John Metcalfe & Simon Richmond, composers

Composers John Metcalfe (Factory Classical, Morrissey, The Pretenders, Catatonia, Blur, Peter Gabriel etc) and Simon Richmond (Virgin Records, REM, Pulp, David McAlmont etc) have taken inspiration from Dorset’s ancient stone circles to create ‘Set in Stone’, a double album that offers a primitive experience marrying the modern and the classical, the ancient and the technological. The work was premiered in December 2016. Here the composers discuss influences and inspirations, their compositional style, and more….

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

JM: Getting paid 2 and a half p by Vicky Sinden at primary school for playing the opening few bars of Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’. This enabled purchase of an iced bun at break time.

SR: Mostly a curiosity about sound – combinations of melody and accidental harmonies. As a child I was always making Heath-Robinson type instruments out of bottles and bricks and bits of wood. I used to multi-track using tow cassette players and end up with these awful hissy chunks of clicks and bangs and clunks. I think part of me is still trying to get back to that.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

JM: My father dying suddenly when I was a child.

SR: When I was about 22 I had a dream in which Frank Zappa and I were trying to get in to a health club resort in the Catskills. We finally made it to the recliners, sunblock cardboard shields on our noses, and Frank said: “People think that the struggle in art is to either create great works of the highest quality or to pound out poppy trash, but the true magic happens when you can combine the two.” I have been chasing that goal ever since.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

JM: Misbehaving computers. People changing their minds. Being clever enough to know there’s a problem but not clever enough to fix it.

SR: Every day is another mountain to climb and a celebration of survival. “Keep walking past the open windows”, as John Irving says. I suppose the greatest challenge is retaining a sense of freshness and openness to new things. Not falling into set ways of working or writing. That and trying to make an honest living in a hard world.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

JM: Deadlines/deadlines.

SR: There’s a certain sense of liberation knowing that a commissioned piece isn’t all about you – it’s also a great excuse. Having a client to sign off on any piece is always a challenge – finding a way to give them what they are after in a way that they are able to process.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

JM: I have on occasion encountered real animosity from an ensemble (no names!) and it seems to come from the MO of the group irrespective of whomever they are working with. In a way I enjoy that kind of challenge – to see if it’s possible to accomplish good work and if not to remain objective and unfazed. But with fantastic musicians (who also have a sense of humour as a bonus) it’s always a total thrill and privilege.

SR: Every collaboration or moment outside being on your own in the studio is a challenge. What makes those moments special is that as soon as there are other people involved it becomes a learning experience. I always come away from working with other people with some new idea or method or approach that I hadn’t previously considered. That said there are some musicians who you just click with which means not everything has to be discussed and made overt. As soon as there are ensembles involved you can’t help but feel the meter ticking, and that struggle between getting what you want and running over time.

Of which works are you most proud?

JM: The ones I can still listen to and not want to change anything.

SR: I’m always astonished that I ever manage to finish anything, let alone get it released. To me it’s more a question of little details within things that trigger a sense of pride. Mostly just not totally cocking something up is enough, but sometimes there’ll be a little cadence, or an obscure sound somewhere buried in the music that gives me a certain wistful smile.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

JM: Binary and not that clever.

SR: Esperanto

How do you work?

JM: Bobbing on a sea of chaos, curiosity, fear and luck.

SR: I’ve never had a set way of working – sometimes things come out of doodles and sketches. At other times there’s a very specific set of aims or intentions. Mostly I have to get to a state of such profound boredom and self-loathing that the only thing left to do is to write something.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

JM: Kraftwerk, Beethoven, Mosiaques Quartet, Robin Blaze, Michael Rabin Burial, Joy Division, Ligeti, Brian Eno, Gordon Hill Jenkins, Steve Reich, Discharge, Bach, Durutti Column, LTJ Bukem, Glenn Gould, Camarón de la Isla, to name but a few…

SR: Bill Evans, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Milton Feldman.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

JM: Any time I performed Beethoven’s ‘Grosse Fugue’ or Schoenberg’s ‘Verklarte Nacht’. Conducting an orchestra performing one of my arrangements at the Hollywood Bowl.

SR: Two, really – one was coming on stage with The Bays to play an entirely improvised electronic set open-air in Sri Lanka,with crippling food poisoning. I walked on and saw 30,000 people spread out along the beach and had to double check they’d put a bucket by my keyboards. The other was also with The Bays, when we performed our Improvising Orchestra show at the Festival Hall a few years back, with John Metcalfe and Simon Hale scoring live onstage. The orchestra (The Heritage, conducted by Jules Buckley) had flat- screens and the dots appeared as the parts were being written live, as we improvised. No safety net, just spontaneous composition.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

JM: Energy, humour, flexibility, the 10,000 hour rule, self-belief, punctuality.

SR: Always be open to what you don’t yet know.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

SR: In my house but with it no longer being a building site.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

SR: Wilderness with somewhere to sleep at the end of the day.

What is your most treasured possession?

JM: The large volume control wheel in my studio. My Ceruti viola.

SR: My family.

What do you enjoy doing most?

JM: Snorkelling at Poor Knights Island in New Zealand with my family. Walking onstage for a concert.

SR: Walking in the woods with my daughter.

What is your present state of mind?

SR: Best summed up like this: “The world keeps ending but new people too dumb to know it keep showing up as if the fun’s just started.”


‘Set in Stone’ is available on the ECC100 label.


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