Beauty, Truth, and Insight through Song: Interview with Juliana Hall

January 2018 Featured Composer: Juliana Hall

This month we’re featuring American art song composer Juliana Hall (b. 1958). A prolific and highly-regarded composer of vocal music, her songs have been described as “brilliant” (Washington Post), “beguiling” (Times of London), and “the most genuinely moving music of the afternoon” (Boston Globe). The NATS Journal of Singing wrote that “Hall’s text setting is spot on and exquisite”, and Voix des Arts noted that Hall “perpetuates the American Art Song tradition of Beach, Barber, and Bolcom with music of ingenuity and integrity.”

Juliana Hall

In addition to performances at prestigious concert venues including the 92nd Street Y, the Library of Congress, the Théâtre du Châtelet, and Wigmore Hall, Hall’s songs have been presented at numerous festivals, including the London Festival of American Music, Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, Ojai Music Festival, and Tanglewood Music Center.

Art song organizations and ensembles presenting Hall’s music include ÆPEX Contemporary Performance, ANA Trio, Boston Art Song Society, Calliope’s Call, Cantabile Project, Capital Fringe, Casement Fund Song Series (Sparks & Wiry Cries), CHAI Collaborative Ensemble, Contemporary Music Forum, Contemporary Undercurrent of Song Project, Ensemble for These Times, Ensemble Lyrae, Fourth Coast Ensemble, Cincinnati Song Initiative, Denver Art Song Project, Feminine Musique, Lowell Trio, Lynx Project, Lyric Fest, Mallarmé Chamber Players, Mirror Visions Ensemble, Northwest Art Song, One Ounce Opera, Oxford Song Network, Project 142, “re-Sung” Series, Schubert Club, Second Street Sonorities, Songeaters, “Song in the City” Series, The Ensemble of Oregon, Voices of Change, and Zenith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Special recital appearances include songs from Hall’s soprano song cycle “Night Dances” on Dawn Uphaw’s “First Songs” series at the Morgan Library and Museum and a performance of her mezzo soprano song cycle “Letters from Edna” on the 2016 Joy in Singing’s Edward T. Cone Composers Concert at Lincoln Center, both in New York City, as well as a performance of her tenor song cycle “The Holy Sonnets of John Donne” in a Holy Week meditation service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Juliana Hall’s art song catalogue was signed by E. C. Schirmer last June.

Unlike many composers, you specialize in art song. What, for you, is special about writing art songs?

Art song is so special to me, more than any other genre of music, because it combines the two worlds I most love—the world of poetry and literature, and the world of music—and joins them into a small and concentrated musical form.

I have composed over 300 art songs and works of vocal chamber music and, although I’ve written larger forms including a cantata, a chamber opera, a few choral anthems, and a handful of instrumental solo and chamber music pieces for family and friends, the world of art song is the world I feel closest to, musically and personally.

Since art song is very different from other types of composition, is there a special purpose you have in mind as you compose your art songs?

My strongest desire when composing art songs is to share whatever beauty, truth, or insight a poem or other text may possess, through a musical framework.

Because music is an art that so directly and so powerfully goes to both the head and the heart, it is the perfect “carrier” for words whose message I wish to share with an audience, and the small scale of art song performance—usually just a single singer with a single pianist—makes that sharing a very direct and personal communication.

How were you first introduced to music, and what inspired you to pursue composition?

I first studied piano with my mother, beginning when I was six years old, and I pretty much planned on a career as a professional pianist. However, even as I practiced the Bach, Beethoven, and Schumann pieces that I loved, I always wondered about composing; for some reason, I had a feeling inside that I might be able to write music, as well as play it.

When I was 13, I composed a piece for our little family church—a setting of the Creation Story from the Book of Genesis in the Bible—for flute, piano, children’s choir, and narrator. Even though it was my first piece of music, writing it felt very natural and it was extremely satisfying to see it come to life.

Later, when I went to college at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, faculty composer Darrell Handel encouraged me to switch studies from piano to composition after hearing some pieces I had written for a “composition for performers” class. I didn’t change paths then, but that encouragement to pursue the writing of my own music planted a seed.

When did you know you wanted to become a composer?

Twenty years after I began studying the piano, as a 26-year-old graduate student at the Yale School of Music, I signed up for composition lessons with a visiting composer, Frederic Rzewski, as an elective—just for fun. Around the same time, a friend gave me a book of poetry (Sylvia Plath, I think) and I really felt close to it, so I began reading a lot more poetry. For my composition lessons, then, I tried to join these wonderful newly-discovered words with original music, by composing my first art songs.

When those first songs were performed on student concerts, my composition teachers there—Frederic, Leon Kirchner, and Martin Bresnick—encouraged me to make composition my primary focus (just as Darrell Handel had done at Cincinnati during my undergraduate years), so I finally took the plunge, and in 1987 my graduate piano performance degree became a graduate composition degree.

As much as I had enjoyed playing the piano up to that point in my life, it had never felt completely “right” and I almost didn’t realize how important this feeling was, until I began composing art songs. For the first time in my life, I felt like I’d found my true place in the world…it was a huge gift really, to finally have that grounded sense of who I was.

