Hilary Hahn Concludes Her Model Contest

Hilary Hahn Concludes Her Model Contest

This was not a “kingmaker” contest, but one that truly strove for diversity and a wide net. The winners (all eleven of them!) were announced on June 15, and I had the privilege of speaking with Hilary Hahn herself about the contest.

Written By

Rob Deemer

Hilary Hahn - Photo by Peter Miller

Hilary Hahn – Photo by Peter Miller

You may remember a column of mine back in October where I described a new composition contest that Hilary Hahn was sponsoring as part of her new Encores Project. I was really impressed by the structure of the contest–the fact that, while works had to be completely new, both the instrumentation (violin and piano) and duration (3.5-5 minutes in length) would not be burdensome to composers who wished to take part. It proved to me that the sponsor cared about the creators. The fact that as many as 10 honorable mentions might be picked as well as the grand prize winner demonstrated that this was not a “kingmaker” contest, but one that truly strove for diversity and a wide net. Finally, and most impressive to me, not only was there no fee, but $2 would be donated to the Dramatic Need charity for every entry. One only hopes that other contests take note of these welcome items.

Well, the contest guideline said that the winners would be announced on June 15 and the contest administrators were kind enough to not only give me a sneak peak at who the winners were (all eleven of them!) but gave me the privilege of speaking with Hilary Hahn herself about the contest, its winners, and her current adventures.

First off, the winners! The following was posted last night on Hilary’s Facebook page:

Hilary is very happy to announce the winner and the ten honorable mentions of her ‘In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores’ online contest. They are:

Jeff Myers: “The Angry Birds of Kauai”
(Hilary interviews Jeff here.)

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Philip Brownlee: “Pariwhero”
Nikolet Burzynska: “Orna-mention”
Tristan D’Agosta: “Piece for Violin and Piano”
Mark Gresham: “Café Cortadito”
George Kontogiorgos: “Before the Rain Starts”
Marius Felix Lange: “Nutcracker’s Nightmare”
Garth Neustadter: “Volitation”
Aaron Severini: “Catch”
Rani Sharone: “Tick”
Octavio Vazquez: “NGC 6611”

Hilary will tour Jeff Myers’s encore during the 13-14 season and will record it for release. She has also committed to performing every Honorable Mention encore by the end of 2015! Thanks to the over 400 composers who participated in this project. Hilary was thrilled to listen to all of your pieces. -HH’s team

The following interview was recorded on June 14, 2012
Text and recording produced and edited by Rob Deemer

[A recording of the entire interview is posted at the conclusion of this transcript–I’ll apologize for the slight delay between me and Hilary near the end, as the recording software inadvertently allowed her audio to slip a bit. – RD]

Rob: For those who are unaware of your Encores Project, can you give a little background on it and where things are at within that process?

Hilary: I’ve premiered half of it—there are 27 pieces—this past season. I’ve premiered 13, and I’m going to premiere the rest of the 14 next season, including the winner of the contest. I’m recording each half of the project each season, so I’ve already recorded half the project and will record the other half next season, and it will all probably be released in early 2014.

It arose out of a time when it seemed that there were so many encore collections coming out in print and recordings, and about ten years ago I was curious where the new encore collections were. I realized that while I would hear people play new encores after concertos, I just wasn’t feeling that people were aware that new pieces could be written as encores and could really catch on. I was also thinking back to the time when violinists and other instrumentalists were touring recital programs in which they would perform whole series of these short pieces in the program, as well as playing concertos with piano. So it was a much more flexible setup.

I thought it would be nice to look back as well as look forward by putting together a project that would enable me to program things like when these really popular older encores were new, as well as focus on new music and draw attention to these composers and great pieces that were being written today.

Rob: You could have easily stopped there and just picked those first 26 composers. What made you want to add a contest of this scope to the project?

Hilary: I’m not quite sure why I initially thought of it, though I have wanted to have that be part of a project for quite a while. When I was doing the research for, well, research for me as I was picking which composers to ask for this particular project—which meant staying up really late at night with chocolate and a cup of tea, sitting by my computer surfing the internet like crazy—I would go to all these sites that had information on living composers and listen to every single person listed on each site. It was important to me that they had a presence online, because if I liked one piece, then I would be able to get to know their other work in general.

After a while I realized that there are so many composers who were probably missing, and it’s really a coincidence, whom you become familiar with, whether it was through colleagues or presenters or program directors. I tried to get as much information as possible, but there are so many great composers out there who either aren’t on the forefront of what people are aware of or whose works I wouldn’t necessarily have come across or students who I would not have had the chance to hear their music. I also wanted people to think about writing encores. The miniature form is challenging in a different sort of way and I thought it might be fun for composers to work on.

Rob: How many composers submitted works and how did you go about selecting both the winner and the honorable mentions?

