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'You can’t teach yourself inspiration,’ says choral composer Colin Mawby, ‘that comes from within you.' He talks to Jonathan Grimes about his musical background, his conducting career, and his approach to composing.

Copyright ©2006 Contemporary Music Centre, Ireland.

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An Interview with Colin Mawby

Colin Mawby
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Jonathan Grimes: Colin, you seem to have a lot going on recently. Is this a normal level of activity for you?

Colin Mawby: The amount of work seems to increase and increase. I started composition seriously when I was about 52. We had our first son, Ben, at this time. I remember going into his bedroom and looking at his crib and thinking to myself, 'I have to support this baby and I have to get him through university, I have to educate him and clothe him. How am I going to do this?' I thought, ‘The only thing I can do is compose.’ So I decided to sit down and seriously work at composition.

JG: But you were obviously composing before this point?

CM: Yes, but not seriously. I’d get the occasional commission but I never got down to the business of pushing the stuff until then.

JG: As a result of all your endeavours over the last number of years you’ve just been awarded a Papal Knighthood by Pope Benedict for your services to church music. Tell me a little bit about this award and how you ended up receiving it.

CM: I don’t know how these things happen; I’ve got no idea at all. I was over in Westminster Cathedral last week being invested by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor. There were hundreds of people there. I was very moved by the affection which people have. It was a wonderful event and my family were there and my younger son Clement suddenly started calling me Sir Dad, which was rather funny. [laughs]

JG: Do you think this is likely to result in more commissions and performances?

CM: I’ve got no idea at all. People seem to have more respect for you but whether this is genuine or not I wouldn’t have a clue. I mean it’s obviously an honour. I don’t really know what to make of it to be perfectly honest.

JG: Just another important accolade.

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CM: Yes.

JG: Your career in composition has concentrated mainly on choral and organ music and you’ve written a very vast body of choral music for many diverse choral groups. Where does this interest and passion stem from?

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CM: I went to Westminster Cathedral Choir School as a boy and my interest in choir music started then. I can remember as a boy of 13 or 14 going through the Tallis Forty-Part Motet [Spem in Alium nunquam habui] trying to find consecutive fifths or consecutive octaves because I was quite convinced that somewhere there must be a fifth or octave. There wasn’t and I was very disappointed. But I did study the stuff when I was a kid and I was very fortunate in being taught there by George Malcolm who was an extraordinary character. So that’s basically where it comes from and I seem to have an ear for this sort of thing. I’ve never written much orchestral music, partly because I think the ability of people to score orchestral music now is so enormous that I couldn’t possibly compete with it, there’s no way I could. With choral music I can [compete], because I do actually understand how choirs work, how they make the sounds.

'Most composers teach themselves [composition] because you can’t teach yourself inspiration -- that comes from within you.'

JG: In terms of your education at Westminster Cathedral Choir School, what would you say were the key things you learnt as a composer?

CM: Plainchant -- it’s the most wonderful thing. Polyphony, I learnt that. I learnt what it was like to sing in a professional choir, to know what professional singers could do. That has had an enormous influence on me. The temperament within a group was also something of great fascination and it was always very amusing and entertaining. You were living with the musical experience. I can’t say that a particular piece influenced me -- it was the actual experience of making choral music [which influenced me]; it was a wonderful experience.

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JG: Being surrounded by it on a day-to-day basis?

CM: That’s right. We had to do 14 or 15 services a week, 10 hours rehearsal a week as well. It was a very specialised thing, which has advantages and disadvantages. One left the choir school not knowing that Beethoven existed but I could discuss the Tallis Forty-Part Motet. It’s a very unbalanced education but an extremely good one.

JG: And after your studies at the Cathedral school you then went to study composition at the Royal College of Music in London with Gordon Jacob?

CM: Gordon Jacob and John Churchill. John Churchill, who is now dead, was another totally inspiring character. Not so much for what he taught but the enthusiasm which he had. Gordon Jacob was far more formal and stricter. I remember once going to see Gordon Jacob and he was checking the instrumentation of a new Vaughan Williams symphony and he had this huge score. Vaughan Williams used to have his stuff checked by Ravel, and apparently when Ravel died he went to Gordon Jacob who was an extraordinary orchestrator. His music now is unknown unfortunately but he was most gifted in this.

JG: So he was contemporary to Vaughan Williams?

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CM: Near enough, yes. I can’t really say that I was taught very much composition. Most composers teach themselves because you can’t teach yourself inspiration -- that comes from within you. So I think the business of studying composition is to a large extent self study. Hans Keller was a great influence and I knew him well. He was the person that looked at my music and said, ‘Why do you never write any dotted rhythms?’ And I thought, ‘I don’t’. He had revealed in one very short remark, as Hans did, a fundamental failing in what I did. It was very gentle but it’s the odd remark that people make which really throws a light on what you do. That was the most influential remark and even now I look at everything and ask myself, 'Can I make this a dotted rhythm?' [laughs]

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JG: So you ended up eventually becoming Master of Music at Westminster?

