AGE OF FAITH AND 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