The American Academy of Arts and Letters has named University of Washington School of Music faculty composer Huck Hodge the recipient of the Charles Ives Living Award, the largest monetary award granted exclusively to American composers. The cash award of $200,000 enables - and in fact requires - the recipient to "quit his day job" for two years to focus solely on composing, a luxury not afforded Ives himself, who composed the body of his work in relative obscurity while earning a living in the insurance trade.
While on leave from the UW starting July 1, Hodge - who currently serves as chair of the school’s composition program - plans to continue his prolific output of new works developed in his eight years on the UW faculty. We caught up with the composer recently for a look into his creative process and his plans for the two years ahead.
"Everyone is going to bring their own history and perspective to the music they hear, and that is a wonderful thing. Even so, I like the idea that we can understand each other, however imperfectly. It’s not like there is some perfect, ideal meaning that is in my mind that simply degrades in the process of transmission to other minds.”
The Charles Ives Living Award literally buys you time to devote entirely to your composing. It’s too soon for you to have the next two years all mapped out, but will we see much of you, or do you plan to retreat or travel?
H.H.: I will still be around the UW from time to time curating some concerts and other performance activities in the composition program. This award will enable me to start thinking in depth about some larger-scale projects that I have had in mind for a while. Some of these are currently under commission and others are more open-ended. I plan to travel extensively, but I will continue to reside in Seattle.
Who are some of the composers, artists, or philosophers who have most deeply influenced your work? What about them draws you?
On a technical and stylistic level, I draw inspiration from a very wide variety of sources: free jazz, film noir soundtracks, painting, poetry, non-linear narrative, pretty much anything that I find interesting. I’ve recently been influenced by various philosophical traditions, but not in the most obvious way. There are many composers who write music that, in one way or another, is inspired by specific ideas of a given philosopher, so that you might say that the piece is "about" those ideas. But I see music itself as posing certain interesting philosophical questions in its own way.
Last year you completed a commission titled " At dawn I chant my own weird hymn " for solo offstage trumpet and the UW Wind Ensemble. In your program note, you refer to a famous work by Ives, "The Unanswered Question," in which there is a somewhat similar arrangement of onstage and offstage performers, though Ives reversed the effect, placed the trumpet onstage and the strings offstage. How directly were you influenced by Ives or this particular work of his when composing this piece? In general, have his pieces inspired you as a composer, and if so, to what extent?
I think Ives is a good example of a composer who was interested in exploring the philosophical implications of music. In the program note to "The Unanswered Question" he tells us that the trumpet repeatedly poses the "perennial question of existence" to which the musical ensemble responds in increasingly frustrated but continuously doubtful musical "answers."
Ives’ piece seems to accord a certain centrality to the individual (the trumpet is onstage, the ensemble is off), suggesting that even though society may tell you one thing, true certainty comes from within. My piece takes a much more skeptical view. The trumpet is offstage the whole time and at the end is in a completely different part of the building, creating a sense of distant, elusive individuality. The idea here is that individuality is only expressible in relation to society and in the modes of expression (language, culture) that the community provides to each of us. To forgo society’s ready-made answers is to assume a position of exteriority, to give up to a significant degree the power to directly influence those around you. This does not mean we need to exclude others from our lives. Rather, to be an individual is to dwell in this distance, however close our proximity to others may be.
Listen to Huck Hodge’s music:
" At dawn I chant my own weird hymn ,” for UW Wind Ensemble, David Gordon offstage trumpet
An excerpt from " Apophenia ,” performed by the Ensemble Dal Niente
Alêtheia , performed by the Orchestra of the League of Composers
" Pools of shadow from an older sky ,” commissioned by the American Academy in Rome.
" Parallaxes ,” performed by the ASKO
Schönberg Ensemble (Amsterdam)
- To hear more, visit the "Recordings” tab at www.huckhodge.com.
In the same piece you recall a sublime musical experience you had in which the final notes of a piece you heard lingered in such a faint suggestion of sound as to almost be inaudible or imaginary. Do you find - from the feedback you receive from listeners - that the personal elements you insert into pieces have the desired effect, or are you sometimes surprised or disappointed with reactions to your music because they weren’t what you intended to provoke?
Everyone is going to bring their own history and perspective to the music they hear, and that is a wonderful thing. Even so, I like the idea that we can understand each other, however imperfectly. It’s not like there is some perfect, ideal meaning that is in my mind that simply degrades in the process of transmission to other minds.
Rather, the fact that other people understand my intentions in their own way reveals that my own understanding of those intentions is incomplete. To me, this suggests that no thought, no word, no sound can be grasped by one person in its entirety. No one is entirely self-reliant, but at the same time, no one is entirely alone, either.
To extend that question, how much does it matter to you what listeners might think or feel about your music and how much effect does the intended audience for a piece have on you while you are in the process of creation?
This does play an important role in the way that I shape my music. In fact, this may be another expression of a certain ethical impulse I feel as a composer. But again, I want to allow enough space for everyone to form their own unique interpretation about what they hear. My intention is not to manipulate listeners into a specific viewpoint about the music. At the same time, I like to set up expectations in the listeners that may be fulfilled, elided or even thwarted over the course of a piece. I generally want the listeners to enjoy my music, but in a way that proves elusive to articulate.