The Challenges for a Romantic Composer in a Field of Dogmatic Modernists
By Bork S. Nerdrum

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The Quote:

Must one become seventy years old to recognize that one’s greatest strength lies in creating musical kitsch?

— Richard Strauss, composer

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«I am shameless by principle in my work» says the romantic composer Marcus Paus, who joins Jan-Ove Tuv in this month’s Cave of Apelles.

Marcus Paus is a composer writing music in the tonal field. Before he became a prominent composer, he went through much hostility in the field of classical music, ruled by dogmatic modernism. Paus tells about his journey, which required resistance and determination.


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From Craft to Religion

Jan-Ove Tuv asks Paus to tell the story of his education, which Tuv describes as an example of the Hero’s Journey.

At first, Paus enrolled a musical high school, where he was lucky to meet the person who became his initial mentor and first composition teacher, Trygve Madsen. He taught Paus to regard music and composition as a craft, and regard past composers as neither something to fear nor to worship.

Paus calls it “a non-religious take on crafts”.

When he moved on to the Music Academy, the approach changed dramatically. Having had a craft oriented approach to his studies, he was told that it was time to “broaden his mind”.

Paus describes the education at the music academy as “very historically segregated”, studying different styles of music as belonging to a “time capsule”. The students were taught that the music styles were of course irrelevant – because “we don’t write that way anymore”.

However, Paus knew that he wanted to write tonal music and continued with this practice. One professor told Paus that this will not work, and gave him three alternatives.

– The first option was to put everything in quotation marks. This is sort of the option of irony. “You can do this, but make sure that everyone knows that you don’t stand for it,” says Paus and continues:

– Of course, another option was turn your ship around. “You know, it’s not too late for you to have a change of heart”. […] I was very interested in Indian classical music and Eastern European folk music, and he knew about that. So, the third option was kind of a ethno-modernistic approach.


Previously: Joakim Ericsson on Why He Quit Painting for a career in the Gaming Industry


Photo of Richard Danielpour. Photo: Mike Minehan

New York City

Feeling ostricized at the Academy in Norway, Paus eventually decided to go to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music.

– At the time, my favorite composers were people like John Corigliano, Richard Danielpour, Christopher Rouse, John Williams. People [whose music] doesn’t exist separate from the past. It’s a continuation of its history. There’s this feeling of timelessness, in a sense. At least, in terms of craft, it’s timeless, says Paus.

Their first semester was opera history, but also Aristotle and The Poetics. Paus eventually got to work as Richard Danielpour’s assistant. The way he taught was usually that musicians were brought to his apartment, “bribed” with wine by Paus, and then they all had a reading of their works at Danielpour’s place.

– He would go about it not so much teaching you how to write, but really addressing the issues within that work – kind of the way a producer would do, says Paus, explaining how Danielpour would make the works sound much better by changing minor aspects.

– It could be tiny little details, but that could be what separated a good piece from a mediocre piece.

Then, for the second semester, the students were assigned to write an opera scene. Paus tells about how they were looking at operas from Monteverdi to Britten and beyond, looking at what made those operas work.

– It sounds like an ahistorical perception of this discipline, says Jan-Ove Tuv.

– Exactly. You just look at craft per se. […] It’s a pragmatic, non-stylistic, or non-historically segregated, approach to crafting, confirms Paus.

Jan-Ove Tuv. Still photo from the conversation. Photo: Bork S. Nerdrum

Aristotle’s Poetics

What are you thinking about when writing a piece?, asks Tuv.

– Let me put it this way: What’s different in how I approach writing music now versus when I first started writing music is a consciousness of form, of how you decide what the piece is about. There’s a framework. Being conscious of what to include and what not to include, Paus answers.

He points to lessons learned from the Poetics by the philosopher Aristotle.

– Another aspect of Aristotle and the Poetics is that it’s a study of something that is kind of innate, it’s something that comes from a very natural approach, says Paus.

Jan-Ove Tuv states that what has struck him with the Poetics is how tragedy is described as unfolding like some plant to a natural state: – The point is to get the essence of human existence, and that doesn’t change.

– It’s really about looking at what an organic development does. […] However, it is not a straightjacket, not something that prevents you or precludes you from being adventurous, but it’s about understanding how drama works and what makes it tick, says Paus.

What separates the romantic tradition from a modernist tradition, according to Paus, is that one has music as subject, whereas the other has music as an object.

– I’m not an ideological composer at all. But to me, the shortcoming of a lot of modernism is its lack of inherent memory. There’s this sense that a piece doesn’t recognize where it comes from. So, you could put yourself in the middle of a piece, and it’s not different from being at the start or at the end of it, says Paus.

Jan-Ove Tuv calls it the idea of the non-dramatic: – Modernism is based on a liberation from the human baseline.

