Adolphus Hailstork: Bridging Two Worlds

Michael Zwiebach on June 23, 2020
Adolphus Hailstork (far right) after the LA Phil premiere of Still Holding On in February 2019 | Credit: Bill Doggett

Adolphus Hailstork (born 1941) is only getting better with age. The premiere of Still Holding On, commissioned and performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in February 2019, was well received, with conductor Thomas Wilkins calling him “the dean of African American composers,” (a reference to William Grant Still, the subject of the piece). The Phil’s Hailstork celebration, hosted by Music UNTOLD founder John Malveaux, concluded with Hailstork receiving a proclamation from the office of the mayor of Los Angeles.

And there’s more new work on the way: the composer has just begun a requiem cantata for George Floyd, A Knee on a Neck, with the score set to be finished, Hailstork estimates, by next April, with parts available in May. That major work, which he discusses in the interview below, is just one of a large number of compositions that reflect his engagement with black history.

Adolphus Hailstork

And yet Hailstork (actually Adolphus Cunningham Hailstork III) has always been aware of what he calls his dual cultural heritage: born in Rochester, NY, and raised in Albany, the son of a chef, he received his primary musical education in the Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints and was introduced to the classical tradition, including of course, his fellow Episcopalian Samuel Barber, and other contemporary Americans. As he says below, he was insulated from the developing civil rights movement in his earlier education. His B.A. in music, from Howard University (1963) and his initial postgraduate study at the Manhattan School (1964–1966, where he was taught by David Diamond, one of the leading lights of the mid-century American symphonists, and Vittorio Giannini, who remained a tonality-based composer in an academic world heavily dominated by serialism and other non-tonal compositional processes) and a nine-week study course with Nadia Boulanger in France, sound idyllic, in a way, shelters from the storm and stress of American culture.

But a reckoning came, as he says, when he got out of the army (he served in West Germany) in 1968. And while the story of that development is fascinating, the richness and breadth of the musical influences make Hailstork’s music exciting. There are the mid-century symphonists and the eventful, forward push of that style, devoid of excessive rhetoric, but also Episcopalian music, spirituals, stories from black history, references to iconic musicians like Still, and more. Hailstork’s eminence and the quality of his music deserve more time on America’s and the world’s concert stages. And since we’re at a moment of reflection and historical inflection, it’s time for cultural institutions to take note. Let’s celebrate this important composer’s 80th birthday, next year, in style.

I reached Hailstork at his home in Virginia, where he teaches at Old Dominion University.

You seem to be getting more prolific as you get older.

Yes, as someone said, part of it is just showing up — I’m still alive so I might as well keep writing.

More commissions?

No, I actually went into a 20-year lull, occasional pieces once in a while, and now it seems like interest is perking up again and we’ll see what happens.

About your influences …

Well, I’m pretty eclectic; I’m multistylistic, all the names you want to use, they all fit.

From February 2019, Adolphus Hailstork (right) with marketing agent Bill Doggett (left) and conductor Stephen Tucker (center)

You survived postmodernism.

I survived the gun-to-the-head modernism, back when I was a student —  you know if you weren’t crunching elbows on the keys and counting up to 12 all the time, you weren’t being much of a composer. I decided I didn’t want to go that way. I came up as a singer and singers don’t often sing in 12-tone technique and things like that. I’ve used it, but it wasn’t a natural fit and so I’ve spent most of my career trying to be honest with myself. I call it “authenticism” — that’s my “ism.”

Let me ask you about your teachers. What did you learn from David Diamond?

David Diamond had just returned from Italy, after a 14-year stint, and he helped me break down my theory rigidities: there was some rigidity in my previous study, where things had to be such-and-such a way or look the way so-and-so did it. And he just said one sentence in one class one day, he said “Who says?” In other words, “you are the authority.” And I really benefitted from that.

The reason I mention that is that, at that time, there was so much of the “you must be modern” stuff going on, that no one ever said, “you must be yourself.” And he loosened that up.

How many African Americans were in your composition classes? Were you the only one?

Oh yeah.

So was it harder to find yourself, when you were alone, that way?

Adolphus Hailstork

Ah, at that time — that’s a very good point, ah, how to say this — the racial identity pressures were not as strong as they have become [in the university]. I just loved the composers I loved, and I never thought about the fact that they were white and I was black. So a lot of my early identification was with the Europeans and the Euro-Americans, and it was only after the rise of the civil rights era, that I started really observing that. Because I did not grow up in the South and with segregation attitudes. And so I just loved Samuel Barber, I loved Aaron Copland, I thought Bernstein was fantastic. It was just not a “well, they’re not black and therefore … ” So I just wrote and I continued to write.

