Interview with composer Katherine Hoover, Part 1

This interview originally appeared in the May 2013 New York Flute Club Newsletter. © 2013 by The New York Flute Club, Inc.

KATHERINE HOOVER: A day in the life of a composer

Interview by Zara Lawler

The flute world knows Katherine Hoover ( as a groundbreaking composer of wonderful music for the flute. She began her life as a composer when it was very unusual for women to consider composing as a career. Equally boldly, she started a publishing company, Papagena Press, to get her music out into the world. I first met Katherine in the early ’90s when I was at Barnard College, working on both her Suite for two flutes and Kokopeli for my senior thesis project on women composers. She was one of the first “real” (that is, non-student) composers I had ever met, and I am so pleased that we have worked together quite a bit in the years since! For this profile, we got together last year at her Upper West Side apartment, and I used the opportunity to ask her all sorts of nosy questions about the nitty-gritty of her life as a composer, and how it compares to the life of a flutist.

morning:  WRITING

Actually, it turns out that a day in the life of Katherine Hoover, composer, begins the night before!

ZARA LAWLER: When you sit down to start your composing day, is there any sort of warm-up you do, any sort of mental preparation?

KATHERINE HOOVER: As a matter of fact, I usually start by thinking about the piece the night before. I just sort of review things a little bit, and by the time I get up in the morning, it’s usually running through my head, and I’m into it. That’s the best, because life is so distracting. If the piece is any good at all, though, I’ll be in the middle of it.

ZL: You’ve told me a couple of times when I’ve tried to schedule time with you that you can’t do anything in the morning, that’s when you write. I’d love to get a sense of what a day in the life of a composer is like.

KH: Well…

ZL: Maybe there’s not a typical day…

KH: I think for many, many people there is not. When I started to write, I had a young child—who of course has his own kids now! And the only time I had to write, once I decided I really, really wanted to do this, was in the morning after I took him to preschool. I had a couple of hours and that was it. And then I was into making a living, and taking care of him, and everything else that goes with life. So I started out writing in the morning, sitting down at the piano the minute he was at preschool, and I got very tied to that, because I realized it was the only time I would ever have to write. I still write in the morning. Lately it’s been hard now that I have more time—I have to make an effort to be free enough with myself to go back in the afternoon and work on something I worked on that morning.

ZL: Is there a time you set for yourself to get started?

KH: Usually around 9, something like that.

ZL: And when you spend your morning writing, do you take breaks? Do you work until you’re done? What’s the flow of the morning for you?

KH: It really depends on how hard the piece is. There are times when you can go on for 30 to 40 bars, and other times when I’m happy to have 6 to 8 bars.

ZL: How long does that take?

KH: That depends on the same thing. Again, anywhere from 40 minutes, and I’m really unhappy if that’s all I get, to a couple of hours in the morning. Lately sometimes I’ve been able to come back in the afternoon and do another hour or two as well, and I like that.

ZL: When I practice, I like to work in half-hour chunks, with breaks in between. Do you have a structure for yourself during the time you’re writing?

KH: No, no, no…again it really depends on whether it’s flowing and what I’m thinking about, and actually I’ve been getting up in the middle of the night with ideas now, because I can. But no, it really depends on what kind of idea it is. Some ideas will go a long time before you can stop working with them. And my mind is also saying to me at certain times, “Hey! Write this down!”

ZL: I think people would be interested to think about how the life of a composer compares to the life of a performer. Playing is so interesting because you have to be in shape both mentally and physically. What is that experience like for a composer?

KH: Not nearly so well-rounded I can tell you! You sit on your duff at the piano, or wherever you sit, at a table or whatever, and you write. If I write for flute, of course I’m checking it out, but I write with the piano first.

ZL: When we were working and talking about the piece for E Pluribus Flutum [Zara’s work for 8 to 100 dancing flutists, incorporating folk tunes, dances, and a Katherine Hoover finale—Ed.] that became Clowning Around, I was struck by a comment you made. You said “Well, you know, I’ll just throw some things out and see what comes back.” And I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what that process is, of throwing things out, and seeing what comes back.

KH: That’s really interesting. One of the reasons I decided to do [Clowning Around] is because I hadn’t written anything light in quite a while, and that’s an important balance to me. It’s a balance that I don’t ever want to lose sight of because so much of contemporary music is sooo serious [said in a mock-serious voice].

ZL: Yes, I’ve noticed! [Both laugh.]

KH: So, I didn’t know what would happen. I don’t do that kind of thing very often, so I just had to see what I would get, and that’s what I got.

ZL: Another composer friend of mine said that a lot of his work is just making the conditions right for himself to have ideas. And basically he said, “I just pamper myself. I take care of myself, so that I can then have ideas.” Is there that aspect of it for you?

KH: Yes there is, but it’s different for me. I’ll read something, I’ll go to a gallery, I’ll see all kinds of things, and then something will start giving me sound ideas, ideas in sound. I love to do this, because then the sounds it gives me are usually pretty different from other things. Somehow it triggers a kind of originality, and I don’t want to sound the same all the time.

