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Composer Profile: Juliana Hall

WHO I AM

I am an American art song composer.  

Born in Huntington, West Virginia, I grew up in Chesapeake—a very small town in southern Ohio, just across the Ohio River.

Classical music was a distant art form in southern Ohio, not a part of our local culture, and composers were the stuff of history books. My mother was a pianist and had started me on piano lessons with her at age six (unusual enough for Chesapeake), but composers—people who actually wrote music—didn't feel like real people.
 
What seemed more real to me was English literature. My grandmother was an English teacher who always had a poem handy, and my grandfather enjoyed singing folk songs. They often spent Sunday afternoons with us, reciting poetry and singing and playing songs together.
 
Our family church exerted its influence too; it was in the church choir that I had my first experiences of the joining of text with music, and in which I first learned the importance of textual meaning and clear enunciation. When I was 13, I had the idea to write some music for the church, so I composed a piece for flute, piano, children’s choir, and narrator which was a setting of the Creation Story from the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Even though it was my first work, writing it felt very natural and it was extremely satisfying to see it come to life before my eyes and ears. 
 
I also used to put together performances of plays and musicals on my own, with neighborhood friends. Even then, as a young child, I was interested in every facet of drama: stories, characters, costumes, atmosphere, and the excitement of live performance. I continued to perform in dramas throughout high school, and even now I still feel a deep affinity for words and an inner excitement with dramatic performance, whether it be theater or music or dance.
 
When I went to college at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music as an undergraduate student, the composition faculty there encouraged me to switch studies from piano to composition after hearing my pieces written in a "composition for performers" class. I didn't change paths then, but that encouragement to pursue the writing of my own music, instead of the performance of other people's music, planted a seed.
 
Later, as I studied piano in graduate school at Yale, one of the electives I chose was private composition study with a visiting composer. After hearing the music I was writing while enrolled as a piano performance major, the composition faculty encouraged me to pursue composing and they worked with me to enable me to add as much in the way of composition studies as I was able to add to my piano studies, and later to make a complete transition from pianist to composer official.
 
My wonderful composition teachers at Yale were Martin Bresnick, Leon Kirchner, and Frederic Rzewski, and I completed my formal training with Dominick Argento at the University of Minnesota. Following those studies, my career began with my first commission in 1987 (a song cycle for soprano Dawn Upshaw, who like me was at the beginning of her career) and a Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition in 1989.

My songs have now been sung in 26 countries on six continents, having been featured on concerts at venues including the 92nd Street Y, Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, and Morgan Library & Museum (New York); the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Library of Congress, and Singapore Embassy (Washington, DC); the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the French Library (Boston); Ambassador Auditorium (Los Angeles); Herbst Theatre (San Francisco); Ordway Theater (St. Paul); St. Paul's Cathedral and Wigmore Hall (London); and the American Church and Théâtre du Châtelet (Paris), among others. Songs of mine have also been sung at the Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar, Ojai Music Festival, SongFest, and Tanglewood Music Center, and have been broadcast over radio networks including the BBC and NPR.
 
Performances of the past several years include the Joy in Singing/Edward T. Cone Foundation Composers Concert at Bruno Walter Auditorium (New York); the CHAI Collaborative Ensemble series (Chicago); the Song in the City series (London); Lyric Fest (Philadelphia); the "Art of Music" series at the San Diego Museum of Art; Voices of Change (Dallas); and the Zenith Ensemble (Melbourne); in addition to house concerts in Baltimore and Boston by this year's winner of the Washington International Vocal Competition, Maggie Finnegan.  

