John was born in Artesia, California in 1942. He began piano lessons at the age of 8 and French horn at the age of 12. He began composing in college at 17. His principal composition teachers in California were Robert Gross at Occidental College, 1960 to 1964, Ingolf Dahl at the University of Southern California, Seymour Shifrin at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1964 to 1966, and Karl Kohn. In 1966-68 two consecutive Alfred E. Hertz travelling scholarships allowed him to begin an extended stay in Europe, where he studied counterpoint, instrumentation and composition with Krzysztof Penderecki at the Folkwang-Schule in Essen. He also attended the International Summer Courses in Darmstadt and Mauricio Kagel’s introductory course in electronic music at the Siemens Studio in Munich in 1966, and participated in the Composition Studios of Karlheinz Stockhausen in Darmstadt in 1967 and 1968 on scholarship from the state of Northrhine-Westfalia. In 1970-71 he attended G.M. Koenig’s lectures in electronic and algorithmic composition at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht, where he also became acquainted with sound-generating and recording techniques.
For the next 27 years he lived in and around Cologne, where he attempted to make sense of the aforementioned educational experiences in the form of musical compositions. During this time he worked as a church organist, piano teacher and orchestral pianist with the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Saarbrücken and married the soprano Beth Griffith. In 1988 he returned to the U.S. and has taught 20th-century music and composition at Columbia University.