Marcus Paus, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

Growing up in a household with two performing parents (my father a singer-songwriter and my mother a pop-singer), music was always present, but my first memory of really becoming captivated by it, was through John Williams’ “Star Wars” scores. I couldn’t quite make the distinction between the action and the music -I just assumed that was what space sounded like.

Consequently, when playing with my toys, I would always accompany by humming music I remembered from the films.

There was an abundance of guitars at our house, and a piano and a synthesizer. I would sit down and listen to whatever sounds I was able to produce, and how those sounds made me feel. But I didn’t start playing seriously until my hands got bigger, at which point I picked up a guitar, and developed a rather sportsman-like attitude towards it, practicing constantly, and playing my way through various styles of music as my technique and musical sophistication evolved. I took two summer courses at Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles, and went to a music high school in Oslo, where I was given a very good introduction to music history, and to music theory.

I was exploring whatever music I could find, but still very much through the prism of wanting to be a performing musician. I remember trying to play some of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano studies on electric guitar.

Everything changed when I took an arranging class with Norwegian composer Trygve Madsen, who as an introduction to writing for strings showed us the 2nd movement of Ravel’s string quartet. That became a truly defining moment for me. Whereas I had written tunes mostly as vehicles for my own performing abilities up until then, I now started writing for other instruments, and somehow, that opened not only my ears, but my mind as well, and I rediscovered music in a way that paradoxically felt both more personal and more communal. There was a joy to writing for others that writing for myself just couldn’t match, and subsequently, I went straight from high school to undergraduate studies in composition at the Norwegian Academy of Music.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

The strongest influence has probably come from the people who’ve impacted my musical life most directly, or very early on. My mother would play the songs of Eisler and Weill, as well as some Grieg and Debussy, at the piano, and I think that has shaped my harmonic instincts. My father’s songs, and particularly his lyrics, probably account for some of my literary tastes, as well as my sensitivity to text.

The composers that influenced me most strongly initially, were Ravel, Shostakovich, John Williams and Poulenc. I am a collector and a completist by nature, and for a period, I hoarded just about anything I could find, -by anyone. This was pre-internet, and I wanted to absorb all the music I could get my hands on. I discovered that I often had more affinity for composers outside the mainstream, such as Finzi, Korngold, Walton and Tveitt, or, among contemporary composers, John Corigliano and Rodion Shchedrin. I was also interested in other art forms, and searched for kindred spirits among painters, poets, filmmakers etc. I have to mention the Norwegian poet André Bjerke, who also through his titanic work as translator opened new doors into bodies of work I might otherwise never have encountered.

Another formative influence has been my friendship and collaboration with Swedish painter Christopher Rådlund, who introduced me to the Scandinavian “retrogarde”; an anarchic hodgepodge of artists united only by their rejection of academic modernism, and its totalitarian tendencies.

I’ve had a couple of truly great teachers. I already mentioned Trygve Madsen. I continued studying privately with him even after enrolling at the academy. We would look at Bach’s inventions, sinfonias, and “Das wohltemperierte”, as well as Shostakovich’s opus 87, and what was so wonderful, was that he always gave me the impression that all of this great craftsmanship was within my reach if I applied myself. It was like “here’s how Bach wrote a mirror canon, now go write ten of them for next Thursday”. I also studied with Richard Danielpour at the Manhattan School of Music. His approach was more like that of a producer: I would bring musicians to his studio for readings of whatever new work I had finished, and he would comment on anything in the score that didn’t work, and why, and -most importantly- how to fix it, and make it work. I spent a semester working as his assistant, which was probably the single most exhilarating and energizing learning experience of my life.

Finally, I must mention the many musicians and artists I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with. They are my constant teachers, and they continue to influence me most profoundly.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far? 

I experienced early on that my chosen aesthetic point of departure was seen as problematic, and I had a bad time of it at the academy in Oslo in the late 90s. I grew up, so to speak, hearing that I was wrong to think that what I wrote had any place or validity, given my melodic inclination. And even though I learned to defend myself, I felt ostracized. I was a deviant. Thankfully, the climate is quite different now, and more generous and open-minded.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Apart from the obvious deadline, the main challenge is not to be intimidated by the pressure, which can potentially turn what should be an opportunity into a chore. I have at times caught myself cheating, and seeking refuge in writing something on the side out of sheer anxiety.

