Adolphus Hailstork: Music is a Service
“Music is supposed to have meaning,” says Dr. Adolphus Hailstork whose music captures the tribulations and the occasional triumphs of African Americans in this country. Hailstork’s 80th birthday year got off to an impressive start with a performance of his music as part of the Presidential Inauguration ceremony of Joe Biden. Since then there has been a world premiere of a concert aria he composed to commemorate the centenary of the Tulsa Massacre and he awaits the premiere of his recently completed Fourth Symphony.
Adolphus Hailstork turned 80 in April, but he has been celebrated since the beginning of this year. On January 20, a wind band arrangement of his Fanfare on “Amazing Grace” was performed by the United States Marine Band during the inauguration of President of the United States Joe Biden. It was only the second time that music by a contemporary African American composer had been selected to be part of the repertoire performed at a presidential inauguration ceremony. And in June, as part of a digitally streamed concert on the first Juneteenth that was an official U.S. national holiday, J’Nai Bridges and the Harlem Chamber Players gave the world premiere performance of his concert aria Tulsa 1921 (Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust), a retelling of the Tulsa Race Massacre to mark its centenary. The concert was even previewed on CNN which rarely covers music outside the commercial mainstream.
It was definitely time to catch up with Dr. Hailstork to talk about his life in music. His passion for making music stretches all the way back to his childhood when he sang as a boy chorister. While growing up, he sang his way through all the parts, eventually singing bass. After he embarked on his path as a composer, he never lost his love for the human voice and for melody.
“Choral music is so rich,” Hailstork exclaimed during our conversation over Zoom. “It is my favorite medium.” And Hailstork’s music has been treasured by choirs for half a century. He received his first significant compositional accolade, the Ernest Bloch Award, for his choral composition Mourn Not the Dead in 1971, the same year he received his Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Ironically, only a few years earlier, as he confessed during our talk, he didn’t even know what the words “graduate school” meant. After he had completed his Bachelor’s degree at Howard University, he went to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulanger, not really sure about what his next steps would be.
Hailstork, however, took a very different path from most composers who pursued academic degrees during that time, eschewing what he described as the “plink, plank, and plunk” of the avant-garde music of his contemporaries. And for many years, his music was overlooked as he acknowledged. “It used to be a lot more difficult for lyrical types like me to have a place, just to be recognized, to be heard.”
Throughout this time, Hailstork, nevertheless, held his aesthetic ground, settling in Virginia and teaching for decades at Old Dominion University in Norfork while composing a stunning output of chamber music, solo piano and organ pieces, as well as many formidable orchestral works including four symphonies, in addition to writing numerous works for chorus. But while he is clear that he wants his music to be “a continuation rather than a breaking away from” the Western classical tradition, he very clearly has his own voice which has been enriched by his immersion into African American spirituals.
“I do worship the spirituals,” he explained at one point. “They’re gorgeous melodies and they’re very useful, and also I believe in the old statement by Dvořák that an American art music could be based on using African American materials or Indian materials also. I decided that Dvořák was right, and that’s what I wanted to do and I tried to work them in.”
The result of Hailstork’s idiosyncratic amalgamation of these two traditions has yielded an extraordinarily rich compositional language which also serves his other goal, “to capture or reflect the tribulations and the occasional triumphs of African Americans in this country.”
We almost killed music 50-60 years ago as a group experience.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
This whole thing of plink, plank, and plunk, count to 12--I couldn’t get into it.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
I learned a lot from those wonderful musicians who took the time to let me know that: "Your harp writing sucks, man. We got to teach you how to do this."
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
Harp makes a great melding together kind of goo.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
I wound up teaching comp to undergrads without any kind of theory background. It was excruciating. They didn’t know what they were doing. "I’m going to be a Composah." Well, sorry, it helps to know how to; it’s like if you’re going to build buildings and you never knew what a girder was.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
I believe in the old statement by Dvořák that an American art music could be based on using African American materials or Indian materials also.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
I think "We Shall Overcome" is a great classical melody.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
In my music, I try to capture or reflect the tribulations and the occasional triumphs of African Americans in this country.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
Music is supposed to have meaning to me.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
I salute all the band directors of America for their constant looking for new pieces.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
I was reacting to all the black men who are getting shot in the back--16 bullets here, seven bullets there
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
I love grand opera, though I never had a chance to write an evening’s length opera. I’m getting kind of old for that.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
If anything good came out of the pandemic, it's that so many artistic groups have started to rethink their hopes, their plans, and also their whole programming.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
I once called music a service art, and that’s probably because growing up as a chorister, I was performing service. ... You take all that out of listening to music, and no wonder people are gonna stop coming to it.
