New Voice: Juliana Hall

Juliana Hall
Juliana Hall

 

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Primarily known as an American art song composer, Juliana Hall (born 1958) has written over 35 song cycles and her commissions include two for song cycles for Metropolitan Opera singers Dawn Upshaw (soprano) and David Malis (baritone). Her music has been performed by more than 100 different performers in major concert halls in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Uruguay.

Numerous performances across the United States include concerts at the 92nd Street Y, the Morgan Library & Museum, and Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall(New York, NY); the Library of Congress and the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, DC); Ambassador Auditorium and The Colburn School (Los Angeles, CA); the French Library and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston, MA); the Kemper Art Museum (Saint Louis, MO); the Strathmore Hall Arts Center (Bethesda, MD); the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (Hartford, CT); and both the Shubert and McKnight Theaters (Saint Paul, MN).

Joseph McLellan of The Washington Post wrote of Hall’s music, “By the time she [Dawn Upshaw] sang her encore Saturday at the Library of Congress…she had given a breathtaking display of virtuosity in ‘Night Dances,’ a brilliant cycle of songs to texts by women poets…whose composer, 30-year-old Juliana Hall, used every trick in the book—melodic and half-spoken, tonal and nontonal…to deepen the impact of the texts dealing with night and sleep, to explore the implicit emotions in sounds that ranged from a whisper to a scream, with the piano supplying illustrations and comment and engaging in vivid dialogue.”

Richard Dyer of The Boston Globe reported that, “[Jayne] West’s recital Sunday afternoon in the French Library with pianist Karen Sauer featured settings by seven composers of some of America’s finest poets, and the results were exceptional…Juliana Hall caught much of Emily Dickinson’s humor and gentle lyricism in seven songs drawn from her letters, ‘Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush.’ A bright, extended tonality and a moving, spare lyricism allowed the texts to breathe. Her first setting of ‘To Susan Gilbert’ was the most genuinely moving music of the afternoon.”

Festival performances include the Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar (Potsdam, NY); the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival (Norfolk, CT); the Ojai Music Festival (Ojai, CA); SongFest (Los Angeles, CA); and the Tanglewood Music Festival (Lenox, MA). Hall’s music has also been heard in live performances at dozens of American colleges, conservatories, and universities from coast to coast.

Reporting on a concert at Yale University, Philip Greene of the New Haven Register declared, “Last to be mentioned in this long article, but I think finest of all the works, we were treated to four extraordinarily beautiful ‘Rilke Songs’ by Juliana Hall. With Hall at the piano accompanying soprano Karen Burlingame, the world of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was juxtaposed with the nearly-intact, then gradually distorted, Chopin E-major Etude. These songs were intimate, melancholy, haunting. Not as adventuresome as other works on the program, they nonetheless belong as legitimate modern heirs to the great tradition of German lieder…Strong praise? Perhaps. Let other listeners, even those who thought they hated all that modern stuff, choose the works they enjoyed to listen to more.”

Hall’s song cycle “Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush” is published by Boosey & Hawkes; other song cycles and instrumental works are published by Juliana Hall Music. Several of Hall’s compositions have been recorded on the Albany and Vienna Modern Masters labels, and her music has been widely played on radio, including broadcasts by the BBC (London, UK); NPR (Washington, DC); Radio ArtsIndonesia (Jakarta, ID); Radio France (Paris, FR), Radio Horizon (Johannesburg, ZA); and Radio MonaLisa (Amsterdam, NL).

Juliana Hall studied with composers Martin Bresnick, Leon Kirchner, and Frederic Rzewski at the Yale School of Music (where she earned a Master’s degree in composition), completed her formal composition studies with Dominick Argento, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989.

THE QUESTIONS

What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

I grew up in a very small town in southern Ohio, right on the Ohio River across from West Virginia. Classical music was a distant art form there, not really a part of the local culture, and composers were the stuff of history books…my mother was a pianist and I had begun piano lessons with her at age six, but composers – people who actually wrote music – didn’t feel like real people. What seemed more real to me, even at an early age, was English literature. As a young kid I used to put together performances of plays and musicals; I was interested in every facet of drama – stories, characters, costumes, atmosphere, and the excitement of live performance. 

I felt very much at home in my family church, and when I was 13 I had the idea to write a piece…so I composed a piece for flute, piano, childrens’ choir, and narrator which was a setting of the Creation Story from the Book of Genesis in The Bible. This was performed in the church and, even though it was my first work, writing it felt very natural to me. However, during the remainder of my teen years I spent my musical time studying as a pianist. A career in composition never occurred to me during those years; I had no personal knowledge of the possibilities. 

