Truman Harris

Insider Interview: Composer Truman Harris

Composer Truman Harris’ debut CD “A Warm Day in Winter” is released on March 9, 2019, on the NAXOS American Classics Label (8.559858). In this Insider Interview we spoke to Mr. Harris about his compositional inspirations, performing in an orchestra and chamber ensemble, and more.

What led you to a career in composition?

I grew up in a musical household, with my mother the choir director at the local church and my father the church organist.  As far back as I can remember I’ve been attracted to composing rather than conducting.  Perhaps that’s partly because I noticed at some point that while most of the people around me were whistling/singing tunes they’d heard in the media, what I was whistling were mostly original tunes that popped into my head.   Another factor was my long tenure in a professional wind quintet.  After giving four recitals each season for years, our group began to run out of new literature.  The quintet’s website received dozens of submissions of new works for possible performance, but the group would almost inevitably decide that the pieces didn’t suit our needs.  I set about trying to write the music we weren’t finding.

You were in the NSO for over 40 years. How does that experience as an orchestral musician inform your work? Are there any particular composers from which you draw inspiration?

Sitting on stage surrounded by the sounds of the orchestra each week, and access to study scores of particularly interesting upcoming pieces were a big help in my attempts to understand the techniques of composition.  Certain aspects of a piece would sometimes be more or less successful, and my habit was to ask myself why that might be.   My colleagues were a great resource in understanding the technique of writing for instruments other than my own.  Writing a viola part, for example, I was helped by the availability of 12 professional violists who were amazingly generous with their artistry.

How would you describe your composition style?

For want of a better phrase, “Twenty-First Century Tonal.”  I gravitated early on to the Stravinsky side of the Stravinsky/Schoenberg split last century.  Perhaps one could say that Stravinsky revolutionized rhythm while Schoenberg revolutionized melody.  An important quote for me is from Paul Hindemith: “Music, as long as it exists, will always take its departure from the major triad and return to it.  The musician cannot escape it any more than the painter his primary colours or the architect his three dimensions."  For me, music is about singing and dancing, and I very much hope that my pieces can both sing and dance.

Your latest album is titled A Warm Day in Winter. In what ways do the pieces reflect this title? Are there any other ways in which the pieces relate to each other?

The last movement of Aulos Triptych, with that title, depicts a cold morning with a gradual warmup.   The modern complex world can also seem a little chilly at times, and perhaps music can add a bit of welcome warmth to our lives.  The wind quintets were written for some of the same people, and the character of the part writing reflects something of their individual personalities. 

Speaking of titles, a lot of your pieces have descriptions that are very evocative. Do these become part of the piece early on in the process?

I rarely know in advance what the titles of movements or even of the whole piece will be.  As the materials develop and begin to show some structure, I find that extra-musical associations will often occur to me, which then can help direct the progress of the remaining music still to be written. 

Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re working on?

Recently completed are two wind quintets, a sonata for bassoon and piano, and a trio for two flutes and cello.  Synthesized recordings of these are now up on my YouTube channel, Compositions by Truman Harris

Also completed just last week is a Kennedy Center commission for a variation for full orchestra based on the Paganini 24th Caprice.  The Kennedy Center website discribes the project as, “When former NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin led the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, he commissioned a set of variations—each from a different living American composer—on the famous Paganini Caprice No. 24. In honor of Slatkin’s 75th birthday season, a number of orchestras, including the NSO, have each commissioned an additional variation to create a new, expanded version of the work.” Thus my contribution will be part of a work with other variations written by several  different composers entitled, “Yet Another Set of Variations (on a Theme of Paganini).”  The piece is scheduled to be performed this season by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, as well as two other orchestras next season.  All performances will be conducted by Leonard Slatkin, whose vision is responsible for the work.

My next projects are TBA, and may include a trio for oboe, bassoon, and piano.

The Art Music Lounge reviews "A Warm Day in Winter"

Tripping the Light Fantastic with Truman Harris

American composer and bassoonist Truman Harris (b. 1945) is one of those writers whose work can best be described as light and witty without being mundane or cloying. It’s essentially tonal with harmonic twists and turns, the rhythms are generally straightforward, but at no time is any of it predictable. In short, this is the kind of music that fits my definition of “delightful,” not the predictable old-timey tonal music of the Romantic era that everyone else seems to think is the cat’s meow.

