Feature Article by David DeBoor Canfield

Novelty vs. Originality: An Interview with Composer Paul Reale

In his music, American composer Paul Reale seeks to be original, but not novel. Many readers I suspect will not have considered, as Reale has (encompassed in the following interview), the difference between those two concepts. I had a chance to explore this, as well as other facets of his musical craft, via email in January of 2015.

When did you begin writing music?

I started studying music at four and began imagining “pieces” at six. I was lucky that my two primary piano teachers gave me a solid basis in music theory. Kyrienna Siloti, daughter of Alexander Siloti, a close friend of Franz Liszt, had studied composition with Glazunov and imparted a lot of his methods in her theory teaching. I really didn’t actually write down music until I was about 12. My other piano teacher, Marguerite Rathbun, was a student of Paderewski and shared his flair for showmanship. I am eternally grateful to her for forcing me to play in a jazz band, to accompany ballet and instrumentalists, and to rehearse choirs and singers, because she felt that a real pianist did not just play solo recitals on stage.

Rathbun was also close to the major pianists of the 1950s such as Horowitz, Serkin, and Arrau. I was able to play for them and get their professional feedback. Some of their advice is retained to this day; e.g., Horowitz told me that he never played a piece up to speed, except on the stage. Serkin showed me how to pedal Mozart’s passages in the D-Minor Fantasie.

Who was most influential upon your development as a composer?

As a child, I was most influenced by Charles Ives, Edgard Varèse, and Anton Webern. I had scores of these composers and learned Ives’s First Piano Sonata when I was 13. I really liked the music of Stravinsky and Bartók, but I thought of them as of the past. What I liked about the three former composers is that they eschewed traditional musical structure.

I met Varèse in 1961 in an electronic music class (the only undergraduate music course I took at Columbia, where I majored in chemistry and English literature). His fearsome but jovial nature had a permanent effect on me and opened the door to my studying with his amanuensis, Chou Wen-Chung.

How do you actually plan and write your compositions?

If I am writing a piece for myself, it usually sits in my head, where I complete it before writing anything down. I use a similar process for commissioned pieces, except that I impose a kind of time limit: If I don’t get any ideas after a month, I usually abandon the project. Pieces written for amateurs require the most fussing. If a piece is not accessible to a neophyte player, it is useless.

What happens if you get stuck, or reach some kind of a compositional “dead end”?

I take my own advice, that which I gave to all of my students: work on more than one project at a time. I usually work on three to six pieces that are in varying stages of completion; however, I only copy out one piece at a time and show the score to musician friends whom I trust before making the parts.

How much of your music is based on or draws upon the other arts?

This is a very important question. It is my opinion that classical concert music now occupies a merely supporting role in the arts and that we are primarily a visual culture. The rise of hip hop, which is a blend of dance and street poetry, but takes only rhythmic patterns of music, is a good example. I usually reject traditional musical structural processes in favor of cinematic ones or structures that come from my reaction to sculptural mobiles, or sometimes complex machines. I have often looked at the same movie scene dozens of times to get the perspective and pacing. The film does not have to be a great work of art: I probably watched portions of Red 2, for example, at least 10 times to get the pacing, and it is not an enduring masterpiece.

I’m sure that I’ve piqued the curiosity of some readers by the very title of this interview. You have written an extended article entitled Novelty vs. Originality, in which you make the point that novelty gains mere superficial attention, while originality changes our overall perceptions. You also point out that the novelty has the weakness of being almost instantly converted from an effect to a cliché. Could you expand on that idea a bit for us? How in your music do you attempt to change the perception of the auditor?

I think novelty is the darling of music critics today. If a piece is kinky enough, a good review will soon follow. For me the most memorable avant-garde musical event was in 1961 at a concert at NYU which featured a string quartet with a chicken tied to a chair: The piece received a standing ovation. In actual fact, music that does not try to break the mold is considered “old fashioned” and not to be taken seriously. I call that “avant-garde-itis,” mostly fueled by critics, looking for something novel. J. B. Bury wrote a book in 1931 called The Idea of Progress. With great prescience he essayed that the modern world embraced the concept of latest and greatest, a grave contrast to developments in the ancient world. In the 20th century the arts, particularly painting and music, embraced this concept with a passion. I read that in the early 1920s Richard Strauss, then considered the premier composer in Germany, was quickly eclipsed by Arnold Schoenberg in distinction, just as today when the Americanische composers like Piston and Diamond have been eclipsed, first by Milton Babbitt, and later by Charles Dodge (who now runs a winery in Vermont). The trouble is that progressive compositions often have basic structural weaknesses, because the style has not been perfected. J. S. Bach stood at the end of the Baroque, and his son C. P. E. quickly made the old man’s music seem quaint and precious.

