Composer Strives for Ideal Balance


The Juilliard School participated in the observance of Black History Month by presenting Perspectives on African-Americans in Music, a forum that is now an annual event. This year’s featured guest was composer Adolphus Hailstork, who joined President Joseph W. Polisi and Maestro James DePreist in Morse Hall on February 11 in a lively discussion about the contributions of African-Americans in music and the state of contemporary music, focused through the lens of his own career and work.

Composer Adolphus Hailstork (center) joined President Joseph W. Polisi and Maestro James DePriest for a panel discussion on African-American music.

(Photo by Photo by Peter Schaaf)


Hailstork is a prolific composer who has enjoyed a very successful career. A former student of Nadia Boulanger and David Diamond, his voice is consciously tonal and accessible. His catalog includes three symphonies, three operas, and numerous chamber, choral, and organ works. Currently serving as professor of music and eminent scholar at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., Hailstork’s compositions have been performed by such august ensembles as the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic.

The panel discussion was punctuated with performances by Juilliard students of movements from three of Hailstork’s chamber works. Each demonstrated a very lyrical, narrative approach to music. The first, As Falling Leaves, scored for flute, viola, and harp, was written as a reaction to the events of September 11, 2001. The opening of his Piano Trio, another tribute piece, is a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. His String Quartet No. 1 is a buoyant and attractive work, and was received with enthusiasm.

In an interview just before the event, Dr. Hailstork discussed what it means to him to be participating in the Black History Month celebration, and shared his perspective as an African-American composer. “First of all, I like to think of myself as an American composer, and we know that American composers, in terms of the repertoire, are on the fringe. So if you’re an African-American composer, you’re on the fringe of the fringe,” he said. “Black History Month itself serves as what I call a ‘showcase’ month—an opportunity for people of my racial makeup to have their works put on display. A question I’m frequently asked,” he added, “is: ‘Does that bother me?’ And my answer is: it doesn’t bother me as long as I’m not played only during those months.”

A composer who is firmly rooted in European technique, Hailstork is also deeply connected with African-American musical traditions, especially through his many years of choral singing. Although many of his works have no extra-musical narrative, just as many draw on material from the African-American experience. For instance, his three operas are all treatments of racial subjects. However, he does not consider himself typecast, and sees his career optimistically. “Is it a plus or a minus to be looked at in a particular, categorical way?” he asked himself. “It’s both. In some ways, you’re given opportunities for specific subjects. But in other ways, you’re denied opportunities for generalized subjects that you equally could have handled. It may be that I’m getting pigeonholed, but I’m also getting work.”

Stylistically, therefore, Hailstork is somewhat difficult to categorize. “Because I came up as a singer, I’m naturally conservative,” he admitted during the panel discussion. However, he is adamant that a composer’s voice need not always sound the same. “I’ve not ever been convinced of the particular value of having one set style. I just say, ‘Why?’ I live in a country that is as variegated as any country that has ever been in history. I’m like a gardener who grows many different kinds of flowers.”

What is certain, however, is that Hailstork frequently found himself at odds with what President Polisi called “the tyranny of the atonal group in the ’50s and ’60s.” During the panel, he recalled that during his education, his colleagues “sort of stared at me and said: ‘Oh, you’re still writing melody? Oh my God! And that’s tonal! How dare you write something tonal!?’” He was not deterred in the slightest, saying, “I just kept on my merry way.”

Maestro DePreist recalled this era as well. “It really was tyranny,” he said. “There were no commissions that were being given, of any significance, if somebody wrote anything slightly melodic. Music directors felt intimidated, too. … I think that the communication element in music was lost during that time and there were a lot of enablers, conductors among them.”

In consideration of the notion of the avant-garde, Hailstork echoed DePreist’s sentiments. “Communication has always been important to me. Avant-garde is a relative term, because it means ‘to be in front of.’ In front of whom? The avant-garde to people in Norfolk, Va., is very different than the avant-garde to people who live in New York City. How far in front? Am I three feet in front of them, so they can still hear my voice and communicate with me? Or am I a hundred yards out front where no one can see me, hear me, or have anything to do with me?”

“Also, it’s relative to place and audience,” he added. “To say that you don’t ever write for a target audience is baloney. Your target audience can be your sneering colleague next door, or the teacher you remember who intimidated you when you were working on your degree, or your fellow composers who say you should write such-and-such a way. Or it can be a larger populace of human beings who actually go to concerts. You have to define that for yourself, but everybody does.

“[David] Diamond taught me to look for the tonality of opportunity,” he explained. “I use a linear approach to how the music evolves and then when I get to a structural point, I just see where it has moved to. I use my ear and say, ‘Where are these pitches heading towards?’ I’m not a control freak, and that’s probably why I don’t like the [serialism] thing. I’ve never bought into the idea that if you can count to 12, you’re a composer. At the same time, I certainly didn’t want to write: one, four, five, one. What I call it is tenuous tonality.” To Hailstork, this harmonic language represents the ideal balance between tonality and atonality. “For me,” he said, “music is more than just an exercise in plastic sound. It is a need for me to express myself, to express emotion.”

The Perspectives on African-Americans in Music series was started three years ago during Juilliard’s centennial celebration. With such interesting and passionate discourse, distinguished guests, and excellent performances, it is sure to continue for many years.

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