Old sounds become refreshing and new again in the capable hands of London-based pianist Joanna MacGregor. Highly respected as a classical musician, she is equally at home in the mixing studio as in the grand music hall. For MacGregor the ABCs of concert repertoire run from the Alcotts of Ives, back to Beethoven, and full circle to Chick Corea. Where her less exotic peers yearn for a concert grand Steinway piano, MacGregor’s dynamic taste veers occasionally to honky-tonk upright versions of the ivories. Nor is she intimidated by the physical dimensions of her instrument—by means of a unique affinity for the piano, she deftly manipulates its sound, like a child forming new configurations with a tinker toy. It is not beyond her imagination to re-string the box outright to accommodate any momentary need for sound manipulation. Unconventionally attired in a leather jacket complimented by sandals, she accents her clothes with wild and free-flowing hair or exotic braids. Yet she retains her individuality without sacrifice to her art.
Joanna Clare MacGregor was born on July 16, 1959, to Alfred and Angela (Hughes) MacGregor of Willesden, North London, England. The oldest of three siblings, MacGregor has one sister and one brother. The trio was home-schooled by their mother until MacGregor, at age 11, was enrolled for formal schooling at the South Hampstead School for Girls.
Musical as a child, MacGregor’s early training on the piano proceeded mostly by ear. She dabbled in violin and guitar and developed a love for gospel and pop tunes. Her upbringing transpired in what was essentially a “magpie household,” as MacGregor described to Arminta Wallace in Dublin’s Irish Times. Music of the Beatles and Alice Cooper—characteristic representations of the times—were pitted against her mother’s craving for the music of jazz greats like Louis Armstrong. It was in fact a random encounter with a The-lonious Monk recording that sparked MacGregor’s musical taste in particular. This exposure, along with capable coaching on the piano from her mother, kindled MacGregor’s talent until she was introduced to formal music lessons at 18 years of age at New Hall, Cambridge.
MacGregor completed her studies at New Hall before attending the Royal Academy of Music, where she admittedly felt like a fish out of water, unable to accept arbitrary norms of attire and grooming. Personal idiosyncrasies notwithstanding she was recognized with a gold medal in the school’s recital competition. She continued her studies in the United States with Jorge Bolet at the Van Cliburn Institute in Texas.
MacGregor’s lifelong dedication to learning keeps her constantly in touch with academia. Among her associations, she has served as the artist-in-residence at Liverpool Hope College. Also for a time she maintained a joint professorship with Stephen Pratt at Gresham College in London. Additionally, she authors piano books for children.
As an artist, MacGregor earned a reputation as an outspoken proponent for adapting classical performance to the culture of the twenty-first century. A traditional repertoire, she maintains, should be held in perspective and must be considered in conjunction with jazz and other contemporary music forms. She urges classical purists not to lose sight of the interests of newer audiences and to establish a healthy balance of taste. With that axiom, MacGregor’s concert fare encompasses Beethoven and Bartók, interspersed with Ives.
She is uncanny in her ability to suppress the strength of her classical bent, and does not hesitate to alter even the stringing of her piano in order to effect new sounds. In London’s Observer, Gaby Wood called MacGregor “a voracious player, a maverick, a polymath, and hugely generous with her ideas and her time.” In a review of her 2002 festival program for the 5 Late Night Concerts at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, Kenneth Walton of the Scotsman noted her “hint of ‘cool’” and expressed admiration at this pianist’s “sense of daring.”
Her inclination to enhance her music electronically generates controversy among orthodox critics, to which MacGregor responds with confidence. She justifies the idiosyncrasies of her interpretation by citing correlations between the rigors of Bach and the works of player-piano composer Conlon Nancarrow. She has suggested further, in London’s Independent, that “now
Born on July 16, 1959; daughter of Alfred and Angela (Hughes) MacGregor; married Richard Williams, 1986, children: Miranda (deceased). Education: Earned degree from New Hall Cambridge; diploma, Royal Academy of Music; studied with Jorge Bolet at Van Cliburn Institute, Texas.
Performed as soloist with Royal Philharmonic, London Symphony, and BBC Orchestra; appeared with National Youth Orchestra at the Proms music festival, 1990; appeared as featured soloist with Berlin Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Sydney Symphony; appeared as a soloist at the Last Night of the Proms, 1996; performed premieres of works by Michael Finnissy, Harrison Birtwistle, Hugh Wood, among others; collaborated with saxophonists Django Bates and Iain Ballamy; recorded several albums with Collins Classics, 1990s; established SoundCircus label, 1997; provided orchestration for collaborative project called “Scry” at the Proms, 2000; released Neural Circuits on SoundCircus, 2002.
