John Newell is what you might term a contemporary classical composer. Like many of his colleagues, though, he draws from a variety of musical traditions. His objective is to create works that arise from his personal journey and response to the world.
Since completing his doctorate in 1979 John has pursued an independent path, finding inspiration in the beauty and wonder of nature, in poetic and visual imagery, and in what he learns from the world’s sacred traditions.
John’s works have been noted for their originality, clarity, and expressive power. He is equally at home composing for vocal ensembles, chamber groups and orchestra. His recent efforts include works for orchestra, violin and piano, solo piano, viola, cello and piano and chorus.
Organizations that have commissioned works include Eight Strings & a Whistle, Atlantic Sinfonietta and The Bowery Ensemble (New York), Monday Evening Concerts (Los Angeles), the Enid Symphony Orchestra (Oklahoma), as well as a number of amateur groups. His work has received support from the American Music Center, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Meet the Composer. His works are self-published through Abierto Music.
John is also an accomplished pianist and conductor. He enjoys the process of working with musicians who have an interest in presenting new works, and welcomes inquiries about opportunities for collaboration. He has participated in a number of premiere performances, including the solo part in his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. John is the founding director of Quoddy Voices, a choral ensemble based in Eastport, Maine.
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1949, John’s earliest musical training was in piano. He attended Duke University, pursuing studies in composition, piano and conducting; John received his BA summa cum laude in 1971.
Desiring an alternative academic experience, John attended the recently established California Institute of the Arts, earning an M.F.A. in composition and performance. His primary teacher at CalArts was composer Mel Powell. His formal training was completed at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he studied with Morton Feldman. While in Buffalo he held the first Edgard Varese Fellowship in composition. John completed his Ph.D. in composition in 1979. He also completed another M.F.A. in piano during those years.
After completing graduate school he moved to Western Massachusetts. For three years John directed the choral program at Mt. Greylock Regional High School in Williamstown. He has also taught piano, composition and music theory privately, at the Berkshire Music School and as adjunct faculty at Berkshire Community College. For over 20 years John was organist and music director for the Congregational Church of Worthington, Massachusetts.
He currently maintains a private teaching studio and is music director for Christ Church in Eastport, Maine; he is on the faculty of the SummerKeys adult music program in Lubec, Maine.
In 2003 John performed the solo part in the premiere of his Concerto for Piano & Orchestra with the Enid Symphony Orchestra, conducted by his brother, Douglas Newell. In 2009 he presented a concert of his works in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The program highlighted a number of his vocal, choral and solo instrumental works, composed from 1981 – 2009.
John’s former day job was Manager of Training and Professional Development for Berkshire Life Insurance Company. He developed and directed a host of training programs in insurance products, sales and management skills. He also served as Treasurer of the Board of Directors for the Berkshire Music School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
John and his wife Linda Courtney live in Eastport, Maine. They are very thankful to be living in such a beautiful part of this world.
What was my training as a composer? I’ve tended to think that it was pretty traditional (I mean, traditional for the time). Was that true? Actually, no. Was I self taught? In many ways, yes.
The most traditional academic part of my training was as an undergraduate at Duke, where I studied theory, history, piano; but with only a semester of orchestration and two semesters of conducting. I really don’t remember if I formally studied composition with Iain Hamilton. Upon reflection, I think that the answer is no. I was on my own, and completed a couple of pieces as an undergraduate, a piano solo work and a piece for brass quintet, inspired by Stockhausen’s Momente.
Instead of pursuing the academic Ivy League (Yale, Columbia, Princeton — post-Webern) or the conservatory (Eastman, Juilliard — more traditional craft-oriented) paths, I decided to attend to CalArts, then in its second year of existence. California… that was a different experience. Strangely, my composition teacher was Mel Powell, from Yale and a member of the “Ivy League” school. I rarely had lessons. Mel was too involved as Dean of the School of Music in organizational issues. I have great respect for him, but remember mostly his classes in analyzing the works of AntonWebern. I do remember hearing for the first time music of Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Phillip Glass at CalArts. California” composers Morton Subotnick and Harold Budd were also on the faculty, but I didn’t formally work with them. In fact, I didn’t formally work with anyone — just absorbed a lot. Students were pretty much on our own. It was tough for the undergrads, but having gained the basics in theory, piano, etc. it was much easier for me as a grad student, especially as I was fairly self-directed. I have always felt that, at its heart, education is about growth, exploration and learning, not about merely preparation for a career.