Hilary: We got 409 entries…I didn’t know what to expect—some said we’d get thousands, and I hoped that we would have at least had 30, so it wound up in the middle. That was really good because I was the only judge; the idea was that I would be the only person judging until I couldn’t do any more judging and then I’d see if I needed help. I had a project assistant making sure they were anonymous, taking out references to titles and names and keeping track of who wrote what so we could contact the right person. It was neat because I never knew what I was going to be listening to and seeing when I opened up these entries; I had no idea who wrote them or what they were thinking about from the title. So that was really fun…it was like getting a bunch of presents!

I wasn’t sure what I was going to be listening for because I didn’t know what type of pieces would be coming in. If I had a specific thing in mind, I would miss a lot of the really interesting things that these pieces had to offer by not seeing what was in front of me and only looking for one particular thing that might not even be there. I just wanted to study the scores and listen to the MIDI and find something that I would want to interpret.

At first I would look to see what was well-written, but I realized that there were so many interesting pieces that it would have to be boiled down in a different way—that would have to really be about what I felt like playing. There were others that were terrific but were too close to other works that were already in the project, and I felt bad in those cases because there was nothing about the piece that kept it from being a grand prize winner. I also looked at balance between the violin and the piano in terms of give-and-take, as well as issues that would make the work so idiosyncratic to my way of playing that they wouldn’t have a life after I performed them.

Ultimately I had to narrow it down to eleven pieces at the most—I originally thought that I’d pick three or four honorable mentions, but I wound up wanting to use all of those ten, and maybe another ten too, but it essentially became clear to me that this particular set was right. I picked the grand prize winner by studying all eleven scores that I had narrowed down day after day and looked at which one worked really well for this project and which one had the most potential for me to interpret.

Rob: Can you tell us a little bit about the winning work and at least some of the works that won honorable mention?

Hilary: What I found really fun was discovering who wrote what after I picked them and reading about them online because it felt like I knew these pieces already. They’d stuck in my head—that’s anther reason why I picked this final group because they’re the ones that really stuck with me…I’d be walking down the street and a theme would pop into my head and I’d be, “What tune is that? Oh, it’s #264!” I was really surprised at how wide-ranging these composers were from their photos and bios online—where they were from, what their musical backgrounds are, and what kind of people they seemed to be.

The grand prize winner—his name is Jeff Myers, he’s been living and teaching in Hawaii [he just finished a visiting professor position at UH —RD] and he was inspired by birds that he heard outside early in the morning, but it’s truly not a “bird piece”. You can really hear where the inspiration comes from and the piece develops from there. I felt that the piece has this interesting alternation between violin and piano as it begins, and that was a feature that I had been curious to find in a piece. That give-and-take dialogue between colleagues onstage is what keeps music alive and I was curious to see that manifested in such a concrete way. I also felt that it was put together very nicely—I kept wanting to listen to it all the way through. When I was looking at the score, I was always wondering where it was going to go next, yet it has this satisfying overarching feel to it that I was really impressed by. I think the piece has a lot of humor and excitement…it’s kinda zany in a lot of places…and seems like it’s a really good encore for a general audience to listen to as well as a performer to play.

The other composers range from a NYC ballet dancer to a guy who works a lot in film and also has a couple of alt-rock metal bands, as well as a lot of composers who are making their careers as classical composers. Actually it surprised me when I went to the bios because I was hoping I was going to wind up with a range of people, but I had no idea of who I’d get. I was impressed at how many of them are committed to composing and that they took the time to participate in the contest—I thought that was really nice.

The honorable mention pieces range from classic encore style pieces with very defined character to abstract soundscapes. I tried to show the range of the contest in the honorable mentions with having the avant-garde pieces mixed in with other great classic encore pieces that could have been lifted out of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of them are really good at showing off the range of what the violin can do—one thing I was looking for was pieces that were written well for violin. I can’t necessarily tell what’s written well for piano, of course, but I know when something seems like it’s not maximizing the instrument’s capabilities and I really wanted to pick pieces that would be challenging to work on and rewarding to listen to week after week. I have decided that I will be playing the honorable mentions as well—I had not initially intended to do this, but when I heard the pieces I wanted to play them, and I had grown attached to them after I had spent so much time with them, so I’ve decided to play them all by the end of 2015.

Rob: I was doing a little homework before I called you and looked up Jeff on his Facebook page, and it turns out that he and his wife just had a baby boy this week…

Hilary: Yes! They had to go to the hospital a few hours after he got the e-mail that he won. The funny thing is that we were wondering what the winner was going to think when they received the news, and when the administrators of the project let me know that he was on the way to the hospital I thought “Well, that completely blows this out—contest winner…baby…baby wins!” It was really exciting because a lot of the time with music you don’t feel that it’s connected to the composer’s life in a concrete way and in this particular piece—yes, something happened in the composer’s life around the time that I became connected with his music.

Hilary speaks with Jeff Myers about his piece and his new baby

Rob: One of the most unique aspects of this contest was the fact that a donation was given for every received entry. Can you tell us a little about Dramatic Need and what made you decide to incorporate that into the contest?

