The Norwegian composer on the importance of melody in his music
I consider myself a melodist, which means that melody is the cornerstone of my musical language. As such, it has always been puzzling to me that out of all the elements of music, melody seems to warrant the least amount of discussion.
Despite being innately aware, as I suspect everyone is, of melody's extra-musical effects, I was used to approaching it abstractly, in technical terms, as simply material that existed for the purpose of being subjected to the dictates of skill and imagination. It wasn't the tune itself that mattered, but what could be done with it. And while there's truth to that, it's certainly not the whole truth.
Some years back, after a premiere of one of my works, I was somewhat startled when a painter friend described my music as having 'a subject'. Accustomed to thinking of a musical subject as merely a singular thematic or motivic entity, I nevertheless realized that my friend had meant to describe something different, something perhaps more fundamental that I could just about intuit, but lacked the words to properly address. And it set me pondering...
More than anything, what I seek from art, is to be touched, to be moved. I want to experience a sense of recognition and artistic presence. By 'recognition', I mean the discovery of something that resonates with me, a kind of truth that has hitherto eluded me. Artistic presence is the feeling of communion with an author, of being spoken to directly, earnestly, intimately. 'If I have given you delight by aught that I have done, Let me lie quiet in that night which shall be yours anon', as Kipling wrote.
If I look at the composers in my own private canon, most of them were (or are) lyrically inclined. I often think of their music as imbued with a certain kind of humanity. And it's not a matter of tonality, or level of dissonance, or style. When I listen to non-thematic music, I find myself admiring textures and colours, much as if I'm in a room filled with objects of exquisite design. But it is very much still a music of objects, and not of subjects. It can leave me all kinds of impressed and excited, but not often truly touched. It doesn't greet me with a face, or a name to remember it by. It can feel like, save for the objects, I'm the only one in the room.
Melody is to music what a scent is to the senses: it jogs our memory. It gives face to form, and identity and character to the process and proceedings. It is not only a musical subject, but a manifestation of the musically subjective. It carries and radiates personality with as much clarity and poignancy as harmony and rhythm combined. As such a powerful tool of communication, melody serves not only as protagonist in its own drama, but as messenger from the author to the audience.
Any melody is a greeting. Someone’s in the room with you.
'Odes & Elegies' featuring concertante and solo works by Marcus Paus – featuring Henning Kraggerud, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Oslo Camerata, and the Arctic Chamber Orchestra – is out now on Sheva: Amazon (UK)