Interview with Paul Wiancko
I first met Paul three or so years ago in Neukölln, which was then the new hip neighborhood in Berlin (it sort of still is). We were with a few of our mutual friends at a lonely, quiet underground bar with nobody else around. Most of us ended up ordering the same drink which was enthusiastically recommended by the bartender: Gin Baayzil Smäääshhh! Whenever we meet we recall the way the bartender said this, which always makes us smile :)
I didn’t know much about Paul back then, but I came to know that in addition to being an accomplished cellist, he is also an incredible composer (you can follow the links below to hear some of his music).
But what motivated me to interview him was a very nice conversation we had after our first rehearsal with IRIS orchestra in Memphis, TN. There is usually a casual dinner with all the musicians on the first night, and we found ourselves at a table with all the other New Yorkers (this happens all the time). We had seen each other a few times before then but it was the first time we spoke in depth about music. It’s rare to find someone who is willing to dive into an intense conversation and share their honest thoughts at a casual setting like that. So after our Sunday afternoon concert, we decided to go to an ice cream shop nearby since most cafes had already closed, and chat a little about Britten and his music. Thank you for doing this, Paul!
Mari: What was the first piece by Britten you’d ever heard?
Paul: Simple Symphony—which was also the first piece by Britten that I’d ever played. It was in a youth orchestra—I was 10 or 11 years old and I remember it instantly becoming one of my favorite pieces. From the emotionally succinct labels he applied to each movement—Playful Pizzicato, Sentimental Sarabande—it was clear that he wanted to write a piece that was fun for children. It didn’t occur to me then, but I now know that for Britten, an important aspect of being a composer was to provide a rewarding experience for children and to not turn them off to music forever—because a horrible piece could potentially do just that. I appreciate his empathetic style of composing for youth and I think it had the exact effect on me that he would have hoped—it strengthened my bond with music.
M: How would you describe his music in a few words?
P: For Britten that's a tricky question because he went through so many stages and had so many styles—but the overarching features I recognize in all his music are its evocative nature, lucid ideas, clear intentions...
(music blasting in the background)
...I’m trying to block out this terrible pop-rock version of Winter Wonderland! I’d add romantic, thoughtful, and well-structured.
M: How has being a composer changed the way you perform and experience music?
P: I started composing music in earnest five or six years ago and it has completely transformed the way I think as a performer. Before I started composing I would often mentally consult the composer only if I ran into problems phrasing, or if I couldn't convincingly express a passage, dynamic or articulation. In other words my interpretation came first. Then what the composer wanted. Now, it is absolutely the reverse. My first priority is to try and deduce what the composer would have wanted. In my mind there is no doubt that any question can be answered as long as we look to the composer’s…what’s the word…hmm…ah, not enough coffee! Intention. The word is intention.
M: Do you think it’s also important for listeners to know the context or the composer’s motivation before listening to a piece of music? Or is that solely the performer’s responsibility?
P: I think it depends on the composer and what they demand from the performer and the audience. Before the 19th century, in most cases there was an expectation of the audience to know what they were walking into and of the performer to know exactly what they were doing—to be faithful diplomats and representatives of the music. These days it’s a little bit different—the motivations of composers and performers are changing. The utilitarian aspect of music and composition is dropping as a priority, whereas instant gratification, prestige, and breaking down barriers have become higher priorities.
M: This may tie into the next question I wanted to ask you— what are some of the challenges we face today as artists?
P: I was going to say that, amazingly, Britten’s thoughts on this topic seem to transcend time, place, or country of origin. He knew that there are forces that work against a composer and make it difficult for them to find their true voice and to write honest, meaningful music. Such as the pressure to write music that conforms to someone else's standards, or to write in a trendy style, whatever that may be at any given time in history. It’s eerie how true that remains today.
M: Do you feel this pressure?
P: Yeah, I do—but it’s not hard to fight off. I didn’t have any kind of compositional training, so I've never felt pressure to align myself with any school of thought or subset of composers. I do my best to be as faithful to my inner voice as I possibly can, because the joy and fulfillment that that brings me is the reason I started composing in the first place. I could have comfortably remained a performer as I have been for most of my life, but for as long as I can remember, I have felt a deep, mysterious desire to write music. Now that I have committed myself to finding my true voice, I see no reason to compromise it for a few extra likes on Facebook.
M: Final question— if you could ask Britten one question, what would it be?
P: Which of your works would you consider an expression of your "truest" compositional voice, and how long did it take you to find it?
Interviewed on December 3, 2017