Defining Self: Adolphus Hailstork in Interview Print E-mail
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Written by Colin Clarke   
Friday, 23 November 2012

Defining Self: Adolphus Hailstork in Interview

Back in Fanfare 33:1 (September/October 2009), I reviewed a disc of piano music by the memorably named composer Adolphus Cunningham Hailstork III. And a very positive review it was, so much so that it was suggested I interview the composer for this august journal. There is a certain sense of privilege associated with making contact with someone who has spent time studying with such luminaries as David Diamond and Nadia Boulanger, of course.

One can see immediately that Diamond is vital to the American composer lineage, whereas Boulanger was simply a truly great teacher. I asked Hailstork about what he learned from them. From Boulanger, it was “mental and physical discipline are two principles I observed while spending one summer as a student at Fontainebleau. Mme. Boulanger required us to memorize (almost instantly) and solfège through Bach preludes and fugues. Musical multitasking (with the Hindemith “Basic Training for Musicians” as the text) was used to train the mind and muscles to do several things simultaneously. At an afternoon open class I witnessed a remarkable demonstration: one of her year-round students was instructed to begin a Bach fugue, and while playing the theme of the first measure, he recited the notes of the second measure! On another occasion, in a class, while discussing a Schubert piano sonata, she exclaimed, “Listen to how Schubert orchestrated that chord!” Now, at that time, I had never linked orchestration with piano writing (though we know that orchestral coloring is commonly associated with Beethoven’s writing for the instrument). What I took away from that class was the notion that we composers should pay careful attention to the voicing, the distribution of sound in every chord, that a C-Major triad is a particularly voiced C-Major triad.

“I finished my master’s thesis in 1966 under the guidance of David Diamond at the Manhattan School of Music. What I most remember from my lessons with him was not a technique, but an attitude. I had picked up a tendency to pretty strictly follow what I considered the ‘rules and guidelines’ of composition laid down (or even suggested) by earlier teachers. But Mr. Diamond would counter my ‘this has to do such and such a thing’ with a short and snappy question ‘Who says?’ Wow.

“That was when I began to question musical ‘lawgivers’ and began judging for myself. I began to develop some mental toughness and self-reliance which would serve me well during the “mandatory modernism” and experimentalist push, which were part of the 1960s and 1970s. On a technical note, Diamond taught me to listen more carefully to the flow of the lines and chords to discover where they were leading, rather than to impose a particular arrival point upon them.”

But what was it that led Hailstork to composition in the first place? “A short overview is that it all began with song. And it continues with song. As a child I felt a need to express myself through music. My earliest opportunities were as a boy soprano in a high church Anglican cathedral (The Cathedral of All Saints) in Albany, New York. That’s where I learned how to read music, play piano, play from open score, and play the organ. A decade in the cathedral choir had a profound impact on my musical development and long-range influence on many composing choices.

“At the same time I was singing at the cathedral, I became involved in music in the public school system, singing in the choirs, playing the violin in the school orchestra, and having my first opportunities to conduct both. By the time I got to senior high school (10th grade) composing was about all that remained to try, and (voila!) I found my major passion. After high school it was on to Howard University (Washington, D.C.), which, at that time (1959) had a magnificent choir that frequently sang with the National Symphony Orchestra. That was a thrilling experience that included performing works such as the Verdi Requiem, Beethoven Ninth, Kodály Te Deum, and Orff Carmina Burana.

“The summer I graduated, I studied at Fontainebleau. There, I met a kindly lady who happened to teach piano at the Manhattan School of Music. She recommended my admittance to that well-known school, and I proceeded to further my education. After those wonderful (literally) three years in New York City, I did army duty in Germany, before returning in 1968 to begin studies at Michigan State University for a doctorate in music composition.”