Just think of any of the music of Joseph Haydn: The materials he worked with were old before he was born, but the manner in which he developed them showed consummate technique. When I started to study privately with Chou Wen-Chung, he insisted that I acquire solid compositional technique, and we studied only the music of J. S. Bach. After a year, he allowed me to write a short piece for solo flute. I am eternally grateful to him for this acquired discipline.

Growing up on the East Coast in the Ivy League Orthodoxy, I really started to question the idea that any “New Sounds” could be created. Also, the music, most of it 12-tone serialism, seemed to deny the very reason I went into music in the first place. I remember working on Schumann’s Fantasie, op. 17, a piece of surpassing originality, thinking that I would like to have written that. In the end, it is all about technique, something sorely lacking in most of today’s composers.

You also state that the process [of creating originality] is independent of time or place, while novelties are almost invariably dependent on factors of chronology and venue. Why do you feel this is the case?

Novelties attempt to reconcile the art with the world of today, most of which fades quickly. I ask the readers if they can name the Academy Award winners of 2010. The big mistake made by most Mainstream Modern composers is that they attempt to use the weirdest material in the most conventional way. Ligeti and Lutosławski are good examples: Except for La grande macabre, Ligeti follows timeworn patterns in a culture that had long abandoned them, primarily because of film. I am fascinated by the way films are put together: the process of approaching the same scene in kaleidoscopic fashion.

To talk shop for a moment: Compositional technique involves the constant refreshing of musical space so that the ear is not fatigued. The clever manipulation of pitch material so that it connects, but sounds new, as well as the planning of long-term events out of short-term ones, are all techniques quite independent of style. Even the Pistonian concept of harmonic rhythm, which separates pitch density (number of notes in a given time frame) from the rate of harmonic change, is style-independent. I would say that I learned far more from Joseph Haydn than I ever learned from Boulez. This fact was the hardest thing to convince my graduate students: They all wanted to ape the “flavor of the month.”

Indeed, I noted that you mentioned in your article that young composers should avoid that which is fashionable in favor of that which is enduring. How might a young composer go about ascertaining whether some device, effect, or formal structure is at least potentially enduring? How does this fit in with your premise that “tradition is essential, if only to kick against it and reject its principles…”?

Young composers are like young sports fans: They emulate their heroes. Kobe Bryant is not so different from George Crumb. When I started graduate school at Pennsylvania, all the composers wanted to worship at the shrine of Crumb. As far as giving advice: I taught theory and composition for 35 years at UCLA, and I tried to instill technique, similar to what a sports coach would do with basketball hopefuls. Ultimately, the intuitive process has to take over, only to be tethered in by intellect.

I went to the University of Pennsylvania because I liked Crumb’s music: I stayed because I liked Rochberg’s teaching.

Speaking of Rochberg, I’m curious as to how your views about melody and tradition have been informed by him. As is well known, he went from being a tonal serialist to being a tonal non-serialist. In none of his works have I ever heard any attempt on his part to weight all notes equally.

Rochberg was kind of a tragedy as an artist. The very fact that he could not create his own style is what made him a great composition teacher. Before I studied with him, I was not very interested in any of his music. When he took a stab at reviving tonality, he never could integrate that with total chromaticism. Witness the slow movement of his Third Quartet, which tries to outdo Beethoven and winds up a cartoon. I would say that Glass, Reich, and John Adams are much more successful at providing the groundwork for such a synthesis. Also, they are not afraid to reconnect the popular and classical musical cultures. One last comment about Rochberg: He taught me two really essential things: 1) never start writing a piece from beginning to the end, with the possible exception of songs, and 2) composers don’t think in real time; one of the main purposes of a musical work is to convert real time into relative time.

