A Life in Five Pieces: Mark G Carroll

The second in an occasional series in which people who have made music their profession choose five pieces of music which have particular significance to their lives focuses on Mark G Carroll, composer and Strathaven Choral Society’s ‘Adopt a Composer’ partner.

Mark in reflective mood in St Mary's Cathedral before SCS premiered '|Shame, Shame'

Mark in reflective mood in St Mary’s Cathedral before SCS premiered ‘|Shame, Shame’

Opening Notes

The faint smell of disinfectant might seem an inauspicious start to a career in music but such is the earliest musical memory of composer Mark G Carroll. Like so many others in the eighties, for him instrumental tuition in junior school consisted of learning to play the recorder, and his school had a supply of ninety nine pence plastic instruments which were dumped, once a week, in a solution of disinfectant: hence that ‘musical’ memory.  Mark was, however, more fortunate than the average school recorder student: his mum was an accomplished player and was exasperated by the school’s insistence on teaching tonguing technique through a ‘t’ sound when she knew, and kept the young Mark right, that a ‘d’ sound is much more effective.

Mark had been born in Bradford but soon moved to York where he spent his childhood and adolescent years. For much of this time he was an only child, his half-brother being thirteen years his junior.

Clearly music was important to both his parents as in 1986 it was his father who took him to a performance of The Pearl Fishers’ .

“I can’t remember where it was, it was somewhere in Yorkshire. I was probably about six or seven and I’d never seen an opera before’’.  Mark may have been too young to be able to recall the exact venue but he does remember the impact it had upon him:  “I had a rough idea what to expect but of course’ The Pearl Fishers’ is a wonderful example of some of the things for which opera affectionately gets mocked, the elongated death scene. I appreciated the drama was slightly over the top but I remember being transfixed by the music. It was almost as if these people had become other characters and the music was coming out of those characters. “


By the end of his school years Mark was already progressing well on piano and cello, as well as having taught himself bass guitar, but at this stage, he chose not to study music.  He reflects on his rather complex reasons.

“Music was where I went to get away from anything and everything. In a physical sense, the piano lived in a room off the garage, so whatever hell had broken loose in the house I could just retreat to this room and play the piano for hours. It was quite sacred relationship I had with music and it was quite fragile in a way and I couldn’t put it in the real world of going to music college and probably being near the bottom of the skills there.  Instead I kept it safe and went to university to do psychology. I hated it, so fell back on languages.”

After graduation, Marks language skills were applied to working in back up to an engineering firm  and then to a maritime communications services company, so was there a piece of music which drew him back to making music his career?  At this period in his life Penderecki’s ‘Threnody for Victims of Hiroshima’ had a profound effect (check out Mark’s Website for more on this) but it seems that somewhere within him another piece had been weaving its spell since their first encounter more than fifteen years earlier, causing him to name it as his ‘epiphany’ piece.

 “There were pieces of music which came to me as moments when I really felt a deep connexion.  One of the first was Debussy’s Clair de Lune  because I hadn’t heard any impressionist piano music and I was only in my early teens and this was the most beautiful thing I’d heard. In my head I wanted one day to be able to play that and I did and to hear myself playing it was ‘wow’.  My grandparents loved it and when I was about ten my grandmother had said ’it would be lovely if you could play Clair de Lune for us.’  I remembered and when I was eighteen it was their wedding anniversary, I recorded it for them.  My wife loves that too and could listen to me play for hours.”

Debussy or Penderecki? Both had their parts to play in Mark’s decision to give up the day job and return to music, full time.  Clearly the move was overdue as can be seen in the list of his subsequent achievements.


Proudest Moment

 “I tried to composing as a child and as a teenager and I was rubbish so I got the age of just over thirty thinking I just wasn’t a composer and it was only in the latter years of that second office job that I just started writing music. I think something in my head had grown up a bit that something clicked in my writing.”

Although choosing not to study music as an undergraduate, by his late teens Mark was already an accomplished pianist and cellist but there can be no doubting that since he at last, decided to make ‘composer’ his career, his success has been rapid.  The world of commerce had taught Mark at least one thing: the importance of looking for opportunities, and putting in an application, even if it is a long shot.

