Composer Joseph Hallman has written works performed by brilliant musicians including Alisa Weilerstein and members of The Philadelphia Orchestra. He is adjunct professor at Drexel University. He earned a Bachelor of Music from the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he studied with Margaret Brouwer.
Joe is an Administrator at the College of Liberal Professional Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also earning a Master of Liberal Arts at Penn. His capstone work is an ethnography of African-American Gay Male Youth at The Attic Youth Center in Philadelphia.
What’s your normal schedule?
I get up early and do a little exercise before work and then I write for half an hour. Basically, my day job runs 8:30 to 4:30 with a lunch break. And then after work I will write for at least half an hour or more every day just to keep myself working. On the weekends, I write a ton.I usually teach one course per term at Drexel, which is three hours a week. And generally I do that right after work. I teach Theory 1 and 2, Composition, and Ear Training. I teach the Composition class every spring and whenever they need me to I teach Theory and Ear Training.
Usually I’m able to get off of work if I have a premiere or a concert to attend. I just plan it pretty well, far enough in advance and I say, “This is happening; I’m not going to be here.” And I’ve not had a problem yet.I think it’s easy to take a vacation because I can always take a laptop or manuscript paper and work from the road. I like camping a lot, so, I’ll hang out in the woods for the weekend and get a ton of writing done.
And socially, I mean, I have a lot of friends, but I also enjoy being alone. I’ll go out with my co-workers or friends once a week, maybe more. I think I keep a pretty good balance of things.
So you’re also in school. How is that affecting everything else going on?It’s slightly tricky when I take a class, because it limits the amount of time in a week. And there are papers, reading, coursework, and of course the time you spend in class, which is a lot.
But it’s good; I feel that having gone to a conservatory, I missed out on academic rigor. Now I can make up for that in a small way, and I really appreciate that. I like doing it. It’s a lot of work, especially because I didn’t have that background.Now I feel more at ease with it, but in the beginning, it was really difficult. It was more difficult than I thought it would be to juggle everything: teaching, classes, a full-time job, travel, and composing. Those are different, totally needy streams. I guess there is sort of a balance, where you can let one thing run itself for a little bit, but you can’t do it too long, because everything needs attention.
What are you doing creatively right now?I’m doing a big mix of everything. I’m writing two bassoon concertos; a song cycle with Jeanne McGinn for soprano and piano; two song cycles with the poet laureate of Vermont for soprano and string quartet; a flute sonata; a four-hand piece; a piano piece; and a couple of remixes.
I just did a remix with Dokaka; he’s a Japanese beatboxer who was on Bjork’s Medulla album. It was very cool because I love Bjork. Eventually I’m going to put out a pop album like what I did before. But it’s really hard to find time to get in the studio.If you’re at your day job and you get an idea or hear something in your mind, what do you do?
Well, it depends. If it’s close to a lunch break, sometimes I’ll go home and work. If not, sometimes I’ll write it down on manuscript paper, make notes, or record it at work. I’ll sing it. I have an awful memory and I lose so much if I don’t record or in some way memorialize it.I’ve been asking the performers about keeping in shape. Do you ever have times where you’re not working on something and how do you get back into it if you do? Or, are you working all the time?
I kind of work all the time. It’s not always lucrative work, but it’s work nonetheless. So I’m generally busy all the time, and I don’t get a chance to get out of shape, I guess.Do your co-workers at Penn know that you’re a musician?
Yeah, they do! They’re very supportive and nice. They will come to concerts if I invite them. They’re not musicians but they appreciate and respect that aspect of me. I think it gives them insight into who I really am, and gives them a reason to give me more respect, because they see that I’m doing something on an accomplished level that is bigger than what I might be doing at work.They understand that to me Penn is just a job; that I’m not like a lot of people who you work with where that’s all they do and they don’t have an outside goal, hobby, or career. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think being able to do multiple things gives you a richness of experience and character.
What about when you’re interacting with other musicians? Do they know about your day job?With musicians, I don’t really talk about my day job as much. I think you probably would receive more stigma from musicians than non-musicians about the job thing. I feel that musicians are more likely to be sort of snotty about it and say, “Oh, well if you’re not doing it all the time you must not be that great.” That kind of thing. And it’s like, no, I just don’t want to live like an eighteen-year-old. And I don’t have parents who can put me up; I don’t have an external support network, so I have to create my own means of living.
