Tree

John Metcalfe

Released 22 September 2023

  1. Xylem
  2. Canopy
  3. Root to Leaf
  4. Stasis
  5. Tāne Mahuta
  6. Dusk
  7. Night
  8. Sunrise

Liner notes

We begin at the start of a cycle, tracking the progress of light through a day into a night. We are in a very special place. Quivering violins rise and build, and we hear the energy of tissue carrying water from roots to stems to leaves. Then we catch magical explosions of birdsong, sense fluttering movement under starlight, and feel the burrowing resonances of roots, as lower strings, oboe and bassoon take instruments made from natural materials back into the earth – and take us with them.

John Metcalfe – the Durutti Column viola-playing master who for years has been a composer and arranger for the likes of U2, Coldplay, Peter Gabriel and Blur, as well as co-founder with Tony Wilson of the Factory Classical label – had been composing music spontaneously, instinctively, when the idea of Tree arrived. An album that immerses the listener in twenty-four hours of the life of nature’s most majestic creations, it came from a desire in John to write at scale – perhaps a natural reaction for a composer writing out of the silences and solitude of our recent pandemic years. “The pieces I was writing were big and trying to be bigger, so I knew they had to be to do with something – and then I thought about one of the most profound experiences of my life.”

This was seeing Tāne Mahuta as an adult, the largest known living kauri tree in the world. Set in an ancient subtropical rainforest on the North Island of Aoreatoa/New Zealand, John had spent his early childhood living in that part of the world, after his British father had “escaped there as a ten-pound Pom”, escaping a job motorbiking for the post office in the pea-soupers of London in the wave of post-war immigration. “I have very happy memories of being a seven-year-old there, and, to me, New Zealand always retained a kind of a golden untouchable quality to it.” 

Photo credit: Tom Oldham

Having emigrated to England as a child, he went back to New Zealand when he was 26, with his wife. “And we thought we’d tick something off the tourist list, and I thought we’re going to see trees, which is great – but we weren’t prepared for what happened.”

They both cried when they found Tãne Mahuta, still amazed at the reaction he had, which “isn’t normal” for him. “It was really weird – not spooky, but as an atheist, it was the closest I’ve ever got to a spiritual moment…there was something extraordinary about the atmosphere in the forest and the size of this tree, and the sense that it had been there a long time. It was about the protection it gave, and the sense of connection we had with that protection.”

Written for live players and recorded in Abbey Road Studios to convey that feeling, and that human connection at scale, Tree imagines what it would be like to be sat completely still under a tree that you love, being alive to the ever-shifting interplay of light, colour, weather and sound. Its eight tracks are long compositions, beginning with ‘Xylem’, named after the vascular tissue in plants which conducts water, dissolves nutrients, and helps to form stems: the material, John adds, “that gives a tree its strength”. A lower melody emerges in the track and then it builds, making the listener realise all this wakeful activity has a deeper, earthier purpose.

John Metcalfe - Xylem (Official Video)

John talks about how Peter Wohlleben’s 2015 book, The Hidden Life of Trees, was a huge influence on him as he wrote. “Trees do things very, very slowly. They have electrical impulses, but they move at something like a third of an inch a minute, so it’s almost like having a nervous system. And trees are transmitting messages to each other through their networks of mycorrhizal fungi that help them communicate, so slowly. It’s so caring and fascinating.”

‘Canopy’ follows, full of gorgeous conversations between chirruping woodwind and staccato strings. It’s John’s love of nature “quantised”, he smiles, full of his love of Kraftwerk, Steve Reich and minimalism, channelled in an alternative dawn chorus. ‘Root to Leaf’ returns to the slow growth of late morning while ‘Stasis’ “is post-lunch – say around two-thirty”, John laughs. “When I made it, I was imagining being in the middle of a beautiful summer somewhere, under a tree at the top of the hill, where you have a really big view that goes on forever.”  

Proceeding calmly and beautifully, plucked violins and violas add moments of shimmering, ambient colour. “Everything is hazy, and very still, but there’s the occasional crack of a twig or something falling, and there’s a moment of real focus in the experience after the gravity of the morning and the dawn,” John explains. “The fear of the changing of the light that will come later on, but for now, this is contemplation, and it’s beautiful.”

Then comes the track named after Tāne Mahuta, summoning up the folkloric power of ancient forests through an emotional crescendo in emotion and sound. “It’s the kitchen sink centre of the record,” John laughs. “Everything is in there – brass, wind, an organ, and electronics as well – but still it doesn’t come close. It’s my little attempt to do something to explain my relationship with trees, which I can’t ever possibly do.” He’s never seen any art, photographs, or even drone footage that conveys what a tree “actually is” when you’re standing next to one, he says. “So, I just thought, well, I have to go down the loud route and take it as loud and big as I can go!”

