An Interview with Mark Hagerty [2002]

Mark Hagerty is a composer living in Wilmington DE who is flourishing as he approaches his fifties, with new commissions and performances in the US and abroad. His music is challenging, rugged, serious, unique, compelling.

We spoke at his home on May 12 (2002).

TM How did you get started in music? You were already composing as an adolescent, if I am not mistaken.

MH That’s right. It’s actually almost a gothic image. My early music experience came from the Lutheran Church, where you got to hear a lot of good four-part harmony, including Bach. My mother was interested in music, and she bought one of these record collections, where you would get one each week for a dollar when you bought your groceries. It was a really good collection, and because I was a sick little asthmatic kid, I had nothing better to do (indeed there IS nothing better to do) than to sit and listen to this collection of “The Greatest Music Every Written”. I don’t remember this myself, but I am told that when I was three, I would sit in front of the loudspeaker and request “The Firebird”, which was my favorite piece at that age. I do remember having very vivid images of “The Firebird” which I couldn’t possibly conjure up today. I liked all the Russians — more than anybody else, I think — Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov in particular, later on Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky. Those were my favorites, because they are vivid, picturesque pieces. I couldn’t go out to play, so I listened to all this stuff and thought about it a lot. That was my early ear-training. Then I would pick out melodies on the piano. My uncle had played the trumpet, and there was a trumpet sitting around the house. I picked that up, tried to make a noise on it, took it to school and got some lessons, and got to the point with that where I was admitted to conservatory at Oberlin as a trumpet major. I think that I was barely admitted, and I don’t think I would have been that good, but that was my start at the Conservatory. Somewhere along the line I got healthy, and it was found that I could sing, and since I was a tenor there was quite a bit of demand. I got to do a lot of singing, so I studied voice at Oberlin, and later in Boston and elsewhere, and sang professionally. That’s a dim memory now, since I don’t really sing anymore. As far as composing, I literally worshipped the composers as a kid. I had pictures of all of them in my room — I thought they were gods, and I thought that it was a miracle that Beethoven was able to write music when he was deaf….and that it was the height of presumption to think that I could do that or make any kind of contribution, so I put it off for a long time. Some time in my middle teens I started re-harmonizing hymns in a sardonic way — trying to pervert their meaning and fool around with them. I was having a lot of fun, but it wasn’t until I was halfway through college that I decided to major in composition. Before that I had written piano pieces, brass quartets and so forth, but it was a modest start, because I felt unqualified to do it.

TM Where did you grow up?

MH I grew up in Ohio, in and around Cleveland, and stayed in Ohio through college, taking a year off in Boston at one point. Not so much because I wanted to stay in Ohio, but because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Oberlin College and Conservatory is about the only place where everything is there on one campus, so, reluctantly, I stayed in Ohio to study there.

TM You must have gone to hear the Cleveland Orchestra as a teen.

MH Yes, actually that started in elementary school. By the time I was a teenager it wasn’t the children’s concerts anymore — I got to hear George Szell conduct the greatest orchestra in the world in one of the best halls in the world. If you hear Szell conducting Mozart’s G-minor symphony no. 40 when you are fifteen, you can’t appreciate that you are hearing the apex of orchestral performance, and it took me a long time to figure out that that was the case. We would go to the Symphony in Boston, or the Concertgebouw, later, and I was looking for something and not getting it. I realized the problem was that I had started at the top.

TM My sense is that music in Cincinnati is still very much shaped by the German immigration there. Was that true of Cleveland when you were growing up there?

MH I am not sure what other music was going in Cleveland besides the Cleveland Orchestra. At that time they were heavily into meat-and-potatoes classical work — Firebird was adventurous back then. As far as the musical environment was concerned I was lucky enough to go to a prep school that had a terrific music program — high-quality theory training, piano lessons, glee club. I listened to Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Cream, too, but to me that was a very separate enterprise.

TM You studied both piano and trumpet in high school?

MH I did, but I have absolutely no talent at the keyboard — it was mostly attached to theory lessons.

TM What was the culture in terms of composition at Oberlin? Were the serialists dominant, or were there other influences? What was the music that was held up as ideal? I don’t imagine that it was the Russians.

MH No, the Russians weren’t taken very seriously. I studied with a guy named Richard Hoffmann, who was a student of Schoenberg, and a very serious one. He served as his amanuensis. Richard Hoffmann is an incredibly gifted and very interesting person, not held in favor today, I don’t think, a complex guy who did a lot to curtail his own career and exposure. I remember seeing a letter he received from Peters asking to publish all his music, and he didn’t respond. He was an incredible teacher. It wasn’t that he was stuck on atonality or serialism, but we did use Schoenberg, Webern and Berg as examples. I had come to love that music before I got to Oberlin, so it was a very natural thing to study it. It was a diverse environment, but I was never interested in the other stuff — nothing to do with John Cage, or Aaron Copland, or Gunther Schuller, or anything that was less serious than Schoenberg, which was actually quite limiting. But it’s good training, and if you can get away from it later, I think that it’s incredibly useful. I have never written a twelve-tone piece, but it was fun to be in a situation where you felt that you had to justify every thing you did, justify every note, pay a lot of attention to structure — good training, but not the way you want to write later on.

