by J. Mark Scearce*
(& An Additional Tribute by John W. Lambert)
Roger Hannay was the first person I called when the NC Symphony approached me in January 2005 to help them organize a 75th anniversary commissioning project. Having been back in North Carolina only six months, I knew that among the two-dozen composers I would be calling across the state, Roger had what it took to write a work that could be beneficial for the orchestra, its audience, and the world of composition.
Thus I was not surprised when, four months later, Roger was sitting at the table with five of his colleagues, having been asked to work his magic, and in a four-minute piece, no less. That May Day 2005, Roger, I, and five other composer-colleagues from across the state met in a private room of a Chapel Hill restaurant with Grant Llewellyn and symphony staff, and with David Hartman as moderator.
An abridged version of this luncheon conversation was published in the symphony's Opus magazine, but I want to take you behind the scenes for a moment to shine the light on Roger's words and what this undertaking, which came to be called the "Postcards" project, meant to him.
First of all, the composition community is a small one anywhere, but here in North Carolina and in the Triangle specifically to say we all know each other and like each other goes without saying. Thus, when the symphony came to me seeking access to this community, it never occurred to me that promoting one or the other of us was in any way not promoting all of us.
You see, that's one of the big differences about North Carolina over other parts of the country, brought to mind by the recent double-bill of contemporary concerts that paved the way for "Postcards": there are precious few SOBs in The Old North State and, I'm happy to say, none of them are composers!
Roger was, himself, a promoter of all contemporary music, and through his work in Chapel Hill as teacher and new music impresario, Roger put the work of hundreds of colleagues and students before his own. So when Grant chose Roger as one of the 75th anniversary commissions, I couldn't have been happier. Neither could Roger, it turned out.
During the May 2005 interview, Roger talked about the joy of it all. "Oh it's just lots of fun...; everybody gets to bang and saw and blow and stomp. Mark had right away said, 'You're going to be writing a barn burner,' and he's right, that's what I've been doing!"
Roger was the first among his colleagues to finish his piece, working long hours to complete it before he died. Personally, I believe Roger started his piece the very day I called him that January to convince him to participate, even before he'd been officially selected. It was inevitable: Roger felt it – he felt he had a limited amount of time, I think; and there is that joyful inevitability about the "postcard" he wrote, too.
I believe that on the day we all met Grant in May 2005, Roger was almost finished, though he didn't let on. Around other composers, even those who love each other, one still has to keep up pretenses, and one of the biggest pretenses we don for each other is how hard the work is, even when it isn't. And I know for a fact it was coming easy for Roger. He told us that day at lunch:
"The ideas often make the choices for us, don't they? Stravinsky wrote about this. You've got a musical idea, which in my case was often just a vivid impulse. And that impulse begins to absorb one's imagination, whether it's a rhythm or a sound or a melody or a form – whatever it is. And it's like a conception and you don't know what in the world it's going to become and gradually it creates itself. I'm a great romantic in all this. This aesthetic begins to form as we wrestle it to the ground and make it tangible.... My task is to haul this thing down, wrestle it to the ground, like... wrestling with the angels.... And that's what I'm doing now. The orchestration is like making a beautiful color painting of a very carefully designed charcoal or pencil drawing. In other words you are, as Edith Wharton said so beautifully, 'looking at the wrong side of the tapestry.' The wrong side of the tapestry is what we work on, and the product that we and everybody else discovers when it's presented is the right side of the tapestry. And nobody else cares anything about the wrong side of the tapestry once we're finished. When the work gets done it is done. It can't help you one little bit with writing the next work because that's going to have a different back, a different wrong side of the tapestry."
Those were Roger's words that day, and that "tapestry" quote is among the best descriptions of composition I've ever heard. Part of the joy for Roger, I have to believe, was the wrestling, too. I know also that Roger was having the time of his life on this short "barn-burner" because I was privy to his pencil score – like me, Roger was from the old school of graphite to paper. Roger sent me a copy of his score, and what struck me, other than his precious few erasures, was a complete and total distillation of our conversations about pitch – working his melodic material around the G-pentatonic I had proposed early on as the glue that would hold all our works together in a suite. In Roger's music, it all fit together.
Roger and I also engaged in a spirited debate about sharing his pencil scores with conductors. For all his eloquence about the tapestry, Roger wanted both sides seen – the product and the process. Roger in fact insisted that conductors come to his music as to Beethoven's hand, and in fact Roger sent me a New York Times article when a score of Beethoven's was auctioned at Sotheby's to "prove his point." I was and am of the mind that you keep your hand to yourself, sharing only the engraved work of the copyist with the conductor. But Roger maintained that his hand was the conductor's avenue into his score and into that other side of the tapestry. Perhaps he was right, for that is what we are left with: Roger's words and Roger's music in Roger's hand.
