Meet Composer Joel Hoffman Print E-mail
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Written by Lynn René Bayley   
Friday, 08 February 2013

Meet Composer Joel Hoffman

My brush with the music of Joel Hoffman was a review of his CD on Albany 1372, which included Three Paths, Nine Pieces for Piano, and …the first time and the last. What struck me the most with his music was his manner of juxtaposing themes, often of odd meter and construction, and the use of silence as part of each composition. Needless to say, I gave the CD a good recommendation. Now I have the pleasure of interviewing him, thus I had to do a cram course on his background. Born in Vancouver in 1953, Hoffman is a member of a very musical family: His brother Gary is a cellist, brother Toby a conductor, and sister Deborah a harpist. His parents are also distinguished musicians. Joel received degrees from the University of Wales and the Juilliard School, a major prize from the American Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, ASCAP, and the American Music Center, among many others. He has been a composer-in-residence at the Rockefeller, Camargo, and Hindemith Foundations, the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the Buffalo Philharmonic, and the National Philharmonic of Washington, D.C. He is currently professor of composition at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, where he is also artistic director of its annual new music festival, MusicX. A very busy and in-demand man!

Aspects of his compositional style, particularly his unusual sense of rhythm, are explained by some of his sources of inspiration, which include Eastern European folk music and bebop. You can be sure that I’ll ask him about the bebop! His astoundingly large catalog of works, numbers (so far) no less than 95 (not counting alternate versions of his 1995 L’Immensita dell’Attimo —one instrumental and one a song cycle—or his two different versions of the 1996 The Music Within the Words, Part 1 or the 1999 Krakow Variations ) and includes such fascinating (to me) titles as Hands Down (1986), described as a solo piano work “written in graphic notation with a strong improvisatory nature”; Metasmo (1992) for a percussion trio that “includes the percussionists in the composing process: The musicians choose the instruments they play”; and the Round Midnight Variations (2001), “the last piece in a series inspired by Round Midnight of Thelonious Monk.” We certainly have some common ground to discuss.

Q: If you don’t mind, I’m curious about much of your jazz influence, since I came to classical in my teenage years only after being immersed in jazz (first big band, then small group) since the age of five. How exactly did your interest in jazz begin, and was it around the same time you got interested in classical music or after?

A: Well, I’ve been listening to classical music since I was born. My parents are both musicians (conductor father and violinist mother), so there was no escape! But I first became aware of jazz while a teenager in Chicago. We lived on the near north side, where there were several really great jazz clubs in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, not being of drinking age, I wasn’t allowed in any of them! But I heard about people like Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and so many others during that time. My brother Gary and I bought records from the great Rose Records store downtown, and that’s how I first discovered this amazing world. Some years later, when I was a graduate student at the Juilliard School, I finally had a chance to go in some of the legendary places in New York. My friend Joel Smirnoff (formerly of the Juilliard Quartet and now the president of the Cleveland Institute of Music) took me to the Vanguard, where he introduced me to Charles Mingus and two members of his incredible group: percussionist Dannie Richmond and pianist Don Pullen. During that time I also met Roland Hanna, a great pianist who gave me my one and only jazz piano lesson, which lasted about 20 minutes. It took almost two hours to get from my west side apartment to his modest little house in Fort Lee, N.J. After a few minutes of small talk, he asked me to play something. I played the E-Major Chopin Etude, op. 10/3. It wasn’t the best I’d ever played it, but it was OK. After I finished, he asked me to play it again in F. When I said I didn’t think I could do that past the opening slow section, he said “When you’re ready to play the whole piece in all 12 keys come back. In the meantime this lesson is over.”

Q: Without going into detail on all your pieces that are either based on jazz or include improvisation, I have to ask about the Round Midnight Variations. One of my pet peeves with many classical musicians (read: pianists) is that they dismiss Thelonious Monk as a pianist because he played with an oddly-accented style, using finger pressure to stress off-beats and between-beats, whereas they laud the smoother, more “classical” style of Bud Powell (who I also like, of course). But since I hear in your music—even the straight classical pieces—unusual metric division and unorthodox stress beats, I would assume that you, too, hear in Monk’s music this astounding asymmetric style that is actually very hard to play. Could you comment on this, both in terms of Round Midnight Variation as well as your other music?

