Name: Paul Beaudoin
Occupation: Composer, author, visual artist
Current Release: Paul Beaudoin's The Northern Lights is out via Mare Nostrum.
Recommendations: John Cage: 4‘33“; Steven Pressfield: The War of Art
If you enjoyed this interview with Paul Beaudoin and would like to find out more, visit him on Instagram, and Soundcloud. He also has a bandcamp account for his music.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your voice?
I grew up in a lower-middle-class suburb of Miami, Florida. We had no orchestra, no art museum, and no theatre. Like most kids, I heard music on the radio – all popular, but for one exception.
My mom would play the piano for us after coming home from school as a young person. It was always the same pieces, but they were „Classics:“ Haydn’s Gypsy Rondo, Ketelby’s In a Persian Market, and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I loved the Beethoven for its hypnotising rhythms and the gold star that my mom’s piano teacher had placed on the music. I loved it so much that I decided I would play that piece of music by the time I was about 11 or 12. So, without any lessons, I sat at the piano and began to connect what I saw on the page to what I had heard her play. I learned the entire first movement this way, and that is the door that opened into my being a musician.
A year or two later involved school music teachers and hearing on the classical radio station (we now had one!), Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. I had never heard such strange sounds. I went to the public library, found a recording, and brought it home to listen to the same way I had listened to Black Sabbath, Led Zepplin and James Taylor.
That experience with Stravinsky (I have since learned that it is a familiar story) made my mind explode. I tried to imagine what it would be like to hear all of those sounds „in your head“ and then (!) write them down so that others could play them. How exhilarating it must be – write these things down and get this sound back. I was hooked and immediately decided I was going to be a composer.
From that moment, I buried myself in Harmony books; I began to write and arrange music. I started a small band and taught my songs to them. When the University of Miami hosted an Open House, I remember walking directly to the music department table, finding the Theory and Composition department and announcing (as only a kid could do), „I want to be a composer.“ They welcomed me with open arms.
That was the beginning of my nearly 3-decade long, largely miserable career in academic music.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
For many years I taught music and art to non-majors. It was always my hope to instil my joy and passion for the arts. Inevitably, two questions are always asked – „Why is this Beethoven symphony such a long song?“ and „I can make a painting like that – easy –throw painting around like this (followed by a dramatic physical reenactment.). “
Time is an illusion – or perhaps, I should say time is a convenience. We have time to schedule out a series of things in our lives – the workday, the holidays, the time we awaken, and the time we sleep. But marking time is a crucial component of many art forms.
It is a common experience – listening to the same piece of music under different circumstances – once the music seems to „fly-by “ in another, time moves glacially slow. The perception marks the experience, not the clock’s ticking.
I happen to be moving towards music that happens to be quiet and relatively long, which is vital for this listening to get inside the music and beyond the constraint of length and volume. This most certainly is an idea that Morton Feldman had in his late works. But to me, here is the paradox – given the pace of our 21st century post-digital information age, who has the time to listen? I'm thinking of my students and how difficult listening to a Mahler symphony will be.
We are being socially retrained, and our attention spans are taking a big hit.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
Isn’t art so seductive and sensual? I listen to all kinds of music, and it surprises many that I am a huge fan of EDM / Trance / Deep House. That machine-like precision of harmony, that electric timbre generated by volts of electricity, locked in repetition – oh yes, please. Give it to me. And the next day – that slowly descending sinewave played against the soft punctuating piano chord as a field recording plays in the background – oh yes, please. Give it to me.
As an „academic“ composer, I was trained in theory rigours – pitch connection, rhythmic connections, orchestrational balances – all important – and they are! But it is so much more than that. For so many years, I believed in that great Stravinsky quote, „Music is, by its very nature, powerless to express anything at all.“ That fits nicely with a naive understanding of art. No feeling. Just as beautiful as a math equation.
That ivory tower fell hard when I heard Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic perform Mahler’s Third Symphony (remember, as a kid, I never listened to a live orchestra). This extraordinary work, almost 90 minutes, was greeted by roaring applause by the audience. I had to flee the hall as the chaos of applause interrupted my dream-like trance and the deeply emotional experience I had just had.
When I got outside in the Boston cold, tears ran down my face. How can it be that music is powerless to express anything?
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Last year, while engaging in a mentorship program with artist Ty Nathan Clarke, I had a revelation about my creative work. Without sharing the whole story, I can only say that I had gone into academia for all the wrong reasons. As I thought I was climbing the academic ladder of success, that ladder was crumbling underneath me.
After years of proclaiming the academic message, I now suggest this advice: do not try and please your teachers, your public, or to impress your friends and neighbors. Don’t make art to show you are a genius, a misunderstood giant, or to get laid. Make art that you love, want to live with, and have peace with the work. And, if you are lucky, and I mean lucky, others will eventually find you and respond. But be warned, their response is NOT a validation of who you are. And for that, yeah, be a good person.
Here I find myself today, in every way, filled with joyful and meaningful creative activity.