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Lance Hulme
10 Apr 2010

Lance Hulme: An interview by Tom Moore

Composer Lance Hulme studied composition at the University of Minnesota, Yale University, and the Eastman School of Music, and returned to the United States recently, where he lives presently in Greensboro, North Carolina, after two decades in Mitteleuropa, where he founded and directed the contemporary music ensemble Ensemble Surprise.

Lance Hulme: An interview by Tom Moore

Above: Lance Hulme


We conversed on February 16, 2010 at Duke University.

TM: Did you have a musical family? Where did you grow up?

LH: I am the religious equivalent of an army brat – I lived in quite a few different places, but mainly grew up in Minneapolis in an environment which was arts-rich in general. My father was not a professional, but played very well technically. He had studied beginning when he was a small boy, and he hated it. It was a very odd combination. He was technically proficient, but had very little soul for it, as it were. He was a theologian, and would sometimes play for services. My mother is not musical but both her parents were. Her father wanted to be a professional fiddler. He was an Appalachian fiddler, and I still have his fiddler book, with the tunes written out, including some racist titles. We still have his fiddle. My grandmother was a pianist, but she didn’t like him going out at night, so he gave up music as a profession. All my brothers and sisters play instruments – we were all brought up that way. Once you could talk you were sat down at the piano, and you also took another instrument as part of your general education, a sort of nineteenth-century way of doing it. I think my parents are still horrified that I went into music professionally, since that violated the middle-class paradigm.

TM: What other music were you exposed to as a child?

LH: My family was very eclectic in their tastes – I remember that my mother just loved Cossack songs, all sorts of folk and protest music from the sixties and seventies, and lots of jazz, which I came to be very interested in.

TM: What do you recall from your piano lessons? What appealed to you?

LH: I was very fortunate. One of the local colleges had a professor of piano who would take three boys as students each year, and teach them on Saturdays, in addition to his college students. I was one of the three at his private studio. He trained me rigorously with piano technique, theory, and composition lessons.

TM: How old were you?

LH: I started at eight. I did very well, and leveled off at some point, because my interest in jazz took away the concentration that he was looking for.

TM: You mentioned other instruments. What was your instrument? Was there a whole string quartet in the family?

LH: It was not nearly so organized. I unfortunately chose the trombone, because I didn’t enjoy it very much. My sisters all took string instruments, and none of them pursued it beyond playing in the high school orchestra, with the exception of my elder sister, who was quite a good violinist. By playing trombone, since my high school had an orchestra, which didn’t have much need for trombone, I ended up playing a lot of French horn [sings typical horn part], and also timpani as well. I did play a little trumpet in the jazz band, and sang. I was always in the choirs.

TM: What was the general culture like in Minneapolis? What we often hear outside Minnesota is Garrison Keillor and not much else. What was the city like? You mentioned jazz.

LH: When I was about thirteen, I encountered jazz seriously for the first time. Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor really interested me. At that point my interest in pop music ended, and my focus went to jazz and classical music. I thought my career would have those two things in tandem. It was a really good jazz scene. When I was there working professionally it was vibrant – my band always got work.

TM: What years were these?

LH: The late seventies to mid-eighties. There were some pretty good players – very strange to meet jazz players named Petersen, though….

TM: With blond hair.

LH: Exactly. There was a big family of Petersens, and they were all jazz musicians. You know who Michael Johnson and Leo Kottke are – they were big members of the community, who played a lot in the coffee houses. I caught the very end of the coffee house experience as a little boy, and remember hearing regularly Leo Kottke and Michael Johnson playing together at the Coffeehouse Extempore.

The Minnesota Orchestra built a brand-new symphony hall, and had a huge resurgence after a down period in the late sixties and early seventies. Leonard Slatkin was their associate conductor, and they had a lot of young people’s concerts with new music on them. They had something called the Rug Concerts in the summer, where you brought a pillow, they took out the seats and you sat on the floor. They would play new music. I remember that Charles Ives’ Central Park in the Dark blew me away. They were pushing the envelope.

