Q&A with Composer Paul Novak

Photo Credit: Eric Snoza

Composer Paul Novak’s piece as the light begins to drift was selected for the 2020 Underwood New Music Readings, where it will be rehearsed and performed by American Composers Orchestra under the direction of conductor George Manahan, with mentorship from composers Derek Bermel, Jonathan Bailey Holland, and Melinda Wagner. Reading sessions are free and open to the public at City College on March 12, 2020 at 9:30am and March 13, 2020 at 7:30pm. Click here for more information.

Paul Novak writes music that is lyrical but fragmented, exploring the subtleties of instrumental color and drawing influence from literature, art, and poetry. He has received numerous national awards, most recently from the ASCAP/SCI Commission, Tribeca New Music, Webster University, and YoungArts Foundation, and has participated in festivals across the country, including the first-ever National Youth Orchestra of the United States Composer Apprenticeship. Novak has collaborated with ensembles including the Austin Symphony, Orlando Symphony, Reno Philharmonic, NYO-USA, the Amaranth and Rosco Quartets, Sō Percussion, Texas New Music Ensemble, NODUS Ensemble, MotoContrario Ensemble, Ensemble Ibis, Blackbox Collective, Face the Music, and Worcester Chamber Music Society; he has worked on interdisciplinary projects with Rice Dance Theatre, poets Ming Li Wu and Erica Cheung, and the Bowdoin Museum. Originally from Reno, NV, Novak is an undergraduate student at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, where he has studied with Kurt Stallman, Pierre Jalbert, Anthony Brandt, and Karim Al-Zand. Upcoming projects in Spring 2020 include a commission from the Texas New Music Ensemble, a soprano/contrabass duo for LIGAMENT, and work for viola and ensemble for violist Sebastian Stefanovic.

We spoke with Paul about his piece and the upcoming readings.


American Composers Orchestra: Your work, as the light begins to drift, was inspired by the clouds in the East Texan skies. Can you talk about how this work came to be, from the first inspiration to its acceptance into the Underwood New Music Readings?

Paul Novak: In the 4 years I’ve lived in Houston, I’ve had to get used to some nasty weather: heat, sudden torrential rain, stifling humidity, etc. But there’s something really beautiful about Houston sunsets, which have absolutely gorgeous layers of clouds and often have this theatrical, almost musical quality. as the light begins to drift was inspired by the colors and shadows of the clouds as they pass in front of the setting sun: there are moments of vivid intensity and moments of darkness, with tiny pinpricks of light shining through before being blurred back into the hazy sky.

I originally wrote as the light begins to drift for a much smaller instrumentation, a large chamber ensemble called a sinfonietta, and actually only recently created an arrangement for orchestra. The process of re-orchestrating is very gratifying, but can also be challenging: it’s all about reverse engineering the piece so it seems like it was originally conceived of for the new instrumentation. When the sinfonietta version was first played at Rice, it was performed by a group of close friends and was the biggest piece I had written during my undergrad — now, I’m so happy I have a chance to return to it in this new version at the Underwood New Music Readings!

ACO: In your bio, you talk about how you draw inspiration from literature, art, and poetry. Which written work most recently inspired you to compose?

PN: Like a lot of composers, I think I secretly wanted to be a writer: working with text is one of my favorite things to do, and some of my favorite projects from this year have been inspired by poetry and literature!

Last year, I discovered the genre-defying work of Maggie Nelson, which is often written in a combination of prose and poetry. Her Bluets is this achingly beautiful set of tiny fragments, which she calls “propositions,” that meditate on loss and the color blue. It’s a book that I keep returning to over and over, and I just recently finished a work for soprano and contrabass inspired by a tiny sliver of text from the last sentence of Bluets. I’m also currently working on a piece that’s inspired by a chapter from Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and I wrote a piece last summer called insurance interludes about the biographical similarities between Wallace Stevens, Charles Ives, and Franz Kafka, three important 20th century artists who each were shaped by their careers in insurance. I think that one of the main reasons I love working with text (whether it’s going to be sung or spoken, or it only exists as a framework for a piece) is that it’s a central part of way I write: I like to plan out my pieces with imagined conversations and arguments between different instruments and musical ideas.

