Juliana Hall: Pulled Into The Poets’ World
Juliana Hall has given her almost completely undivided attention to composing art songs for over 30 years, and her love for poetry and the voice has only grown stronger.
For many practitioners as well as die-hard fans, contemporary music means ensembles or something electro-acoustic or perhaps, every now and then, a new orchestral work that sneaks its way onto a program of standard rep or a black box production of a new opera. But, as we try to show on these pages, new music exists in many more places than these, and it takes many forms—e.g. the enormous amount of new music being performed by wind bands and choruses. But what about the world of art song?
Music history and most recital programs emphasize the now nearly 200-year-old lieder of Schubert and Schumann. Folks who dig deeper will treasure other equally extraordinary lieder by Johanna Kinkel, the nearly 100 romances of Tchaikovsky, plus the mesmerizing mélodies of Debussy, Ravel, Reynaldo Hahn, Cécile Chaminade, Francis Poulenc, and so many others, including Americans such as Charles Griffes, Amy Beach, and even Charles Ives, who self-published a collection of 114 of his songs back in 1922. All three of the primary protagonists of the Second Viennese School—Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern—were also prolific song composers. Among living composers, Ned Rorem, now 95, remains revered for his more than 500 contributions to the idiom.
But in today’s world where the songs of popular music are ubiquitous and contemporary music seems far removed from mainstream culture much of the time, contemporary art songs fall outside of most people’s radar. Yet tons of composers continue to find inspiration in setting lyric poetry for solo voice and piano. In fact, four volumes issued by a small independent publisher that were devoted to recent art songs contained music by 63 different composers. Among the songs in those anthologies are poignant setting of poems by Emily Brontë and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Juliana Hall, whose music I first became enamored with through a 2017 MSR recording of her Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson song cycles featuring soprano Susan Narucki and countertenor Darryl Taylor.
Hall defines herself loudly and proudly at the top of the homepage of her website as an “American Art Song Composer.” Some composers might find such a description unduly self-limiting but, as we learned when we spent an afternoon with her and her husband David Sims in their home in northern Connecticut, Hall has given her almost completely undivided attention to composing art songs for over 30 years and is quite content to remain so focused.
“This is a place for me,” said Hall, “because I love poetry. I love the text. I love the drama. I love the theater. Everything that goes into one little song and makes a little world all of its own. And with the piano, you can make accompaniments that feel like you’re telling the story of the song also. With that and the voice together, you can make quite a world, and I think that’s why I started there and stayed there.”
Hall described how she first seriously got the composing bug when friends asked her to set a poem by Emily Dickinson for their wedding. In graduate school at Yale, where she had been admitted as a pianist, she studied composition with Frederick Rzewski as an elective and he was very supportive. Martin Bresnick, then the department chair, said, “I think you’re really a composer” and sorted out her paperwork so she could become a composition major. Still, she remained focused on writing songs.
“I hadn’t had all the background like studying counterpoint and harmony that the other composers had,” Hall remembered, “and I also didn’t have a stack of music like they had in their portfolios. But I knew that there was something with texts that I could connect with and that I felt like I belonged with. Things were kind of conspiring to keep in me text. And I think some of that was because I had this wonderful soprano friend at Yale, Karen Burlingame. Karen really wanted to do art songs. So I had a singer and I’m a pianist. … I think because everything was handed to me together, pianist and singer and they had these student concerts every semester, so I just kept writing and writing and they kept saying, ‘That’s a nice song.’ They were very encouraging. So the more I did it, the more I felt like I really did belong to this little world.”
Contemporary music and art songs have their own worlds, and they don’t always connect.
I have to find poems that will help me tell a story of some sort.
I have some instrumental pieces, but they were all based on text as well.
Shakespeare I’ll always come back to. And Emily Dickinson. But there are others.
I would hate to write something that somebody wouldn’t like.
I go through the words a million times and really get to know what’s inside the poem.
The fun thing about letters is that you get to be in the person’s life.
The text will tell me which way to go and what to do.
I haven’t said goodbye to many pieces, but I think there are some that need to be gone.
Everybody asks me if I’m ever going to write an opera.
I use a lot of sevenths and tritones.
I know there are poets that I can’t set.
SoundCloud, the website, and Facebook have been pretty remarkable for me.
An intrepid visitor who navigates through the enormous amount of music on Hall’s website as well as on her SoundCloud page will eventually discover a few short instrumental works for solo English horn, saxophone, cello, and piano, but she was quick to point out that even these pieces were inspired by her voracious love for poetry:
I knew a saxophonist that lived not too far from us—Carrie Koffman. She’s at the Hartt School. I said, “Could I write a piece for you?” I wanted to use Rilke texts, but I had stopped writing in other languages. So I thought, I can still use this poetry and not worry about the text because I would want to set it in German if I was going to write for a singer. So I could use these beautiful words once again and kind of use the saxophone as a singer. She could portray what was going on in the text.
But poems are not the only texts that function as Hall’s muse. She is also intrigued by the letters of various poets and has created fascinating song cycles from letters by Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Hall acknowledges, however, that setting letters requires a somewhat different compositional approach.
“With letters you have to give extra space,” she explained. “Or maybe go onto another thought that comes very quickly. When you’re writing a letter, you have a different way of communicating. And that’s the same with setting the song. You have to kind of go with her letter in the sense that you have to give it the time that it needs. There are a lot of instances where the music changes abruptly and that’s because she’s changed her thought. She’s writing to her friend. That’s the fun of those letters, but it’s also the trick of them, too, to still make it sound like a whole piece and connect the whole thing nicely.”
