Name: John Metcalfe
Labels: Black Box, Big Chill, Real World.
Current album: The Appearance of Color (out June 6th on Real World)
In bands: Duke Quartet
Musical Recommendations: Kevin Volans - ‘Hunting Gathering’. Ligeti - ‘Atmospheres’
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I came to composition quite late in my career. Despite my father being an operatic tenor I was always drawn more to non-vocal music and was fascinated by use of differing techniques of harmonisation, counter melody, motor rhythms and so on. I was interested in production and use of effects - delay and reverb especially. Reich, Kraftwerk and Eno were big influences but I also listened to masses of prog and punk. As my classical training developed I gravitated to chamber music but as time went on I came to love orchestral music. Music coming from Manchester in the eighties was also important and I spent a lot of time clubbing.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I don’t know if I ever looked to emulate anyone in particular but certainly I deeply admired other musicians. So when practising the viola for example, my vibrato was shaped by a desire to express my voice rather than to sound like another violist. The search for sounds that resonate deeply in us is compelled by very profound impulses and experiences. Death, nature, colour, dreams and so on. We can be moved to creativity by pure ‘uncomposed’ sounds and timbres as I believe those textures resonate primarily in our id, our subconscious. I think our ‘voice’ is with us from an early age and the interest lies in developing ways to better articulate that voice.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
Hard to say as I didn’t initially set out to be a composer. I never had any formal training apart from harmonising Bach chorales and Haydn string quartets at college. My initial focus was on performing existing repertoire and how best to communicate that music to an audience. But I spent quite a bit of time improvising as the idea of creating something that didn’t yet exist was (and still is) exciting to me. With the emphasis shifting to composition it meant I had to become more disciplined with my time and clearer in what I envisioned.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
My main requirement for the studio was as much natural light as possible and I have large windows looking out on a beautiful Sycamore tree. Colour is very important so I have quite a few bright things dotted around to keep me happy. I want the equipment to be as transparent as possible. The interface of any software is a big factor for me - I spend time changing colours of regions to fit the key of the music for example. Much of my writing is screen-based now, so I try to close my eyes to listen properly. Being a violist haptics have always been fundamental of course, so pots and sliders on equipment are now almost equally important. It’s vital for equipment to have that quality as I like to ‘feel’ as well as hear a filter sweep for example.
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? What do you start with when working on a new piece, for example, how do you form your creative decisions and how do you refine them?
Hard as I try not to be, I am quite chaotic with the early stages of a piece’s development. I improvise a lot - usually on the viola, piano or guitar - less so using electronic sounds. Sometimes I favour a ‘chaos’ technique so overdub without using the existing track, only my recent memory of it. This can sometimes help overcome the danger of going up a cul de sac or writing something too similar to previous work. So many times the first thing I play is what I use as it seems the most instinctive and true.
The impulse to write comes from many disparate sources. With ‘Sycamore’ for example, a lot of the energy came from a dream of flying - but at the same time I was thinking about the movement in the wind of the tree outside the studio - the patterns of falling seed pods and leaves. This coincided with an interest to combine the energies of drum and bass-type patterns with systems music. Once the main themes and structure were roughly in place it was a process of refining to the sweet spot where it felt right without being over-processed.
What, if anything, do you personally draw from the cosmos of electronic music and digital production tools that is inspiring for your daily practise? In how far do you see the potential for a mutual creative pollination between the two?
The two are fully cross-pollinated! I don’t see any software as one thing or another. It’s all there to create and shape sound.
How do you see the relationship between timbre and composition?
Totally symbiotic and I see no real distinction between the two. Perhaps I lean towards timbre as a starting point for composition rather than pitch and rhythm. When I hear a musician my first interest is in their sound. I’m usually more inspired by someone with a exquisite sound playing an unremarkable piece than the other way round. I certainly try to write to the instrument and think in the way that maybe a cellist or trombonist might physically feel whilst playing the line. For me a composition isn’t just about notes on the page - it has to give something to the instrumentalist for them to own somehow. How they respond to the score directly affects the sound they want to make.
Time is a variable seldom discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
I’m not sure what the question is getting at. Time is such a difficult concept to discuss in general terms because the perception of it is so subjective, however much we think we can calibrate it.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
As with timbre and composition I see little difference between the two. It’s the moment of spontaneous inspiration that connects the two. A jazz saxophonist will produce many notes over the course of a 3 minute solo but it’s still composed. The classical composer may take two years to write an opera but at some (early) point it’s still improvised.