Photo Credit: Christina Tan

ACO: You’ve done quite a few interdisciplinary projects. How do these other artists and forms inform your compositional process?

PN: In world of Western classical music, it often feels like everything is supposed to fit into this orderly hierarchy, where a composer finishes a piece and musicians play it exactly as is, and there’s never any chance to workshop or make mistakes. But I think that the artistic process is rarely so straightforward: it’s collaborative and messy and doesn’t always work out perfectly the first time. I love working on projects in dialogue with other artists, where we can experiment together and the piece that eventually emerges reflects our shared experiences. It has a freedom and an authenticity that you don’t get as often when you’re working by yourself; it’s more like a conversation between friends, using our art in service of a greater shared creative goal. And as someone who’s fascinated by art from a lot of different sources, I’ve found that interdisciplinary projects are an amazing way to use my music to amplify the voices of artists I respect, and advocate for art that I love. Working in a tradition that’s often very backward-looking and rooted in the past, there’s something incredibly refreshing about setting a text when the person who wrote it is right there with you, or writing a piece knowing exactly who will be choreographing and dancing. And it’s been wonderful to build long, lasting relationships and friendships with artists in other disciplines: one of my long-time collaborators, spoken word poet Ming Li Wu, and I have gotten to see each other’s artistic practice evolve and grow together.

ACO: Getting back to the Underwood Readings: what are you doing to prepare for the readings?

PN: One of the things I love most about being a composer is that it’s an inherently social, collaborative art form: even if we spend hours and hours alone writing a piece, we have to work together with other people to bring it to life. Watching the piece slowly take shape during the rehearsal process is always exhilarating, but it can also be terrifying and daunting, especially when there’s only a limited amount of time. A professional orchestra like ACO is so skillful and efficient at putting together difficult contemporary music, so as a composer your job is to predict what problems might come up and what questions people might have, and have answers ready. To prepare for the readings, I’ve been making sure I know my piece backwards and forwards and that I’m ready to be as useful as I possibly can be in rehearsal. I’ve also been really lucky to receive a lot of guidance from ACO mentors in preparation for the readings, about everything from orchestrational details to engraving and printing.

ACO: What are you most looking forward to about the readings? What do you hope to take away from the experience?

PN: There are so many exciting things that ACO has planned during the two days of the readings! First, I’m so excited to work with ACO and hear my piece come to life. I also can’t wait to hear the readings of the pieces by my colleagues. It’s such a valuable thing to be able to hear how they write for the orchestra, and also to see how they interact with the conductor and orchestra during rehearsal. I sometimes feel that giving comments on my piece in rehearsal uses an entirely different skill set than composing. I’m super excited to meet and work with the mentor composers this year, all three of whom are artists that I admire a lot, and to participate in workshops that discuss every aspect of the process, from rehearsal techniques to programming.

ACO: Back to your personal art: who are some of your collaborators that you’re especially excited to be working with this coming year?

PN: I’m really excited about a bunch of upcoming collaborative projects this year, both with specific musicians and as well as with artists in other disciplines! I’m currently working on a piece for viola, percussion, harp, and piano for the Master’s recitals of my friends Sebastian Stefanovic and Cindy Qin, and I’m looking forward to the premiere of a new commission from SCI /ASCAP by the Texas New Music Ensemble later in March. I recently finished a piece for soprano Anika Kildegaard and bassist Will Yager, who play in a fantastic duo called LIGAMENT, and next month, I’ll be finishing up a new piece for toy piano and melodica (one player) for pianist Evie Werger. Later in the spring, I’ll be working with a group of friends at Rice on a new piece for string orchestra and 2 percussion inspired by the paintings of Ellsworth Kelly, and this summer I’m hoping to start work on a new piece for spoken word poet and chamber ensemble with poet Ming Li Wu!


Hear Paul Novak’s as the light begins to drift at the Underwood New Music Readings. Reading sessions are free and open to the public on March 12 and 13, 2020 at City College. Click here for more information.

American Composers Orchestra

Written by

ACO is the only orchestra in the world solely dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation, and promotion of music by American composers.

More From Medium

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade