Interview: Composer John Metz

The cover for “Anthony’s Cosmic Adventures,” which includes music by John Metz.

Recently we sat down with John Metz, an expert on harpsichord, piano, and Early Music, and an emeritus professor of music at Arizona State University. John is the composer of Anthony’s Cosmic Adventures, a choral piece based on The Space Child’s Mother Goose, a collection of whimsical space poems written in the 1950s by Frederick Winsor, in reprint from Purple House Press.

You can learn more about John and his work at metzscores.com or contact him via email at Harpsichord415@gmail.com, and you can read more about Anthony’s Cosmic Adventures in this article in The Day.

Joey Eschrich, Center for Science and the Imagination: Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?

John Metz: I am a composer, pianist, and harpsichordist. My master’s degree in piano is from Syracuse University, and I hold a doctorate in harpsichord from The Julliard School. I started at Arizona State University in 1980 with a split role of teaching piano and harpsichord. I ended up building a harpsichord studio and starting an Early Music program. And from 1999-2007, I also served as the artistic director for the Connecticut Early Music Festival.

JE: What is Early Music?

JM: In the Baroque Period in Europe, people used sort of the same instruments we use today. But the violin was very different than what we normally play. The flutes were one-keyed flutes. They had a much more mellow sound. And the concepts of how to use the instruments have changed so much over the centuries.

So I’m an expert on helping singers sing in these Baroque and pre-Baroque styles, and I instructed string players with my wife’s help, because she’s an Early Music string instrument specialist. So we would have ensembles of singers and harpsichordists and other instruments, and we even did a couple of operas.

Some of my harpsichord students went on to get doctorates and one of them has won a number of international competitions. It was just a great experience. Fantastic students. I know I made a big contribution throughout the department and I’m very proud of that.

JE: How did you get interested in science? Have you always been interested in it, or was your interest piqued when you discovered The Space Child’s Mother Goose?

JM: I’ve always been interested in science. I did very well in high school science, and in college I took a year of geology and really enjoyed that. My father was sort of an electrical engineer, although that wasn’t his official role, and we often discussed science around the dinner table. He was with IBM before it was IBM and so I knew about all the developments that were going on in computers.

John Metz
Composer John Metz

JE: Does your father’s interest and background in science and engineering have anything to do with how you found The Space Child’s Mother Goose?

JM: There isn’t such a direct connection. But there is a parallel between my father and Frederick Winsor, in that Winsor’s buddies apparently were largely scientists. My parents would have cocktail parties and dinner parties when I was young, so I kind of knew the same sort of crowd. I got to know people like Alf Malmrose, who was one of the top scientists at IBM and ran a school for younger engineers in the company, and Jonas (“Joni”) Dayger, a renowned IBM inventor. Joni invented one of the first chain printers for IBM – the ones that printed on green-and-white striped paper with a removable tab down the side. This was one of the early, efficient ways for computers to be able to communicate with people and output what they knew.

When I was in high school I built a Heathkit stereo amp. This was a popular thing to do, especially amongst the geek crowd. After I assembled it, it had a terrible 60 cycle hum.

So I took it over to Joni Dayger’s house along with the schematic. Instead of looking at the schematic he said, in a sort of slow Southern drawl, “Well, I don’t know. I’m going to take this old capacitor here,” and he rummaged around some old parts, “And I’m just going to—well, let’s see, I think I’ll just solder it in over here and maybe the other end over there, and that ought to be okay.” And of course that fixed it. He didn’t even look at the schematic—he just knew instantly what it needed.

You see I had an advantage in that I was always exposed to science. My oldest brother studied electrical engineering at Cornell. My father would do science demonstrations. It was usually something simple like when the fire was going down in the fireplace he’d have an old kerosene can that had been emptied and cleaned out, then he would put hot water in it and screw the cap on. And as it cooled the can would just suck itself inwards – it would just crumple down. He was showing us the expansion and contraction of air. So there was always stuff like that going on. I grew up a little bit bilingual in terms of art and science.

