Name: Hilary Purrington
Nationality: American
Occupation: composer
Current Project: Words for departure, a choral symphony premiering with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Recommendations: Piano Quintet No. 1 by Grażyna Bacewicz’s, the third movement is transcendent. / Tacky, a collection of essays by Rax King.

If you enjoyed this interview with Hilary Purrington, visit her website hilarypurrington.com for news, events and catalogue information.

When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I began composing in high school. During my sophomore year, I took AP Music Theory, which included a unit on analysis and composition. My teacher noticed that my compositions were stronger than my classmates’ efforts, and so she asked me to arrange a piece for one of her choirs (an ensemble that I was also a member of). The following year, she asked me to compose something original for the same choir, and this became my first “serious” composition. I’m still proud of it and include it in my catalogue.

For me, music has always been about performance and participation. I started as a pianist and a singer, and I performed many of my early works (usually as an ensemble member). I found the process of creating something new and then collaborating with other artists—usually my friends—to bring it to life so rewarding.

For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

In my first lesson with Samuel Adler, one of my most important teachers, he asked me if I liked what I was writing—and my answer was “no.” No one had ever asked me this, and no one had ever told me that I should like what I’m writing. It’s so simple, and it’s essential. I truly began transitioning toward my artistic voice when I started consistently asking myself if I like what I’m writing.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

I’m also a classically trained singer, and I continue to sing professionally. Singers are taught to communicate with their audiences and to tell compelling stories, and this focus permeates all aspects of vocal training. My background as a vocalist undoubtedly influences how I approach composing: I want to convey some kind of narrative to the audience, to take them on a journey of some kind.

What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

When I first started composing, I wrote mainly vocal works, usually setting poetry or prose. When you’re working with a text, the form is, in many ways, already determined. During my undergraduate years, I definitely struggled with establishing clear forms in non-vocal works. Structure, pacing, transitions—it took me years to feel like I had any intuition in these areas.  

Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?

Time is often one of the first details that I know about a new commission—a commissioner typically gives me a time range, and so I’m working within that container from the very beginning. Within that, pacing and careful control of the work’s narrative are enormously important. I typically sketch out a new piece early on in the process, and my sketches resemble timelines with all major moments carefully plotted out.

How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?

I write a lot of orchestral music, and when working with an ensemble of that scale, it’s critically important for a composer to have an understanding of acoustics. This leads to creative and effective orchestrational choices. Beyond just having an understanding of how instruments’ sounds interact—particularly when players are so far removed from one another—I think it’s important to think about the spaces in which a given piece will be performed, and this often influences my orchestrational choices.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?

I love collaborating with other performers and artists, and several of my most meaningful projects have resulted from collaborations. When working with a non-musical artist, it’s so important to take the time to establish a mutually understood vocabulary. The best example of this is a recent collaboration with choreographer Annalee Traylor, one of the most wildly creative people I know. From the beginning, we established our own vocabulary, which led to very open and clear communication.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

I’m a morning composer. I have a day job, so I compose before work. Because my composing time is limited, I have to protect this time and structure it as efficiently as possible. Limiting my composing time has actually made me a stronger composer—I have to be decisive and trust my instincts.

I work at my day job (I’m a nonprofit fundraiser) from 9 a.m. to about 5 p.m., and then I typically head to the gym to run, lift weights, or boulder. I take physical fitness very seriously—it’s one of the few areas of my life in which my progress relies solely on my efforts. It’s taught me a lot about discipline and commitment, which has undoubtedly influenced my creative discipline. Just as I can’t expect myself to be at my strongest or fastest every day, I can’t expect myself to be my most creative self every time I sit down to write. But, that doesn’t mean the workout or writing session isn’t productive; it’s all additive, and showing up and making the effort is the important part.

In the evenings, I typically cook dinner, and then I’ll either read or watch TV for the remainder of the evening. I’m really not a productive person in the evening, and I don’t expect myself to accomplish much during these hours (unless I have a pressing deadline ahead of me!).

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

My guitar concerto Harp of Nerves was in many ways a breakthrough work for me. It was commissioned by American Composers Orchestra, and the organization’s leadership encouraged me to pursue a large, ambitious project—something I didn’t necessarily expect them to fully support; rather, I entirely expected them to steer me in another direction. But, they were wholly supportive of my vision and encouraged me to fully explore it. At twenty-two minutes, it’s the longest piece I’ve written, so creating a cohesive work at that scale was certainly an accomplishment for me. The project also allowed me to collaborate with JIJI, an exceptional guitarist and a longtime friend, which made the opportunity even more special. Writing the work also demanded that I gain some fluency on the guitar, so I took the time to learn and wrote many passages at the instrument. It was a different mode of writing for me, and the process led to so much personal and artistic growth.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

I’m not sure if an ideal state of mind exists—at least not for me! I think that part of being an artist is figuring out how to work in just about every state of mind. I’m not always going to be my most focused or creative self, but I possess the technique and drive to work through that.

Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?

For me, performing—especially singing—has been a powerful healing tool. The process of learning music, rehearsing and connecting with others, and sharing music has always been a therapeutic outlet for me. Music offers opportunities to set goals and become better at something, which can lead to a sense of joy and accomplishment. And participation in musical ensembles, whether professional or amateur, can lead to meaningful social connections. I wish more people participated in amateur choirs!

There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?

I think it’s always important for a composer to examine if they are making a meaningful contribution to a larger conversation, and—perhaps more importantly—if that conversation needs their voice in the first place. Music provides a platform and opportunities to highlight and uplift marginalized voices and difficult topics, but you have to make sure you’re representing these voices accurately and contributing to the discourse in a productive way.

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?

I think the most obvious connection is to sight—sounds can often inspire visions in our imagination, and sight and sound certainly pair well together in the real world. I’m frequently inspired by works of visual art and will hold these images in my mind as I’m writing. I think these overlaps reveal that our senses are supposed to interact and bring about a richer sense of the larger world.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

Music certainly provides a platform and opportunities to start conversations about social and political issues—conversations that can potentially lead to meaningful changes. But, similar to my answer to your question about cultural exchange/appropriation, I think it’s important to examine exactly what I’m contributing to the larger conversation, and if that conversation even needs my voice. So, it’s something to handle with the utmost care and consideration.

What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

Our language’s descriptive capacity does not encompass the entire human experience—there is so much left out. Music and art, I believe, fills in those gaps.