Then SUNY at Buffalo. Mel was a friend of Morton Feldman, one of the ultimate non-academic composers. Morty had just been named Edgard Varese professor at SUNY. The piece that got me into SUNY, I believe, was what one might term a “minimalist” piano piece – it was a study in changes of register and density, based on a simple scale and chord set. Morty was what I consider my only real teacher. What I learned from him: listen, and trust your ear. (The “urgency of now.” I’m not sure where that phrase comes from, but it is on my mind this morning.) One of the very profound things I remember him saying about composition: “You must choose your poison.”
I had lessons at his apartment. My strongest memory is of him hunched over the piano (his eyesight was very poor), looking at the music paper in front of him, playing and listening intently to chords and single notes at the piano. He lived in the world of each piece as it unfolded. As he completed a page of score he would tape it to a bedroom wall, in sequence with the previously completed pages, so that he so he could stand and “walk through” the piece, looking at it closely, to see it unfolding. His trust in himself was complete. As he finished composing a page of music he would immediately copy it (in ink and on vellum). Actually, I now do somewhat the same in many works. When I trust what I have done, which is usually pretty quickly these days, I begin “copying” it. Today that means putting it into my notation software. And yes, I still have my ink pens and black ink, even many pages of blank vellum that I will probably never use (Note from a few years later: I have finally let them go, except for a page or two… sentimental reasons.)
I have never belonged to any “school” of composition. There are so many these days. In our world it is almost impossible to escape the multiplicity of styles and approaches. Yes, I was influenced by Morty’s style for awhile. He did not insist on composing in a particular style, however, but his influence was inescapable. My own style obviously evolved, though I think that my works still reflect his intuitive approach, of using the ear.
It may be hard to pin down my “style” if you listen to more than one of my works, or even more than one movement of a given work. There might appear to be different styles being used in the same work. But it is always a question of my intent, my inspiration, and using what I need in order to accomplish my intent at a given moment. The variety in my works displays different aspects of my sensibility, identity and experience. In a way, I am composing for myself.
If one asked, I would say that these are the composers who have made the greatest impression on me:
Igor Stravinsky (his clarity; and I am something of a neo-classicist at times)
Claude Debussy (his ear, his sensitivity to harmony, that would lead him to where it must go)
Arnold Schoenberg (his imagination, leading to liberation of the dissonance)
Morton Feldman (his direct, intuitive approach that is solely his own)
Hildegard von Bingen (she heard, then sang her melodies, so original for her time)
Claudio Monteverdi (the great pivotal figure from the Renaissance to the Baroque; he took the leap and created something new)
Ludwig van Beethoven (the passion, the individuality)
Johannes Brahms (the voicing, the thorough-going craftsmanship, plus I love playing his mature piano works)
Franz Schubert (a natural lyrical gift beyond compare)
Edgard Varese & Morton Feldman: What did I learn?
I studied with Morton Feldman at SUNY Buffalo (1975 – 77) as the first holder of the Edgard Varese Fellowship in composition. I’m sure that Feldman named the fellowship himself, and know that he regarded Varese very highly.
How can I express the essence of what I learned in those years? A few years ago I came across this passage by Paul Griffiths in the program notes for the CD Boulez Conducts Varese (on the Deutsche Grammophon label). Griffiths sums it up beautifully:
“After the explosion of Ameriques Varese honed his technique in pieces for smaller groupings – Hyperprism, Octandre, Integrales – before returning to the large orchestra to create Arcana (1925-27). This was a closer approach to his ideal of music in which the sounds themselves, by virtue of their force and energy, would create structural demands – for repetition, calming, change, recollection – quite independently of any pre-ordained scheme: music as a play of sheer, vital sonority.”
California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, California 1972 – 1974
Graduate assistant; taught music theory.