The pleasure of commissions, is that of validation, of feeling appreciated, wanted and invited. It’s also how I make my living.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

What’s great about working closely with an ensemble or a performer, is that you get to know each other, and can play to each other’s strengths. Just as individual instruments will suggest how and what to write for them, so, too, can a particular performer inform the material. Many of my works are in fact portraits of the musicians they were written for. The better you know someone, the better you can write for them.

But sometimes you get so specialized, so idiomatic, that you might end up writing a piece that can only ever really be performed by one person. I suspect that much of the music I have written for Norwegian saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm will suffer this fate

Of which works are you most proud?

That’s a difficult question, and my answer will likely change over time. It’s tempting to list whatever is more recent and fresh in my memory. If I were to take a larger, more retrospective view, the works that come to mind are my Cello Sonata, “The Beauty That Still Remains” (a cantata for girls’ choir and accordion based on The Diary of Anne Frank), “Hate Songs” (a symphonic cabarét on the poetry of Dorothy Parker), and a “Requiem” that I wrote with my father (who provided the libretto), scored for solo singer and piano. Its “In Paradisum” could, for all its simplicity, be the best few bars of music I have written. I still have a fondness for “The Dome and the River”, an early choral piece on Norse texts. Two recent works that stick out, are “Marble Songs” for solo oboe d’amore, and “Love’s Last Rites”, written for violinist Henning Kraggerud and the Arctic Chamber Orchestra.

How would you characterise your compositional language? 

One of its most distinctive features, is that it’s pronouncedly melodic. My harmonic language is rich, and I like to think of it as “twilit”: I like creating consonant sounds out of dissonance, so that something might feel simultaneously strange and disarming, or intimate, but foreboding.

I am a lyrical writer at heart, but I enjoy virtuosity. My eclectic background lets itself be heard most prominently in more energetic passages. I like economy, and clarity of form and content, and I strive to make my material distinct, in order to give my music an internal sense of memory.

How do you work?

I work rather constantly, and often get my best writing done either very late at night or very early in the morning. I jot down ideas as they come to me, but I never start a piece before I’ve worked out its architecture. I usually make elaborate verbal sketches first, detailing what goes where, and how things are supposed to relate and develop. These read like synopses of works that don’t yet exist, and they function as road maps from which I usually stray only very little.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Ravel, Shostakovich, John Williams. And in a more cosmic sense, Haydn.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

That a work feels like an ideal representation of itself. To the extent that I am able to measure the merit of any particular work of mine, I gauge its success (or my relative contentment) on no longer feeling any sense of ownership, or even authorship. This happens only very rarely.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Disobedience. And the virtue of vulnerability. Our idiosyncrasies reveal our humanity. Be naked and uncomfortable. Most importantly: Nourish whatever gives you joy.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Having finished a work.

On 3 November 2017 Sheva Contemporary will release a recording presenting a diverse cross-section of the Paus’ output, from the darkly coloured to the resolutely joyful. Perhaps a particular highlight is Love’s Last Rites for solo violin and strings played with sumptuous beauty by the great Henning Kraggerud.

Order the CD

Marcus Paus is one of the most active and sought after Norwegian composers of his generation. His catalogue includes chamber music, solo works, choral music, concerti and other orchestral works, several operas, and music for stage and screen.

He has been performed by leading soloists and ensembles worldwide in venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to Norwegian national television. Paus has fulfilled more than 50 commissions to date, and has held a number of residencies at various festivals. He served as artistic director of the Oslo Opera Festival in 2010.

Important works include the symphonic cabaret Hate Songs, for singer Tora Augestad; a Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra commissioned for The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra’s 250th anniversary; The Beauty That Still Remains (on texts from The Diary of Anne Frank) for accordionist Frode Haltli and the Norwegian Girls’ Choir; Sonata for Cello and Piano for the Martens/Kwetzinsky duo; The Stolen Child written for Ensemble 96; a Requiem and the opera The Witches (both featuring libretti by his father, Ole Paus), as well as the score to Sara Johnsen’s film Upperdog.

Paus was the recipient of the Norwegian Music Publishers’ prize for Composer of the Year 2016.

A number of Paus’s works have been featured on disc, and forthcoming recordings include Hate Songs (with Tora Augestad and The Oslo Philharmonic), The Beauty That Still Remains, and his Requiem.

Current commissions and projects include operas for both the Arctic Opera and the Bergen Chamber Opera, Symphony no.2 for the Eikanger-Bjørsvik Brass Band, and a cello concerto for Truls Mørk.

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