TM Like studying species counterpoint, I suppose?

MH Exactly.

TM Could tell us a little about your studies at Brandeis? You had moved to Boston with your wife (harpsichordist Tracy Richardson), is that right?

MH We took a year off during our undergraduate studies, and I studied at Brandeis, and she took counterpoint at Boston University. I spent a year in a graduate seminar under Seymour Shifrin. He was kind enough to let me in for free, so once a week I took the afternoon off from my job as a janitor, and would go in there and show him what I was working on. I was working real hard on a very ambitious concerto for violin, viola and string orchestra, which Seymour Shifrin just absolutely loathed. I stopped writing that piece and instead wrote a piece for solo cello, which is probably the only piece I have written since I was twenty that I don’t care to hear again. Very, very serious, modern, highly-structured, not very fun idiom, and in fact the young woman that played it at Princeton later quit playing the cello and cited that piece as one of the reasons. So I have a guilty conscience about that piece.

TM It was a piece that Shifrin approved of?

MH Yes, he liked it a lot, and so did Richard Hoffmann, but that piece was really an academic enterprise.

TM Shifrin is not terribly well-known today outside the Boston area. The Cantata Singers performed his Cantata on Sophoclean Texts about fifteen years ago, which was recorded for CRI.I recall that work as being fairly accessible.

MH To be honest, I was even more solipsistic back then, and didn’t have that much interest in his music. I only know a few of his pieces. I did go to a concert of his works, and realized that he went through several different periods. His earlier pieces are rather like the early Elliott Carter — modern, comfortable American mode, and then got more serious after that.

TM What is your esthetic now? What is your goal when you are writing a piece?

MH I was always writing the most serious, heartfelt, condensed art music that I could. I like to think that I have let a little more air and light into it. Today I am trying not to write anything unless somebody asks for it. If I am writing something that someone has asked for, my first responsibility is to write something that they will enjoy playing.

That has a big influence on how you write. I no longer think it’s wrong to have fun when writing, or playing, or listening to music, so I try to make my pieces enjoyable, no matter how serious they may be.

I feel less like I am creating and solving problems these days, and more like I am painting or singing, than structuring things. But having spent so much time concerned with form, I think that it happens naturally now.

TM Could you discuss the form and structure, and seriousness, of the Suite for Cello Solo, no. 2, which Doug McNames played at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts last year?

MH That piece attempts to accomplish some of the same things as a baroque suite for solo string instrument, that is, a lot of the melodies suggest more than one voice, some of the patterns set up chord progressions. It is a suite, it has different pieces with different affects, which is helpful, because I have a tendency to put everything into one piece, and it’s more successful to not try do everything in one movement. I don’t want to be “neo”- anything, but it tries to give the listener the kind of experience that he would have listening to a Bach suite or partita. In doing that I wrote some material that was tonal and some that was not very tonal, but I feel that it was coherent, it fits together.

TM Could you be a little more technical? I am interested in the methods you used to structure the piece.

MH I have a harmonic language that I developed in my twenties that involves a lot of four-note chords, tonal chords with another note, and sometimes it’s ambiguous which tone is the root. For example if you have a C-major chord over an A-flat, depending on the position of the chord you can hear it as based on C or based on A-flat. I use the sort of three or four part voice-leading that I heard growing up in the church. I don’t want it to sound like that, but I am very conscious of voice-leading, so when I am writing a prelude, I think about harmonic progression and voice-leading in the same way as somebody might have done three hundred years ago.

Another thing that happened in that piece is something that I have been doing more of lately, which is to set up patterns, and create building blocks that I can then move around and repeat. It’s not a mystery that listeners like to hear stuff repeated, though that was not obvious to those of us who were studying in the Second Viennese style.

There’s a Scherzo in the piece that moves right along and which Doug McNames played brilliantly, and when I thought of that piece, I was thinking of one of those paintings by Paul Klee which was rough squares in different sizes and colors, that fit together and don’t, the colors fit and they don’t, and thinking about blocks of music in the same way. It’s a very natural way for me to put together a piece, and I was doing it earlier today. I will finish a piece for solo marimba today, and it’s the same idea of creating building blocks and putting them together in different combinations, and sometimes writing connective material.

TM Sounds very Bachian — you create the fundamental matrix, and the piece is created by manipulating it through the harmonic areas that it suggests.

MH Another thing that happens in that cello suite is a set of variations. Within the variations I can harken back to different episodes, styles, and sounds from earlier in the piece. Generally a set of variations is based on a song that I have written, because I find the best way to write a song for an instrument is to first write it for voice. More than once I have used songs as themes for variations –that happens in the harpsichord suites, and other places as well.

TM I know the works that I have heard in concert, but would like to get a sense of the range of music that is in your catalog.

