Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
I fear my answer may sound pretentious . . . When I was 12 years old there was a single moment when, while out walking, the idea came to me to be a composer and it was an idea which for the first time seemed to make sense of my whole life. It was quite unusual in that it wasn’t an obvious choice – I do not come from a particularly musical background
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
I see it as much as a vocation as a career. There are very many influences – it’s a life’s work. Anything that helps to reconnect new music with an intelligent audience has been important. I also love the simplicity and rigour of minimalism. Working with other artistic disciplines, especially but not exclusively in opera, has also been very formative
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Again several. Being true to myself; understanding that recognition needs to come from within rather than without; and seeking a radical artistic path despite composing in a non-modernist idiom.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I think the obvious ones either way. It can be helpful to have a structure and a deadline. Even for the best organised composer creative work can at times be chaotic as well as totally absorbing. Similarly the timing of commissions can be a help or a further challenge.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
It’s a commonplace of course but the best collaborations are those in which all those involved have a part in the decision making and there’s a huge range within music from individual performers who commission specific works to orchestra members who have little or no choice over what they play. At its best collaboration – the highest sum of the best parts – can be the pinnacle of artistic work
Which works are you most proud of?
Well, I have put on ice much of my music before 1990. However, I am not one of those composers who doesn’t like to listen to his own music and I am proud of so many of my works since then. A breakthrough piece for me was Paradise Haunts (1994) violin and piano, later (1999) violin and orchestra. The short piano piece Endless Song (1999) is probably my most played work and there is a set of variations for Harp and Strings, Mapping Wales, based on it. I’m also proud of the song cycle In Time of Daffodils (2006) and my last two operas – A Chair in Love (2005) and Under Milk Wood (2014). Most composers have their ‘ugly duckling’ work. Mine is Cello Symphony (2004) – only one performance to date but there is happily a recording. (Thank you for this promotional opportunity, I think I’ve made the most of it!)
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Bach, Stravinsky, Elgar and Arvo Part are among them and I love listening to new pieces that I don’t know! I have the greatest admiration for new generation of young British performers also. They are really extraordinarily good. It is an odd realisation that the fees for classical musicians have decreased markedly as the standard of playing has increased.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
There have been some very special concerts at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. The 1996 concert at Llandaff Cathedral with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir performing Part, Vasks and Kutavicius stands out. Hearing the Kutavicius work – The Last Pagan Rites – prior to that at a cathedral in Vilnius following a very traumatic travel day was also memorable. Finally the premiere of Under Milk Wood: an Opera on April 3rd 2014 is still fresh in my memory
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I think, excellence. As few compromises as possible. Never the middle ground, always the high ground. And spend as little time as possible teaching, administering, examining – crucial, wonderful skills though those are – and as much time as possible be it on composing or playing.
John Metcalf is a leading Welsh composer who has composed major works in many musical forms. While his cultural roots are in the heart of Wales, his work has a broad international following and is represented in a growing catalogue of recordings.
In 2009 he received one of four inaugural Creative Wales Ambassador Awards from the Arts Council of Wales. The awards recognise artists’ achievements, their standing in the arts in Wales and their capacity to push the boundaries of their art inherently as form and as a point of contact with contemporary Wales.
2010 highlights included the release in September by Signum Records of the ‘Paths of Song’ CD, containing Septet, Llwybrau Cân (Paths of Song), Castell Dolbadarn (Dolbadarn Castle) and Mapping Wales and a recording of his six piano palindrome Never Odd or Even in a multi-track version by Dutch pianist Jeroen van Veen on Brilliant Classics 9171/7. On October 29th his new saxophone quartet On Song was premiered by the Lunar Saxophone Quartet at the Riverfront Centre, Newport. Several performances followed and the work was also released on Signum Records SIGCD233.
In Her Majesty the Queen’s 2012 New Years Honours List John was awarded an MBE for services to music.