Mel Mercier: ‘When I work in theatre, I often think that it’s like painting’

Composer’s new album ‘Testament’ aims to meld disparate musical works

Capturing the ephemeral and melding disparate musical pieces to create one coherent whole: that was the task which Mel Mercier set himself two years ago, when he set about corralling his compositions for theatre so that he could release them as an album.

It was a complex project that entailed distilling, re-composing and re-mixing the music he had written for nine Irish and international theatre productions, ranging from Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary, directed by Deborah Warner and featuring Fiona Shaw, to Wayne Jordan's production of The Shadow Of A Gunman for the Abbey Theatre. There is also an excerpt from Sétanta, written by Mel's brother, Paul Mercier (founding member of Passion Machine). In fact, one of the great additional pleasures of this thoughtful and thought-provoking collection, Testament, is that it makes kissing cousins of Mercier's disparate pieces which have featured on Broadway as well as in the intimate surrounds of Halla na Feothanaí in west Kerry, and in London's Royal Court. Mel's appetite for theatrical soundscapes is as eclectic as it is adventurous.

When I work in theatre, I often think that it's like painting

Mercier is a Tony-nominated composer (for The Testament of Mary) who wears his creative endeavours lightly. Undoubtedly, some of that grounding comes from his day job as Professor and Chair of Performing Arts at the University of Limerick's Irish World Academy of Music and Dance. Testament, he admits, evolved while he had one ear cocked to posterity.

“I have wanted for a number of years to document some of the soundscapes that I’ve made,” he offers, clearly animated by the undertaking, “because music in the theatre is so ephemeral and the music itself invariably only lives in the context of the production, so if you don’t get to see the production, then you never get to hear the music.”

The process of writing for theatre bears some kinship to that of traditional music in that at their core, they're both highly collaborative processes. Mel's background as a bones player and percussionist (he's the founder of the Irish Gamelan Orchestra), as well as his upbringing as the son of The Chieftains' original bodhrán player, Peadar Mercier, may have equipped him with some of the tools he draws upon when he works in theatre.

“When I work in theatre, I often think that it’s like painting,” he says, reflecting on the process he engages in once he’s been commissioned to compose the soundscape for a play. “I take in a palette of sounds, and I paint with them. I never make anything before I go into the rehearsal room. Usually I’ll start by having a few conversations with the director because I’m more interested in what the director wants to do with the play, than the play itself. I learned quite early on that you’re not making a play. You’re making a production of a play, an interpretation of a play. I’m more inspired by the director’s vision than I am by the play itself. In fact, sometimes I stay away from the play. I avoid reading it, and often the first time that I hear the play is in a read through by the actors in the first rehearsal.”

Divesting himself of any preconceptions before he embarks on a production is the key to the blank canvas he needs.

“I won’t have written anything at this stage,” he elaborates, “but I might have some notions about the atmosphere; about the overall shape of the story. I might have some ideas about the dominant emotional dimensions of the piece and then I mull over that a bit. I don’t think too hard about it, and I try to let ideas come of their own accord. These ideas might be about what kind of instruments to use or just what kind of soundscapes might work: whether the work is dark or light, simple or complex. Then I might go into the studio with a few musicians and record some material, but I won’t have written anything. I might work with a tuba player, or a cellist or a singer to generate some material, which is about creating the colours and they get added into my palette of sounds and it’s those that I then go into the rehearsal room with.”

Voyage of discovery

Mel relies on initial rehearsals to observe how the actors interrogate the play. From there, he embarks on a voyage of discovery into the heart of production.

The lights come into play, and sound loves light

“Sometimes I think of sound like sonar,” he says, musing on the forces that shape his work. “It’s a way of going under the surface, which might be playing as a sort of parallel narrative. Sonar is about searching, so the sound can be used in a play to search and to explore. The other word I think is sodar which is the equivalent of sonar, but is used for measuring wind in the atmosphere. So atmosphere and depth are two rich places in a production, and music is particularly well suited to move into those spaces.”

Mercier is quick to credit the power of other elements in a production which heighten the impact of his soundscapes.

“The lights come into play, and sound loves light,” he notes with a wide smile. “They work so well together. Every sound I’ve ever made sounds better when the lights are working with it. So dark and shade help to focus the listening. They make sound a bit more pristine.”

Mercier works with a wide swathe of instruments, often in the most unexpected contexts. He uses a Greek island lute to dramatic effect in the excerpt from The Shadow Of A Gunman, melding it beautifully with actor, Mark O'Halloran's spoken words. Later, the lute appears again, in Testament, but this time bathed in cello, saxophone, percussion and the Persian flute called the ney. Having recorded visiting Greek musicians some years ago playing the lute and ney, Mercier was able to manipulate these sounds to meet the demands of two widely different productions.

"I loved working with that material to create different palettes of sound," he recounts. "I used them in The Testament of Mary, but because now I have a vast store of sounds I've recorded over the years, I can use them as source and after I've manipulated them, audience members won't necessarily recognise the sounds for what they are. For Shadow Of A Gunman, I went through my bank of sounds and the sound of the lute jumped out, as there was the element of the cowboy and the western in the production, and the sound of the lute gave me the feeling of the guitar on the plains; a little bit Clint Eastwood, I suppose!"

Distilling and re-composing his chosen pieces so that they would have a beginning, middle and end, independent of their theatrical origins was both a challenge and a joy, Mel says. It’s a sound collage of sorts.

"It's like you get a glimpse into a world," he muses. "I've always wanted the music to stand on its own but I've also wanted it to have echoes of the productions from which each track came. So, listening, you move from one landscape to another. I think – I hope I've achieved that in Testament."

Testament is now out on Heresy Records. Heresyrecords.com