Hilary Tann and The Inside Story: On Composing and ‘Hiraeth’

Welsh composer Hilary Tann’s “beautiful, lyrical” music is strongly influenced by the natural world. She is a published haiku poet and her compositions have been widely commissioned, recorded, and broadcast by ensembles such as Tenebrae, Cappella Clausura, Marsyas Trio, Thai Philharmonic, and BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Her recent choral music can be heard on the Navona Records release EXULTET TERRA. Today, Tann is our next featured artist in “The Inside Story,” a blog series exploring the inner workings and personalities of our artists. Read on to

Who was your first favorite artist(s) growing up?

The third symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams – A Pastoral Symphony.  The movement with the “out of tune” natural horn solo fascinated me.  I grew up as a cellist in youth orchestras in the coal-mining valleys of South Wales.  One of my favorite pieces was (and is) Edward Elgar’s cello concerto, especially the first movement.  I guess I belong to the English pastoral tradition, even though I grew up in Wales and even though I’ve worked in the United States for nearly forty years.

When did you realize that you wanted to be a composer?

I started writing when I was six.  I’d been playing piano for about two years and I wrote a piece called “The Wye Valley”.  I didn’t think there was anything unusual about this, after all, children’s first paintings are cherished and put on refrigerator doors.  It was surprising to me that I was the only person I knew who wrote stuff down.  From there, I chose to complete a B. Mus. degree at Cardiff University and wrote a symphony for my thesis.  I remember that the second movement was dedicated to the memory of the French absurdist philosopher, Albert Camus.  I was twenty at the time.  Looking back I think I must have been a very serious young person.

If you could spend creative time anywhere in the world, where would it be? And why?

I would return to my first home in Wales.  In the Welsh language, there is a word – hiraeth – which means a love of the land.  This is not a superficial love but rather a deep connection with the earth itself.  I go back to Wales as often as I can and many of my performances take place there.  The land I wish to return to is in South Wales, below the bare mountains known as the Brecon Beacons.  To some, it is a bleak landscape, but for me, it is almost a sacred place.  As I wrote in a haiku – beneath the skylarks / the silence / of old hills.

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What would you say to an artist performing your work that nobody else knows?

PARMA now has three albums containing music of mine.  The first came out last January and is an album of choral music called EXULTET TERRA.  Coincidentally, two new albums are coming out this fall – TOMORROW’S AIR (out now), containing the soliloquy for cello and orchestra called ANECDOTE, and KID STUFF, containing a piece for piano and marimba called SOLSTICE.  In all three CDs, I’ve been inspired by the work of individual performers.  Without Amelia LeClair’s extraordinary vision, EXULTET TERRA would never have come to life; ANECDOTE was very much written for the solo cellist, Ovidiu Marinescu; and SOLSTICE was written with pianist Eunmi Ko in mind.  As a composer, I would like to let these artists know just how hugely important their influences have been in my composing life.  Their artistry is vital to the whole process.

Is there a specific feeling you want listeners to tune into when hearing your work?

As you see from the titles, I am very much a composer influenced by nature.  My pieces often start from nature captured in a poetic image.  In fact, I have three titles from the same verse of Gerhard Manley Hopkins’ poem called “Spring”.  (THROUGH THE ECHOING TIMBER for full orchestra, LOOK LITTLE LOW HEAVENS for trumpet solo, and LIKE LIGHTNINGS for oboe solo.)  The natural image is a starting point for me and I’d like to think that knowledge of that image would deepen the listening experience of others.  However, I also know that there are those for whom the image is external to the music and so the programmatic elements do not resonate with these listeners.

What does this album mean to you personally?

I wrote ANECDOTE for Ovidiu Marinescu and I’m so happy that we now have a definitive recording of the piece.  I met Ovidiu when the Adirondack Ensemble commissioned and performed a piano trio of mine called NOTHING FORGOTTEN.  I was blown away by Ovidiu’s performance of the cello part and immediately wanted to write something more extensive for him.  I remember going to hear the premiere of the piece and, again, I was stunned by Ovidiu’s musicianship and by the fact he had learned the whole concerto from memory.  I am simply delighted that others will now be able to share in my enjoyment of this superb performer.

Hilary Tann’s ANECDOTE, which is featured on orchestral compilation album TOMORROW’s AIR is now available to purchase and stream on Amazon, iTunes, ArkivMusic, and Spotify


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