Hilary: I think music has quite a reach geographically as well as culturally, and I wanted to somehow tie in the greater musical impact to this particular contest. An encore is a piece of music that leaves a very distinct impression at the end of a concert, or it creates its own little world if its programmed in the middle of a concert, but it could just end there and I thought it would be nice for the people writing for the contest—because not everyone could win—to incorporate the broader impact of music into their contributions. It was intentional that there would be no fee because it didn’t occur to me that you could ask someone to pay to enter a contest—it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense—so I just figured that while I couldn’t pay the composers for their works, they could feel like they’ve made a contribution by being automatically part of making a contribution.

So I looked around for organizations. I wanted this contest to be international, so I didn’t want to just pick an organization that was based in the United States, although there are wonderful groups doing great work here, and I read about Dramatic Need. I thought it was a good program because it’s very community-based, it’s internationally organized, it touches a lot of different cultures, and it serves a very important need that wouldn’t otherwise be met which is bringing the arts and certain aspects of education into communities where they don’t necessarily exist. It’s a modest contribution, but I wanted to get people to start thinking outside of their own musical world and what music could do.

Rob: What’s next on the horizon for you (if you want to touch briefly on the improvisational work you’ve been doing recently with Hauschka) and do you see yourself doing something like this again?

Hilary: I loved doing this! You can ask me at the end of two years from now, but I can’t imagine that I will have any bad experience out of it. The thing that I have been surprised by with this project is that four minutes of music is not four minutes of music, but it’s a musical language and it is it’s own musical world. Of the composers whose works I’ve played so far, I had only worked with one of them before, and I hadn’t thought that when I play someone’s work, if it’s a short piece, that I still have to learn their style, I still have to get inside the music in a way that requires me to be very familiar with their writing. To enter into that in a short piece is a challenge. It has really pushed me to think a lot about the pieces that I play by the composers whom I feel that I’m very familiar with. It’s been a huge learning process and I feel that it’s pushed my mind a lot, interpretively.

It’s interesting that around that same time I began to work with Hauschka because I never set out to compose or improvise a lot. When I crossed paths with him, we wanted to work together and we said “Well, what are we going to do together? What repertoire is there?” and then we’re like “Well…let’s do something that we create together.” I’d been wanting to do something from the ground up, because I’d worked with musicians outside of classical music and it was a matter of fitting in and enhancing their music without disturbing it—so I would improvise along those lines. But I never had the “blank slate” to start with and create something out of that. So really, the project with Hauschka was about working with him, not even publicly, but getting together and exploring ideas and seeing what those ideas could be and learning what it’s like to create something from thin air, but not exactly thin air, because you have all of your experiences that you’ve had in your past that inform you.

So at the time I was biting into all of these composers’ ways of writing, I was also understanding the compositional process a little better as far as the first inklings of something you want to create musically. It wasn’t anything that I intended to do simultaneously and I didn’t think that they would necessarily inform each other, but it’s been really interesting to work on those projects and all the stuff that normally I do, so it’s been quite a busy couple of years—especially this season as a lot of it has come to a head. And with Hauschka, we’ve been touring and we have this record that we didn’t intend to make, but we wanted to see how we worked in the studio—maybe put out a track or an EP, but we made a record in ten days! Now we have this unexpected record that we don’t quite know what to do with…but it’s been great to get on stage with him and work with him. Over the summer I’ll be learning the 14 encores that I haven’t learned yet for next season and get back to the repertoire that I haven’t worked with in a while.

Rob: Well, I know that there were many, many composers who, when your contest came out, were amazed at not only how much thought when into it, but also said “Ah…why can’t more contests be like this?” so it’s been fun to be able to watch this and it’ll be fun to see what happens with all of the honorable mentions and the grand prize winner.

Hilary: Well, I got a great sponsor just recently to cover some of the basic administrative costs, so maybe that’s why more contests charge, to cover their costs? I actually scoured a lot of contest sites to see what people normally do…I think I just missed the part where they charge entry [laughs]! Throughout this project I’ve been trying to draw individual sponsors into the project to be excited and be involved because it’s also a statement to me.

You know, I wanted people to be more aware that there was contemporary music being written and I wanted to show that there are a lot of people that are passionate about it, that think that it is really important and are willing to throw their weight behind getting these piece to come to life. I’ve been really fortunate to be connected to these great patrons who are excited about the project, and it’s a very helpful thing to know that people believe in it and to be able to go from there and take the project to the greater world.

I really enjoyed putting the contest together, and I am very grateful for the number of people that participated and really pushed themselves into writing their pieces. I hope that the people who aren’t in this set of eleven will start looking for performance opportunities for their work in the future and find someone to play their piece, because that’s how you learn what your pieces are as a composer. As a performer, you don’t know what a piece is for you until you get on stage; you can only work so far in the practice room and then you have to see what it does when it’s in front of an audience. I think these pieces really deserve to be heard and it’s fantastic that through this project now, through all the people who have participated, there’s about 430-440 new pieces for violin and piano that now exist in the world, and I hope people keep writing them!

Complete audio from Rob Deemer’s interview with Hilary Hahn