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Finding Nirvana

music_featurepauldooleyComposer Paul Dooley finds inspiration in film, math and grunge rock

When he was only 12, Paul Dooley felt transformed after watching Shine, an Australian film starring Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush, who plays a gifted but mentally mad pianist. Once the credits rolled, Dooley took to the piano, but instead of losing his mind, he found musical enlightenment by combining his two loves: classical music and raw, Seattle grunge sound.

“I taught myself how to play music by playing pieces by other people, and then changing them to make them my own—I improvised a lot,” recalls the 27-year-old composer and percussionist. He remembers his early piano days being jam-packed with countless renditions of Nirvana’s 1991 release Nevermind, particularly the song “Come As You Are.”

Dooley’s appreciation of both the classical and alternative rock genres sparked an unwavering interest in composition.

Dooley accredits Beethoven as both “the next best thing after Nirvana,” and his formal introduction to classical music. “I fell in love with Symphony No. 3,” he says. Dooley also values contemporary composer John Adams’ influence on his career. “Before [Adams], I didn’t really know composing as a living was possible.”

Currently working toward a doctorate at the University of Michigan, with two bachelor’s degrees—one in music composition, the other in mathematics—from the University of Southern California under his belt, Dooley is finally “composing as a living,” too. And his educational background is helping him do it. “Higher mathematics is exercising a creative logic, which relates directly to composition and using logic,” he says. “In doing a mathematic proof, you have to decide where to start and then how to be creative and elegant. Composing is the same way—it leads to something meaningful and climactic.”

Today, the Santa Rosa-bred musician imparts that knowledge in Ann Arbor, where he teaches electronic music at the University of Michigan, in addition to giving private music theory, composition and orchestration lessons to residents of Washtenaw County.

Dooley describes the role of a composer as “amazing, but daunting.” He elaborates by adding, “the orchestra is one of the greatest palettes of an artist because there are so many different sound worlds you can create … you get so ambitious in trying out different things.” These ambitions can lead to nerves, but Dooley embraces them. “If a composer doesn’t get nervous, they have a problem—or they’re lying,” he says.

Dooley will attempt to channel those nerves into a moving performance at this year’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, where he will join two other young composers—29-year-old Wang Lu and 22-year-old Chris Rogerson—for the “In the Works” concert on Wednesday, August 3.

While Dooley is a yearly attendee of the festival—present at each one in the last decade—this is the first time he will showcase his own material. He admits that his piece is influenced by “the energy and excitement” of dance (his mother’s favorite pastime, which he claims he’s no good at), and Alarm Will Sound—the 20-member band from New York that he hasn’t stopped listening to since last summer—whose “technical and virtuosic” elements, he admires.

Unlike most modern day music, Dooley’s highly complex (and anticipated) orchestral piece contains no lyrics, and is solely driven by layered instrumentation. But he poses one question to the listener: “Does text supersede the music?”

After a moment of silence, Dooley takes a stab at his own question: “I’m not so sure about that,” he says, as if looking inward to his 12-year-old self for some semblance of an answer. “People thought the symphony was dead, but then Beethoven came along.”


Paul Dooley’s work will debut at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, August 3, at Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. No Cover. Call 426-6966.

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