Contempo-Scary Music: Composer Spotlight – Paul Moravec

Paul Moravec, recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Music, is a composer of numerous orchestral, chamber, choral, operatic, and lyric pieces. His music has earned many distinctions, including the Rome Prize Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, three awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation. Paul’s The Overlook Hotel Suite is a brand new orchestral suite that takes musical material from his highly praised opera The Shining, which is based on the well-known Stephen King novel and premiered in a sold-out run by Minnesota Opera this past May. Musical America called the opera a “chilling artistic triumph,” reporting, “This operatic treatment of Stephen King’s breakthrough horror-thriller (1977) manages not only to distill the narrative intensity of the original but—its most significant achievement—transforms The Shining into valid operatic terms that transcend the thriller trappings.” 

Commissioned by ACO, Paul has created a piece that uses the instruments of the orchestra to provide a musical depiction of the Overlook—the infamous hotel at the center of the story’s gory plot. The Overlook Hotel Suite will be premiered at ACO’s 40th Season Opener on October 28, 2016 at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. Paul was kind enough to answer a few questions about the piece and his compositional process for SoundAdvice.

Composer Paul Moravec

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about the sections or themes in your opera The Shining that The Overlook Hotel Suite draws from, and your process for choosing this musical material?

Paul Moravec: The Overlook Hotel Suite is more than a medley from the opera: it’s an independent composition re-imagining and re-arranging the opera’s musical material involving the character of the hotel and its ghosts from every part of the show, without regard to dramatic sequence. It’s a kind of time-less fantasy on leitmotifs associated with the never-ending masked ball, ghosts such as Delbert Grady and his two daughters, and Mark Torrance, Jack’s abusive father.

ACO: MPR News writes that your music in The Shining is “a rich, multi-layered soundscape that breathes life into the Overlook Hotel, which is both the setting and the villain of the piece.” In The Overlook Hotel Suite, you are using the instruments of the orchestra to provide a musical depiction of the infamous hotel. Can you give a few examples of what the instruments are depicting? Given that the Overlook might be considered the opera’s “villain,” are you depicting more than just physical setting?
PM: I definitely consider the Overlook Hotel a leading persona in the opera, and so its character and physical attributes are indissolubly one.  For instance, to convey the evil power of the hotel in its most concentrated form, one has to feel the infamous room 217 — where little Danny is attacked by the dead lady in the bathtub — as a real, malicious presence, more than just a physical setting. I use a lot of spooky special effects in the orchestration — such as tremolo ponticello strings and nasty, muted brass — but sometimes the most disquieting effects can be created by a counterintuitively normal-sounding orchestra playing totally creepy music. Sometimes less really is more.
ACO: You have talked about how Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining possesses three themes that are essential for creating a compelling opera: love, death and power. Are these themes also present in The Overlook Hotel Suite?
PM: Among other things, King’s novel is a deeply emotional story about love in the Torrance family: between husband and wife and between parents and child. So love itself is not so much a factor in this suite, since it focuses on the ghosts, not the Torrances. As for power, that is reflected principally in the evil force-field surrounding the hotel itself. And as in so many ghost stories, death especially violent death — plays a crucial role in this suite. Regarding the masked gala in the grand ballroom, this suite is more about after-death than death per se.
ACO: Can you talk about the differences in your approach to writing opera compared to orchestral music?
PM: Composing an opera is more complex than writing an orchestra piece, in part because the opera composer must also be the principal dramatist, for all the contributions of the librettist and director and everyone else involved. Opera, of course, is music drama. The challenge is that as an art-form, drama naturally follows its own logic while music follows its own peculiar logic and somehow these two willful, independent thoroughbreds have to be made at all times to move in the exact same direction, in precise synchrony. The composer must combine the music, words, character, plot, et al. into a seemingly effortless and compelling narrative much greater than the sum of its parts. And beyond all that, the composer must overcome the inherent artifice of this irrational art-form so that the audience will be so absorbed as to forget that they are watching an opera.

Hear the world premiere of Paul Moravec’s The Overlook Hotel Suite at Contempo-Scary Music, ACO’s 40th Season Opener on October 28, 2016 at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.

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