A: Certainly I love Monk. What an original mind! One thing I want to say straight away: I’ve never had any success in writing for classically trained musicians and asking them to be jazz musicians. There are too many problems—our notational system can’t adequately capture the distinctions between jazz and classical gestures, and there are not so many classically trained musicians who have sufficient experience in the jazz world to cross over effortlessly the way they’d need to, let alone be able to incorporate both in some kind of fusion. Of course there are exceptional people like Edgar Meyer who can do this, but they are rare. The piece of mine that lives more in the jazz world than any other is my first piano trio, Cubist Blues. But in the program note, I explained that the work “is all about jazz, but it isn’t jazz.” I wrote the piece for the wonderful Golub-Kaplan-Carr Trio, and those three guys really understood what I meant by that. Subsequent trios who’ve played the piece have essentially learned it from the Golub-Kaplan-Carr Trio recording, and now there’s a kind of oral tradition with the piece. I really like that combination of learning both from the score and from oral tradition—it’s ultimately the only really effective way since our Western notation system is really quite a blunt instrument! As for the Round Midnight Variations project: Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli and I put this together about 10 years ago. The concept was his, but I put together the group of 18 composers who each wrote a variation on Monk’s Round Midnight. It was a great lineup, including people like Milton Babbitt, William Bolcom, Frederic Rzewski, George Crumb, and many others. It was my idea to write the final variation, so that just in case the others together didn’t make a coherent set (none of the composers were familiar with each others’ variations while they were writing their own), mine could at least sum them all up somehow. But Emanuele created an order which magically made the set into a purposeful and fluid work, so that my final variation didn’t even need to ‘fix’ anything. As it turned out, I had the idea of referring to a few of the monumental variation sets— Goldberg of Bach , Eroica of Beethoven, and The People United of Rzewski, and so I wove them all together at one point, all the while keeping the chord sequence of Round Midnight going! In any case, I agree with you: It’s all about asymmetry, unexpected accents and the balance between predictability and variety, something all of us composers are contending with constantly.

Q: Your official bio information mentions bebop as the only jazz style that has influenced your music. But I’m wondering if you’ve also been influenced, over the years, by some of the more creative pre-bop musicians (Lester Young, Eddie Sauter, Roy Eldridge, Art Tatum) or post-bop composers? Of the latter, I’m wondering particularly of the more creative and original of them, musicians like Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Mingus, and Bill Evans?

A: All of them! On the other hand, I’m sorry to say that the last 15 or so years’ worth of jazz production in the U.S. hasn’t done much for me. It feels like we’re living through a mostly reactionary period. But there are a few exceptions. I think The Bad Plus is an amazing group! I also recently discovered Siu2, a Hong-Kong-based group which puts jazz, classical, traditional Chinese, African, and rock dialects together and somehow manages to do it all convincingly. This is an amazingly vibrant bunch of young musicians who simply don’t recognize barriers.

Q: Now I’d like to step back and discuss your classical influences. Since the music I’ve heard by you also had some elements in it of Asian music—I’m thinking particularly of the later portion of Three Paths —I’m wondering if Japanese or other types of Eastern music (not just Eastern European) have also influenced you?

A: Japanese, no. Chinese, yes. I’ve been in China nine times and always make time to go to concerts of traditional music, from solo guzheng concerts to the amazing Chinese traditional orchestra. It’s true that Three Paths sounds somewhat Chinese traditional in places, but that’s not purposeful imitation. I’d like to think that I’m connected to a larger stream of musical dialects, and in certain moments of my music, the sources of my language are revealed more directly than in others. From Chinese traditional, I’ve taken both small details and larger concepts of architecture. It’s an enormous and stunningly varied literature.

Q: Who were some of the composers who attracted you the most during your formative years? And can you give us a general idea of what it was that you particularly liked about their works?

