Q&A with composer Hilary Purrington about new concerto Harp of Nerves

ACO presents the world premiere of Hilary Purrington’s concerto for guitar and orchestra, Harp of Nerves, featuring guitarist Jiji as part of New England Echos on Wednesday, November 13, 2019, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. Click here for tickets and more information.

Composer Hilary Purrington press photo by Jiji Kim
Composer Hilary Purrington. Photo by Jiji Kim

Hilary Purrington is a New York City-based composer of chamber, vocal, and orchestral music, with awards and recognition from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, ASCAP, and the International Alliance for Women in Music, among others. Recent and upcoming commissions include new works for the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra, Yale Glee Club, New York Youth Symphony, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, and The Philadelphia Orchestra.

Hilary Purrington at American Composers Orchestra 2017 Underwood Readings photo by Jiayi Liang
Hilary Purrington at the 2017 Underwood Readings. Photo by Jiayi Liang

In 2017, Purrington participated in American Composers Orchestra’s Underwood New Music Readings with her orchestra work Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky, for which she received the 2017 Underwood Commission to write Harp of Nerves.

We spoke to Hilary about her new concerto and the upcoming world premiere.

American Composers Orchestra: Your guitar concerto, Harp of Nerves, is written for classical guitarist Jiji, with whom you have a close relationship as colleagues, friends, and even roommates while studying at Yale. Did your relationship with Jiji inform the way you composed the piece? Are there any moments you composed specifically for Jiji’s style and strengths?

Hilary Purrington: Absolutely! It’s really hard to point to specific moments, but I had both Jiji and ACO in mind throughout the writing process. When composing any work, I always try to imagine the performers and, when possible, the performance space. These visualizations can be incredibly helpful, and they certainly influence the sounds I seek to create.

ACO: Where did the title Harp of Nerves come from?

HP: The title “Harp of Nerves” comes from a Clarice Lispector novel. I don’t recall the context, and it doesn’t really matter — I just remember that the metaphor made me deeply uncomfortable, and that’s why it stuck with me. Effective art, I believe, should transport us out of our comfort zones, and I hope my concerto accomplishes that. Conceptually, the title aptly describes the work. Before I began writing, I knew I had to determine exactly what the soloist’s relationship with the ensemble would be, and I decided that the orchestra would function as an extension of the guitar. The soloist functions as a sort of “control center” tethered to each instrumentalist.

ACO: Your program note says that you spent 18 months composing Harp of Nerves. Obviously the length of time a composer spends on a piece is affected by many factors, many of which are not in their control, but can you talk about your approach to time management when it comes to composing a large-scale work like this?

HP: I created a series of deadlines and gave myself plenty of time to step away from the piece and return. The time off was probably the most important thing — I was able to pursue other projects, process what I’d written, and spend time learning guitar. Day-to-day time management is a lot trickier, but I’ve become better at it. I have a full-time job, which limits my composing time, so I have to determine exactly what I will accomplish during a given composition session.

ACO: You worked with Oren Fader and Neil Beckmann for guitar-related instruction and advice for this piece. Can you talk about some of the things you talked about? Are there any moments in the piece that push the envelope in terms of what a classical guitarist is generally prepared to do?

HP: I wanted to compose a challenging and idiomatic work that would represent a meaningful contribution to the repertoire. Oren Fader has always been a huge help when it comes to writing for guitar. He performed my very first work for guitar — a chamber piece called With reluctant morning eyes, which was commissioned by Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble in 2015. I went on to write several songs for him and his wife, Jessica Bowers, which helped me further refine my guitar writing. I also took several lessons with Neil Beckmann, who understood my need to develop a practical sense of the instrument and an awareness of advanced techniques. Gaining even a practical knowledge of the instrument completely transformed my compositional approach. Both Oren and Neil are fantastic guitarists with considerable experience performing new music, so I’ve been very fortunate to receive their advice in addition to Jiji’s insights.

ACO: Are there any moments you are most excited or most anxious to hear when Jiji and ACO have the first rehearsal of Harp of Nerves? What are you most looking forward to about the premiere?

HP: I’m anxious about everything, but I think that’s normal. Really, writing this piece has been an immense artistic and personal journey for me — I’ve been through so much over the past two years, and in many ways, I feel like I’m an entirely different person. I’m excited to share a part of this journey with Jiji, ACO, and our NYC audience.

ACO presents the world premiere of Hilary Purrington’s concerto for guitar and orchestra, Harp of Nerves, featuring guitarist Jiji as part of New England Echos on Wednesday, November 13, 2019, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. Click here for tickets and more information.

Learn more about Hilary Purrington at www.hilarypurrington.com

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