Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Welcoming Spirit of Composer John Metcalf

John Metcalf
Composer and Artistic Director of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music

On May 7, I'm heading to Wales to attend the last three concerts of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music.  The Festival, which this year runs from May 1 through May 11, is dedicated to celebrating the work of living composers from all over the world.  This year, for example, two of the featured composers are Danish composer Per Nørgård (on the occasion of his 80th birthday) and Chinese composer Qigang Chen.

The Artistic Director of the Festival is Welsh composer John Metcalf, whom I was lucky enough to meet two years ago.  I'd written him to say how much I enjoyed his music, and, when we decided on a trip to Wales, he generously invited us to his home for a cup of tea.  What started out as a brief "cuppa" ended up as an unforgettable conversation.

To celebrate the occasion, I'm re-posting an excerpt from a post I wrote after meeting him.  It was Metcalf's welcoming spirit that inspired me to explore contemporary classical music.  That same spirit is embodied in the Festival, and I've wanted to go ever since.

Here's Metcalf describing this year's Festival.  To learn more (and get tickets), click here.  If you can get to Wales, I hope you'll consider coming to the Festival, too.  It would be great to see you there!

The concerts I'll be attending include, on May 9, Soloists of Traditional Chinese Instruments at St. Donats Art Centre in Llantwit Major.

On May 10, at All Saints Church in Penarth, I'll hear the Ars Nova Copenhagen perform world premieres of works by Gavin Bryars and Peter Bannister, and works by Anne Boyd, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Per Nørgård, Arvo Pärt, and Steve Reich.

On May 11, at the Wales Millenium Centre in Cardiff, I'll hear the BBC National Orchestra of Wales perform, among others, two gorgeous works by Qigang Chen.

The Festival opens May 1 with an all Gavin Bryars concert performed by the Gavin Bryars Ensemble, and offers concerts every day through May 11.


Excerpt From Post About John Metcalf

The week before our visit with John Metcalf in August, 2010, 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.”

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.”

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,” Metcalf continued, “is that the world really ought to be open to people.”

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.”

Of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, he said, “What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to shed light on things, we’re trying to understand things.”  Metcalf is a knowledgeable and generous guide to contemporary music, as exemplified by the Festival, which he founded in 1969.

No contemporary composer is necessarily out of bounds, but neither is any composer required listening.  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.
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, performed by Dutch pianist Jeroen van Veen. 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.

The slideshow is accompanied by the Vivace from John Metcalf's Mapping Wales, as recorded on his CD, Paths of SongEleanor Turner, harpist, with The Solstice QuartetSignum Records, SIGCD203By kind permission of John Metcalf.

Listening List

A three-part series of posts on the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music concerts I attended, including listening lists, can be found at these links:  Crossing a Bridge of Dreams, hereAncient Instruments, Timeless Sounds, here, and Worlds Entwined, here.

Liu Dehai, Qin Yong (Terra Cotta Warriors) (to be performed May 8 & 9)

Anne Boyd, As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams (to be performed by Ars Nova Copenhagen, May 10)

Per Nørgård, Singe die Gärten (Nørgård's work will be performed in several concerts)

Per Nørgård on how he tricked Ligeti:  click here

Qigang Chen, Yuan (1/2, 2/2) (performed May 4)

Qigang Chen, Reflet d'un Temps Disparu (1/32/33/3) (UK premiere, May 11)

Edo De Waart on Qigang Chen and his piece Iris Dévoilée (UK premiere, May 11):  click here


Cathy Olliffe-Webster said...

Susan, your posts are absolutely priceless. John Metcalf looks and sounds like a wonderfully warm human being and the Vivace piece at the end made my heart burst with light and song.
Your a bright inquisitive light in this world and I thank you for your intelligence and your spirit.

Cathy Olliffe-Webster said...

I'm back again.. had to tell you that, after hearing John Metcalf's beautiful, beautiful music I went outside to help my husband load up the Jeep for our fishing trip. He had music blaring from the garage ... Judas Priest. Talk about a rude awakening...

Cathy Olliffe-Webster said...

And I meant to say you're, not "your." (I am such a plebe.)

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Susan:
How wonderful is all of this. First, how very exciting to be heading off to Wales in early May for three very exceptional and, we are sure, inspirational concerts and, secondly, to have had the opportunity to meet with John Metcalf personally in his own home. From listening to him speak on each of the video clips which you have included here, he is so obviously not only an outstanding musician but also a highly intelligent and charming man.