And then I realized that there were two different “constituencies,” you might say, that were being very sharply divided, two different cultures — they always had been but I hadn’t been aware of the Deep South African American culture. And I became more and more aware of it the past 30 years or so, and I’ve tried to integrate African American elements with my Euro training, and sometimes my works are strictly without any racial influence and sometimes very strongly and deliberately focused on using African American elements. And sometimes I blend them and juxtapose them.

Like the contrast between your tone poem Hercules and the symphonic portrait Zora! [after Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston]; they’re completely different.

Yes, that might bother people who want a composer to always sound exactly the same way all the time and that ain’t me.

It’s like coding. You know, there is a unique challenge just to exist in this country sometimes, and if you want to reach a certain audience, you use a certain inflection in your speech and in your writing. Sometimes you go back and forth: like, they used to tease Obama about dropping the ‘g’s when he got around a black audience. [For me] it’s similar to that.

A lot of African American artists pull from both traditions (and more).

I like to tell people that I’m a cultural hybrid and sometimes it’s agonizing. Sometimes I feel like I was hanging by my thumbs between two cultures. And then I just said to myself — after years of this, I said, “Look, I accept myself as a cultural hybrid, and I know I have trained in Euro-classical skills and I also am very interested — and since I went to school in an African American college — I am aware of that culture too. And I use them both.

Can I ask about your early training in the Episcopal Church? Your music seems to have the ring of the hymnal in a lot of places.

Yes, I came up in a high church, an Episcopal cathedral, traditional Anglican style. I was a boy soprano, did the whole nine yards. Altar boy at one time. Thirty years ago, or so, it dawned on me that I was strongly influenced by my experience in the cathedral, and I started piano there, I learned organ there, I learned to read music there. And the cadences, the melodic inflections, etc. [in my music] were very strongly influenced by that, and I noticed that what I call my “ecclesiastical cadences” in my music sometimes — they’re not the usual V-I [dominant-tonic]; I often use the Phrygian cadence [a type of half-cadence with an archaic feel] or the plagal cadence [subdominant-tonic], just something that does catch the sound of cathedral music. And my favorite radio program, that’s still on, is With Heart and Voice; I listen to that every Sunday.

Yeah, in your Shout for Joy (1990) I was expecting, I don’t know why, something more along [black] spiritual lines, but what I heard, especially the opening fanfares and the way the chorus behaves in the middle sections, is just what you’re describing now.

We used to have choral festivals at the cathedral [like the ones that have been traditional in England since the 1700s] where the boys and men’s choirs from Toronto, I think it was, and there was another one in Albany, along with ours. We’d all get together and have these fantastic choral programs that would start off with fanfares with brass and timpani and all of that, and then we’d do these big choral anthems, and that’s exactly why I subtitled that piece “The Banks Street Festival Anthems,” because it was directly influenced by my experience as a kid in the cathedral.

What do you remember about your time with Nadia Boulanger?

That was a very stunning summer at the [American Conservatory] Institute at Fontainebleau; I think it was nine weeks. The quality of musical skill was higher than anything I ever experienced, before or since. She used, at least, her assistants used, Paul Hindemith’s Elementary Training for Musicians. We had to sing and tap and play the piano all at the same time … it was basic training for a composer. And being able to read in clefs, and memorize Bach fugues — I remember we’d sit outside at cafés at night and go through, I think it was the B Minor Prelude from The Well-Tempered Klavier, I don’t remember which book, and we’d be singing it in solfege after hours. It was a fantastic experience.

Later in your career you tapped into the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and also writers of the Harlem Renaissance, like Zora Neale Hurston. What drew you to them?

Well Paul Dunbar has become a dear source for songs [Hailstork has written many art songs]. Both the Dunbar opera [Common Ground, 1995] and Zora! We’re Calling You [2011] were commissions. I wrote an operatic song cycle on Dunbar for the Dayton Opera Company in the ’90s. And then I had an opportunity from the Orlando Philharmonic to do Zora! Bill Doggett [Hailstork’s press representative] likes to say that I’m a storyteller of African American history because I’ve also written an opera on Paul Robeson [Paul Robeson, The Opera, 2013, commissioned and premiered by Trilogy, a New Jersey-based company], and I wrote Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed [In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, 1979, premiered in 1980 by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra], I wrote Done Made My Vow, a big cantata [for child soprano, soprano and tenor soloists, mixed chorus, and orchestra, premiered in 2002 at the Cincinnati May Festival, conducted by James Conlon] about African American history, so I’ve done a lot of that.

[This list could include many more pieces, such as American Guernica, a 1983 piece for wind band in remembrance of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.] I’ve tried to pay tribute to the triumphs and also recognize the tragedies of the people.

And now you’re writing a piece on George Floyd, which sounds like a piece that bears witness.

My poet friend Dr. Herbert Martin [who also wrote the text for Hailstork’s cantata Crispus Attucks] one day sent me — I mean it was so fast, within a week of Floyd’s murder — a complete script and called it “A Requiem.” And I looked at it and said, “I can use this,” and started setting it. It captures a lot of things that should be mentioned and are universal. That’s why the whole world is upset over watching that murder.