Having stayed focused on text setting for 30 years has given Juliana Hall an enormous amount of experience in writing extremely effective songs that are being championed by singers around the country. These songs are also starting to circulate internationally. It helps that she has a publisher, E.C. Schirmer, which has tirelessly promoted her music at conferences and to music libraries. And in the coming months, several more CDs will be released which feature her songs. There are also tons of ways to experience her music online.
“It’s only been like five years or so that things have started taking off,” Hall acknowledged. “I’ve been writing songs for 30 years. But for 25 of those years, I’ve just been working, working, trying to get better and better, so it isn’t all of a sudden. … The publisher that I have has been remarkable. They’ve just been really friendly and really supportive. I feel that they try to get it out there, and
they have been extremely careful in producing scores that reflect very precisely the music I wish to share, which is a huge gift. … Years ago I was up here writing songs and they wound up in the cedar chest over there. This was before the internet. … SoundCloud, the website, and Facebook have been pretty remarkable for me.”
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Juliana Hall at her home in Simsbury, Connecticut
July 12, 2019—3:00 p.m.
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan
Read the Full Transcript
Transcription by Julia Lu
Video Presentations and Photography (unless otherwise noted) by Molly Sheridan
Frank J. Oteri: I found it somewhat unnerving that in our initial email exchanges you were surprised that we would be interested in talking with you for NewMusicBox, considering that we’re focused on contemporary music and you primarily compose art songs. But, of course, you are a contemporary composer. And the medium you work in the most is the art song. So I thought a good place for us to begin would be to talk about why there is this disconnect between contemporary music and art song, and how you, as a contemporary composer, wound up gravitating towards writing art songs.
Juliana Hall: Actually, I started with art song. I started writing songs because a friend of mine gave me a text, an Emily Dickinson poem, and asked, “Would you write this for our wedding? My wife’s a singer.” He was a pianist. And so I did it. And then I had another friend who was a singer who became a really, really good friend. She said, “I love to do art songs.” And I said. “Would you like to do this premiere with me?” So we did the premiere of an Emily Dickinson cycle. That was one of the first pieces that I had written. It’s just like how things come together all of a sudden; you don’t know why, but there’s a point where all of a sudden you’re doing what you were meant to do. So that’s kind of how I started.“Contemporary music and art songs have their own worlds, and they don’t always connect.”
But contemporary music and art songs have their own worlds, and they don’t always connect. I don’t know why that is exactly, but I do know that for art song, our main thing is to convey the text. And in contemporary music, they love to experiment with sound. So we have two different goals. Maybe that’s part of it. Art song also is coming from a tradition of German Lied, so it doesn’t lend itself as well to abstract kinds of experimental music.
FJO: And yet, the composers whose music defined contemporary music in the early 20th century, and whose music is still what so many classical music listeners who are not necessarily immersed in contemporary music think of when they think of contemporary music—people like Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, whose music established the Second Viennese School and had such a huge impact on subsequent generations of composers all over the world—each of them wrote tons of art songs and in the earliest concerts of their music, their art songs were the works of theirs that were getting performed. And throughout the 1920s, many concerts on festivals of the International Society for Contemporary Music were devoted to art songs by a wide range of composers. But then later in the century something clearly changed and art songs became far less common on contemporary music concerts.
JH: Yeah, I don’t know exactly what happened. I would like to know, too. I know that for me it was a fluke kind of, how I got into it. I just fell in love, and I felt that this is a place for me because I love poetry. I love the text. I love the drama. I love the theater. Everything that goes into one little song and makes a little world all of its own. And with the piano, you can make accompaniments that feel like you’re telling the story of the song also. With that and the voice together, you can make quite a world, and I think that’s why I started there and stayed there.
I also feel like it’s okay to be in a certain place and get better and better and work harder and go deeper. And I think that’s what I’ve done. With my early songs, you can tell they’re not bad, but I’m getting to feel like I know a little bit more about what I’m doing. Working with singers gives you a sense that you have a chance to get better at what you do. You have to have a sense of the voice. You have to have knowledge of how that feels.
FJO: When you went to Yale, you actually enrolled as a pianist.
JH: Yes, I did.
FJO: So did you think you were going to have a career as a concert pianist?
JH: That was the thought. I went to Yale from New York. I was in New York for about a year and a half or two, and I was studying piano with Seymour Lipkin and it was really great. But there were so many wonderful pianists there, and I was coming from a little town. I’d been to undergrad and all that kind of thing, but I could see that there were pianists and that’s where they belonged, and I didn’t belong there. I could practice as much as I wanted, and I can make beautiful music, but nothing like they can. I went to Yale thinking I can get in as a pianist, that can be a start, but I know there’s something different, and I know there’s something that I’ll be looking for, and I know Yale is a great place to be because there are all these wonderful people, musicians and artists, and I was thinking actually of the drama school there.
But then I had the idea of trying out composing. As a piano major, I needed an elective so I decided to take composition lessons – to try it seriously – and my first teacher was Frederic Rzewski, who was really fun, and of course such a brilliant pianist and composer. We connected quickly, and my time studying with him was quite an introduction to composing. One day as I was playing in a lesson, he said, all of a sudden, “Tell me a story. Just keep playing, improvising, working at it as a composer.”
Shortly after that, I was talking with Martin Bresnick (with whom I later studied) and he said, “you know, Juliana, I think you’re really a composer” and he worked out the administrative logistics so that I could switch to becoming a composition major…I’ll always be so grateful to Martin for believing in me so deeply that he made it come true in the deepest sense.
FJO: So before all that, growing up, you had never come up with your own melodies or anything else?
JH: Oh, I did. But I didn’t know what it meant.
FJO: I often find those moments and those pre-composition compositions to be very revelatory.
