Bruce Hobson - Interview


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Interview with Bruce Hobson

by John Story, Fanfare Magazine

Fanfare, March/April 1999, Volume 22, Number 4, Copyright (c) 1999 by Fanfare, Inc., Used by permission.

The composer Bruce Hobson is in many ways a throwback to the 19th century. Aside from his essentially Romantic sensibility, which finds expression in his searching, complex musical idiom, he also creates his work unsupported by either commissions or an academic position to pay the bills. Aside from a brief stint as a college professor a number of years ago, Hobson has made his living teaching piano privately. He lives in Vermont and New York, where he is affiliated with the Guild of Composers. He recently took over his own music publication, both in score form as well as producing CDs of his own music. His company is called Equinox Music, which can be found on the Web at The Web site includes samples of Hobson's compositions as well as much other helpful information about him. Equinox Music can also be contacted via mail at Equinox Music, Box 224, Manchester Center, VT 05255, and by phone at (802) 362-4585.

He had this to say about creating Equinox Music: "I made a company to help organize and promote my music. I do publishing as well as recording. These last few years I have been mainly occupied with recording. I do have two other publishers, but the situation is such that I am not generating enough income from my scores to have them spend the kind of time and effort that I am willing to spend myself. The computer has made publishing much easier. I can do world-class engraving now, which I never could before. I am currently doing the distribution myself. I am still negotiating with a couple of companies for distribution, but nothing is set. So it is currently mail order: I will be having samples of the music on the Web site."

Equinox Music could seem a quixotic enterprise, coming as it does at a time when the classical music industry is both downsizing its commitment to new music as well as aggressively searching for music that fits the description "user friendly." Hobson's music is eminently accessible, but it requires much more than a passive listener. When I received the CDs of his music in preparation for the interview, I was struck by how much my reaction to the work resembled the long process I have had in coming to terms with each new work of Elliott Carter. Much as with Carter's music, I found myself admiring the craft of the composer and realizing there were profound topics on the table. Nevertheless, the music is of impressive complexity and, for me at least, certainly not to be grasped on a single hearing. The music is seductive enough to lure the open-eared listener back until the complexities are fathomed, but it is not an easy ride. When I mentioned this to the composer, he laughed and said, "I am demanding of myself, and I certainly would hope that I can listen to my music over and over again and still get more out of it. Which I generally do. I listen to it repeated times, and I am happy to say I don't get tired of it. I usually find more there than I can possibly get when I first hear it. I would expect, I would hope that my listeners would feel the same way.

"I think I am like a lot of other composers in that I always hope the listeners will enjoy my music as much as I do. I do enjoy it. I suppose there are composers who don't enjoy listening to their music, but I don't know any of them. I do listen to my music. I always try to see if my response is congruent with my intentions. I am always testing my music and my own response to it in terms of what I intended when I created it.

"I would like to say something about the Susanne Langer book that I read some time ago, Philosophy in a New Key, talking about emotion in music. She mentions that some passages in a particular piece can seem to bear a sad interpretation or a happy interpretation equally well. So what that means, for me anyway, is that music can only express the shape of emotion rather than the specific emotion. I think this is hard for a nonmusician to understand. And even some musicians don't really. . . . She talks about Hanslick. When he talked about meaning or the meaning of music, he thought only of denotative meaning, what the dictionary definition of a word is. So he felt music did not mean anything because it did not have a denotative meaning. But Langer talks about the connotative meaning as being the important thing. This has always been my feeling, that the connotative meaning is what music is really about. There is a denotative aspect, which is the notes, the actual pitches; but when everything is put together the connotative meaning becomes the important thing, where you kind of infer an emotional shape. I am not saying it's completely predictable how people will react to a piece. I think there is a general kind of idea of what effect your writing is going to have. That is what I strive for. There are always unintended consequences that seem to appear."

At this point a vehicle is backing up on the street outside with the characteristic warning beep. Hobson points out that the sound of the beeping has a denotative meaning that you immediately recognize as a warning to be aware of your immediate surroundings. "Susanne Langer talks about the morphology of music. 'What music can actually reflect is only the morphology of feeling. . . . If it reveals the rationale of feelings, the rhythm and pattern of their rise and decline and intertwining, to our minds, then it is a force in our mental life, our awareness and understanding, and not only our affective experience.' [The end of the quotation is taken from the Equinox Music Web site.] 'Morphology' is a big word, but I think most people know what morphing is. This is what I am trying to do in my music: I am trying to have a transformation of an original theme or idea into another idea with a kind of imperceptible shift of the elements of pitch, rhythm, and harmony, and of course this kind of thing has been done since the idea of development was conceived."

I asked about the genesis of Hobson's music, and he surprised me by saying, "I have had a couple of commissions, but in general I am writing to try to find my own ideas. I do think of the performer as being an important participant in the process. Let's see, the Guild of Composers started in 1973, so I have known some of these people for quite a while. I am very happy I can get somebody like Rolf Schulte to do the Trio on the second disc. . . . It is a more recent composition. I think I kind of got into writing quite large pieces, and that is a huge piece. There is very little repetition in terms of literal repetition.There is a lot of repetition of gesture, but that is pretty much as far as I wanted to go with long forms. Now I am going back to writing some shorter things, to try to do pieces with short movements with very different characters in the manner of the early Clarinet Trio, which has that kind of contrast."

