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The Music

Hilary Tann

Hilary Tann

During the fall of 2002, an envelope addressed to Matt showed up in our mailbox. It was from Oxford University Press and contained a copy of Hilary Tann’s The Walls of Morlais Castle for oboe, viola and cello. Even though the instrumentation was not quite right, we decided to read through it. The piece was inspired by the ruins of Morlais Castle, which is near Hilary’s childhood home in South Wales. The mournful and dark coloring of its slow sections and the rhythmic manipulation of the dance like faster sections spoke to us immediately. The program notes mentioned that the work had been originally composed for flute, guitar and cello, so we decided to get in touch with Hilary and ask if she would mind yet another version of it. Not only did she agree, but the four of us, along with her lovely collie, Tei (who liked Ina’s popovers) spent a wonderful afternoon at Matt’s parents house in Chatham, NY, working on the piece in general and reworking the oboe part to better suit the flute’s timbre.

We performed The Walls of Morlais Castle at our debut at Merkin Concert Hall in 2003 and have continued to include it in many programs since then.  Suzanne and Hilary were in touch just before the Holidays when they discussed The Walls of Morlais Castle along with several other works.


SG: What inspired you to begin composing?

HT: Like many other composers, I did not make any conscious decision to compose. I simply found a way to write down what I was hearing. My first pieces were little more than accompanied tunes on the piano  -- The Wye Valley dates from when I was six. Later, when I showed these early pieces to my grammar school music teacher, I was advised to “stop composing until you’ve learned harmony”. Much later, in 1989, after composition degrees at the University of Wales and at Princeton University, I was invited to become a house composer for Oxford University Press, and that was when I began to think of myself as “a composer” rather than “someone who composed.”

SG: What brought you to the United States?

HT: At Southampton University in the early ‘70s, I undertook post-graduate studies into the music of Schoenberg’s second-generation student, Roberto Gerhard. I got tangled up in serialism and came to Princeton University as a Visiting Fellow after attempting to understand Milton Babbitt’s seminal articles on the subject. Subsequently, I completed my doctorate there, mainly under the guidance of a wonderful thinker about music, J. K. Randall. From Princeton a succession of college appointments led me to Union College in Schenectady, NY, where I’ve taught for, lo, these thirty years. I’ve enjoyed being part of America’s “liberal learning”; I’ve also enjoyed having time to compose and support for my work near the Hudson River and Adirondack Mountains.

SG: Who have been your greatest musical influences?

HT: My influences change as I find new enthusiasms. My “Northern” self (I was born in Wales) enjoys the bleaker musical landscapes of Sibelius and Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony. I enjoy the rhythmic underpinning of Indian Music, and the timbral world of the shakuhachi changed my musical life. Just now I’m re-hearing the music of Debussy while exploring the spare, microtonal textures of the Maori instrumentalist, Pania Witoko.

SG: Can you elaborate on how your feelings for the natural world inspire and/or inform your work?

HT: A glance at my titles makes it clear that my primary influence is the natural world. However, most often, the seed idea for each piece is generated from a poet’s view of nature. For example, the title and seed idea of my recent saxophone quartet, Some of the Silence, is gleaned from a haiku by John Stephenson: “ a deep gorge … / some of the silence / is me “. The haiku leads to musical ideas about water, the viewer, silence, and the piece develops from these. Titles such as Like Lightnings (solo oboe), Through the Echoing Timber (full orchestra), On Ear and Ear … (piano and viola), come from Gerhard Manley Hopkins, while Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill” leads to In the First, Spinning Place (alto saxophone concerto). And sometimes individual movements are inspired by the poetic image. For example, the piano trio, Nothing Forgotten, has three sections headed by quotations from Jordan Smith’s poem “A Lesson from the Hudson River School: Glens Falls, New York, 1848.” 1


1. Andante maestoso

“as if the granite were / some half-forgotten spirit”

2. Allegretto

“all that light caught forever in the pine boughs /
bound between the stones and current”

3. Andante recitativo - Larghetto flessibile

“the mesh of branches, root, and sky”


SG: Japan is a place that is very close to your heart – you have spent quite a bit of time there. What are your thoughts on the Japanese aesthetic and how has it influenced your work?

HT: I’m still working out my musical relationship to the traditional music of Japan! It is a constant source of inspiration, delight, wisdom, peace – all these things, and more. My own journey began when I intensively studied the vertical bamboo flute (the shakuhachi) from 1985-1991. I also taught at Kansai Gaidai (between Osaka and Kyoto) for two semesters in 1990 and 2003. In 1989, I was guest co-editor for a symposium called “Tradition and Renewal in the Music of Japan”2 and since then I’ve attempted to assimilate some of my perceptions from that experience into my own work: the idea of substantive silence (“ma”); wave-shaped phrases (the “jo-ha-kyu” curve); circular time; the elevated role of timbre … it’s a continuing adventure especially present in pieces such as Llef (flute/cello, 1988), Of Erthe and Air (mixed trio, 1990), From Afar (full orchestra, 1996), Shakkei (concerto for oboe and small orchestra, 2008).