JH: There were many pre-compositional moments. In that little town, we weren’t really connected with many composers. There was Beethoven and Bach and those guys, and I studied them when I was young. But I was sitting in church and I heard this little voice. And it said, “Write it down.” And I didn’t really know its meaning, but it said it again. And I was thinking, “I have this idea. Maybe I’ll write this little piece.” That was the first time. So I wrote a piece for a children’s choir. It was on the Genesis theme, the very beginning, that kind of thing. It was for narrator, piano, flute, and choir, and I improvised at the piano. And I thought that felt really nice. But my mom was saying, “Composers don’t make much money. You won’t be able to live. How would you ever be able to do that? But you can be a pianist.” I kind of knew that it didn’t feel quite right, but none of us knew what to do.
FJO: I suppose it makes sense that your mother would have said that, since she was a pianist.
JH: Yes, she was a pianist, and she played at the church. In little towns, they don’t always have a lot of experience of what is out there and what’s possible. But I see that she was kind of right. There’s not a lot that I can do, especially in this little tiny world of song. It doesn’t come easy. It’s not like being a pianist who can just go out and play music. But I also think you have to be a pretty amazing pianist to be able to do that even. So that’s another thing.
FJO: So, back to Yale, you got this request to set this poem by Emily Dickinson for a wedding. And you caught the art song composing bug, and it ultimately became part of a song cycle.
FJO: You say songs are self-contained things, but in your work, they’re mostly not individual songs. They’re mostly grouped together into larger units.
JH: That’s true. And they do tell a story.
FJO: And you’re the one responsible for taking various poems and putting them together in a way that works, choosing a poet you want to set and then finding the right order of the poems. It isn’t necessarily the order you read them in or their chronological order; you create your own narrative with these other existing narratives by putting these poems against each other.“I have to find poems that will help me tell a story of some sort.”
JH: When I’m picking poems for a cycle, I make sure there’s a lot of variety in the poems. There has to be one that sets the mood, which will be the beginning, and one that ends the story. Inside, you have to have a certain pull, an arc, and then come down. I have to find poems that will help me tell a story of some sort, whether it’s a person’s life or a person in a certain circumstance.
FJO: So the first song came about because someone asked you to set it, but had you read lots of poetry before that?
JH: Well, it was one of those pre-things again. A friend of mine gave me some Sylvia Plath poetry.
FJO: When would this have been?
JH: This was after college, but before New York.
FJO: Anything before that?
JH: Sure. In an English class in high school, I was learning about Shakespeare, and I could feel a little connection. It didn’t mean anything real, but it did to me, you know, like I knew something.
FJO: Hearing melodies when you read the poems?
JH: No, it wasn’t really melodies, but a sense that I belonged in this world, that there was something, that I will be connected with these words.
FJO: And then a few years later receiving a book of poems by Sylvia Plath, who is very different from Shakespeare.
JH: Yeah, and it was the same thing. It wasn’t like I knew why, but I knew there was something there that I connected with. She is a different kind of poet and she has a lot of different dark colors. Sometimes I really love working in the dark colors. It gives me a lot more variation with the piano writing.
FJO: But then there was this decisive moment, with the poem by Emily Dickinson for the wedding, and then you set a few more and it became a cycle. As you said, you kept doing it. You didn’t say, “Okay, I wrote a song cycle, so now I’m going to write a violin sonata. Now I’m going to write a string quartet. Now I’m going to write a choral piece.”
JH: They were so nice to me to let me come and start in their program. I hadn’t had all the background like studying counterpoint and harmony that the other composers had, and I also didn’t have a stack of music like they had in their portfolios. But I knew that there was something with texts that I could connect with and that I felt like I belonged with. Things were kind of conspiring to keep in me text. And I think some of that was because I had this wonderful soprano friend at Yale, Karen Burlingame. Karen really wanted to do art songs.
So I had a singer and I’m a pianist. My handwriting wasn’t great. She would come over, and I could pretty much sketch it out as best I could. Then, she’d have questions, “Could you try it this way?” So I was learning how to write so that she could feel comfortable. It was all so new. And I think because everything was handed to me together, pianist and singer and they had these student concerts every semester, so I just kept writing and writing and they kept saying, “That’s a nice song.” They were very encouraging. So the more I did it, the more I felt like I really did belong to this little world.“I have some instrumental pieces, but they were all based on text as well.”
I have some instrumental pieces, and they were fun to write, but they were all based on text as well. There was this saxophone piece that I really enjoyed writing, because I knew a saxophonist that lived not too far from us—Carrie Koffman. She’s at the Hartt School. I said, “Could I write a piece for you?” I wanted to use Rilke texts, but I had stopped writing in other languages. So I thought, I can still use this poetry and not worry about the text because I would want to set it in German if I was going to write for a singer. So I could use these beautiful words once again and kind of use the saxophone as a singer. She could portray what was going on in the text. Then for the piano solos, my son Sam, when he was little, was a pianist. So I wrote them for him. And he gave the world premieres. We had these little family concerts. David is a cellist, so that’s where the cello music comes in. But I think all in all, the field where I really belong is with text.
FJO: It’s fascinating that your instrumental pieces have also emerged as a result of text. I didn’t think of this before talking to you today, but I’m suddenly reminded of a comment Stephen Sondheim made many years ago. He said that he could not write music, not even a song, without having a dramatic context for it. He needed to know what that context was, otherwise, the well would be dry. He couldn’t sit down and just create, say, a fugue at the piano. Or even take a sonnet and set it to music. There had to be a dramatic tension for which his music would be a response. So for you to create, even when it isn’t an art song, the moment of inspiration needs a trigger, as in the case of a Rilke poem generating a solo saxophone piece.
