On the day I was scheduled to speak to Welsh composer Paul Mealor, based in Aberdeen, Scotland, there was a storm so wild, that telecommunications were disrupted and the call had to be re-scheduled. The elements seemed to conspire to evoke Mealor’s inspirations and memories whilst defying his aspirations to “write music that can touch people and bring calm and peace to their lives.”
Paul Mealor (b 1975), was relatively unknown to the world at large until the wedding of HRH Prince William and (the then) Catherine Middleton in April 2011. Since then, he has gained popularity as the composer of the motet Ubi Caritas that was commissioned especially for the historic event. It was the enveloping tranquility of his music that the young royals sought. “I was told early on that the piece would give a moment of absolute calm in the wedding – after all the hurly burly, and the sermon, they wanted a moment of stillness,” says Mealor.
Since then, Mealor’s new choral work called De Profundis, (‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord’) has been recorded by The St Petersburg Chamber Choir for Universal Music. Its bass line contains the lowest note previously written in a choral piece – a low E, over two octaves below middle C. The ‘E’ (329 Hertz), is six notes below the B flat in Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, till now, the lowest note written in choral music.
When we eventually established communications, I asked Paul Mealor how De Profundis came about. He explained “Ideas come to me as my mind begins to relax. Falling asleep one night, this sound came to me – things were revealed to me through sleep. I got up and wrote the piece that night. The choir opens up through a series of chords. Then a single bass begins. It is a complete contrast of sound and language, because the choir and soloists are singing in different languages. The choir sings in Latin – a language that is constant and ancient – the open vowels are gorgeous. The soloist calls out in English.”
He adds “My setting of De Profundis calls for a rich and powerful voice; a voice that can not only touch the heart with its sincerity and truth, but also make every fabric of the human body resonate as it plunges into the very lowest parts of the vocal spectrum.”.
That solo voice became the subject of a worldwide search for a bass capable of making this rare and true low sound. Forty year old Oklahoma born Tim Storms, a singer since childhood was selected from over 400 responses to Universal Music’s call. For Mealor, the low E represents several facets of humanity. “It’s a thing of beauty, it speaks of mankind’s talent, and depicts the earthliness of man as this sound rises up from the very depths of the body and the soul. I wanted to create a sense of seeing the heavens from the earth by writing really low notes – coming from right inside. I wanted the listener to feel the vibrations as well as to hear them.”
Mealor spent much of his childhood on the Island of Anglesey, where he developed an affinity with the sea. He sang in local choirs and played in brass bands and orchestras, learning the trombone. He describes himself as having been ‘hyperactive’ as a child. “As I grow older” he says, “I try to control my mind with work. Only music calms me down. When I compose, I find stillness”.
He divides his time between Anglesey, “where I now feel most at home”, and Aberdeen University, where, in 2003, he was appointed professor in composition, working from an office with a vista of the North Sea. “You feel those waves in you all the time, and it’s that kind of meditative sense of ebb and flow, that’s reflected in my music,” he says.
Delving further back into his memories, the sea had an even more powerful impact on him. “When I was 9, I nearly drowned. I found religion then and knew there was life after death”. His choral works, are infused with faith in the church and its music. Orlando Gibbons’ was a crucial influence, described by Mealor as “the single greatest composer after Bach”. Gibbons’ style informed Mealor’s Locus Iste, written for the 500th anniversary of the consecration of King’s College Chapel at Aberdeen University in 2009. “It was that piece that made me stop and deeply think about what I was doing,” says Mealor. “I discovered in that piece a sense of stillness which was why I had started composing in the first place.”
It is however true that the listener isn’t required to hold the same faith to experience a sense of the sacred. “You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the religion and the spirituality of my music – you can be both or neither – the same as in politics. You can listen to Brecht and understand him without being a Communist; you can understand Bach without being a Christian. My music touches people in the spirit of love, forgiveness, redemption and prayer – elements that are common to all religions. Perhaps those with a stronger sense of spirituality get more out my music. But truth is universal and for example, the Stabat Mater which is about a mother losing her son, has the power to touch anyone who has experienced loss.”
The contradictory aesthetics of stillness and restlessness are also present in the seascapes and landscapes which have pointed the way for Mealor. “I am also inspired a lot by visual culture” Mealor admits. “I grew up with a love of landscapes caught in time. I love the very traditional English painters like Constable; I love the Welsh painters like Kyffin Williams – the way he captures the darkness of the landscape in Wales; the constant rain. Those strong structures in visual art create images which you can transfer into music to create a musical landscape.”
Mealor’s fascination with the visual extends to the appearance of notes on the manuscript. Working always with ink and manuscript, he avoids computerised aids and has a reputation for taking as much time in creating the score as the music. Perhaps it was this appreciation of the score as art that prompted the 9 year old Mealor who already knew he wanted to be a composer, to draft his first symphony using red and blue crayons.
Mealor is a firm believer in the craft of writing music. “I do spend a lot of time making sure that every single part is singable in its own right. My role as a tenor in cathedral choir which I enjoy enormously gives me a focus to try things out beforehand.”
Unusually, Mealor taught himself the fundamentals of composition and later, went to Wiliam Mathias for formal studies in composition. Mathias (1934 – 1992) was a Welsh composer, credited with teaching several younger Welsh composers. I asked Paul Mealor why composition has to be studied so intensively at tertiary level when the great masters of the past simply composed for a living with little formal tuition. “The study of composition has changed” he acknowledged, “but the great masters still underwent a period of study. Bach, Beethoven and Haydn all had mentors. They may have started as young players while the composer conducted or directed. They started by imitation and then found their own style. What we experience now are the opportunities to get music performed. Students are not trying out their music – that kind of teaching has gone.”.
Mealor’s strategies for teaching composition circumvents this obstacle. “I make absolutely sure that the students I teach actually get to perform their music. The old style is the best and lot of composition teachers are going back to that. I do occasionally use ‘Sibelius’ as a practical tool. The problem there is that they rely on electronic sounds. It’s no substitute for a real instrument played by a musician. If a composer relies on those technologies, you stop listening properly. I don’t allow any of my students computer programmes – they have to write things out by hand and play it on real instruments”.
Mealor’s De Profundis speaks of his inspirations: the stillness of the landscape, of meditation, of a visceral and spiritual connection deep within the soul. “There is nothing more beautiful than singing softly, and to be able to create that music that can touch people through loss or illness is a great gift. I am privileged”.
Choirs wanting to perform Paul Mealor’s ‘De Profundis’ will be pleased to know that he has written in an alternative note in the absence of a bass who can sing the original low E.
De Profundis has been recorded by St Petersburg Chamber Choir on the Decca label for Universal Music and is available through ABC Classics, catalogue number 37099351
Paul Mealor spoke to Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©