TM: You mentioned Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor. How did you come to appreciate these two figures?

LH: I don’t have a filter. I tend to like everything, as long as it has some integrity to it. Or maybe it’s better to say that my esthetic filter is broad. I also liked funk/fusion – my last band was a funk/fusion band - which I found quite exciting. One of the early eighties bands that excited me as a keyboardist was Jeff Lorber. I guess the answer is that I have no taste.

TM: Had you heard Davis and Taylor live in Minneapolis?

LH: No, not at all. In terms of big names, I heard Jon Faddis. Some middle-level people would come through, and do master classes. The high school I went to had a really good music program –we actually had a theory class. In all but name it was a school for the performing arts. There would be connections with whatever jazz festivals would be occurring. The band would go to the concerts, and meet with the artists afterwards. I remember Lew Tabackin, which was really exciting.

TM: Funk/fusion is an area that is almost completely forgotten at this point. Please say a little about your band.

LH: When I was in my early twenties, this was a way of making a living with the band. That was the period when “Thriller” came out, and there was a lot of pressure to play a sort Quincy Jones smooth studio sound. I was thinking that Chick Corea was pretty cool. I found it interesting, but I also see why it’s not interesting anymore. When I get in the car and I am going somewhere I put George Duke on almost instantly, as loud as possible. In the recordings there is a certain insipid quality to the music, and I don’t know why, because it didn’t feel that way at the time. Something about the recording technique….

TM: …has cut the edge off the top.

LH: Maybe it’s the fact that it has lost its sociological context. The dancing is not there any more. That kind of club scene is gone now. The clubs that I played in Minneapolis are all gone. They are sushi bars or upscale restaurants with no dance floors.

TM: Could you talk about your study of music at the undergraduate and graduate level?

LH: I should say up front that I never intended to be a musician. I didn’t think that I had the talent. I was going to be a visual artist. I had gotten some recognition in my teen years for what I was doing with visual arts, especially painting and sculpture. My high school had an incredible art department, and I was also doing art at what is now called the Museum of Science in St. Paul. But a friend showed a piano piece that I had written for her to her orchestra teacher, and he said immediately “This is very interesting – you have written this all wrong. How would you like to write a piece for the orchestra?” I thought “That’s a pretty good idea”, and wrote the piece, and he said “How would you like to conduct it?” That got the ball rolling. I took the theory class at the high school, and collected a series of friends whom I hadn’t known before, who were involved directly with the music school, and they encouraged me. I can blame it on a good friend who, sadly, did not become a professional musician, although he should have. We would listen to new music all the time, running the gamut from Parliament to Shostakovich.

I went to the University of Minnesota, and studied with Dominick Argento and Paul Fetler there. During that time I was playing constantly, and I am still amazed that I got a degree, because I was on campus so little. I never got accepted in the school of music, but I got a diploma from them.

I played a couple of years in various bands in Minneapolis. The band that I was in crashed, came to a stop, and I thought that maybe I should apply to graduate school in composition. At the same time I was involved with what was then the Minnesota Composer’s Forum – Libby Larsen, Stephen Paulus – was on the programming committee for that organization, which was still in one tiny office. So I went to the Eastman School of Music, and studied there with Warren Benson and Sam Adler, the usual combination. During that time I took a couple lessons with Joseph Schwantner, but he was gone. That was when he was going to the top.

TM: Could you talk about the approaches of Benson and Adler to teaching composition?