A: When I was very young, it was Prokofiev, Bartók, Chopin, and Debussy. The piano pieces especially, because that was what I was practicing all the time. I loved the freshness and percussive character of the first two, and the sensuous sound world of the latter two. Later, as a teenager, I discovered the erotic harmonies of Scriabin and Messiaen, the massive power of Shostakovich and Bruckner, and the intoxicating complexity of Schoenberg and Carter. Once in university, I began devouring everything and keeping notes about it all. I can’t begin to name all the jewels I discovered! I’ve kept all my concert programs since I was about 16 and one day I’m going to try and cross-reference them all—I think I’d be shocked at how many Pierrot Lunaire s I’ve heard! There was one performance of Les Noces that Boulez conducted in London that might be the single most influential performance of anything I’ve ever heard, although Krystian Zimerman’s performance of the Lutosławski Piano Concerto with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic is right up there as well. That performance was pretty much the genesis of my own Piano Concerto.

Q: Being a lover of vocal music, I was also struck by your having composed an opera, The Memory Game. I know from experience that writing an opera is in many ways a more demanding discipline than instrumental music, as you not only have to consider the limitations of human voices but then also have to reconcile those limits with your desire to write something that is not only impactful but also musically continuous and singable. Can you give us some perspectives on the process you went through during its composition?

A: Although The Memory Game is complete and was staged in a set of three performances back in 2003, in a way it’s a work in progress. Fundamentally opera is more theater than it is music, and during the composing of The Memory Game I was a novice in the world of theater. If I could only write the opera now with what I learned from the process of bringing it to the stage 10 years ago! Where to begin? Well, to start with, 45 minutes of music were cut during the rehearsal process by the director! This was very hard for me to accept, but I have to admit that at least half of those cuts were justified. I also learned that singers live in a world that is very different from the one inhabited by me—the world of instrumentalists and concert music. How to talk to them, how to convince them, how to give them material they could love—these were all things I didn’t know about and which I learned the hard way. I do hope The Memory Game will have a future, but much more revision will be needed. The opera is set in the early 20th century in Krakow, and it’s my dream for the opera to be staged there. I hope to make that a reality.

Q: I found it unusual that several of your pieces, Self-Portrait With Gebirtig, Reyzele: A Portrait , and Krakow Variations (the original version for viola), were based on themes from your opera, yet premiered and were published some years before the opera. Can you talk about these pieces and give us some idea of how they came about, apparently during the compositional process for your opera?

A: Well, you’re exactly right: these pieces are study pieces for the opera. Especially being new to the world of opera composing at that time, I felt the need to work out the opera’s musical ideas as a separate project in advance. I thought that once into the opera itself, I’d have enough to contend with all the theatrical aspects of the piece, not to mention deadline pressures…and I definitely got that right! But these other works do have a life of their own, and I’m really glad I wrote them. Self-Portrait with Gebirtig is a compact cello concerto and it’s been played by lots of cellists with many orchestras around the world. One of my other Albany CDs includes a great recording of this piece with my brother Gary playing the solo cello part with the Kiev Chamber Orchestra. So even though the opera is currently in a state of limbo, its musical sources are not.

Q: Before we leave a discussion of vocal music, I was interested to see that L’Immensita dell’Attimo was written in two versions, one for mezzo-soprano with words, and an instrumental version for flute. What was the initial inspiration for this piece, and how did you come to write a flute version? Did flautist Michele Marasco specifically ask you to adapt it for him?

A: I was living in Florence, Italy, during the middle of the ’90s. I really wanted to write a vocal work and set some poetry by a local poet. I found a collection of poems called La Barca by Mario Luzi in the local library. I didn’t realize at the time that Luzi is widely regarded as one of the great contemporary Italian poets. Not only that, I didn’t realize that he lived just a few kilometers from my house! So after I wrote the piece (of course receiving permission from the publisher first!), I called and went to meet him; he was in his late-80s at the time. What a gracious man, and he even agreed to come to the premiere at the Florence Conservatory a few weeks later. As far as I can tell, he liked my setting. At least he said so…Then some time after that, I had the idea of adapting the piece for my good friend Michele Marasco, one of the great Italian flutists. We premiered the piece in a festival on the beautiful volcanic island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples. Michele made the flute part sound as if it were being sung; he’s a truly great player. Of course, the flute part has many more notes in it than does the original vocal part, but the piece nevertheless retains its lyrical qualities. The piano part is almost the same as the original.

