Paul Roland, composer

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

Marc Bolan. Although he was considered little more than a teeny bop idol when I first heard his early acoustic Tyrannosaurus Rex albums in ‘73 I felt I had discovered something truly magical and unique. I learnt the art of the three minute song from him and also the liberating idea that ‘pop’ songs didn’t have to be about mundane things and relationships. His surreal poetic lyrics gave me the confidence to write what Greg Lake called my ‘short stories set to music’ and – curiously – his use of dark timbered strings made it easier for me to explore classical music later in life and eventually to write my own contemporary classical pieces.

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

Michael Nyman, the so called ‘minimalist’ composer of ‘The Draughtman’s Contract’, has had the most profound influence on my music as I could hear that it was possible to create music by repeating short, simple phrases and layering them with counter melodies and rhythms. That ‘collage’ approach to music made it possible for an untrained pianist like me to make my first tentative steps into contemporary classical music. As a result, I titled my first piece ‘Mr Nyman’s Music Room’ which became a Prelude on the ‘Pavane’ album back in 2003. Since then I have developed considerably and have now produced a 30 minute piece for orchestra (‘A Grimm Fantasy For Orchestra’) a string quartet and more recently, a gothic ballet or contemporary dance drama (‘Nosferatu – The Curious Case of Jonathan Harker’) which had its premiere in Italy in April.

While I was writing that first orchestral piece, I immersed myself completely in classical music and now adore everything from baroque to Bartok and Birtwhistle.

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

Not being able to read or write music and so not being able to transcribe my music to a score, though I tried many times to do so. I guess I’m just not wired the way ‘traditional’ musicians are in much the same way as some people can’t grasp mathematics, no matter how often it is explained to them. So, I could only compose what I could play and then ask someone to transcribe it for me. But I have since realised that this might be an advantage. Instead of spending weeks transcribing parts to a score, I can hand my demo over to someone else while I move on to the next piece! In the case of the ballet, I decided from the start that I was going to compose and record the whole thing myself so that it could be played over the speakers while the dancers acted out the drama on stage. This increased the chances of having it performed as there was no need for ‘live’ musicians, although the narration had to be translated and re-recorded for the Italian audience.

I was absolutely dumb struck to see the audience frozen – transfixed by the music and the dancers – throughout and to be told by a senior musician from La Scala that he was incredibly impressed – that he didn’t realise “rock musicians could orchestrate like that” and that I had played all the parts myself using keyboard samples.

My only ‘frustrations’ have been the result of producing more music than can be released in one year and the endless delays in recording and performing my ‘Grimm Fantasy’ because professional orchestras are extremely expensive, while student orchestras tend to require a lost of post-production editing(!)

How do you work? What methods do you use and how do ideas come to you?

I have no shortage of ideas because when I began writing songs at the age of 14 I created my own world and lived in it – a fantasy realm generated by a constant diet of horror comics, movies and fiction. So, I don’t have to take ideas from the headlines or my own personal experience. It’s an Addams Family-type world where whimsical, wistful and sometimes seriously grisly things take place and its populated by eccentric characters, both real (‘The Crimes of Dr Cream’, Aleister Crowley) and imaginary.

When I moved from songwriting to ‘serious’ composing I initially used Michael Nyman’s music as a model, writing short phrases that I could play with my very rudimentary keyboard skills and then writing a counter melody, but this method is extremely limited. Unless you modulate and vary the tempo it can become tiring to listen to, so when I came to compose the ballet I experimented with the arp option and this generated so many interesting patterns which sounded genuinely pianistic or like ‘real’ string phrases and not like something Philip Glass or John Adams would write (with apologies to those composers!)

Writing a ballet also meant that I was looking for danceable rhythms and a lot of variety dynamically. I wasn’t tempted to write a meandering moody ‘cinematic’ piece as one would expect from that subject. I challenge anyone who would be unaware of how I did it to listen to ‘Nosferatu’ and identify it as a keyboard-generated work. I’m extremely proud of it and the diversity of the pieces within it.

