As the concert world continues to open up, we welcome you back to Composer’s Corner, Subito’s informal composer-chat sessions. This edition brings to you composer Dorothy Hindman, whose music is represented by Subito Music Distribution (SMD) (a division of Subito Music). (The SMD program is Subito’s distribution service for independent, self-published composers.) Based in Miami, FL, Hindman is a pianist and keyboardist who teaches composition at the Frost School of Music. Her music features a singular integration of her unconventional musical roots of punk and grunge with traditional classical music and spectral techniques. Her catalogue contains works in every genre; and, her music has been performed at home and abroad including: Carnegie Hall; the American Academy in Rome; Muziekgebouw (Amsterdam); BKA-Theater (Berlin); the Havana Contemporary Music Festival, ISCM/New Music Miami, and the Birmingham New Music Festival (Alabama). We talked with Hindman about: what she did during the Covid lockdown; “coming from a foundation of classical music;” falling in love with the synthesizer “after hearing a MOOG album” as a kid; some upcoming projects, and why travelling “to a performance or conference lets you really get to know people.”
S: COVID-19 brought a lot of challenges for musicians and performers. What tools did you use during the pandemic to continue writing music, connecting with other musicians, as well as with your students?
Hindman: Zoom, Zoom and more Zoom. When things shut down initially, I was on sabbatical and so I was VERY fortunate to keep working on my own projects, but as that first summer came on, I started a weekly listening group with the Frost students to keep in touch and to keep their spirits up about coming back to school. University of Miami went back to in-person teaching that Fall when I came off sabbatical, so we’ve been balancing live and zoom hybrid teaching and have gotten pretty good at it.
As far as working with other musicians, I want to acknowledge that a lot of my friends and students went through extremely difficult times economically and socially, not being able to perform or be with other people. I was very lucky in that I was financially stable and that I don’t mind working on my own; but I took the opportunity to reach out to a lot of people on Zoom for coffee or attend virtual dance parties, and it really expanded my circle of friends that I saw on a regular basis.
Before too long, I was composing for the logistics of Zoom performance and virtual platforms. One of those pieces was written for Heartland Marimba Quartet which was previewed at the telematic 2021Earth Day Art Model Festival on a program I hosted called Zone 10: Music from South Florida…The proliferation of video performances has been an unexpected benefit of the pandemic. My students and I had a project called “Composing the Collection” with a local art museum and with Duo Sequenza (Debra Silvert, flute and Paul Bowman, guitar) that was postponed for many months due to COVID. We finally gave up on having a live concert and made videos instead, which we premiered on a live stream with composer interviews. It’s still up on the Lowe Art Museum’s YouTube channel. I think the video program is even better than a live program would have been, because you can access it at any time from anywhere in the world. [View the concert performance here.]
S: Do you still use any of these tools?
Hindman: Yes, definitely, and I still will! It’s exciting to be able to speak at live concerts via Zoom, to coach rehearsals that normally I wouldn’t have been able to travel to, and to be in regular touch with my collaborators. Making videos has become a really important part of the art form, too, and is something that I believe performers and composers will continue to do much more commonly than prior to COVID.
S: Please tell us about some current projects you’re working on. Do you have any premieres or performances coming up? Any plans to travel to some of these concerts?
Hindman: I wrote a piano solo for Matthew McCright called To Spill Oneself Away that premiered in February at Carleton College in Minnesota, and I was very excited about travelling to it! It was the first concert I’ve travelled to since the COVID shutdown. It was also exciting because I was able to meet with the students there to talk about their music and mine. While Zoom is convenient and cheap, there is something much more personal about being afforded the time to establish new relationships. Travelling to a performance or conference lets you really get to know people, seeing them casually as well as at rehearsals, concerts, and masterclasses.
I’ve got two more works in the pipeline. Untitled VI is a work for female voices for the Quince Ensemble. It’s based on a quote from composer Georges Aphergis that I recorded myself saying, and then digitally distorted to create a new sonic model…Untitled VII is for the Ex-Sentia Ensemble (saxophone, percussion, and piano). They’re based in Basel, Switzerland; and I expect to travel out there in May for that premiere. Very exciting!
S: For the concert world, your musical roots are unconventional — you come from the punk/grunge scene. What instrument (or instruments) did you originally study and how old were you when you began your training?
Hindman: I didn’t begin formal study until age 16 when I started college, and at that time I studied piano. But I had always considered my instrument to be the synthesizer, which I fell in love with after hearing a MOOG album when I was a kid. I played electric guitar and piano-by-ear in high school. I bought my first synth, a Prophet 600, in college and started to play in rock bands to help put myself through school. I studied piano because I wanted to be the next Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson, but after a few years of college training, I knew I would rather be composing. But, when I transferred to the University of Miami to begin studying electronic music composition, I fell in love with live chamber music and turned my focus to acoustic instruments. I figured that the electronics would always be there, but I wouldn’t be surrounded by great players forever. Fortunately, I was wrong about that!
S: How did your upbringing impact your musical point of view?
Hindman: I really only heard classical music until I was about 6 or 7. My mother was an excellent pianist, so I internalized a lot of Chopin, Brahms, Bach and Beethoven. My father was briefly the manager of WTMI, the local classical radio station in Miami, so we also had a lot of classical vinyl that would play in the house. In elementary school, I discovered pop and rock music, particularly The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and The Ramones. So I come from a foundation of classical music but have a real passion for the hard stuff! My tastes are very eclectic, and I don’t set a lot of boundaries between styles when it comes to new music.
