Christopher Mayo on writing for Crash Ensemble

I’ve wanted to write for Crash Ensemble ever since I first heard them. In 2006 I was at the Young Composers’ Meeting in the Netherlands and one of the tutors was Donnacha Dennehy. I remember him playing us recordings of Crash Ensemble performing his music and thinking to myself “this is a group I want to work with. This is a group that would get my music”. When, in 2012, Donnacha approached me about writing a piece for Crash Ensemble, I was genuinely ecstatic about the prospect.

Looking back on it now, I’m wondering if that’s why, all these years later, I’m having such an immensely hard time writing this piece. I’m writing this blog because Crash have asked if I could provide some insight into my process: some, pictures, sketches and anecdotes that might help illuminate what can be a pretty resolutely murky process to non-composers. But, truthfully I wanted to write this because the process of composing this piece has been so circuitous, self-defeating, confused and, above all, unproductive that I was hopeful delving into the process and doing a bit of self-examination would help me to avoid this kind of frustration in future.

Composing can be a pretty resolutely murky process to composers too.

I’ve started this piece over from scratch three times. Hell, I’ve started this blog over from scratch three times. I had 4000 words written about every wrong turn, failure, botched concept and general bad idea that I had along the course of writing this piece. The first two attempts at the blog were supremely self-indulgent pieces of writing mostly addressing how my first two attempts at this piece were supremely self-indulgent pieces of music. I’ve decided, though, that if I didn’t want to subject the world to the music, I certainly shouldn’t reveal every gory detail of its genesis. Suffice it to say, I’ve saved you from reading (or more likely not reading) a rambling diatribe including the history of rotation speeds of gramophone records, Lord Lloyd’s insistence on the arrest of Mahatma Gandhi for sedition in 1921, the standardisation of utility frequency to 50 and 60 Hz, the role of Shawnee leader Tecumseh in the war of 1812, the poetry of Derek Wallcott and hypotheses of my grandfather’s possible grocery delivery routes in and around Zeals, Wiltshire in the late 1940s.

It was immensely cathartic to get it all out, but having written it, I’ve realised it’s not really fit for consumption. I feel a bit the same about my first two attempts at the music.

Now that I’m at a point where the piece is almost finished, and I’m finally feeling happy about it, it seems much more appropriate and interesting to address what this piece is actually about. The piece is about two men in Kentucky who, from January 1967 until September 1968, had a brief but intense friendship.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard was an optician by trade who spent much of his spare time with his Rolleiflex medium-format camera. He purchased the camera in 1950 to take pictures of his young family, but his output gradually took a much more considered and artistic slant than your usual family snapshots. He created intricately posed scenes in the derelict buildings around Lexington Kentucky. He used his family as subjects but more often than not covered their faces in a variety of cheap halloween masks that became the signature of his work.

Thomas Merton was an American Trappist Monk, and prolific author of more than 70 books. He was a complicated man whose Catholicism and monasticism were constantly battling against his deep interest in eastern religions and philosophies and his love for Margie Smith, a nurse who cared for him after a surgical procedure in 1966.

Merton was a gregarious host who would invite local artists and intellectuals to dine with him on Trappist cheese, bread and bourbon while discussing religion, philosophy or anything else that came to mind.

In January 1967 Meatyard joined his friends the poets Guy Davenport and Jonathan Williams in visiting Merton. Meatyard was a deeply non-religious person who nevertheless held strong ideas about organised religion. Meatyard and Merton became close friends immediately, and for the next year, Merton became one of the main subjects of Meatyard’s photographs.

Merton died in December 1968, aged 53. He was in Thailand for an interfaith conference and was electrocuted by an electric fan while stepping out of the bath. Meatyard wrote Merton’s eulogy for the local paper. Their friendship had been very brief but they had regularly exchanged letters. More importantly, Meatyard had taken 116 photos of Merton over the course of their friendship which have now been exhibited and published in several volumes. Meatyard himself died four years later, aged 46, after a two-year struggle with cancer.

My piece draws on audio recordings as its primary material. The Oral History Centre at the University of Louisville and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University were extremely helpful in providing audio recordings of Meatyard and Merton respectively. My piece focuses on a small excerpt of an interview with Meatyard where he discusses his use of masks and a recording which Merton made of himself singing Gregorian chant.

They were both men who believed that people had multiple, sometimes irreconcilable, sides to their personality. Merton lived through this in his constant attempts to find a place for his myriad desires and interests in the strictures of his monastic life. Meatyard tried to depict this multiplicity through the literal masking of his subjects.

"You don’t know the difference between the mask and what’s underneath it. You recognize it as being a mask but it’s on top of something else. Whatever else that’s underneath could be your mother or your father or me or anybody else in the world and you wouldn’t know the difference for sure. You might think you knew, but you wouldn’t know for sure who was under there." - Ralph Eugene Meatyard