Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?
It massively depends on context. For example when Alban Berg’s private annotated score to his ‘Lyric Suite’ for string quartet was discovered decades after its composition it became clear that the piece described an extraordinary musical journey into the composer’s illicit love affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. Before this discovery people could only responded to the piece’s technical mastery and profound beauty without any knowledge of it’s hidden meaning. Of course how much difference that knowledge makes is down to the individual. In parallel though I have always liked the idea of transparency in certain types of music not to let the composer’s narrative for a piece over-influence the listener. This is not simply ambient noise but intense, powerful music that can move the listener in a deeper way. I would never look to write a piece that clearly demonstrates the process behind it - it may be useful for educational and training purposes but not really in an emotive context.
With more musicians creating more than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
Increasingly I find inspiration from sounds, colours, shapes and movement but not from other recorded music. I don’t get excited about the notion of originality in itself. Media makes big noises about artists being fresh and original but in essence most music is an artist’s re-interpretation and development of existing ideas, techniques and sounds. I still hear incredible music that moves me but I am much more inspired by musicians that I meet and work with. It’s a more human and tangible way to explore ideas.
How would you define the term “interpretation”? How important is it for you to closely work together with the artists performing your work?
The process of letting go of one’s own idea of a piece when played by other performers can be hard. The sound of the music in the composer’s head isn’t always one that translates best for the audience. Quite often one hears recordings of pieces performed by the composers which seem incredibly fast - and the tempo markings may reflect that too. I have spent quite a bit of time in my string quartet working with composers and it’s an interesting process developing the ink into performance. Once composers are in the room with musicians things like dynamics and tempi change quite a lot. I perform a lot of my music with my band so I don’t have that issue to the same degree that more formal classical composers have.
The effect of a piece doesn't merely depend on the performance of the musicians, but also on the place it is performed at. How do you see the relationship between location and sound? In how far do you feel the current system of concert halls is still the right one for your music – or for contemporary music in general?
I don’t think there is any system of concert halls as such. Venues get built according to budget, the needs of the community they serve and the vision of the architect and artistic directors and there are many factors that influence the perception of sound and the intent of the performers. It’s not just the venue but where any one person is positioned and how full the hall is; the shape of our ears, our mood when we listen. And of course for electronic music the quality of the PA and the engineer is crucial.
What's your view on the role and function of music as well as the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of composers today - and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
I want music to have less function not more. Above all else musicians and composers should try to move people. What enervates me most is non-specific music - music written for no reason except a need to communicate and express intense moods and emotions. This could be anything from a sublime Beethoven string quartet to a euphoric house track. Increasingly music is over-explained, has to have a narrative of one kind or another to justify itself or is merely part of a multi-sensory experience. Music accompanies advertising, provides ambience in restaurants and lifts. There’s library music, production music, music in shops, on the street, music for scoring a goal or hitting a six. As people become hardened to it music in general has got louder, more compressed, more fizzy. People are going deaf - literally - and the cult of celebrity has increased our desire to see the famous singer, the cool guitarist, the sexy violinist and interpret their performance primarily along visual lines rather than aural. I have performed a few times with the lights out to try to allow the audience a greater connection with the purity of sound alone and the effect is amazing.
Do you have a musical vision that you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons – or an idea of what music itself could be beyond its current form?
I need a machine that immediately translates pieces or sonorities I dream into reality. So many times I’ve turned on the light to scribble something down only to lose the thread.
Some of my music requires an orchestra. Which is expensive....
Find out more about John Metcalfe on his personal website.