Saturday 14 March 2020

Composing gives him a way of looking at his faith through something less hard-edged than words: composer Paul Mealor chats about his latest disc

Paul Mealor at the recording session for 'Blessing' on Signum Classics
Paul Mealor at the recording session for Blessing on Signum Classics
The Welsh composer Paul Mealor has a new album out, Blessing on Signum Classics, a disc of his choral music from the American choir Voce, conducted by Mark Singleton. I met up with Paul to chat about the music on the disc, his approach to composition and to language, being a closet symphonist, and how he started composing.

Voce is an ensemble which Paul has developed a relationship with over the years, and he was closely involved in the selection of the music on the disc. Paul describes them as one of the best choirs to ever sing his music, he admires the singers' subtlety and gentleness, and the fact that they don't belt, but also that the group sounds wholly American and does not try to emulate the sound of a British choir.

In fact, the American composer Morten Lauridsen recommended Voce to Paul, and when Paul heard them live he found it a completely new take on his music. That Paul and the group's conductor Mark Singleton got on well was a bonus.

The selection of music on the album involves a number of Paul's complex, multi-layered pieces in many parts, pieces which are difficult for many choirs, and a number of works on the disc were recorded for the first time. Some pieces, such as All wisdom cometh from the Lord with its stratospheric soprano solo, are rather tricky and rarely performed. But the selection of works on the disc shows Paul's simpler side too, in works such as If ye love me in which Paul quotes Thomas Tallis' setting of the words and which is a simple line for just the sopranos.

Voce and conductor Mark Singleton at the recording session for 'Blessing' on Signum Classics
Voce and conductor Mark Singleton at the recording session for Blessing on Signum Classics
The music on the disc is largely (though not entirely) sacred, and when I ask about this Paul's comment is that 'this is what he does'. In fact, when Paul was younger he was drawn to the priesthood, and he feels that for him music has become a surrogate, giving him a 'priestly way of looking at things' (which he admits sounds pretentious), and he goes on to elucidate, saying that composing gives him a way of looking at his faith through something less hard-edged than words.

Paul spends ages thinking about language

The works on the disc set mainly, but not entirely, English texts (some set Latin).
Paul spends ages thinking about language, particularly when it comes to Biblical texts and he does not always opt for the traditional translations, he may choose a modern version because it has a beauty to it. In fact, he spends a lot of time reading texts, and is only comfortable setting languages he understands, namely English, Welsh, Latin and sometimes French  As an academic (Paul professor of composition at the University of Aberdeen), Paul often talks to colleagues about the best translations.

He was recently asked to write a piece in Doric (the Scots language spoken in the area round Aberdeen) and this caused him to ask a colleague what the difference between a language and a dialect is, to get the response 'a language is a dialect with an army'! The problem with setting any language that you do not speak fluently is that, as a composer, you may not get the nuances. We have a long side discussion about the perils of setting French, and Paul tells a story about writing a wedding anthem in French for friends, and getting the response afterwards that his French word setting was pretty good, but they could tell he wasn't French!

Roald Dahl commented that he could only write if he did the same thing every day

If you scroll down Paul's output on his publisher's website, one thing that stands out is that whilst he has written plenty of anthems and motets, mass settings and services are rather rarer. This is not deliberate, and he has in fact written a concert Requiem as well as a mass which was intended as a concert piece but which can be done liturgically. He has never written any responses for Evensong, something that intrigues because they are rather tricky, a series of short responses which are distributed throughout the service.

His Evening Service (the Selwyn Service which is on the disc), came about because he developed a good relationship with the Selwyn Chapel Choir and its conductor Sarah MacDonald. She wanted a Selwyn Service and asked Paul, he said he would if he could write at the college. He was offered a visiting fellowship, with rooms opposite the chapel. He comments that the place gets into your bones, and during the period he was in residence he got to know the choir and the piece grew out of this. But, if Sarah had not asked Paul then there would be no Evening Service in his catalogue.

Paul feels he is a reasonably fast worker when it comes to writing pieces, though he adds that it doesn't always come easily. It helps, he feels, that he has a system. Paul is a great fan of Roald Dahl, and Dahl commented that he could only write if he did the same thing every day. So, Paul tried it. He writes for four hours each day, in the morning, with his teaching in the afternoon. This means he gets a lot done, but he also does a lot of thinking when he is walking around.