Adolphus Hailstork, composer
Read the Full Transcript
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Adolphus Hailstork
July 23, 2021—1:00 p.m. EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: This has been a really important year for you, a milestone year. You had two really prominent performances that come to my mind. One is that performance of that really deeply moving Tulsa 1921 work that was created in memoriam for the centenary of the horrible events of Tulsa 100 years ago. And the other is that your music was part of the inauguration of our president of the United States, which is a big deal. Those two things were both very public things. This music had the potential, and hopefully did in fact reach a very broad audience, which I know is an important goal for you in your music.
Adolphus Hailstork: Yeah, I never wanted to be one of those composers up in a loft with 12 fellow composers and that kind of thing. That never was me.
FJO: A lot of people say, “Oh, I don’t like new music. I don’t want to hear this new music.” They need to hear it in order to know whether they like it or not. And new music is an extremely varied realm. Composers are writing all kinds of pieces. But unless you hear the music, you can’t know if it’s something that speaks to you.
AH: Yes, it used to be a lot more difficult for lyrical types like me to have a place, just to be recognized, to be heard. I’m talking about probably long before your time. Back when I was in school in the ‘60s, the gates were barred and only the Boulez-ites, those people who loved to count to 12, were admitted. I’m only rediscovering some of my own teachers and how they were blocked. I’m talking about Flagello, Giannini. We know how Barber was trashed and now, God, he’s beloved. It was a tough time back then.
FJO: A lot of people still don’t know what to make of this term “new music.” Obviously new music is music that’s created anew by somebody who’s alive, creating it now. And your music is undeniably contemporary and of our time, often relating to extremely topical issues that people of right now could totally relate to. And yet, indeed, it exists somewhere outside of this rubric of new music.
AH: For some people, new music is anything that is being written today. Contemporary music might be a better term. It dawned on me years after I stopped wrestling with it: they were trying to reinvent music. If we’re going into the invention of the Baroque era, okay, we have Jacopo Peri and we have a new form called opera and stuff like that and all the sounds have to be absolutely uniquely different, etcetera, etcetera. But in my study of history, I don’t know when they ever totally left being involved with human beings who are listening to it. We almost killed music 50-60 years ago as a group experience in a large concert hall. In small venues where a few people gathered together in the name of counting to 12, that’s fine; but it’s—I don’t know.“We almost killed music 50-60 years ago as a group experience.”
I’m not trying to be controversial, but you raised this. I just remember how much I felt so out of it, and so much attacked and I think I was trying to say that I only recently discovered the music of Flagello and Giannini. I listened to them and I recognized that they had a bigger impact on me than I thought. How they represented an old guard versus vanguard, I guess. But the stuff is doggone good. And they were blocked from a wide acceptance and wide performances. We had Morton Subotnick and John Cage, and numerous others leading the way, which turned out to me to be an arid field.
FJO: There’s this whole realm and there’s an institutionalization of new music–of contemporary music and concerts that have only contemporary works. But then the sphere that your music exists in to a great extent are the more standard performance practices of symphony orchestras, string quartets, who are mostly devoted to playing music by very old, long dead composers, mostly from Europe–not from here. But there’s a simpatico sound world that allows your music to fit in with that music in a way that a lot of other so-called contemporary music might not necessarily fit in, and might be jarring to listeners who are going to hear those other pieces.
AH: I once read an essay about the two threads, a modernist thread and populist thread that entered into the 20th century. You can pick one or the other. I’m more on the populist side: tonal, lyrical. I am interested in a continuation rather than a breaking away from. I think we need to establish right from the beginning how I came up. I am a chorister. I sang in choirs. I’m a singer. Okay. That almost by definition would make me a conservative because choral music is so rich and it’s also limited in terms of what choirs can do versus what instrumentalists can do, and I think most of the people of my generation that came along were pianists or players on other instruments.“This whole thing of plink, plank, and plunk, count to 12–I couldn’t get into it.”
My ear leaned towards the choral, the conservative, the ceremonial you might say, and this whole thing of plink, plank, and plunk, count to 12–I couldn’t get into it. I never wrote choral music in 12-tone technique. I never conducted a choir in a 12-tone piece, again ‘cause choirs are mostly filled with amateur singers. Now, if I were commissioned by one of the major choirs of New York City or something like that, then I might say, “Mmm, maybe this is my chance to experiment with an avant-garde approach to writing for choir.” But it doesn’t fascinate me that much.
