‘Memorability” is the word that composer Paul Moravec has invented to tag quality musical compositions. He wants an audience to remember the piece afterwards, and to remember enough of it while it is going on, so that they can keep track of how it unfolds.
In an interview for Dick Gordon’s program “The Connection,” on National Public Radio’s WBUR, Moravec asserts that with much music written since the 1950s, “not only could you not remember the piece afterward, but you cannot construct a coherent narrative structure for it.” He and others are trying to correct the deficiency.
Labeled a “new tonalist,” Moravec came to Princeton in July as the third artist in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study. His predecessor, Jon Magnussen, is now director of education at the Honolulu Symphony.
In a telephone interview from his office at the Institute, Moravec says, “Composers never like labels, but `new tonalist’ is not a bad term as a starting point. The term was more important in the past than now. In the 1980s and early 90s it was used to distinguish between the use of tonal and atonal, or serial, materials. My music comes out of a tonal tradition.”
Moravec has called the series of events he has planned for the 2007-’08 season at the Institute “Tradition Redefined.” Through concerts and lectures he intends to “explore,” as he puts it, how contemporary musicians are “reappraising, developing, and revitalizing musical conventions, especially in Western art music.”
In a talk entitled “A Composer’s World Today” on Friday, November 30, in the Institute’s West Building Lecture Hall, Moravec discusses his life and his work as a composer.
On Friday, November 30, and, again, on Saturday, December 1, the second concert of the four that Moravec has planned takes place in the Institute’s Wolfensohn Hall. Violinist Maria Bachmann, with Simon Mulligan collaborating at the piano, offer a program called “The Red Violin,” after Bachmann’s CD of the same name. “Mulligan and Bachmann are equally matched,” Moravec says. “They’re very exciting players.” The duo plays three of Moravec’s compositions, all of them Princeton premieres, as well as pieces by Maurice Ravel, John Corigliano, Georges Enescu, and George Gershwin.
Among the Moravec compositions is “Ariel Fantasy.” “I wrote ‘Ariel’ for Maria (Bachmann) in 2000,” Moravec says, referring to Ariel, the sprite who serves the magician Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” “and Maria said, ‘Why not write a whole suite about `The Tempest?’” Moravec obliged her, and composed his “Tempest Fantasy” for Bachmann’s Trio Solisti, and clarinetist David Krakauer. Scored for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, the 30-minute piece won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.
“The Tempest” is my favorite play of all time,” Moravec says. “It projects a balanced view of the human condition. It’s not comedy, and it’s not tragedy; it’s something else.”
Moravec was born into a musical family in Buffalo in 1957, the fourth of five children. His father, who died in 1989, was a labor negotiator for Bethlehem Steel. His mother was a social worker. “My mother played guitar and sang. One of my brothers plays guitar, one sister played flute, and another sister played piano and accordion — none of them professionally,” says Moravec, whose instrument is piano.
His family lived in Princeton from 1967 to 1970, in a house off of Snowden Lane. He was 10 when they moved. “Being at the Institute is a kind of homecoming,” Moravec says.
As a boy he sang in the men’s and boys’ choir at Princeton’s Trinity Church under Jim Litton, who directed the American Boychoir from 1986 to 2001. Moravec graduated from the Lawrenceville School in 1975.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in music composition from Harvard University in 1980, he won a Rome Prize Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome. He earned master’s and doctoral degrees in music composition from Columbia University, and went on to teach at Columbia, Dartmouth, and Hunter colleges. He is currently university professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, Long Island.
“Adelphi is a great school,” Moravec says. “There’s an excellent faculty and they really pay attention to students. The school serves undergraduates well. It’s close to New York City, so students can avail themselves of what New York has, but it’s not in the city. Garden City is a beautiful location.”
Moravec plays piano and even performs in public occasionally but, he says, “I’m not a concert pianist. I don’t have time. I just have time to be a composer and a teacher.”
Moravec lives on New York’s upper West Side with his wife, Wendy Lamb, a book editor with her own imprint at Random House, Wendy Lamb Books, intended for young readers.
