Sometimes you can be lucky as an artist and meet someone very special early in your career whose influence remains with you throughout your life.
Colin Mawby and I first crossed paths in 1988 when I auditioned for the RTÉ Chamber Choir, a sixteen voice choir that offered a bursary to young classical singers and a professional environment in which to develop. By that stage my own fledgeling group, Anúna, was a year old. I didn’t think I had a hope of getting in, but I did. Colin was not shy about telling me that it wasn’t my singing that got me the place, rather it was my compositional aspirations. He believed that I would gain enormously from being part of an ensemble such as this.
I did in so many ways.
We met last March in London. Between a selection of inspired contemporary Indian dishes at the Lotus Restaurant of Leicester Square, and a very pleasant bottle of wine, we took up from exactly the point where we had left off last time we met, an unbelievable twenty four years earlier. Today Colin is very active as a composer, producing new work on a daily basis with an enviable schedule of commissions and performances. He divides his time between London and Dublin and despite the odd line and grey hair he appears to be pretty much the same as he was last time I met him almost quarter of a century ago.
He says the same things about choral music now as he did then. I wish I had been able to remain silent for long enough to allow his words to sink in so long ago, but it is the nature of young people that they ignore good advice. Experience is a cruel teacher, but it does help on the journey when you know that someone else has travelled that lonely road before you.
There is much written about Colin and his music. A superficial glance at his C.V. and a brief listen to his substantial choral output indicate immediately that he is a serious and gifted writer with a very individual harmonic language coupled with a sincere and deep faith. I am very lucky to have experienced his music with his guiding hand present. The passion he very obviously felt for the work he created was evident and often showed up our own lack of engagement with the process of making it for him. This may all sound very serious but working with Colin veered from profundity to absurdity within a single session. His sense of wicked humour constantly broke through even the most sublime choral moments.
Over the years my ideas about what a choir is have changed dramatically. In fact, many of the theories I now carry all over the world in workshops and presentations about the art of choral singing were formulated while I watched him work. Before, and after, my time with the RTÉ Chamber Choir I had worked with a number of other conductors. He was the first one that challenged my perception of what the relationship between the singer and the conductor should be. He did not give basic guidance. You were the instrument and as far as he was concerned you were in charge of what you did with it, and crucially, you were responsible for the musical impulse behind your individual expression. His job was to attempt to mould our collective efforts into a coherent artistic statement.
The relationship between conductor and singer was, for many hundreds of years, very simple. The leader was one of many, but part of the whole. The advent of orchestral conductors in the 19th century has had a knock-on effect on choral music that has not been positive in the main. The precision that a conductor can offer more complex contemporary repertoire is not in dispute but so often today conductors take on responsibility for every aspect of the production of sound – shaping the basic lines and directing musical responses from singers. This makes the singer, the instrument, reactive and not proactive – a receptacle for direction.
There is a huge difference between being led by the nose and thinking for yourself, being the instrument and being permitted by the director to be the instrument. The skill of any conductor should be to create coherent shape from collective artistry, not to impose an artistic vision on top of an ensemble. It is very easy to put the blame on conductors for this, but in fact the blame falls squarely on the singers themselves I believe. A conductor can’t make singers proactive.
I am very proud to say that over the last decade Anúna have evolved well beyond this limited relationship through observance and working with some of the finest choral minds in the world, through both compositional relationships with professional ensembles such as Chanticleer and New York Polyphony and through interactions with Charles Bruffy and the Kansas City Chorale in particular. I am very proud to say that that journey to this point in time began with Colin and is very much still ongoing.
For Colin, simplicity is the basis of great music, chant being a perfect expression of that. If it can’t be said in the simplest of language then maybe it shouldn’t be said at all. In the art of composition, complexity can often conceal vacuity.
He emphasised to us the responsibility we have as performers to the composer. When we sing their works they are with us. I remember a performance we gave of Palestrina’s “Stabat Mater”. Even thinking of it still gives me chills. It was the first time I ever felt the presence of a composer in our midst, listening, judging. Breathing with us. Colin explained the circumstances of the work and allowed us the freedom to sing the lines freely as individuals, but with one destination that he led us to.
Every week coming in to rehearsal was a new thrill, a new experience for us to savour. It was the formative experience of my life as a professional musician.
He treated my compositional aspirations with great respect. One day I found him in the office going through one of my pieces and muttering deeply flattering things. He was founding father of the magnificent Cór na nÓg (the RTÉ children’s choir, today in the inspiring hands of Mary Amond O’Brien) and it was through them he commissioned my first large-scale work “Gawain and the Green Knight”. He programmed a number of works of mine, allowing me access to my first professional experiences as a composer.
So many people owe him so much. So many young people have grown into adults that remember him with deep love and appreciation. His work with the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir is remembered by the singers with the deepest of affection.
As our lunch ended and we wandered on to the streets of London it struck me that I had done most of the talking. Throughout our meal he offered advice and encouragement. Colin hasn’t changed. Nor have I really. Time is only an illusion, and those of us permitted to document it in musically creative ways are among the most blessed.
On Saturday May 21st at 6pm in St Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin there will be a very special concert of his work to celebrate his 80th birthday. Tickets are available from HERE.