John McGuire (b. 1942) was born in Artesia, California. After completing his BA in music at Occidental College, Los Angeles (where he studied composition with Robert Gross), he received a series of travel scholarships that allowed him to study in Europe with Krzysztof Penderecki at the Folkwang Hochschule in Essen (1966–8) and with Stockhausen at Darmstadt (1967, 1968). After completing his MA at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1970, he returned to Europe, where he studied computer composition with Gottfried Michael Koenig at the Institute for Sonology in Utrecht, Netherlands (1970–71), before settling in Germany, where he remained until 1998. Between 1975 and 1977 he studied electronic music at the Hochschule für Musik (State Conservatory for Music) in Cologne, composing 108 Pulses, Pulse Music I and Pulse Music II during this time (in 1977 Pulse Music II was commissioned retrospectively by the composer and radio producer Hans Otte for his Pro Musica Nova festival at Radio Bremen). In 1978 Pulse Music III was the second of six commissions from Westdeutsche Rundfunk (the first was Frieze for four pianos, also commissioned retrospectively, in 1976) and was realized in the famous WDR electronic music studio in which Stockhausen had composed his first electronic works.
McGuire’s music, which combines influences from California and central Europe, is often described as a synthesis of serialism and minimalism, although this is an over-simplification. Certainly the role of Stockhausen in his musical development is undeniable, not only directly through his classes, but also indirectly through the friendships and associations McGuire made while he was living and working in Cologne: a crucial role was played by the Feedback Studio, a loose association of composers who had all either studied with Stockhausen or performed as part of his ensemble at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka. Yet although McGuire’s technique draws upon the parametrical and pulse-based thinking of Stockhausen’s work of the 1950s (and, to a lesser extent, anticipates much later pieces such as Cosmic Pulses of 2006–7), it applies that to a much more minimalist aesthetic based on processes of looping and layering, and simpler harmonic and rhythmic ratios. In this interview with Tim Rutherford-Johnson he describes his early career, and how he arrived at the musical style of 108 Pulses and Pulse Music I–III.