Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Conversation with Composer John Metcalf: Discovering the Paths of Song

When Welsh composer John Metcalf opened the door to us, he apologized that he couldn’t shake our hands.  He’d been kneading bread and hadn’t quite finished.  He’d already alerted us that we shouldn’t buy any vegetables ahead of our visit, as he had a large organic garden “which you can raid when you're here.”

Several months before, we’d come across Metcalf’s music almost by accident and were astounded by what we heard.  When we decided on a trip to Wales, I wrote to ask whether there might be any performances of his work that week.  Though none happened to be scheduled, Metcalf didn’t let it go at that:  “As a second prize would you like to drop in for a tea/coffee when you're here?”

So, there we were, at his doorstep outside Lampeter, about to meet the composer of Mapping Wales.  Metcalf led us to a sitting area conjoined with a large, well-equipped kitchen, light-filled and looking out on his garden.  He finished his kneading and, the bread safely set to rise, our conversation turned to music.


In keeping with the modesty of the man, Metcalf characterized his early memories as “pretty unmusical ones for a musical person.”  The first he remembered was of “standing on a chair, age four, singing a Christmas carol.”

He went to boarding school when he was six, just after World War II.  “The head teacher was a complete nutter for opera” and gathered students to listen for hours on end.  They sat on chairs set out on two levels, “like a little amphitheater,” with some chairs “perched rather precariously” on desks.

Metcalf started composing when he was nine.  Unless you count piano lessons from a page right out of Dickens, he had no formal musical training.  The lessons were in a room at the end of a long, dark corridor.  The roof leaked, and a bowl positioned to catch the drips was “very disconcerting if you were trying to play time.”   The teacher punished wrong notes with the smack of a ruler over Metcalf’s hand.  It was "quite a daunting experience.”

Metcalf soon gave up on piano lessons.  He didn’t give up on composing, though, and, at his next school, he joined the choir.  He was in good company:  Three people in the choir made musical careers.

Metcalf’s desire for a life in music wasn’t encouraged by everyone.  “I got scathing reports from school.  One of them said, ‘John should forget his pipe dream of being a reincarnated Mozart.’”  He smiled and shook his head.  “It was just a different era.  I don’t feel badly about those people.”

Sources of Inspiration

Metcalf considers himself “a creative artist who works in music,” and he draws his inspiration from many sources.  The seven pieces that make up Harp Scrapbook take their cue from inspirations as diverse as a Venetian gondola in Miami and a village submerged beneath a reservoir in central Wales.  The title of his composition Not the Stillness is taken from T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton and its scoring from Messiaen.  The initial inspiration for and the title of Paradise Haunts come from film director Derek Jarman’s gardens.

The path that led him to compose Mapping Wales is illustrative.  An earlier piece, Transports, began with “a phone call one day out of the blue.  It was a fellow artist, the photographer Graham Matthews.  He knew of my work and suggested collaboration between myself and the visual artist Catrin Webster.”
It was Catrin who inspired me on the Mapping Wales.  I was so envious of her, because she travelled around Wales for about fifteen months on the bike and on public transport, just sketching.
Metcalf has long been interested in the “the idea of walkabout and walking—that, when you walk and sing you discover your path in life.”  He cited the work of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, as well as his own research into Inuit culture in developing his opera Tornrak.

Metcalf decided against using walkabout or the Australian aboriginals as the basis for his composition.  "For goodness sake, the Welsh people are the aboriginal people of Wales," Metcalf concluded.  “I think cultural appropriation is a real danger for us.  You know, I’m all for windows on the world, but sometimes our windows take away their light.”  The result, lucky for us as listeners, was Mapping Wales.

Composition and Collaboration

“There’s an expectation these days,” said Metcalf, “that everybody will write everything,” which Metcalf, pointing to history, knows to be wrong.

To Metcalf, collaboration is natural—and necessary.  “There are very, very rare composers—Elgar was one—who played pretty much every instrument of the orchestra to a good standard.”
But unless you do that, there’s absolutely no way.  You can never be inside the violin, never really, really know the violin the way that someone who’s played it for thirty years knows it.  
“When I work with students,” Metcalf said, “I say to them, never ever compromise your idea, but the notes are not the architecture, the notes are the bricks.”
It’s about the clearest way of getting your intention across.  You don’t want to be tenaciously holding on to the little detail of things, defensive about certain aspects of your writing.  You actually want to say, I’m trying to do this.  What’s the best way of doing this?
Metcalf’s awareness of the power of collaboration has been heightened by his work in the operatic form.  He’s written six operas and is at work on a seventh, Under Milk Wood, using text from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s radio play.  The innovative production company Companion Star is producing Under Milk Wood in partnership with two other companies.  The opera is slated to premier in Wales in 2012 and in the U.S. in 2013, in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of Dylan Thomas’s death.