Referring back to the piano disc, I point out that there Hailstork admitted the influence of Ravel (one of his favorite composers, I believe), something I heard also in the disc “As Falling Leaves” (see review below). “Admittedly, I love the French Impressionists. More than that, however, I prefer the French aesthetic of charm, wit, color. I like Poulenc, and Faure, and for me, composers like Ravel, Debussy, and Duruflé transport me to another world. As a youth, and even now, the ‘Sunrise’ of Daphnis et Chloé , and Debussy’s Trois Nocturnes , especially Sirènes , are magical journeys in sound.” Thoughts of journeys in sound naturally lead to discussions of harmony. Copland, Ravel, Virgil Thomson, and Leonard Bernstein are all often mentioned in regard to Hailstork’s music. “When it comes to harmony, I generally use triadic structures for their richness, but run the gamut from clear functional tonality, to near-atonality [Hailstork’s own emphasis]. I like most to hover in a midrange I call ‘nebulous, or tenuous tonalit’ with free contrapuntal lines and varying tension chords arriving at areas centered on a note rather than in a key . Also, (especially lately) I do draw upon a heritage of blues, jazz, gospel, and church (especially black church) hymnody.”

It is not only Ravel that one can discern. Although there are Debussian elements to Arabesques , there are echoes of Stravinsky’s Petrushka there too. Is that my imagination? “Most of my career (actually my life!) has been a constant search for self. I join with many composers in having been influenced by giants. Only recently have I begun to establish my own voice. I’m a very late bloomer! Most of the works we are discussing were written some years ago, and though I was not deliberately trying to channel Debussy or Stravinsky, I do not doubt that the opening of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune , or Debussy’s Syrinx, or the rhythms and colors of Petrushka can be heard. Very few composers in history (if any) can claim to have created totally unprecedented, uninfluenced music.” Similarly, the tone poem for flute, viola, and harp ( As Falling Leaves ) is certainly evocative of Ravel in its scoring, and just plain evocative as well. You seem very at home writing for chamber forces. Is this a preferred medium for you? “My dream is to develop a portfolio of chamber works, orchestral works, solo instrumental, solo voice, choral. Lately, without new large works invited by conductors or ensembles, I have turned to chamber works for my outlet.”

The questions almost tumble out when it comes to the beautiful Sanctum for viola and piano (the solo viola at the opening is particularly impressive), which was written expressly for violist Beverly Baker. Does Hailstork delight in writing for individuals? Which of Baker’s strengths did he wish to bring out in this piece? And in extension, the First Quartet was written expressly for the front desk players of the Virginia Symphony and is a remarkably expressive piece. “I do like writing for particular performers, often without their knowing I am doing so. It’s my humble way of trying to show them how much I appreciate them, especially if they have been kind and supportive. I was impressed with and proud of Beverly Baker, who, as an African-American, won the first chair of the VSO (a rare feat in any American symphony orchestra). Her musicality and her poised, self-disciplined demeanor make her a consummate professional. But Sanctum really wrote itself. The chant-like theme recalled my youth in the all-male Anglican Cathedral Choir and the sense of refuge I felt every time I entered the quiet space of that grand building. The theme that came to me, in the tenor voice, suggested viola. I proceeded from there.”

Hailstork put aside the Two Romances for Viola and Chamber Ensemble after he wrote them. I was keen to find out why, as they are so beautiful, and yet his comments in the disc booklet seem to imply some sort of retrogression going on. “They had been set aside because I was still under the influence of the so-called ‘New Music’ movement of the ’60s. The Romances seemed too melodious, too lush, and just too ‘pretty’ to fit into the ‘you must be modern! New! Unprecedented! yadda, yadda, yadda’ thinking of the time. It took me awhile to seek my true (and romantic) self. Those pieces were a necessary part of the honest journey. With no commission and no prospect of performance, I simply wrote my heart and ears without reference to ‘novelty’ demands. When I was in school, being ‘modern’ was mandated more than being ‘me.’ When I decided I was not gifted to be a firebrand avant-gardist, I set myself free to seek the authentic (even if somewhat derivative and ‘old-fashioned’) self.”