How would you characterise your compositional language/musical style?

I would like to think its unique and very distinctive as I am not a classically trained musician and my approach is primarily melodic. I make a musical tapestry by weaving strands of strong, evocative phrases together that evokes a scene or a character as I did with the ‘orchestrations’ to my songs.

Of which works are you most proud?

The ‘Nosferatu’ ballet and the ‘Grimm Fantasy For Orchestra’. The first was really an act of blind faith. I had a compulsion to compose something ambitious but at the same time small scale and intimate – a dark fantasy for a chamber ensemble – and when my Italian label asked if I would like to record some of my songs with an orchestra, I immediately offered to write a piece specially for the orchestra instead. It was like committing myself to enter a marathon or climb a mountain without any specific skills but a lot of self-belief and the baseless conviction that I could pull it off. Sometimes I just trusted my fingers to find the right keys and incredibly more often than not they did!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Recognition. That is all I am really after. Acknowledgement that I exist and my music is worth listening to. The number of records you sell is really only down to the size of the promo your label puts behind any release. It rarely reflects the quality of the music. I realised this when I saw how readily my non-fiction books would be featured in the national press when my publisher hired a PR company, while other books of mine would merely appear on book seller’s shelves unheralded and without reviews. The quality of the writing and the ideas expressed inside the covers never came into it. It is purely a marketing thing and the same goes for music – sadly. If I hadn’t earned a name and reputation as a songwriter, I would never have been offered the opportunity to write for an orchestra and my ‘second’ career would never have happened. I know how difficult and discouraging it is to try and make a living as a composer as I have a friend who is a professional composer and he tells me all the horror stories about having to submit reams of documents whenever he enters a composition competition and the hoops he has to jump through. I made it through the back door, so to speak. I don’t envy any young composer trying to make a name for themselves in today’s highly competitive and cynical climate.

What advice would you give to young or aspiring composers?

Compose for your own pleasure and satisfaction. And network like crazy! You have to be as skilful and ‘creative’ with social media as you do with your art if you want to attract attention. And you shouldn’t feel obliged to follow the conventional path to composition – practising scales or studying composition – if it doesn’t appeal. Any means to an end is fine. If you feel comfortable composing using a computer and software and don’t have the urge to play a ‘real’ instrument, then OK. Whatever works for you. And it should be fun. If it feels like work, then consider another form of self-expression because its going to demand a lot of hours. Ideas and inspiration come easily when you’re in the zone, as the sports people call it, but shaping those ideas can take all your time and energy. Composing is a compulsion, an addiction and it doesn’t promise to repay your time and energy, so only do it if you feel that craving.

What’s the one thing we’re not talking about in the music industry which you really feel we should be?

Individuality and how to nurture it.

What next? Where would you like to be in 10 years time?

Doing exactly what I am doing now and have been doing for the last 5 or 6 years. Making music both classical and with my band. Writing and recording are what the psychologist Maslow called ‘peak experiences’ – the same thrill athletes feel when they win or people feel when they fall in love and without that I wouldn’t feel truly alive.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Writing and recording. Performing live before an audience is a buzz, but I already know the songs. Seeing something like the ballet come to life on the stage before my eyes and ears is an experience like no other.

What is your most treasured possession?

My Yamaha M0XF6

What is your present state of mind?

Extremely positive. How could it be otherwise when I feel music flowing so effortlessly and each day I am surprised and delighted by what comes forth just because I am open to it and expect to be pleasantly surprised. I think that is part of the ‘trick’ to composing – being able to be both composer and audience at the same time.

Paul Roland (born 6 September 1959 in Kent, England), is a singer-songwriter, author, journalist and paranormal researcher.

Since the release of his first (shared) single “Oscar Automobile” in 1979, Roland has been spinning his tales against a backdrop of gothic rock, psychedelic pop, folk and, occasionally, baroque strings. His character creations include a Regency magistrate, various 19th Century murderers, a retired executioner, an opium addict, and an entire court of medieval grotesques.

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