AN INTERVIEW WITH COMPOSER JULIE HARTING
Organizer of an April 2005 Concert for Peace
Published on nyc.indymedia.org on February 9, 2005
Interviewed by Susan Mar
SM: You began composing at a young enough age to know you wanted your Bachelor's degree to be in Musical Composition. How did you get started so young?
JH: When I was 7 or 8, I found a miniature violin in my father's closet, because he played violin when he was a kid. I also found a book called A Tune a Day, and I taught myself from the book to play a little violin, so it was clear that I was musical. But I ended up playing the tuba, but it was never really my instrument. It was really weird, loving music and being accomplished at it, but not playing an instrument that was mine. I ended up very depressed and confused, and when I was 18, after a year of college, I hitchhiked to Montreal with a friend. I was alone a lot, and one time when I was walking alone on a huge hill in the back of McGill University, I had this thought that at the time felt like it was coming from outside of me, that said I should compose. I took that and I said, "OK, that's it." It was my lifeline. After that, I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, and then I finally got to Manhattan School of Music.
SM: You grew up in Pennsylvania, in an area with a Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish heritage. Has this influenced your music?
JH: You know I was a tuba player, and I played in some German bands in these small towns in Pennsylvania. They were very brass-oriented, all these bands, and I still love brass. And my father, he's Pennsylvania Dutch, and maybe it's the German influence in him, but he loved German music and he loved Wagner. He took me to the Philadelphia Orchestra one time and they played Wagner, and he was like "Here, feel my pulse, feel my pulse," because he was so excited. I'm really attracted to German music, so I don't know if that's from my father or the area. That may be an influence, and the other thing I was thinking is that when I was a kid it used to really bother me to see telephone poles, because when you go out to the Amish countryside, you just see this beautiful, beautiful landscape. Maybe the purity influenced me, you know, the striving for some kind of purity or integrity. I am kind of anti-technology, like I never liked electronic music. When I went to Manhattan School of Music, I had to take an electronic music class and I felt like it was immoral to write that kind of music. So I think that, just seeing people who don't have electricity, live a simple lifestyle, have integrity, and maintain a life they think that they should live, even though everybody around them is different, I think maybe that influenced me. Because I feel that way. I definitely have my own style of composing even though it may not be what other people are composing, and I put a lot of stress on integrity, on writing what I feel I should write.
SM: What are your other influences?
JH: Musical, you mean? Because actually, a lot of times I'm influenced by thoughts or concepts. For example, when I studied Latin at Columbia, I was influenced by Latin phrases or just words sometimes, kind of cloudy vague pink ruminations. But musically, Schoenberg is my big influence - his music and also his writings. Schoenberg's also a person who's very much concerned with integrity. It's an inner journey when you compose, so you write the music that you feel is right, which means there's kind of this morality to it, in a sense. You search for yourself, for what's honest, and what's truthful, and that's what you write in music. Schoenberg's such a key person for that, as well as Beethoven. Mahler's great, too. [laughs]
SM: Your music has been classified as "New Music." Do you agree with this classification?
JH: Well, New Music has been around for a long time. In the 1400s they had Ars Nova, New Art, so it's not a bad category, because there's so much new music that's never been played before. Also, so much of the music that's played, especially in the classical realm, is not new music, it's music from 200, 300, 400 years ago at least. The classification of atonal music is more disturbing to me than New Music, because a lot of what I write gets called atonal music, which means it's not tonal, but that's a big misnomer. Schoenberg talks about that, too; they labeled his music atonal, but he thought it should be pantonal, meaning it had all the tones. Atonal has this connotation of "it's not melodic, it's not harmonious." So I have more beef with being classified as atonal than being classified as New Music.
SM: In April, you are throwing a Concert for Peace. What motivated you to organize this concert?
JH: I'm very concerned about war, and when Bush was elected and we went into Iraq, I became involved with Amnesty International. The whole idea of people killing each other - which seems to be a prevalent motive in the history of the United States - of genocide, killing groups of people for material gain, it's very disturbing. Clinton was not a great person either, but Bush goes back to the Reagan years, torturing people and invading countries and killing innocent people, so when I heard about this Concert for Peace, it just felt right. It felt like something that fits with who I really am, and I wanted to publicize it and be a part of a group of people who agree with peace. I thought it was a great idea. It just felt really connected to who I am.
SM: Do you believe that music has a role to play in social change?
JH: I've always felt very concerned about social issues, and at one time, when I was a teenager, I didn't know if I should go into social issues or music. It was actually that experience I had where felt like I was being told to be a composer that made the decision for me. The music that I write isn't like popular music, so it doesn't appeal to a lot of people. Some people perceive it as more difficult, esoteric, remote, elitist. I don't think my music can really promote social change, but I kind of have to accept that. I want it to, but I think what it can do, I guess how I've kind of justified it or rationalized it, is I think that art is like the flowering of civilization, and so in the midst of all this chaos and destruction and war and social injustice, it's almost like it's holding the human spirit, the art and culture in the world. I try to think of it in that way.