S: Your catalog features works in traditional classical forms. How did punk and grunge shape your current writing process and musical style?
Hindman: I’ve always been interested in timbre, as my synth playing background probably shows. I’ve always considered composing [to be] a kind of sculpting in sound, with the goal of creating sounds no one has ever heard before. Punk and grunge had a rawness, a distorted viscerality that I am drawn to in my own music, and I bring that to everything I write. For example, my piece for amplified cello solo drowningXnumbers (pronounced drowning by numbers) was written way back in 1994. Craig Hultgren, the cellist, had recently gotten a tube amp, which already has a certain amount of noise inherent in it. Since the piece was going to be amplified, I could exploit all kinds of effects, such as pitched jete with a knitting needle, or hammer on glissandi, complex sounds that you wouldn’t normally hear past the stage. DrowningXnumbers is then built around a very aggressive riff that just goes on for 15 minutes with gradual timbral shifts from noise to pitch. That’s kind of punk. There is a lot of richness between pitch and noise that I’m sensitive to and love to explore.
My music has always been autobiographical and was also influenced from the history of the places I’ve lived, which include Miami, Florida where I was born, Birmingham, Alabama where I lived during my early teaching career, and Rome, Italy, where I lived when my husband won a Rome Prize. Living in these places — especially in Rome where fragments of history are everywhere — made me realize that I don’t understand these histories the way the people of the times did, and my works try to reflect that misunderstanding. I have a piece called Monumenti, for violin and cello, that is just based on little fragments of compound melodies that don’t come together until the middle and then break up again.
S: Do you have a particular genre you like to write for? You’ve written several pieces that include electronics. How do you view using electronics interwoven within a traditional form?
Hindman: I love to write for live performers, and I do focus primarily on classical acoustic instruments. But I use electronics in organic ways, as an additional “instrument” that is capable of filling in sounds outside of those instruments, or adding frequencies that they cannot play. Electronics are integral to my compositional approach as well. In my current writing method, I create digital sonic models by distorting acoustic models, such as my voice, or an earlier piece of my music. Then, I compose a new piece from the sonic models, picking out the frequencies and timbres I want and transcribing them for chamber musicians, orchestra, and even vocalists. It’s an exciting way to work that combines all of my passions into my process.
S: Your music has been performed worldwide and in numerous major venues; and, you’ve collaborated with many artists. Is there one specific performance, performer, or ensemble, that stands out to you as a defining moment?
Hindman: Personally, as a composer, there is something special and unique about every performance and every performer I have worked with, and these continue to define me in profound ways. So, I can’t really rank one as more important than the others. However, I think, professionally-speaking, that my “Dorothy Hindman at 50: A Chamber Music Retrospective” at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall was perhaps the most culminating performance to date. It was an opportunity to work with many of my closest collaborators in premiering some new works and reprising others. It was a chance to look back at what I had created to that point, and to celebrate the people who had helped me get there.
S: Your work has also been shaped by decades of volunteerism. How do current events and social issues impact your music? What are some issues and organizations you advocate for?
Hindman: I’ve been involved with or started up a number of organizations or programs to empower different people. The primary one is the Birmingham Art Music Alliance, which I was a founding member of, and which has now passed 15 years of presenting new music by Alabama composers. Within that organization, there have also been numerous initiatives, some of which were mine and many of which were other people, so that’s been an incredibly fruitful organization. I started a program where my Fundamentals of Music Class wrote youth operas by partnering with students in a local under-served elementary school. I recently received a Mellon Foundation Grant to put together the “Composing the Collection” project that I previously mentioned.
I’ve written a lot of pieces around social justice, for example the massive Prothalamia: In Celebration of Marriage for All, which was commissioned by the Empire City Men’s Chorus in 2010, prior to NYC’s passage of marriage equality laws. Since I’m from Miami, a lot of my works reflect social justice issues impacting South Florida, like Stand Your Ground laws, and in doing that I’ve also taken a lot of criticism about what I should and should not write about. That’s been a learning experience that has definitely shaped my work from that point forward. I tried to use music to point to things in society that were being ignored, or would only come up in news cycles and then would die away again. I’ve since come to understand that this also seems exploitative to people who have suffered similar trauma. I’ve been writing a lot more autobiographical works to work through my own traumas, which I now leave “Untitled.”
The flip side of those experiences is that I’ve focused more on how to bring more institutional power to those who are typically disenfranchised. Since I feel uncomfortable making these statements in my music any longer, I’ve discovered the ways that my actions and the actions of the institutions I’m involved with are perpetuating this type of disenfranchisement and I am working to change that.
S: As a composer and teacher, what advice do you have for young musicians who are thinking about studying composition?
Hindman: I think that all human beings are creative – it is part of our nature. Some are cooks, some gardeners, poets, artists, decorators. Some are creative by composing. If you want to make a career of it, you have to follow your heart. All careers are difficult. There are no guarantees in any field. But, I believe that if you work at it, the world of music is full of niches, and you will find your own…and remember that composing is a form of playing. We play music, we don’t work music. Keep the stressors away and just let your creativity flow.