Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Conversation with Composer John Metcalf: “Everybody Has Genius”

The week before our visit with composer John Metcalf, a student had come up to him and said, “My teacher says you can’t write tonal music in 2010."  Metcalf replied, "Well, just tell him you can’t write atonal music in 2010."

Metcalf has often had occasion to observe how hard it is for people to be themselves.

For Metcalf that means, if he (or anyone) wants to write “a frivolous piece, why shouldn’t I?  Or a graceful piece.”

The World Really Ought to be Open to People

In some quarters, Metcalf’s statement to his student would be considered heresy.  Metcalf offered a vision of musical orthodoxy worthy of a Borges short story:  “if the whole of literature had been taken over by a style that was Finnegans Wake, you’d have a situation that pertained for a while in contemporary music.”

Pierre Boulez, Metcalf has written, is “one of the world’s most gifted living musicians.”  Boulez was also, however, a prime exemplar of the drive toward a certain kind of orthodoxy.  Even Schoenberg, the originator of the twelve-tone system, which is by no means easy listening, came in for devastating criticism from Boulez on, of all things, the occasion of Schoenberg's death.  As Alex Ross recounts in The Rest is Noise:  Listening to the Twentieth Century:
When Schoenberg died in the summer of 1951, Boulez penned a breathtakingly pitiless obituary.  “The Schoenberg ‘case’ is irritating,” he wrote.  The old man had revolutionized the art of harmony while leaving rhythm, structure, and form untouched.  He had displayed “the most ostentatious and obsolete romanticism.”  It was time to “neutralize the setback,” to rectify the situation.  “Therefore,” Boulez concluded, “I do not hesitate to write, not out of any desire to provoke a stupid scandal, but equally without bashful hypocrisy and pointless melancholy:  SCHOENBERG IS DEAD.”
In Metcalf’s view, it’s not that Finnegan’s Wake isn’t worthy, but rather that neither literature nor music should be confined to just one strand:  “You never want to be stuck with one way.  Like you have one way of heating your house—if the electric goes off, you’re in trouble.”

“The point,” said Metcalf, “is that the world really ought to be open to people.”

Contemporary Music and the Critics

In commenting on his piece, Dances from Forgotten Places, Metcalf wrote,
For me they are aesthetic areas, artistic characteristics infrequently visited by or associated with contemporary music.  Words like grace, elegance, charm, formality, wit, sentiment or frivolity might describe some of them.
When asked whether he worried that his own musical aesthetic may reside in a forgotten place, he replied, “Well, it may, but I don’t worry about it.”

Metcalf told of meeting Benjamin Britten “at his sixtieth birthday party, and he said to me, ‘oh, nobody ever plays my music.’ . . .  At that time, Britten and Shostakovich were definitely considered to be old hat.  And of course, it was completely wrong.”

“There’s a confusion in music, to my way of thinking,” said Metcalf, “that stylistic experimentation equals originality.”

“Critics in particular like things that are hard to for the general public to understand,” said Metcalf, “because it gives them something to explain.”  He told of inviting a critic to come to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival.  At the end of the Festival, Metcalf invited one of the composers, a member of the audience, and one of the players to choose a piece they’d like to hear again, and “say a few words about why.”
That was very, very lovely.  So it was all that kind of atmosphere of, it wasn’t uncritical, but it was the atmosphere of creating a sympathetic critical mass, really.  When it came to this critic . . . the very first words he said were, “Well I expect you’ve all been waiting to hear my judgment about this week.”
For Metcalf, that approach misses the point.  “What we’re trying to do,” he said, “is we’re trying to shed light on things, we’re trying to understand things.”

“So for somebody trying to find their way into contemporary music,” Metcalf concluded, “it’s a minefield.”

Follow Your Nose

Metcalf is a knowledgeable and generous guide to contemporary music, as exemplified by the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, which he founded in 1969.  No contemporary composer is necessarily out of bounds, but neither is any composer required listening.  When asked about Helmut Lachenmann, he said, “You know, you need to work up to that.”
A bit like running the marathon, you know, you don’t just go out and do it.  You need to work on that a bit.  You can gradually explore those things.
His basic advice is simple:  “Follow your nose.”
If you don’t like it, then don’t worry about it.  Just move on to something else . . . . When I’m teaching composing I say, look, please don’t tell me what you don’t like.  If you do that, I will spend half an hour telling you all the hobbies I don’t like and I’m never going to do.  I’m never going to do pigeon-fancying, I’m never going to do wake-boarding. There are just so many things I’m not going to do.  But let’s not bother about that.  Let’s focus on the things that really get you out of bed in the morning, things that you’re really excited about.
Everybody Has Genius

Metcalf’s view about creativity is this:  “If you respect yourself and your own creativity, then that’s the key to respecting other people.”

