An on-stage interview with John Metcalf

An on-stage interview with John Metcalf

Ahead of the 2017 Vale of Glamorgan Festival, 19-26 May, Wales Arts Review is proud to publish for the first time this on-stage interview with composer and artistic director, John Metcalf, by Steph Power. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a pre-concert conversation which took place before a live audience on 18 May last year, as part of celebrations for John’s 70th birthday. It offers invaluable insights into John and his music; especially regarding his compositional processes and his wider thinking about culture. The text includes contributions from violinist and violist/composer Matthew Jones and composer Gareth Churchill.


Steph Power: It’s a unique achievement within the UK to have been artistic director of a music festival for 50 years, as John Metcalf has – and certainly, since 1992, a festival that’s focused exclusively on the music of living composers. Of course, John is also a composer who has written extensively in a number of genres; chamber and vocal music, also orchestral pieces and opera – of which he has written seven!

John, a lot of classical music programming revolves around the performer. In contrast, the Vale of Glamorgan Festival is not only repertoire first, but is guided by a principle of composer portrait. So it’s very good – given that you are very generous in programming and commissioning other composers – for us to be able to focus on your own music! How did you start as a composer? I believe you were nine when you first started?

John Metcalf: I started when I was nine, without real musical training; I had a very ‘progressive’ piano teacher when I was six years old: I was away in boarding school in Bridgend and, to get to the piano room, I had to walk along a dark corridor into a room where the roof leaked. So there was a sort of drip, drip into a bucket like an involuntary metronome. The teacher believed in a slap across the wrist with a ruler if you played a wrong note, but that was a real deterrent to learning piano! After a couple of years of braving it out, I gave up the piano and took up composing. And that’s pretty much the way it’s stayed ever since.

You’ve had many adventures along the way, including sojourns in Canada [at Banff and elsewhere], and a stint at the Swansea Festival [as artistic director] and so on. But if we can fast-forward perhaps, I’m very interested in something you once said about not having found your voice as a composer until you were 45. Can you tell us something about that, and what that pivot point was about?

Well I don’t know whether I’m alone, but I’ve always found it’s really hard to be yourself, to do the things you believe you should do. I’m not talking about libertarianism or views, I’m just talking about realising, or finding, your own voice. Rest in Reason, Move in Passion [1993] was the last piece to incorporate a couple of moments of harmonic change. After that I wrote Paradise Haunts [1995] – and by that time obviously I was really familiar with Arvo Pärt and Gorecki and lots of composers where there was purely white-note music. But when I wrote Paradise Haunts I was still shocked by that; when I presented it to the performers I said, look, I’m really sorry but there’s no chromatic change in the piece. And they said, don’t be silly!

But actually to make that point, where I was writing what I wanted to write, was hard. Because I think it’s fair to say that when I was young, and still when I was at university, you could only be taken seriously if you were writing essentially serial music. Certainly the earliest that I remember of hearing purely diatonic music was the first Steve Reich and Musicians tour – I think it was in 1970, with the Contemporary Music Network. It took me all those years and, even with people like Pēteris [Vasks: featured composer for 2016, and who was in the audience for this interview] – whose music I also knew then – even with their example, I still found it really hard. I just lacked confidence. So that’s the lesson. Do the thing you want to do, and do it truthfully and sincerely, don’t be influenced by other things. I mean, do it kindly, do it gently, do it respectfully of others, but be yourself.

John Metcalf working at home

You’ve spoken a lot about the importance of communicating with audiences. It strikes me that, as well as being brave in a sense as a composer at that time, there’s an element of ongoing bravery in being a festival curator in saying, this music is worth listening to. But how’s that been, the relationship between composing and curating?

I always feel very nervous when people say, oh you’re brave! Am I? It’s very Yes, Minister: ‘That’s a very brave decision!’ ‘Oh. Is it?!’ But it’s certainly been a two-way street for me – I’ve learnt so much from the composers who’ve come to the Festival. I think it’s important to build a bridge with audiences – and the Festival audience is wonderful because they will listen to many, many things. I think what helps is to have some music in the concert where there’s a common language. If you’re learning a language, you’re quite happy to – under the right circumstances and with a little bit of kindness – to try it out. But if, for instance, you went into a room with the Latvian choir and they were all speaking Latvian, you’d probably switch off! Because you’d think, well, we’re probably not going to be able to do this so we might as well be quite calm within ourselves and realise we’re not.

I don’t really buy into the whole dichotomy of music that’s ‘accessible’ or ‘modernist’. What I do think is that it’s really important to try and wrest back some of the language from purely commercial use, which I think devalues it. It’s as though you want to be a poet and the advertising copyrighters have taken all the best bits of language. So I think that some of the vernacular language is important to music; that you’re not just left with a little of what’s left over from other, powerful people’s usage, but have the whole palette.