My father was an avid poetry reader. And so this was stuck on the shelf somewhere and, of course, I started to look at The Space Child’s Mother Goose probably when I was a teenager and I just fell in love with the poems.

This past fall I visited the high school choir that since then has performed my piece, and they were totally jazzed about the book. They loved the text, they loved my adaptation, they loved how I’ve translated the poetry into music. And the school used the performance to bridge arts with math and science. I went to a rehearsal and the choir director had her own model Klein bottle, which makes an appearance in the piece, and she passed it around. Plus the math teachers were beginning to teach the students the mathematical implications of the Klein bottle. The science teachers are making sure the students understand things like concepts of parallel space and quantum mechanics.

JE: Do you think that how creating a musical piece or an artistic work can help people understand science better? Can art not only act as an evangelizing force for science, but actually help people engage more deeply with scientific concepts, or think about them in a different way?

JM: Yeah. Well, I certainly hope that some of the performers and audience members for Anthony’s Cosmic Adventures are going to go home and look up things like Klein bottle, Möbius strip, and parallel space, and maybe pursue studying those things further. The other thing that strikes me is how could Winsor, in the 1950s, imagine some elements of the future so clearly? Things like monitoring the baby by satellite or using digital networks to steal, which is clearly going on so frequently now. Something about the poetic imagination helps Winsor see things coming from afar.

JE: As an Early Music teacher and practitioner, thinking about the distant past of music, what do you think about the recent and ongoing integration of the computing industry with the music industry? How do you think that’s changed music?

JM: It has certainly changed my work a whole lot. If you look at the score for Anthony’s Cosmic Adventures, you’ll see I didn’t write that by hand. Shifting from hand-writing to digital formats for creating scores is an enormous change in the way composers work.

I created this score using Sibelius, a composition program. There was a learning curve that took me a while to climb, but I realized over time that there’s nothing that Sibelius won’t allow you to do.

Music notation is extraordinarily complicated. Let’s say you’ve already written a line of music, and that there are three different staffs, and in one of parts you’re going to turn the quarter note into four sixteenth notes. Now that takes up more space. Before the digital age the composer would have to rewrite the entire line, or perhaps an entire page. But Sibelius automatically and instantly adjusts all the spacing on that entire line, even bumping a measure down to the line below if necessary, and make it all come out with exactly the right spacing – which is critical because if the spacing is off the musician will really get tripped. So it understands what we need in terms of how the music calligraphy, so to speak, should look. That’s an enormous difference.

I can also ask the computer to play the piece back. It does a good job of the piano part, and some of the other parts. The voice sounds okay, but it doesn’t speak the words yet. It goes a-ha-ha-ha-ha, you know. I imagine someday it will sing the words, but that’s going to be complicated because singers don’t sing words the same way we speak them.

Now I see people using a computer display rather than sheet music in concerts. For the simpler version of this, you push a little pedal button and it flips the page. But in the more sophisticated systems, the computer is listening to you play, it notes where you are on the page, and you’ve told the computer, I like my pages turned early by measure, or don’t turn them early, and so on, and the computer will flip to the next page as it hears where you are. No sheet music, thanks very much – what a source of security not to have to rely on a page turner!

JE: For a composer, it seems like one of the simple but profound things that software like Sibelius changes is that it tightens the feedback loop editing and rewriting and being reflexive and engaging in self-criticism in the act of composition. Is that right?

JM: Right, that’s true, that’s true. There is one drawback, and I wouldn’t necessarily go there, but there’s a little tendency with Sibelius to think measure by measure, whereas the composers working with a large sheet of paper sometimes do a better job of planning: this is going to happen now and now down four or five lines probably this sort of thing is going to happen. On paper it can be a little easier to create a good solid large plan, whereas Sibelius kind of reduces you into writing measure by measure. So at least for me, I have to backpedal against that and be sure I have the larger plan in mind before I start putting notes down on paper, or onscreen as the case may be.