JH: Oh, you bet. Yeah. I think it’s the same idea. The text gives me the imagination, the colors, the feel, the emotion, and the structure. It gives me everything that I need to write the piece. Poets are so imaginative and articulate in the way they describe things. They give you details as well as an overall context or general feel of what you’re saying. There’s so much in these little texts to work with that I thought I’ll just stay with them, even if I’m writing for saxophone. A saxophone has so many colors and it gave me a way to do something different, but to stay within my world.
FJO: But somebody who hears that saxophone piece doesn’t necessarily know that a text was behind it; should people know?
JH: They can do it either way I think. I think if you know the text is there, you’d have a better understanding of the piece—why it sounds like it does.
FJO: To get back to this seeming disconnect between contemporary art songs and the rest of the contemporary music world, for the rest of the world, in every other musical genre, songs are the central format. Country music consists almost exclusively of songs, rock as well.
JH: Oh, right.
FJO: They’re all songs. But these songs are constructed in a very different way. Many performers write their own songs. In many different music genres, people get together to collaborate on songs. Someone writes the music and someone else writes the words. They’ll meet in the afternoon, and then at the end of that afternoon, there’s a song. This is a very different process from art songs, because composers are dealing with texts that already exist. So it’s not so much a collaboration as a response to something.
JH: Pretty much. I still think of it as a collaboration, but it’s where you’re collaborating with the poet through the words the poet is speaking through the page—they’re still communicating, even when they’re no longer here in person.
FJO: And often times composers deal with very famous texts, like the sonnets of Shakespeare which have been around now for over 400 years. Or poems by Emily Dickinson, who lived in the 19th century. So many composers have set Emily Dickinson. So there’s a built-in familiarity. You’ve set Shakespeare and Dickinson, too. But you’ve also set some poets I never had heard of until I heard your songs, like Margaret Widdemer.
JH: Yeah, she isn’t as well known. She was from around the time of Carl Sandburg. She actually shared the Pulitzer with him. She’s an excellent poet. She was a poet that I used when I was writing on women’s rights. She just said things so clearly and beautifully at the same time, and very lyrically. I was so happy to find her.
FJO: So how do you find the poems you set? Do you go to bookstores all the time and haunt the poetry section?“Shakespeare I’ll always come back to. And Emily Dickinson. But there are others.”
JH: Many things. Sometimes we take all these books [gestures to bookshelves] and go downstairs and set them out on the table. But, I’ll tell you, the stuff under copyright is difficult. So I’m happy when I find public domain text and it’s possible. But it’s also so nice not to write with older poets, too. I’m kind of working both sides. I mean, I love Shakespeare, and Shakespeare I’ll always come back to. And Emily Dickinson. But there are others. Carl Sandburg’s early poems. Mark Strand I haven’t tried yet, but I love his poetry. David likes to look at stuff too, and he’s very good at finding what is in the public domain through the computer. Sometimes you can find some things that you wouldn’t have thought are possible.
FJO: And then, for things that are still under copyright, there are some estates that are easier to deal with than others. As my eyes are roaming across this wonderful shelf of poetry books you have here. I see Robert Frost. I know that his estate is one of the more difficult ones to deal with.
JH: That has been really difficult for us. I had permission to write one song out of a song cycle, but not to publish it. Years later when I got a publisher, I went back and said, “Hey, can we publish it now?” And they said no, so we had to take the song out. But in January, the poem that I needed became public domain, so I can put it back in the cycle, which I’m so thankful for.
FJO: I want to tie this back to the discussion of art songs and contemporary music. When Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern were writing all their art songs, they were mostly setting poems by their contemporaries, poets like Stefan George who was part of their circle. Or Poulenc set lots of poems by Apollinaire, who died at the end of the First World War but was still relatively recent.
FJO: But if you can’t automatically set texts unless they were written at least 95 years ago, as per the current copyright terms, that makes it difficult for your work to feel contemporary. That’s almost a century, which is a long time.
JH: It is a long time. And it’s too bad because the newer poets are so refreshing and so you feel like you can connect to them so nicely. And that’s what I really love. What has been fun is people now and again send me a text of theirs and say, “Would you like to set it?” That has been so nice. You keep finding these things that you never would have known. [The pianist] Kathleen Kelly wrote three gorgeous poems, and she asked three different composers to set them. She’s going to do the premiere in the next year. Another musician, Caitlin Vincent, who’s also a singer, has made quite a name for herself as a librettist. I love working with her. We’ve done two pieces together, and hope to do a third!
FJO: If you want to set recent texts, it’s probably a good idea to become friends with tons of poets.
JH: Yeah. I think that’s the key.
FJO: But of course when poets are alive, you might set their words and they’ll think that your music doesn’t suit their words.
JH: I know.
FJO: How do you deal with that?“I would hate to write something that somebody wouldn’t like.”
JH: I don’t think I could. I would hate to write something that somebody wouldn’t like. That would make me feel bad. So I don’t know what I would do. Hopefully that wouldn’t happen, but it’s funny that you say that. Anne Sexton’s estate said, after a year or two or some wild amount of time, “Sure, you can set these, but if we don’t like them after you’ve written them, if we don’t think it’s a good use of our text or set the way we would like it, then you can’t use them.” So I didn’t write them. I would love to, but it made me too nervous, to write the piece then have it performed to see if it worked—because I’m sure they couldn’t tell just by the score. It would be quite an ordeal to do that.
FJO: So what is it in a poem that you see that makes you think, “Okay, this, this is something that speaks to me musically. This is something I want to turn into music.”? Are there some poems you’ve known for a long time, but suddenly something clicks? Or is there a spark the first time you read it, like love at first sight?
