Interview with Joel Hoffman

Eighth round with the project dedicated to the american composers today, Listen to America. This time we interview Joel Hoffman. Hoffman is Professor of Composition at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. He has been a resident composer at the Rockefeller, Camargo and Hindemith Foundations, the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. Hoffman is also an active pianist, having appeared as soloist with, among others, the Chicago Symphony, the Belgian Radio and T.V. Orchestra, the Costa Rica National Symphony and the Florida Orchestra. His music has been frequently heard at summer festivals such as Caramoor, Portogruaro, Korsholm, Evian, St. Nazaire, Newport, Chamber Music Northwest, Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival and the Seattle Chamber Music Festival. 

1. For much of contemporary music timbre research has become, after Schoenberg and Weber, fundamental both as a theoretical claim than as a guideline for composition. Today, in your opinion, is it still important? In your music, for example, what role does the timbre or sound research play?

Joel HoffmanI have a strong view on this subject. While it is true that certain composers, starting in the early 20th century, have described their music as more about ‘timbre’ than that of their predecessors or contemporaries, I think it is a fundamental misunderstanding and lack of appreciation for them to suggest that composers like Berlioz or Rimsky Korsakov or Copland had any less fascination for and skill in manipulating timbre than, say, Gerard Grisey. When I think of the listening acuity that was needed to imagine and discover the extraordinary beauty of a clarinet doubling a flute line a 3rd lower (something I believe Berlioz invented) and then hear a composer claim he/she values timbre over other elements of music more than ‘classical’ composers did, I think this is a case of not listening carefully (how ironic…). Yes, I am very, very sensitive to the way sounds resonate, combine and are remembered. My music IS my research, and I try to learn from and apply all past and present discoveries (both intentional and accidental) in my future works. Is this not the same thing Wagner did in Parsifal and Debussy did in Jeux?

2. “Variation” is a concept that you use willingly…Can you explain your ideas about, if possible with some examples taken from your repertoire?

Like most composers, I am fascinated with variation. It is a simple, elegant and yet profound embodiment of the concept of balance between consistency and variety. Searching for the ideal balance is at the center of my work. Until recently, my use of the variation idea was the traditional one; my models were BachWebern, Steve Reich, Stravinsky and a few others. But recently, I decided to try to find something new as I was beginning work on my sixth string quartet, “another time”. The quartet is a set of variations in 14 movements. However I have not used the traditional method of generating variations, that is, a group of movements or sections of music all related to an initial theme. Instead, the equivalent of an opening theme is the seventh movement, called “source”. Sitting right in the middle of the piece, this “source” is in fact the source material for all of the other 13 variations, beginning with the very first movement. Except for the 14th and last movement, “release”, every variation is related to the source movement in that it is ‘carved out’ of the source. Michelangelo is believed to have said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” This is what I have done with these variations: the ‘source’ is the block of musical stone and each variation is a unique carving out of that material in that I literally removed material from the source movement to create each musical ‘statue’. In contrast, the 14th movement is not based on the whole ‘musical stone’ but rather from only a small fragment of it. The last movement is literally ‘released’ from the stone itself and thus the piece can find its conclusion. This 14th variation can be heard on my website (go to the ‘works’ page and it will be easy to find).

This variation technique is, as far as I can tell, something new. But without knowing all variation sets ever written, of course I can’t be sure about this assertion. However, I have become fascinated with the idea and since writing another time, I’ve composed a set of variations for solo piano called Amethyst Variations using the same technique. I’m expecting that there’s much more to be mined from this quarry.

3. Can you name me two or three composers who have marked your artistic career?

There have been several major composers for me, and it’s impossible to limit the number to two or three! While I was a teenager, it was all about Prokofiev, Scriabin, Debussy and Bartok. Later on, Webern, Tippett and Messiaen took over. Then, into my 20s and 30s, I discovered the charms of Steve Reich, Lutoslawski and Ligeti. And certain jazz musicians like Charles Mingus and John Coltrane (and recently, The Bad Plus) have definitely shaped my sound world. But Bach, Chopin and Brahms were always there as well…

4. I listened to some pieces from your repertoire and I had the impression that in your creative world coexist a minimalist style (I may be wrong, but “Music in yellow and green” seems to me to fit in this style) and post-tonal music as “Amethyst Variations”. But this distinction, obviously, is too abstract…Where do you think your music is going today?

Like most composers, I am uneasy with labels. This isn’t because I don’t want to be typecast; it’s just that composers’ interests and their music are always more contradictory and complex than any one label can capture. Having said this, I did have a ‘Jewish period’, which is now over. I wrote a number of works that made explicit use of Jewish folk materials, and I tried to enter that world in a number of ways even though I did not grow up in that tradition. My “Self-Portrait with Gebirtig”, for example, could plausibly be called a ‘klezmer cello concerto’. And my opera, “The Memory Game”, focuses on the life of Mordechai Gebirtig, a key figure in Polish Jewish folk music in the inter-war era. Several of Gebirtig’s songs are quoted in the opera, and they are sung in Yiddish (although the language of the rest of the opera is English). But my ‘Jewish period’ ended about ten years ago (having lasted for most of the previous decade) and I have been pursuing other ideas and sound worlds since then. It might be a gift or it might be a curse…But I have realized over the years that I have many interests and as a result, my pieces are a little all over the place in terms of dialect or style. I wrote fairly strict serial music in my 20s; I fell heavily into the early minimalist world in my 30s (although as I said above, it’s not that simple), and I have been working seriously with silence as a structural part of my music in the last few years. I also was taken with the ‘postmodernist’ ideas for a while, and my large work “Millennium Dances” from 1998 is a good example of that. As I mentioned briefly above, jazz has also been a big thing for me. My first piano trio “Cubist Blues” is not a jazz work but Bill Evans and Miles Davis are definitely hovering around that work! But I haven’t written genuine tonal music since I was a teenager. For me, ‘tonality’ is not about whether there is a major or minor chord somewhere in a piece – it’s about whether there is a primary note or key around which an entire piece is organized. In other words, ‘tonality’ for me is a deep structural principle, not a label to attach to a few bars of music.

In the immediate future, as a result of some new collaborations with musicians and institutions in Beijing and Hong Kong, I am looking forward to working with some of the Chinese traditional instruments. I am currently working on a piece for solo dizi (bamboo flute) with an ensemble composed of two cellos and a 20-member dizi ensemble. This piece will be performed next year in Royal Festival Hall in London.

5. What do you think about the return to tonality in recent years, after decades of more or less radical innovation?

I think a lot of us see the unfolding of musical works over time (aka ‘music history’) as something far less of a coherent narrative than the traditional history books want us to believe. While one composer is ‘re-inventing’ tonality, another is taking it apart again. Just as Stockhausen invents ‘moment form’, Steve Reich has us listen to pulse, meter and rhythm in an entirely new way. One thing seems clear, though: any educated 21st century listener (or composer) cannot listen to Chopin just as Brahms did. We have other things in our ears as well and these things condition our expectation of how a piece of music might or even should progress through time towards its conclusion. At least in this sense, music history is a narrative since we cannot un-hear Schoenberg any more than Mendelssohn could not un-hear Bach. So it’s really a complicated and messy world, and each of us has only his taste and personal sensibility as a guide. And by the way, I think there is plenty of radical innovation to be done with tonal materials.

Musical excerpts on the web site:

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