Composer John Metcalfe reconstructs holiday classics


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John Metcalfe — Carols Without Words (Platoon)

New Classical Tracks - John Metcalfe

“I’m similar to Jim Carrey in Yes Man, where saying yes to everything can lead you to extraordinary situations,” says New Zealander violist, composer and arranger John Metcalfe. “And of course, if you don't try it and don't say yes, you'll never know. I've rarely turned anything down at all, ever.”

That’s how Metcalfe landed gigs with rock artists like U2, Coldplay and Peter Gabriel. Now he lives in Oxford and says he’s as British as the next person. However, his spiritual home is still New Zealand, where he grew up surrounded by music. His father was an operatic tenor. However, Metcalfe’s new recording, Carols Without Words, is all instrumental.

“Much of the music I've written for my solo projects tend to be instrumental. I wonder if this might be pushing things a little bit too far, but I had wondered occasionally whether it was too painful to write for voice because it would have reminded me of my father, who passed when I was 11. Perhaps I was avoiding that when writing instrumental music. It allows you to wander, use your imagination and have your emotional response.”

Can you talk about how you re-created these carols to the point where they are almost unrecognizable?

“I composed from the inside out. I come to the melody last. When writing music, I often start writing from a perspective of sonics and texture. The point about the melody disappearing is quite deliberate because, particularly with some of the slower, more ambient reworkings, it was a deliberate attempt to make the melody disappear. I wanted to allow people to have their own memory. Perhaps they remember the melody of ‘Silent Night,’ but they're not engaged in listening to it.”

Is there a special memory in any of this music?

“If I were to push it, I would say it was the first Christmas after my father had died. That's the memory that springs to me when I've been listening to some gentler versions of these melodies.”

Can you talk about your arrangement of ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’?

“It is a haunting melody, so I didn't want to do away with that completely. I performed that absolutely on its own at the start of the carol, to say, ‘Here is the material and now we're off to the races.’”

Which carol presented the biggest challenge for you?

It probably was ‘In the Bleak Midwinter.’ All of the others were very quick to do. They took care of themselves. ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ yielded its secrets much more slowly.”

To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.


John Metcalfe — Carols Without Words (Amazon digital)

John Metcalfe (official site)

355 episodes