Metcalf said of opera, “it’s a medium in which the music is very, very important, but it’s also a stage medium.”
You’ve got a leading person—which is me—doing it, who’s got no relevant background and experience, which is why so many 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th operas of composers aren’t very good:  because they know music, but they don’t know theater.  So, in the process of writing them I work very closely with a lot of collaborators, this time an instrumentalist, as well as singers, and as well as a dramaturge, which is a wonderful thing to have.
Metcalf, questioning orthodoxy as he typically does, believes “workshopping” in music is wrongly held in low regard.

Paths of Song

While we’ll have to wait for the opportunity to see and hear Under Milk Wood, Metcalf has a new CD out on Signum Records, Paths of Song.  The CD, which is harp-based, includes the pieces Septet, Llwybrau Cân (Paths of Song), Castell Dolbadarn (Dolbadarn Castle), and a version of Mapping Wales for string quartet and harp.

The genesis of Dolbadarn Castle, a piece for cello and harp, was “a commission for the new wing of the National Library which, among other things, houses the Turner painting of Dolbadarn Castle.”  The Library wanted a short piece, and Metcalf at first thought it would be a straightforward task.  “Then when I sat down to do the piece, it was incredibly difficult.”
You can’t really give an impression of a Turner painting, because Turner’s already so impressionistic, he’s already atmospheric.  And music’s very good at atmosphere, but Turner’s already done that.  
He found the solution while at an exhibit of Vuillard paintings in Montreal.

Septet is scored for string quartet, harp, flute, and clarinet, after Ravel's Introduction and Allegro.  The piece, a private commission, is a set of variations containing "'hidden' mottos built around letters and initials. The opportunity to 'encrypt' the initials of Antony, his wife Dot, and parents David and Ann Griew—an AG/DG motif in musical terms—seemed too good to miss."

Metcalf described the CD's title piece, Paths of Song, as his "ultimate walking piece.”

Discovering your life by singing—and by music, all in all—is something Metcalf knows well.  We can only be grateful that he held fast to his childhood dream and followed his own path to song.

Postscript:  Metcalf's new CD, Paths of Song, has received a deservedly positive review in The Observer. To read the review, click here.

To hear Paths of Song, click here.

This is the first in a three-part series.  The second article in the series, Rethinking Musical Forms, can be found here.  The third article in the series, "Everybody Has Genius," can be found here.

If in the UK, to find music by Metcalf mentioned in this post, click here.  For the US and other countries, a good source for Metcalf's music on CD can be found here.  In the US, for single MP3 tracks, click here and here.


  1. Lovely stuff and fresh bread and veggies too!

  2. a very interesting post.
    Although this is a musical (opera mainly) household and we are as close to the Welsh border as you can be we do not know Metcalf.
    hank you for introducing us.

  3. Another excellent post, What a charming man is John Metcalf. I particularly enjoy his descriptions of how music is constructed and how it sounds.

    I eagerly await the next posts in this series!

  4. Thank you RA for allowing the man who produces such gorgeous music to speak directly to us - I am playing the clip from "Paths of Song" as I write this and thinking how wonderful it would be to walk to this composition. Even the most mundane sidewalk would seem blessed.

  5. Yikes! Sue! Such a good read, and so interesting to hear Metcalf speak so succinctly about his work. The real "winner" is that last clip... so moving to almost "hear" the beats as he punctures the air with them in silence. wowowow! thank you for this! -E

  6. thank you for that interesting post - I just gave the link to some students of Cultural Studies (music/art/theatre and creative writing) at the University of Hildesheim.
    And as Wales stands on my agenda for next year (after moving to Berlin in the next 2 months - stress starts to simmer...) thanks to your post I will listen to Wales in a different way!

  7. Von: You always know how, in a few succinct words, to get to the heart of things!

    Friko: I am so pleased to be able to offer this introduction. Enjoy!

    cybersr: Always enjoy your comments! And as for Metcalf's descriptions of how music is constructed and how it sounds, be on the look-out for part two: "Rethinking Musical Forms."

    Carol-Ann: I love to think of you writing your comment to Metcalf's music. Paths of Song is indeed a lovely piece.

    Elaine: It's a great thrill and pleasure for me to know how much the video was able to bring to the post. Thank you!

    Britta: Thank you so, so much for your lovely comment and for sharing the post with your students. I do hope they enjoy it and would love to hear from them, too! Good luck on your move, and I look forward to your own reports from there and from Wales.

  8. Rock Musicians seem untouchable. John Metcalf is clearly far more brilliant a musician than those I listen to yet down to earth enough to share his wisdom about his creative process. As always, your writing continues to amaze and inspire me. Actually seeking out an artist you enjoy and getting an interview to boot is hitting it out of the park in my book. WOW!

  9. jm: WOW, that's quite a compliment! I do feel very lucky to have had this opportunity. I hope you'll enjoy the coming posts on the interview, too.


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