– I don’t think many people would believe that now, but once upon a time, you could as a composer truly believe that it was arbitrary what notes you use. Any note can mean anything. And it doesn’t really work that way. Again, going back to the idea of the organic: There is a natural reasoning behind tonality, for instance. It stems from nature. […] As does, I would say, dramatic form, states Paus.

Marcus Paus. Still photo from the conversation. Photo: Bork S. Nerdrum

Hollywood: An Exile for the Romantic Tradition

Marcus Paus is now relevant with the film music for a new movie coming out called “Mortal” by André Øvredal, who has made “Troll hunter” and “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” among others. Tuv asks Paus to tell him more about composing for film.

– The first thing I should say is that some of the first music that I fell in love with, and the music that has probably shaped me the most as a composer, has been film music. In many ways, Hollywood became an exile for the Romantic tradition.

– The Classical tradition would’ve been dead without America, Tuv remarks.

Paus elaborates that what he finds interesting is that not only has the classical tradition survived there, but it has also evolved.

– How, specifically, do you work making film music?, asks Tuv.

– I write very specifically to the scene. I will sit there and watch the film, and I’ll sit there and write. And I know that today I’m going to have to write from here to there. That could be one minute, two minutes or three minutes, answers Paus and continues:

– What I do is that I empathize. That’s the main technique; you have to watch this and you have to imagine yourself as a member of the audience. And if you react, think ‘where does this scene take me?’ and ‘where does it need to take me?’.


The letter from Paus’ former teacher, signed “The teacher who was not to be”.

The Timpani Concerto

The fact that Paus continued to write tonal music within the classical or romantic tradition upset many in the modernist field. Especially one professor.

When Paus was accepted as a member of the Norwegian Society of Composers, he presented some of his works to the society, as every new member does. At first, he experienced a warm welcome in the society. That was until he received a letter from his former professor, with a bunch of CDs.

– Essentially, it was a very dismissive letter. It said that what I presented was offensive and it proved that I had no concept of what it means to be a creative artist, says Paus and continues:

– The letter closed with what was a final passage. Something about that he didn’t want to have any further verbal contact with me, but he hoped that I wouldn’t spend my life causing disruption within the Norwegian Society of Composers.

Then, several years later, Paus is asked to compose a timpani concerto for the Bergen Philharmonic’s 250th season: – It is a celebratory piece. It’s a very virtuosic piece. […] It was a very successful premiere, explains Paus.

Then, the very same professor who had sent him the hostile letter years earlier, reviews his timpani concerto. It was not really a critique, as much as an assault.

– And that actually launched the biggest public debate about art music in Norway since, I guess, the ‘70s.

Paus says that the teacher argued that the timpani concerto was essentially a fabrication:

– Writing this music is a lie, it’s trying to trick the audience into thinking that this is contemporary music, whereas of course it is not.

– It was a very ad hominem attack. It was not attacking the timpani concerto as much as attacking me as a person and the concept of writing that music, says Paus.

However, the outcome was not as the professor had hoped:

– No agent could have done me a better service than what he has, Paus jokes.

“Stetind” litograph by Christopher Rådlund Photo: Bork S. Nerdrum

Center for Liberal Arts

Good and tolerant colleagues, Paus had to find outside the National Society of Composers. When Paus was about to graduate from the Academy, he met Christopher Rådlund, a Swedish classic figurative painter living in Norway, and a group of painters, poets, writers, and composers began to form.

– They had something they called Center for Liberal Arts, which was a lot more liberal than it sounds. It was kind of a bohemian hive. It was very much centered around Christopher Rådlund and also the Swedish poet Håkan Sandel, says Paus before exclaiming:

– Colleagues, at last!

Paus describes how they had a lot of the same interests, and that they formed a vibrant milieu: – It was a non-dogmatic, very inclusive, very embracing, very friendly assemblage of personalities, he says.

Tuv wants to know more about their topics of conversation: – Could you discuss your works?

– Not always in a very technical sense […], but we would very quickly realize that so many of our ideals and ideas and concepts were similar. I mean, you can discuss composition with a painter or with a poet, says Paus and elaborates on what he learned from the conversations:

– I think I was able to become more articulate melodically. That’s something that happened through poetry. […]  I was too engaged in the actual writing, and seeing it through the lens of another art form helps you perhaps take more of a bird’s eye perspective.

– Sometimes you have to distance yourself from the craft that you always practice, he says. Paus calls this the “Eureka moments.”


Also read: Meet the Norwegian composer Martin Romberg


The future for tonal music

Paus is asked what his thoughts about the future for tonal music is.

– This is good times for tonal music. There has been a tremendous renaissance. There are a lot of tonal composers now, he states.

Paus thinks that his generation were much influenced by film music, where the tonal tradition survived. Not as an object of study, but as something that became a kind of natural language.

– Crucially, it didn’t die. It has survived, and it is perhaps stronger than it ever was and more vibrant and vital than it has been for a very long time.


This article was first published at the Herland Report.