JH: There’s a moment. And I think that’s the same as those little moments of pre-composition. You know, there’s the “oooh, that feels right.” Those poems are very lyrical poems, very colorful poems. And, not to be snobby or anything, but they’re really good poems. The great poets really know how to write so beautifully that it pulls me into their world. So I love to be there with them. Sometimes the more angular poets I can’t connect with, but I can with E. E. Cummings. He’s very fresh. And he’s got such fun and such depth. Both.
FJO: What I love about E. E. Cummings is that despite all the unusual typographical stuff, many of his poems are wonderfully old fashioned. He wrote loads of sonnets.
JH: And he really tells a story so beautifully, even in one little poem. I love his work.
FJO: So it seems to me that there are definitely things in the poems you set that resonate with the kind of music you want to write.
FJO: And you obviously want your music to serve the poems.
JH: Of course. Art song is all about text – if it doesn’t serve the poems, why compose them?
FJO: So how much of an impact do the words and the rhythms of the poems have on the rhythms you use and the way you set those words? Do you feel when you are setting certain words that this is the only way those words can be set? And, if that is the case, do you feel that the song almost writes itself?
JH: It does. I think that’s how it feels to me when I’m sitting there writing, and playing, and trying to sing, which is really pretty rough—but I know when it’s right. I think that comes from the years of working so much. I’ve learned. I’ve written so many early pieces that, looking back, I can say, “Why did I do that?” So I have a sense that that’s how you set it. You set it so that the text will speak as best as it can. So that the singer can have a sense of enjoying singing the line, the whole line, or the tiny word that she’s expressing, in the most natural way. You have a lot of things to think about as you’re working. I think all of that kind of goes through my mind, but then once I feel like I know that it’s there, then I write it down and that’s that. Usually.
FJO: And you always create at the piano? Probably with a book of poetry in front of you?“I go through the words a million times and really get to know what’s inside the poem.”
JH: I go through the words a million times and really get to know what’s inside the poem. Then usually I just xerox a poem and tape it up to the piano. When I’m writing, I’ve got the text right in front of me, so everything is there.
FJO: So then when you have a melody, it grows out of this physical process of working with the poem at the piano.
JH: Yeah. My fingers. I think it comes right from playing it and trying to sing it.
FJO: You’ve also composed some unusual cycles. There’s one for voice and oboe! How did that come about?
JH: Oh, my roommate was an oboist at Cincinnati, Janet Archibald. We’ve kept in touch for many, many years. She now plays English horn and oboe in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. I start with piano and voice, but now and again I start thinking, “Boy wouldn’t it be fun to try something different.” So I started dedicating all these little tunes to Jan, and she’s getting all these new pieces for oboe and voice. But they’re melodic. The oboe is so beautiful and so rich and so deep, so it gave me a lot of inspiration. And I did it with Walter de la Mare’s poetry. It’s so very lyrical and gorgeous, so I thought the combination of the voice and the beauty of the lines with the oboe would really work well together.
FJO: So did you create those at the piano, or did you hear it in your head and then put it directly on the page?
JH: They were at the piano as well.
FJO: Another thing I found very interesting is that in addition to setting all this poetry, you’ve also set a bunch of letters by poets, specifically Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I never ran across anybody setting letters to music until I came across some cycles from the 1970s by Dominick Argento; I think he might be the first person who did that. I heard him give a talk about it years ago, and he said that he was interested in finding the equivalent of prose in music. Poetry lends itself to song, what does prose lead to? But your settings of those letters nevertheless turned this prose into songs.
JH: I have. I think so.
FJO: I guess what I’m trying to get to with all of this is how much the text determines what the music is in terms of the inevitability question. The reason I thought of this is because in one of the Edna St. Vincent Millay letters you set, she’s referencing “Give My Regards to Broadway.” So, of course, you had to interpolate the George M. Cohan tune. How could you not?
JH: Right. It was so much fun to write. But you’ll notice that those songs aren’t like a song from beginning to end with no breaks. With letters you have to give extra space for her to stop and think about something. Or maybe go onto another thought that comes very quickly. When you’re writing a letter, you have a different way of communicating. And that’s the same with setting the song. You have to kind of go with her letter in the sense that you have to give it the time that it needs. There are a lot of instances where the music changes abruptly and that’s because she’s changed her thought. She’s writing to her friend. That’s the fun of those letters, but it’s also the trick of them, too, to still make it sound like a whole piece and connect the whole thing nicely.
FJO: So what made you want to set letters in the first place?
JH: Oh, it’s funny. You’re asking all these little questions that have those little moments. There was another little moment. I was [studying] with Dominick Argento. I wasn’t with him very long, maybe about a year and a half. We were sitting together, and he said, “There are these Emily Dickinson letters that have just come out.” And I just kept that in my head and I thought, “Wow, that sounds really nice. You know, well, someday.” Then I went to New Haven. My husband and I had just gotten married. I was in the Yale library going through the shelves looking for something to write. How to find a poet? You go to the library and you look. I turned around and there were those letters. They looked so beautiful and it was like, “That’s it. Those are my letters.” It was at that moment I remembered Dominick giving me the feeling that that’s a neat idea. When I got them home, I started looking at the variety of the prose—they’re like poetry; they’re so beautifully written. But it really is prose. And she wrote to so many interesting people in her life—her brother and sister-in-law and all that gave me a glimpse.“The fun thing about letters is that you get to be in the person’s life.”
