Of Chords and Colors

Inspiration, says composer N. Lincoln Hanks, is like a jealous partner, whose interest is piqued when he begins working on a new composition before she arrives.

April 19, 2012  | 4 min read

Inspiration, says composer N. Lincoln Hanks, is like a jealous partner, whose interest is piqued when he begins working on a new composition before she arrives. And with the weight of deadlines bearing down on the associate professor of music, he doesn’t usually have the time to wait to be inspired.

“If inspiration isn’t around, I’m going to start working anyway and then hopefully she’ll show up and I’ll get that spark,” he confides. “Without commissions from performers or orchestras, I have to admit, it would be pretty hard to produce. I have to keep plugging away.”

But when inspiration does hit, it hits hard, as he found with his choral composition, Tota pulchra for Mixed Choir, which was performed in November by the Boston New Music Initiative in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was the first of three of his works to be showcased at new music concerts this season on the East Coast.

“I was experimenting with Tota pulchra,” says Hanks, of the work about Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, “bringing into the piece all of the things I love about choral music—about what the voice could do and elements of early music. But I was using a modern kind of language at the same time. And it did everything I wanted it to do. Everything!”

Hanks was thrilled with the enthusiastic response to the new music, which he considers to be one of his most successful pieces, from the audience in Cambridge. While a composer typically will have his or her work performed following a commission by a performer, venue, or orchestra, Hanks by far prefers having his performed at a new music event.

“They are driven by a real love of new music and desire to keep the tradition going, so there’s a lot of promotion and enthusiasm,” he stresses, adding that the definition of new classical music is a far cry from the definition of new mainstream music.

“‘New’ means anything composed in the last 20 years, basically,” he laughs. “If you perform something from the 1980s it’s still considered contemporary. Tota pulchra was actually written in 1998 when I was nearing the end of my doctoral work at Indiana University. It was the first time I wrote a piece that I felt really got a language out of the choir that was completely different to what I’d done before.”

The piece won him the Wenger Contemporary Choral-Composition Competition Award from the Roger Wagner Center for Choral Studies in 1999—one of a number of professional awards earned during his 20-year composing career, including the Early Music America/Dorian Records Competition in 1998 and the ASCAP Foundation’s Morton Gould Young Composer Award in 1999.

At Pepperdine, Hanks has written the music for student theatre productions—most recently a percussion-heavy score for Aeschylus’ The Persians. Nurturing his students’ talents is what he finds most rewarding about being a professor, however, especially when students perform music written by other students.

“I think it’s extremely eye-opening for the students here,” he says, noting that choral, orchestral, and ensemble compositions are usually graduate-level work in other institutions. “New music is pretty sophisticated stuff, so to do that at an undergraduate level is amazing.”

The second of his new works to be performed this season was Three Movements for Clarinet, Violoncello, and Piano as part of the North/South Consonance series in New York City in March. The music does not tell a particular story, but rather was written specifically for the Westlake Chamber Ensemble based in Westlake Village, California.

“In a way, it’s like I wrote a story for three people I liked very much. I wanted to feature each of those instruments not only as an ensemble but also individually as they performed. Some pieces end up being just pure, absolute music with no real story that it’s attached to.”

His pieces tend not to begin as a melody stuck in his head, but instead, working with an “extra-musical” visual or literary notion, Hanks timelines a sequence ofmusically emotional moments befitting the “story.” Destined to discard 90 percent of his ideas, he sketches out musical material to plug into his timeline—chords, rhythms, melodies, and colors.“If you listen to an oboe it has a very different sound than a clarinet; it’s more of a sharp sound and the clarinet is more rounded,” he explains. “And what happens when you put them together? You have a new color. As a composer you might not know how to play every instrument but you know all of their colors and what you can do when you blend colors.”

One of his most colorful pieces to date is the third of his new music compositions to be performed this season: Monstre sacré for Piano Solo, which received its world premiere in April at the Cutting Edge Concert Series in New York City. Told in four movements and based in part on Jean Cocteau’s 1940 play Les Monstres sacrés, the piece hypothesizes public characters that are astonishingly talented and entertaining, yet crippled by ego and immorality. “They are very demonstrative and desperately need to be the life of any party they are in. The pianist basically becomes these characters as he plays these movements.”

Hanks wrote the piece for his friend, the acclaimed pianist Paul Barnes, but does not consider himself a pianist—though he can find his “way around the keyboard.” Writing songs since childhood, he discovered as an undergraduate applied music student at David Lipscomb University that writing classical music gave him an emotional payback.

“Being by myself in the studio quietly writing music, some kind of creative thing would happen … and I would get so jazzed about it,” he recalls.

Twenty years later with commissions, world premieres, and awards under his belt, that is the feeling he returns to every time he is inspired—or transcends an initial lack of inspiration—to create something moving. “I want my audience to have an animalistic or visceral feeling about the music. I just always want them to leave feeling, ‘That’s something I want to listen to again.’”

ive: Listen to a clip from Tota puchra