And although we have followed a certain path with the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, we’ve also had quite a diverse lot of composers. We’re not pejorative about style, and we’re certainly not seeking to make things easy for the audience. Challenge is the sincerest form of flattery: you can do better, you can understand it, you can go further. You don’t want to tell an audience, oh you’ll only be happy with these safe things. You want to tell them there’s a world out there. It’s inevitable that what we don’t know is much more interesting than what we know, because there’s so much more of it!

That leads me to a question I have about your compositional process. I’m very interested to know what your starting point is. The title of your piano trio, Rest in Reason, Move in Passion, seems to sum it up in the sense that there’s a delicate balance between expression and form – and a very particular, spacious quality. So I was wondering what inspires you to write?

There are extremes in my music. It’s a very, very emotional music, so if it’s going to be brainy and intellectual then I want it to do something which is extremely hard to do – like writing a palindrome for six pianos, for example [as in Never Odd or Even – to be performed by Grand Band at St David’s Hall on 23 May 2017]!

Grand Band in New York. Due to perform Metcalf and more at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 23 May. Photo courtesy of the band.

And if it’s going to be music that’s based on melody then I will want to write the melody until the tears are running down my cheeks. I remember writing one piece: I was sitting in the room and it was getting darker and darker, and soon I was crying all the time – it’s very important to have things that move us. I’m certainly not one of these people who’s afraid of crying – I think it’s a wonderful thing to do, it releases so much. Similarly, if you were to write rhythmic music, then you really want to write music that’s got a huge amount of life and rhythm. Whatever you do, do it to its fullness: I really believe in that.

But yes, there is a dichotomy in my music between a very pure, direct emotional expression and an extremely rigorous form. The Cello Symphony [2004] is part of a series of works I wrote over five or six years; diatonic and only in Eb major. In A Chair in Love [2005], which is an opera, about 75 minutes long, at the last but one note I put a B natural to see whether the audience was still awake! To me it sounded very, very startling. So for five years I wrote in Eb major – but I wasn’t trying to be minimalist, I was trying to be maximalist; I tried all the usual gestures that we’ve got, all the avenues, all the tricks of orchestration. I didn’t restrict myself in that way, but on one level my music is always exceptionally rigorous. Players know it – I mean it is hard, isn’t it Matthew?

Would you agree, Matt? Matt plays first violin, and also viola, in Ensemble Midtvest. [Matthew Jones: also a composer].

MATTHEW: Yes! I think it’s fascinating music to play not only because it’s so moving, so when one’s playing it or listening to it, it’s an extraordinary emotional journey that one goes through. But it’s a process quite unlike almost everything else that I’ve played in that the rhythmic complexities have to be mastered in a sort of intellectual way, but then that’s thrown away and they’re done with feeling instead. But it takes quite a long time, especially given the way we’ve been trained as classical musicians to make that leap from the ‘contemporary music’ with rhythms that have to be worked out, then thinking, ok now just let the rhythm be what it is and go beyond it.

Rest in Reason is based on a very simple foundation of four notes.

Really simple, yes. It’s just four notes in the bass, and those notes come round again – as they do in Paradise Haunts – it’s a very simple device.

Do you use variation forms a great deal?

Pretty much always, yes. All my pieces are essentially sets of variations – and usually continuous. Not all are variations in the classical sense where you have a harmonic basis which reiterates itself, but quite often that. It’s not anything really new – it’s just that you discover it newly!

One of the things that strikes me about your music, across your output and across the years, is that there’s a real sense of team-work between your performers regardless of genre. In the Cello Symphony, for instance, there isn’t the conventional sense of cellist versus orchestra in some kind of battle. Is that right to say?

It is right, Steph, absolutely. If you think about the cello, it’s a middle-register instrument. The problem with the 19th-century idea of the individual against the crowd – unless the individual is a pianist, or possibly a violinist – there’s only going to be one winner, and that will be the crowd! So you really don’t want to set that up. I’ve used the cello in a group of middle-range instruments, which include the orchestral celli, who are divided into four, then I’ve introduced male voices and organ in the middle register – and there are passages for just five cellos on their own in Cello Symphony. Oddly enough, filling out the middle register means you haven’t got so many higher harmonics, which get in the way of hearing the cello.

I’m particularly interested in that regard, with another work, Not the Stillness from 1998. Because you wrote it for the famous but tricky instrumentation of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – violin, clarinet, cello and piano. What sort of balance challenges did that present?

This is a very austere piece, really, on some levels. Well, not austere, but it’s very pared down. There’s places in the score where one of the players will just play one note for a bar. A slow note, then just other slow notes, or two players playing slow notes. It’s a piece that’s slow throughout. It’s a very meditative piece, it’s extremely still.

