Interview with John Mills-Cockell

Some of you have heard his music, and some of you have only read what Monart has written about him on the Forum, elsewhere, and on the Starship Aurora web site at Sam Pierson also wrote a review last January Today, I have the honor of introducing you to John Mills-Cockell, a composer of extraordinary music for the last 35 years.

Mary Jane
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June 16, 2002

Welcome to the Starship Forum, John Mills-Cockell.

MJ: I have seen from your web site at that you have composed an immense body of music for film, television, theatre, dance, and radio. In addition, you have performed your own compositions and have numerous recordings from as long ago as 1967.

When did you decide to become a composer and what inspired you to choose this type of work?

JMC: The inspiration and decision were simultaneous. When I was 15, I spent my summer in England. I attended one of the summer promenade concerts at Albert Hall and at the end of a wonderful concert of music by Brahms & Elgar, the stage was cleared of musicians and only a pair of loudspeakers remained. A man came out on stage to announce that the tape recording they were expecting of a piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen had not been received and that they were substituting a selection of other short electronic pieces. One of these was Canadian composer Hugh LeCaine's now famous "Dripsody". This was when I knew what I wanted to do. I had never heard anything like this before: recorded sounds organized like language, like music, but with timbres and tonal relationships that for me were startling and new.

MJ: What kind of music did you project you would be composing when you first began studying composition?

JMC: From then, I wanted to create electronic music, but music was part of my upbringing and when I began to point myself to a career as a composer, I knew I was also undertaking a whole range of musical training. I didn't get to electronic music for another four years after my experience in London. I liked jazz and tried playing it in small groups and in dance bands. I tried writing music that came from this experience and listened a lot to recordings, went to performances of jazz musicians of the day. This had started even before my summer in England.

I didn't think about composing "classical music" until I went to university. One day my professor told me I was not correctly producing Bach chorale harmony and counterpoint, in front of my classmates. I was encouraged, however, when he went on to say that what I was writing was pure John Mills-Cockell, very consistent (stubborn I thought he meant). Soon after, I began private composition studies at the Conservatory and we presented little concerts in which I was able to hear some of my pieces. I thought they were "experimental" at the time although I realize now they were not, or at least only to me.

Earlier, I had been allowed into the electronic music studio at the University of Toronto because I had expressed interest, but this time I was asked to participate in tutorials that were being given. I had bought a couple of used tape recorders and bits of circuitry that I was playing with at home. So I can't say if this was a projection. I certainly had no idea what I would be doing later in life. I didn't realize that only a few people get to make a living composing music, but I was convinced that I was an artist more than anything else, and just kept on doing it.

MJ: How would you describe your long career as a music composer?

JMC: Often misdirected. One takes on what comes by to try to make a living, although I've never been particularly attracted to moulding my temperament to purely commercial ends.

MJ: In what ways have your musical visions changed, or not changed?

JMC: Sometimes it has seemed that my "visions" have changed, but I think there are certain things that have not. I think of myself primarily as a theatre composer. I first got involved in film, theatre, and dance almost from the beginning. Working with theatrical elements requires a certain malleability. And I very much like, perhaps need, the stimulus these media require. But they also impose what I consider to be necessary restrictions, ones that are different in each project. So the "vision" changes accordingly. I guess I have personal ways of creating a melody, a certain eclecticism which has stayed pretty much the same. I find I often return to the same well: the bucket drops according to conditions at the moment.

MJ: What have been the most important elements that have helped you to create your music?

JMC: As much as I love visual arts (painting, sculpture, photography, etc.), I am deeply affected by literature (theatre, poetry, novels) and movement (dance, film).

MJ: What is your favorite composer or favorite piece of music?

JMC: No favourites: the music of Beethoven has been on the radio all day. I love the works of Debussy, Dvorak. It would be an endless list: "The Rite Of Spring", "Sketches Of Spain", Arvo Part, songs of Bob Dylan, Giuseppe Verdi, Ali Farka Toure, Morton Feldman, Bessie Smith, J.S. Bach, Haydn string quartets, Jimi Hendrix, John Cage, Benjamin Britten. There would be a special list just for Canadian composers: R. Murray Schafer, Jean Coulthard, Harry Somers, Harry Freedman etc., etc. There are so many favourites.

MJ: In one word, how would you describe your musical style?

JMC: Romantic.

