Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Conversation with Composer John Metcalf: Rethinking Musical Forms

For composer John Metcalf, traditional musical forms are meant to be challenged and rethought.
I really passionately believe in the type of education that’s for the world we want, not the world we’ve got.  So, every time we’ve got any kind of orthodoxy, or if somebody says you can’t do that or you shouldn’t do that, or something seems to be a given, then immediately I want to say, why is that?
Cello Symphony:  Rethinking the Concerto Form

Metcalf’s Cello Symphony is a case in point.  In composing the Cello Symphony, he was “keen to avoid the particular nineteenth century associations of solo instrument with orchestra.”
The whole system of the orchestra is steeply hierarchical . . . .  Even the names:  the maestro.  People often say “hello, maestro” and “good morning, maestro” when they talk with me, which I find very, very difficult.  So there’s all of that, and then there’s the whole architecture of the buildings where orchestras play.  Essentially, you rent that seat, and you sit in that one place.  You can’t move around, and the orchestra doesn’t move, so it’s just like buying a tiny little bit of real estate for the evening, and you sit there.
For Metcalf, the Romantic concerto form is part of that hierarchical tradition.  “The concerto of the Romantic era represents to me the unequal struggle of the individual trying to maintain his voice above the crowd.  And that’s embodied in the form.”

When the solo instrument is a middle register instrument like the cello, the challenge to make its voice heard is particularly acute.  An approach often taken is to clear out competing instruments from the orchestra.  Metcalf took the opposite approach, not only retaining the orchestra celli, but also adding parts for the organ and for male voices.

Opera:  Taking Away the Conductor

With opera, Metcalf took an even more radical step:  he removed the conductor.  In his opera Tornrak, Metcalf used many external sounds, including Inuit throat singing and an actor vocalizing as a bear.  The conductor wanted all those sounds to be contained in the orchestra pit, but Metcalf believed it would diminish the audience’s experience.  “I felt the conductor was too much of a restrictive focus.”  

Metcalf also brought the instrumentalists out of the pit, which he views as another “archetypal” relationship:  “an upstairs/downstairs, people on the stage and people in the pit.”  He believes the audience misses out by not seeing the “physicality of the instrumentalists,” and “by introducing the way of playing the instrument into the palette of the performance practice, you would gain immensely.”

Polyrhythms:  A Pleasure to Listen to, Hard to Play

Metcalf’s music is subversive in other ways as well.  The things that make it such a pleasure to listen to are often the very things that make it difficult to play.

“Percussion players,” said Metcalf, “don’t find it difficult, because they do rhythm all day.  But if you learn to be a string player, you learn to create a beautiful tone, because you’ve got to make the note.  So they find the music hardest.”

In opera, Metcalf uses polyrhythms for another reason, too:  “to displace the consonants.”

Paradise Haunts:  Exploring White-Note Music

About his piece Paradise Haunts, Metcalf wrote,
For some years I had been moving towards a pan-diatonic, ‘white-note’ music.  Though 'Paradise Haunts' marked the completion of this stage of development, it was nevertheless quite a shock to write such an extended work without any chromatic change.

In a manner reminiscent of Philip Guston’s pause from painting to return to the “bareness of drawing,” Metcalf wrote only white-note music for seven years.  He greeted the rigor of composing within such a confined structure with delight.  “The intellect is enormous fun.”

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

This is the second in a three-part series.  The first article in the series, Discovering the Paths of Song, 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. How interesting that Metcalf uses polyrhythms in his music to displace the consonants. I had no idea what you meant by that, but when I listened to his explanation, I understood - once again, I've learned something new!

    What an entertaining series this has been - I've enjoyed your writing, John Metalf's words and the music itself immensely. I'm looking forward to the next installment, with that intriguing title.

  2. Thank you for another great post, RA, and kudos to you for discovering such a talented composer. My bet is his subversiveness and asking "why" contributes to his "timbral palette". I am off to check out the Inuit throat singing referred to in his opera, Tornrak. I have had the privilege of watching Tibetan throat singers perform but not the Inuit which I understand to be a different form of throat singing.

  3. Your conversation with John Metcalf combined with the many informative links and music samplings is a virtual seminar in musicology!

    What a wonderful experience to have met with the composer in his home and to have the charming videos to keep the event alive forever.

    We do live in a wondrous age.

  4. C-A: He does indeed do a wonderful job of explaining musical terms. As he himself noted when talking about bringing the instrumentalists out of the pit, it's so much more understandable to see and hear polyrhythms demonstrated than to try and describe them on the page.

    JM: Very interesting point about the "timbral palette." I'm sure it's true. In fact, I think what he'll be talking about in the third post will validate your view!

    cybersr: I'm very pleased if I've been able to share something of what it was like to have had this marvelous "seminar in musicology" in person. What struck me most was that he talked about every topic in a wholly accessible, inviting way. One did not have to have a degree in music to understand and enjoy the learning!


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