"I suppose what drew me into music was its effect on me, as well as the fun of riding music's changing energies with other people. I kept tinkering with both performing and composing, trying out different styles, different formats, different roles, different attitudes, different jobs.
"Meanwhile, a lifelong curiosity about how people learn things has kept me involved with education. From my hatred of meetings sprang explorations of ways to make meetings more productive and enjoyable. Through it all I indulged my love of hearing people laugh.
"I have pursued all of these things, and the rest of my life, without big plans in mind, using an approach called 'groping and blundering.' Only through looking back can I see what I'm up to."
“I try to find sounds that resonate for me, sonically and emotionally. One of the deep mysteries and deep pleasures of music is that, sometimes, sounds that move me also move other people.”
“Some of my music explores issues outside of music—social upheaval, human impact on ecosystems, war, the pandemic, climate change. Composing can be a way to examine something I’m concerned about, and may help me to get a new perspective.”
“Sometimes different styles coexist in one piece: a cowboy song has baroque-sounding variations, a Bach-like melody combines with West African rhythms, or modern-sounding music rubs shoulders with chant, minimalist patterns, Irish dance music, and late Romanticism. I suppose these collisions happen because I like so many kinds of music, and because nowadays so many of us listen to music while jumping across time and geography. Sometimes style shifting takes on extra meaning: celebrating human diversity as a source of delight, or making a musical declaration of interdependence.”
By now John's music has been released on more than fifteen recordings from various artists and groups. His Quintet appears on CDs from the Borealis Wind Quintet (Helicon), the Camerata Quintet (Crystal), and Mill Ave Chamber Players, who also recorded John’s dectet, woodwind quartet, and third wind quintet, What’s Going On? His Variations on “Streets of Laredo” can be heard on "Bassoon Images" by bassoonist Benjamin Coelho (Albany) and on “New Standards” by Ann Shoemaker (MSR Classics). His Sonata for bassoon and piano has been recorded by Michael Burns and Inara Zandmane (Mark Masters) and by Albie Micklich and Andrew Campbell (Soundset).
Some places where John’s music has been heard: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Oregon Bach Festival, San Francisco Symphony Chamber Series, Chamber Music Northwest, Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s River Rhapsodies, Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music, Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, St. Bart’s Church in New York, Music Academy of the West, Royce Hall, college concert halls, churches, libraries, living rooms, a front porch, a barn.
John’s compositions have been commissioned by institutions, by individuals, and by consortia of musicians and organizations. Three orchestras commissioned his Concerto for bassoon and orchestra; twenty-one bassoonists commissioned The Illusion of Separateness for bassoon and string orchestra. Andy Malloy commissioned Fourteen Prayers for trombone; DDG Trio commissioned Common Ground for three oboists. South Bay Chamber Music Society commissioned the sextet Simple Pleasures to commemorate the organization’s 40th anniversary.
Some of John’s pieces address current issues: War Scrap reacts to America’s secret war in Laos; What Can I Do? confronts climate change; several Laments mourn the many griefs of 2020; Coal Seams visits coal country via imagination.
Other pieces give the audience a role in the performance or join professional musicians with nonprofessionals and community members. Sorrow and Celebration, for reed quintet and audience, evokes a community ceremony of mourning. In One and Many, child composers and local musicians performed alongside the Apple Hill Chamber Players on their "Playing for Peace" tours in the Middle East and Northern Ireland. The Amman Symphony Orchestra in Jordan premiered Together for orchestra, beginning string players, and guest musicians playing traditional Arabic instruments oud and qanun.
John’s comic pieces poke fun at the concert ritual and other human foibles. In Possessed, a solo cellist speaks the thoughts that run through a performer's mind during a concert. The Creation of the World summarizes history with a bass, a beach ball, a headlamp, and individually-wrapped cheese slices. What's Your Musical I.Q. (A Quiz) presents test questions about musical examples to parody music appreciation classes, standardized tests, and magazine quizzes. The Monster that Devoured Cleveland has fun with strange sounds and pieces of bassoons.
For decades John Steinmetz was a worker bee bassoonist in the great musical hive of Los Angeles. He played chamber music with XTET and Camerata Pacifica, he appeared with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Bach Festival, and he contributed bassoon sounds to movie and television soundtracks. (You might actually be able to hear him on "Synecdoche, New York" or "Far From Heaven.") He was a regular participant in the Oregon Bach Festival and a frequent guest faculty member at the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music. He performed at the Skaneateles Festival, the Moab Festival, and the Chamber Music Conference and Composers Forum of the East. He made three tours of Spain with the Bill Douglas Trio (one of those bassoon-oriented jazz-funk-Latin-Renaissance-Afro-Irish ensembles), he premiered Donald Crockett's Extant for bassoon and chamber ensemble with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and recorded the piece with XTET, and he premiered his own Concerto for bassoon and orchestra with the Santa Rosa Symphony. He recorded works by Dvorak, Beethoven, Handel, Hartke, Hindemith, Mozart, Handel, Penderecki, Schubert, Stravinsky, and Verdi. John teaches bassoon and other things at UCLA.