His advice to anyone approaching modern music is so very sensible - i.e. we cannot like it all and that should not matter. Move on!

The Vivace with which you close this post is joyful in the extreme.

Friko said...

How wonderfully passionate you are about this matter of modern music, willing to cross the ocean for 'just' a few concerts, when people much closer to the event cannot be bothered to stir themselves. No wonder you have made real friends in this world, both on your side of the Atlantic as well as here.

I shall take the time to listen to the pieces and to John Metcalf later on today.

David said...

So THAT's what you were hatching - shows how far love and enthusiasm can take a Mensch. If only I could get there too. JM seems like a fine human being, too, and your photographs have captured him well.
The oscillating Vivace is so blithe, isn't it. Siwrne dda!

Leigh said...

Mr. Metcalf sounds like a wonderful human being - and what a nice change reading about the decent people of the world.
I don't know much about music but I appreciate classical music and it sounds to me like you'll have a brilliant time.

Mark Kerstetter said...

I'll bet the acoustics in some of those beautiful cathedrals is fantastic. I've never heard Glass or Reich played live, it would be wonderful to experience that in such a setting.

I appreciate the excerpts you've shared here from your conversation with Metcalf. I would say, if everyone wrote like Finnegans Wake, there would be no readers. As someone who is a fan of very different kinds of music I don't have much patience for people who embark on weird experiments just for the sake of being different - I like how Metcalf addresses that. Not knowing how to 'be one's self' can take the form of being weird for its own sake just as it can take the more common form of blindly mimicking a popular style.

I like his attitude toward finding what you like, and simply moving on from what you don't like. Mostly, I admire the attitude of focusing on the positive. It's something I've always been inspired by in artists like Pat Metheny and in John Ashbery, who said in an interview somewhere that he preferred to put his mind on those things "that reward the attention."

Will be back to listen to some of these selections - and have a great time in Wales!

Scott said...

Hi- This was a very timely piece for me. I admire some one who I recognize as being extremely intelligent but wanting to engage all levels of understanding. I could feel the salt of the earth in his tone, sense the soil under his fingernails.

The clips really hit home for me. I was reminded of a coach I had. A gentleman. Full of life and passion. First and foremost a teacher. Helping people to see and reach potential. Not just athletically( or musically) but in all aspects. Be yourself. Respect yourself. Go for it.

Really cool that your traveling to Wales. The festival sounds great. I'm especially interested in the electric guitar performance(would you have a link for that guy). I also think it's cool that you will see your friend again, for I think you share much in common on many different levels. Thanks for a very uplifting post. The interviews with Metcalf were indeed Vivace.

klahanie said...

Greetings Susan,
Mae croeso Cymru yn aros. Which, means, "A Wales welcome awaits."
I am thrilled and delighted that you will be attending the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music. And to note that the remarkable composer John Metcalf has made your acquaintance is truly a cause for celebration. And with memories of that meeting with him, you will now have more profound and inspiring times in the blessed land of Wales.

The Solitary Walker said...

This is such a wonderful post, Susan; I enjoyed it tremendously. Metcalf is so inspiring. I like the way he acknowledges the importance of the space between objects, the silence between words. I like the way he is encouraging about following your own path. And I like above all his positive recognition that we are all capable of genius, of going further and achieving more than we might believe.

Have a really great time In Wales!

shoreacres said...

My goodness, how I envy you. One of my dearest friends lives in Wales, in Tywyn, and I would give anything to be able to travel and see her. She used to come to the States yearly, but is beyond that now as the passing years have made travel more difficult for her.

There's no question you'll have a marvelous time - not only because of the music, but because of the country and its people.

I must say, I believe I'll keep that Metcalf post close at hand. Such a sensible man, and as you say, such a welcoming spirit. His comment that "there’s a confusion in music...that stylistic experimentation equals originality" is priceless. The same dynamic applies in other creative arenas, of course.

And his "if you don't like it, move on" advice is so wisdom-filled. There are some things that never will be part of my life if I can help it: Brussels sprouts, Scotch and Martinis, Megadeth. Beach Volleyball. Focusing on what gets us out of bed in the morning is the ticket - so good to hear someone saying so.

Anonymous said...

And I thought listening to Mozart’s Requiem at Karlskirche in Vienna last year was the end all, be all! I am so excited for you and really enjoyed the clip of John Metcalf's description and location of the festival. Have a wonderful adventure!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. gosh what a trip you're going to have - I'll be back early next week to listen to the videos etc.

