Dr John McGrath
Before coming to Surrey John taught and led modules at University of Liverpool, Goldsmiths, LIPA and ICMP. John has performed in ensembles with Dustin Wong, Sharon Gal, Cavalier Song, Rhys Chatham, Howard Skempton and the aPAtT Orchestra. McGrath has been commissioned to write for the IMMIX ensemble and performed new music alongside large arrangements of his work with the group. As a solo performer John has performed at a number of festivals and has supported Richard Dawson, Gwenifer Raymond, Laraaji and Sun Araw. Recent appearances include a solo set at King's Place, London. McGrath's compositions have been featured in The Wire, RTE Radio 1, BBC Radio, aired on several television programmes, and sounded at Tate Modern and FACT.
His research is concerned with how one format or artform can flow into and influence another. His monograph Samuel Beckett, Repetition and Modern Music (Routledge, 2018) explores the interactions and cross-pollination of music and literature while other publications investigate the transmedial work of Laurie Anderson and David Lynch in addition to popular music and digital aesthetics in folk-horror. In 2014, John was awarded a PhD in music from University of Liverpool, which was funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council. John is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a consultant for guitar pedagogy on Learn to Play: Computational Assessment of Musical Playability for Users' Practice (AHRC). He is Deputy Director of the International Guitar Research Centre (IGRC) and is currently co-editing the collection 21st Century Guitar for Bloomsbury.
Interested in supervising PhD students in the following areas: Popular Music Studies; Guitar; Improvisation; Folk Music; Music and Literature; Music and Repetition; AV Media.
Areas of specialism
University roles and responsibilities
- Head of Performance
- BMus (Music) Admissions Officer
- Deputy Director of the International Guitar Reseearch Centre (IGRC)
In the media
Popular Music Studies, Performance, Word and Music Studies, Practice as Research, Cross-Disciplinarity, Aesthetics, AV Media, Samuel Beckett, Avantjazz, Experimental Music, Folk / Avantfolk, Improvisation, Guitar, Repetition Theory
Interested in supervising PhD students in the following areas: Popular Music Studies; Improvisation; Folk Music; Music and Literature; Guitar; Music and Repetition; AV Media.
Consultant for a collaborative research project led by the Computer Science faculty at Goldsmiths for a research project on guitar pedagogy through the development of a tuition app in collaboration with Tido Music. The project was awarded Follow-on Funding through the Impact and Engagement Scheme, part of the AHRC. This is an 18-month project, largely building on methods and findings from a recent multidisciplinary Large Grant project in the AHRC Digital Transformations theme, Transforming Musicology. (£250k)
Indicators of esteem
“McGrath’s book is salutary in flagging the deliberately jarring tactics of the avant garde, and getting the reader to grasp what remains permanently uncanny about our pleasure in Beckett and Feldman’s exploration of both the playful humour and subtle queasiness to be found within their repetitive forms” – Drew Daniel, The Wire
“a valuable addition for the critical insights it provides through meticulous analyses.” Michael Palmese, Irish Studies Review
“Samuel Beckett's experiments at the intersection of music and literature are among the most unique and interesting of their kind. McGrath's study contributes new elements to our understanding of Beckett's work in this area, particularly in its potential to enrich the thinking of musicians and composers. Not "just" a book on Beckett, it makes Beckett the starting point for a number of fruitful meditations on repetition, representation, improvisation, and structural experimentation in the arts. The chapters on Morton Feldman and Scott Fields are especially welcome in this regard.” - Eric Prieto, University of California, Santa Barbara
"a wonderful new book ... McGrath dives deep into the musicality of Beckett’s work and how it has shaped certain aspects of modern music, focusing mainly on the works of Feldman and the guitarist Scott Fields. McGrath’s book isn’t the first to deal with music and Beckett, but it is an important step forward in that area." - David Menestres, Burning Ambulance
"In sum, Samuel Beckett, Repetition and Modern Music benefits from having been written by someone who is as at home with music studies as he is with literature, as is evident from the wide-ranging references to historical and geographical musics with which the text is sprinkled. In all of this McGrath’s tone is just right and the discussion convincing. At no point is the impression given that literature or music have the upper hand over the other as the centre of discussion or in the author’s priorities...the text moves dynamically from one issue to another, shifting registers easily and profitably between the historical and the contemporary and trading cultural references, ‘high’ and ‘low’, so to speak, from James Bond and Batman to Joyce and Birtwistle, across several aesthetic media including film, pop, and commercial culture, in the playful course of which McGrath offers his clearly distilled and pertinent reflections. This is a study of great erudition that demonstrates admirable facility and awareness of a wide range of related fields, all of which are related to one another very much in the spirit of the topic. The text is supported by a generous number of figures and musical examples and is without doubt an important contribution to the field of Word and Music Studies." - Edward Campbell, Music & Letters
Teaching Innovations in performance guidance and provision during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – led to the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) including the guidance in the official published guidance for the sector.