Mt. Greylock High School, Williamstown, Massachusetts 1979 – 1981
Directed the Symphonic Choir and Madrigal Singers and taught music theory.
Berkshire Community College 1981 – 1983
Taught music history and directed the college choir.
Berkshire Music School, Pittsfield, Massachusetts 1980 – 1985
Private piano and composition lessons; also music theory classes.
Private studio 1980 – 1986
Taught piano; experience with all levels and ages.
LIMRA International 1999 – 2001
Director of Development for the Asia-Pacific Region. Taught intensive classroom training programs for local sales managers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Philippines, Korea and Sri Lanka.
Berkshire Life Insurance Company, Pittsfield, Massachusetts 1987 – 1999, 2001 – 2011
Manager of Training and Professional Development; responsible for designing and delivering training programs for internal staff and field sales associates.
Cobscook Community Learning Center, Trescott, Maine 2011 – 2016
Offered piano lessons and classes in music theory.
Private teaching studio 2016 – present
Currently offers lessons in piano, music theory and composition.
SummerKeys, Lubec, Maine 2011 – present
Serves on piano faculty and as accompanist/coach for adult music students at this unique summer program.
John began piano studies in the third grade. His three brothers also took piano lessons, primarily because their mother wanted them to be able to play hymns in church. In high school, he was fortunate to study with Anita Bultmann, an extremely accomplished pianist and teacher who opened up for him the world of the great piano literature. As an undergraduate at Duke University his teacher was Loren Withers. John consider both as his primary teachers. He also studied with Leonid Hambro at California Institute of the Arts and with Yvar Mikhashoff at State University of New York at Buffalo.
Throughout his school years John made extensive appearances as piano soloist, accompanist and chamber musician, including a summer at the Yale School of Music in Norfolk, Connecticut. During his years of participation in the June in Buffalo program he worked with composers such as George Crumb and Steve Reich as pianist in performances of their works.
As a solo piano recitalist John has placed particular emphasis on his own compositions and the modern repertoire, presenting works by such diverse composers as Debussy, Scriabin, Copland, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ives and Cage, as well as those of his contemporaries.
In 2003 John performed the solo part in the premiere of his Concerto for Piano & Orchestra with the Enid Symphony Orchestra, conducted by his brother, Douglas Newell.
John has extensive experience as vocal and instrumental accompanist in the classical, romantic and modern repertoire. He has performed with the Passamaquody Bay Symphony Orchestra as keyboard/continuo player. Since the summer of 2012 he has appeared regularly as soloist and chamber musician on the faculty concerts of the Summerkeys program in Lubec, Maine.
As an undergraduate at Duke University John’s conducting teacher was Allan Bone. He also worked with Leonard Stein at California Institute of the Arts. Stein was a student and protege of Arnold Schoenberg. Later, while in Buffalo, one of John’s most memorable occasions as a performer was when he conducted members of the SUNY/Buffalo Creative Associates in a performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.
John’s first conducting appearance was with the Duke Symphony. Throughout graduate school he conducted various ensembles in performances of my own works and those of my composer colleagues. While in Buffalo he also worked with members of the Buffalo Philharmonic as rehearsal conductor for a production of Das Kleine Mahagonny, directed by Lukas Foss.
From 1979 – 1981 John directed the Symphonic Choir and Madrigal Singers of Mt. Greylock High School in Williamstown, Massachusetts. His experience included directing the school’s production of Carousel. In 1995 he founded and conducted (for its only season) the Berkshire County Chamber Orchestra. The ensemble performed three concerts that included works by, among others, Schubert, Mozart, Dvorak and Ives.
John is the founding director of the choral ensemble Quoddy Voices, based in Eastport, Maine. A constituent group of the vibrant Eastport Arts Center, the chorus presents a stimulating variety of works, from Renaissance madrigals to the modern choral repertoire, including an occasional work of his.
John grew up in a family deeply involved with music in the church. Though not what he would consider to be his primary calling, it was natural that he would become involved as a church musician. His first experience with serving as organist and choir director came during a summer while an undergraduate student.
For over twenty years John served as organist and music director for the First Congregational Church of Worthington, Massachusetts. Currently he serves as music director at Christ Church in Eastport, Maine.