One statement you made in your article, I feel I must question: You state that you are “not suggesting that novel elements should be expunged from works or that they are not helpful (witness Picasso’s Cubism or Berlioz’s Idée fixe). They are just not essential to the defining identity of a work.” I am no art expert, but it certainly seems to me that Picasso’s Cubism defines not only a particular work of his, but an entire phase of his artistic career. Likewise, doesn’t the Idée fixe define, and not just permeate Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique?

I am glad that you mention Picasso. Remember that Cubism was a very short part of his career. Essentially, Picasso’s struggle was with figurative vs. abstract foreground. Berlioz’s Idée fixe was a new structural idea that created the possibility of overriding unity. Bach’s use of independent phrase structure in his counterpoint was also a new wrinkle in music. I don’t want to be thought of as a reactionary, counter to any new developments, as in every generation there are likely new devices. Who before Ives tried to overload the senses with so much information that the listener is compelled to make a choice? Who but Webern thought to pare down the melodic foreground to two notes? Every composition has a unique identity, and that identity is a living, breathing life-form: Its integrity must be served by whatever is appropriate. Think of Stravinsky composing The Rake’s Progress in 1951. If you were to find a person who did not know this composer’s work and played Rite of Spring side by side with the opera, asking which was composed first, what would his answer be? After all, in 1952, one year after the death of Schoenberg, Stravinsky composed Threni, a piece that could not be more different from the Rake.

In another article, Aaron Copland and the Crisis of Modernism, you emphasize that the melodic component of music has been with us for more than a millennium, and that any sequence of notes will suggest a weighting of certain pitches over others. Further, you state that the attempts in certain academic circles to circumvent such weighting has resulted in music that is quite unmemorable. In this article, you actually challenge the reader to hum a tune from any piece written between 1951 and 1987. I came up immediately with a tune from West Side Story, but that probably just makes your point. But, must a piece be memorable in its “tunes” to be considered a masterpiece? If Varese’s Amériques is a masterpiece, as many (myself included) consider it to be, does the fact that I can’t whistle any part of it mean that I’m deluded in my belief? On the other hand, some pieces have very memorable tunes, but are trite and shallow by the standards of most critics. I guess I’m asking what you consider to be the essence of greatness in a musical composition.

This is a tough question, because as a composer, I hear and judge music differently than listeners in the general audience. Temporary approval of works, like all the repertoire played on FM radio stations, is not an assurance of masterpiece status. Also, sometimes the culture moves on, and familiar “tunes” become lost or forgotten. Think of all the music written by Renaissance composers, where the tunes are part of a socio-religious fabric and have greater than musical significance. In the present day, the most influential music on the public is the “Star Wars” genre of music and its associated film references. If anyone asked me what I thought was the most important piece written since World War II, I would indeed say Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. However, Bernstein was probably not the greatest composer of the century. He certainly never wrote anything like Berg’s Violin Concerto, which was a lasting monument to the human condition.

You have written a concerto for piano trio and augmented wind ensemble with the sobering subtitle of Dies Irae. Do you attempt to present in some fashion the theological concept of the Judgment Day, at which time all will be subject to the perfect justice of God? If so, how does one possibly represent that in a piece of music?

Having brought up God, you bring up issues that I think are central to any artist’s creative process. I remember being interviewed on the radio in Wisconsin just before the premiere of my First Piano Concerto in 1986. The commentator asked me point blank, “where does this stuff come from?” I answered, “an angel whispers in my ear,” producing a prolonged radio silence. The attributes of God in musical works, I think, are affixed by generations of listeners who are somehow transformed à la Handel’s Messiah. It doesn’t really matter that “For unto us a child is born” is crafted from a love duet by another composer. Society attaches its own values. When Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima was being composed, it was called “Study for Strings.” The final title was externally applied. Artists are like spiritual conduits who may or may not really know the impact of their efforts (“the flashing eyes, the floating hair,” etc., from Coleridge’s Kubla Khan).

I see further theological connections in one of the works under review herein, namely your Seven Deadly Sins. Is this work intended to inspire people to think about the nature of sin, and the effect it has upon the soul?

