John Metcalfe, Society of Sound artist for May, gives us an insight into the both the inspiration behind the music that makes up ‘Kites and Echoes’ as well as the compositional and recording techniques used in the creation of the album. It’s a fascinating insight into the process of making the record; an album that John describes as “My most rigorous album to date. It’s music of big contrasts but sonically unified with the intention to create a complete album with an intense emotional arc.”
“On previous albums I tended to improvise straight to disk and then edit on the computer to hone and develop the ideas. This time I ‘pre-composed’ much more, printed the music and then recorded to enable a greater focus on interpretation and performance.
Generally I looked for the least possible electronic process between the generation of signal and the listener. The album is essentially acoustic but the effects and modulation are an equal part of the writing – for example using delay to shape melody and motif not only for sonic or groove reasons. Any modulated sounds generally have the acoustic recordings as their core and this area is important in integrating with the electronic sounds.
Some of the pieces are ‘eventful’ in that there are many notes within smaller spaces of time creating differing overall patterns. Cutting tails off drum decay seemed to create more space in the sound for other timbres and notes to sit in the texture. It’s also sonically interesting to focus on the decay of the percussive waveform not just the attack.
I used close mic’ing to pick up the noise, not just the sonority, of the instrument. I found two mics in particular that were a bigger window on the viola (the Neumann U67 and Elam 251). Certainly not new, but there was a greater focus on the human-ness of playing – the breathing, finger noise, the sound of clothes moving can make the experience more personal.
Bird song. Again not new at all but I became more and more aware of the bird song outside my studio and they definitely affected my work.
Combinations of timbres – looking to blend the acoustic elements of synthesised sound and the electronic elements of acoustic sound. Based on techniques of orchestration used by composers such as Ligeti in ‘Atmospheres’.
I wanted to use staccato acoustic sounds to replace drums and percussion.
Generally I don’t write music with lyrics to avoid giving the listener a defined narrative to respond to. But I met Natasha Khan (Bat For Lashes) through doing some of the orchestral arrangements on her most recent album and immediately wanted to use her amazing voice in the most impactful way possible but still without being overly prescriptive – to give the essence of a song while leaving room for the listener to be free to have their own thoughts”.
A checklist of recording spaces:
Eastcote Studio, London. I’ve done many recordings there and always liked the vibe and the desk. The sound of the wires…
Besancon, France – On tour, in a hotel – snowing outside.
Real World Studios, Bath. The Big Room is amazing. Gorgeous mics and pre- amps.
Woolleys Bay in my native New Zealand. In a house there – with a view over the sea.
Home studio – easy to get to.
A list of key instruments used
Viola – made by Giovanni Battista Ceruti in 1800.
Piano – A variety including Yamaha and Peter Gabriel’s Bosendorfer.
Guitar – A Fender Telecaster.
Piano – Tom Cawley – jazz pianist with his own group Curios.
Double Bass – Ali Friend – (Red Snapper, Imagined Village, Beth Orton).
Drums – Andy Gangadeen (Chase and Status).
Track By Track description for ‘Kites and Echoes’ by composer John Metcalfe
I was on a beach as the sun went down. At that point lots of people got up and rushed into the sea as if to chase after the sun and grab every last second of its life-giving energies. I imagined what it would be like to be on that beach for 24 hours following the sun’s journey, seen and unseen.
The Silver Track
To a degree this was informed by the changing perspectives of the view out of a train window and the glitching of passing objects partially obscured.
Just Let Go
I like the ambiguity of these lyrics as they leave the song more open to interpretation.
The imagined movement of a kite’s cloth against its frame in slow motion.
Watching light flicker through the leaves of a beech tree in spring.
A beach in North Wales where I flew a kite with my family in late summer.
Written last autumn on a windy day watching the flight of sycamore seeds from tree to ground. Also to do with dreams of flying.
Written in the French town of the same name stuck in a hotel room watching it snow outside.
The Appearance of Colour
I associate colours with notes and keys in the western scale system. So for example D major is a rich green, A minor is pale yellow, C major is bright red. I have strong reactions to colour and the first two sections of the piece are an attempt to express something of those reactions as more and more notes (and therefore colour) build up, collide and merge over a period of time. The third section is an album coda.
John Metcalfe’s album Kites and Echoes is available to download from Society of Sound