How did your career as an art song composer begin?

While at Yale, I sent one of my earliest song cycles—In Reverence, 5 songs on poems by Emily Dickinson—to renowned vocal composer Dominick Argento, who was then teaching at the University of Minnesota. He accepted me as his student, and in the 18 months following Yale that I studied with him, he taught me an awful lot about English-language literature and its use in vocal music.

While still in my first semester at Minnesota, I received my first commission for a song cycle, Night Dances; this was the first event in building that important bridge between student life and “real life.” One of the area’s premier musical organizations, The Schubert Club of Saint Paul, MN, asked me to write a set of songs for a young, up-and-coming singer who had won the Naumburg Award a few years earlier, and who was taking the musical world by storm, soprano Dawn Upshaw.

A few years later, in 1989, I received a second Schubert Club commission for Winter Windows for another great Metropolitan Opera singer, baritone David Malis.

In 1989 I was also awared a Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition.  The Guggenheim was particularly helpful, because first, it was a very public and tangible acknowledgement of my compositional abilities, which was helpful in being taken seriously as a composer, and second, more practically speaking on a daily basis, it gave me a whole year of writing time during which I completed dozens of songs, including Bells and Grass, Lovestars, and Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What kinds of poems have you set in art songs?

Poets whose words have found their way into my art songs include W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lewis Carroll, Fanny J. Crosby, E. E. Cummings, Jean de La Fontaine, Walter de la Mare, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Anne Frank, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, Amelia Forrester Peterson, Edgar Allan Poe, Christina Rossetti, Carl Sandburg, William Shakespeare, Percy Byssche Shelley, and Sara Teasdale.

Have you worked with living poets?

Although I’ve written much less using the works of living poets, one very special recent project, just premiered this past October, was a commission from the art song organization Lynx Project in which composers were offered texts written by high-performing, but non-verbal, autistic young men. The poet whose texts I chose to set, Sameer Dahar, wrote wonderfully evocative poems full of rich and beautiful imagery…perfect for the tenor song cycle Great Camelot.

Other recent projects I have really enjoyed working on include a couple song cycles with singers who also have significant gifts as writers, including Metropolitan Opera soprano Molly Fillmore, on whose lovely poems I wrote the song cycle called Cameos, and the soprano and librettist Caitlin Vincent, whose text formed the basis of my second song cycle for unaccompanied soprano, Sentiment.

Another tenor song cycle I’m looking forward to composing this year is a setting of the six poem work, Piano Lessons, by the great American poet Billy Collins , which is set for a Spring 2020 premiere.

What does the future hold for Juliana Hall?

I am busier than I’ve ever been before, and have several wonderful things coming up. I’ve already mentioned the Billy Collins piece, but in addition to that, I am also writing a large song cycle for mezzo soprano on the words of Margaret Widdemer, whose beautiful poetry I recently discovered.

I’ve also got a beautiful Christmas text taken from the Gospel of Luke from the Bible, which will be a piece for countertenor voice to be sung (hopefully) during the next Christmas season, and there’s also a wonderful little set of two poems by E. E. Cummings which I hope to write for a very high coloratura voice type.

And performances?

I’ve been very blessed with quite a few recent performances, including concerts in Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, England, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Scotland, as well as across the United States in locations including Albuquerque, Amarillo, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas, Denver, Hartford, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Princeton, San Antonio, San Diego, Seattle, Syracuse, Tucson, and Washington, DC.

Upcoming performances include three premieres this month: Roosters, for soprano, mezzo soprano, and piano; In Closer Bonds of Love to Thee, for soprano and piano; and The Poets, for bass voice and piano. I’m also looking forward to the premiere of my first song cycle for unaccompanied soprano, In Spring, in February; the premiere of a new soprano song, I Know a River Wide and Deep, later in the Spring; the premiere of a soprano cycle, How Do I Love Thee?, in September; the premiere of the soprano cycle Cameos during the 2018-2019 concert season; the premiere of my second cycle for unaccompanied soprano, Sentiment in Spring of 2019; and the premiere of my upcoming tenor song cycle Piano Lessons in Spring 2020.

As yet unscheduled premieres include the new song cycle on the Margaret Widdemer poems, Will You Love Me Still?; my new contralto song cycle, Of That So Sweet Imprisonment; and new songs for high coloratura, Two Birds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Any other exciting activities coming up for you?

Summertime has been an exciting time for me. Last summer I received the 2017 Sorel Commission from SongFest for my soprano song cycle When the South Wind Sings.

This coming summer is no different; I have two wonderful events to which I’m eagerly looking forward:

The first event is the 2018 Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar, where I have been asked to be this year’s Guest “Spotlight” Composer.  I’m looking forward to working with some extremely talented singers and collaborative pianists preparing for a concert of my songs to take place on Wednesday, May 23, 2018 at the Crane School of Music, SUNY, Potsdam, NY.

The second event is the NATS National Conference, the biannual meeting of members of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, where my songs will be presented in a publisher’s showcase on Sunday, June 24, 2018.  I’m really looking forward to the showcase, but also to meeting as many of the thousand conference attendees as I can, signing scores, and sharing my work as widely as possible.

 

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