Dr Paul Edlin, Director of Music
Dr Paul Edlin is Queen Mary's Director of Music. In his profile, he tells us about the performance of his operatic monodrama 'Frida', music at Queen Mary, and riding his tandem bike.
How long have you worked at Queen Mary?
I’ve worked at Queen Mary for almost ten years. But I have worked in higher education for 39! It all started by accident when my oldest friend from school said to his university’s Head of Music Department “I know a really good trumpet teacher at the Royal College of Music". That university presumed I was a professor there, but I was a student! I looked so young that canteen staff wouldn’t let me in – until I showed them my letter of engagement! Since then, I’ve done pretty much every role in HE, from hourly paid teacher to professor, and now I’m a director of music. I’d describe my years at Queen Mary as my happiest and most rewarding.
On Sunday July 10, the East London Music Group are performing your operatic monodrama ‘Frida’. Could you tell us more about it?
Frida Kahlo was an exceptional artist who had an exceptional life. But there is a deeper link: my mother was a very fine surrealist painter, and my (fortunately absent) father made all our lives harder than they needed to be. So, there is an innate affinity with the surrealist work of Frida and the struggle a female artist endured at that time. Frida’s diaries are vivid and profound, and I was really lucky to get permission to set them to music. This is a ‘one-woman operatic show’, and Katie Bray is a phenomenal singer. She creates Frida the person before our eyes, and we learn about Frida’s life, loves, art, sadness and pain.
Tickets for the performance are available at the East London Music Group’s website.
The piece features the Magnetic Resonator Piano (MRP) - could you tell us a bit more about what it is and what inspired you to write the piece and why you chose this instrument in particular?
The MRP is a very special instrument, created by Andrew McPherson of our very own Centre for Digital Music (C4DM). It uses all the natural acoustics of the piano but in a unique way – allowing the pianist to play the instrument normally, but also enabling notes to grow from nothing and be sustained. This is all done by magnets pulling on strings. It’s an instrument that makes notes glow – and all the sounds are totally natural and very beautiful. Ultimately, I suppose it is the MRP’s surreal timbre that can add such an other-worldly dimension to the music. It also mixes brilliantly with other instruments.
Tell us more about musical activity at Queen Mary. How do students and staff get involved?
Students and staff make music at Queen Mary for pleasure, for personal fulfilment, stress release and to achieve exceptional things – in fact, music is made for all the very best reasons. Many students are studying sciences, but the mix of rigorous study and human creativity complement and enhance that work, enriching lives in profound ways. As we know, science is essential for life, but it is art that makes that life worthwhile. Anyone can get involved, and all they would have to do is contact the Director of Music.
This year will be your last at Queen Mary. Tell us what the highlights of your career at the University have been to date.
There is ultimately only one highlight - and that is the opportunity to work with wonderful and super-talented young people on a daily basis. I keep in touch with many former students, and I watch their progress with immense pride, knowing that their connection with music helped shape them for the better.
But I’d add nurturing partnerships as another highlight because special partnerships massively improve student opportunities and experience. Two such examples are the films we have made with side-by-sides, one with London Chamber Orchestra with music by Grieg and one of our own students, and another, soon to be released, with East London Music Group with music by Rachmaninov.
Describe your average day/week.
There is no average day or week – and that is another thing I love. Each week contains a mix of teaching, coaching and rehearsing alongside some essential admin work. It also contains some good old physical effort that keeps you fit – chair and percussion moving is part of the job! Concert day is always the most exciting - we are all on our toes, mixing rehearsal with the immense concentration required to perform. The reward of performing for others is something deeply special.
Do you work closely with any particular colleagues or teams? How does that work?
I love working with the Centre for Public Engagement, Arts & Culture as well as Centre of the Cell (where we created MuSci – a programme of events that brings music and the sciences together). How I miss Peter McOwan – such a deeply special man whose inspiration I will always hold dear. Over the last ten years I’ve had a lot of fun working with very many different departments and people - we just meet and plot and then deliver something special.
What’s the best thing about your job?
I wanted to be a musician for as long as I can remember. I cannot imagine life without music. Being able to support the art of music making while helping young people further develop their skills is just the very best thing!
What’s your favourite place on any of our campuses?
I’m very lucky to be able to work in many of Queen Mary’s most special places: The Octagon, our Great Hall, the Neuron Pod, the Pathology Museum, and the Old Library at Garrod. All have a deeply special character - I have to put The Octagon at the top of the list, probably because it is there that we bring our biggest concerts to life and where I have witnessed many of our fine students giving their best.
If you could tell a prospective student one thing about Queen Mary, what would it be?
Queen Mary is a very lovely university, filled with nice people and an ethos to support the public good. Not every university upholds such values.
If you hadn’t been Director of Music, what job would you have liked to do?
That’s a tricky one, because I’ve done all the HE music jobs. But I am first and foremost a composer, and now I step into the HE shadows I will have more time to devote to composition. But I’m pretty good with DIY, so if all had failed, I could have been a carpenter or painter and decorator.
Do you have any unusual hobbies or pastimes outside of work?
I love riding our tandem bike with my wife, Giuliana and we have a lot of fun. When we make it to Italy, I want to write a book called Italy by Tandem – with lots of photos, which I will have much fun taking!
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
My love of music stretches across many genres but particularly classical and jazz. So, I’d want to invite those whose inspiration made me create as I do. These would be the greatest jazz pianist ever, Oscar Peterson, supreme French trumpet virtuoso, Maurice Andre, and beloved composers J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart, Gustav Mahler and Olivier Messiaen. I also think adding the surrealist artist Salvador Dali into the mix could add an unexpected dimension of additional fun! The Italian composer Gioachino Rossini could cook too. He put truffles and marsala wine in everything! Delicious...