LH: They were very different. Warren would sit there, look through your piece, would be chatting with you, paging through the score, and you would think that he wasn’t looking at the music. And then he would stop, and go back and forth, and say “Right there!” And he was always right. Both of them were very generous. They had no proprietorial tendencies. When I got to Eastman I wanted to write an opera, and Warren said “OK! Write an opera.” I got about three-quarters of the way through it, and he said “why don’t you go talk to Richard Perlman now?”, who was the director of the Opera Studies program. “Why don’t you go show him what you are doing?” Perlman told me to stay and be Assistant Director for the various operas so that I would learn how opera actually works, and he would critique my opera. He said “By the way, you should meet Bob Spillman”. This was Robert Spillman, who was part of the piano department and accompanying program at Eastman, but also was director of Opera Studies at Aspen. Spillman said “Why don’t we do this at Aspen this summer”. This was the first composer residency at Aspen, and they did my opera out there. That’s how Eastman worked, and that’s why it was such a rich environment. That, plus the fact that you are sequestered in Rochester, New York….. [laughs]

Warren was always about getting your mind going, and threw ideas at you all the time. Sam had a distinct esthetic, and would focus on the specifics – this passage needed to be reworked, you needed to do this because this isn’t consistent – you might say that he was more Hindemithian. Everything was buchstäblich – set up very carefully. He’s a great guy – I thoroughly enjoyed having lessons with him.

TM: Was there ever a period of serial domination at Eastman, or was that a New York/Princeton story?

LH: No, it was never true at Eastman, and fortunately I came just a little by later. I had a friend, a musicologist, a little older than me, who had thought about being a composer, and said that he could not have been admitted to composition program at the time because he was not a serialist. But I didn’t encounter that. At the University of Minnesota, I studied with Dominick Argento, whose music had a wide spectrum, from key signatures to an extended tonality. At Eastman one or two of my fellow students occasionally would shame-facedly use rows, but they were passé by the time that I was there. The pervading voice was Joe Schwantner. We were listening to Jacob Druckman.

The composer Todd Levin and I were there at the same time – he was the class ahead of mine, though he is a year younger than I am.

TM: He did the famous disco piece for DG, which had some sort of scandal associated with it…

LH: …because it was the only time that the London Philharmonia held a vote, mid-recording, on whether to continue. Philip Glass had put up the money for it, or arranged the money for it, and it was a disaster. Todd became an art dealer in New York at that point. It’s too bad. I thought what he was doing was very interesting. Not that I liked or disliked it, but it was interesting. That was what was going on then – you had a wide spectrum. One of my favorite composers was Karl Witt – just a brilliant mind, very doctrinaire, craft-oriented. We were all very different. They encouraged that, encouraged you to be aware that you were one of many different types of people.

TM: After completing the program at Eastman, you moved to Europe. Had you met your wife in the opera world at Eastman?

LH: We got together at the Aspen festival. We courted, and had been married for two years before we lived in the same city. We both got Fulbright grants. I was in Austria, but hers was delayed. She got a Fulbright grant, but couldn’t take it, because she was at Chicago Lyric in their apprenticeship program. She was going to have to give it up, but Artis Krenek, who was director of the Opera at the time, called Paul Simon and managed to have the grant delayed, so that she could finish the apprenticeship program. She came to Europe, and I was in Vienna while she was in Heidelberg – Mannheim. I would take the midnight train north from Vienna.

TM: Along the beautiful blue Danube.

LH: She almost instantly won a coloratura contest, and the prize they invented for her was a year’s contract at the established artist level at the theater in Karlsruhe, doing solo roles already. It was an opportunity to live in Europe with a regular income, and there were things for me to do there as well, so we decided to live in the same place.

TM: There are so many well-known American performers who have emigrated to Europe, and very few composers these days who do the same, although for a long time it was de rigueur for an American composer to study in Paris.

LH: That’s true. In my case, Francis Burt came to Eastman and recruited me to go to Vienna. He was the chair of the department of composition at what is now called the Universität der Musik in Vienna. It does seem to be less common these days – I am not sure what I think about that. It does change your perspective a lot, and coming back to the United States after twenty years, as in my case, the lack of support for the arts is almost breathtaking. It is just astonishing that so little care is given to cultural heritage. A culture doesn’t survive without being cared for, especially in the case of high culture. You can’t eat it, you can’t plow the fields with it, you can’t drive it, you can’t feed babies with it – culture is a byproduct of the luxury which a society has to examine itself and care for itself. Our culture doesn’t seem to understand that as well as they do in Europe. In earlier times it was expected of good citizens rather than government to provide culture, but that seems to have broken down. You don’t see a Hewlett-Packard Orchestra. You don’t see the generosity of a Mellon or a Carnegie specifically for the arts. The problem isn’t that there is culture we should support, and culture we should not support. We should be supporting all of this. Instead of cutting the pie thinner, with thinner slices, when you want to be more democratic in your programs, more support should be found to do that, not less.

