Paul Paccione, composer

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

The literary critic Harold Bloom once wrote “in practice inspiration means influence.” To be influenced is to be taught and this was especially the case of my own musical life and career. All of my composition teachers imparted to me a sense of something being left unfinished and open to further exploration. While studying classical guitar, at the Mannes College of Music (B.M., 1974), my first-year music theory teacher, composer Eric Richards, first introduced me to the world of modern music – inspiring and encouraging me to begin composing. His teaching and guidance, as well as his own visionary compositional thought exposed me to a vast new musical landscape that inspired me to begin composing. I shortly thereafter began private composition studies with composer/visual artist Harley Gaber – from whom I learned to trust my musical instincts. His keen knowledge of modern art and his ability to articulate musical concerns in terms of another medium was and remains a stimulus for composition. I continued my composition studies at the University of California, San Diego (M.A., 1977) and studied composition, privately, with Harley Gaber’s teacher, composer Kenneth Gaburo. My studies with Gaburo focused primarily on the numerous potentials in musical text setting (what he referred to as “compositional linguistics”) – this would begin for me a continued engagement with vocal music. Following UCSD, I studied composition with composer/conductor William Hibbard, at the University of Iowa (PhD, 1984). It was by way of Hibbard’s impeccable ear for pitch relationships and orchestration that I first began to discover my own compositional voice.

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

The recently deceased pianist Nelson Freire once remarked, “There’s a big difference between music and the music business.” Composing, as well as any music study, requires a great degree of concentration and privacy. For myself, it is often difficult to reconcile the highly personal and solitary nature of musical composition with the more commercial/public aspects of professional “networking” and getting one’s music “out there.”

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

The advantage to working on a commissioned piece is that someone with prior knowledge of your work has made some form of a commitment and investment in your music. For the composer, there is some security in knowing beforehand that a commissioned work, when completed, will receive a performance and that there already exists an avenue for its performance. However, this should in no way interfere with the composer’s compositional choices and the special demands that the work itself presents.

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

While at U.C.S.D., I met my future wife, clarinettist Molly Lash – beginning what continues to be a highly productive and collaborative working relationship in music. Additionally, during both my graduate music studies and teaching career I have had the opportunity and good fortune to establish productive and collaborative relationships with a wide range of performers and conductors. As a result, the majority of my compositions are written with specific performers in mind. The most tactile way for a composer to understand the unique characteristics and nuances of an instrument, performer, or ensemble is through direct contact with the sound source. Performance is analysis in action and knowing the way in which a performer relates to and hears his/her instrument is a practical aid for a composer in writing for an instrument. I choose to work and collaborate with performing musicians from whom I believe I have the most to learn. In the best cases the unique musical and technical abilities of a particular performer are a source of inspiration. This was particularly the case in my collaboration with Canadian pianist Jenny Perron and our recent album “Music for Piano” on Navona Records.

Of which works are you most proud?

The works of which I am the most proud are the ones in which all of the interactive stages involved in the process of realizing a musical composition, from conception, to composition, through performance, reception and communication, form an organic continuum. This was particularly the case with my opera “The World Is Round” (2014), based on a book by the American writer Gertrude Stein, a three-year long creative project where each of the stages in the process were an act of discovery for me as a composer.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

One of my main compositional concerns has always been (and continues to be) the development of a distinctive and consistent personal style – a unified musical sensibility. This involves an awareness of my own responses to both the artwork of others and to my own work. In this sense, I view each of my compositions as a step towards the establishment of a personal musical aesthetic. Musical style deals not only with the expressivity of the composer but of the musical language itself. Musical language is the sole means through which a composer can understand one’s relationship to both the music of the past and one’s precursors. Both musical lyricism and characterization are a consistent presence in my music and represent an orientation to the material itself – a means of maintaining a certain expressive sonority. Much of my music consists of vocal music and my instrumental writing is informed by the expressive, lyric and melodic elements of vocal music. My compositional method is one of distillation and intensification, with the goal of maintaining a musical continuity, with each successive sound evoking sensations of the same order and purity as the first sound. As a result, much of the music is contemplative in nature – meditative objects to focus the mind on.

How do you work?

Composition, for me, involves the combination of musical materials through analysis, intuition and chance – a subtle mixture of freedom and constraint. With each piece I try to get to the essence of the musical expression by way of a process of distillation – through intuition, technique and recognition of what is irreducible in the music. In each of my compositions I try to strike a balance between: a) the horizontal (linear/contrapuntal) and vertical (harmonic) dimensions of music; b) pitch (that which is measured) and sonority (that which cannot be measured); c) structure (the network of relationships) and atmosphere (the place in which the work exists – its sense of place), d) craft (technique) and intuition (subjectivity), e) lyricism (the expressive quality of the music) and abstraction (what is irreducible in the music). Whether I compose music that is tonal, atonal, modal, etc. – the same compositional considerations are always present.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

The cultural anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss wrote: “The intention of the composer becomes actual through and by the listener.” In this important sense, success as a musician is the ability to convey to the listener your musical intentions. The ideal listener instinctually responds to what it is you wish to express and subsequently seeks out the opportunity to hear more.

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

The study of music (or any act of creation) is a means of self-discovery. We see ourselves in our work and in the process learn something about ourselves. A musical decision involves the making of choices and it is in this sense that the problems encountered in making musical decisions are very much like real-life problems—hardly ever susceptible to neat solutions. In music finding a musical solution to technical problems and finding a technical solution to musical problems requires the ability to move back and forth between the two ways of thinking. It is important for aspiring musicians to learn to develop their craft, trust their intuitions, and cultivate a broad aesthetic and intellectual background, as well as an expanded critical view.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

The starting point is for children to be taught to develop a capacity to listen. The development and cultivation of our listening capacity requires practice, sensitivity toward sound and a curiosity about how it operates and affects us. Musical communication can serve as a model for communication in our daily lives. There is no time or age limit on the process and one does not have to become a musician in order to develop one’s listening capacity. As adults, this means not just listening to what we already understand, but listening to what may exist beyond the more familiar systems of communication.

Paul Paccione (1952) is an American composer born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. His music is noted for its lyricism, distinctive orchestration, contrapuntal refinement and clarity of expression. Paccione’s love of the popular music of the 1950’s and 60’s  awakened his initial musical interests. While studying classical guitar, at the Mannes College of Music (B.M., 1974), his first-year music theory teacher, composer Eric Richards, first introduced him to the world of modern music – inspiring and encouraging him to begin composing. This, in addition to Paccione’s own desire to express himself in sound, led to his decision to begin studies in music composition. He shortly thereafter began private composition studies with composer Harley Gaber – from whom he learned to trust his musical instincts. He continued his composition studies at the University of California, San Diego (M.A., 1977), and studied composition, privately, with composer Kenneth Gaburo.  His studies with Gaburo focused primarily on the numerous potentials in musical text setting. He later studied composition with composer/conductor William Hibbard, at the University of Iowa (PhD, 1984) and was Hibbard’s assistant at the Center for New Music.  It was by way of Hibbard’s impeccable ear for pitch relationships and orchestration that Paccione first began to discover his own compositional voice. Intermittently, he studied composition with Pauline Oliveros, Bernard Rands and Ralph Shapey.

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