I commented that much of his music is written in some variant of three movements. He laughed and suggested the influence of Chopin on his writing: "That must be the influence of Chopin on me, the three-sectional type of structure he has. I also seem to write a lot in 3/4 time, but I think that is more of a mechanical consideration, because for ensemble music it is the easiest time signature to see in terms of keeping people together. But when I lay out the piece, the rhythmic structure is always the most important to me. As we were saying earlier, I definitely have that in common with Elliott Carter, the concern with the large rhythmic arch of the dramatic structure. That has always been important to me. Generally I have an idea of how long the piece will be, and then I work out the details to fit into that structure. I don't normally compose with bar lines. They are just inserted afterward to fit the accentual structure of the piece. It's really not important if you have four bars of 3/4 or three bars of 4/4, you have the same number of beats. I do try to write in terms of beats-how can I put it? There is always a steady pulse, there is no graphic notation. Even though the pulse is often concealed by the flow of the melodic lines everything is coordinated around a beat, with no free passages. I find that kind of thing (free passages) devitalizes a certain aspect of the rhythmic excitement. It tends to drop down a level when completely free ostinati are mixed together. A passage doesn't sound as exciting to me as it does if there is the same basic musical effect but with a pulse. Then it seems to have a higher level of excitement to me.

"I try to create the dramatic structure, in that case specifically [in Cantilena Infinita], in terms of the implied dramatic structure of the opening melody, so that the sections and phrases are related in terms of expressive trajectory, and the goals of motion are directly related to the opening melody or theme. Again my themes are basically a kind of rhythmic motive; they are not truly a theme in the Beethovenian sense. I am usually very loose about the interval content, or the exact pitch content. I am always trying to shape the chords, the relative dissonance of the chords so the most dramatic moments will be the most dissonant. The calmer moments will be a more open sound, a less dissonant, even triadic sound. I am much more concerned with how the rhythm fits in with the harmony. I can't get stuck with the tone-row type of theme. I am usually molding the material so it's changing what I consider the trajectory of the local moment and the longer moment. I try to overlap so there is a kind of cumulative wave effect. The details are complicated but the overall thing I am trying to create is a straight dramatic trajectory.

"What happens with the Trio is that [in] the opening theme I divided it up in three sections, and I implied the high point of the theme in the middle section. So the climax of the piece, or the loudest, I should say the most intense, part of the piece is the middle movement. So again it is that kind of long-term trajectory. I understand this is demanding on listeners, to expect them to hear through a piece like that. I think most listeners are used to hearing things episodically. It's hard for them to hear unless there is this little episode and now there is another little episode. My music just keeps going.

"I have been thinking a lot about pop music. The great advantage of pop music is that the format is completely familiar. It is a completely user-friendly environment. Everyone is familiar with it, so the focus can be on the individual performer or the arrangement, whereas in my music I am constantly changing the format. In pop music everything is set whereas in my music everything is changing.

"Among other things that are important to me is my sense of relative dissonance. It doesn't seem to have changed since I first knew what it was when I was hearing a minor ninth. It has always seemed the most dissonant interval to me. I have a general idea of going down from that as the most dissonant to, say, a unison as the least dissonant. That doesn't seem to have changed despite the change in my style from a very conservative style as a student to the more advanced chromatic style which is on the recordings. My sense of relative dissonance seems not to have changed. I am trying to do more with the overtone series, trying to build chords more by thirds. The Concerto for Orchestra in the middle movement has chromatic clusters. I haven't done anything like that since that time.

"I try to make a pretty sound. I don't know if you have that response. Schoenberg said, 'I never write music that is merely pretty.' I think, on another occasion, when he was trying to get a contract for a Hollywood movie, the studio head said, 'We look forward to hearing your lovely music.' He yelled at the guy, 'I DON'T WRITE LOVELY MUSIC!' [Theodor Adorno, Quasi una fantasia (London: Verso), 256] That was the end of that film score. But I am trying to write lovely music.

"Another important thing to me, especially in terms of what some of the serialists seem to be trying to ignore, is my feeling that the tonal system is always there and always working. And even though they are trying-they claim they are trying-to avoid a quality of tonal music, my feeling is that it is still there, and it is a mistake or oversight to deny that it is working. I think I am trying to draw the tonal aspect into music-not like Mary Had a Little Lamb, obviously, but I think in the appreciation of my music and that of other modern composers the tonal aspect is going to be there even when trying to avoid it.

Recently I've been concerned with the relation between culture and my music. I got excited by a passage in Braudel [Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, Vol. III]. First he is talking about the ambiguous relations between capitalism and culture: 'they contain a contradiction; culture is both support and challenge, guard dog and rebel.' The duality of Braudel's generalization can be seen in my music through the conservative use of ancient musical techniques such as counterpoint and isorhythmic repetition versus the rebellious quality of advanced chromaticism and plentiful free dissonance. I have found it a very useful way of thinking about my music, and other music too, as a kind of dialectic between the rebellious aspects and the conformist aspects. I find it helpful in understanding what I am doing and what other people are doing."

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