I have a question about being a composer ‘in the world’. I know that ecology matters greatly to you, and I often get the sense that that comes through in the inspiration for your pieces; that you’re very interested in the idea of journeying, walking, mapping lines, something there about songlines. Perhaps something to do with the relationship between you as a musician and the land?

Well, the first thing to say is that I hadn’t realised that – in talking with Pēteris the last few days – his music and mine are both informed by a predominantly rural sensibility rather than an urban one. I know that some people would say that everybody’s urban now, that we can’t fail to be because there are so many of us! But that’s the first thing to say.

The second thing is that, even though my music’s sometimes slow, sometimes there’s a real pulse to it. It’s not like Steve Reich, it’s not motoric in that way, but there is a real pulse. Pieces like the string quartet, Llwybrau Cân (Paths of Song, 2007). That’s based on a single pulse all the way through. You don’t always hear the pulse, but the whole piece is in the same tempo – it’s another way that I’ve used to organise a piece; you know, write it all in Eb major, do this, do that, or just have a pulse. Like Andriessen’s De Snelheid, for example, which is a similar kind of piece.

Llwybrau Cân was based on the idea of walking, and the cello and piano piece, Ynys Las [(Blue Island) – Nocturne, 2004], for example, was part of a group of pieces called Transports, which was a project that I did, in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome and in New York, with the artist Catrin Webster. Catrin had walked around Wales for about 15 months, and she’d done sketches inspired by the landscape. They were all completely abstract – there were no naturalistic features in them – and that inspired me a lot. So I wrote some pieces based on some of the places she’d been and painted. And then we put musicians in front of the paintings, then we got huge paintings which we moved around to create different environments. So Ynys Las is inspired by the painting rather than the place. The place Ynys Las is the nature reserve on the south side of the Dyfi Estuary at Borth. My piece is actually there, at the centre there, and you can go and listen to it.

One of the great challenges for a composer is balancing the interior time – the sheer amount of time you have to spend on your own in a room writing – and the going out; the social aspect. And I was wondering how that is for you, particularly as you’re so active with the Vale of Glamorgan Festival and many other external projects.

Well, the thing that really helped me, that I would wish for younger composers, was that at several points in my life I was able to spend a long time on my own, writing music. The first time that happened was when I went to the United States in ’77, ’78 – one of five bicentennial arts exchanges with Britain that year. I had a whole year, so when I got the award, I said, can you tell me what the framework is? And they said, there isn’t one – it’s up to you. I did spend five or six weeks driving across the States in an open-top car! But when I worked, I worked really hard, and I learned the discipline of having a long time in the room, which was great.

Under Milk Wood: an Opera (Michael Douglas Jones as Captain Cat) Photo: Kirsten McTernan

Then I was awarded the Gregynog Arts Fellowship in 1984. I was there, in Gregynog – and of course it did what it does in Machynlleth; it rained for nine months! – and so I was in this room, and I wrote music. I remember Keith saying about the rehearsal process [Keith Turnbull, long-time collaborator with John, most recently as director of the acclaimed opera, Under Milk Wood]: if you’ve got a 3-week rehearsal period, just after halfway through it gets to a kind of flat period that lasts for a day-and-a-half. If you’ve just got two days rehearsal, that flat period happens in the middle of the second morning. If you’ve got 54 weeks – like they had for Die Soldaten, by Zimmerman, for New York City Opera – then that kind of slump in the rehearsal takes about 6 or 7 weeks.

But the point about this is: if you’re composing and you’ve got a lot of time, you really learn. I always say to composers, just take more time: it takes a lot of time to do it really well. If you’ve been there for four or five days, and you’ve just scrapped the work you did the previous week, that’s a big step forward! That’s the kind of discipline that you need to be a composer. The time that Pēteris and I have spent together this week, and with the other composers that come to the Festival, will be a great inspiration to me. Not because I’ll want to write any more like him, but simply because I sense the same strength of purpose there, and commitment. I know he’s writing wonderful music now, so there’s a community between us. At least, that’s the way I feel, and that strengthens me. So it’s not a distraction, it’s something that helps me.

In regard to Pēteris’ music, it’s clear that things changed inextricably in the 1990s in Latvia – and that period seems to coincide with the time in which you found your voice as a composer. Is there anything you’d like to say about the process of collaboration and discovery across nations, particularly small and emerging nations?

That’s a very interesting question; there’s no quick answer to it. First of all, regarding the process of collaboration, if you work with wonderful players, they’ll always find ways of suggesting how to do things better than you’ve done them. I always think that, in creative work, the commitment needs to be to the outcome, not the means. So when you work with people who know much more about the violin or the cello or the clarinet, than you do – because we’re not all Elgar, who seemed to know a lot about everything, all those instruments! – then obviously you want to work with them. And it’s not in any way changing your creative vision, it’s just expanding your technical means. That process of collaboration is, I think, now better established in opera – where you obviously need it, because a composer’s an amateur in so many of the disciplines needed for opera; in the best sense of the word, but an amateur.