FJO: I’m glad you brought up the choral thing, because one of the things that I find so compelling about your music is how idiomatic it is for voices and for inner voices. I find it interesting that you began as a little kid, singing the high parts, and grew up in chorus with your voice getting lower, eventually being a bass. So you basically got through all the parts, so you have an acquired knowledge of each of the voices.
AH: Right. When I conducted choirs, I always sang all the parts. I’d tell the sopranos, “It goes like this, sopranos,” and I’d sing it in their register. Their eyes would bulge up. I love the medium. And it is my favorite medium. Even yesterday, I was talking to a group of composition students at Brevard and said, “Get a chance, sing in a choir, so you can be inside the music and hear the counterpoint moving around and hear the chords being formed.” That was crucial to how I formed my own aesthetic.
FJO: Now in terms of being inside the music, you were a singer, but you also played violin, you played piano, you played organ. You had this background in all these very different physical ways of making music. And obviously, as a composer you write a ton of really fantastic music for orchestra, you have to write for all these instruments, many of which I don’t think you do have such an intimate physical knowledge of playing. So how do you wind up getting that fluency and being as idiomatic in sonorities you’re less familiar with making yourself?
AH: Well I played in high school orchestra for years. I started out in the junior high school orchestra, and then you study scores. I mean you study scores and study, and study, and listen, and listen. I love the sound. I love the sound of all the instruments. I often have gotten the question from people who aren’t in the field: How do you hear all these instruments? I said, “You memorize the sound of all the instruments. You know what a flute sounds like, an oboe sounds like, a clarinet sounds like, a trumpet sounds like.” They hadn’t perhaps consciously thought of it themselves, but if I said, “Imagine hearing the sound of a flute right now,” they could do it. I’m pretty sure they could do it. It’s just that some of us dive into it much more deeply.
FJO: Of course, the tricky part is you can have those sounds in your head, but also having the ranges, and knowing what’s comfortable for a player, what’s idiomatic. There are certain challenges, like the harp. You jokingly said, in an interview I heard recently, you wanted to play the harp, and they assigned you to violin. The harp is a nightmare instrument. It’s so beautiful and it can play all these things, but only based on how the pedals work with certain combinations; certain things are not possible.
AH: Right, and you only use four fingers. I didn’t know that until I wrote a piece called Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed. There’s a pretty nice harp part in there, and the first harpist who played it for me always wrote me elaborate notation telling me this can’t be done. “You are writing for piano. You’re not really writing for harp.” And I learned a lot from those wonderful musicians who took the time to let me know that: “Your harp writing sucks, man. We got to teach you how to do this.” And, of course, when I started teaching orchestration as a college prof, I got much more familiar, and one very good friend got me a book–I forgot the name of the author–on scoring for harp. And I’ve studied that, and I love the instrument. And I used in Tulsa as you mentioned. You have to learn these things. And as for learning the what the other instruments could do, and how they pair well with other instruments, it’s a learning experience, partly from books, but mostly from listening.“I learned a lot from those wonderful musicians who took the time to let me know that: ‘Your harp writing sucks, man. We got to teach you how to do this.'”
One of my first funny experiences was I wrote a short orchestra piece. It was my first breakout piece called Celebration. I wrote it in ’74, to get ready for the Bicentennial. I had in there orchestra chimes–tubular bells–and there were supposed to be bells ringing, everybody’s happy. When I first heard it live, the bells were totally smothered. I said, “What has happened?” That’s when I started realizing that a recording is different from a performance. So orchestra directors started moving the bells up to the front, just behind the first row of first violins, so they could be heard. But that’s what you learn in experience. That did not work that way. Do you want to use those things? You’ve got to think of Berlioz and the March to the Gallows, or the final movement where you hear the bells so solemnly. You can’t cover them that heavily. And the same thing, you can’t cover harp.
I could talk more orchestration, but harp makes a great melding together kind of goo. For instance, the Tulsa piece, I knew I was going to have a small body of strings. Liz Player told me, “You are going to have this many strings.” It actually was supposed to be less than she managed to get finally. I said, “Okay, but I want a little bit more goo in the sound.” So, she said, “There’s going to be a harpist.” And the harpist just kind of blends everything together, so I used harp. I threw harp in there, and it worked out nicely.