But one last trip back to that May Day lunch of composers. Before the microphones were placed around the table, Roger started it all off with stories of conductors conducting strange patterns – testing Grant, to some respect – and ending with that age-old apocryphal story of the eight-beated seven pattern: one, two, three, four, five, six, se-ven.
Before the tape recorders started and long after they were shut off, the stories flew. Roger and Bob Ward had the best ones and both enjoyed the attention of the new young conductor, who honored them with prior acquaintance with their music. Nothing flatters composers more than familiarity with their work. And, too, nothing is more frustrating to a composer – and to Roger, with more symphonies than Beethoven – than the solitary act of writing in a vacuum. The Opus article closed with this frustrating difference made clear by Roger.
"I don't know if the other composers have had this experience, but I've written so much music in silence, never hearing it, and so this is wonderful – writing a piece and knowing that I'm going to know – and the audience will know – what it sounds like. Years of this Ivesian silence.... I used to annoy the heck out of our daughter. I'd say, 'You know what composing is like? It's like having a special kind of deafness. You know what it sounds like but you can't hear it.' And I said that so many times she said, 'Oh, don't tell me again. I know. I know.'"
Roger was a character, no doubt – an iconoclast, a firebrand. He was a lot like my old friend and teacher Donald Erb, through whom I'd first come to Roger's attention. They both epitomize the last of their kind – individualists who speak the Truth in a sea of sameness. For Roger, at times, it was an unvarnished, unsanded, abrasive kind of Truth, but what it lacked was BS.... Roger was my friend, and I'll miss him – I'll miss his truth and his humor. I am comforted returning us once more to that restaurant in Chapel Hill, laughing the afternoon away.
Stephen Jaffe: What I want Roger, ... at the end of your piece ("Triangle Transit"), [is to] know the difference between the inner and outer beltline.
Roger Hannay: Oh you will. That's the difference between section one and section two.
Grant Llewellyn: [And] I want to know [if I] am ... going to have any real tough beat patterns to, you know....
Roger: Five, six, se-ven....
Roger Hannay: So I said to Scott Freck (NC Symphony General Manager and originator of the "Postcards" idea), 'Supposing I come to the end of the four minutes and I've got three more chords – can I just put in the three more chords?' I was sort of joking. And he said, 'Roger, for you I'll give you four chords.' Guess how the piece ends? Bang, bang, bang, bang – which are the numbers of syllables in my name: RO-GER HAN-NAY!
*Dr. J. Mark Scearce is Director of the NC State Music Department and Coordinator of the NC Symphony's 75th anniversary "Postcards" commissioning project.
Notes: See our calendar for details of a 4/9 concert being presented in memory of Roger Hannay. The "Postcards" project begins to reach fulfillment with performances of Kenneth Frazelle's "The Swans at Pungo Lake" in September – and of Roger Hannay's "Triangle Transit" in October 2006.
John W. Lambert*
With the death of Roger Hannay, the world lost an iconoclastic composer, his peers lost a passionate advocate for new music, his students lost a mentor par excellence, and those of us who had the privilege of growing up in his presence – or, if you prefer, under his influence – lost a friend, guide, and soul-mate.
I had the pleasure of being in Chapel Hill when he arrived, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, in the '60s, and of working with him on a major festival at UNC. It didn't take him long to set me straight when I referred to it as a "contemptible" music event – that was the prevailing view back then, even among young people, and especially at UNC, which still enjoyed an international reputation as a bastion of scholarship, particularly in musicology. How could it have been otherwise, given the presence of Glenn Haydon, William S. Newman, Wilton Mason, Edgar Alden, Earl Slocum, Joel Carter, Rudolph Kremer, and the rest of the distinguished Hill Hall faculty? Indeed, it was somewhat surprising when Hannay was hired, given that he was young and – shall we say? – radical. And in fact he landed in Chapel Hill like a thunderbolt. Who can forget those heady days and nights of music - in Hill, in the rehearsal hall, in (for heaven's sakes) the Tin Can, and elsewhere on the campus? And who can forget the image of Bill Newman, sitting on the back row of Hill, white-knuckling the arms of his chair while Roger performed obscene acts on the innards of "his" (i.e., Dr. Newman's) piano?
I miss him – and, yes, the others, too..., for these were the guys who shaped me and countless other students as musicians and music lovers and who thus helped make us the people we were to become. Our debts to all of them can never be repaid.... But to Roger I personally owe the largest debt, for it was he who taught me how to listen to new music – and why it matters. Others had begun this tutelage – he completed it, starting in the mid-'60s and ending, alas, with our final visit, in December 2005. His spirit lives on in the works of all who were touched by him, in ways great and small, and he lives on in his music, which forms the core of our celebration today.
*This note was prepared on the occasion of UNC's memorial concert for Hannay, performed on 4/9/06.