Interview: John Metcalf, Artistic Director, Vale of Glamorgan Festival

Composer John Metcalf MBE founded the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in 1969 and has been Artistic Director ever since. In 1992, the festival took the bold step of focusing entirely on the work of living composers and has received national and international plaudits, attracting major composers over the years such as Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt. This year, the annual festival has expanded to cover a ten-day period from 9th-18th May, hosting a variety of ensembles and composers from home and abroad and featuring many World, European and UK Premieres.

John spoke with Steph Power on the day of the Festival’s opening gala event at St Donats Art Centre.

Steph Power: The Vale of Glamorgan Festival has expanded considerably this year and seems to be going from strength to strength. In 2012, you shifted the dates of the festival from late summer/autumn to late spring, so this is the second year of that new scheduling. How is the Festival settling into it?

John Metcalf: Well last year some people said when it came to September we wondered where the Vale of Glamorgan Festival was, so I think after forty-odd years of being in either August or September it’s going to take us time to establish the new slot! But all the things that we thought would be pluses are pluses – in particular our ability to collaborate with other organisations; we’re just about to begin a three year collaboration with St David’s Hall, which would not have been possible in the first week of September. And those collaborations have brought partnership funding which has enabled us to expand the programme dramatically – it’s brought us a second concert of BBC National Orchestra of Wales, for instance. To be able to present new work on a large, orchestral scale is always a real opportunity – and for the BBC NOW themselves, who are excited to have a promoter in Wales that wants to do that, because most promoters want the very opposite – for no bad reasons; that’s just their remit.

In particular, partnership funding has been extraordinary – and, coming from a variety of sources, many of them from overseas, it’s brought a new and really fantastic investment in new work in Wales, with all the other benefits that come from that. So all that side is good. On the other hand, we are presenting three times as many concerts at a new time of year in the depths of a serious recession that’s been going on a long time, and people are feeling the pinch. So, as far as the new date is concerned, that’s our next challenge. Our first year in May came only eight months after our final September festival!

That was a very tight turn-around.

Yes, for a very small organisation, that was a really big challenge – but one we wanted and needed to take, and so now we’re embarking on a three year development plan for the festival. It couldn’t be more timely because of how difficult things are, but the plan has got several elements to it in addition to the collaboration with larger, national organisations. Another aspect is developing a more personalised ‘friends’ and ambassador scheme, and a third is simply having dedicated marketing and PR time which, until we’d moved the dates, and until we had this larger festival and funding, we weren’t able to do. So it’s very early days in that process and we still have not cracked the conundrum of attracting large – as well as enthusiastic – audiences to new music that we’ve done as well as anybody and better than most. But it’s an ongoing project.

In terms of your own music, I know that you’re working on an exciting project there too – an opera on Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. How does being a composer inform what you do as a festival curator?

Well, on two levels. The first level is that, to have a new festival, you have to have new repertoire, so you have to start with repertoire first. I mean, obviously it’s wonderful to have all the recreative energy of, let’s say, another version of Beethoven’s nine symphonies – it’s wonderful to have that. But you can’t only have that and you can’t only have what the greatest performers of the world might bring to you if you’re lucky enough to secure their services for your festival in Wales. So renewal in music has to come from the repertoire, it’s the foundation of the building I think. There’s lots of grumbles about composers running festivals because they perform their own music. Well, if Yo-Yo Ma was running a festival – I’m not comparing myself to him in any way, just looking at the generic aspect of it! – then people would be very disappointed if he didn’t play.

And it’s saying something about the way we’ve come to not esteem new music, that having new music on the platform is more of a threat than a promise. So, having an Artistic Director who is a composer is actually an important thing because the music comes first! I can honestly say that in nearly every case I really love the music that we put on. I’m terribly excited to hear it – I don’t devise programmes that might fit into some important cultural agenda. It’s because this year, say, I genuinely think that Graham Fitkin’s and Sebastian Currier’s music is wonderful. That is something that I feel – and it’s also important for composers to come to festivals where they have that feeling.

Yes, and so a distinctive rather than a partisan approach – which can be so killing I think?

There can be partisanship and I’ve never been a fan of that, and I think it’s partly a generational thing. I think that partisanship is less strong in my generation than it was in the previous generation, and in the next generation it’s less strong again and I really welcome that because I don’t ever want to go on record as denigrating the work of another composer – because I know how hard it is to write really good music. And, also, the more I go on, the more I respect the breadth and the humanity and the different approaches of creative work; once you head out into the unknown, it gets more exciting as you go along.