Indeed, the search for identity, so vital a part of any composer’s journey, seems to be especially vital to Hailstork’s music. Part of this includes his sense of belonging, perhaps. The disc “Amazing Grace” with its sequence of Spirituals and organ responses to those spirituals seems to imply this search for identity. And then there is the Three Spirituals of 2005, which is featured on the Naxos disc that also includes the First Symphony. “I am an African-American. There exists a distinct and rich African-American musical heritage that is more than pop, but has influenced worldwide popular music. That legacy, beginning with the slave songs, is an important part of me which I had overlooked in my attempt to be a classical modernist. Over the decades of my career, I have written some pieces with zero African-American idioms, some other pieces strongly drawing from that rich vein, pieces with Euro-American and African-American styles juxtaposed, and some with both blended in varying strengths. My journey to self increasingly has included music idioms of my people, the gift handed down as folk music, or church music, or jazz, or blues. I have always been attracted to the statement by Antonin Dvořák in the early 1900s that an art music in America could rest upon indigenous materials such as spirituals.” Carrying on this theme, I point out that my colleague Walter Simmons commented on the African-American inflections to melodic contours in the Naxos disc of Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3. On the theme of Hailstork’s cultural identity, he set Walt Whitman for Whitman’s Journey . Inevitably I feel I should ask Hailstork how he thinks of his music in a philosophical sense. “Simply put, I see myself as a craftsman. I have no delusions about being a haute couture ‘artiste.’ Music is, for me, an expressive tool, my attempt to communicate from the heart-level. Last January I had a radio interview with Jim Svejda, and he commented that my music always seems to be about more than its technique. Since I want to communicate warmly with audiences I have written what some have labeled as ‘accessible’ music. I have written, I hope, useful pieces of varying weights, depths, and complexities. I am in a constant search for and discovery of true self. Authentic-ism is my ‘ism’.” High aims indeed, and probably the most laudable that one could hold.

I would like to get an overview of Hailstork’s output, especially his symphonic output as he has embraced the American Symphony wholeheartedly. “I have written three symphonies, a few overtures, works for string orchestra, a piano concerto, a violin concerto, and several works for chorus and orchestra. I want to do more, both short pieces and long. Currently, I am aiming for a concert piece of some sort and/or a Symphony No. 4 right now.” And recording plans for the future? “I hope for a disc of solo songs in the next couple of years. At the moment I am finishing a sonata for solo cello, and perusing several other ideas, especially for orchestra.” It looks as if there will be plenty more treats in store. The discs reviewed below give an idea of the different sides of this fascinating composer and will repay close study.

HAILSTORK Symphony No. 1. Three Spirituals. An American Port of Call. Fanfare on Amazing Grace. Whitman’s Journey: Launch Out on Endless Seas 1 JoAnn Falletta, cond; Kevin Deas (bar); Virginia Symphony 1 Ch & SO NAXOS 8.559722 (59: 08)

The Naxos is a nicely mixed disc, previously reviewed by Ronald E. Grames in Fanfare 36:2. Although named after a piece that lasts only eight minutes ( An American Port of Call ), the disc begins with the First Symphony. Hailstork’s own booklet notes are brief and to the point; to the extent that they give little away, in fact. The First Symphony (1988) is in the “standard” four movement form. A jaunty first movement talks with a typical Hailstork straightforwardness of utterance. All credit to JoAnn Falletta and her Virginians for hitting the bullseye when it comes to projecting the spiky rhythms and equally piquant harmonies of the first movement. The lyric nature of the second movement ( Adagio: Lento ma non troppo ) is immediately apparent, and the tenderness at the heart of the movement is viscerally revealed here, while the Scherzo invoked neoclassical Stravinsky (as does, for that matter, the very opening measures of the finale). All credit to the fast-on-their-feet woodwind players here.

If the first of the Three Spirituals (orchestral arrangements of arrangements for pipe organ), “Everytime I feel the Spirit,” seems just a little syrupy in this garb, the central, slow tempo “Kum Ba Yah” attains a measure of poignancy, and there is a palpable sense of angular play (that Stravinsky angle again) in the final “Oh Freedom.” Inspired by Norfolk, Virginia, the concert overture An American Port of Call (1985) bristles with energy. Tremendous scoring (sparkly, clear, well crafted) meets with a performance of vital energy here (and is that a Gershwin clarinet I can hear?). All tremendous fun. It would be good to hear this in the concert hall. The vivacious Fanfare on Amazing Grace (2003) acts as its own type of curtain raiser to the Whitman piece. The ‘I’ in the title on the disc refers to the fact that it was originally conceived as one movement of three, but actually stands alone. Grames rightly found Diamond as the primary influence here. The chorus is exemplary, the terrain varied. There are alternative performances of both the First Symphony and Whitman’s Journey available, but there is no doubting the fact that this Naxos issue offers an irresistible cross section of Hailstork’s music. Colin Clarke

Last Updated ( Friday, 23 November 2012 )
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