For Paul Novak, a 2023 New Music Fellow, composing music is so much more than writing notes on the page: it’s about community, conversation, and collaboration. This is why summers spent traveling, meeting new people, and attending festivals are his favorite part of the job, and his time at Norfolk is no exception. Here, Novak says, there is something truly special about the way the program is structured. Unlike in other settings, the focus of the workshop is on the collaborative process. With intensive rehearsals and master classes, composers have the opportunity to continuously revise their compositions: to experiment, to take risks, to try out new versions.
What makes the New Music Workshop unique, Novak says, is how composers get to write for their peers, not for fancy orchestras or professionals they’ve never met, but for musicians their own age, musicians they forge tight-knit relationships with as soon as they step onto the Festival’s grounds. Because of this, Norfolk Fellows truly experience what it means to write music as a conversation. Encouragement is given to discuss the piece, to learn from peers, and to understand the instrumentalists’ needs and perspectives.
“You write better music when you have room to make mistakes,” Novak explains, and that’s why Norfolk provides this unique opportunity to workshop New Music.
Novak’s piece for the New Music Workshop, gravity dances, has been shaped by this collaborative experience. With three movements of distinct characters – stumbling dance, sinking dance, and hurtling dance – the piece centers around the idea of downward motion, hence the word gravity in the title. Yet the characterization of a dance is an important one for Novak.
“The idea of dance is something I’ve been obsessed with since the beginning of the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, my music changed in a very dramatic way…” says of his inspiration for the piece. “I wanted to write music that was comforting and felt really fun to play. So the idea of dance has been really important to me: music that’s filled with joy and excitement and animation.”
Seeing these characteristics embodied energetically by the players during rehearsals has been especially rewarding. Particularly since composers never truly know how the piece will translate to real life until the first rehearsal, Novak explains. Despite the uncertainty of putting one’s own art into the hands of others, it’s Novak’s favorite part of the process. “There are always things that are unexpected…but I think it’s the best part of being a composer. For me, composition is all about collaboration and conversation.”
And that is truly what the New Music Workshop at Norfolk is all about. With a hundred-year-plus history of contemporary music, Norfolk continues its legacy of recognizing the value of new music. “A lot of people have a preconceived idea of what New Music is, yet it is really so much bigger and more diverse than people realize... New Music is not just one thing. There is space to say many different things, and that is why it is so important.”