Part 1

Name: Julie Herndon
Nationality: American
Occupation: Composer / academic
Current Release: To Fight or Surrender on Infrequent Seams
Recommendations: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh / blacksnowfalls for timpano solo by Wojtek Blecharz

If you enjoyed this interview with Julie Herndon, and want to learn more about the visual opera, read this essay by Gabriel Ellis and listen to it here.


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?

My first memory is of singing. Music was a way to escape and create my own world. But I didn’t start notating music until high school. I don’t remember exactly what prompted it, but I think it was a theory book from my piano lessons. One of the exercises was to write a piece in Lydian mode. I did, and my teacher said, “wow, you should write another piece for the next mode.” So I wrote a piece for all the modes, and that was when I started realizing that composing came naturally and felt fun to me. I loved creating my own challenges. Instead of practicing Bach’s challenge, or Beethoven’s challenge, I could make up my own thing to practice. That was very empowering.

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?

I didn’t grow up listening to much classical music. I had only a couple cassettes: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the Motown soundtrack for The Big Chill, and Sublime. The radio was my primary way of discovering new music. I listened to top-40 and country stations and would record intricate mix tapes of songs off the radio, like “A Sorta Fairy Tale” by Tori Amos, “Goodbye to You” by Michelle Branch, “No Arizona” by Jamie O'Neal.

I was meanwhile studying piano, so I started encountering classical music through the repertoire. I loved Rachmaninov and Chopin, and somehow got my hands on Glassworks by Philip Glass. I valued how considered each note was by these composers, how even something that sounded like an improvisation contained intricate patterns, idiomatic movements, and a great sense of form and direction.

When I started composing, I played with how pop songs and instrumental art music could go together. I recorded vocal songs and wrote instrumental pieces, but found it was most satisfying when the two things came together. I am still experimenting with how these two genres can overlap and inform each other.

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

I value vulnerability, sensitivity, and freedom. The music I write cultivates those qualities in a musical setting.

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

My biggest challenge starting out was learning how to balance between notation and improvisation. This meant knowing how much material to give, when to transition, and how to prompt and shape responses from performers. It was also the technical challenge of figuring out how to add graphics to a score, or how to create and incorporate the sounds that I wanted electronically.  

Now, my biggest creative challenge is finding time for ideas to blossom. I like to work in a slow way, simmering on a project far in advance and allowing it to gestate and become what it wants to be. As things become busier, it’s harder to find time to truly let things marinade to bring out the flavors. It’s a challenge for me to speed up that process, or to find ways of recreating it even when time is short.

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?

I find that musical materials themselves can dictate their own sense of time. For example, in At That Time (a chamber opera with the Decoder Ensemble), the text dictated how much space or duration it needed. The opening movement, “Who I Was” is paced slowly, bringing the listener into the tangle of Gertrude and Alice’s relationship. It needed to have a deliberateness about it, as Gertrude is telling the story of Alice’s life as if it was her own. The listener needs time to register each line as not only Gertrude’s, but also Alice’s.

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?

Like Edgard Varèse, I think of music as organized sound. A musical idea is subjective, depending on who is making it, where and how. The ways in which sounds are organized and produced are an intrinsic part of composition process for me.

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?

Collaboration is an important part of my composition process. I think of writing music much like a conversation. I can bring content to a conversation, but in the end, what we end up talking about has everything to do with the overlaps between us, the resonance, rather than just what each of us brings to the table separately. I see my job as a composer to bring a creative aim, a structure, and materials to play with. But how we get there is a journey we take together.

In At That Time, we shared sketches, recordings, and ideas. The director, Heinrich Horwitz, and the soloists, Jessica Aszodi and Carola Schaal, shaped the piece by trying things out and giving feedback. Working this way is interesting for me because it builds resonance and finds commonality.

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