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.

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