Composer Juliana Hall: I Found My Place

Praised as “brilliant” (Washington Post), “beguiling” (Times of London), and “the most genuinely moving music of the afternoon” (Boston Globe), the works of American art song composer Juliana Hall have been heard worldwide, with performances at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, the Library of Congress, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Wigmore Hall, as well as the Norfolk Chamber Music, Ojai, Oxford Lieder, and Tanglewood festivals. Among the many singers for whom Hall has composed music are Brian Asawa, Stephanie Blythe, Molly Fillmore, David Malis, Dawn Upshaw, and Kitty Whately; she also received SongFest’s 2017 Sorel Commission and was the Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar’s 2018 Guest Composer. In this interview with musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė, Juliana Hall talks about her career, inspiration, and the purpose of creativity.

How did you find your way as a contemporary classical composer? 

My mother began teaching me piano when I was six, so I always thought I’d become a pianst.  When I was thirteen, though, I composed a piece for the children’s choir at my family church.  I don’t really know why I suddenly wanted to write music or why I thought I could – but it went well and I enjoyed the experience. 

Later, as an undergraduate piano student at Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, I took a “composing for performers” class and the teacher, Darrell Handel, told me he thought I could become a composer, so when I went to the Yale School of Music for graduate study in piano, I took private composition lessons on a more serious level as an elective.

While at Yale, I studied with Frederic Rzewski, Martin Bresnick, and Leon Kirchner. Around this same time, a friend gave me a book of poems and I decided to set some to music.  Fortunately for me I also had a wonderful soprano friend – Karen Burlingame – who was very open to performing new songs with me; we had a lot of fun with those early songs of mine.  My transformation from performer to creator became complete with my master’s degree in composition in 1987.

When did you first know you wanted to compose music for a living?

After Yale I completed my composition studies in Minnesota with Dominick Argento.  I received my first two commissions while studying with Dominick, and in 1989 I was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.  It felt like I had found my place in the world as a composer.

Do you have a value based musical foundation that is prominent in all of your creative work? 

Yes – the goal of art song is to illuminate a poet’s words through music.  Poets see truth and beauty in the most ordinary of things, and that is what I wish to express: those truths and that beauty.  

How do you choose text for music? 

I begin reading and see where it takes me.  I tend to choose beautiful, lyrical texts about topics that speak to universally shared experience: life and death, sin and redemption, love and loss, good and evil, and all the many feelings we humans have as we navigate through this beautiful, but often difficult, world.

Define inspiration – does it exist? What inspires you in your life the most? 

Hard work creates art, and I think inspiration comes to those who work hard and are prepared to receive it.  I’ve always felt, “if you don’t feel like working or you feel uninspired, just sit down and work anyway.” Work consistently – every day – and stay focused.

What is the most fun and the most boring while composing music? 

Some of the most intelligent, imaginative, and creative people I’ve ever known work in the world of art song, and any chance to work with them is both inspirational and fun.  As for boring, not even inputting notes into the computer is boring, because even then the activity is helping me to see more clearly into the puzzle that is the composition I’m working on. 

How do you form a concept for new piece of music?

Art songs are all about text: a good text will take the composer from concept through performance.  The text dictates the parameters of each individual song, while the collection of poems chosen for a cycle defines its primary colors and textures.

How do you know when a piece or project is finished and needs no additonal work?

When a piece is finished, there is a sense that everything is in its place: every note and marking is there for a reason, and no note or marking is missing.  A sense of balance and well-being. Until a piece becomes complete in this way – with all the pieces of the puzzle in their proper places – I continue to work on it.

Thank you for the conversation!

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