However, it does not always work like that. He is currently writing a piano concerto for pianist John Frederick Hudson, and the two spent some time together to work on the solo part which meant that Paul's routine changed. But he welcomed the collaboration because it does not happen very often and performers are often very busy themselves, so it was a great pleasure to work with Hudson.

'An Elvish answer'

Paul and his music famously sprang into the public consciousness when his anthem Ubi Caritas was sung at the wedding of Prince William of Wales and Kate Middleton (now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) in 2011. When I ask if his fame and popularity was a problem, he answers yes and no, which he comments is 'An Elvish answer' (Paul is, as you may gather, a Tolkien fan too). He explains it in terms of the classic 'difficult second album' problem. After Ubi Caritas he wanted to write a piece which did not sound the same as Ubi Caritas, but people wanted another piece in the same style. And it comes down to the problem of deciding the difference between having a style and doing something over and over again. So he tries to start pieces with something different, but then lets his mind take over using the idea as the starting point.

As a boy, Paul was in the choir of St Asaph's Cathedral in Wales, so he knows that it is nice to sing a piece which is well written for voices, and when writing vocal music Paul tries to think of the singers. He does not consciously think of his audience, and comments that when he was in Indonesia studying gamelan (something that interests him but which has not found its way into his music), he played Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 to some of the Indonesians who had never heard Western classical music before, and they found it a cacophony. Paul feels we can never know the audience, and so he writes for the performers and for himself. He is also lucky to have friends who will comment. He only puts pieces out into the world when he is happy with them, but still relies on people for feedback.

When it comes to comments from the wider world, notably reviewers, Paul quotes Sir Ian MacKellen's comment about all actors saying they don't read reviews, but in reality everyone does. Early on in Paul's career he bumped into the composer James MacMillan on a train. Paul had just received a bad review, one of his first, and James said that he needed to learn to deal with it, he would get quite a few but they didn't mean that it was a bad piece and he needed to learn the strength to deal with them.

A closet symphonist

Paul's Symphony No. 1: Passiontide was written in 2015 for his 40th birthday, it seemed a rare excursion into large-scale forms for a composer best known for his motets and anthems, but Paul says that he was always a closet symphonist. His first teacher, the Welsh composer William Mathias had a passion for symphonic music and talked about music symphonically but is best known for his shorter pieces (Mathias wrote three symphonies and left a fourth unfinished, plus a concerto for orchestra, three piano concertos and a number of other concertos).

Paul had been planning a choral symphony from 2007 but as a young composer he felt that no-one was going to be put on a big, 90 minute new work. He changed over time, so went back and changed the work; finally Scottish Opera agreed to put it on so he had to finish it. It was premiered at St Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen in 2015 by Aberdeen Chamber Choir, the orchestra of Scottish Opera, conductor James Jordan. And afterwards, Jordan asked for another symphony but one that was shorter! Since that first there have been two more since (Symphony No. 2: Sacred Places and Symphony No. 3: Illumination), both purely orchestral, and a fourth symphony, another choral one, is due in 2021.

He admits that he is drawn to the symphony not so much as a form but as a way of thinking about music which is not possible in his anthems. He is aware that the symphonies will not get that many performances, but writing them was something that it was imperative to do.

He always wanted to be a composer, 'stupidly and arrogantly'

He always wanted to be a composer, 'stupidly and arrogantly', but doing so is intimately linked to a religious experience that Paul had when he was nine. He was drowning, kicking and screaming, and eventually calmed down, resigned, when he felt an enormous warmth come over him and he was eventually rescued. He wanted to find out more, so his parents took him to St Asaph Cathedral where the Dean talked to him (big issues to talk about to a nine-year-old). When they were going into the cathedral the choir was singing, John Rutter's What Sweeter Music and Orlando Gibbons' See, see the word incarnate. Paul wanted to do that. Though he was not a brilliant singer he auditioned and got into the choir. Because he knew he could not have a career as a singer he wrote music and the conductor agreed to try it out. He comments that those early pieces were terrible, but that is how you learn.