FJO: Wonderful. Of course, fewer string players than normal because they had to be physically distanced.
AH: Yeah, yeah. That was part of it, but it was really mainly budget.
FJO: Yeah. That’s always the other issue. In terms of this experience and listening and background, this strikes back to what you were saying at the onset of the conversation of not wanting to reinvent music, but rather to be continuing within a tradition. Being part of that tradition. Certainly you had some very key mentors. You mentioned Giannini. You also studied with David Diamond and with Mark Fax, an all too little known composer whose music I hope gets rediscovered at some point. And with Nadia Boulanger.
AH: Ah. Wow. That’s a lot of people. Um, Mark Fax. When I reported to Howard my first semester, I begged him to immediately start teaching me comp because I had never had any comp lessons. But I had been sneaking books out of the library and studying orchestration and reading scores. They had scores in the public library. And he said, “No, you have to wait until you get to your junior year. After you have to have two years of theory.” That broke my heart at the time, but I understand where he’s coming from because I wound up teaching comp to undergrads without any kind of theory background. It was excruciating. They didn’t know what they were doing. “I’m going to be a Composah.” Well, sorry, it helps to know how to; it’s like if you’re going to build buildings and you never knew what a girder was. That wasn’t my experience with Mark. And he was a sweet man.“I wound up teaching comp to undergrads without any kind of theory background. It was excruciating. They didn’t know what they were doing. ‘I’m going to be a Composah.’ Well, sorry, it helps to know how to; it’s like if you’re going to build buildings and you never knew what a girder was.”
And then Giannini, our cigar smoking teacher of counterpoint at MSM, Manhattan School of Music–rough, gruff, easy going at the same time. He said something that has stuck in my mind for a long, long, long time. We were supposed to write a double fugue and he said, “Don’t think you can take two separate things and put them together and you’re going to have your double fugue; you’re not ready for that yet.” You can’t pre-create your themes, and then see if you can make a useful piece out of them.
And Flagello, terrific! There are whole recordings of Flagello’s music out now that I didn’t know about when I was in school. I think that must be kind of per usual in the educational world. The students don’t know, hey, you’ve actually accomplished something. But I had him for orchestration. He was a flamboyant orchestra teacher. I mean, he’s a fantastic musician. I mean, geez, great, great pianist. Wonderful conductor. And a keen ability to talk about orchestration.
Boulanger’s another ballgame all together. I studied with Boulanger one summer before I went to Manhattan School of Music, but had I not gone to Boulanger’s academy in France, I may never have gotten to the Manhattan School of Music. I just had the good fortune that there was a person who taught piano at Manhattan School of Music at the time, Mary Weaver, who after a short little concert Mademoiselle organized–I had a piece on there–she walked up to me, this teacher Mary, and said, what are you plans for grad school? As unbelievable as it may seem, I had never heard the words grad school. I had no idea what she was talking about. I said I have no plans. Here I am with a Bachelor’s degree in music composition, not teaching by the way, and I had no prospects whatsoever. And she said, “Well, I may be able to get you into the Manhattan School of Music.” And she did. So I’ve established a scholarship in her name, our shared names, recently, When I realized the magnitude of that moment, and the impact that it had on my life–I had three glorious years in New York City, studying at what has turned out to be one of the great music schools in the country. That was pure serendipity. But that’s what happened.
FJO: I want to go back in time a little bit, because you mentioned never hearing the words grad school. I was rather perplexed by a comment you made to the composer William Banfield in his really important book Musical Landscapes in Color, which is sadly out of print now. Going back to your time at Howard, that the students were discouraged from performing or learning about gospel music, which I thought was really bizarre.
AH: Well, it’s got to do with the perspective of time. I was on the cusp, the end of, to me as I see it, of a golden age for black universities at Howard, before desegregation and the Civil Rights movement opened up other schools to blacks more easily. At Howard, at that time, they were very strict in the classics and I’m actually very thankful for that. We used French solfège books to work on our sight-reading. We studied Chadwick’s harmony book. It was a strict Euro-centric, classical tradition. Any kid coming out of an urban area who sat in one of the practice rooms playing gospel was chastised. You just didn’t do that. You are here to learn the classics and master the classics, not to play what you were playing in church on the weekends. So that was a great experience.