Moravec has agreed to three commissions, which will be presented within the next two years. First to be premiered is Moravec’s evening-length oratorio, “The Blizzard Voices,” for Opera Omaha, about the Great Plains blizzard of 1888. He is also preparing an instrumental composition, “Brandenburg Gate,” a commission for the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which is to be premiered in fall, 2008, at Carnegie Hall. In addition, opera, a new genre for Moravec, is also on his agenda. Santa Fe Opera has commissioned him to write an opera to be premiered in July, 2009, with a libretto by critic Terry Teachout.
At this point the prolific Moravec’s work includes more than 90 orchestral, choral, lyric, film, and electro-acoustic compositions. His electro-acoustic pieces, he says are “a little bit in the past. I haven’t written any in the last 20 years. I’m now entirely interested in acoustic music.”
I wonder, does Moravec destroy things that he’s written? “Sure,” he says, “I throw things away,” and he laughs. He uses the word “sure” more often than most people as a quick way to show his agreement. “I could make several symphonies out of what I’ve thrown away. Bad ones. That’s why those things end up in the waste basket.
“Composing is a matter of solving one musical problem after another. The problems are nested within each other. You work them out in the process of composition. There’s no such thing as inspiration without a lot of hard work. Someone once said, `To err is human; to revise is divine.’ I’m a reviser, so in the composition process I throw out a lot.
“I’m a visceral, physical composer,” Moravec continues. “I need to sit at the piano and pound those things out.” After making sketches at the piano, he inputs them into a computer using the Sibelius program. “I go back and forth.”
As he composes, Moravec imagines himself in the listener’s position. “I write both to please and to challenge my ear,” he says. “I don’t write for myself as a composer. I write for myself as a listener. I want to be amazed at a concert.”
Financial considerations are secondary for Moravec. “It’s difficult to make a living as a composer,” he says. “Most of what I’ve written was not for pay. I’m not in it for the money; I’m in it for the spiritual satisfaction.” An academic appointment has got to be a welcome economic cushion when a composer thinks of paying the rent.
Yet the real thrill is elsewhere. “Composers are lucky,” Moravec says. “We make something out of nothing. It’s a rush, especially when you stand at the back of a concert hall and trained musicians bring all their abilities to it.”
Ever on the prowl for something new, even if it has traditional roots, Moravec has already dug into constructing his first opera, the Santa Fe Opera commission, which was announced in May. The work is based on “The Letter,” a 1924 short story by Somerset Maugham, from which Maugham constructed a play three years later. Bette Davis starred in a movie version of “The Letter” in 1940.
Moravec chose critic Terry Teachout as his librettist, and Teachout has entered at least four progress reports, along with his reflections on the collaboration, into his blog, “About Last Night.” “Take it from me,” Teachout writes, “it’s the stuff operas are made of. Lust, betrayal, murder, blackmail, what’s not to like?…Paul and I are shaping it into a very tight structure (90 minutes, no intermission) that we hope will have the feel of a film noir and the punch of a verismo opera.”
“Writing opera is very hard work,” Moravec says. “It’s emotionally exhausting and all-consuming. Opera is unlike any other art form. Writing a composition is one thing. A composition has a way of following its own musical logic. Drama has its own logic, different from musical logic. With opera you have to be sure that the musical logic and the dramatic logic are telling the same story and working together seamlessly in a coherent way. The musical and dramatic aspects must be one and the same. The music and drama have to be indissolubly joined.” Moravec is happy about his collaboration with Teachout. “We’re on the same page,” he says.
Music Talk, Friday, November 30, 4 p.m., Institute for Advanced Study, West Building Hall, Einstein Drive, Princeton. “A Composer’s World Today” presented by Paul Moravec, artist in residence. Register. Free. 609-734-8175.
Also, Tradition Redefined, Friday, November 30, and Saturday, December 1, 8 p.m., Institute for Advanced Study, Wolfensohn Hall, Einstein Drive, Princeton. “The Red Violin” presented by violin and piano duo, Maria Bachmann and Simon Mulligan. Register. Free.