Thomas Metcalf

Every year, we run our Peter Reynolds Composer Studio for six emerging composers. The scheme offers a week of intensive learning and a chance to have work performed by leading musicians.

This year was a little different, but the participants were still able to have their pieces recorded by piano-percussion duo Siwan Rhys and George Barton at home.

To help us get to know them a little better and tell us more about their compositions, we interviewed this year’s participants. Next up is Thomas Metcalf, and his piece Diving Birds:

 

1. When did you first start composing, and what made you pursue it?

I first started composing at school in Chester, writing the music for a school play of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – mostly for piano, but adding a few other instruments played by my friends. The supportive comments I received from this experience encouraged me to pursue composition further, and my first composition lessons came in 2014 when I began study at Worcester College, Oxford with Robert Saxton.


2. What is your most memorable musical experience?

My most memorable musical experience was very recently, when my piece Pixelation Variations (2020) was recorded. Daniel Mathieson (the organist and dedicatee) and I travelled to a magnificent cathedral, where we registered and rehearsed the piece as the evening fell. By the time of recording, it was almost entirely dark, and the modest lighting in the cathedral created a magical effect on both the experience of the session, and the music itself – especially considering it was the first time I had heard the piece performed live. A score video of this piece is available here: www.thomasmkmetcalf.com/pixelation-variations

 

3. How do you know when a composition is finished?

My compositions often explore idiosyncratic processes or ‘games’ in order to generate materials, and I consider works to be completed when the sonic effect that I desire can be fully and satisfyingly reconciled with the formal processes within the piece. Although, I think that the true mark of a ‘finished’ piece is re-visiting it a year later and still being 100% happy with it, which is somewhat of a rarity as a young composer when your approach and style is so rapidly evolving.

 

4. Would you say you mostly consider your audience or your players when composing?

I think that it’s important to consider both, but in different ways. The poetic, or communicative aspect of the composition is arguably more important to audiences than the idiomatic, or technical processes of how the music itself is achieved and performed. A presentation of a piece to non-musicians is likely to be different than a presentation to a group of professional instrumentalists. Thinking about how to balance the two in theory and practice is a really important concept for me.

 

5. When you compose, do you have an idea of a story or concept that you want to express, or is it abstract?

The concept that underpins most of my recent music is that of how graphical spaces can be transformed into musical ones using traditional staff notation. Pieces are often based upon a singular graphic (such as river map, astral constellation, data graph) that generates musical material which is then subject to varied processes, often depending on the source. This can be both a formal process, as well as a poetic one, and I try to communicate both aspects to audiences through illustrative composer’s notes, and in the aural gestures of the music itself. Indeed, this idea is something I am researching for my PhD, and I call it a ‘graphical ekphrasis’ that extends musical metaphors. Some pieces that take this approach are Out of the Web (2017), Ornaments of the Passing Night (2019), RGB (2019), All Dead Paper (2020), and Pixelation Variations (2020), and can be listened to at www.thomasmkmetcalf.com

 

6. Which composers have had the biggest influence on your music?

Elliott Carter and Kenneth Hesketh are probably the two most significant influences on my music, but I also have great respect and admiration for composers such as Iannis Xenakis, despite my music not sharing a similar sound-world. I also find inspiration in the approaches of my contemporaries and friends, such as David Palmer and William Marshall.

 

7. Can you tell us about the piece you worked on with George Barton and Siwan Rhys for the Peter Reynolds Composer Studio?

The piece for George and Siwan, Diving Birds, was based on a painting called Diving Bird (1939) by Erika Klien. The goal of this piece was to emulate the smooth ergonomic shapes of the image in the musical materials, as well as in the interaction of piano and percussion. The bold contrasts of colour in the artwork also leap out, creating a feeling of tension that is represented in the characterisation of material. The virtual PRCS workshop with George and Siwan was incredibly helpful in judging the balance of piano/percussion material, as well as exploring some of the nuances and logistics of the extended techniques I included in both parts.

Diving Birds

ValeOfGlamorganFestival · Thomas Metcalf – Diving Birds

8. What are you looking forward to about rejoining the Scheme next year?

I’m looking forward to the opportunity to work with the renowned and dynamic groups that the PRCS scheme offers, allowing me to push my compositional practice further and improve my instrumental writing. It will also be great to meet the other PRCS composers, learning about their approaches, sharing ideas and making lasting friendships for the future. I’ve also never been to Cardiff, so that’s something to look forward to as well!