Photo credit: Tom Oldham.

The gorgeous solemnity of ‘Dusk’ (one of John’s favourite pieces on the album, where a chord progression “keeps going and keeps going then plateaus”) then breaks into ‘Night’. This is club music for nature, branches moving their limbs under the moonlight, playfulness and impishness sparkling under a cloak of darkness. Then ‘Sunrise’ returns, at first imperially then somewhat humbly, making us reflect on the journey we’ve taken. We’ve experienced sublimity in this approximation of a day in a life, but also a sense of our humanity, too.

Tree isn’t just about Tãne Mahuta, John insists. “It could be about any tree – they’re all very magical.” The one that helped him as he wrote is the mature sycamore at the bottom of his garden, which he walks past every day to go to the shed where he works. “I look at it every single day when I walk down the path, as I sweep up the sycamore pods, as I watch the micro changes through the seasons, throughout the course of the year, and I always find it extraordinary.”

He wonders whether his connection with trees might be about getting older, too; he knows for certain that it’s about a need for people to connect with things still growing and flowering around them that have been there for tens, hundreds and sometimes thousands of years.

This record isn’t a political statement, he says, but it’s clear to him that as science progresses, and as climate breakdown progresses, people are trying to find deeper ways to understand and cherish nature.  “It’s about the music that people are trying to create to connect with things that are huge and beautiful and inexplicable around them.”

Tree is John’s beautiful, emotional attempt. “My album’s about describing our relationship with something as every-day and extraordinary as a tree, and how it can be an incredibly important part of who we are.”

Credits

All tracks written, produced and performed by John Metcalfe

Recorded at The Bus Stop
Mixed by Patrick Phillips and John Metcalfe
Mastered by Alex Wharton at Abbey Road Studios

Additional Strings on tracks 1, 3, 5, 6, 8:
Violins: Everton Nelson (leader), Natalia Bonner, Charlie Brown, Emil Chakalov, Alison Dods, Louisa Fuller, Richard George, Raja Halder, Marianne Haynes, Rick Koster, Oli Langford, Steve Morris, Charles Mutter, Tom Pigott-Smith, Cathy Thompson,  Debbie Widdup. Violas: Peter Lale, Reiad Chibah, Gillianne Haddow, Kate Musker, Andy Parker, Rachel Robson. Celli: Richard Harwood, Adrian Bradbury, Ian Burdge, David Daniels, James Douglas, Julia Graham, Sophie Harris, Tony Woollard. Double Basses: Stacey Watton, Roger Linley, Richard Pryce, Lucy Shaw

Woodwind on Tracks 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8:
Oboe: Alun Darbyshire. Bassoon: Sarah Burnett.

Additional Strings and Woodwind recorded at Abbey Road Studio 2
Engineered by Lewis Jones
Assistant Engineer: Chris Parker
Score preparation: Dave Foster

A Real World Design by Marc Bessant
Cover image from The Tree Crown Series by Tom Hegen

Photograph of John Metcalfe by Tom Oldham
Inner sleeve image: Muscle nerve endings ASTRID & HANNS-FRIEDER MICHLER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Published by Manners McDade Music Publishing Ltd.

A universe of thanks to Louisa.

Tāne Mahuta is threatened by kauri dieback, a disease which infects and kills many kauri trees. For more information please visit www.kauriprotection.co.nz

Pleased donate if you can to any organisations working for climate justice.

Further Listening

  • The Appearance of Colour

    John Metcalfe

    Released 04 June 2015

    Composer, producer, classical violist, guitarist, and arranger to A-list pop stars, John Metcalfe has always been a name worth seeking out. The Appearance of Colour presents Metcalfe as a recording artist - as front man, maestro and manipulator of sounds. A carefully crafted listening experience with a beginning, middle and end, in which no two tracks sound or feel the same.
  • Untold Things

    Jocelyn Pook

    Released 21 February 2001

    Encouraged by Real World's penchant for blurring boundaries, Jocelyn Pook channelled her trademark combination of classicism and innovation into an exhilarating gem of an album, one which pulls off that rare coup of putting listeners in touch with their deeper feelings.

Further reading

Bab L’ Bluz release new album ‘Swaken’

Swaken features 11 tracks that spark and pulse with kinetic, pedal-to-the-metal energy.

John Metcalfe’s Tree in Dolby Atmos

With these new 360˚ mixes Metcalfe’s initial intentions for the album are, finally, truly deliver...

Swaken Lyrics

Bab L' Bluz second album, Swaken, released in May 2024. These are the song lyrics in English, French...

Exploring Colombian artist Savan’s music inspired by Yagé medicine ceremonies

The new Real World X release is an eight-track aural journey to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.