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15 Questions to Paul Moravec

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Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I am doing very well. I am at my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

What’s on your schedule right now?
Writing lots of music (as usual): a string quartet for the Ying Quartet, a piano quintet for the Lark Quartet and pianist Jeremy Denk, and a large dramatic oratorio called The Blizzard Voices for Opera Omaha. And keeping up with my academic obligations as University Professor at Adelphi University.

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
It’s the best of times and the worst of times. We know about the practical and financial problems in the scene, so no there’s no need to rehearse those here. But it is an exciting, healthy time in terms of standards for music composition and performance, which are very strong. And there is a lot of wonderful, diverse activity in American music. This is true in New York City, of course, but it’s happening really all over the U.S. The more I travel around, the more I am impressed that this country is so remarkably full of surprises.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?
“New” means literally contemporary, hot off the press, or recently so. In this post-post-modern, post-everything cultural landscape, I cannot automatically interpret the word in any but the most neutral, literal sense.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?

If I understand your question, I would say that in general what a composer composes should be heard deeply and intelligibly by the audience. Furthermore, ideally, the music should be comprehended in a cognitively significant sense. Such games  as Augenmusik bore me, as does most “conceptual” music. Personally and professionally, I am essentially practical.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I don’t separate them at all: the process of composition is really just an incredibly slowed-down process of improvisation in which the creator has  the opportunity to discard what does not work and to preserve and improve upon what does indeed work --- in notational form.

How would you define the term “interpretation”?
One way the dictionary defines interpretation is as “a particular adaptation or version of a work, method, or style.“ As a composer, I am less concerned with the interpretation of a work, and much more focused on the work itself. A composer is inclined naturally toward Platonism, a belief that there exists an ideal of a particular composition and that the various performances or interpretations of that work, no matter how expert, are inevitably imperfect reflections of that ideal.

Harmony? Dissonance? The freedom to choose both, none or just one?
Your question puzzles me as it seems to suggest that these two terms are antinomies and perhaps even mutually exclusive in musical discourse. Quite a few prominent-in-their-time 20th Century composers ignored harmonic control as a significant aspect of their compositional process, and some even defined it as a foundation of their aesthetic. A welcome and important development in my lifetime has been the renewed acknowledgement of harmonic control as a crucial aspect of Western music and a resurgence of  interest in mastering and using it effectively. It’s certainly very much on my own mind. Dissonance is as necessary to musical expression as consonance; in fact they are indispensably complementary qualities in Western Music. The intelligent interplay between the apparently infinite gradations and nuances of relative consonance and dissonance lives at the very heart of masterly, compelling harmonic control.

A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as “music”. Would you draw a border – and if so, where?
A quotation attributed to Louis Armstrong goes, “If it sounds good, it IS!” That’s the ultimate test for me and you never know where an interesting composition might come from, so I am loath categorically to shut down any promising avenue for such.

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?
I tend not to use these terms, as they confuse as much as they enlighten. I am inclined  rather to think of music in terms of art-music and entertainment-music, which has nothing necessarily to do with categories as usually regarded in contemporary society  or, more important, the music industries. There is a qualitative, cognitive distinction between the experiences of art-music and entertainment-music, respectively. A work of art-music can come from anywhere, any creator at any time, so you just never know.  For example, West Side Story functions like entertainment-music, but more than that, it is a great work of art. The Beatles wrote and recorded some numbers which I regard as among the great art-songs of the 20th Century, and they were the most successful entertainers of their time.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
An interviewer once asked Ingmar Bergman what he wanted for his films, and this seemingly esoteric, high-falutin’ artist’s answer surprised me. He said, “I want my films to be used .” That’s what I want for my music. It is immensely satisfying to hear from someone that my music is somehow useful in his or her life. I want to make beautiful things for those who care to listen, enjoy, and use them. I think that one of the many joys of being an artist is that one can be in the service of an ideal greater than oneself. I don’t think of it so much as a duty  as a privilege.

True or false: People need to be educated about  music, before they can really appreciate it.
My apologies: the question is too vague and broad for me to answer true or false. Not enough specifics.

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions.
Generally false, judging from my experience as a judge on such things as the National Endowment for the Arts concert/symphonic panel.  I’ve seen the money go to people and organizations of merit who really need it and can use it effectively. In any event, this is undoubtedly less of an issue in the U.S. than it is, for example, in many European countries, whose governments spend much more money on the arts, and so there is probably more room for error.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
“All Moravec, all the time.” Well… maybe not all the time…

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours  would sound like? 
I don’t yet have such an absolute idea, which is not to say that I might not at some point. It is enough for me to work hard, day to day, simply to compose the best music I can and to serve the interests of the work I happen to be inventing out of thin air at the moment.

The Time Gallery (Naxos) 2006
Tempest Fantasy (Arabesque Recordings, new release on Naxos in 2006) 2004
Vita Brevis 2002
Naked Simplicities 2001
Northern Lights Electric 2000
Quintessence 2000
Mood Swings (Arabesque)  2000
Sonata for Violin & Piano (BMG Classics) 1993
Songs of Love and War 1993
Spirit Dance 1993
Music from six continents, Vienna Modern Masters 1993
Circular Dreams (CRI) 1992
The Open Secret (CRI) 1990
Music Remembers (CRI) 1987

Paul Moravec

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