JE: Turning back to Anthony’s Cosmic Adventures, can you tell us a bit about the piece and how it unfolds as a narrative?

JM: One thing I’m really proud of is that, once I chose the poems that I wanted to set, and that I thought were right for music, I linked the poems together, so it wasn’t just a succession of discrete poems, one, two, three, four, five. I decided that the character, Anthony Rowley, who appears again and again in the book, would be the tour guide through the whole thing. So from the very start, I gave him an identifiable tune that acts as his theme, or motif. It’s a very youthful and energetic tune because it’s the little boy, Anthony Rowley, who’s going to go space exploring. If his mother will let him, of course.

As Anthony reappears in different guises that tune maybe shifts into a minor key or proceeds more slowly, but it’s still recognizable—either consciously or subconsciously, it doesn’t matter. So Anthony’s tune creates a link, and that’s something that music can do that written language doesn’t always succeed at, because it’s an extra layer that’s going on while the text and the narrative are developing.

For each of the seven movements in the piece, I worked to meet at least two criteria. First, you’ve got to write music that is entirely in sympathy with the natural rhythm of the words of the poems, and already I’ve gotten a lot of praise about that aspect. The rhythm of the notes fits the natural rhythm of the text, so it really makes it easy to sing, easy to communicate. Second, you’ve got to write music that illustrates the feeling, the meaning, the lesson, whatever you want to call it, that’s in the text. So if it’s enthusiastic, as in this case, you write very enthusiastic music.

For example, at the beginning of the piece I see Anthony as sort of having to screw up his courage to go space exploring. So at the beginning the music doesn’t just burst into enthusiasm, so there is some tentativeness built into the score, some pauses and repetition. And then Anthony bursts through his reticence and he’s having a great time, whether his mother would let him go or not!

JE: There is also a lot of theatricality in this piece.

JM: I absolutely love theatre. If I lived a whole bunch of lifetimes, I’d be a Broadway director or a tenor on Broadway shows or something. I love it. In this piece, I used movement and performance to underscore some of the key moments in the story and in the music.

For example, there is a moment when Anthony is falling asleep—to his own tune, of course. And so at a certain moment the choir yawns and stretches, and they put Anthony to bed.

Later on, Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep; the radar has failed to find them. They’ll meet face-to-face in parallel space preceding their leaders behind them. Way off to the left and right sides of the stage we place a single soprano, singing “peep-peep, peep-peep.” And it goes back and forth between one soprano and the other: it’s the radar scope. And the radar scope continues throughout that entire section, except at one point when it stops and there’s complete silence, accompanying the words “the radar has failed to find them.”

Then after that you have a moment where a baby is being monitored by satellite, and all the lights go out in the performance hall except for the singers portraying the mother and father, soprano and tenor, and the piano in quiet. The music is in a minimalistic mode: almost nothing happens, and it’s very, very repetitive. And it’s just the satellite spinning while the parents are in knowledge that their child is safe, being monitored by the satellite. So there the arrangement, and the performance, and the music are aligned to underscore a key theme, and the characters’ emotions.

There’s a lot of theatrical play in the piece. And already, the first choral director I’ve worked with was asking if she could do more—if she could add to the theatre element? Yes! There’s nothing out there these days that has the variety for choir that this piece has. The only work I know of that comes close is Carmina Burana, the very popular piece by Carl Orff.

JE: Finally, is there a story, whether it’s a film or piece of music or a book, that’s inspired your work, or the direction your career has taken?

JM: I would say the movie The Turning Point (1977) with Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft starring alongside Mikhail Baryshnikov. In the movie, a retired dancer’s daughter joins a top ballet company in New York, and the mother has to confront her decision to start a family instead of pursuing a career in the big city as a young woman. The film inspired me in terms of my determination to go back to school and learn more, to be brave enough to go to The Julliard. I didn’t think that would be in my storyline, and it was a really amazing experience to be there and engage with that world-class level of musicianship.