Is that why you started with the job outside of music?It’s been kind of a long road. When I graduated college, I thought I was a big hot-shot and I had no trouble getting work as a composer. And then reality set in and I moved to a new city and thought, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
So I taught music for a couple of years. And then I went into advertising at a newspaper for a couple more years. And then I was in administration at Drexel, and now I’m at Penn.After that initial coming-into-the-real-world moment, I stopped writing for a while, probably three or four years. I didn’t have time or an interest and I felt so—I think I felt disappointed, as well, that I wasn’t doing it as much.
And then, I don’t know, I just kind of kicked it into high gear one day and said, “Screw that. I should be doing this. It makes me happy and I’m good at it and I have a need to do it.”Are there things about your music life that help you in the day job? And vice-versa, anything you take from the day job to help you with music?
Absolutely. I feel like from day jobs I’ve learned organizational skills; how to write better; PR; how to communicate more effectively with multiple parties; and the understanding of how a large organization works and how to survive in that environment. It’s totally different than the music world. It’s much more formalized and systematized. You can learn a lot from that and apply a lot of that to a music career.From the music world going into the day job world…I think being a musician, you learn to work with almost any type of person and you handle difficult situations more easily. At least for me. Or maybe that’s just who I am.
I feel like musicians are nut jobs, so if you can handle musicians, you can handle anybody. Musicians are a more eclectic group of people, so, I feel like you can definitely learn about people skills and teamwork. There’s a level of intimacy and trust when you’re playing music with somebody that is totally different than how you interact in an office setting.
How do you keep track of everything that’s going on?
I have a cheatsheet. (pictured below) It’s a canvas dropcloth that’s twelve feet long by three feet wide. I have it tacked up on my wall and I write all of my projects on it in Sharpie. There are like 40,000 things on it—Post-Its, and scraps of music paper. I can’t retain anything, so I have to do that.
Would you ever want your career to be completely based around music?
That’s a hard question, because I really like having a non-musical life. I think it brings a different perspective to my reality, which I really appreciate. I think that if I were doing just music, I would lose that perspective. I think it brings richness to my experience; I’m not limited to things that are just musical.
At Penn, I’m exposed to lectures, symposia, and colloquia all the time that I would not normally have access to. And I just feel part of a greater community there. I feel supported in almost anything I want to do. There are resources to accomplish so many great things that I would definitely lose out on if I weren’t there.
I think I could find that with the right education job, but it’s so difficult to get an education job. And I like teaching one or two courses per semester, but other than that, I’m not really that interested. I don’t want to teach theory all my life. Composition would be great, but teaching theory is like a job to me. I mean, I understand the importance of theory, but…What advice would you give to young musicians?
Be perseverant. It’s a hard economy in which to become a musician. There’s just less and less work for less and less money. The work that was at a higher level is for less money and is less supported. So it’s smaller paychecks, more gigs, and less stable work…a lot of freelancing. Be prepared to do anything. Be capable of doing anything.I think the effect of what’s going on in the orchestral world is going to shake throughout the whole classical world. For a long time, the classical music world operated on a top-heavy basis with no perception of business reality. I do believe that musicians should be paid well and they are expected to do a lot of work at an extremely high level, but an organization cannot pay any line of a budget over what they bring in revenue and other sources. Ever. It’s just not good business. If you found a way to do that, then we wouldn’t be in the problem we’re in. It’s not working, so this is a time for these things to become leaner and more practical and more streamlined. There have to be compromises; I think the musicians have to shape policy as it goes forward, rather than contesting everything that comes across.
Who are your role models?Role models sounds a little bit too teenagey to me. I’ll say people that inspire me. That’s easier.
I’ve been lucky; I’ve been surrounded by really cool people. My best friend is an amazing cellist, and she inspires me a lot. She won the MacArthur grant last year, and her recording of Elgar and Carter concertos is being released October 30, on Decca, with Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic. She’s a superstar.Nico Muhly has been an inspiration of mine lately, too. I think what he does is really important and I like him a lot. Meeting him this year and getting to know him a little inspired me a lot.
We’re totally different kinds of composers. I like who he is and how unencumbered by anything or anyone else he is. He is just him, and that, to me, is so cool to see someone like him doing well. And he works his ass off. I don’t love all of his music, but I think he is super talented and brilliant. And it’s cool to see somebody doing so much good work at such a high level. So that’s inspirational; that’s where I’d really like to be.