I was not that interested in gospel. I knew nothing about it. I didn’t grow up in that tradition. But some kids did, and that’s what they wanted to do. And so right then, you could see the tide turning. Now we know that later on in the ‘60s, after I left in ’63, I think about ’66 to ’68 somewhere, there was a great uprising on that campus, an occupation of the executive buildings, and all that, as the students tried to force, and they did certainly influence the use of more black materials, and a more Afro-centric approach to teaching at the university. That was a very turbulent time. It was probably a very valuable time for the university to reconsider its involvement in teaching of the young people they were getting. It might be that a different type of person was going into the black schools at the time. Because, as I said, the white schools and academies started opening up their doors for black students more often.
FJO: Well, what’s amazing to me about this sort of suppression of gospel music at Howard is gospel music is a tradition that has its roots in the spirituals. And those spirituals have been a deep, deep influence on your music. They’re a key element. I would dare say that the two great traditions that your music has somehow been a response to and an evolution of and a melding together is the Western classical music tradition of symphonic music and these spirituals.
AH: Well, I happen to think the spirituals are the foundation of our music. It doesn’t automatically follow that gospel came out of the spirituals. Gospel really more, I think, came out of the blues. Now, did the blues comes out of the spirituals? All of that has been studied by people who are more learned than I am about the issue. But I like to go back to the genuine spirituals. Now, when I was at Howard, the spirituals were, even those days, around the late-‘50s, passed on by word of mouth. I mean you sat in the choir; it was a great choir at that time! You sat in the choir, and you learned the spirituals from the people who were sitting around you, who had been in the choir already three years or four years. So that plantation approach to passing on spirituals was still alive at Howard. I’m sure they would resent my saying plantation, but I’m talking just the technique of passing them from voice to voice. Now, you know, even Ray Charles got in trouble bringing blues-inflected music into the church, which is one of the things that evolved into gospel, and Thomas Dorsey, all of that. Gospel is like a cousin to the spirituals. But it’s not a descendent of the spirituals. In terms of my own works, since I do worship the spirituals, and think they’re gorgeous melodies and they’re very useful, and also I believe in the old statement by Dvořák that an American art music could be based on using African American materials or Indian materials also. I decided that Dvořák was right, and that’s what I wanted to do and I tried to work them in.“I believe in the old statement by Dvořák that an American art music could be based on using African American materials or Indian materials also.”
FJO: One wonderful use of them, I’m thinking of the Spirituals Suite that you wrote for organ, to my ears, really establishes these melodies as being parallel to Lutheran chorales, which inspired Buxtehude and Bach and Reger, and all these composers. They’re on the same level, and you can do just as much with them.
AH: Yeah, I think the spirituals are some great stuff. And I like to use them, and I extract motives from them etcetera, etcetera, just like they used to do in Europe from their folk songs.
FJO: One of the most amazing transformations of spirituals in your music is, I think, the music you’ve done for string quartet using spirituals. Obviously, what comes to mind is String Quartet No. 2, which is a set of variations on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, which is one of the most famous of all of the spirituals and you worked it into an entire composition that takes it into other places that it normally wouldn’t go.
AH: That’s the idea. Right. I love that piece. That’s a piece I really like a lot. Since I came up as a lyrical guy, and every lyrical moment has motives, has ideas in them that can be worked over, and because I’m classically trained, I know how to take a motive and turn it into a lot of different ideas. I appreciate that training and that ability to do that.
FJO: Something that’s even more deeply moving to me is what you did with “We Shall Overcome” in the arrangement for string quartet where it begins as all of the players are in unison, and then it becomes contrapuntal.
AH: Well yeah. It’s based on the technique of a Bach chorale prelude. I was just thinking of “We Shall Overcome.” I think “We Shall Overcome” is a great classical melody. I mean, that is a melody worthy of any stalwart melody that you’d find in a grand European moment. Plus I’m an organ player as you know, and so I wanted to create an organ prelude and so I decided to use the trio technique and put this chorale prelude idea underneath it and then bring in the broader lines of “We Shall Overcome.” And because of the stateliness of that melody, it worked perfectly. I really like how that turned out.
FJO: And, of course, the other element of it is “We Shall Overcome” is a melody that everybody knows because it was the de facto anthem of the Civil Rights movement, and so closely associated with Dr. Martin Luther King, and having everybody sing “We Shall Overcome” together in sit-ins and making people aware through this melody. So when you use it, it has all these other associations attached to it because you can’t really divorce the associations from that melody, I think.