Thanks to his grandmother, who was evidently a very determined lady, he was taken on as a pupil by the composer William Mathias (1934-1992), who had recently retired due to ill health. During the same period he would pass another boy on the door-step, Aled Jones who was then having singing lessons with Mathias' wife. Mathias would tell Paul that being a composer was the hardest thing in the world and that you had to want to do it, it was all consuming. Under Mathias, he was required to study harmony and counterpoint, something Paul found difficult as it took him away from writing his own music, but Mathias insisted saying that these exercises will become your own music. Other exercises included score reading at the piece, and orchestrating Debussy piano pieces. Paul's lessons went on from the age of nine to when Mathias died. And he didn't think that it was hard, in fact he assumed that everyone did it.

When he went for lessons there would be some of Mathias' own current pieces on the piano and at the end of the lesson Paul would ask about them and Mathias, reluctantly, would show him them. Paul now thinks of these moments as the best bit of the lessons.


When I ask about heroes he has quite a list, Orlando Gibbons (whose music takes him back to that experience as a child), Henry Purcell, Thomas Tallis and Thomas Tomkins (he mentions When David heard, and comments on these composers' handling of text). Other more recent composers include RVW, and Jean Sibelius whose music Paul loves because every note matters. Paul finds what Mozart does is unbelievable.

More recent composers include Morten Lauridsen (born 1943), who has become a good friend, Arvo Pärt (born 1935) and John Tavener (1944-2013), all composers who took the hit when it came to composing tonal music which meant that younger composers like Paul were able to write tonally.

The composer Nicola Lefanu [see my interview with Nicola] was his PhD supervisor, and he likes what she does with text. Hans Abrahamsen was his supervisor in Denmark, and Abrahamsen was just coming out of a 15 year period when he wrote nothing. Paul likens Abrahamsen to Sibelius in the way nothing is wasted.

There are also other styles of music. His parents are Country and Western fans so there is line-dancing, and he is a fan of Johnny Cash. Paul likes good music, whatever the style. He has learned the gamelan, he loves the sound, and also tried the sitar, something that was difficult to get right but he loved having a go.
Voce and conductor Mark Singleton at the recording session for 'Blessing' on Signum Classics
Voce and conductor Mark Singleton at the recording session for 'Blessing' on Signum Classics

He likes particular shapes and colours 

When I ask about the style of his music, he comments that he is aware that he has a particular style because people tell him so. But he does not consciously craft it, he likes particular shapes and colours and his style evolves based on what he thinks has worked. He likes melody and line; he is very influenced by plainchant, and loves the way it ebbs and flows, in fact he quotes plainchant quite a lot. There is also the emphasis on simplicity in the chord structure, though with added seconds and sevenths, but a feeling of the music moving in a traditional way.

He thinks his love of an emphasis in the bass may arise because his Grandmother (who lived to the age of 107) played a lot of Orthodox Russian choral music (his father's family were Russian Poles who fled to the UK). And over the last five years he has been trying to simplify, stripping away the notes that do not need to be there.

He currently has 16 PhD students at the University of Aberdeen, and he finds it weird that teaching them affects his own writing. Most of his students tend to be interested in writing tonal music, partly because there are not that many places where you can study this. Yet all are dealing with tonality in different ways and the students, from all over Europe, bring their own cultural slant to the music. So he listens, and he learns and ideas find his way into his music.

Paul has taught for 20 years, and recently semi-retired so that he just teaches the PhD students. He finds this lovely because it still gives him contact with the students, and they are asking the same questions as he did 20 years ago!

Paul's new Piano Concerto will be premiered at JAM on the Marsh with the London Mozart Players and soloist John Frederick Hudson, conducted by Michael Bawtree. Paul also has a number of smaller pieces on the go, and his planning out his Symphony No. 4. Paul works a lot with the poet Grahame Davies and Grahame is writing the words for this latest symphony. And Paul has just finished a piece to mark the Centenary of Pope John Paul II, which will be premiered in Warsaw.

Blessing: The Music of Paul Mealor - Voce, Mark Singleton - Signum Classics (available on-line)
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