TM: The example which is prevalent is the musical “system” in Venezuela, which manages to have an extensive youth orchestra program, while the United States approach is so haphazard that one area may be well-served and another area not.

LH: American cultural heritage is not deeply-rooted enough to have developed patterns. There has never been a systematic drive to it other than the drive for acquisition. I don’t want to say that the way that the arts is done in the United States is entirely wrong. There is an enormous amount of cultural intransigence in Europe that is baffling, and had I not found a way around it, it would have stifled my career over there entirely.

A great story: you know my piece for orchestra, Stealing Fire, which won two major awards - the Lutoslawski prize, and the Nissim prize. Before it won those awards, I took it to Stuttgart, to Süddeutscher Rundfunk, to their new music studio, to the gentleman who runs it, an extremely nice man, but someone who has a stranglehold on new music, and has an extreme esthetic filter. I took the piece over to him, and he looked at the score, and you could see he wanted to dismiss it outright. But he said “Leave the score with me, and I will see what I can do”, and I thought “A gig!” The next week I got a letter saying that the piece was “bildschön” [pretty as a picture], extremely well-constructed, beautifully orchestrated, a thoroughly professional piece – but “we don’t do this kind of music”. Every year there are talks on the radio about how Donaueschingen is a disaster, that it no longer connects with the majority of listeners in the audience, even the audience that specifically comes for that - every year they beat their breasts about it, and nothing changes. This is the other side – when the arts are so tightly controlled from the existing political structures, there is a tendency not to allow fantasy to drive your arts. If you look at the period from 1946 to the present, European music does not change very much. For better or worse, there is a plethora of diverging styles in the United States. But we have one-seventh the budget that France has for the arts – what can you say to that? It is absurd, with a culture that is as wealthy as ours, that we don’t throw just a little money to the arts. It indicates a mindset that arts are extraneous, and that culture is extraneous – irrelevant as mechanisms that bind us together.

TM: I know that you did graduate study at Yale. Where did that fit in with your European stay?

LH: About five years into our time in Europe, my wife said “If you are going to do a doctorate, do it now!” so I did the world’s shortest doctorate at Yale, and studied with Jacob Druckman and Martin Bresnick.

TM: How long was that?

LH: Two semesters. I think I spent the minimum possible days on campus. I was assistant at the computer music studio for Jonathan Berger, now the department chair at Stanford, who is a marvelous man…..Yale is a finishing school. That’s the best way to put it. It’s a place for you to educate yourself. You work very hard, you just don’t do it in the classroom. No one holds your hand through the whole program.

Jacob Druckman and I really jelled in terms of teaching. If there is one composer with whom I would share a mindset, a synergy of ideas, how we think - it would be Jacob Druckman.

TM: Could you talk about two recent pieces.

LH: The big piece that has been the most successful is Stealing Fire. The music is self-organizing. I try to find something at the beginning that drives the piece forwards – a set of pitches, rhythms, timbres – something that is the impetus, the starting point. The piece is then generated from those materials, and usually spins out on its own. It sounds a little ethereal and Zen, but I sit at the piano, improvise, sketch a bit, until the materials are right. When that stage has come, I know it. Usually I do some other meditative thing – I would run, and the piece would come to me in the running. The rest is just scribbling, getting it down. Stealing Fire starts with a small set of pitches and rhythms and ideas – an idea of how things will flow forward. That idea was about iterations. It came because I was stuck in Stuttgart at the train station, and I just couldn’t read something in German that night – I had to read something in English, so I bought the only English novel that I thought that I could stand, which was Jurassic Park. It’s a terrible book, but it’s written as a series of iterations of a non-linear algorithm, and that fascinated me. The idea of having the same set of materials, having them spin out their natural order, and come to a conclusion – a new set of initial conditions, which then evolves in its turn. You have a series of miniature events, all driven by the same compositional rules, with an overall formal arc created by the succession of those iterations as they follow their initial conditions to their logical end. In the case of Stealing Fire, each iteration contained more and more complexity, until it reached a point which you could think of as fold-over, where the material is so complex that one gets a larger view. The complexity becomes a singularity, a simplicity, so much material that you can’t observe the individual details, but see it as one big whole. The contrapuntal movement is increasingly complex until there is so much that all that can come out of that is a single idea, and the orchestra begins a tutti.