My mother has a cousin who lives in Penarth!!! And your mention of St Donat's Castle has other personal memories.

I'll definitely be back .. it sounds just wonderful and your knowledge of music and life is so blissful to read about.

I just sincerely hope the weather improves - for goodness sake bring thermals!! It is grotty at the moment ... still nothing can dampen the musical spirit and soaring crescendoes ..

Have so much fun .. wish I could get there .. but sadly - no. Cheers for now .. Hilary

Suze said...

I remember the original Metcalf post and his sense of humor.

Sue, I am so pleased for you that you will be taking this journey and having the opportunity to enjoy so many extraordinary soloists and ensembles!

Steve Schwartzman said...

Bravo for your quotations from Metcalf, e.g.: "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."

After it took a couple of decades for the established art world to recognize the Impressionists, some people began to think as follows: "Look, the Impressionists were talented, but the art world didn't understand them and thought their works were crude and lacking in craftsmanship." Then, not being good logicians, they unjustifiably turned the argument around and concluded: "So what we'll do is purposely create things that are crude, lacking in craft, discordant, etc. Then, when critics don't approve of what we're doing, we'll point to their rejection as proof that we're great artists, just like the Impressionists."

That also seems to be what was going on in the world of "serious" music for most of the decades of my adult life. Anything that can bring back the qualities that Metcalf mentioned is all right by me.

Have a harmonious trip to Wales.

Brigitta Huegel said...

Dear Sue,
have a joyful and happy time in Wales - as you will, I am sure of that!
The video - and John Metcalf - is very impressive, as is your post, thank you.
In the week that follows I'll be in London - flight booked - no chance to change that now.

Brigitta Huegel said...

...though, come to think of it: as strawberries and champagne, fine music and good company are very tempting, I'll drink a virtual glass on you!

Betty Scheid said...

How thrilling to be going to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival and the more so that John Metcalf, himself, saw fit to link your post to the Festival website! Just a proper tribute to you for your enthusiastic support of the music and the event and the high regard in which you are held for your introduction of new music composers to the World at large.

Ever since you introduced me to, "Mapping Wales," and the wonderful video of your visit with Metcalf, I have become a huge admirer of the man, his music and his charming philosophy on music composition and enjoyment of same.

I know you will have a splendid time in Wales and couldn't be more thrilled for you. Enjoy every moment to the fullest.

Wide Open Spaces said...

Just checking in to see what's up at Prufrock's! I do remember the first time you posted this, how lovely to be going back to Wales~

I also enjoyed reading your prior posts which I am sorry to say I have not had time to officially comment on. Keep writing!

wanderer said...

The anticipation is palpable, and now shared. It sounds a fantastic journey and the way travel ought be planned - around music. Thank God for people like John Metcalf, with the motto of be yourself, so easily said, such a challenge for us lesser beings. I see Ann Boyd on the list, and having listened to her first (home team stuff y'know), you might like a glimpse of her personality, and journey into the Presence.

And he, John Metcalf, met Britten, which to me is like dancing with someone who danced with ....

I see Steve Reich's name as well, and having had a major peak live Reich experience only last night, down here, down under, with him, in the baseball cap, I am even more madly envious. Happy days. And safe return, as Buddah says.

Listening to Edo now ...

Great links thanks Susan.

wanderer said...

Trying again with the Anne Boyd link.

Heidrun Khokhar said...

Really passionate about this composer Susan! Ww . But I agree that it's exciting. May the whole event be as spectacular as you hoped. Wales seems so distant yet so tempting to visit for many reasons.
His 'In Time of Daffodils" work is one I enjoy.

Jayne said...

Ack- everytime I come to this post I am distracted by life! Dang the cancelled practices and meets! Kids are quiet for the moment, so quickly, I admire Metcalf's philosophy and his descriptive words for artistic characteristics. And anything worthy of a Borges short story gets my attention.

This is going to be one helluva trip for you, Susan. I'm excited! For you, that is. :)

I'll be back to further explore you Listening List.

Susan Scheid said...

First off, to all: What a treasure trove of simply lovely comments. Thank you so much.

And now, to you each:

Cathy: I so enjoyed your return visits to expand on your comment. The Mapping Wales Vivace followed by Judas Priest does make quite the contrast. From one plebe to another, I say, “Oy vey!”

Jane and Lance: Isn’t that the best advice? No need to fret about it, just follow your ears.

