One Ounce Opera is humbled to introduce you to Juliana Hall, whose work has been performed and commissioned by some of classical music’s greatest voices. We can’t wait to share Juliana’s duet, Music Like a Curve of Gold, on Friday, November 3rd.
The duet is a setting of Sara Teasdale’s poetry. OOO Soprano Rebekah Smeltzer Staley and Mezzo-soprano Julie Silva — who will perform the piece at Fresh Squeezed Ounce of Art Song — had these questions for Ms. Hall:
Rebekah: In looking through your bio & other interviews, it seems you had an early interest in composition, but you didn’t pursue it as a career/education option until you were working on your Masters. What finally convinced you to pursue composition?
Juliana Hall: Having grown up in a village of 3000 people in the southern Ohio countryside, composers were – literally – the stuff of history books. I had begun piano lessons when I was six years old, with my mother, and before officially becoming a composer had studied piano very intensely for 20 years…I enjoyed playing, and just really had no sense of what a life in composition might mean in practical terms. People in history books were composers, not “us.”
Despite enjoying piano, though, it never felt completely natural to me, so when I finally began taking composition lessons in graduate school at Yale, I had a sensation for the first time in my life that I had actually found an activity that felt natural, and it seemed to me that I had found a home of sorts. My teachers – Martin Bresnick, Leon Kirchner, and Frederic Rzewski – all encouraged me (and very strongly too) to change my major to composition. Perhaps without their support, I might never have become a composer…but the combination of experiencing an activity that just felt “right” at the same time that such established composers were showing me such encouragement was enough to allow me to take that leap of faith, and so my Master’s degree was in composition, and not piano.
After Yale, I completed my studies with Dominick Argento. Dominick was incredibly supportive of my work, and has been for the past 30 years. He really gave me a sense of some of the practicalities I would face, were I to pursue a life of composing…not always easy realities, he didn’t sugar coat the difficulties inherent in this profession. In spite of those difficulties, his support added to that of my previous teachers, and I was able to leave school with a sense that I had found my place in the world and, come what may, I would be able to create songs that helped me to express the wonderful beauty and truths the great poets open to us.
Rebekah: Why write Music Like a Curve of Gold as a duet? (Also, if the piece was a commission, did you choose the texts, or did the commissioners?)
Juliana Hall: Several years ago, the vocal duo Feminine Musique (comprised of soprano Korliss Uecker and mezzo soprano Tammy Hensrud) commissioned me for a piece, as they specialize in art song by women composers. At the time I had an idea for a very large setting of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Roosters,” which I wrote for them (and which they will be premiering on January 19, 2018 at the Hartt School of Music). However, “Roosters” is 20 minutes in length, and due to programming considerations imposed on them by presenters, they also wanted a short work that could more easily fit into shorter programs.
“Music like a Curve of Gold” was the short work, then, that resulted from their request. My husband is a cellist, and he helps me in many aspects of my career…so it was actually my husband (who has an excellent sense of how various texts go together) that chose the two poems by Sara Teasdale. I love the two poems: very lyrical and the sentiments expressed are things I believe in. They speak to the human need to feel we have lived a life worth living, that we are grateful, and that we sought goodness and beauty…and I think a vocal duo provides the perfect balance of richness reflective of the texts, while being just spare enough not to lapse into sentimentality.
Julie S: What inspired you to set Sara Teasdale’s texts? What was it about her words and/or her life that drew you in?
Juliana Hall: In most cases, I am not concerned with a poet’s life when putting together a new piece. Of course, if I’m setting letters I might have an interest in knowing a bit more, or if – as in the case of a recent cycle of mine written on excerpts from Anne Frank’s diary – there is an intrinsic connection between the texts and the person’s character or life events that is stronger than usual, then I’ll naturally take his or her life into account. For the most part, however, it is the text itself that I work with – just a few words in isolation, so that I can hear them “speaking” to me…and the message they convey to me becomes what I wish to convey to an audience.
In my days as a younger composer, I’d decide beforehand that I might want to write about night, or about Heaven, or about music…and then I’d find poems to fit into a cycle that worked well together…but these days when planning a new composition, I don’t usually choose a topic up front, but begin by reading – a lot! I own over 200 books of poetry, and while I don’t go through all of them word for word, I do a quick scan to see whether there are any poets that catch my eye, or any particular poems,or any particular topics…and my husband, who is a cellist and who is really good at putting together texts, joins me…it’s a wonderful creative activity we do together, seeking a cycle that “works.” It was actually my husband who found the two poems of “Music like a Curve of Gold” and since he knows great poetry, and he knows the type of poetry I tend to enjoy setting, what he found was perfect.
I enjoy very lyrical poetry, very clean and unsentimental poetry. The topics of these two poems are things I believe in very strongly…the value of beauty, and of seeing magic in the ordinary…of wanting to feel things deeply, and of wanting to fully appreciate the gifts of life and love, and all the beauty of the world around us, and the truths which flow from all of these. In these two poems, Sara Teasdale distills these ideas into pure and concise language that is full of gentle musical rhythm and vivid imagery, so they were inspiring texts to depict in musical form.
Julie S.: What is the story behind the process of this particular composition? Where do you like to do your composing, and how long does a project like this take to complete?
Juliana Hall: We live in a small, and relatively sleepy, little New England town…there’s not a lot to do, and that is perfect for a composer who wants to produce! Our house is quite small, but it rises three floors, and my studio is on the third floor and has a large bay window so I can watch the birds come and go, and enjoy the trees all around.
Having studied for 20 years to become a professional pianist before I switched my focus to composition, I do my composing at the piano through improvisation. After studying the words, making sure I have a complete sense of each word’s meaning and repeating the texts out loud over and over, in order to internalize the rhythm of the text, I begin by playing and singing – both at once – seeking sounds to create a meaningful sound world reflective of the text, and also seeking a vocal line that conveys the text in a way that can, hopefully, be understood without the aid of any printed matter…and in the case of “Music like a Curve of Gold” there are two vocal lines that must work together.
Composition has a number of stages. Even when I can write a song in a day, that song may very well take a full week to become final and ready to sing. Sketching out a song can take anywhere from a day to a week, depending on the size of the text…and then that pencil sketch must be input into the computer, which can take a few hours to a few days (if it’s a sizable piece). Then I edit – that is, I add dynamics, expression marks like hairpins, tempos, and the like, that layer “on top of” the notes themselves. This can also take a few days or even weeks for a large cycle. Proofreading and “tweaking” follow…making sure I’ve correctly input notes and correctly assigned expressions markings…and then allowing myself to improve upon what I’ve first written, when I see there could be a “better” note here or a more “fluid” vocal line there. Again, days to weeks, depending on size of the composition. Then I give the computer file to my husband, who (since he works in electronic publishing and design) does a beautiful job of laying out the score…once again, days to weeks. After that, both he and I proofread…sometimes making as many as six “round-trips” between us.
“Music like a Curve of Gold” probably took around two months in all…sort of a long time for such a small piece, but it was my first duet piece and presented challenges I’d not encountered before, in order to use the voices in a way that gave each singer some nice lines to sing, but within the texture of a blended sound.
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.”
To learn more about Juliana Hall, including a full biography, please visit her website https://www.julianahall.com/.