Guest of the Month August 2020: Paul Mealor
Where are you from and how has it played a role in your development and creativity?
I was born and brought up in Wales, so I’m Welsh and for the last 20 years I’ve been living in Scotland and Wales, dividing my time between the two. And so, this celtic-ness, which I think is at the heart of everything that I am. I always find that means more to me when I’m away from Wales or Scotland than when I’m there. I think that is something that has become more and more interesting to me and more important. The male voice choirs of Wales that are very important to that cultural life, the fact that singing is at the heart of who Wales is as a nation, I think sings through the work that I do more and more. I find folk music in the melodies that I’m writing subconsciously coming through. And as I get older, that childlike love of the place, becomes more and more important. I think I definitely would say that I was a Welsh Composer, which I wouldn’t have done I don’t think until this year.
Who are your biggest influences and how have they influenced your work?
I’ve been influenced by lots of great music, not just classical music. For example, classical composers like Vaughn Williams and Sibelius, people like that, but also popular music as well. I was a huge Country and Western fan. The very first album I bought was Iron Maiden ‘Run to the Hills’, which people find amusing now I’m writing secular music. But all of this music influences you, all music speaks to you in some way if you enable yourself to listen to it and train yourself to listen to it. There are lots, from composers to rock artists pop artists minimalists through to painters. I can hear sound sometimes by looking at a painting, in my imagination. So, they’ve all had their own influence on me over the years.
How did you first get involved with JAM?
I first got involved with JAM when I was a student and looking for opportunities and there weren’t that many at that point. Now I’m ancient there are a lot more opportunities thanks to all sorts of organisations. When I was a student there really wasn’t many things – especially if you’re writing choral music or organ music or brass music. JAM was one of the few at that point, so I submitted my work to them, and it was chosen in their first year and performed. That was the very first time it happened. I was there in the beginning and I’ve been there ever since.
Can you tell me a bit about how JAM supports new music?
JAM is a phenomenal organisation which is very rare because not only do they promote new music from composers of any age, but they also encourage multiple performances of a work. That’s a very unusual thing. Not only does that support a composer’s work but sometimes their career.
JAM commissioned you to write ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’, how did they support and help you?
In 2010 Jam commissioned me to write a choral cycle called ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’, that was a big thing for me because it was a big major commission at that point. And what was even bigger for me at that point was that the Duchess of Cambridge Katherine heard that performance and from the performance of that piece commissioned by Jam, her and the Duke of Cambridge asked me to write for their wedding. So, it all came about because of this Jam commission, which I think it really quite serendipitous and I think, unheard of.
What are some of the special challenges and pleasure that come with working on a commissioned piece?
When you get commissioned to write a piece, there’s always joys because you know first of all, as part of the commission, who the performers are going to be and often they’re people you’ve worked with before in some capacity so you’re able to get an idea of what you’re working with artistically. Then of course, there are surprises that come with it because as you start to create an idea, especially if you’re working closely with a performer as I am going to be, new things spark ideas and collaboration becomes the heart of it. Often when you see a piece of music you’ll see the composers name at the top but there’s always a load of other names that sit secretly and quietly behind that because they’ve helped in the collaborative process that is creativity, really.
How important do you think it is that JAM isn’t just London-centric?
It’s very easy to think of London as the artistic capital of the United Kingdom but of course, it isn’t. There are places throughout the UK where there’s wonderful music happening, and I think it’s important that JAM has a base in London but also looks outwards and inwards. So, for JAM to be holding concerts and performances all over the country is crucial to its uniqueness and important because so much wonderful stuff happens in London but quite often in smaller areas and town, we don’t get to hear much new music so it’s very important.
You’re one of the world’s most performed living composers. What do you think it is about your music that has led to it being performed so much?
It’s an interesting thing. I only found out recently that I’m one of the world’s most performed living composers. I don’t really know what that means or how it’s measured but it’s very nice to hear that. I get a load of letters and emails from people and I’ve taken from that my music, at its heart, spiritual and sacred in the truest nature of that word. I think now that we’re living in a time when people don’t often how any time for themselves, if they find a moment of peace and of reflection, that comes even more important. I think it’s that tranquillity within my music that people are attracted to. I think.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
Trying to characterise your own work is always tricky. Often one thinks one’s doing one thing and then someone else will tell you that you’re doing something else. For me the most important thing is diatonic tonality – that’s melodies and harmonies that at their basis have a tradition and then I try and find new ways to play with that tradition to create what has now become my own musical language. It’s all rooted in tradition. From that, I try to find new ways of smudging colour into the sound – that’s something I particularly enjoy doing.