With Edna St. Vincent Millay, there were also these little moments. When you learn to listen to them, you find the spice of life. David and I were in New Haven and there was this little old bookstore that wasn’t too far from us. We were walking around and were just looking through things and there were Edna’s letters. And I thought, “Oh, I would love to learn about her life.” The fun thing about letters is that you get to be in the person’s life.
FJO: When you mentioned that these letters change direction suddenly rather than having a clear beginning, middle, and ending the way poems usually do, I thought of something else. If a text is public domain, you have the right to do whatever you want with it. You don’t have to set the whole thing.
JH: Yeah, that’s true.
FJO: You can set just part of it or leave out a passage if it doesn’t inspire you.
FJO: Have you ever run across a poem that you mostly love, but maybe there are just two lines of it you hate and therefore wouldn’t set?
JH: There are. Now that you mentioned it. I just remembered there are some and I just don’t do it. I just say, “That’s too bad.”
FJO: So you don’t set the poem at all. You wouldn’t just cut something out?
JH: No. I don’t do that with poetry. I don’t feel like I’m good enough to.
FJO: And you wouldn’t do it with letters, either?
JH: I could do it with letters, because they’re so long, and it’s more a spoken kind of language. So I sometimes feel like you can’t use all the “ifs,” “ands,” “buts”—the little words that are in those letters. So I have edited them a bit. I think I have to. The same with The Diary of Anne Frank; she goes so far. You just can’t say everything. It gets really long, and music already expands everything so much.
FJO: Most of the poems you’ve set are relatively short poems, but of course, poems can also be enormous. You’ve set Longfellow, his shorter poems, but he also wrote Evangeline which goes on and on. Would you ever want to set something that big?
JH: I don’t think so. But you know, one thing that I did do that was kind of big was “Roosters” by Elizabeth Bishop. It’s so lush, so rich, and so gorgeous. She’s a wonderful poet. She’s one of my very favorites, and of course, you do have to ask for permission, but her estate is very good at it. Another thing was “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe, which is in four sections, but it makes one big piece. So I have done that a little bit, but mostly you’re right, it’s cycles.
FJO: You create longer forms, but you’re shaping them yourself. So you get to control that arc, whereas, if you were setting a long poem, the poem dictates the shape more.
FJO: So you want to control the ultimate shape of the music you put out into the world, but you also want to serve the text. So what would be things that wouldn’t serve a text well? Do certain lines demand that a melody go up? How far does that mirroring go of what’s in the poem?“The text will tell me which way to go and what to do.”
JH: I am truly guided by the text. So the text will tell me which way to go and what to do. I think that’s the fun of working with poems. I really try to kind of give it the same color as the poet.
FJO: You said that you wouldn’t delete lines, what about repeating lines?
JH: No, I don’t do that either. I think the poets know how to write. They’re so amazing. It’s such a wonderful world to be with. I feel almost a little bit like, “Should I even do this?” But it’s nice when a singer sings them.
FJO: In a way, you’re not just composing music. You’re also curating. Setting poems and presenting them as songs in a recital is an act of curation, and bringing a new audience to these poems, especially if the poet is not as well known.
JH: Right, they get a chance to get a sense of this new poet or somebody different.
FJO: However, when you set a poem that is famous, the other thing that you run the risk of is maybe it’s a poem that other people have set before.
JH: Oh, they have.
FJO: Do you spend a lot of time listening to other people’s settings?
JH: No. I can’t. I don’t even go near them. I’m scared to because then I’m afraid I would get it in my mind. A singer asked for me to set the Holy Sonnets of John Donne using the same texts that Britten did. But I couldn’t go listen to his. I still don’t know them; maybe now I can do that.
FJO: I love the Holy Sonnets, particularly “Batter My Heart,” which you and Britten both set. But I’ve felt that I could never set it after hearing John Adams’s extraordinary setting of it at the end of the first act of Dr. Atomic. I’d never be able to get that out of my head.
JH: That’s gorgeous. And that’s what happens to me, too. You’ve got to start right from the poet.
FJO: But now, there’s this whole subgenre of putting new music to song lyrics. Taking away the original music and setting those words with new music. John Corigliano took lyrics by Bob Dylan and put his own music to them. He got the rights from Bob Dylan and set them. And the first time you hear his setting of “Hey, Mister Tambourine Man” it’s very unsettling, because it’s such a famous song.
JH: I haven’t heard those actually.
FJO: They’re very surreal. And David Lang did something similar with songs by Lou Reed.
FJO: It’s bizarre.
JH: I’ll bet that it is.
FJO: But it really requires an incredible amount of discipline.
JH: Especially with ones that you’ve known for a long time and are settled in your being.
FJO: So, along those same lines, have you ever set the same poem twice?
JH: It’s a funny question. I’m doing that right now. A coloratura wrote to me on Facebook to ask, “Do you have anything?” And I said, “No, but would you like something?” It’s called Two Birds; it’s two poems of Cummings—“crazy jay blue” and “for any ruffian of the sky”—that I set years back. And I really still love this text. I know those poems so well. I’ve lived with them for years. But that’s the first time I think I’ve done it. I’m glad to have those poems—that crazy old blue jay, he’s nuts. The coloratura can be just as nutty. So it’s really, really fun. I didn’t really feel like I had written that as strongly as I could have years back. I’ll probably just say goodbye to those other ones, I think.
FJO: So you’re setting them again because you didn’t particularly like your earlier settings. But what about setting them again just to have another take on it? There’s this Ned Rorem cycle called Poems of Love and the Rain in which he took poems by a group of poets, including E. E. Cummings and Emily Dickinson, and sets each of them in two different ways.
JH: I can hardly imagine doing it except for this one that I just never felt right about, but now I feel like I can do it better.
FJO: So is the new setting at all a revision of the older setting?
