AGE OF FAITH AND MU­SIC

The Herald - Arts - - MUSIC -

Si­belius. Even at the age of three, the mu­sic would calm him down in­stantly. “ Mahler be­lieved that the sym­phony is the whole world,” he says, “so what bet­ter to play to a small boy? I re­mem­ber be­ing amazed by the sheer pos­si­bil­ity in all that sound.” By five he had com­posed his own Opus One – a 30-sec­ond ` Sym­phony In Cray­ola' that he still keeps tucked away on a bot­tom shelf.

When he was nine, Mealor fell into the lo­cal river with­out know­ing how to swim. The ac­ci­dent trig­gered an epiphany, he says: “I re­alised that I would at some point die. Ev­ery­one deals with the thought some time in their lives… I guess I just came to it ear­lier than most. It forces a re­ac­tion; some peo­ple turn he­do­nists, some med­i­ta­tive. I turned to re­li­gion.”

He had been raised in a Chris­tian fam­ily – “at home re­li­gion was a colour but I was never bashed around the head by it” – and had al­ready joined the church choir in his home­town of St As­aph, North Wales. But af­ter that epiphany, the mu­sic he was singing took on a deeper mean­ing. Through his teens he thought of be­com­ing a vicar, but de­cided his con­tri­bu­tion to the church could be more pro­found through mu­sic.

A pre­co­cious teenager in a small town, he de­voured ev­ery bit of mu­sic he could get his ears around. “ I've al­ways had a strange love of mu­si­cals,” he says sheep­ishly. “When I was in New York re­cently all my friends ex­pected me to go see the Phil­har­monic; I went to The Lion King in­stead. And here's some­thing I rarely ad­mit: I'm a huge Coun­try & Western fan. Dolly Par­ton, Patsy Cline – there's a rugged­ness to them that I love.”

Per­haps more sur­pris­ing for a com­poser now held as bas­tion of Angli­can choral tra­di­tion, Mealor honed in on mod­ernism. For­ma­tive to hi s mu­si­cal de­vel­op­ment was St As­aph's an­nual con­tem­po­rary mu­sic fes­ti­val, set up by Wil­liam Mathias – fa­ther fig­ure of 20th­cen­tury Welsh mu­sic – in 1972. “If you grow up in a small place it's vi­tal to hear new mu­sic per­formed live,” says Mealor. “The sounds I heard at that fes­ti­val showed me what was pos­si­ble.”

Matthias took Mealor un­der his wing and be­came some­what of a men­tor through his early teens. “` Don't study mu­sic un­less you can't not,' he used to tell me. `And cer­tainly don't plan on mak­ing any money from it…' But I couldn't not. There are many types of com­posers. There are the Beethovens, who pore over ev­ery bar to make it mon­u­men­tal, and there are the Mozarts, who can't not write. I'm one of those, scrib­bling away all the time. Some­times I'll write 25 pieces in a year.”

Mealor even­tu­ally left Wales to study com­po­si­tion at York Univer­sity, lured by its rep­u­ta­tion “for any­thing that was bonkers. You could do any­thing there, and my com­po­si­tions from that pe­riod were pretty far out. Some of those far-out things still turn up in my mu­sic now.”

Af­ter grad­u­a­tion he wrote on a whim to the Dan­ish com­poser Per Nørgård, whose Fifth Sym­phony he had just dis­cov­ered. “In­cred­i­bly, he wrote back – an enor­mous let­ter say­ing how moved he was that I'd got in touch. This is some­one who had stud­ied with Si­belius, my first ever in­spi­ra­tion! The fact he re­sponded meant the world to me, and is prob­a­bly why I both­ered an­swer­ing all those 15,000 emails af­ter the royal wed­ding.”

Mealor ended up mov­ing to Den­mark to spend a year study­ing with Nørgård and Hans Abra­ham­sen, find­ing an affin­ity with their Nordic aes­thetic. “Peo­ple from small coun­tries see things dif­fer­ently, that's what Per al­ways said. There's some­thing about the land­scape that af­fects the sounds they write. They cap­ture the light and space of north­ern places… which has crept into my mu­sic, too.”

It seems fit­ting, then, that Mealor has wound up in Aberdeen. He j oined the fac­ulty in 2003, one of four com­posers now based there. “ You get a l ot of peo­ple think­ing the mu­si­cal world ends at Ed­in­burgh,” he says, “which means we can oper­ate on our own axis up here. We're not blown about by the trends of else­where.” Sound is the an­nual fes­ti­val of new mu­sic in Aberdeen and Ban­chory whose sev­enth edi­tion opens this week­end. Un­like other fes­ti­vals that at­tach them­selves to one com­po­si­tional `school' – mini mal i s m at Va l e of Glam­or­gan, mod­ernism at Hud­der­s­field – Sound's pro­gram­ming is varied. “ We've got hard-edged

Brian Fer­ney­hough up against the softer sound world of Mor­ton Lau­rid­sen. This year we are do­ing a fo­cus on com­posers who have been in­spired by faith: Mes­si­aen, Tavener, my­self, Nigel Os­borne's In­dian mu­sic project. It's rare for a con­tem­po­rary mu­sic fes­ti­val to se­ri­ously con­sider that kind of thread, but, hey, it's all stuff that is be­ing writ­ten to­day.

“And if that eclec­ti­cism means we don't cut a chis­elled im­age on the new mu­sic cir­cuit, I don't give a toss. Maybe we've cre­ated an im­age by not hav­ing one. You go to new mu­sic fes­ti­vals all over the world and, apart from mu­si­cians, there's no­body there. No au­di­ence. Sound con­certs sell out. And I think it's be­cause we of­fer a range of styles. Peo­ple know that even if they don't like one piece, they might like the next.”

Mealor has ready an­swers when I ask why he thinks it is that his work isn't al­ways wel­comed in con­tem­po­rary mu­sic cir­cles: snob­bery, he says, and a la­tent han­gover from the days of early mod­ernism when art had to be dif­fi­cult to be valid. “Those of us who write church mu­sic write it to be sung and heard. There's a real skill in that. Wil­liam Matthias used to say that mu­sic doesn't sur­vive be­cause it's lis­tened to, it sur­vives be­cause it's per­formed. A lot of new com­po­si­tions only ever get a first per­for­mance then are shelved be­cause only the best pro­fes­sion­als can ac­tu­ally play the notes. So let them write for their first and only per­for­mances, and I'll write mu­sic that peo­ple ac­tu­ally want to sing.”

Then there is the ques­tion of faith. Mealor says that while Amer­i­cans seem happy to talk about how they feel, in this coun­try any­one who men­tions emo­tions “is con­sid­ered a wacko – es­pe­cially if those emo­tions are in­spired by Chris­tian­ity. I've never re­ally seen it that way; my mu­sic is in­spired by my faith but it isn't meant to be evan­gel­i­cal. You can go and lis­ten to a Bach Pas­sion with­out con­vert­ing to Chris­tian­ity, or see a Ber­told Brecht-Kurt Weill piece and not be­come a com­mu­nist. Mu­sic is mu­sic. But it only has a hope of sur­viv­ing if it's got your heart in it.” The Scot­tish pre­miere of Of Night And The Stars is part of a Sound fes­ti­val pro­gramme at King's Col­lege Chapel, Aberdeen on Novem­ber 3; Ubi Car­i­tas is per­formed in the same venue on Novem­ber 6; and Now Sleeps The Crim­son Pe­tal at St Mary's Cathe­dral, Aberdeen on Novem­ber 13. See www.sound-scot­land. co.uk for de­tails

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