You’ve been strong in going your own way as a composer, often defying convention – for instance, you adopted a type of pan-diatonicism at a time when the prevailing trend was to compose complex atonal or serial music. Would you say that you carry that independent spirit into your work as a curator? Does it inform the way you put programmes together?

Well, it’s a real blessing to be in Wales because nobody has any expectations of us; new music hasn’t had a huge press in Wales until now and it hasn’t had a huge place on the world platform and, therefore, there aren’t any particular expectations and no tricky agendas to have to respond to. So, automatically, the answer to your question is that, if you are in Wales, you’re already unconventional. On that level, we’re below the radar and so we can programme distinctively – and I really believe in that with festivals. Apart from extremely large events like the Proms, I really don’t think that it’s important to be representative in any sense, because I believe that diversity comes from below and not above; if everybody makes distinctive choices, you have diversity. If, on the other hand, people try to hedge their bets as it were, then you end up with a blurry middle ground. Now that we’re a slightly bigger festival, I think we will take a different approach from before – for instance, we’re not likely to present thirty-two works by two composers again as we did in 1993!

That was ‘immersion’ before the term came to be familiar at music festivals!

Yes, that was immersion! And, you know, we are doing a lot of works by Graham Fitkin and by Sebastian Currier this year. But we also have strands of Lithuanian music, Estonian, Mexican and French music as well as a workshop of Welsh composers’ music. So these are all strands which are feeding in, with some cross-links in there and some returning composers from previous festivals. So there is a slightly different feel to it. And also, we’re increasing each year the discursive element, the building up of discussion and debate. This year, we’ve got a ‘Music and Inspiration’ event and have programmed more talks; tonight, for instance, the first night, Sebastian Currier will take us through his work with musical examples, as part of that increased discourse around the music. We need to expand, but there are limits to the expansion we can make until we can build the audience. But what we can do is to present more talks and more films during the festival and about the festival, and that’s something which will help to build that audience.

Over a period of very many years, the Vale of Glamorgan Festival has established a huge international network through artistic partnerships at home and abroad. Does that body of work enable the Festival now to be recognised on the international scene?

There are two trends that seem to me to be going on internationally if you listen through the internet and technology world. One of the trends is towards everything becoming bland and the same, with power being centred in large corporate blocks. But against that, almost the equal trend has been the freeing power of individual work that’s happened through the internet itself. Individuals are giving of things, everybody can have their own website, they can publish their own music and so on. Similarly, in terms of countries, you might think that Wales would not be a good partner for China, that there might be a slight population imbalance! But we have been invited to Beijing in December to meet with and hear the work of several young Chinese composers – and that’s the sort of thing the Festival can do. So, can a small country be a significant player on the international scene? Well Estonia is showing us that they can! Can Wales be a major player in new music? I think it can – and also because Wales hasn’t got any pre-history; it’s like the Wild West out here, the Wild West of the UK!

That’s a great image! So how might you encapsulate the artistic aims of the Festival at this point?

I think our aims are still the same. They come from the belief that an interest in and an understanding of – and an exposure to – a contemporary art music is something which might reasonably be expected to be part of the life of a cultured, humane person. You know, there are people who might be at a bit of a loss if they couldn’t name a finalist for the Turner Prize or didn’t know who won the Booker Prize. But, with contemporary art music, there’s still a situation where people might not know anything at all about it. You could go into a classroom of children and ask them to name a living composer and out of twenty children, just two might put their hands up. So that’s the audience we’re aiming for. We’re not here for our audience to be the new music profession; of course, composers, ensembles and publishers are an important part of our audience, but that’s not our aim. New music needs to go beyond that now – it’s really vital – and so our aim is to do that and to do that here in Wales.

You must have seen huge changes in musical styles over the years. It seems to me that things have broadened out slowly but surely to a situation where there is not such a narrow focus on maybe a handful of styles, but rather a multiplicity of diverse styles and forms. Is it possible to pinpoint stylistic trends, if any, this far into the 21st century – if you like, in a kind of ‘post post-modern’ world?