At the end of the interview, Metcalf invited us into his composition room to hear his six piano palindrome, Never Odd Or Even, and view scenes from his comic opera, A Chair in Love.  The scenes from A Chair in Love featured Michael Douglas Jones, who is both a singer and the Executive Director of Companion Star.  Of Jones, Metcalf said, "he’s got such an amazing ear for accent and sound, and he’s quite brilliant on the stage."

Never Odd Or Even, performed by Dutch pianist Jeroen van Veen, is out this month as part of a collection of piano pieces for multiple pianos.  “He played all the six parts himself, with a click track, so it’s a very, very accurate musical performance.”  It was also, Metcalf let us know, full of polyrhythms—and we can attest that it was a perfect delight to hear.

Unbeknownst to us, while we were occupied with music, Metcalf was busy, too.  As if the gift of his music and musical conversation were not enough, we left his house with a beautiful array of vegetables, flowers, herbs, three perfectly formed heads of garlic, and a loaf of home-baked bread.

Do make sure your volume is up (better yet, use headphones), as the slideshow is accompanied by the Vivace from John Metcalf's Mapping Wales, as recorded on his new CD, Paths of SongEleanor Turner, harpist, with The Solstice QuartetSignum Records, SIGCD203By kind permission of the composer, John Metcalf.

This is the third in a three-part series.  The first article in the series, Discovering the Paths of Song, can be found here.  The second article in the series, Rethinking Musical Forms, 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. What a wonderful closing piece to the Metcalf series! He articulates so much about music and his art to someone unaccustomed to hearing the actual composer's thoughts on his work.

    I particularly liked his thoughts on music vs poetry - how the meaning in poetry is often in between the words, and the analogy that he makes to music. As an aside, I could listen to his lilting accent all day, even if he were just reciting the phone book.

    As another aside, it was a pleasant surprise to hear RA's voice on the videos!

    Thanks for sharing such an interesting journey over the course of almost a year~

  2. I agree with everything that WOS said - especially about Metcalf's analogy linking poetry and music.

    This has been a very entertaining series. Even though I am a complete outsider when it comes to classical music, I've looked forward to each intallment. Between Metcalf's own words and your reporting of them, RA, I no longer feel intimidated by the whole thing. On the contrary, I've felt included - particularly in this last piece. "Everybody has genius" - if we only tap into it. That gives me comfort.

    I must also say that I admire your generosity in these interviews. By allowing Metcalf to speak for himself while complementing his own words with yours, you have presented him and his music in such a deceptively simple way that I learnt a lot with very little effort - thank you!

  3. I am moved by John Metcalf’s tenacity in being true to self. What a gift for him that has now been paid forward to us through his music and inspiration. A wonderful series, RA, Brava!

  4. WOS: I, too, was particularly taken with Metcalf's comment on the parallel between music and poetry. I was also quite struck by your comment on hearing my/RA's literal voice. Here I am, focusing on music and sound, yet it never occurred to me that we've not heard one another's actual voices (though we've come to know one another's writerly voices very well--dealing in cyberspace is a funny thing, isn't it?).

    Carol-Ann: I can't really convey in words how wonderful it is to learn that the interview series may have offered an invitation into classical music that was not only for the "chosen few" but accessible to us all. My enjoyment in listening to Paths of Song is increased immeasurably by knowing that this is something we share. As for my generosity in allowing Metcalf to speak for himself: in the words of Carly Simon, "nobody does it better," eh?

    JMS: Better words were never said, and thanks!

  5. It was a great interview...and gift of vegetables (I still am eating the garlics).I am sure we all have the potential for greater self-expression, through the arts for example. Or is that "The Arts"??? Does that, however, mean we can all be a genius at it? I'm not sure but certainly the ability to flow, express and so communicate our feelings is a challenge to many of us... yet one we enjoy when others do. But as metcalf points out we need to have more faith in ourselves and others to do so. And sadly we more often do not.It may be that those we call talented are just more able to express themselves-in their particular ways.Letting go to be more spontaneously creative/expressive is a challenge I have noted today. Your interview and John Metcalf's words lend me encouragement.


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