Interview with Composer of the Month: Daron Hagen

Daron Hagen
Photo by Karen Pearson

Daron Hagen (b. 1961) is a prolific composer of acoustic and electro-acoustic music for the concert hall and stage. He is also a stage director, conductor, librettist, essayist, clinician, and collaborative pianist. Described as a “composer born to write operas” (Chicago Tribune) whose music is “dazzling, unsettling, exuberant, and heroic” (The New Yorker), his opera Amelia was described as “one of the 20 best operas of the 21st century” by Opera News. Hagen’s work often includes collaborations with both mainstream and cutting-edge filmmakers, directors, conductors, choreographers, and musicians worldwide. He was recognized in 2014 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters with an Academy Award citing his “outstanding artistic achievement and acknowledging the composer who has arrived at his or her own voice.” Hagen’s extensive and diverse catalog includes operas, choral works, symphonies, and chamber music.

1. How were you first introduced to music? What inspired you to pursue composition?

My mother, who was a writer and visual artist, played the violin into college; she used to listen to Paganini violin concertii, one after the next, and recordings of Sinatra performing those great Nelson Riddle arrangements of Cole Porter, while she sculpted on the back porch of our home in New Berlin, Wisconsin. I recall sitting for her when I was around nine while she was working and thinking that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. At fifteen I was taken to a Milwaukee Symphony concert and, listening to Kenneth Schermerhorn and company perform the Dvorak “New World” Symphony, I resolved to become a composer, specifically. While I pursued activities as a conductor, pianist, stage director, and writer in parallel to composing, it became the center of my activities, and has remained so.

2. Describe life as a composer. What are the joys and challenges of the career?

I am a father first, a husband second, and an artist third. I long ago melded together my self and music, so there’s no doubt that it is the way that I connect to life and reality. But I’m a polymath, as my teachers were. (Ned Rorem was a pianist, writer, and composer; Lukas Foss a pianist, conductor, and composer; Leonard Bernstein, well, he was, in his customarily all-embracing way, everything.) Composing is only one manifestation of music’s role in my life—I conduct, perform as a pianist, coach chamber music, teach composition students, write articles about it, stage direct my operas, write librettos, develop new works, and compose music.

Our culture’s awfully hard on polymaths. I recall Anthony Tomassini, in the New York Times, at pains to slap down Bernstein in a piece by observing that “Bernstein was not a deeply original thinker, but he loved ideas and saw connections everywhere.” I recall writing, in a piece about Bernstein for the Huffington Post, “In 1971, the year he became the first music critic to receive the Pulitzer Prize, Harold Schoenberg wrote of the premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS: “So this MASS is with it — this week? But what about next year?” Schoenberg was the leader of the pack that wanted LB to settle down and do one thing. Perhaps then, he argued, LB would reach his potential. How condescending! Stephen Sondheim was poking fun of these folks when he wrote new lyrics to Weill’s “The Saga of Jenny” and made it “The Saga of Lenny” for LB’s 70th birthday—its conclusion was, “Lenny, please never make up your mind!”

3. In addition to your work as a composer, conductor, and stage director, you are also widely sought-after as a guest lecturer. Some of your most recent presentations were to students at Westminster Choir College and New York University. What do you find most gratifying about working with young musicians? What questions do you hear most often?

Oscar Levant was pretty hard on LB, too, when he quipped that “Lenny has been revealing openly-known musical secrets for decades.” Levant, who was deliciously sophisticated, couldn’t help himself. I always loved to teach, but it wasn’t until I had children myself that I realized that there’s more to teaching than “generosity of spirit,” or trying to make thought lightbulbs light up, or ginning up pipe dreams about what constitutes “inspiration” for youngsters. Teaching is about the transmission of values. Working with young musicians is a profound blessing and responsibility, since they’ve already been called to a way of life (being a musician) that requires discipline, sensitivity, empathy, courage, and good character—all indisputably positive values. There are no consistent questions: once someone I’m working with is being true to their core, they ask very specific, very original questions. Responding by trying to give them tools for survival, growth, and understanding of music requires me to bring my “A” game, to be positive, and to find reasons for hope.

4. Your newly-revised Walt Whitman Requiem will be available from E. C. Schirmer this September. Tell us about this piece and the inspiration behind it.

It was my very first professional commission, given to me by Mark Jon Gottschalk, a colleague of my brother Kevin’s, who ran the Loomis Chaffee School’s chorus and orchestra. He wanted a work for chorus, solo soprano, and string orchestra. I was between studies at Curtis, and studies at Juilliard, spending the summer at Yaddo, the artist retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, and wanted to do something close to my heart. My mother had just died, so a requiem was in my heart; and Walt Whitman’s writings about the Civil War seemed to me to be ideal for interweaving into an American requiem.

Daron Hagen and wife Gilda Lyons

5. Your website indicates this requiem has the “longest gestational period” of any works in your catalog. It has been a work-in-progress for thirty-three years. How do you know when a piece is finished?

I began the piece and finished it that summer at Yaddo. That was 1984! As an opera composer, I’m always going back into the works to rethink them for new times and situations. It is what makes theater so challenging and requiring of growth by its practitioners. Concert music’s different, yes: a double bar should mean basta. And I really did mean to have finished the requiem back then. But it was too raw, too young. The subject, to be honest, was a bit too much for the composer who undertook it at the time, though his intentions were (as far as I know!) good. For me, a piece is finished either when it beats me, and I just walk away from it and allow it to be the torso that it needed to have been, or because I really feel as though my reach exceeded my grasp by just enough that the result isn’t too flawed to share with the world. Every piece—even my opera Amelia, the ending of which I feel really captured some personal truths—is, in some way, a disappointment. Otherwise, why would one go on and try again?

6. Your extensive and diverse catalog includes works for opera, choir, symphonies, and chamber music. Do you implement different techniques and methods when approaching each musical genre? Do you have a favorite for which to compose?

I approach all composing the same way. I think of the human beings who are going to perform it, and the human being composing it, and try to build a bridge for us to cross together into a place where we can share the beauty of music, it’s creation, and re-creation, with one another, and with others. I couldn’t compose for someone I didn’t like as a person.

7. Describe your compositional style. What most inspires your music?

I am inspired by music’s ability to speak truth to power, to cut through people’s attitudes and received views and to communicate directly with their souls and hearts. On a good day, my work may even have therefore been able to be a force for good, something that made people’s lives better, possibly more humane.

8. How do you spend your non-musical time?

I like simply to be with my wife and sons, with family, and friends. Music’s running through my head all the time. It took me over three decades to realize that that was a blessing, not a curse. Now it is integrated into every moment of my life, every interaction with others, and there’s no stress in its creation or performance for me. I guess I have no non-musical time!

9. Is there any recent or upcoming news you wish to share?

I recently joined the Artist Faculty at the Chicago College of the Performing Arts, where  I’m developing a new musico-theatric work called Orson Rehearsed that features the exciting young ensemble Fifth House and a handful of singers that I find emotionally and intellectually invigorating. You can read about it here.


Click here to learn more about Daron Hagen.

Photo by Karen Pearson

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