MJ: What kind of music do you compose?

JMC: I've mentioned music for theatre. I've composed music for film, dance, and music for its own sake. I've composed for orchestra, small ensembles, choir, vocalists, but not much for solo instrumentalists, except where I am the performer and this would be music for synthesizers, electronic keyboards mostly. I like to think I compose all kinds of music, but inevitably it ends up being my "style". It might be easier to say what it is not.

MJ: Do you dislike any musical genres?

JMC: Just when I think there's a genre I don't like, something comes along to make me change my mind. If it comes from a person's heart, mind and soul, if there is something authentic about time and place, the music transcends the generic.

MJ: What musical instruments do you play and do you find it easiest to compose for those instruments?

JMC: I play electronic keyboards, but don't find it any easier than many other things.

MJ: What is your favorite music you have composed?

JMC: This is difficult. My opinion keeps changing, partly depending on my current project, partly on people around me. I feel many things I have done simply aren't very good. I am surprised that I ever managed to do some of the things I managed to pull off. I wonder what came over me. I hope it will happen again. I'm relieved if it does.

MJ: Have you ever thought of doing any other work in your life besides composing music?

JMC: I've never thought about doing anything else. Once when I believed I had to put financial security ahead of composing, I applied for a real job. I never took it once it was offered to me. I can't imagine now any other occupation.

MJ: Do you usually compose music and then seek out commissions or do commissions seek you out?

JMC: Only a very few times have I ever completed anything that was not commissioned. I have almost never sought out commissions. I have received grants occasionally to complete works.

MJ: Are you at present working on any compositions?

JMC: I am thrilled to have recently been commissioned by Monart Pon, a long-time supporter of my output, to compose a long work. It will be called "Concerto Of Deliverance", based on a passage from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. The reason it is so exciting is that only seldom have I had an opportunity to create a score that is so open in terms of its context. The inspiration for the piece is noble and I have the liberty to take that impetus to whatever length, height that I am capable of. Daunting, and completely irresistible.

MJ: What was your initial reaction to this proposal?

JMC: I read Atlas Shrugged when I was in my early 20's. At first, when the proposal was made, there was a resonance, a vague reminiscence, but that's all. Curiously, at least for me, various people have sent me this book and drawn my attention to it. In some ways, there is a certain inevitability connected with this occurrence.

MJ: Whenever I have read Ayn Rand's passage describing the "Concerto of Deliverance", I have wondered what the music would sound like. How do you at present conceive of the project?

JMC: I wish I could say. The word "concerto" indicates an interplay between soloistic elements (the individual) and the ensemble (universal). Deliverance to me requires a precondition of suffering, then progression to the state of deliverance. In other words, I guess there is an implicit drama that I'm interested in exploring, uncovering. More specifically, I'm interested in utilizing all the tools available to me, especially the "palette" of electronic music, but not limited to it. I feel I'm venturing into that part of the map called terra incognita and I'm hoping to be prepared for whatever pops up.

MJ: What do you see as challenges in the creation of "Concerto of Deliverance"?

JMC: The challenge is to be true to the inspiration the theme provides, and to inspire similarly those who hear the music.

MJ: Why do you want to compose "Concerto of Deliverance"?

JMC: Most simply, it allows me to be as expressive as possible. This seems both evasive and presumptuous, and it's not a very satisfying answer. Ayn Rand's words, in the passages Monart has selected, are far more eloquent. Of course, I wish listeners to feel involved in the creation of . . . We'll have to see.

MJ: When do you expect that we could hear "Concerto of Deliverance" for the first time? I know this might be a tough question.

JMC: It depends on many things, but I expect that drafts of sections will be available in the fall. I hope to have it ready by the new year.

I can't resist one suggested question. "What do I find most difficult?" The answer would be "Getting started". There are so many interesting aspects to consider. As choices are made, the direction becomes increasingly inevitable. This process is nerve-wracking.

MJ: John Mills-Cockell, it's a privilege to be among the very first people to learn about what I anticipate will become a wonderful musical treasure. I look forward to talking with you again. Thank you!

JMC: Thank you, Mary Jane.
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Concerto of Deliverance
Composer: John Mills-Cockell
Executive Producer: Monart Pon
*Sunburst Music. All Rights Reserved. Copyright © 2004 Modern Sounds Publishing (SOCAN)