AH: I like the idea that the nobility of the cause in the ‘60s in the Civil Rights era–which is now being resurrected you might say on behalf of voting rights all over again, etcetera–somebody’s got to catalogue that. Or somebody honor that, and as a creature who was coming of age during the Civil Rights era, who however never grew up with the problems that they had ever had. I just thought, okay, what can I do? Do I have to do anything? I decided that yeah, I wanted to do something. And so in my music, I try to capture or reflect the tribulations and the occasional triumphs of African Americans in this country. And so if I can apply my skills to reflecting this, using the melodies, even if I use them in a Germanic Lutheran texture, why not? If we try to define nobility. You know, one the things that bothers me a lot in some of that new music we started talking about early on is the loss of terms like nobility, grace, tenderness. So many things got lost, just so we can count to 12 and throw notes all over the place. That may have had order, but not much meaning. Now for me, coming up as a chorister, when you made a musical gesture, you were making meaning: the meaning of the anthem you were singing, the meaning of the hymn you were singing at the cathedral.“In my music, I try to capture or reflect the tribulations and the occasional triumphs of African Americans in this country.”
Music is supposed to have meaning to me. Now I have used crazy things. Clusters and 12-tone, Every single technique that was invented in the 20th century I’ve used. But I’ve always tried to use them in a ways that reflected meaningfulness. For instance, there’s a band piece called American Guernica. Now people don’t think much about band music; they think it’s all marches and gallops and whatever. I used very extreme techniques for the time. When I wrote this in the ‘80s, I’d already heard a lot of the different avant-garde techniques and, to me, blowing up a church in Birmingham, Alabama called for using some really extreme, loud, ugly sounds, but led us to honor the four little girls who were killed. So I think maybe that’s something that bothered me the most when I was in school and they were teaching us all this and insisted on gun-to-the-head modernity and all of that. They never spoke about the meaningfulness of the sounds and where you wanted to take them. That’s why I am who I am.
FJO: I’m glad that you brought that up. First off, mentioning a wind band piece. I wanted to bring it back for a second to Martin Luther King, and your comment about not knowing what graduate school was, but upon his assassination and seeing all these references to Dr. King made you decide you wanted to get a doctorate. And you got a doctorate studying with H. Owen Reed, who is a big wind band composer. So it all connects, like everything connects to everything else here. I love that.
AH: Yeah, well you know, this is going to sound crazy, I used to go to band rehearsals, though I never played a band instrument. I just love the sound of it. I think it ties in with two things. One is organ, and the pipe organ with the majesty that it’s able to summon, and also choir. The sustained sounds of the choir. And I love brass. I’ve written for band more than just American Guernica, and it’s a very powerful medium. I didn’t want to devote my whole career to it, because I love strings, too. But I love everything. I happen to think bands can be a magnificent way of expressing yourself.
FJO: And a great opportunity. They’re a lot more open to doing works by living composers than most orchestras.
AH: Yes, they are. And I salute all the band directors of America for their constant looking for new pieces. And they took that piece, Guernica, which is, wow, on everybody’s conducting list. I don’t mean to say that in a hubristic way, but I mean a guy just wrote his doctoral thesis on American Guernica. I mean a whole doctoral thesis. A magnificent doctoral thesis! He sent me a rough copy of it, and it just goes to show you that band directors will look for what they consider high quality music and program it. They don’t flinch from it the way many orchestra directors have to because we’ve got the board breathing down your neck, and you’ve got the artistic administrator saying no, no, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And you got to get the butts in the seats. Where band directors don’t have quite that problem of the audience with its fixed agenda of what you should be playing.
FJO: Well, it’s so interesting to me in terms of your trajectory with the orchestra because you have had successes with big pieces. If a composer gets lucky and gets their music played by an orchestra, they maybe get to write a ten-minute work that they put at the beginning of the program, so that everybody comes in late and doesn’t hear it. Right? And maybe, maybe you’re lucky, right, and you have a good friend who is a soloist and then you can write a concerto for that person. But to write a symphony, a multi-movement, long orchestra piece that’s typically the second half of the program, that almost is never given to a living composer because they’re afraid people are going to leave at intermission. Right? You’ve now written four symphonies and they’re to my ears at the heart of your work as a composer. They’re monumental pieces. They’re important pieces. Thankfully three of the four of them are on commercially released recordings thanks to Naxos. So they’re out there. And they’ve had their champions, but it’s rare that that happens.
