While John White has been regarded as almost an oddity among British composers -- a minor figure of eccentric compositional method, or, more correctly, methods -- he has wielded significant influence over the years. The composer of over 160 piano sonatas (mostly short works after Scarlatti's example), more than 20 symphonies, 35 ballets, and much else, including works for the tuba, White has written in a range of styles and is the creator of a sort of British counterpart to minimalism called systems music. In this style, music or tones are determined in accordance with some random process, such as chess moves, and a repetitive pattern of sounds emerges. White has also written music for toy piano, Casio home keyboards, reed-organs and other non-traditional instruments. Yet, White is not necessarily as progressive as his methods might suggest, as is evidenced by his piano sonatas, which draw on musical influences out of the past, like Satie, Busoni, Szymanowski, Alkan, Medtner, and others. As a performer White has been a champion of avant-garde music, playing works by Cage, Feldman, Cardew, and a host of others. White's own compositions have generally not been widely performed or recorded. One of the more important recordings of his works is the 1999 NMC disc of 18 of White's piano sonatas, performed by his student Roger Smalley.
John White was born in Berlin, Germany, on April 5, 1936. At London's Royal College of Music (1955-1959) he studied piano with Arthur Alexander and Eric Harrison, and composition with Bernard Stevens. White's earliest surviving compositions date to 1957, the year he wrote his First Piano Sonata and first ballet.
In the 1960s White began actively performing avant-garde music, particularly the works of Cardew and Cage. He was the London Gabrieli Brass Ensemble's tuba player (1971-1972) and was active from around that time into the 1990s in founding several other small, often oddly named ensembles: Garden Furniture Music Ensemble (1977), Instant Dismissal Symphony Orchestra (1980), and Live Bats ('90s).
Meanwhile, his 1980 ballet score They Are Not Like Us called for an electronically amplified piano, and thereafter the composer often made use of electronic instruments in his music. With the appearance of the 1996 4 Japanese Nonsense Songs, White turned his focus to vocal music, a genre for which he had previously written little. In the new century White maintained interest in the piano sonata, turning out his 164th in 2008.