When I went to college at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, the composition faculty there encouraged me to switch my studies from piano to composing after I wrote a flute and piano piece and a piece for soprano and piano (for a “composition for performers” class), both of which were quite well received. I didn’t change paths then, but that encouragement to pursue the writing of my own music, instead of the performance of other people’s music, planted a seed within me. Later when I went to Yale to study piano, one of the electives I chose was private composition study with Frederic Rzewski, a visiting professor that year. After hearing my music, the composition faculty encouraged me to pursue writing and they worked with me to enable me to add composition to my piano studies, eventually making the transition from pianist to composer. 

So first came an inner knowledge, from early on, that I could write music and that I enjoyed doing it…then later the growing knowledge of the world of music, the idea that I could actually pursue composition as who I am as a person and as a musician, as a profession and a way of life. 

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time?

Having begun my career in music as a pianist, my early influences that later proved so crucial to my composition were the study and performance of the piano literature: Bach, Barber, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Khachaturian, Mozart, Prokofiev, Ravel, Schumann…these composers and many more taught me harmony, color, and texture, and conveyed almost subconsciously a deep knowledge of pianistic writing from the inside, as it were. As I came to know more music, vocal music interested me more and more. The wonderful dramatic vocal writing of Menotti, the songs and church operas of Britten, Samuel Barber’s songs, and those of Charles Ives, Lee Hoiby, and Dominick Argento. In recent years, I have greatly admired the orchestral writing of composers Laura Elise Schwendinger and Elena Ruehr…wonderful, deeply colorful orchestrations and very strong musical structures. Another influential composer is Galina Ustvolskaya, a real original who demonstrates a very successful pushing of boundaries, whether in instrumentation, harmony, texture, or range…she was a composer who wasn’t afraid to approach a traditional instrument or form in an untraditional or innovative way…strikingly original music! 

Of course my composition teachers were all influential in different ways. Each of my teachers at Yale — Martin Bresnick, Leon Kirchner, and Frederic Rzewski — not only assisted me with addressing numerous details as they arose in my works, but more importantly gave me encouraging guidance to find my own voice as a composer. After Yale, Dominick Argento helped me reach a whole new level of understanding regarding the musical qualities of various literary texts and enhancing my general knowledge of the world of singers and singing, how to write for the voice in particular as contrasted to instrumental writing. Although a number of my early songs set texts in French (Verlaine), German (Rilke), and Spanish (Lorca), it was Dominick Argento who really made the case for composing in the composer’s native tongue, in my case English, and he really expanded my knowledge of authors and poets. 

As a composer of art songs, I should also mention that poets have been equally important to my development as the music of other composers. Poets see truth and beauty in even the most ordinary of things, and that is what I wish to express. Poets – because their work provides the sound and color of each piece I compose – enliven my creative imagination with their stories and perceptions. The types of literature I have set through the years include poems, sonnets, letters, haiku, diaries, and fables. Poets whose texts I have set include W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, William Blake, Emily Brontë, Lewis Carroll, E. E. Cummings, John Donne, Jean de La Fontaine, Walter de la Mare, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, Edward Lear, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti, William Shakespeare, and Percy Byssche Shelley, among others. 

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you  find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use?

I write every weekday, usually taking weekends off for family activities. Composing is exhausting for me, so I work very intensely for a few hours, then take a break to play with the dog or catch up on household chores, then dive in again for a few more hours of intense work, then break again…over and over throughout the day from early morning til bedtime. 

It is important for me personally to only work on one composition at a time, to really delve deep into the poet’s words. I like to feel a certain intensity in the work, so I sketch quickly – from beginning to end – what Frederic Rzewski used to call “crashing through” the work, just to get it down. I’m an intuitive composer, which can create a feeling of great uncertainty. I don’t start with any plan or pre-determined formal structure so the speed helps me to feel the pull from something that is initially unknown towards something that eventually feels right for the text. 

Early in my career, I would first have an idea of a subject I wanted to explore, and then I would find poets who wrote about that subject. For example, my “Night Dances” is a song cycle about various aspects of night time…”Love’s Pilgrimage” is a song cycle on love sonnets by Shakespeare…and “Theme In Yellow” is a cycle of songs about the season of Autumn. In more recent years, I start by reading many poems by various poets and letting one of them suggest a subject to me…perhaps a subject that never occurred to me…so I look to a poet to lead me along an untravelled path to a new and sometimes surprising subject. 