CM: Yes.

JG: What year was that?

CM: 1961. I was quite young. It came at a time of great change in the Catholic Church -- it was very traumatic going through that period but very interesting.

JG: Did you do much composing during this period?

'I could not write choral music unless I work with choirs.'

CM: I did quite a fair amount. I knew a lot of people, met a lot of extraordinary people. I formed a pretty close friendship with Lennox Berkeley, who was a lovely person -- extremely hardworking, very formal, had a wonderful command of structure. His two sons were in the choir -- Michael Berkeley and Julian Berkeley. And of course Michael is now a pretty well known composer. I did meet extraordinary people from all over the place.

JG: How long were you Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral?

CM: I left there in 1976, after a particularly difficult period. But I go back now and I’m always incredibly well received.

JG: And after that you moved to Ireland?

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CM: Yes. It was a bit of a hiatus leaving Westminster -- I didn’t quite know what to do. I was teaching at Trinity College of Music in London and before I left Westminster Cathedral I used to run a large amateur choir. One of the members of the choir, who was a nun, sent me the advert for the choral director post at RTÉ and I thought, ‘I’ll go for this and see what happens’. It was due to that nun that I actually came here and I never regretted coming to Ireland.

JG: Had you, prior to that, any family connections with Ireland?

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CM: None at all. I knew nothing about Ireland at all.

JG: What year did you take up this post?

CM: 1981. I met people like John Kinsella and Gerry Victory, and have enormous respect for both.

JG: Was Victory the current Head of Music at RTÉ when you took up the position there?

CM: He was. Gerry was a wonderful character and a very fine composer. Funny thing was I recommended the publication of one of his pieces way back in 1964. He had sent LJ Cary and Co some piece and I thought, ‘This is quite a good piece’. So I got that published without any idea that I’d actually ever work with the man. It’s a very small world indeed. I always got great value out of Gerry and he did a lot of very, very good work. The same with John Kinsella -- another very extraordinary person.

JG: He was also Head of Music in RTÉ. Were you there at this time also?

CM: I was, because it was then that we introduced a new choral policy in RTÉ. I remember a performance of a piece by Matyas Seiber in the National Concert Hall just after it had opened. The old RTÉ Singers, who were such a fine group of people, were in that huge hall singing against an orchestra of 80. This was quite ridiculous to have 10 singers belting their hearts out and not being able to hear them at all. I saw then that something had to change so we started the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir. Then we started Cór na nÓg [children's choir] and the RTÉ Singers became the RTÉ Chamber Choir. John [Kinsella] and I got together and worked out a new system for choral music in RTÉ, which stood the test of time. The [RTÉ] Chamber Choir has transmuted into the National Chamber Choir. Celso Antunes [current artistic director of the National Chamber Choir] is such a superb conductor and it’s wonderful to see the work he does. It gives me tremendous pride to see this.

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JG: The RTÉ Philharmonic Choir had their 20th anniversary recently?

CM: That’s right, it was the 21st. I went to their Brahm’s Requiem and I thought it was excellent. Again they’ve got a very good person taking it -- Mark Duley who does superb work. It’s great when you can sit back and see other people doing your work and you have no responsibility for it. It’s lovely.

JG: You can just concentrate on composing?

CM: Absolutely. You have no responsibility whatsoever. This is a wonderful position to be in. It really is. I did a 70th birthday concert with the [National] Chamber Choir in May and I thought to myself, ‘Ah, I haven’t got any responsibility here. All I do is wave my arms. I don’t have to organise anything, it’s all done for me'. And I thought, 'This is marvellous, why didn’t I think of this years ago?’

'If you write to a particular fashion to please critics, that’s not a very good way of going about composing.'

JG: You were a very central figure to choral music in Ireland from the early 1980s right up to 2001 when you retired from the National Chamber Choir. In terms of your composing did these various positions that you held as a conductor inform your composing or have a positive effect on it?

CM: An enormous influence. I cannot write choral music unless I work with choirs. Now that’s a subjective judgement: I know that lots of people can do these things; I can’t. I have to write for particular people. We also did a lot of contemporary music and that’s also very informative. You see other people’s work and you learn what to do and also what not to do. With contemporary choral music, there's an enormous range of standards but it’s always been like that. If you go back to the 16th century, there’s a lot of very trashy music there -- thankfully forgotten. It’s always like that and I think that the bad, or the second rate, is essential in recognising the first rate.

JG: You say in your personal comment on our website that you have a healthy contempt for musical fashion.