SM: What are you trying to express with your music?
JH: Well, I don't know. Today when I was coming up here, I felt weird, so I started like kind of feeling what I was feeling, and then I start hearing it, and then that's what the music is. I can't explain it, but it's something that I feel and then I try to kind of connect it with what I'm feeling. Like today I was kind of hearing some low notes, metallic low notes, and feeling some sort of abyss or wide open space, so it's like what I'm trying to express is what's inside me, it's what I'm hearing and feeling. It's not a particular thing. Someone heard my music and they asked me if I could see images, because it was so narrative, like a movie score, and I don't do that at all. Except sometimes I'll kind of feel shapes of light or clouds or something like that.
SM: Do you have a specific audience or listener in mind when you compose?
JH: With the critique of the music I write, a lot of people say "oh those composers, they're elitist, they don't care about the audience, they're not writing for the audience," and it's true. I'm not, but I think it's ok. I mean, I never quite understood that, writing for an audience, because how do you know someone isn't going to like what you write, and how do you know what you write isn't going to really mean something to someone? So I just don't understand the concept of quantitatively writing for these hundred thousand people at all. I feel like if Schoenberg or other people had tried to write for an audience, I wouldn't hear their music, which I love, so it just doesn't make sense to me. If you study the NYT critics, there's this big debate about these composers that don't write for the audience. That was supposedly the big problem with 20th Century music - the composers weren't thinking about the audience, and that's why the audience doesn't like the music, the composers should think about the audience and not be in their heads. It was also true at Beethoven's time, for example his later music had that same criticism - people were saying "oh, Beethoven's deaf, he's in his own world, he doesn't care about his audience, we can't follow his music, it's too esoteric, he should think more about his audience." So to me, if you're an artist, you don't think about your audience.
SM: You have been composing since the 1980s, and you have two dozen compositions. How has your style developed over the years?
JH: Well, let's see, the first pieces I wrote were very simplistic, kind of in a minor key. And then I got very involved with Webern, his music, and I had this idea that I should banish melody, so I wrote more angular, Webern-esque pieces. And then I got into Schoenberg, and with Schoenberg my music kind of filled out dimensionally. It's hard to explain. I got more into Schoenberg and I wrote some 12-tonal pieces, but see, for me the interesting thing about it is I studied Schoenberg's tonal harmony, and I studied his atonal and his 12-tone, so now I do atonal, 12-tone, and some tonal stuff mixed together. Like this piece hoc est corpus meum is interesting to me because it starts out with 12-tone row, but then the 12-tone row breaks apart and at the end it becomes major/minor chords, so it gets back to tonality.
SM: What's your favorite of your compositions?
JH: That's a hard question. I really like that Latin piece, hoc est corpus meum. I don't know why. To me, it's very beautiful and sustained over a long 8 minutes.
I also like these three German songs I wrote, because they're from after I studied Schoenberg's harmony book. The thing about Schoenberg's harmony book is that Schoenberg went from being a tonal composer in the late 1800s to kind of abandoning tonality, this system that's been around forever. His harmony book takes you through the history of tonality, and you get to the point where Schoenberg was when he felt like he had to abandon tonality. I wrote these 3 pieces after I studied this book, so they're from a perspective where they start in a tonal key of E flat minor, and but the tonality moves so fast, and it's kind of stretched out so much, it's like you're not in that key anymore. I felt like I was kind of doing what Schoenberg went through, in terms of he's writing this tonal music, he's dramaticizing these things, and then he realizes that what he thinks is motivating music technically, the tonality, isn't really. It's like he's kind of working out these old rules, and he stretches them to the point that he realizes the old system isn't there anymore. So that was really interesting to me. I mean. I had heard about it, this thing happening, but then I felt like I lived it and made it part of my experience.
And this is just kind of blowing my own horn, but it starts in E flat minor, but the piano and baritone voice comes in on D flat. In Schoenberg's system of tonality, keys are closer together and farther away, more remote from each other, and D flat is really far away from the key of E flat minor, so it's kind of like I came in on this really faraway place. My teacher recognized it, but most people don't know the technique or the theory behind it to know that that's a cool thing. But I like those pieces a lot, the tonality.
I did a piece for clarinet that has microtones, which are tones smaller than the ones in a piano. Eventually, I want to expand that more. This is all kind of vague ruminations, but I want to combine Schoenberg's tonal theory with his atonality, and somehow develop a new system of microtone music. That's kind of the direction I might be going.
© 2005 - 2007 Julie Harting