It sounds like you both felt you had to say something.

Yes, it got some of the fury out of me, too, to focus it into the piece.

So unlike a lot of the modernist musicians you grew up with, you do believe that music has social value and meaning beyond the notes on the page?

I found out that I need to have an idea that I’m addressing. [Music] is not just an abstract counting of numbers. And because I came up as a singer, words had meaning, a piece had meaning. You know, if you sing an anthem in a cathedral that anthem has a particular statement it’s making. So, you know, when I do non-worded things, just “pure music,” I want to know what the piece is about, that it means something to me. That’s important.

When I went to Michigan State, in 1968, after I got out of the army, and at that time the country was just roiling with all kinds of stress. Great leaders were getting assassinated, the kids were having teach-ins, the campus itself was just having all kinds of trouble and started really seriously wondering what this was all about. One of the first pieces I wrote when I was there was called Lament for the Children of Biafra. [Biafra is a state in Nigeria that, in 1967, declared independence and was besieged by the Nigerian military for two years, resulting in mass starvation of almost two million civilians, most of them children.] I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for children and this touched me. For one of our chamber concerts, I dug out a piece from The New York Times and I set that to music as narration with instrumental background. That was the beginning [for me] of trying to say something, to give voice through music to a situation that bothered me. And subsequently, I always have.

And of course, the duality — I’ve been wrestling with my own cultural duality for several decades and how to reconcile that, and to what extent do I relate to the African American condition and do I turn my back on my training and my early cathedral experience (which was 99.9 percent white, with me as the one black kid in the cathedral choir)? I didn’t grow up with a duality in my thinking, I was assimilated early on by the Euro-American tradition. And then, all of a sudden, we had this big cultural explosion of separation in the ’60s and I had not experienced any of that. And I said, “Well, wait a minute, do I turn my back on that or do I try to contribute to it?” And when I got my job at Norfolk State University, which is a historically black university [where he taught from 1977–2000], I was definitely immersed in it.

Of course, I had already gone to Howard University. Howard University, when I went there, was not a powder keg of black expression, at least in music. And if you were caught playing gospel in the practice rooms, you could get in trouble. So [I have] a borderline experience: I’ve experienced all this huge change in the country and had to relate to it in some way in my career and my writing and I think some future musicologist will be pulling his hair out trying to figure out who this Hailstork guy was, and that’s OK.

There’s been a lot of talk about redress in classical music institutions now and bringing more black people in and making more room for black performers and composers. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Ohh yeah! [Laughs] You’re talking to a guy who’s had a 60-year career, so all I can say is, “It’s about time!” I’m just sorry that I’m where I am now, getting ready to finish my last 10 or 15 years or whatever it is, but I’m glad to see it’s happening. And of course, it always takes some kind of major [event].

When I came along, I had an inkling in my imagination that there might be something of interest in works that celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., and there would be a Martin Luther King holiday (because I came along before there was one) and then that would possibly tie in with Black History Month. And so those two months could work as a showcase for my work and people would ask me, “Does that ghettoize you, and does it bother you to only get performed in January/ February?” And I said, “No! As long as they’re not the only months. I consider those to be showcase months and if my work is played in other months of the year then I’m really happy.” And so far, that’s the way it’s evolved.

It’s good now to see the many young people who are coming along as composers, as conductors, and now even a musical administrator of The Cleveland Orchestra [Mark Williams, chief artistic officer] that are going to have a big influence on the future, I hope. But again, after they had the Martin Luther King [holiday] salutes, there was a 20-year fade. Performances fell off, positions fell off, there just wasn’t that much of a current interest. I understand why: first of all, I always tell people, “They don’t have to.” No orchestra has to. There is an entire repertoire that exists already, that does not require any use of the works of Americans or especially African Americans. So [conductors] don’t have to know about it, they don’t learn about it in schools. So that, I hope, will change. But it’ll be a long time coming.

It’s just like learning black history and it’s just like learning the history of all these statues that are currently being torn down, and there’s a cultural change going on. My own theory I’ve discussed with my wife is that we are reaping, much earlier than I thought we would, the cultural impact of the Obama presidency. That’s why we see such a mixture of kids out in the streets, raising hell (in a good way). Let’s hope that this will carry on for some time and give young talent an opportunity.

So you see some hope for increasing black representation in classical concerts?

Oh, there will be. There are lots [of black composers] out there, they just don’t get the chance to be performed. My point, what I was referring to earlier, is that we need artistic administrators and conductors and performers to be interested. See, they have actually have to research, they’ve got to go digging, they have to be interested. And the thing about it is, the tools are on the internet. There’s AfriClassical website; type in the words “African American composers” on Google, and all kinds of stuff pops up. But they have to be interested. They have to care.