This is a model that I use for a lot of my music. Modeling it on nature, if you want to think in those terms. Not directly using algorithmic thinking – I have tried it, and it doesn’t work, but the idea of an initial set of ideas, like a leaf. Each leaf is slightly different, and each leaf is different depending on where it is on the tree. That’s one way I look at creating music – the idea flows, comes to conclusion, but generates the next idea and its initial conditions. There’s very little transitional material in my music.

TM: You could connect this both with sonata form and total serialism.

LH: Certainly any composer my age has both of those things running concurrently in their head. You can say that sonata form evolves out of a natural set of argumental conditions which reflect behaviors which we can associate with organic behaviors. Development is a very organic idea. One of my problems with serialism is that you are stuck with the materials. They can’t break free.

TM: There’s no possibility of development.

LH: There’s also no possibility of surprise. Your piece essentially runs out of your initial conditions. One of the things that I build into my compositions, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, is a point where something hits the initial conditions. In Stealing Fire, the idea that drives it forward is that no melodic material can ever go in a straight line. It will always be aurally blocked in some way, forcing it to go somewhere unexpected. To me, “unexpected” is what makes music interesting, the tension between having a predictable pattern, and not fulfilling that pattern in a direct way, but in an indirect way.

TM: I am reminded of talking with Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, who in talking about his music, referred to the film “The way things work”, with a series of unexpected physical events, one leading to another.

LH: Unpredictability is an interesting thing, isn’t it, because you have to have it, to make music fresh, but if everything is unpredictable, you have no sense of continuity, and the fresh becomes unfresh. This is what happened and happens a lot in music from that period of experimentation – everything is so unpredictable that nobody can be bothered to pay attention.

TM: Current and future projects?

LH: Right now, I’m acting as General Manager for Skin, a new music ensemble made up of UNCG and NCArts faculty. I was going to set up my own group and Skin was looking for management, so I’m folding in my goals with theirs. There’s also a projected new music series in Greensboro with which I am involved.

I’m presently composing several smaller works for performer friends including a sax piece and a saxophone quartet. I’m revisiting my piano etudes “Bandaloop Dances”, editing and getting them back in my fingers. I’m also working on a real time interactive installation for improvising – I’ve applied for a grant for this. One of the things not mentioned so far is that I spend a good amount of my creative efforts working in music technology, from studio recordings to high-level programming. I’m collaborating with a digital visual artist and the second generation of this installation will include a visual component. There’s also a project with Greensboro Ballet in the making, but budget constraints may put this off a year or so. The big-ticket idea right now is an opera based on the John Fowles novella “The Ebony Tower”. This story is a trope or riff on a mediaeval lai by Marie de France called “Eliduc” which Fowles translated. I think it would make a delightful combination: two one-act operas, Eliduc first followed by the modern reframing of the underlying themes and story. I have a deep interest in and sometimes perform early music – my ensemble in Germany played quite a bit under its motto “700 years of new music”. It would be quite fun to draw on that resource for the first half. What I’m running into problems with, along with the difficulty of shopping an opera without having won a Pulitzer, is the adult theme. There’s nothing that would rate an R in an American film, but the story is decidedly about adults and adult passions and the companies I’ve talked to are looking for more, shall we say, educational approaches to opera.

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