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CM: Oh complete and utter, yes.

JG: And that you do your own thing.

CM: Oh totally.

JG: Can you might explain a little bit about what you mean by the statement in terms of your own approach to composing?

Video extract:
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CM: I’ll take an example. I’ve been doing a lot of work in Germany, and German music twenty or thirty years ago was very much dominated by twelve-tone music. If you go to Germany now the Germans cry out for what they call romantic music -- they’re not interested in that old [twelve-tone] music. If you write in a particular fashion to please critics, that’s not a very good way of going about composing. You have to be true to yourself, you have to do what you think is right musically. I think that fashion is quite pernicious but, on the other hand, it’s a very important part of music making. I remember talking to Lennox Berkeley about twelve-tone music. And he was saying, 'Well of course it was the “in” thing, everybody did it.' But he said, 'I always look upon music as a mountain range. An earthquake comes and the mountain range more or less stays the same -- it’s just slightly different.' And that I think is the effect of fashion: it can make a slight difference, but not very much.

I had been always very suspicious of music which is not written to make communication and contact with an audience. We used to live in Meath, near Slane. During the pop festivals there, you'd see thousands and thousands of people, some of them walking from Dublin. Back then, if we put on a concert of contemporary music and got a hundred people [to come], we'd say 'Gosh! We’ve got a great audience, this is wonderful.' But [if] you go to Slane, there are 100,000 people there. In some way I think contemporary composers at that time had lost the ability to make contact with people. They had become very inward looking. It had become a technical process rather than a contactual process. I think contemporary music has suffered because of this. People just don’t want to hear it and I think to some extent it’s the fault of composers following fashion -- fashion which is dictated by critics and similar people.

JG: But do you not think that’s changing or is it still the same?

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CM: It will never change. One of the problems of a composer is how to get people to take what you write seriously. It’s very, very difficult. To do that, you need critical approval. So you are in a way made to follow what critics think is an important part of music -- that’s the fact of life I fear. It’s very difficult for a composer to actually make a living from composing and be accepted as a composer.

JG: So what you’re saying really with that is you have to be true to yourself -- do your own thing and plot your course out?

'I had been always very suspicious of music which is not written to make communication and contact with an audience.'

CM: Absolutely, you have to be true to yourself. If you’re not I think your music loses a lot because of that. A famous German conductor, I can’t remember which one, said there are three stages of the artist. Stage one: the artist knows that he can do everything. Stage two: the artist realises he can do nothing. Stage three is when the artist realises what he can do and does it well. Very few people get to stage three and I think that sums the whole thing up. When you start you can do anything and then you suddenly realise you can’t do anything at all, most people give up then.

One of the problems about composing is self-discipline and you can’t compose unless you have that. Hans Keller said to me, 'If you want to compose you compose 30 bars of music a day and do it every day. So you get 200 bars a week, and in 4 weeks you’ve got a movement of symphony.' I’ve followed that very strictly since then. I do actually do 30 bars of composition a day; sometimes I do more. You can tear the stuff up but at least you don’t sit staring at a piece of manuscript paper doing nothing, because that’s totally destructive for a composer. The best form of inspiration is when the electricity bill comes through the door and you have to pay it, then you’re inspired to do some work.

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JG: I never thought I’d hear a composer say bills are an inspiration. [laughs]

CM: It’s either that or the baby. There are other forms of inspiration but I think that’s a very important one.

JG: A motivator?

CM: Perhaps a motivator is better than the word inspiration. Yes, you have got me out in a difficult situation. [laughs]

JG: Do you have a particular routine for composing?

Video extract:
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CM: I do, yes. I start at 5:30 in the morning. I’m one of these people who don't need much sleep. At 5:30 in the morning your mind is clear and the phone doesn’t ring and you sit down till 8:30 and you’ve done three hours while all sensible people are still asleep.

JG: Do you always compose for a particular purpose or occasion or do you sometimes just produce work without knowing the end result?

CM: Very occasionally I do that but the situation now is I’m nearly always writing for an occasion because the work keeps coming in. Occasionally one does something just for one’s own fun but not very often.

JG: In recent years your music has been taken up and recorded by some quite well known crossover artists such as Charlotte Church. What impact have these recordings had on the promotion of your music?

CM: It’s very difficult to say. All I know is the stuff is everywhere. I was dealing this morning with a choir in Germany who are doing a Christmas Mass of mine and they wanted me to write a message for the Christmas programme. Yesterday I was dealing with another German choir which wants to perform a Gloria and Te Deum of mine. The day before I had been dealing with a German choir who is going to perform my Veni Creator at some big conference which is being attended by the German hierarchy next year. I get quite a big email correspondence from people, mostly European and some American as well. It’s very flattering and very good for the ego.