In addition to CELESTIAL REFRAINS, the 2016-2017 concert season includes four world premiere performances: a new song cycle, O MISTRESS MINE, written for the late Brian Asawa and performed in his memory by countertenor Darryl Taylor at the 2016 Norfolk Chamber Music Festival; a large setting of the Edgar Allan Poe poem THE BELLS by soprano Alexandra Porter at the Contemporary Undercurrent of Song Project in Princeton, NJ; the song cycle UPON THIS SUMMER'S DAY by soprano Nadine Benjamin at the 2016 London Festival of American Music; and a brand new song cycle, CHRISTINA'S WORLD, commissioned and premiered by soprano Gwen Coleman Detwiler on the Cincinnati Song Initiative series.  Other concerts include performances on the Capital Fringe Chamber Music Series in Washington, DC and the Calliope's Call Art Song Series in Boston of NIGHT DANCES by soprano Maggie Finnegan, winner of the 2016 Washington International Vocal Competition; performances of SYLLABLES OF VELVET, SENTENCES OF PLUSH at the University of North Texas and the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, MA by Metropolitan Opera soprano Molly Fillmore; and performances of the song cycle for vocal quartet, FABLES FOR A PRINCE, by Chicago's Fourth Coast Ensemble and also by faculty singers at the University of Syracuse's Setnor School of Music.   In 2015, I received a Recording Grant from the Sorel Organization to produce my first solo CD of art songs. Propriety and Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush were recorded last fall by GRAMMY-winning soprano Susan Narucki with pianist Donald Berman, and my newest song cycle, O Mistress Mine, was recorded in August by countertenor Darryl Taylor, with myself at the piano. Plans are to release the finished CD during the 2016-2017 concert season.  

HOW I COMPOSE

A doctoral student writing her dissertation about one of my song cycles recently asked whether I like to use set theory. Through the years, I have often been asked similar questions about how I write my songs, and there may be evidence of systems or theories or methods in my songs, but if that is the case it is entirely unintentional and—indeed—a surprise to me. Perhaps on some unconscious level, something is going on... I suppose it must be.
 
Before beginning on a new song, I read and read and read and read and read the poem... then I speak the poem aloud, and speak it again, and again, and again, and again, etc. I do this so that what is foremost in my conscious thoughts are (1) the meaning, (2) the sound, and (3) the rhythm, of the text. (Note that sound and rhythm are not synonymous.)
 
I have always composed in one way—and one way only—which is improvisation at the piano. That said, I do believe I have a good sense of structural integrity and musical architecture that mirrors the particular poem or text I may be setting to music at the moment.
 
What I am trying to find while improvising is music that I believe will most accurately and most sincerely allow those three aspects of the texts to speak clearly to the listener. At that point, I am not even necessarily concerned with the "music" per se, heard simply as "music"; rather, I am concerned with music as a "carrier" for text, as a "medium" through which the text can come to life for the listener.
 
Poets see truth and beauty in even the most ordinary of things, and that is what I wish to express: those truths and that beauty. I'm not trying to "express" myself as a musician or as a composer. For me, the structure of the text and the musical architecture of my song should be in sync, one with another, in order to express the truth and beauty a particular text illuminates.
 
It is important for me to only work on one composition at a time, to really delve deep into the poet’s words. I like to feel a certain intensity in the work, so I sketch quickly—from beginning to end—what Frederic Rzewski used to call "crashing through" the work, just to get it down. I don't start with any plan or pre-determined formal structure so the speed helps me to feel the pull from something that is initially unknown towards something that eventually feels right for the text.
 
If a song of mine exhibits features of set theory, or any other system, I would be inclined to look at that text to determine whether that text exhibits any features of set theory, or any other system. If that is the case, then I suppose I might be tempted to feel very pleased indeed—if it indicated that a fundamental part of a poem or other text was brought into the music so deeply that it could be detected in that way.
 
But again, all this—for me—is unconscious. I do study each text very rigorously, but then I let go and I let the text speak to me, so that what you hear is the result of that apparently simple process of me "listening" to the text. As I'm sure you can tell by now, I'm not an academic kind of person. I truly wouldn't even know how to approach composing by utilizing a system or method! I’m an intuitive composer, which can create a feeling of great uncertainty when beginning a new piece.
 
