Michael Mahler, a junior studying music theater, writes for the stage and for the glory of God.
But his first album has a much different feel —13 tracks of contemporary liturgical music, inspired by his upbringing in the Roman Catholic Church.
How Can We Be Silent? came out in December but isn’t Mahler’s first achievement in liturgical singing and songwriting. At age 17, Mahler, now a junior studying in the Music Theatre Program, became the youngest person to ever have a song published by the Gregorian Institute of America, one of the largest national publishers of congregational church music. His composition “Hope at the Crossroads” won him national acclaim when the 2001 National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis chose it as the year’s theme song, and he was asked onstage to perform it before an audience of 24,000.
The oldest of four children, Mahler was born to a musical family in Minnetonka, Minn. (Both his parents sing in their home church but aren’t related to the late Gustav Mahler, the famed Central European composer.) Growing up attending a Catholic school with a strong choir program, Mahler learned to play the guitar and the piano and began composing at a young age. “I’ve always really been lucky,” he says. “Songwriting just comes naturally to me.”
But Mahler’s professors and peers say his skill is more than innate. Music Theatre founder and professor Dominic Missimi proudly refers to the Waa-Mu composer and a cappella standout as “the next Stephen Sondheim.
“He has intelligence and astonishing creativity,” Missimi adds. “I can easily say he’s the best and most versatile composer I’ve met in my 22 years at Northwestern.”
As for Mahler’s liturgical melodies, they skirt the line between Christian rock and traditional church anthems — and deliberately so. Because his music is mainly directed toward youth in the church, he tries to incorporate many different styles into his songs, from gospel to rock, funk to folk.
“I think young people are really put in a box as far as contemporary Christian music goes,” Mahler says. “You can’t expect kids to be interested just by adding an electric guitar.”
But whichever style he does end up choosing, Mahler is certain that no song is catchy and successful unless it’s written from the heart. “My beliefs really fuel what I write,” he says. “I write what I believe because you can’t sing a lie.”
Four of Mahler’s songs are already published by the Gregorian Institute and recorded on a compilation album entitled Give Your Gifts. On the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, he was invited to San Francisco to the archdiocese’s remembrance ceremony, where youths from the area performed Mahler’s songs from the album. In the last couple of years he has also performed at conferences in Washington, D.C., Denver and Los Angeles.
While Mahler enjoys putting out albums, his main goal is for church music directors to hear the songs and buy the sheet music for their own congregations. His melodies are for everyone, but he hopes his music sends a special message to youth. “I want to bring empowerment to young people, so they will take full advantage of the opportunities the church has for them,” Mahler says.
Although he stays busy with his obligations outside of Northwestern, Mahler’s plate on campus is just as full. This year, he is a songwriting chair for Waa-Mu and arranges music for Purple Haze, a student a cappella group. He was also music director of the winter musical All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten and performs in Griffin’s Tale, a campus theater group that stages productions for children.
“It’s important to me to practice music in a number of venues, not just the church,” Mahler says. “In that respect, Northwestern has been a great place for me because it has given me the opportunity to do both at the same time.”
— Emily Ramshaw (J03)