 “I left the office in 2012 and started doing an MA part time.  So in the summer 2013, I applied for a Composer Residency at the South Bank Centre and I, one hundred percent, didn’t expect to get it. And then out of the blue I got it!”

Securing this prestigious post was only one string (!) to his bow as Mark takes great pride in, during these same few years, completing his cello teaching diploma and gaining that MA with distinction. His role as a cellist, performer and teacher, was however, for some time in jeopardy:

‘It was a real Rocky moment.  He doesn’t ever win but it’s all about his triumph over adversity’

“6 years ago I had an accident with a chisel and severed a motor nerve in my left hand. After two operations all they could tell me was ‘we think we’ve repaired it. You’ll know in two years time whether it’s going to recover and how much’.  So I had this horrible period of not knowing whether I’d ever be able to play the cello again.  Fortunately it has recovered to about eighty percent of   the previous movement.”

Here comes the Rocky moment:

“Last year I played the Elgar Cello Concerto with the New Tyneside Orchestra.    I practised and practised and it wasn’t perfect but I managed to do it.”

But for a composer, the proudest moment must be a performance of his own work.  Mark alludes to his experience with the London Sinfonietta, the resident orchestra at the South Bank Centre, which has a commitment to contemporary music and an impressive record of commissioning from the ‘who’s who’ of composers. Mark describes the world premiere of his piece ‘Black Lake and Exit’:

“In March, the crest of my composer career so far, I had a gig with the London Sinfonietta who commissioned me to write a piece for a concert loosely connected to spectralist music and they were happy for me to write for the electric cello.  I was very pleased with the piece. The performer is amazing, a fantastic performer who did a great job with the piece.  Afterwards Andrew Burke came over and shook me by the hand ‘Well done on such a bold, fearless piece of music. ‘”

A Night to Remember

This choice of music is where our subject can sit back and relax, and nominate an occasion when they simply enjoyed being in the audience.  Mark’s reflections demonstrate the breadth of his musical passions.  Firstly, he digs deep among childhood memories of outings with his parents and two outstanding performances:

I was hooked on opera from the word go saw Madame Butterfly in 1988 when I was about nine and I remember crying during ‘One Fine Day.’  Then in 1992 when I was thirteen,, my mum took me to Leeds to see  Rostropovich  and he played Tchaikovsky Variations on a Rococo Theme.  That was absolutely incredible, he was a master.  And as an encore he played the Sarabande from the 4th Bach Cello Suite and I was just in heaven.”


But Mark’s final choice may bring a shudder to some readers.

My favourite band growing up was an American Heavy metal band, Slayer,  and they had this album called “The Fastest Album Ever Recorded” Reign in Blood  and I’d seen them a couple of times before but in 2013 I saw them in London  and they played the whole of this album, non-stop, back to back.  These guys have been at it for 30 years but they played this incredibly fast music.  I remember just standing there thinking ‘how do they do it’ and make this 32 year old feel like a ten year old again.

Reach for the Stars

It was always going to be difficult, challenging a composer to nominate a piece of music which would represent his future aspirations when, undoubtedly such a piece has yet to be written.  In the light of this, I’ve been rather lenient with Mark, almost allowing him to squeeze in a few pieces for several of the earlier categories, when a stricter interviewer would have insisted on only one.

A look at the range of music from which Mark has taken delight, gives a clue to his look to the future and how he will measure his success.  The final words go to Mark:

“I feel like my musical influences have always been far apart, have covered a really wide area. As a composer I have been trying to reach a stage of harmony when I feel like as many of them as possible can feel as if they’re included. I am lucky in that modern music being written nowadays has outgrown the distinction between classical and non classical music so I suppose my reach for the stars would be to write a piece where I didn’t set out to write either a classical or a non classical piece but rather to write a piece to be performed at an event where these distinctions didn’t exist and people could simply enjoy it regardless of whether their background was classical or non classical and whether they set out to listen to one or the other.  I’m very allergic to genres.  I can feel the hackles rising on the back my neck. I don’t like to cut music up and say that’s jazz and that’s neo classical or whatever. I just like to experience music so I never read programme notes, I don’t want to know, I want the music to tell me.  It would be nice if it were a famous performer. But it should be   ‘Music which requires no description’, just is. If that doesn’t sound too zen.”


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