Once a new subject is decided upon, I compose at the piano. I used to order special pencils but these days, any old lead will do. I like the physical sense of pencil on paper (I’m from the pre-computer era), and as a pianist I love playing through the composing stage of the creative process from start to finish…and while I play I sing. Lots of reading the poetry out loud to come to a deep knowledge of the words and their rhythms, improvising various possibilities on my piano, singing the voice part until it feels just right, and sketching out ideas as they show themselves eventually results in a finished work. 

Only after completing a new composition do I approach technology…I enter new music into Sibelius software using a midi keyboard hooked up to my laptop. Usually I give a finished Sibelius score to my husband (who works in design and publishing and is a trained cellist as well)…he completes final layout, then I proofread the score, then corrections are made…then another proofreading is performed. For some compositions I have performed as many as six rounds of proofreading and correction in order to ensure accuracy and consistency of notation…then he makes a final PDF of the finished score and it’s off to the printer to make beautiful printed scores! 

Technology never constrains me musically, because technology only enters my process after the music is already set in stone. It is noteworthy, though, how important the presentation of a musical score has become, in non-musical terms, since personal computers became ubiquitous…the days of messy handwritten scores from my college days are long gone. I have found it to be essential to produce the most beautiful, clear, accurate, and detailed scores I can, and in 2013 I became a publisher – “Juliana Hall Music” – in order to properly make my music available and appealing to performers, and to be able to distribute my works as far and wide as possible…and that part of the composer’s life is entirely technology-based, as is the use of online communications tools like SoundCloud, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others. Technology is essential to communicate my music to the world once it exists in its final performance-ready form…but all technology has proven, in my case at least, to be useful only if – and only when – I have first done my job as a composer, and done it properly. 

Please describe a recent work and provide a link to an audio clip.

All my song cycles since the 1980s have been “recent” in the sense that my goal in setting a literary text to music has never changed in all that time: my overarching desire, when setting a text to music, has always been to bring to life the message of that text…it is not to share my “interpretation” of that text, but rather to breathe a sense of clarity into a musically-based form so that the meaning behind the author’s words becomes completely transparent to the listener, so that the poet’s “story” is told clearly and authentically. By following a text’s natural rhythm, down to the level of each syllable, I strive to make the text “speak” in as clear a manner as possible. 

An excellent example of a song cycle in which I feel I have been particularly successful in this regard is “Death’s Echo” for baritone and piano, a cycle of five songs on poems by W. H. Auden: 1. As I walked out one evening, 2. If I could tell you, 3. Death’s Echo, 4. No Time, and 5. Lullaby. Originally composed in 1992 and revised in 2014 in preparation for publication, “Death’s Echo” is fully representative of the “sound” of my music that runs throughout my output ever since I first began composing, and demonstrates much of the song writing technique that still marks my music. 

In “Death’s Echo” the formal structure of each song is determined by the structure of the poems themselves. The harmony has a dark quality that I think fits well with a baritone voice and, in this piece especially, reflects the dark nature of the texts. The piano writing evokes the emotional atmosphere that comes from within each poem. For example, in “As I walked out one evening” the piano establishes a quiet, yet uneasy, mood setting the stage for the singer’s depiction of an evening walk punctuated by the speaker’s shadowy contemplations of life’s inevitable decay…in “Death’s Echo” the piano’s tense motoric rhythms drive that song’s deep sense of terror…and in “Lullaby” the piano’s gentle rocking breathes a welcome sense of tranquillity, bringing the promise of hope and comfort – through love – to the end of the cycle. The vocal writing allows the singer to express the drama of the poetry by accentuating the lyrical nature of the baritone voice, while simultaneously juxtaposing it with the extremes of range and dynamics that allow him to stress the far reaches of emotional intensity present in the texts. 

I composed “Death’s Echo” with my good friend, baritone Richard Lalli, in mind…his is a wonderfully silky and agile baritone, and his musicianship is simply outstanding. This performance by Richard, with myself at the piano, was recorded at a concert at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “Death’s Echo” runs 28 minutes in performance.

One thought on “New Voice: Juliana Hall

  1. From the above text: “…exploring the implicit emotions in sounds that rang(ed) from a whisper to a scream…” I have been privileged to witness and be awed by that in Julie’s music more than once. A privilege, indeed.

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