Described as “the New England master of the short piece,” John McDonald is a composer who tries to play the piano and a pianist who tries to compose. He is currently Professor of Music at Tufts University, where he teaches composition, theory, and performance. He has composed upwards of 3000 solo piano miniatures gathered in annual collections (Piano Albums 1984-2023, and ongoing). He has performed many of these works, as have more than forty other pianists.
I work as a collaborative pianist with singers and instrumentalists, and have a long history of playing with modern-music ensembles as well as orchestral piano parts in all kinds of repertory. I also spend a lot of my professional energy supporting my composer colleagues by performing their works. Equally important is my commitment to performing my students’ works. All this helps keep me honest, aware, and hopefully “current.” I have learned from this collection of experiences to create a balance of idiomatic writing and writing that “pushes” somewhat—an equilibrium of known, tried and true methods and experimentation or challenge. I try to find this balance in whatever medium I write for or for any solo performers or groups I work with. The ingredients included in piano pieces explicitly made for pianists who are not me invariably lead me to new places. I’m very interested in the pieces being constantly different from each other as well. Delicacy or granitic weight might be equally desirable in the same piece, or not. As a pianist, I equally value being able to project the softest possible sound or to make an expansive, rounded equivalent of an orchestral tutti. I don’t see these equal values as either indicative of a complex musical personality or as merely writing to the inspiration of a moment. I see them as parts of practicing what can be done as a composer and performing pianist.
- John McDonald on his compositional process*
Before arriving at Tufts in 1990, he taught at Boston University, the Longy School of Music, M.I.T., and the Rivers Conservatory. He was the Music Teachers National Association Composer of the Year in 2007 and served as the Valentine Visiting Professor of Music at Amherst College in 2016–2017.
McDonald has collaborated throughout his composing and performing life with singers, instrumentalists, and other composers, notably soprano Karol Bennett, Florestan Recital Project, violinist Joanna Kurkowicz, shakuhachi player Elizabeth reian Bennett, and composers T.J. Anderson, Jr., Anthony Brandt, Robert Carl, David Claman, Mark DeVoto, Marti Epstein, Tod Machover, Su Lian Tan, Ryan Vigil, and many others. He has served as pianist for The Mockingbird Trio (with Elizabeth Anker, contralto and Scott Woolweaver, viola) and The Turina Trio (with Marco Granados, flute and Ken Radnofsky, saxophone), and has recorded widely (on the Albany, Arsis, BMOP Sound, Bridge, Centaur, Hungarton, New Focus, and New World labels, to name a few) as both composer and pianist. McDonald’s most recent recordings include At All Device (Bridge Records 9528; a collection of McDonald piano works with soloist David Holzman; 2020), PanSync (Arsis Audio; works by Su Lian Tan and McDonald; 2022), and States of Play (Bridge 9564; works by Robert Carl and McDonald; 2022).
McDonald’s research interests include composition and new music pedagogy; intermedia collaboration involving composing and performing; solo and chamber music composition, performance, and recording; writing new music for young and non-professional performers; music applications for visual art and science; and advocacy of new and overlooked composers through research and performance. His book, Stirring Up the Music: The Life, Works, and Influence of Composer T(homas) J(efferson) Anderson, is forthcoming from Borik Press. McDonald’s works are published by American Composers Edition/American Composers Alliance (BMI).
* From The Piano as Adventurous Device: A Conversation with John McDonald and David Holzman. An interview with Robert Schulslaper.