SDS is merely entertainment and is a kind of quasi-humorous reflection on how we humans confront these “sins.” When I started rehearsing, Jessica Mathaes, the violinst, in the “Lust” movement, I suggested that people should feel that they are getting a venereal disease as they hear this work. The word inspire with reference to my stuff makes me itch. It always starts out as entertainment: I think that Shakespeare would agree regarding his own plays. As a passing thought, I feel that today “humorous” in a contemporary piece is often equated with “superficial” (“comedy is hard”).

Continuing to probe your violin music, the focus of the CD under review, how does your violin music “fit in” with your music in its totality? Do you play the violin?

Marguerite Rathbun insisted that all her piano students play one string instrument: I studied the viola for 5 years. The music on the reviewed CD is a cross-section of the range of my work in chamber music, from good-time stuff such as Holiday Suite to extended, complex works such as the violin sonata.

I really write three kinds of music from the standpoint of the audience, a decision that was informed by Bartók, who could write the Concerto for Orchestra as well as Contrasts. Half of my music I write for specific performers, one quarter for amateurs, and one quarter for me, often as experiments or virtuoso vehicles for me to play. One thing not on the CD is transcription. I often prepare different versions of pieces to pursue different structural outcomes. A big learning experience for me came when I composed Piano Sonata No. 11 for Fortepiano a couple of years ago (I own an Andreas Stein copy from 1784). At the same time, I created Shadow Sonata for two pianos, the Stein copy and a modern grand, sharing the same materials. I was never sure which sonata fed on which.

How did you meet (or decide upon) the artists, violinist Jessica Mathaes and pianist Colette Valentine, utilized on the present CD?

Our collaboration was a child of the Internet. In 2009, Jessica wrote to me with the intention of recording all my chamber violin works, and commissioning a new one. Because of the flakiness of the Internet, I thought it was probably a joke. I actually recommended John Corigliano for the commission, because I had heard his terrific sonata and was somewhat partial to his work. She wrote back that she was serious and had heard the Violin Sonata “Celtic Wedding,” and liked it very much. I requested that she send me her first CD, because I usually write most of my stuff for specific performers, to play up to their strengths. I did not meet Colette until we started rehearsing for the premiere of SDS, and I was very impressed with her.

I never just send a piece in and let things happen as they will, but always arrive at the concert venue a few days before the concert or recording session to fix things up and get to know the performers. The collaboration with Jessica and Colette has been one of the most satisfying and rewarding of my entire career.

Finally, returning to a matter of your philosophy of music: As we live in a culture where the good often displaces the great, and the mediocre often displaces the good, how can and should composers deal with this trend?

There is no way to know how good one’s work is. Think of Meyerbeer, who went to his grave with an A+ rating, or van Gogh, who only sold one painting. Luckily, music is a social art, which means other people get into the act. I really work closely with my performers. I would say to young composers: Throw away 99 percent of what you write and listen to 99 percent of what your performers say. Another thing: Almost no composer works hard enough: Bach said to Kirnberger after he had heard Book One of WTC, “Work as hard as I do and you will be able to do this.” All our music has to be our best effort, even though we are drowning in distractions and our culture has transmogrified into a visual, gawking obscenity.

It is really at this point that artists become politicians. Don’t become obsessed with your own profile. Don’t become suicidal over bad reviews. Don’t completely believe good reviews. My favorite review of all time came after a performance of Piano Trio No.1 at the Elvium Museum in which the critic hurled out 500 words, slamming the piece as disastrously inconsequential, and in the last sentence confessed that the trio might be a masterpiece (“We have burned a saint!” said the executioner of Joan of Arc).

  REALE Seven Deadly Sins.1 Composers’ Reminiscences. Violin Sonata.1 Holiday Suite1 Jessica Mathaes (vn); 1Colette Valentine (pn) NAXOS 9.70204 (65:26)

“The most significant element which is under the control of the composer is time. By controlling the way the listener perceives time, a well-written musical composition garners the full attention of the listener to the point that there is no awareness of time passing.” Even if I had not heard any of Paul Reale’s music before I read these lines by him (not in the booklet of the CD under review, but in an article he forwarded to me), I would have strongly suspected that he and I were on the same page aesthetically in our view of music. And so we are. His music, from the very first notes of a piece, draws the listener into his sound world, and suspends consciousness of the passing of time as the listener is carried along with the course of the work he’s hearing. Reale studied with George Crumb and George Rochberg, two composers widely divergent in their approach to the craft of musical composition, and I hear in Reale’s works influences from each of these composers, but melded into a synthesis that is uniquely his own.