Friko: Well, I can’t tell you the number of concerts I miss in New York City and up at Bard, and there’s really no excuse. But it’s true, John Metcalf is a very special person, and I’m eager to see how he puts his thinking into action in festival form.

David: Look at you with the Welsh! I’ll admit I’m totally lost in that language. I’m so glad you enjoyed the Vivace, which you’ve described exactly as I experience it, too. As for the photographs, long story, but here’s the gist: I brought a Flipcam, brand new, never used, and Metcalf was gracious enough to let me “tape” our conversation. I wasn’t intending to use it as more than an aid to writing about our visit, but the video of him talking conveyed so much more. Anyway, the photographs are stills from the video. I had a great time revisiting that conversation via video to find stills that captured my experience of that afternoon

Leigh: Yes, we don’t hear nearly enough about the positive, do we? I do look forward to the trip, and thanks for the good wishes.

Mark: And the same may be said for The Making of Americans, what do you think? (Though, speaking of that, did you know Ashbery has actually read it?). I like very much the phrase you take from Ashbery, to put one’s mind on those things “that reward the attention.” There is so, so much of that, why let ourselves get derailed?

Scott: Yes, “wanting to engage in all levels of understanding,” I think that’s exactly right. And he is a very big gardener (those perfect garlics!), not to mention a bread-maker, so you’re right on the money there. I’ve sent on the Zane Banks link, as you know—but just so no one else thinks I overlooked that. I love your last line, “the interviews with Metcalf were indeed ‘Vivace.’” Perfect!

Gary: You, like David, knowing the Welsh! I like very much the phrase you’ve chosen. Of course, Friko and Hilary warn me that it’s likely to be a rather damp welcome, too. But, then I vacationed in England during the wettest June in 100 years, so hey, I’m prepared!

Solitary Walker: And of course, you can see how inspiring he was for me, as I knew not one jot about contemporary classical music when I met him, and look what’s happened since!

Susan Scheid said...

shoreacres: I was most amused by your list of dislikes (confession: I love Brussels sprouts—I always thought of them as miniature cabbages, and somehow that miniature status appealed to me, for one). But yes, isn’t it right to focus on what “gets us out of bed in the morning”? A much happier way to live, seems to me.

jms: Well, Mozart’s Requiem at Karlskirche is not too shabby, either, I’d say. The nice thing is there are so many be all end all moments, aren’t there?

Hilary: Isn’t it a small world in the end? One day perhaps you’ll tell us about your own memories of St. Donats Castle. (Perhaps a little A to Z extra??) As for the weather, I’ve got my thermals and raingear at the ready. (Nice thing is there are lots of indoor activities in Cardiff when I’m not off at the concerts.)

Suze: No, I take that back: the INTREPID Suze, just having made a maiden voyage plane trip to Hawaii, no less! Yes, it’s going to be fun. Wish you could come too—maybe next year, eh?

Steve: Yes, I think our adult lives in music covered about the same era. I seemed to feel much of the time that I was being asked to listen to math equations. I’ve always loved what composer Ben Johnston said about that: “what is mathematically intelligible is not necessarily musically intelligible.” That’s what made discovering Metcalf’s own music such an incredible revelation—it didn’t have to be like that!

Britta: Strawberries and champagne with a concert is a pretty attractive idea, isn’t it? I won’t be able to get to that concert, but I’ll nonetheless look forward to your toast from London.

Betty Scheid (aka Mom): Such lofty praise for my little blog piece! But if, as it seems to have done, it conveys something of Metcalf’s ability to encourage and inspire, then I’m happy as can be.

WOS: Hey, nice to hear from you. I’m pleased you’re able to drop by from time to time, whether or not you can comment. Stay in touch!

wanderer: I did enjoy that story about Britten, and it really made Metcalf’s point, didn’t it? As for Anne Boyd: that clip is something else. I am looking forward to hearing her piece, “As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams.” I think it’s going to be quite something to hear it traveling up the vaulted arches of a church. (And look at you, there Down Under, meeting Reich live, which I’ve not yet managed though I’m in New York. Talk about dancing with someone who’s danced with . . .)

Heidrun: Great to see you, and thanks for the good wishes!

Jayne: Thanks for finding one of those too few quiet moments of yours to come by—I am now very much aware, thanks to your hilarious video on the subject, how all too rare they are.

To all: Thank you all, again, for the lovely comments and well wishes. Perhaps next year, we can all go to Wales for the Festival. Wouldn’t that be fun?

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