Interview 3 – Angela Mair
Talking to Angela Mair was a great pleasure. We met by Zoom. It was an absorbing conversation: Angela thought so deeply about everything I asked and answered everything both seriously and humorously.
You can read Angela’s biography at https://bergmann-edition.com/collections/mair-angela . Just as a further bit of background, although Angela now lives in Vienna she was brought up in a rural part of western Austria, 640km from the capital city.
Tell me about your start in music.
I started to learn piano at 5. I just loved music. I was a fan of the Kelly Family [interviewer’s note – the Kelly Family were an Irish-American family musical group who were hugely successful in Germany and neighbouring countries in the 1990s but were little known elsewhere]. At 12 I started playing guitar, just strumming chords. By that time I had started writing songs. Learning music was all my idea, not my parents’, and I practised a lot. I remember thinking that I wanted to learn guitar properly, so that I could accompany my songs the way I wanted to rather than the way I had to because of my limited technique. So I had classical guitar lessons. I never intended to play classical guitar repertoire; it was all for my songs.
I entered the local Conservatory with classical guitar, and that was my first exposure to studying and playing classical guitar repertoire. At 18 I went on to music university in Vienna to do classical guitar studies. It was tough for me, both the course itself and the situation (away from home, in the city for the first time). After a couple of years, I took a year ‘out’ at the Conservatorio Superiore in Madrid, and that was great for me. The teaching was tightly structured, and the standard was very high.
Were you intending a concert career as a guitarist?
Not as a classical guitarist per se. All I wanted was to be a good musician. I’ve never wanted to be just one thing – for me, it was to equip me to do more with writing and playing songs, composing my own music, accompanying my singing. I’ve always been interested in creative things. For example, I make my own videos, and I am interested in the graphics, and in visual art.
After I graduated, I had about six years just trying to play concerts. It was always my wish to combine the two facets of my music – as classical guitarist and singer/songwriter. I’ve always wanted to be a good guitarist, but not fundamentally a classical guitarist. It worked well, I was building up a concert career and in my concerts I would perform guitar pieces and my own songs. With a live audience, the songs were always really well received.
Tell me how you started composing.
I wrote my first song when I was 11 – a pop song.
And instrumental music?
I was always interested in writing instrumental music: I wanted to write songs without words. When I started formal guitar studies, I couldn’t compose an instrumental piece on the guitar. I had too much theory from my studies, and I thought too much about guitar technique. It was like information overload, and it took away my inspiration. So mostly, for instrumental composing, I used the piano to free myself from these things.
Then later, on guitar, I started to write instrumental pieces for my students (I’ve been teaching since I was 14). I had always admired guitarists who publish books – either methods or collections of concert pieces – and one day one of my pupils, a small boy in the music school, asked me ‘how is it possible to be printed in a book?’ It really got me thinking, because it was also such an ambition of mine. Then I saw on Facebook a Bergmann Edition competition for composing. I said to my pupil that he could enter the competition, so he composed a piece and I notated it in MuseScore, and we sent it in. My pupil won a prize, and his piece was printed in a collection.
I read more about Allan Bergmann Jensen and got in contact with him. By this time I had written a number of instrumental pieces for guitar that I was performing in my own concerts. I sent them to Allan but at that time he had a large backlog of work awaiting publication and directed me to Milena Valcheva to engrave the scores. I became very interested in engraving, and asked Allan if he needed another engraver, which is how I got more involved with Bergmann Edition. I’m now also the Single Sheet Editor. I can’t remember exactly how that happened, but I love doing it.
Now I have several pieces and collections published.
You have also released albums?
Yes. The first was an album of my songs from age 16 – 25. Then an album of classical repertoire including Giuliani, Mertz, my transcriptions of Granados’ “Valses poéticos” and E. Pujol. The third was a mixture of my songs and instrumentals, Licht und Schatten. [interviewer’s note – the albums are available on major streaming platforms or direct from Angela’s website at https://www.angela-mair.at/cds/ ]. The instrumental pieces from Licht und Schatten are published with Bergmann Edition.
And what are you working on now?
I have published collections of the educational pieces written for my students, under the title ‘One By One’. Volumes 1 and 2 are already published and I am writing Volume 3. I now write directly on guitar. Although these are study pieces, I try to create work of the same quality as my concert pieces. They are written with the same inspiration but simplified and tailored for the audience. I would use the same melodies in pieces for myself. Apart from One by One, Volume 3, I am going to record a new album with my instrumentals and publish a book that includes all the pieces on the album.
How do you approach writing a piece?
Mostly I keep the melody foremost in my mind. I complete a piece before I start writing any notation. I don’t write it down as I go, because I don’t want to interrupt the inspiration or flow.
With your songs – which comes first? Music or lyrics?
I always write my own lyrics – I think the music and words all happen together. For example, I don’t sit at my kitchen table and write a set of lyrics, then set them to music. Mood, melody, lyrics, all come at the same time, then the structure. I don’t have a chord sequence and fit a melody to it – the melody comes first, and the harmonisation fits around it.
With my classical guitar pieces, it’s the same – I find the melody first and write harmony around it. This comes from my habit of listening since childhood. As I said, I was a pop music fan and I still have that same love of a song melody.
Would you want to be thought of primarily as composer? Songwriter? Performer? Teacher?
I don’t like to refer to myself as a ‘composer’, it seems somehow too much. It’s a troublesome question for me – which am I? should I focus on one? Are song-writing and composing the same thing? I also like teaching, but I never wanted teaching to be my main focus.
Really, I don’t know – I had a life where I was playing concerts for an adult audience regularly (most often, for the river cruise boats that call at Vienna) two or three times a week and playing concerts for children. I was doing just what I wanted, and it was all working well, and then…the pandemic came along, and everything changed.
Pre-pandemic I think I felt more a songwriter. Since the pandemic, and making videos, I have been feeling that the songs work best on stage and the guitar pieces work best on video. For the present I’ve got more into working with Bergmann Edition. And I’m writing more for guitar.
What about listening to music? What are your tastes – what was the last thing you downloaded, for example.
Mostly songwriters and rarely played music. But I listen to everything, I always want to hear and discover new things.
Thank you, Angela. I’ll end this interview with a recommendation that readers visit and subscribe to Angela’s YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6LIrGULMRKHbGOTq3IeZBA