Name: Jordan Hall
Occupation: Violinist / Composer
Current Release: How to Listen to Machines
Musical Recommendations: Giacinto Scelsi’s Anahit, as recorded by Carmen Fournier: thirteen minutes and thirteen seconds of tension, ever tightening and loosening.
If you enjoyed this interview with Jordan Hall, visit his website for further information.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
In a way, I’ve been composing since I was a child. When I wasn’t listening to music, I was writing my own music in my head pretty much every hour of every day. But I couldn’t translate my musical imagination into notation, let alone play it. It was partly the limitations of my instrument - I was trained as a violinist, practicing up to seven hours a day growing up - and the mental block of seeing myself only as an interpreter of other composers’ works. All that changed when I discovered jazz as a teenager. I was instantly drawn to it, because I saw in the genre a medium within which I could develop, test, and refine my own compositional ideas, and bend violin techniques to my liking. Transitioning into the jazz scene was a humbling experiment. I went from soloing with major orchestras to feeling like an infant learning language. There’s nothing reassuring about being on stage and never knowing what dance your fingers will do on the instrument (especially when you’re performing with the likes of Kenny Barron or Paquito D’Rivera) but those experiences were generative. I stopped thinking in terms of what sounded ‘right’ and listened instead for what sounded possible; a simple paradigm shift but one much more conducive to experimentation.
For most artists, originality is first 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? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I can’t really isolate my own voice from whatever it is I’m in conversation with (this is metaphorical of course, as I write instrumental music). What spurred the transition towards my own voice - to the extent that I can refer to it in that way - was probably this very recognition, i.e., that my musical inspiration does not arise out of some mysterious place within, and that it is instead always a response to something else. That may be something rather strange, like a power generator, to borrow an example from my most recent project, How to Listen to Machines. Or it may be another artist whose music beckons a reply. In any case, I’ve come to think of my work less in terms of individuality and more as an exchange. That mindset hasn’t helped me find a clear-cut definition of composer / violinist Jordan Hall, but neither am I searching for one. I’m less interested in musically representing my identity than I am in showing how relational that identity is.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
One of the biggest challenges was understanding what genre I fit into. I simply never knew what form I was writing in. Maybe this is increasingly common, as the boundaries between genres become more porous and distinguishing characteristics become less distinctive. I do think that genre remains useful in theory, because it helps set the expectations of listeners in their efforts to understand and interpret music. But in practice, some classifications have become so capacious that they no longer serve a descriptive function. At this stage, I’m less concerned with trying to define my music in any one genre, and have focused instead on mixing features of different genres that satisfy whatever compositional objectives are before me. When it came to writing the songs for How to Listen to Machines, my aim was to recontextualize how we listen to machinery so that listeners would hear it in a new way - namely, as musical instruments. So I deliberately incorporated a kind of familiar, hook-driven, pop song structure, because I didn’t want the form of the songs to draw attention to themselves at the expense of the strange and subtler machine sounds I was incorporating throughout.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
I crave order in all things, particularly in my workspace. But I also live in a New York City apartment. My workspace is wherever there’s any space at all. I’ve adjusted my criteria accordingly, which is to say that I no longer have any criteria. During the composition process, I’m really only making use of a violin, piano, and Logic. I move pretty freely between those instruments and the score editor in Logic as I organize and build my ideas.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? 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?
Much of my life is oriented around teaching and research at NYU, where I’m completing a PhD. Because my research and writing often results in unpredictable hours, I don’t have a uniform schedule day-to-day. But I do structure each day pretty carefully, in part because there are a few activities I’m unwilling to sacrifice no matter how busy things get. One is my workout routine, which does wonders for my energy levels, and the other is my meditation practice, which keeps me reasonably sane (I meditate a few hours each day). The last few years, I have more consciously separated myself from music when I’m not actively working on it, at least in the sense that I no longer listen to it as often or wear headphones everywhere like I used to. One reason for this is that most music grabs me so strongly that I cannot ignore it or concentrate on anything else if it’s playing, and the other reason (probably related) is that my desire for quietness has become every bit as intense as my desire for music. On a professional level though, music is woven into everything I do. Apart from my composition work, my academic research focuses on music criticism in the Enlightenment, and I use music in my teaching quite often to facilitate particular classroom dynamics.