01.10.2012 Spirituality

Voices of Stillness

An album of spiritual music is catching our secular world by surprise. Margaret Evans speaks with Royal Wedding composer Paul Mealor

(photo by Chris O'Donovan)

When an album of Russian Orthodox music, mostly sung in Latin, reaches the top of the classical charts in Great Britain one week after its release, it's telling us something.

That's the extraordinary success story that's greeted the recent release of Tranquillity: Voices of Deep Calm, an album of rarely performed choral music sung by the renowned St Petersburg Chamber Choir. While much of the music is traditional music of the Russian Orthodox Church, much loved 20th century composer Sergei Rachmaninov also features prominently with his choral settings of liturgies and vespers.

Undoubtedly another key element of the runaway success is a work by Royal Wedding composer Paul Mealor featuring the lowest note ever written for a choral piece. The note, a low E, is more than two octaves below middle C and beyond the reach of all bar an exceptional bass voice.

The composer readily acknowledges that while his work called De Profundis, a setting of the words of Psalm 130, ("Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord") has caught the attention of the You Tube generation with its "ridiculously low note", the response he has personally received reveals a society yearning for spiritual beauty.

Speaking by phone from his home in Aberdeen on the north east coast of Scotland, while a storm lashes all around, Mealor tells me he's been surprised at the comments he's received from young people in particular.

"They've never listened to choral music before but they've heard of the guy with the low note and they've listened to it because of that. And then they go 'wow' and find something in it. And being in English, they understand exactly what's being said. So it's worked out quite by accident to be a piece that's got mass appeal."

Tranquillity's success in bringing such esoteric spiritual music to the top of the charts is a comment, he feels, on the frantic pace of our modern lives.

"I don't know about you but I'm certainly a workaholic. I'm sure Australia is the same as Great Britain where people work so hard and everything is so fast these days. Everything needs to be done yesterday. It means there is very little time for reflection.

"A CD like this gives people a chance to find a moment of peace, a moment of stillness. Emails and letters I've been getting from people tell me they hadn't realised how much they needed it. It's a chance for them to just stop for a few minutes and find some quiet.

"The beautiful music that's been sung for hundreds of years is timeless. It's all universal texts about love, peace, redemption - all things that resonate with everybody. It doesn't matter what your faith is or if you don't have a faith. You can resonate with peace and love and all those general terms which are so powerful."

Music of great depth that literally resonates with the human body has fascinated Paul Mealor from his youngest days. A Welshman, he grew up mainly on the Island of Anglesey singing in local choirs and evolving his talent as a composer.

Although an Anglican, he found himself drawn to the music of the Russian Orthodox Church - "beautiful music in Russian and Polish and Slavonic that all has big base, fundamental sounds. Since I started composing myself, I write a lot of that kind of depth in my music because I feel it resonate in the body rather than just (be)sounds, if you know what I mean."

Anyone who has been lucky enough to hear the chanting of Tibetan monks with notes plunging to depths that thrill us to our very core will understand immediately the attraction of such music.

As Mealor explains, "Our body is made up of rhythm. Our heart beating is what keeps us alive. Every cell of our body is connected to rhythm, to this one sound of beating. You get that in low music, you get a pulsation."

With his innate attraction to music of deep resonance, Mealor was open to constant requests from bass singers for music to show off their unique gifts, a work to showcase their overlooked bottom range.

"I was drawn to the text of De Profundis. As a Christian myself, what I find so powerful about those words is somebody crying out from complete darkness and despair to light. They want to be drawn out of this terrible place they are in to complete beauty. So for me it made absolute sense to create a challenge, something that physically and aurally does that, as well as spiritually.

"So," he laughs, "I decided to write a ridiculously low note."

The challenge of finding a singer capable of reaching the low E, six notes lower than the previous lowest note ever written for a choral piece, a B flat in Rachmaninov's Vespers (the work that concludes Tranquillity), became the basis of an international search called Bass Hunter.

Among hundreds of entries from all over the world including Australia - and Russia - the organisers found a surprising 400 who could actually reach the note. The winner though - and now the singer starring in De Profundis - Tim Storms, blew the competition away with his ability to sign a full octave below it. Mealor still seems in awe: "That's two octaves off the bottom of the piano...that's remarkable."

His extraordinary range which extends, as Mealor describes it, "right down the depths off the end of the piano to... right the way up as well almost to the top of the tenor register", fulfilled his vision of "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."

"So we found someone we thought never really existed... and he's done a beautiful job with it."

The success of De Profundis and Tranquillity continues Paul Mealor's rise to prominence as a composer of spiritual music in our starkly secular age. His setting of Ubi Caritas for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, was specially commissioned by the couple to create "a moment of stillness" in the midst of a day of almost overwhelming grandeur and constant action.

The memory of the event is "a magical thing, a huge honour," says Mealor. Chosen by the couple to follow the Archbishop of Canterbury's address to the congregation, the tenor solo sung in Latin "was, in essence, the only piece that was quiet and for that reason it became even more powerful."

The quality of meditative stillness that characterises Paul Mealor's work is something he feels he draws from nature, in particular the seascapes he clearly loves. As well as having an office in the University of Aberdeen where he is Professor of Composition and where he can gaze directly over the North Sea, his home in Anglesey is also right on the coast.

"I don't know what it is, but I'm really attracted to the sea. Lots of artists and composers have been and are. It gives me that constant lapping of the waves at night as I'm going to sleep. We are rhythm, and finding that constant pulsation in the sea (means) it feels I'm home as soon as I am by it. So obviously that stillness finds its way into my music."

Even with his love of stillness, the work rarely stops. Paul Mealor's latest pieces include a demanding 40 minute oratorio based on the Crucifixion and a work to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the oldest university in Scotland, St Andrews. It's a lovely synchronicity that it's the alma mater of the young Royal couple, William and Catherine, and, much more humbly, my grandmother, Mary Methven Mackie.

Tranquillity is released on the Decca label.