MH I have a couple of harpsichord suites, with five to six movements each, somewhat in the style of the cello suite.

There is a chamber concerto for piano, percussion and small orchestra, written quite a while ago, that I still like. That was played long ago at Oberlin, and I have revised it since, and would like to get the revised version played.

TM Does it have a title?

MH It’s called “Chamber Concerto”. That was back in the days when you could use things like “String Quartet” or “Chamber Concerto”, and if you do that now nobody will touch your piece.

TM You have to have a brand name.

MH That’s a good way of putting it. Hence the piece that I wrote for Relache is called “High Octane”, the trio for bassoon, cello and harpsichord is called “Green Mountain Music”, and I’m thinking of calling
 the piece I am working on now for marimba “One-Track Mind”.

It’s for Chen Zimbalista, a virtuoso percussionist who lives in Tel Aviv. He was a guest on the recent Relache program, and I was very impressed with his playing. I guess he liked my piece, since he asked me to write him something. We are working on an ambitious piece for percussion to include marimba. I’ve been faxing examples and emailing questions. In the meantime, yesterday I got an idea for a solo marimba piece.

TM A separate piece?

MH Maybe an encore. It’s called “One-Track Mind” in that it keeps reiterating the middle e in different ways. It sets up patterns and varies them. It’s a light-hearted piece. The e never quite goes away — you hear it in different ways, in different contexts. The piece is short enough that you don’t get tired of it.

I haven’t figured out the title for the big piece. I want to do that beforehand, because I am finding that these suggestive titles keep me in line. I try to follow the expectations that I set up with the title, and it keeps me from going too far afield.

TM The impression of a naïve viewer of modern art is that this is exactly what goes on with a work of modern art, that it is framed around the concept encapsulated in the title.

MH I’m never sure which comes first, or whether they are serious about their titles, although I guess in my last few titles I haven’t been too serious either. “High Octane”, that’s not too serious, but it sets up a challenge — you don’t write anything that isn’t “high-octane”.

TM Are there other new projects?

MH Chen Zimbalista is also conducting a string orchestra. He studied the cello, so he is comfortable and familiar with strings. This is in Tel Aviv — a professional group, playing a lot. He and I think it might be a lot of fun to have a concerto for percussion and string orchestra, and this fits in with my new rule of writing pieces for people that will play them.

I have started a project of writing intermezzi for viola and piano, which I write in a 19th century idiom.

I love the instrument, and I sometimes have romantic themes come to mind which I can’t use anywhere else. So I collect those, and so far I have written two that I am very happy with. I have a cantata for soloists, chorus, brass and strings on texts of T.S. Eliot, called “O light invisible”, a series of songs for tenor and piano trio on texts of Wallace Stevens.

Other pieces in progress are a set of “Winter Scenes” for chorus, strings and orchestral bells. So far I have used texts (with permission) by Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden. That piece is mostly done. Another piece is for two pianos which will be called “Companion Piece” just like the piece for two flutes. I want to write a lot of duets, and will just use that title. This is “Companion Piece no. 2”. And there is a symphony for double orchestra, that’s started, and I don’t know whether I will finish it.It was very useful to write it as far I have. I might just take it apart and use it for other pieces.

TM Useful how?

MH In terms of orchestration, antiphonal writing, an extension of my harmonic language.

TM I would like to talk a little about “Companion Piece” [a flute duet premiered in Rio de Janeiro in April 2002].

I was struck by the seventeenth-century character of the last movement, built on a ground bass, F-G-A-B, and the progressive variations on that. What were the sound ideals for the first two movements. The harmonic content of the second movement is also striking.

MH The conceit of the piece is that it was written for two people who are very fond of each other, but live far apart.

The first movement is antiphonal, and the players play back and forth at each, and make some rhapsodic statements that are later combined. It’s also evocative of bird-song, and there’s some slow music with not much happening where I leave it up to the players to create a hushed feeling of communing over a distance. It’s not harmonically oriented, but use melodies that were buried in “High-Octane”. In the second movement the players move closer together, but not together. In the Tchaikovsky “Pathetique”, there is a very interesting antiphonal effect, where he writes parallel thirds and sixths, but the upper and lower notes hocket back and forth, so neither violin section is playing the melody or harmony, but rather these more interesting melodies which put together make an unexpectedly coherent line. Harmonically, it’s an updated suspension series on which I was building the harmony, but you don’t hear that in the individual line, since as in the Tchaikovsky, the indivdual lines don’t tell the story.

The last movement does harken to the idea of the ground bass. For what ever reason, a set of variations is a very satisfying way to end a piece, and I think it provides a reward for the listener. The first two movements were challenging, and it’s conclusive to have a final movement with a repeated idea. But as you know it gets interrupted with a ritornello. There’s an alternating eighth-note figure which is prominent, and you can’t tell if it is background or foreground. It’s a question, and the piece concludes with the players each taking one note of it. To the extent that the two players, or the two people, achieve union, it is only to ask a question together.