Awards: Gold medalist, Royal Academy of Music.
Addresses: Record company —SoundCircus, Freepost RG 2558, P.O. Box 354, Reading RG2 7RB, England, website: http://www.soundcircus.com.
the software has come along to recreate what [they] painstakingly invented over several decades. But that always seems to be the way: technology takes 50 years to catch up with what people struggle to make with their hands.”
It is this open frame of mind that enables MacGregor to perform selections such as John Cage’s “Water Music” with alacrity. She is not too shy to embellish the piano parts with whistles, water, and live radio, just as the composer wrote into the score. In her eclectic confrontation with conventionality she holds no reservation over her repertoire, entwining works by Bach with modern pieces by Somei Satoh and Jonathan Harvey.
MacGregor has performed as a soloist with the Royal Philharmonic, the London Symphony, and the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Orchestra. At the BBC Proms music festival in 1990 she appeared with the National Youth Orchestra. Internationally she has appeared as a featured soloist with the Berlin Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, and the Sydney Symphony. She has toured extensively in Africa, including Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe. Also on tour she performed an engagement with the English Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. In 1996 she appeared as a soloist at the Last Night of the Proms.
She has been honored to perform the premiere of works by Michael Finnissy, Harrison Birtwistle, and Hugh Wood among others. She is well known for her many collaborations, including those with the versatile Django Bates and with lain Ballamy. A member of the English Arts Council, she is an avid proponent of innovation. In keeping with her theories of the political substance of music, MacGregor upholds the import of keeping a rapport between an orchestra and the community that it serves.
MacGregor, who recorded for Collins Classics in the early 1990s, was not to be quashed when the label went out of business. She regrouped under her own new label, an Internet-based business called SoundCircus, and by the early 2000s she had expanded the enterprise to support sales through brick-and-mortar retail outlets.
Among her many SoundCircus releases, the album called Neural Circuits was a critical favorite in 2002. Abrupt, curt, and horrific in mood, the title track by Nitin Sawhney was inspired in a rush of post-9/11 emotion. MacGregor’s performance of the piece was recorded live with the Britten Sinfonia at the October of 2001 premiere of the composition.
Also in the evolution of her career MacGregor has acknowledged a growing interest in composing and arranging. She provided the orchestration for a collective project—a collaboration called “Scry”—on the occasion of the 2000 Proms. In this ambitious work she juxtaposed self-contained pieces by Peter McGarr, Alec Roth, and Sawhney to create the context of a story with an allusion to divination. Interludes by Gary Carpenter also were incorporated and strewn between the prologue and epilogue themes. For the performance of “Scry” at the Proms, selected youth groups contributed to the presentation, enhanced by accompaniment from Ensemble Bash, an appealing percussion quartet. For her own part at Proms 2000 MacGregor separately performed Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, plus works by Aaron Copland.
MacGregor, who resides in Liverpool, enjoys windsurfing. She professes also to an interest in drama and painting. On September 19, 1986, she married Richard Williams. Their only child, Miranda, died in infancy.
MacGregor was nominated in 2002 for the Mercury Prize for music.
Benjamin Britten: “Paul Bunyan,” Piano Concerto/Robert Saxton: Music to Celebrate, Collins, 1990.
American Piano Classics, Collins, 1991.
Benjamin Britten: Piano Concerto, Op. 13/Violin Concerto, Op. 15, Collins, 1991.
MacGregor on Broadway, Collins, 1991.
Domenico Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonatas, Collins, 1992.
The Music of Eric Satie, Collins, 1992.
The Music of George Gershwin, Collins, 1992.
Hugh Wood: Piano Concerto op. 31, Collins, 1993.
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Six French Suites, Collins, 1993.
Béla Bartók: Six Dances/Out of Doors Suite/Claude Debussy: From Douze Études/Maurice Ravel: Valses Nobleset Sentimentales/Alborada Del G, Collins, 1994.
Harrison Birtwistle: Antiphonies for Piano and Orchestra/Nomos/An Imaginary Landscape, Collins, 1994.
Olivier Messiaen: Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps/Zygmunt Krauze: Quatuor pour la Naissance, Collins, 1994.
Counterpoint, Collins, 1996.
(Contributor) Loss of Sexual Innocence (soundtrack), Polygram, 1999.
Play, SoundCircus, 2001.
Neural Circuits, SoundCircus, 2002.
Daily Post (Liverpool, England), February 8, 2002.
Financial Times (London, England), November 11, 1999.
Guardian (Manchester, England), May 26, 2000; July 20, 2000.
Independent (London, England), November 11, 1999; July 5, 2002.
Irish Times, May 1, 1999.
Observer (London, England), September 8, 2002.
Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), August 7, 2002.