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JG: Do you have to devote a considerable amount of your time to the administration aspects of getting your work out there?

CM: Yes. I find proof reading, which I’m quite good at, very hard work. You always miss something however carefully you read proofs. I think the important thing for a composer is to make a good personal relationship with a publisher -- it’s absolutely crucial. You go and see them and talk to them. If you do that you’ll get a good service from them but you’ll also make up a relationship and you can talk quite openly to them and they can talk openly to you. I’m most fortunate in Germany to be published by Dr J. Butz, who is a superb publisher who will often say, 'I don’t like this. Change that, this is not going to work, this is no use for my market.' And it does come down to markets -- that’s the awful thing. It’s pointless writing a piece for 11 trombones because you’re never going to get them together. It used to be possible to write for 8 horns and 12 trumpets and goodness knows what else, but you can’t really do that now because it won’t be performed -- it’s so expensive. This is one of the drawbacks which composers face: the sheer expense of putting it [their music] on. If you’re writing for a professional orchestra they can do anything. But the rest of us write for amateurs and they’re limited in what they can do. I don’t mean that they’re limited as musicians, but in the rehearsal time they have available they’re limited in what they can do. It’s essential that you take this into consideration.

'It’s very difficult for a composer to actually make a living from composing and be accepted as a composer.'

JG: So you’re 70 this year?

CM: As Gregory Murray [composer] said when he was 70, 'I'm in injury time'. I think I’m now in injury time, so I’m going to have a very good injury time. I’m going to do all the things that I never dared do before.

JG: Sounds good. Looking back over your compositional career to date, are there any particular works or pieces that stand out for you that you’re particularly proud of?

Video extract:
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CM: That’s a terribly difficult question. The Marian Anthems are pretty fine. I’ve just written a fascinating piece for the publisher Encore based on a poem written by a British soldier who was killed in Northern Ireland. The poem that was found in a concentration camp, which I called Prayer of Forgiveness -- again I’m very pleased with this because that was the most moving and wonderful poem. As a composer of choral music you do come across wonderful poetry and some of it is very, very moving. Yesterday when I was doing this [piece] I was deeply moved by it and what’s come out I think is a very fine piece of music. I know things I shouldn’t have written and I know things I shouldn’t have published. The composer is not in the position to judge his own work. You can make an assessment of it but to actually make a judgement on it’s validity and beauty is terribly difficult to do. One of the problems of a composer is listening to your music. You sit listening to the stuff and you squirm. 'Did I really write that? How terrible!' And I think this is a fairly common experience but after a bit I have learnt to detach myself from it. But it’s taken me a long time to get there and now I can actually listen to it in a totally detached way and say, 'Well that sounds good, that sounds bad'. I write a lot and I listen sometimes to the radio and suddenly hear a piece and think, ‘That’s a very nice piece.’ I hear the announcer say, ‘That’s by Colin Mawby.’ I’ve got no recollection of this at all! [laughs] Now this has happened two or three times and this is wonderful, absolutely wonderful.

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JG: So looking ahead, are there any particular works or projects that you’d like to write but for which you haven’t yet had the opportunity to do?

CM: Well I’d love to do another children’s opera.

JG: You’ve written two haven’t you?

CM: Yes. I’d love to do another one, very much indeed, because those were very successful. I’ve just done a mass for a big International festival at Loreto, which I’m going to conduct next April. I like to start a work, finish it and then go on to another one. It doesn’t work for me to do two or three works at the same time. I don’t know why that is -- my mind can’t cope with it. One of the most flattering things that’s happened to me was when I saw a piece of my music in Chinese. Some Chinese publisher had taken it up and it was all there in Chinese. And to my great disappointment I thought to myself, ‘Well how do they spell Colin Mawby in Chinese?’ Unfortunately they didn’t, it was just ‘Colin Mawby’. The only words on the whole thing which I could actually understand -- a great disappointment. [laughs]

JG: At least you knew it was yours. Any other things that you have coming up in 2007?

'The best form of inspiration is when the electricity bill comes through the door and you have to pay it, then you’re inspired to do some work.'

CM: There are performances in Germany. I’ve quite taken to Germany. The Germans are very, very good musicians. They have a great courtesy and they take what you do very seriously. I have a great respect for them. I had a wonderful time in Germany in September in Cologne Cathedral where I’d been asked to write a fanfare for the new tuba stops they put on the organ. There are also CDs of my stuff coming out in Germany, Italy, and America.

JG: Well long may it continue.

CM: Well I hope so, but when you’re 70 it doesn’t go on for that much longer unfortunately. We face the business of going to see the source of inspiration.

JG: Not the electricity man?

CM: Not the electricity man, no.

Colin Mawby was interviewed on video by Jonathan Grimes in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 16 November 2006.

The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.

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