We conversed on February 16, 2010 at Duke
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 buchst‰blich – 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 passÈ 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
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 Universit‰t 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 S¸ddeutscher 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 “bildschˆn” [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
product_title=Lance Hulme: An interview by Tom Moore
product_by=Above: Lance Hulme