Despite the uncertainty involved, I do think I have very strong musical and linguistic sensibilities, as well as a keen ability to understand color, mood, turn of phrase, rhythm, sound, texture, effect, and affect. Whatever I have written, and whatever I will write in the future, comes out of strongly-felt intuitions brought to the surface of my consciousness through improvisation (playing my piano and singing various possibilities until I find piano writing that establishes and "enlivens" the musical environment for the text and vocal lines that "carry" the text with beauty and simplicity, but all, I hope, within a form that reaches a certain level of artistic sophistication).

CELESTIAL REFRAINS:  SONGS OF DARK AND LIGHT

The main question I contemplated in programming the recital Celestial Refrains was whether to present my "war horse" pieces—works like my soprano song cycles Night Dances and Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush—or whether to present lesser-known works that, nevertheless, bring to musical life some of the most original and colorful poetry I've found in my nearly 30-year career, works I feel are as well-constructed and artistically as meaningful as those "war horses"—works, in short, that should be heard.  

Beyond that, as I considered various cycles, my husband pointed out that I should try to offer not only flashier work, but should include a piece that exemplified what he calls my "dark music": songs that are more intense, that touch upon more serious topics, songs that (hopefully) find whatever truth and beauty may be found in those corners of life that are more difficult, the shadowy areas that challenge us emotionally and intellectually to discover who we really are, sometimes in the most uncomfortable of circumstances.
 
After considering a number of possible combinations, always with singer availability in mind, I eventually decided upon the "road less traveled" approach, so I picked my mezzo soprano song cycle Dreams in War Time and my soprano song cycle Propriety. Both cycles set poetry by 20th-century American woman poets, Amy Lowell and Marianne Moore, respectively.
 
Dreams in War Time is the more serious "darker" cycle and, though not overtly political, comprises the only music I have ever written as a direct response to real events in the world, outside of imagination. Written in 2003, just after the invasion of Iraq and two years into the war in Afghanistan, this cycle was my attempt to express my feelings of despair. The idea of more war was just so dark and heavy at that time. Though the poetry does not depict the specifics of war pictorially, it does effectively describe the dark, bizarre, and twisted fragmentary feelings and images one has in one’s dreams and nightmares at such times as when war is raging. This cycle seeks to illuminate the often surreal atmosphere, jumbled feelings, and general unease that are part and parcel of living through a period of man's inhumanity to man—a period such as that in which we presently find ourselves. The seven poems in Dreams in War Time were written as a set, just after World War I, and seem to me to project as strongly today as back then the terrible sense of sadness and loss that war inevitably brings.
 
Propriety is a fun, lighter song cycle about the wonders of classical music, and those who make it...colorful, fanciful poetry about Isaac Stern saving Carnegie Hall, a dream in which Bach is hired by Northwestern University to teach composition (arousing Haydn's strong jealousy!), and more. Propriety was composed in 1992; I was extremely happy to find these wonderful poems when I decided to write a song cycle about music, and found the writing to be some of the most imaginative I have come across. Like much of the music the poetry discusses, the music of my settings is vocally virtuosic and technically demanding, but it was my hope to catch some of the excitement of high-level music-making and some of the depth of profound musical meaning celebrated in these poems, and to accept the message from these poems that music is a gift that contains within it the power to soothe and heal, and to transcend the concerns of daily life with humor and with faith.

 

THANKS AND DEDICATION 

I wish to express my heartfelt thanks to Martha Guth and Erika Switzer for making this performance of my song cycles possible, and I would like to dedicate this concert to them, in acknowledgement and gratitude for all they do to keep the world of art song in America healthy and thriving.

I would also like to thank soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, mezzo soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, and pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough for their imagination, insight, and artistry - it is a blessing to be able to hear such tremendously gifted performers in any setting, but most especially when they are bringing one's own music to life.
 
Furthermore, I am thrilled for the opportunity to share my music with you in CELESTIAL REFRAINS: SONGS OF JULIANA HALL on November 6, 2016 at 8:00 PM at the National Opera Center, 330 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY. I hope to see you there!


Further information about composer Juliana Hall can be found at her website: www.julianahall.com.


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