Q: I also noticed that you’ve written a concerto for oud and cello, titled The Forty Steps . I’m just wondering, are you familiar with the music of Rabih Abou-Khalil, which blends Eastern and Western music, and/or with Abou-Khalil’s oud playing, which sometimes incorporates jazz improvisation?

A: Sorry to say that his name is unfamiliar to me. My oud master was Taiseer Elias, the oud player who premiered the piece. Taiseer is a consummate musician, a Palestinian who lives in Israel, and the great thing is that he’s familiar with both the Western as well as Middle Eastern traditions. So he could answer all my questions using my vocabulary, and at the same time teaching me his. Taiseer is also a great improviser, so I gave him a couple of major improvisation opportunities in the piece. I can’t deny that those are some of the best moments in The Forty Steps ! It was an extraordinary pleasure to work with Taiseer—we became very good friends and I hope there will be more music that we can make together.

Q: Another piece that interested me was Self-Portrait with Mozart (1994), in which you incorporate “an unfinished fragment by Mozart.” Certainly, this must have presented you with a terrific challenge. Was it not somewhat difficult, in your mind, to be “completing” and thus, in a sense, “competing with” Mozart?

A: Yes, this was a difficult project. But I truly love the music of Mozart so it somehow didn’t feel as challenging as it really was. The initial project was a commission from the National Philharmonic in Washington, D.C., to complete a fragment of the first movement of a concerto for violin, piano, and orchestra, and to do so in such a way that it would seem as though Mozart had written the whole thing. As such, this was more of a ‘restoration’ than a composition on my part. It was fascinating to try and intuit what Mozart would have done beyond those first extant 70 bars; whether or not I’ve ‘guessed’ accurately is not for me to say, but I loved every minute of working on it! Then I had an idea: Since Mozart left no other sketches or fragments of the piece, why not add other movements, but not necessarily in the Mozart dialect? In other words, “postmodernize” it! So I ended up adding three other movements and the curious thing is that, even though the rest of the resulting work, Self-Portrait with Mozart , does not sound much at all like Mozart, I wove a number of actual Mozart quotes (from other pieces) into the fabric of it. I’d like to think that the whole concoction is a sort of imagined conversation between Mozart and me. But a competition between us? Who’d be nuts enough to try that??

Q: This may be a stretch, but from the few pieces I’ve heard, and from your adding a “Marx Brothers reference” to a piece ( Sendup, Countdown ) otherwise based on Shakespeare, I’m guessing you have a pretty good sense of humor. Are there any of your works that you’d describe as mostly or all humorous, and if not, have you even thought about writing such a piece?

A: Funny you should ask! I am at work now on a piece that has a lot of humor in it. This is a piece for actor and orchestra and the text is by a wonderful writer I met at the MacDowell Colony last year, Paula Whyman. Paula’s script is smart, sassy, and very funny. We still don’t have the premiere lined up yet, but it’s going to be something really exciting. I can’t wait to see and hear it on the stage!

Q: One other question, if I may, about a possible composition. With your avid interest in jazz, have you ever considered writing pieces for real jazz combinations, either a small group of a medium-sized jazz band? With your fertile imagination, I can’t imagine that it hasn’t crossed you mind?

A: As I said before, jazz is something that doesn’t live happily in the domain of classically trained musicians. And since Roland Hanna stopped my jazz training in its tracks 30 years ago (!), I really can’t claim to know how to work with jazz musicians in a truly collaborative way. Of course I could fake it, but what’s the point of that? I saw how Charles Mingus worked with his musicians and I just don’t have enough of that vocabulary. On the other hand, I am really excited about the prospect of working with Siu2, the Hong Kong group I mentioned before. I’m planning a work for them plus Chinese traditional orchestra. This is an enormous stretch for me, but only up to a point. I have a lot of work to do before I can feel ready to write for Chinese traditional orchestra, but it’s work I very much look forward to. On the other hand, the members of Siu2 are mostly classically trained, so we have a shared vocabulary. They are also superb improvisers, and I’ve got a lot of experience with that too, so we have much in common.

Q: Who are some composers whose work you are following?

A: I think this is a good time for new music. Better than when I was in my 20s. I think those artificial barriers between “art” and “pop” music are mostly buried now. What’s left of them is maintained by those who benefit from the commodification of music, and I don’t really think consumers could care less about those distinctions. Music benefits from the fusion of dialects; that’s how it’s always been and I think that’s what keeps the art healthy. So I listen to all kinds of things. But I also read a lot—especially recent fiction. I am a big fan of Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Richard Russo, Michael Chabon, and several others. I had a lump in my throat when I read that Philip Roth won’t write any more. But there’s an exciting group of writers in their 30s and 40s. I’ve met some of them at places like the MacDowell Colony and I think that world is in good shape as well.

Q: Are there any new compositions or current recording projects you’d like to tell our readers about?

A: Well, I’ve already mentioned my current project for actor and orchestra, and my next project for Siu2 and Chinese traditional orchestra. The next recording project I’d like to do is to make a disc of my string quartets as a companion to my piano trio disc, which is also on the Albany label. I think it’s time that happened.

HOFFMAN Three Paths. 1 9 Pieces for Piano. 2 _…the first time and the last 3 1 Parry Karp (vc); 1 Christopher Karp (pn); 2 Joel Hoffman (pn); 3 DecaCelli ALBANY 1372 (58:55)

Three Paths is the name of both this CD and the first of its three compositions. The collection is so named because each work follows a distinctly unique pathway.” So begin the liner notes to this strange and, at times, fascinating collection. The opening selection, written for the Karp brothers (who play it here), combines a minimalist opening section with alternating themes and strange, sometimes strongly syncopated rhythms. One of the more interesting aspects of this piece is its sharply differentiated themes, which seem not to fully relate to each other but simply follow on one to the next, a common tonality their only connection. Also, despite a few challenging passages, it seems to be not so much a piece demanding great virtuosity as one demanding great feeling and expression. I found Parry Karp’s tone in the upper register a bit wiry at times, perhaps as a means of expression, I’m not positive. The latter portion of Three Paths has an oddly oriental (perhaps Japanese?) modality to it.

The nine pieces for piano, played here by the composer, are divided more or less by duration. Each piece has the same tempo, quarter note = 96, and while the odd-numbered pieces are a little over two minutes long (ranging from 2:12 for No. 3 to 2:34 for No. 8), the even-numbered pieces run a little over a minute. Hoffman also states that in composing these works, he used silence “as a structural determinant” to “set the phrases of sound apart from each other.” Hoffman also uses fluctuating note-values, which lengthen or shorten at an apparent (but not real) whim of the performer, and these, too, give the music an oddly fragmented feel. It is almost (but not quite) like listening in as a composer sits in a practice room, working snatches of music for a piece he or she will eventually write, only here it is what the composer wrote. Sometimes Hoffman runs a metronome at the start of a piece; sometimes he just repeats the same note over and over again; and the pauses make you listen closer, which gets you more involved with the music. Gentle, fragmented little themes make up one piece; loud, jagged and rhythmically aggressive shards make up another. Astonishingly, the sound of the metronome ends the suite.

The last piece, …the first time and the last, started its life as a four-part vocal motet, but the composer quickly adapted it for four cellos. Then, a few months later, he was asked by the 10-piece cello ensemble DecaCelli to compose a piece for them, and immediately hit on the idea of expanding this work from four cellos to 10. Ironically, this 10-cello version premiered before the one for four cellos. Again, as in the piano pieces, juxtaposing themes and the use of silence as a compositional form play key roles in their structure. Unlike the piano pieces, Hoffman uses the ability of strings to sustain sounds to create unusual close and sometimes clashing harmonies, using specific timbres to enhance the effect. In other words, this is a piece in which the short thematic statements, the silences, and the way the instruments are played all combine to produce a piece that constantly fragments and, in a way, re-invents itself. The ending is a pure, lyrical, lovely melodic structure in C Major that could have been written by Gabrieli.

I found this to be a fascinating disc and will certainly be on the lookout for other works by Hoffman in the future. Lynn René Bayley

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 23 January 2013 )
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