Journal Archive > 2002 > January

John McDonald

John McDonald with his students
© Kathleen Dooher

McDonald confronts his audience with music of our times

It was love at first sight when John McDonald saw the piano in his kindergarten classroom. The other children were oblivious to it. They colored, made towers out of blocks and played games in the classroom. Not McDonald. Accompanied by his mother on his first day of school, he was drawn to the piano.

"My mother likes to tell the story of how I saw the piano in the classroom, and I told the teacher I could play it," McDonald says. "I went over to it, sat down, and I played just horribly. My teacher told my mother, ‘It's not the worst I've ever heard.' "

The story belies one of McDonald's most striking characteristics. He is not one to shy away from a challenge.

Whether as a child taking on a new musical instrument or as an adult composing works that contain relevant social messages, McDonald, composer and associate professor and chair of music, stretches himself to the furthest reaches of his creativity. This is evidenced by an immense body of more than 800 works that have touched upon everything from the plight of custodial workers at Tufts, "Custodial Drag" (1998/2001), to "Proem Amid Detritus" (2001), a piece composed in the aftermath of September 11.

The bulk of McDonald's work focuses on issues of great complexity and depth, but his creative process is relatively simple: He just writes what he sees. "I get inspired by words and concepts. What I'm working on now is called "Vanishingly Small Verse," and it's based on a quotation from Bertrand Russell's America 1945-1970, a volume I picked up at a used bookstore a while back," McDonald says. "The quotation that got me going was: ‘The active presence of freedom in America is vanishingly small.' I was thinking that this idea applies almost all the time, and I came up with the notion that the piece would actually vanish in some way. The disappearance happens about four times during the piece, and there is a final crunching chord where you remove the notes one by one. This is just one example of how I get inspiration from a kernel of a statement and put it into some type of musical form."

Because inspiration can strike at any moment, McDonald is surrounded by music—literally. His office at 20 Professors Row features a large piano, copious amounts of sheet music and shelves stuffed with albums of his work. Against the backdrop of his computer and printer, the office is a union of music and academia. To McDonald, it's all a perfect fit. "I think of myself as a university composer, and therefore I make music for the university, at the university, to some extent," McDonald says. "I do things such as show up and play the piano at a university event or write something for students to perform at a presentation that I feel fits into what I do and with the larger goals of the department."

An example of McDonald's role as the informal university composer was his performance at the September 27 concert series at Goddard Chapel. McDonald featured several of his own pieces, along with a few composed by his students. An artist acutely aware of his environment, McDonald's impassioned performance was a reflection of the world we all inhabit. "I hope I write pretty confrontational stuff. It's not sweet listening," he says. "That's not to say it's not accessible. I am interested in bringing people into it, challenging the listener to some extent."

And challenge the listener he does. McDonald's work has achieved international acclaim not only for its artistry, but also for the deep social messages it embodies. He has been described as a "fresh, inventive, urbane and keen-witted young composer" by The Boston Globe, and Richard Dyer of the Globe wrote of McDonald's "Common Injustices" recital in September that "one can hardly imagine anyone else undertaking such a program or playing it with such modest and unobtrusive but total musical and pianistic mastery."

McDonald's compositions have been performed on four continents, and he recently won the Leo M. Traynor Composition Competition for music for the viola da gamba, a predecessor to the cello.

Awards and accolades aside, what drives McDonald is a creative process that can break down barriers. "Music is a great escape that has allowed me to blaze my own trail," he says. "And people can take away ideas from the pieces I write, and that's very important to me. Hopefully, these ideas represent little blueprints for better, more sensitive living."

Bob Bochnak covers the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences for the Tufts Journal.