As for collaborations between small nations, I am very hopeful for Wales because I feel that we’re unencumbered by tradition or expectation but we have a lot of interesting things here. You don’t necessarily expect something that’s going to have an impact on the development of musical history to come out of Cardiff – or out of Riga – but actually I feel that it might. I think it might have a better chance than some other places where there are so many expectations; where there’s so much scrutiny. Because here we are now, and actually we have great access to an awful lot of things that, in the past, only people in metropolitan centres would have had access to. And, although there’s no substitute to hearing a concert live, there’s all sorts of ways to get hold of it and listen to it.

Whereas ten, fifteen years ago I would have been pessimistic about Wales’s evolution – because I would have thought we’d have a lot to do before we get to realising ourselves as a nation – now I feel we’re maybe only a few years away from being what Jean Chrétien would call a “distinct society”, with our own traditions. And we should encourage all the Assembly Members and our Arts Council to help us continue that process of evolution. So that part of our role is not simply ‘bread and circuses’ – an enlightened form of entertainment – but actually to aspire to a process of evolution. In our concerts we’re not just doing some decorative event for the evening – people going away having had an interesting time – ‘the second piece was a bit puzzling but I found it quite interesting, I’d like to go there again’ – we’re not just doing that, we’re doing something more; we’re trying to touch people, and in a way which will be transformative. To give people a different perspective; to articulate in a different way, the way they see and hear and experience and feel things. And I think we can do that – that’s what the Festival aspires to. We aspire to being in a changed environment in fifteen or twenty years time; whether we’re here or not, but we aspire that there will have been a change. I sense that coming about.

[To audience] It’s nearly time to finish, but before we do, does anyone have a question that they’d like to ask John – either about his music, or any aspect of the Festival?

GARETH CHURCHILL [composer]: I wonder if you could say more about something you touched on when Steph asked you about pitch procedure. I wonder if you could say something about the cyclic procedures in your work, and if you attribute that to particular influences at a particular time?

I could talk about the purely musical means – there’s a circular thing about those four notes in Rest in Reason, and I work with three notes in Not the Stillness – but for me, it’s not simply about working with the 24 hours of the day [as John does in his opera, Under Milk Wood, mirroring Dylan Thomas’s structure]. I think, Gareth, that cyclical forms come because, although there are extremes of contrast in my music, I try not to elevate conflict or oppositional things in a structural way. So I feel I’ve broken completely with the 19th century in that respect. I don’t want to use the structure of the music to elevate oppositional ideas.

In other words, if it was an opera, it’s all been set up, and you’re going to have a certain emotion: you’ve reached the point where something’s going to happen – the seven steps of Greek tragedy – and then you’re utterly gutted when it does. I’m trying to look at structure in a slightly different way, which is that there is light and shade, but not connected to a structural purpose that will lead every listener to a particular emotional point.

And also, to break down hierarchies. I’m not against hierarchies for 19th century music – many good things can come from that – but I’m for questioning them in 21st century music, in what ways they apply. I mean, José [Zalba-Smith], a wonderful flautist, always calls me ‘maestro’ in fun! – I said, ‘drop me off here, I can walk the rest of the way’, he said, ‘no, maestro’s not going to walk there!’ It’s ‘maestro’, it’s ‘diva’, it’s the language. Opera’s my favourite: I think opera should have appeared in Upstairs, Downstairs because it’s got the ‘pit’; I mean, imagine you’re in the pit! The language is worth thinking about. Actually, I’ve often wondered about an opera putting the singers in the pit – let’s see how we get on with that!


For more information about John’s music and recordings visit:

The 2017 Vale of Glamorgan Festival runs from 19-26 at venues across Cardiff and the Vale. A packed programme includes the world premiere of a new, Welsh-language opera by Guto Puw – Y Tŵr – (19-20 May) for Music Theatre Wales, and a new piece by Guto for fairground organ and Onyx Brass (21 May); a 2-day residency by phenomenal 6-piano US supergroup Grand Band at St David’s Hall (22-23 May, including a world premiere from Ben Wallace); and, at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, the world premiere of Graham Fitkin’s Recorder Concerto, for virtuoso Sophie Westbrook and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (26 May).

All this alongside Huw Watkins’ Cello Concerto; tributes to John Adams at 70, including with pianists Robin Green and Mei Yi Foo (20 May); string quartet Apollon Musagète (24 May); and a concert featuring six women composers (including world premieres from Steph Power and Hilary Tann) by the Marsyas Trio (25 May).

This year also sees the inauguration of a new Composers’ Studio in honour of the late, much-missed Peter Reynolds, which will see eight young composers working with Grand Band and the Marsyas Trio; seminars by featured composers and more.

Tickets and further details: