Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
I began studying piano with my mother when I was six years old, and went to college at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory to prepare for a career as a pianist. Because the idea of composing had interested me, I took a “composing for performers” class and enjoyed writing. Later in graduate school at the Yale School of Music, I enrolled in my first-ever private composition lessons as a serious endeavor, as an elective credit to help me complete my piano performance degree. My teachers there – Martin Bresnick, Leon Kirchner, and Frederic Rzewski – encouraged me to change my focus to composition, so I eventually received my Master’s degree in composition in 1987.
After Yale, I completed my formal composition studies in Minnesota with the great American vocal composer Dominick Argento, and while I was a student there I received my first commission – for a song cycle to be sung by a remarkable young singer about my age who was just beginning her incredible career, Dawn Upshaw. A couple years after that commission, I received another for a wonderful Metropolitan Opera baritone, David Malis. I had also, in 1989, been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in music composition.
So from my first composition studies at Yale to my first commission took about three years, five years from beginning to the Guggenheim. It all felt very sudden, this change to being a composer, but really it only came after I had been studying piano for 20 years. I’d been in music school for years, and I had lived in New York City for four years too, studying piano and working as an usher at Carnegie Hall, so my musical identity had been developing beneath the surface. Changing my life’s direction felt completely natural, like I had finally found my proper place in the world.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Poetry – for thirty years, I have rarely gone a day without some sort of text in my mind, primarily poems, but also diaries, fables, letters, play texts, and sacred writings. Great writers illuminate the beauty, truth, and magic that is present in even the smallest of things in our world, and since song is all about text, it is their insights I wish to share in my songs.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
Rural living is ideal for composing, due to the peace and quiet, and the lack of distractions. However, working far away from urban centers of musical activity and artistic performance poses logistical and creative challenges, only some of which can be solved by technology.
Similarly, working as an independent composer not officially affiliated with an artistic or educational institution means no guaranteed salary, no benefits, no “built-in” platform (e.g., faculty recital), and no “built-in” collegial connections, so important in any field.
Publication and distribution have also been among the most difficult challenges I’ve faced. A few years ago my tech-savvy husband helped me to self-publish my songs, and that helped dramatically, but still the reach we could achieve was nothing compared to the reach of a real publisher, so it was with joy that I received the news in 2017 that the publisher E. C. Schirmer had decided to sign my art song catalogue.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
A commission fee allows you to meet your daily living needs, a bigger deal than we most often care to discuss but it’s an important point…that music has tangible commercial value as well as musical or artistic or spiritual value…and, in turn, that the composer is valued. Public acknowledgment also comes from commissions, a sign to others in the world that the composer has value, and that his or her work has some measure of inherent musical virtue.
Aside from those necessary and pracitical benefits, working on a commissioned piece is great because it almost always comes with a performance and the performers to make that performance happen…and it is always more enjoyable to write for specific people who are looking forward to a piece, than it is to write for nobody in particular and just hoping that someone “out there” will take an interest.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
It is a wonderful thing to compose for specific musicians…you know they have technique, so you can write what you hear in your inner ear without concern for their ability to perform your work…they have a beauty of sound, so you can write to showcase that sound where the text aligns with it…they have intellect, so you can write on topics of substance and real meaning, knowing they will communicate the text powerfully to the audience…and they have personality, so you know they will engage your audience in a bond that allows the audience to trust them and, in turn, to trust your songs.
In addition, I’ve found the singers and pianists with whom I’ve worked to be truly decent and caring people. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky, but I feel I’ve had such a wonderful group of performer friends, deeply dedicated to their art and deeply committed to bringing my work to the world. A composer could hardly ask for anything more.
Of which works are you most proud?
NIGHT DANCES – 6 soprano songs on poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Brontë, Emily Dickinson, and Edna St. Vincent Millay – written in 1987 for Dawn Upshaw, this was the first piece in which I felt I had written something really special.
DEATH’S ECHO – 5 baritone songs on poems by W. H. Auden – written in 1992, my first really large song cycle, at 30 minutes in length, in which I felt I had matched the very powerful arching lines of Auden’s poetry with vocal lines that soared and a piano part reflecting the impressive array of color, powerful imagery, and profound ideas in his verse.
O MISTRESS MINE – 12 countertenor songs on texts from plays by William Shakespeare – written in 2015 for Brian Asawa, this is my largest work at 42 minutes in length. I have a particular fondness for this work, because in it I think I was able to bring something fresh and original to Shakespeare’s timeless words within a narrative arc that truly formed a cycle presenting an emotional journey from beginning to end.
WHEN THE SOUTH WIND SINGS – 7 soprano songs on poems by Carl Sandburg – written in 2017 for the American art song training program SongFest, this was my answer to the present ills of our world: poetry of transcendent beauty, set with great lyricism and inner peace, emphasizing healing through a metaphorical journey from sin to redemption.
OF THAT SO SWEET IMPRISONMENT – 7 contralto songs on poems by James Joyce – composed in 2017 for Stephanie Blythe, I’m very pleased with this piece that reflects the deep beauty and intimacy of Joyce’s early love poetry – after 30 years of composing, my first cycle devoted to love poems.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
My own version of extended tonality. I do not write in keys, but rather compose music that is always moving from one tonal region through another to another, then through another as the text at any given moment dictates, as if the color of the music is always changing, and the nature of the light shining on that color is shifting as well, at times highlighting this word and at times highlighting that thought.
How do you work?
Before beginning on a new song or cycle, I choose a subject, poet, or idea and find a text that seems to illuminate what I have in mind. I look for texts that are primarily lyrical, and texts that seem to me to have music in them. Then I study the texts, looking up definitions of various words where multiple meanings may apply, reading them out loud to hear the actual sounds of the words and feel the rhythms in my voice in a very physical way, and arranging them in a way as to form either a concrete narrative arc or at least a logical progression (where a continuous story is not as strongly implied).
Because I’m a pianist by training, I’ve found the most natural way for me to write music is to improvise – playing various possibilities at the piano, while singing vocal lines until I find a combination of piano and vocal music that seems to fit the text properly. I usually do this very quickly (what my first teacher, Frederic Rzewski, used to call “crashing through”), often getting an entire song done in a day or two.
Editing is next, and here is where everything slows way down. After writing a song in a day, I can often spend a week or two inputting the music into Sibelius software, and then going through and asking all the appropriate questions. Did I get the right notes? What are the dynamics? Are tempos such that text can be easily sung so an audience doesn’t have to strain to hear the words? Is that vocal line going to be enjoyable to sing?
Once the details of the music have been established, I hand off the Sibelius file to my husband (a highly trained musician) who also works in electronic publishing. He prepares the final layout for the score before we proofread it.
The proofreading stage can also take a while. It is so hard to see one’s own work in an objective way. Here, too, my husband works with me. Between the two of us, we usually go through a series of round-trips through correcting, revising, and updating the engraved score…and after each update, we proofread until there is nothing remaining to change. We sometimes perform as many as six round-trips back and forth between us, correcting and revising as we go.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Far too many composers to list comprehensively, but I’m particularly fond of the solo piano literature that I studied early in life – Bach, Beethoven, and Schumann especially. I also love some of the piano works of composers like Bartok, Carter, Debussy, Ives, Ligeti, Rzewski, Schoenberg, Ustvolskaya, and BA Zimmermann. In addition to the great French and German art song literature, I love the songs (and operas) of Argento, Britten, Carter, Crumb, Hoiby, and Ives. Recent discoveries of note include the beautiful songs and operas of Thomas Adès, Tom Cipullo, Jonathan Dove, Lori Laitman, and Alan Louis Smith.
As an usher at Carnegie Hall for several years, I heard so many amazing performers and ensembles, and although we live in a small New England town, we are located in between New York (3 hours) and Boston (2 hours) and close to festivals like Tanglewood (1.5 hours) so there are a great many well-known musicians I’ve come to know and love.
What I really like to see these days, as much as anything, is the generation of young singers and pianists who are now bringing a new energy to art song in America. Some of them are entrepreneurial and forming non-profit organizations devoted to performance of art songs…some of them fly all over the place performing wherever they can…some commission composer friends to enlarge the literature. They are all incredibly smart, very musical, extremely hard-working, and genuinely some of the loveliest people I’ve met.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Writing a song that singers tell me they love to sing, and hearing from those in an audience that my songs helped them understand or appreciate a text in a new or personally meaningful way.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Find your own voice and stick to it. If what you write is done well and is heartfelt, there will be an audience for your music.
Work regularly, every day. If you don’t feel like working or you don’t feel “inspired,” sit down and work. Don’t wait for “inspiration” – only hard work creates art.
Make music with musicians you admire, respect, and enjoy being around. Life is short; spend it with good and supportive people who inspire you to greater heights.
If you can make a living in music, that’s great, but we live in a market-driven world in which classical music is in small demand. Be creative and open-minded in financing your life.
Some people will dislike your music, or may even lack respect for your work, and that’s okay. There is music for every taste and opinion, so find an audience and serve them.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Exactly where I am now…healthy…with the people I love…writing and making music.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
At the end of a day of composing, feeling that I’ve written the best music I could have.
What is your most treasured possession?
I have two most treasured possessions – a wonderful family and good health.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Being involved in a good story. That story might be a poem I am setting in a song, but it might also be a play I’m attending or a novel I’m reading or a painting I’m viewing in a museum. When I’m involved in a wonderful story, my imagination is alive; I’m experiencing new things, learning, and feeling deeply.
What is your present state of mind?
Grateful. I am very fortunate, and I do not take my blessings for granted.
American art song composer Juliana Hall (b. 1958) is a prolific and highly-regarded composer of vocal music, whose 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.”