Well I think it’s important to put it into a very broad historical perspective. If you take the year 1900, let’s say – to make a vast over-generalisation, but just to illustrate the point extremely baldly – the only music you could see was happening was by German composers. Well of course, in France, Debussy and Ravel were starting out and there was Spanish music and maybe Italian opera and so on – but essentially there was one music in a larger, perhaps available sense. But if you look at the year 2000 in Europe – you yourself are a composer, you can see the changes there! All the serious discussions that could be had when I was a student – you know, along the lines of, ‘can women really compose? They probably really can’t because there aren’t any of them are there’? Well, give me a break! So all that has gone and we’ve got an incredibly diverse circumstance.

But what I would say, is that there is still a tendency for critical judgement to be mistaken for critical discourse. In other words, if someone like me were to come out and say, well, actually the trends in music are this, it really wouldn’t be that helpful. And I’d probably be completely wrong anyway! But the important thing is, the way to develop critical understanding is to be able to really explore in depth; to examine all the elements, to observe but not to judge prematurely. Just think about certain judgements that have been made in the past, even by people like Weber who said: ‘Beethoven is now ripe for the madhouse’ – you could go on. Of course, people have made the right judgements about bad music – but that’s quite easy to do because, as so little music survives, you can justify being rude after the event by the fact that, inevitably, music gets sifted down and quite a lot of music doesn’t make the cut as it were.

So I would say that we’re at a place – I know this doesn’t sound very thrilling – where we could learn a lot about what’s going on and just allow the process of time in things filtering through to decide what transcends the circumstance of its locality and creation, and see what speaks to people beyond borders and beyond timescales. After all, that’s why Shakespeare is translated into so many languages; it’s because whatever he speaks about has resonance beyond the time that he lived and beyond England. So we’re in a unique position to be able to allow that process. I’ve long wanted to see that happen, to see that process of intelligent discussion and discourse happen, and I think the trends are for that. The trends are for understanding that you can’t just fire off in saying things about other people or writing funny put-down remarks. You know, if someone said the modern-day equivalent of Bernard Shaw’s remark about Wagner’s music that it has ‘great moments but boring quarters of an hour’, people wouldn’t necessarily find that funny these days because it’s just a sort of clever put down. And the world can do without it.

A festival like the Vale of Glamorgan provides a cultural snapshot; it’s an opportunity to come together in an intense way for a period of time, from which all sorts of debates, exploration and networking can happen. So there’s a chance there for dialogue also with the other arts?

I really hope that’s the case – and actually I do believe it is, because I know that a lot of our audience over the years has been writers, visual artists; that there has been a lot of cross-fertilisation with the other arts, even though only on a limited basis as yet. For example, we haven’t yet explored music theatre so I think that is important. And I would say that it is important to think of composers as people who are creative artists who work in music, so not just existing in a musical world or in a technical sense as musicians.

What are you most proud of over the years with the festival and what is your ambition for it? What would you most like to see realised?

Well they’re the same thing. I’m proud of the composers, the wonderful composers that have been represented in the festival. I’m proud of the spirit that they share with the most adventurous audiences and the trust of the audiences. I’m very proud when two quite elderly ladies will come and listen to seventy minutes of deafening electric guitar music about the dark night of the soul and I think there’s something incredibly heartening in that spirit of courage and exploration.

I believe I can see that on some levels there’s an enormous flowering going on in the arts at the moment. For various reasons of past studies and my involvement with music theatre, I’m very familiar with the Weimar era and how that period of flowering pre-dated the horror in Europe in the mid-twentieth century with the Second World War. We’re in a similar period now, in which we’ve seen a comparable economic catastrophe. But, equally, on the horizon is a climate catastrophe and I’m very keen that the values and ideas, the exploration and the humanity that creative artists can embody should – this time – come out so we don’t have the same conclusion. That we should move on from here and look to the humane values in our society; particularly the adventurous, unconventional ones – not necessarily ‘nice’ in terms of not fitting in – that those values should be the ones that pertain. I suppose it’s quite serious and idealistic and moralistic, but it is what I think and I suppose it’s not that unusual to want tolerance and humanity and kindness to pertain, but I do want that.

The arts are having to fight their corner so very hard at the moment, but without the arts, that would be really impossible because they express our humanity, in all its aspects. How we approach our arts says a lot about how we are as a society.

Yes. The arts are the formal expression of our cultural, spiritual and intellectual identity and so they’re incredibly important to us. It’s a bit like the forces of corporatism versus the strength that individuals have now. That dialogue is very focused right now and there are lots of important tipping points, especially in the climate change debate, it’s such a huge thing. We really are at the tipping point with that. Well that’s a rather serious note to end on but it is the case!

John, many thanks for your time.