External Examiner for BIMM, BMus Popular Music Performance degree across 5 campuses (2020-24).
Editorial Board for Sonic Scope (MIT Press).
Reviewer for Orpheus Series Book Proposals
Reviewer for Music & Letters (Oxford University Press Journals)
Reviewer for Bloomsbury Academic Book proposals
Royal Musical Association (RMA)
Society for Musicology in Ireland (SMI)
International Association of Word and Music Studies (WMA)
International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM)
“On (vari)speed in David Lynch’s Work”
SCMS Annual Conference, Denver, March 19, 2021.
“Vari-speed in the Soundworlds of David Lynch”
RMA Annual Conference, Goldsmiths, Sep 8th, 2020.
“Laurie Anderson’s Transmedia Storytelling”
IASPM UK & I online conference - London Calling, Session 3 “Popular Music Analysis” June 2nd, 2020. https://london-calling-iaspm2020.com/john-mcgrath-university-of-surrey-uk/
“Transmedia Motifs and Revisionism in the Work of David Lynch”
Revision Process Study Day, University of Surrey, March 2020
Chaired Session: "Recording Practices in Context: Historical Perspectives"
New Takes on Recorded Music - A Performance Studies Network Research Forum, University of Surrey, Sep 2019.
"Ghost Guitars in the Machine" and Chaired Session
IGRC Conference, Hong Long Academy for Performing Arts, July 2019.
"Laurie Anderson's Transformative Repetition"
Again and Again, Music and Repetition Conference, City University, March 2019.
“Using Literature in Jazz Composition”
Jazz Guitar Research Day, IGRC, University of Surrey, Oct 2018.
“Conservative purism and the aesthetics of popular music in folk horror”
RMA Annual Conference, Sep 2017, Liverpool.
Co-Chaired Session: “Postgraduate Plenary”
ISSME, June 2017, ICMP, London.
“Not 1 – Group Improvisation and the loss of self”
IASPM UK & Ireland, Sep8-10 2016, BIMM and University of Sussex.
Chaired Session: “Video-game music”
Music and Screen Media Conference, 25-26 June 2014, University of Liverpool.
“Scott Fields’ Beckettian Jazz”
Postgraduate Colloquium, March 2012, University of Liverpool.
Roundtable speaker: “Research Outputs and Impacts: The Value of Our Research”
Royal Musical Association Research Students’ Conference, January 2012, Hull University.
“Sounding Beckett: Musical Approaches to Text”
Royal Musical Association Research Students’ Conference, January 2012, Hull University.
“Hearing Literature: Musical Translations of Samuel Beckett’s Writing”
Society for Musicology in Ireland (SMI) Student Conference, January 2012, Dublin Institute of Technology.
“Rhythm and Repetition: Semantic Fluidity in Beckett's Late Prose”
Postgraduate Colloquium, March 2011, University of Liverpool.
“Musico-literary Studies Today”
Institute of Musical Research Study Day, February 2011, London.
“Music and Irish Modernist Narratives”
Royal Musical Association Research Students’ Conference, January 2011, Manchester.
“Silent Music in Irish Literary Modernism”
International Association of Word and Music Studies Forum (WMAF), November, 2010.
“Samuel Beckett and the Condition of Music”
Postgraduate Colloquium, March 2010, University of Liverpool.
Postgraduate research supervision
Current PhD students:
Oliver Woods – Primary Supervisor
Elisabeth Pfeiffer – Primary Supervisor
James Dean – Co-supervisor
Dimitrios Soukaras – Co-supervisor
Maria Papadopoulou – Co-supervisor
Trevor Datson – Co-supervisor
Giacomo Copiello – Co-supervisor
Head of Performance at Department of Music and Media
Module Leader: Topic Study 2A/3A/A – Popular Music and Culture
Module Leader: Topic Study 2B/3B/B – Popular Music and New Media
Module Leader: Music Project – John Zorn’s Cobra and Free Improvisation
Module Leader: Individual Project – Final Year Performance / Composition / Dissertation
Samuel Beckett, Repetition and Modern Music (London & New York: Routledge: 2018). ISBN: 978-1472475374.
Music and Letters 2015 96 (4): 681-683, doi: 10.1093/ml/gcv097.