In the opening work, Seven Deadly Sins, each of its movements is devoted to one of the seven deadly sins from Dante’s Purgatorio. The composer has utilized the dichotomy of the views of sin as a corruption of human moral perfection versus the view of it as an extension of nature that represents extreme human behavior. The means of musical expression that Reale has employed covers a wide variety of musically emotive gestures, and his harmonic vocabulary, while broad, generally falls within what would be considered tonal parameters. The movements are episodic and rhapsodic in character, an influence I hear from Crumb, who nevertheless remains a very distant ghost in his influence upon Reale’s compositional voice. There are moments of humor to be heard here, such as the near quote from the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in “Gluttony,” the childish taunt depicted in “Envy,” or the strutting opening theme of “Pride.”

Composers’ Reminiscences is another seven-movement work, this time cast for solo violin, with movements are devoted to Bartók, Puccini, Paganini, Webern, Corelli, Ives, and Haydn. You will note several of these were mentioned in the interview above by Reale as formative influences upon his compositional voice. The movements are not as much pastiches as they are tributes to the composer named, although I do hear a few very Bartókian phrases (akin to those heard in his own solo sonata, or in his 44 Duos) in the first movement and hints here and there of the music of the other composers honored in this suite, including a subtle allusion to Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony in his movement. The suite achieves organic unity through the use throughout of certain motives, including alternating ostinatos.

The longest work on the CD is the Sonata for Violin and Piano, “Celtic Wedding,” written in 1991 on commission by Pacific Serenades. It is based on the tune of a wedding song from Brittany, popularized by the popular Irish band The Chieftains. In its five-movement structure, the longest and slowest movement, the third acts as a pivot for the work. It is a very “busy” work in places, but all the busy-ness makes perfect musical sense. Movements two and four are entr’actes, each a brief, rather light character piece, probably inserted to act as buffers between the three main movements. The long third movement seems a bit nostalgic in tone to my ears, while the finale is a very vigorous exercise, filled with the joyous atmosphere that pervades any wedding. It doesn’t bear any resemblance to a Celtic jig, but has something of the same spirit.

I hear something of the spirit of the British Isles in the opening of the Holiday Suite, too, although it has definitely been filtered through an American lens. The three movements cover each of the main holidays—Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s—in what has become almost ubiquitously referred to as “the holiday season” in this country, or as one wag has dubbed it, Hallowthanksmas. The opening movement generously quotes We Gather Together, which at one point seems to be about to swerve into Simple Gifts, while the Christmas movement is centered around In dulci jubilo. New Year’s Day cannot but make a reference to Auld Lang Syne (how many Fanfare readers know that American composers Henry Hadley and Victor Herbert have written works that also incorporate this tune?). The only difference is that in Reale’s hands, the tune seems to take on a Latin flavor—is that a bossa nova rhythm I hear? All in all, the suite is great fun, and its composition was undertaken to permit performance by amateur players. It is in a real sense an American updating of Hindemith’s Gebrauchsmusik principle.

The violin playing of Jessica Mathaes is secure in all of its parameters. She has a keen ear and sense of line, such that what might be a challenge in bringing together the episodic elements of these works seems instinctive for her. Her intonation is impeccable, and her tonal production most ingratiating. Pianist Colette Valentine is a solid artist in her own right, and complements the violin parts most pleasingly in these performances. The only question that keeps running through my mind is whether the white violin that Mathaes is holding in the striking cover photo is hers. More likely, I’d guess, the one she utilizes for this recording is the normal color one hiding in the bushes at the edge of the photo.

Reale speaks a compositional language that will appeal to many readers of this magazine, and the technical command of his craft is unwaveringly secure. There are no lapses in inspiration in any of these pieces, and I correspondingly accord this CD a very high recommendation. David DeBoor Canfield

This article originally appeared in Issue 38:5 (May/June 2015) of Fanfare Magazine.