Academic journal article Journal of Singing

From Words to Music: Three Song Cycles of Juliana Hall

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

From Words to Music: Three Song Cycles of Juliana Hall

Article excerpt

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LOCATING EXCELLENT CONTEMPORARY ART SONGS to teach to one's students or to perform has always been a daunting task, because the music is often difficult to sing, to memorize, and because many modern art songs lack audience appeal. But what if the level of difficulty was worth the work because the songs were so remarkable, and what if those same songs were in fact appealing to audiences?

The present writer has long been drawn to the music of Juliana Hall, having first discovered her songs through a friend when seeking material to record. Later, Hall invited me to Yale to premiere her song cycle, Letters from Edna. Now after many years, I remember and perform her music because of its compelling listener appeal, drawing both laughter and tears from audiences.

What sets Hall's songs apart from other composers of her generation is that she gives great attention to detail, chooses emotionally charged texts, and writes effectively for both piano and voice, demonstrating an ease of how the hand fits the piano and how the word is shaped in the voice. She also uses constantly changing rhythmic motives that highlight her text settings, so that no two songs sound alike.

Hall's harmonic language in her songs is typically that of an extended tonality that sounds modern without giving the impression of belonging to a specific school of composition (e.g., atonal or romantic). A lack of key signature in her songs simplifies modulation, as tonalities move easily through a variety of keys. This allows the postmodern harmonies to heighten the emotional content of the poetry. Depending on the text, the harmonic content specifically heightens the mood Hall wishes to create, be it tonal, chromatic, or dissonant. The songs often are through-composed in form; they are always multimetric; and the accompaniment sometimes uses word painting to enhance the meaning of the words. Each song is different in tempo and uses the full extent and range of the instrument based on the needs of the text. Tempos are clearly marked in her scores with suggested mood and color interpretations for the artists to apply. The melodic writing style that characterizes her work also supports smooth transitions while drawing the listener in sometimes unpredictable directions. The level of difficulty of songs is wide ranging, with some songs appropriate for advanced singers, while others are appropriate for student singers. Tessitura and range have been considered carefully for the vocal line and also enhance the text.

Hall has observed two changes in her composing from earlier to more recent works: in her earliest years as a composer she explored many more texts in foreign languages, composing songs in French, German, and Spanish, whereas her more recent work has focused almost exclusively on English-language texts. Earlier she experimented in larger forms, such as choir anthems, a cantata, and even a chamber opera, but now is artistically drawn to smaller forms, including songs and solo instrumental works, such as pieces for cello, English horn, piano, and saxophone. Hall feels that her music has not really "evolved" over the years, as it has always sought to reflect the colors and styles of the various texts she has chosen to set. She asserts that, although her compositions are "her" musical works, the style of each particular work is unique, in that it is structurally inspired by the chosen text.1

Juliana Hall's work, which emerges out of her relationship with American poets, writers, and her own musical traditions, deserves more attention than it has received to date, in spite of the fact that she has been recognized with a Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition in 1989, as well as several awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).2

Born in 1958 and currently living in Connecticut, Juliana Hall is best known as a prolific composer of classical art songs, having written over thirty-five song cycles comprised of more than 250 individual songs. …

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