JH: No. It’s completely new.
FJO: But then you said that you’re going to say goodbye to the old ones. You don’t want both settings to exist in the world.“I haven’t said goodbye to many pieces, but I think there are some that need to be gone.”
JH: I haven’t said goodbye to many pieces, but I think there are some that need to be gone. That’s one of them, which is too bad. But I want to write well, and I want to have the songs that I think are the strongest of mine sung. So I think that’s the way to go. Some things just don’t need to be, and that’s one of them.
FJO: In terms of the infrastructure for how music gets out into the world, you are represented by a major publisher, E.C. Schirmer, while the majority of people writing contemporary music are self-published. Some people navigate self-publishing really well and for them it’s better than being with a third-party publisher, but for many others, the majority of the rest of us, it’s really difficult to be out there without a network and a staff of people who are networked in to all the distributors and potential customers for this music. You also have a very strong presence at certain music conferences run by service organizations for music, like the National Association of Teachers of Singing, so vocal teachers from all over the country know you and know your music. So you’re a superstar in the niche world that you chose to be in.
JH: That’s awfully kind. I love singers. I think there’s a real connection with me and singers. They have been amazing with my music, and I’m so thankful. When it first started kind of moving around, I thought, “Wow, that’s pretty neat.” It’s only been like five years or so that things have started taking off. I’ve been writing songs for 30 years. But for 25 of those years, I’ve just been working, working, trying to get better and better, so it isn’t all of a sudden. We started out self-publishing, which was a lead to getting it going. The publisher that I have has been remarkable. They’ve just been really friendly and really supportive. I feel that they try to get it out there, and they have been extremely careful in producing scores that reflect very precisely the music I wish to share, which is a huge gift. The self-publishing was great to get a start, but they really have pushed to get it in libraries and those conferences and things like that that I wouldn’t even think about. I could not be happier with a publisher than I am with E. C. Schirmer!
FJO: All the things that they don’t teach you about in composition classes.
JH: Oh my goodness. Right.
FJO: Or social media.
JH: Facebook has been so amazing. I’ve learned so much about writing for singers just by connecting with them. You can sort of become friends and then when you hear the piece, you go up there and you sort of know each other. It’s a nice way to be in that world. I’ve met so many singers.
FJO: And performances happen?
JH: Oh, yeah. It’s so nice.
FJO: So are there pieces you haven’t written that you really want to write?“Everybody asks me if I’m ever going to write an opera.”
JH: Everybody asks me if I’m ever going to write an opera, and I of course say no. But there are these little tiny chamber operas that look appealing to me, even if they’re ten- or fifteen-minute dramas with little sets, because I like writing for a few singers. It’s a little variety. You write songs and songs and songs and it’s wonderful because you get deeper into that little world, but it’s also refreshing to go out and come back. So I think that could be one idea.
FJO: There was a cycle of yours I heard that was for four singers, which was based on translations of Jean de La Fontaine. I thought the music was wonderful and that it would be really interesting to hear what you would do if you were to write a choral piece.
JH: Oh yeah.
FJO: But then it becomes a question of what text to set, because not every text is equally effective for chorus.
FJO: You’ve set a lot of very personal, lyric poetry. It seems a bit inappropriate to set such texts for a chorus.
JH: I don’t know if I could. I can’t imagine.
FJO: So you’d need a different kind of a text.
JH: I think that’s true.
FJO: But those don’t seem to be the kinds of texts you gravitate towards.“I use a lot of sevenths and tritones.”
JH: No, and the other thing is that my harmony sort of has a basic tonality, but it also has an extension. I use a lot of sevenths and tritones. It might be tricky for a chorus to get all those pitches in their minds.
FJO: Similar to this idea of setting for one voice versus multiple voices, I know you’ve done some cycles that are not voice and piano but voice plus a different instrument—oboe or cello—and you’ve even written for unaccompanied voice. But have you ever thought about writing for solo voice with a larger ensemble where the combination of different timbres could perhaps add some additional layers to those poems?
JH: I haven’t really thought of it for a while, but I think the idea is really neat. But it’s funny because I don’t know where I’m ever going to have performances. I don’t know how that happens. If I was going to write a piece for percussion or flute or any other small ensemble, it would be really fun with voice. But I’d like to hear it, and I don’t know where the musicians are to work it through. I suppose that’s stopped me. I almost did it once with a poem. I worked with a percussionist, because I thought it would be really pretty to have the different colors. But I never got a chance to hear it. I’m in this little town and I don’t have access to a lot of performers. So unless somebody is really asking for this combination—
FJO: So if a commission were to happen, you’d want to do it?
JH: Yes, it might be a lot of fun!
FJO: So the songs that you are writing for voice and piano at this point are all commissioned?
JH: More than in the past, but still, art song commissions are few and far between; funding for commissions is always difficult for people to find. However, I feel like I have to write something most of the time. If I’m not writing, there’s something not quite right. I’m off balance; something is not working right in the world. So I’m always writing something. Even the Cummings piece I’m writing now, for Emily Thorner, the coloratura, she didn’t commission the piece but she said, “Do you have anything?” And that gave me the sense that I have a singer. It’s not really a commission, but it was enough for me and it gives me a chance to keep writing even without an official commission.
FJO: I totally get your point. It’s different from a piece that’s neither commissioned nor asked for, a piece that you just want to write. Then you’ve created a piece that nobody wants and you have to convince someone to want it. It’s like an orphan child that you need to find a home for.
FJO: The other side of it, though, is that if it’s a commission, you’re writing something that someone else wants you to write, but it might not be the piece that you want to write. So the sweet spot is getting someone to commission the piece you want to write so you know it’s going to get done.