AH: The Fourth hasn’t been premiered yet; it’s coming up in February. But the Second and Third, they don’t get performances. They had their premieres. The Second got another performance at Wayne State University about four, five years ago. It’s very rare. Where I do seem to have had better luck was with a field that a lot of composers from my generation didn’t get into that much, but I took in like mother’s milk when I was a kid—and that is orchestra and chorus. I’ve written a lot of pieces for chorus and orchestra. It’s a lot of work to do, because you’ve got to produce the vocal score, then you have to produce the orchestra, then you’ve got to do the parts and stuff, etcetera, etcetera. Since I love writing for choir, and I’m good at it, I’ll kind of softly say humbly, and I can handle the orchestra decently, too, putting both together has been a strong point in my career. I’m hoping the fourth symphony might have more legs than the Second and Third. The First is a short, little, Haydn-esque symphony. And that has gotten a lot of play because it’s short. It’s got a small orchestra, and it’s got some cute tunes. So you can’t lose with that combination.
FJO: Yeah, well One is wonderful, but I also love Three. I hope more orchestras take it up.
FJO: That’s a great piece.
AH: You’re the first person who ever said that.
FJO: No. Really?!
AH: Yeah! Yeah! I never hear that one mentioned.
FJO: I thought it was a very powerful, very moving piece that kind of goes through so many different emotions and so many different terrains. We’re talking about pieces having these larger meanings and connecting to things. You know, symphonies are abstract but you hear them, and you form your own narratives.
AH: It’s interesting you said that because the Fourth I direct the narrative. The fourth symphony has four movements. The first one is “Still Holding On.” The whole symphony is called Survive. I was reacting to all the black men who are getting shot in the back–16 bullets here, seven bullets there–and so I just named the whole thing Survive. The first movement was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And I called it “Still Holding On.” And I quoted the spiritual, “Hold On. Hold On. Keep Your Hand on the Plow.” And the second movement is I Had the Light in the Mood, and I called it, Sometimes With a Lighter Touch. And then the third movement is While Still Remembering the Emmanuel Nine and Many Others. Now that’s a trick to tell because you have to know what Hailstork was talking about. You don’t know the Emmanuel Nine, then you don’t know current or recent American history. And the fourth movement is called–and it’s so appropriate for the day, it blows my mind–Still Crossing that Bridge. Still Crossing that Bridge! I could actually dedicate that movement to John Lewis. And then there’s a coda. Calls for a Time for Healing. So I directed the thinking I wanted my audience to hear. It’s like a symphony of essays. It means something to me.
FJO: But this is just orchestra, not chorus and orchestra.
AH: Just orchestra.
FJO: So in a way, you mentioned Berlioz early on, it’s a programmatic symphony.
AH: Yes, it is.
FJO: Now an aspect of your work that I wish I was familiar with that I haven’t had the opportunity to see and hear is you’ve written several operas. That’s an even bigger hurdle to cross for a composer than getting a piece done by an orchestra.
AH: I don’t know whether to be embarrassed by that. People say, “Oh, you’ve written four operas.” No, not really. They’re all educational projects, the longest one is like 60 minutes maybe. I guess I’m a purist about o-pe-ra. I love going to the HD Met operas. I love grand opera, though I never had a chance to write an evening’s length opera. I’m getting kind of old for that. That is a long, hard slog. They get you a librettist. The librettist works with a dramaturg, then you have to get to work and write the piece. And then you have to score the piece. And then you must produce two scores. One for the solo singers and one for the orchestra, etcetera. Then, if you’re lucky, you might get one performance.“I love grand opera, though I never had a chance to write an evening’s length opera. I’m getting kind of old for that.”
I think I’m having better luck with the idea of the concert aria. I’ve written two of them over the past couple of years, thanks to Liz Player of the [Harlem] Chamber Players. Nobody Knows for baritone and string quartet–The New York Times called that one of the good, short operas. Oh, that’s news to me. And then of course, Tulsa 1921. And my wife pointed out, because I was lamenting, “Oh I’m not getting any operas.” She said, “Look, you get actual more performances with your concert arias and your orchestra and choral pieces than you do with an opera. So don’t worry about opera.” To me, opera’s a young person’s game. You generally don’t start operas at the age of 80 unless you’re Verdi and have a long history of writing operas.
FJO: Or Janáček who was in his 70s when he really had his breakthrough.
AH: Well, I’m in my 80s. I’m going to have my breakdown.
