Mel Mercier, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

My father Peadar Mercier played the Irish percussion instruments, the bodhrán (drum) and the rhythm bones, and I learned to play from him when I was a young boy. He was a member of the Irish traditional music group The Chieftains in the 1960s and 70s, a very exciting period of cultural revival in Ireland. I was drawn into his musical groove and that set me off spinning with the energy of that time.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

The composers who have inspired me most are Seán Ó Riada and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin who both, in their unique ways, created music that integrated Irish traditional music and European classical music and gave me a global perspective, and the American composer John Cage with whom I was so fortunate to perform in the 1980s and who just blew my mind and sent me into outer space.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Theatre directors who want to take up a short-lease residency in my ear.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

A deadline!

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Negotiating different personalities and egos!

Of which works are you most proud?

The first play soundscape I created with Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw was for the Abbey Theatre production of Medea, which went on to run on Broadway. I can still remember the atmosphere of that – I used a sample of Balinese Kecak (‘monkey chant’) woven into the texture of the music for the section leading to the murder of the children and I can still hear it – without listening to it – more than 15 years later. There was also a sonic texture I created by manipulating the sound of a whale song and rats which underscored almost all of the play.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Some people (read: some directors) have confused my music with the air conditioning in the theatre (‘what is that noise?’) and others have found that it is too ‘musical’!

I guess my musical language is diverse, definitely mongrel (or hybrid), inclusive of noise and tonal colour and often struggling to articulate groove.

How do you work?

I paint with sound.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

The India singer Lata Mangeskar, the early Chieftains, the Canadian singer-songwriters Kate and Anna McGarrigle, the Irish composer and musician Seán Ó Riada, the American composer John Cage, the English singer John Martyn, and the Javanese composer K.R.T Wasitodiningrat (Pak Chokro).

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Finding a deep groove.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Patience and presence.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Sitting on the floor playing newly-composed music or traditional music on the Javanese gamelan with friends, and holding my 10-year old daughter’s hand (not at the same time).

On Friday 25th January 2019 Heresy Records will release Testament, an album of eleven compositions by Mel Mercier, Irish Composer/Percussionist/Professor and Chair of Performing Arts at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick.

Mercier’s new album Testament  features several of his works, including music from the Broadway production of The Testament of Mary  by Colm Tóibín, directed by Deborah Warner and which starred Fiona Shaw, Powerbook  from the National Theatre of Great Britain, also directed by Warner and starring Fiona Shaw, Wayne Jordan’s production of Seán O’Casey’s The Shadow Of A Gunman  from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, James Macdonald’s production of Fewer Emergencies by Martin Crimp for the Royal Court Theatre and many others.   The compositions are drawn from original scores created by Mercier for nine Irish and international theatre productions and the collection features music that has been distilled, recomposed and remixed for CD.


Mel Mercier (b. 1959) is a recipient of numerous awards  including  the Irish Times Theatre Award for Best Soundscape for the Corcadorca production of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away (2017), the Gradam Cheoil Award  for Collaboration for Colin Dunne’s solo dance show CONCERT (TG4, 2018), the New York Festival  Bronze Medal Award for his radio documentary, Peadar Mercier (RTÉ Doc on One, 2017), the New York Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award nomination for his sound score for Colm Tóibín’s Testament of Mary (Broadway 2012), among others.  

Mercier was first introduced to music by his father, Peadar Mercier, a member of the Chieftains, who taught him to play Irish traditional percussion instruments, the bodhrán and bones.  As one of the world’s leading Irish percussionists , he has performed and recorded with many of the leading artists in this genre including, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Donal Lunny, Pallé Mikkleborg, Martin Hayes, Liam Ó Maonlaoi, Alan Stivell, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Caitríona O’Leary and  Bill Whelan.  Throughout the 1980s Mel performed in Europe and the USA with John Cage and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (Roaratorio, Inlets, Duets).

Of the music on the album, Mercier says: “The tracks on Testament  satisfy my long-held desire to find a way to document some of my theatre music. Recomposing and remixing from the pre-existing theatre soundscapes liberates the sounds from the original productions and gives them a second, new life, solely as a listening experience, as music alone.”

Some of Mel Merecier’s previous scores and soundscapes created for leading theatre practitioners include, director Deborah Warner, actor/director Fiona Shaw and director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia/The Iron Lady).   He  works regularly with Cork theatre company, Corcadorca and Gare St Lazare Ireland, with whom he recently collaborated on Beckett’s prose work, How It Is (Part 1 ). Other recent theatre compositions and sound designs include: Le Testament de Marie (Ódeon, Paris), CONCERT  a new dance show with Colin Dunne (CND Paris/Dublin Dance Festival), King Lear  with Glenda Jackson (Old Vic, London), The Tempest (Salzburg Festival), The Shadow of a Gunman (Abbey Theatre, Dublin), The Testament of Mary  (Broadway/Barbican, London), Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Epidaurus, Greece/Old Vic Tunnels, London/Next Wave Festival at BAM, New York/Bouffes du Nord, Paris). 

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