JAM commissioned The Farthest Shore, what was it like for you to have that piece performed across the UK as part of the PRS Foundation’s Beyond Borders Support?
So, JAM with the PRS Foundations support commissioned ‘The Farthest Shore’ which is a big oratorio I wrote about 40 minutes, it’s for choir and brass and organ and children’s choir and soloists, it’s enormous. For me it was a wonderful opportunity as I’d never written anything that big at that point. And also, to hear it performed across borders, which of course that scheme was about, was phenomenal as well. And the interesting thing about that piece is that it’s now got a life of its own, because it’s about refugees. Now of course it’s become more popular than ever because the things that it’s talking about, we haven’t really learned about as a society and these issues have got worse. So that piece has been performed across many borders throughout the world. And for me, that has been quite a life changing experience.
Beyond Borders is a collaborative initiative for organisations in different nations of the UK, how did that impact the piece? Was it that it reached audiences it wouldn’t usually reach, or did you work with people you wouldn’t normally work with?
When I was writing ‘The Farthest Shore’ as part of the Beyond Borders funding initiative, I was very conscious and I think we all were, that it should not be a piece that I was writing because I was writing it anyway. The idea should be that each of the countries that were involved, it should be performed by the people in those countries. And so that’s what we did. So, when we performed it in England it was an English group, when we performed it in Wales it was a Welsh group and Scotland a Scottish group and so on. And because the subject matter is so personal to each individual, the idea of someone being lost in a society or a world where they don’t speak the language, or they don’t know the culture. Each of the countries groups that performed it, performed it differently. They brought themselves to it. And I think that’s one of the beauties of that scheme, the PRS Foundation has that you can see music in oral prisms in different parts of the country and indeed the world which you wouldn’t do, if you didn’t think about it in the way Beyond Borders allows you to.
Do you have any advice for music creators applying for funding or getting commissioned by an organisation like Jam and hoping to make a career from music?
People often ask me about how they get funding for a certain thing or how do they approach an organisation. The answer is pretty straight forward. The first thing is you must concentrate on the actual art itself, make sure that you are wanting to write something or have an idea for something that is unique, that is your voice, that is something that can help develop you as an artist. And what I’ve often found is if you have that, just approach an organisation with that. The PRS Foundation is wonderful at supporting things, without any agenda, just looking for great art to support. And I think if you have a good idea, just approach them, approach Jam with your idea. Quite often, people are waiting for ideas. And people feel too nervous to approach an organisation like PRS Foundation. Never be nervous about it, because these organisations are looking for this music. For these works of art. So just get in an application. Get an email off!
What has been the best moment of your career so far? And which work are you proudest of?
I quite often get asked which is my favourite piece I’ve written, or which is the piece I’m proudest of and of course that’s really tricky because it’s like children. It’s difficult to pick a favourite one, because there’s so much wonder in each of the things and you remember the history of each of the pieces you’ve written. The struggles that you’ve had, making sure that note is right… but I suppose the two pieces that have been influential in my career as a composer, the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. And then literally a few months after when I wrote ‘Wherever You Are’ for the Military Wives and Gareth Malone. Two very different pieces with very different performers, but both of them opened up whole worlds for me and changed many lives. I mean the Military Wives thing became a phenomenon which still continues to this day and it’s a joy to be part of that. So, they are two life changing things. But the pieces I’m most proud of, I’m proud of them all. If I’m not I remove them!
Can you list 5 – 10 artists that you are listening to at the moment?
At the moment I’ve been listening to some choral music, so I very much enjoy listening to VOCES8 who I think are a phenomenal group, I’ve also been listening to music by composers of my own generation. And also, my old teacher William Mathias, two wonderful CDs have just come out. One with the baritone Jeremy Hugh Williams and one with St John Choir, to celebrate his 85th birthday. I quite like film scores and all sorts of popular music.