year (the previous one in 1972 was the infamous Maoist Great Learning Prom, which seems to have scared the Beeb off any experimental music for a long time). Chord-Breaking Machine (1971) was commissioned by the Orchestra of King’s College School in Wimbledon. It is one of White’s Machine process minimalist pieces, related to White’s Gothic Chord Machine, a piece written for the Promenade Theatre Orchestra, a quartet (White, Christopher Hobbs, Alec Hill, and Hugh Shrapnel) who played virtuosic music on reed organs and toy pianos. Chord-Breaking Machine takes the ‘gothic chord’ idea to orchestral levels, consisting of a percussion pulse, successions of chords that ‘break’ from one to the other through diffusion, and brass ‘milestone’ chords. As far as we can tell, Chord-Breaking Machine has not been played since 1971. Should you have access to it, Brian Dennis’ review of the premiere (‘John White’, in ‘Music in London’, The Musical Times, 112/1541 (1971), p. 681) is a joy to read, not only for his account of Chord-Breaking Machine, but also for his assessment of White and Cardew playing White’s ‘Cello and Tuba Machine at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on May 17 of that year, where he refers to Stockhausen’s ‘mystical (and egocentric) ramblings’ elsewhere in the issue.
The Chord-Breaking Machine concert will be broadcast live on Monday, 19 August 2013 at 10.15, on the BBC (Radio 3). For information and tickets for the live event, see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2013/august-19/14646 .