SG: I am very familiar with three of your pieces, Windhover, Gardens of Anna Maria Luisa de Medici and The Walls of Morlais Castle. Windhover is about flight from the point of view of a falcon. When I played it for you several years ago, you explained that the perception of what the falcon sees changes as he alters the speed of his flight and moves closer or farther away from the earth. You explained how you convey this in the piece through the way you examine thematic material and skew it by manipulating the rhythm, tempo, harmonic relationships, etc. I find this to be true of the other two works as well. Can you relate this to your affinity with the natural world? And is this at all influenced by your love of Japan and its aesthetic?

HT: I like this question and I think you’ve partly answered it -- the natural world, with its constant transformations and metamorphoses, is so “musical” … it asks to be “heard”.

SG: Windhover was originally composed for soprano saxophone, and The Walls of Morlais Castle has had three incarnations, ours being the most recent. Can you elaborate on your philosophy about creating multiple arrangements of your work?

HT: Oh, this is more happenstance than anything. I write to commission and I’m keenly aware of the instrumental needs of the commissioning ensemble. But then – as in your case – another ensemble will ask to perform the work in an instrumentally-modified form and I accede to the performers’ request. Sometimes I wonder how the piece will fare in its new form – as when soprano saxophonists ask to play works I’ve written with oboe in mind – but, almost without exception, I find I enjoy the new version as well. I respect performers’ opinions and I like simply being part of the piece-birthing mix.

SG: You have had a career that many dream of having. Your work is always being performed and recorded, and, since I have known you, I can’t think of there ever being a time you weren’t working on a commission while at least one more needed to get started on. What was it like when you first finished your studies and what advice would you give to those just getting started now?

HT: My studies took a long time – and I feel I’m still studying in many ways! However, just when I left Princeton, I was asked to be Editor of the Newsletter of the International League of Women Composers. I so enjoyed getting to know the work of other women and I’ve maintained a strong relationship with the now-named International Alliance for Women in Music. I also belong to the Society of Composers, and Composers of Wales, New York Women Composers, ASCAP, and so on. I’d advise those just getting started to belong to such organizations. The internet gives so many ways for like-minded musicians to be in touch with each other. This is also a time when we can hear all sorts of music from different times and different places. Just last week I was involved in a CD recording of Of Erthe and Air. In the past I had to explain carefully what the nohkan would sound like. Now it’s possible for the piccolo player to see and hear the instrument on Youtube. No need for long explanations. I think the 21st century is a very exciting time for all of us, especially for those who have grown up with the new technologies. My advice? – listen, listen, listen to everything!


1. An Apology for Loving the Old Hymns, Princeton University Press, 1982
2. Perspectives of New Music, Summer 1989, Volume 27, No. 2


Hilary Tann (www.hilarytann.com) lives south of the Adirondacks in upstate New York and is the John Howard Payne Professor of Music at Union College in Schenectady. She holds degrees in composition from the University of Wales at Cardiff and from Princeton University. From 1982 to 1995, she was active in the International League of Women Composers and served in a number of Executive Committee positions. Numerous organizations have supported her work, including the Welsh Arts Council, New York State Council on the Arts, Hanson Institute for American Music, Vaughan Williams Trust, Holst Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Meet the Composer/Arts Endowment Commissioning Music USA.

Born in the coal-mining valleys of South Wales, Hilary’s connection with Wales continues in various choral commissions, including Psalm 104 (Praise, my soul) for the North American Welsh Choir (1998) and Paradise for Tenebrae (Gregynog Festival, 2008). The influence of the Welsh landscape is also evident in many chamber works and in text selections from Welsh poets George Herbert, R. S. Thomas and Menna Elfyn. In July 2001, The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes premiered The Grey Tide and the Green, commissioned for the Last Night of the Welsh Proms. In July/August 2011 both the National Youth Choir of Wales and National Youth Orchestra of Wales toured with works by Hilary Tann.

Recent years have brought a series of concerto commissions – for violin (Here, the Cliffs premiered by the North Carolina Symphony with Corine Brouwer Cook, 1997), alto saxophone (In the First, Spinning Place premiered by the University of Arizona Symphony with Debra Richtmeyer, March 2000), and cello (Anecdote, premiered by the Newark (DE) Symphony with Romanian cellist Ovidiu Marinescu, December 2000). Shakkei, a diptych for oboe solo and chamber orchestra, was premiered by Virginia Shaw in the Presteigne Festival, August 2007, and has since been performed multiple times, including in Dublin, at the 2008 IAWM Congress in Beijing, in New York City, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, and at the 15th World Saxophone Congress in Bangkok (2009), with Susan Fancher (solo soprano saxophone) and the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra. Hilary was recently guest composer-in-residence at the 2011 Eastman Women in Music Festival. The festival included two performances of Shakkei as well as many chamber works and the premiere of Exultet Terra, a major commissioned work for double reed quintet and antiphonal choirs. A retrospective CD of Hilary’s orchestral works is in preparation by N/S Recordings (due Spring 2012) and a CD of works with soprano saxophone (Susan Fancher) is due out in the fall. A complete CD of Hilary’s chamber works, including The Walls of Morlais Castle, is available from Deux-Elles (“Songs of the Cotton Grass” -- DXL1132).