ZL: So you get your sound ideas from non-sound sources sometimes.

KH: Correct. I have hundreds of years of sound sources in my head, and I want some different sounds if I can find them.

ZL: The part of your job that is seeking inspiration, do you have to set aside time for that, or does life provide that for you?

KH: Life provides that, as long as I get out, and start looking and thinking and reading and so forth.

ZL: During composing time, I was wondering if there’s a balance between writing new material and editing or reworking material that you’ve already written, or does that all feel like one process for you?

KH: It’s all part of one process. I learned this about my own process. A few times in a longer piece, I would think, “Well I want something here that’s totally different, I want to go in a different direction at this point… I want to go someplace else.” And I would! I would do something I thought was completely different in every way, and then, so help me, in the third or fourth rehearsal someone would say, “Well you got this thing from right there in the beginning didn’t you?” [Both laugh.] So I finally just said the heck with that, and accepted that even if I try and write something really, really different, it will probably be part of the same process and the same piece. I just count on it.

ZL: I wish I had my camera out. You just did this gesture of shrugging your shoulders like “I don’t know how it happens,” and I just think that, well, it’s a mystery to me how composers compose, and it’s interesting to me that there’s an aspect of shrugging your shoulders for you too!

KH: It’s a mystery to me, yeah. And for the guy who told you that he just has to pamper himself, get to the right mood somehow or other, that implies the same thing.

ZL: So it’s not like “And now I will write the next five notes of this piece.”

KH: Well, yes, we do do that, we just don’t know where they come from, that’s all. [Both laugh.]

ZL: In the little bit of truly creative work that I’ve done— when I’m really starting with nothing and not just adding an interpretation—I really feel the difference. And for me, there’s a great deal of fear. I mean, what if what I come up with is stupid? or what do I do next? Is there any aspect of that for you?

KH: Oh, absolutely…

ZL: When you’re playing a piece, you work on matching yourself to the piece, and bringing out the best in the piece and bringing your best self to the piece, but when you’re with the blank page, is that fear something you face on a daily basis, or are you kind of over it?

KH: No, not on a daily basis, and no, I’m not totally over it. I don’t think you’re ever totally over it. I’ve had some tremendous fears. I mean, obviously, I didn’t start writing until my 30s, when I should have been writing from the time I was a kid! I went to school in the ’50s, I mean, come on! For boys, and even more so for girls, in music school, there was a sense of “What are you doing, writing? Who do you think you are, Beethoven?” It was really not a good attitude. “All the good music has been written,” was basically it. And I was the only female in class, with six guys, all grad students. I was an undergrad, and I just sat there, and they never bothered to look at my work, and that’s the way it was.

ZL: Wow.

KH: So I did not write, and you can imagine, with all of this, when I finally did start writing, there was a tremendous amount of fear that it wouldn’t be any good. And the bigger the piece, the bigger the fear. And sometimes I still have some of that, but it’s a little different now. I’m not afraid of myself and other people at this point, but I am afraid of not doing it really well.

ZL: How do you know when you’re finished for the day?

KH: I just run dry! Or else the phone rings, and I just get so distracted…sometimes there’s just something I have to go and do. Usually I don’t schedule anything before 11:30, so sometimes it’s that I have to stop, but usually it’s like something says “That’s all for today!” I think, [in a kid’s voice] “Nah, I want to do more!” [Then in a grown-up voice] “Sorry, that’s it, that’s your allowance.”

ZL:  How about for a piece, how do you know when it’s finished, when it’s time to put it on the computer?

KH: I get to a certain point in the piece, and I realize I have to pay attention to the piece’s form. So I’ll sort of sketch an idea of how long it should be, whatever ideas I have in terms of the piece. There’s a certain point when you’ve done enough of the piece that you have to plan out or begin thinking about the form or else it can be very chaotic. I guess that’s kind of a signal to myself in a way—it’s still subject to change as you go on, but basically you’ll have a sense that yes, this is coming to an end, and it has to be in a way that fits with the rest of the piece. I may go back and look and think it over, and sometimes I will ask myself, “What are some really strong ideas or ideas I really liked in this piece?” and you can bring them back to put it together. Because that’s how people will hear it: if you hear it as being strongest, people are going to hear it that way and that’s the way to bring it to an end. A lot of composers say endings are really really difficult. I used to think that wasn’t true, but it is.

ZL: For a performer, you know you’re done practicing the piece because you had the performance, or the performance is tonight or tomorrow. And I guess for your pieces when you have a commission, there’s sometimes a deadline that will help create that for you, but for a piece you’re working on for yourself, is there ever a temptation to just keep tinkering with it until…

KH: A lot of people do more of that than I do, I think. It has to do with the time constraints I had when I started writing. I tend to be done with it when I’m done. But lately, again, when I’ve finally got my life to a point where I can just relax and do what I want, the way I want, I’ve tried to open up in that way too. And I’m doing more rewriting than I used to.

What does composer Katherine Hoover do in the afternoon and evening?  Stay tuned for part 2…

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