FJO: Life expectancy is much better now than it was then. Hopefully you’ll be around for many, many years, and maybe have your fifth opera done.
AH: People point out that I never initiated an opera project, because it’s too much work for too little chance, to me anyway, of getting performed and follow up performances are rare, etcetera, etcetera. I mean, I remember Copland said he wasn’t going to do another one and Corigliano said no way, not again, you know, and so I said, forget it. I love the great Romantic operas. And of course Mozart operas, and stuff like that. So let them have that.
FJO: Well to bring this all full circle. You know, at the very beginning of this conversation, you were talking about coming up at a time when there were people who almost destroyed music. And I’m thinking about this now in terms of how do we reach a wider audience with music, and obviously that wider audience that doesn’t go to symphony orchestras, that doesn’t go to opera houses, that doesn’t go to anything. They’re listening to music; they’re just not listening to this music. They’re listening to other music. And maybe if they thought there was something there for them in what happens in a symphony orchestra concert or what happens in an opera hall, rather than it being the domain of these old, dead, European composers. And then maybe if they think contemporary music, they think, “Oh, I don’t want to hear that stuff.” But if they knew there was music out there that was topical, that spoke to the issues of this moment, that might be something that they would want to hear.
AH: Well, we can always hope. If anything good came out of the pandemic, it’s that so many artistic groups have started to rethink their hopes, their plans, and also their whole programming. Symphony orchestra directors and artistic administrators are talking or thinking about more inclusion. Black composers, especially the young people, are being discovered and being programmed. This is a hopeful sign. It might be a passing sign. You never know, but let’s see what happens. I think the young composers are responding to the whole world around them. Their reaction to the George Floyd killing, all of that is having people rethink: what should be the arts be doing? What are the arts good for? Can the arts speak to our dilemmas and hope for our future? And this is very good. We’ll see.“If anything good came out of the pandemic, it’s that so many artistic groups have started to rethink their hopes, their plans, and also their whole programming.”
Now you know, when it comes to orchestras especially, it seems, they get reticent. “Oh, we’ve got to go back to Bach and Brahms or Beethoven, and we’ve got to watch our dollar signs as the bottom line. We can’t just do social good. That’s not our purpose, social good. Our purpose is to put butts in the seats, and keep them coming. They’ll come out if they see Beethoven Seventh. I love the Seventh Symphony. Beethoven, I want to go hear that. Okay, fine. Well what about the Barber Violin Concerto? Ah, I think it’s a gorgeous piece. Yeah, okay. What about the whatever orchestra works that Boulez did? I can stay home for that one. Thank you. The bottom line is can it get people into the halls.
FJO: Well, I would contend that with Beethoven seventh, there are certain generations who know that, but younger people, they don’t know Beethoven Seventh from Boulez’s anything.
AH: You know what it is now, it’s video game music. My last class I taught at Old Dominion before I retired was an orchestration class. I wanted them to hear the Rachmaninoff Second because one of our faculty members was going to play it. I accidentally dropped the needle, you might say, on my CD at the first recording which is on the CD which is the Tchaikovsky First. Bom-bom-bom-bom. And I said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I know you all know that one. I want you to hear this one.” And they had never heard it. And I said, “What? You never heard the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto?!”
I said, “Oh, God, it is time for me to retire.” Because I had never met anyone in my life who had never known that piece. And then I got a whole class in front of me that had never heard that piece. So it goes in with what you were saying: the death of music education in the public schools. And also the kids don’t need to because they’ve got their own music entirely, and if it’s not something that’s rap or dancing, it’s video game music. When I talk to young students now, or want-to-be composers, I always include all the many options you’re going to have as a composer. You’re going to make a hell of a lot more money than as a concert composer. And I always include ring tones. And video game music. Etcetera, etcetera. I said, “The guy who wrote the music for Game of Thrones is now probably a multi-millionaire.” And all of that. And they’re shaking heads and saying, yeah. So it’s interesting, where music is gonna go.
You may remember, 10, 15, 20 years ago, they were saying the symphony orchestra’s dead. I hope that’s not the case, because I love the symphony orchestra. I think it’s a service. I once called music a service art, and that’s probably because growing up as a chorister, I was performing service. I was at the church with my little ruffled collar and my hymnbook and singing and that was part of the service. It’s a ceremonial aspect. You take all that out of listening to music, and no wonder people are gonna stop coming to it. But I hope they’ll all come back.