JH: Oh, true.
FJO: The very first song you ever wrote was setting an Emily Dickinson poem someone wanted you to set and luckily you loved it. What if someone had asked you to set a poem you hated, but it was commissioned?“I know there are poets that I can’t set.”
JH: I don’t think I could do it. I think that I would have to say that there could be another composer that could do that very well but it wouldn’t be me, and I enjoy recommending other composers to folks who want pieces where there are poets that I can’t feel close to. That happens now and again. Like with Walt Whitman. Everyone loves it and I can’t connect yet. I’m going to have to keep reading and reading because there are so many composers that have used his poetry and I feel like I’m missing something. But maybe it’s just not there. Maybe it just isn’t my world. So I know there are poets that I can’t set, but I know somebody else can and they will do it just beautifully.
FJO: In terms of disseminating the music and getting it out into the world, I first fell in love with your music through that MSR recording that came out not too long ago and then I realized I had also heard some of your songs on an earlier Albany recording. But I love the voice of Susan Narucki and was particularly struck by those Dickinson songs on that MSR disc. But also by those Shakespeare settings for countertenor which were written for Brian Asawa, but it seems that he didn’t live to do them.
JH: He died just before the first rehearsal. It was very sad. He was such a sweet person. I really loved Brian. It really threw us off for a while. But then Darryl Taylor did it, and he sang it very beautifully.
FJO: And he sang it on the recording. It was amazing to me that that was the first recording ever released that was devoted exclusively to your music after you’d be writing songs for thirty years.
JH: It’s hard.
FJO: And the recording world is weird and seems to have no correlation with the publishing world. There are loads of very successful self-published composers who have many recordings of their music released on various labels. And some who may want a publisher, can’t get a publisher to take on their work. And then there are published composers who can’t get labels interested in recording their music. Then add to that the fact that so-called classical radio stations mostly won’t play solo vocal recordings, especially not of new music.
JH: I haven’t even thought of that. But you’re right, I’ve never heard it. All the little things that you can’t do anything about. You wish there was a way to fix things, but there’s nothing you can do except keep working at it. But it’s funny with CDs. I’m so glad that we were able to do that. I had a grant from the Sorel Organization and they gave me enough to get a start. But boy that was a real big commitment to make a CD. You mentioned Susan. She was wonderful. She and Donald Berman came and we did it at this little studio in New York—
FJO: Oktaven, which is run by a composer, Ryan Streber, who is an absolutely fantastic audio engineer.
JH: Really wonderful. He’s just fabulous. And then Darrell and I came down. Yeah, it was fun. But it’s hard to make happen on your own. That was a big production that we put on. We really broke the bank. I know a lot of composers can, but we’re doing well to manage to get songs out; that’s working really well.
FJO: But your SoundCloud page has nearly two hundred recordings of your songs on it. That’s where I heard most of your songs. So while you may not have a ton of commercial recordings out there, this is an incredible resource and a place where people can instantly hear your music.
JH: Isn’t it amazing? Years ago I was up here writing songs and they wound up in the cedar chest over there. This was before the internet. Dominick Argento kept saying, “Have faith in your songs.” My husband David has been so supportive and so wonderful, and he really believed that something was going to happen, but I didn’t see how. David is a computer whiz and so he started making a website and now he’s always putting stuff on SoundCloud. Without David, I don’t think it would be possible for me to connect with anybody. But it’s only been about five years. Our son went off to college and David said when we dropped him off and came home, “Let’s start a project! Let’s see if we can get your music out there.” And he started doing layouts for all the music. I can get the notes in Sibelius, but then he made them beautiful. He started making covers that were gorgeous. Then he made the website. I didn’t know that all this mattered so much. But it really took the songs from here to there. SoundCloud, the website, and Facebook have been pretty remarkable for me.
FJO: There are people now who say you don’t need CDs anymore, which I find anathema.
JH: Me too.
FJO: But people are now hearing so much music from YouTube links or SoundCloud. So you can reach an incredible number of people that way even if there aren’t commercial recordings of your music.
JH: You can.
FJO: Maybe they’re different people. You’re not going to necessarily reach the classical radio audience, since most of the folks who program these stations won’t let you in, but you have these other channels where there are no gatekeepers.“SoundCloud, the website, and Facebook have been pretty remarkable for me.”
JH: It’s worked pretty well. Though there are a couple of CDs coming out. Molly Fillmore is doing one. She’s an amazing singer, oh boy. She was with the Met. She’s now in North Texas. She’s one of those sopranos who is also a poet. And she wrote the poems to this cycle that she asked me to set on women who are lesser-known artists but wonderful painters. That was her project. But now she’s done a whole disc of my music that’s coming out in the fall. And an English horn player, Margaret Marco, announced that her new solo recording available online includes my five songs for English horn solo called collectively A Certain Tune and based on poetry by Sara Teasdale. There are also four more works that will be published by E. C. Schirmer and available in August. Then there’s Beyond the Guarded Gate, a nationwide wave of performances of Through the Guarded Gate. The goal is at least one performance in each of the 50 U.S. states.
FJO: And you have some international performances happening as well.
JH: My new monodrama Godiva, one of my Catlin Vincent pieces, will premiere at the Beverley Chamber Music Festival in Yorkshire at the end of September. And the Oxford Lieder Fest now has its program listed in its entirety and includes Godiva. The Beverley and Oxford concerts are especially meaningful to me. Kitty Whately is such a beautiful singer—her Jonathan Dove mezzo disc is just out of this world—and it is such an honor to have had the opportunity to write this work for her and have it brought to life in England, which has its own rich tradition of art song.