This is immediately evident in the Rosemoor Suite, a collection of five pieces for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. This is a combination that Harris really favors; the even shorter Flowers, which pops up later in this program, is written for the same combination. Harris himself plays the bassoon on both. Even in the slow piece in this suite, “By the Stream, Late September,” Harris manages to hold one’s interest via repeated rhythms and overlapping solo spots in a quasi-hocket style, although this is the one piece that would be most likely to turn up on your local snoresville classical FM station. “Charleston” emulates the beat of this famed 1920s dance, but here Harris really skewers the harmony in an effort to shake things up, while the finale, “Silent Movie,” is, surprisingly, less frenetic in tempo and sounds more like a modern composer’s reaction to a silent movie than the kind of music one might actually hear accompanying one. It also includes plaintive solo spots for the oboe and flute in a slower tempo.

The Aulos Triptych refers to the ancient Greek flute that was often paired with the Greek harp or kithara, but there’s nothing really Greek about this music. It has lively American rhythms, the opening movement, in fact, being in a rollicking 6/8. It almost (but not quite) sounds like the kind of music you would have heard in the background of an episode of Peabody’s Improbable History on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, except that it’s somewhat more complex in its interweaving of instruments. The second piece, “Dreams of Fantastic Places,” is slower in tempo but, oddly, still uses a 6/8 tempo and is more rhythmically complex than its counterpoint in the Rosemoor Suite. The last piece, “A Warm Day in Winter,” is in 4 but with several double-time passages, weaving the piano part among the four flutes in an intriguing manner.

The Concertino for Horn & Chamber Orchestra is a bit more ambitious in form, but only just. This is yet another lively piece which sounds fun to play, and although our horn soloist, Laurel Bennert Ohlson, has a somewhat rough tone, she sounds as if she’s having a ball playing it. The music here uses contrasting meters and tempi in its development sections, but again is primarily tonal. In fact, the music bears some resemblance to the wonderful pieces that Alec Wilder wrote for his French horn buddy, the late John Barrows. There are also some wonderfully intricate passages in the first movement for interwoven winds, and when the strings re-enter the tempo picks up, the rhythm becomes more complex, and Harris throws in some whole-tone passages. I did, however, find the second movement to be less original and adventurous, albeit still amusing, with a few unusual key changes thrown in for good measure. The third movement opens as a fun romp in polka tempo. At the 1:17 mark, however, Harris throws in some rhythmic complexities that make the music sound as if it were running backwards, and afterwards the pace slows up in order to add a few other syncopated touches in the orchestral part.

Flowers returns us to the syncopated part-writing and ebullient mood of the Rosemoor Suite, except that each section is considerably shorter and thus more compact in ideas. I felt that the third piece, “Tulip,” was relatively stagnant although pleasant to listen to, but “Kudzu” was particularly ingenious in construction with a sort of loping 4/4 beat at a medium brisk tempo.

Possible because the bassoon is his instrument, I felt that the Sonata for 2 Bassoons & Piano was by far the most serious as well as the most complex and arresting piece on the album. The essential style is the same, but here Harris is less flippant in his use of motor rhythms and his development sections are even more complex than in the other works. Sometimes he has the two bassoons play contrapuntally against each other, sometimes in harmony, and sometimes gives one of them a lyrical line while the other plays syncopated figures against it. In addition, the piano part has a real jazz feel to it, something I did not detect in the other pieces. Indeed, the first movement, with its continual rhythmic shifting during the development section, is a sort of locus classicus in how to write modern chamber music with a jazz influence. The second movement, a bit more conventional, is quite lovely in its own way, but in the third Harris again returns to syncopated rhythms that have at least a touch of jazz beat about them—although, in my mind’s ear, I could hear a more jazz-based pianist doing even more with the piano part than Audrey Andrist does here. At the 1:56 mark there are some remarkable cross-rhythmic effects, after which the tempo relaxes for a few bars before picking up steam again.

The flute Concertino, though also lively, is a bit more serious than the one for horn and, to my ears, better written overall. Mind you, the horn Concertino is not badly written, but much more lightweight in its ideas and not as strongly developed. Here, I felt that Harris had a better feel for the instrument and used it more as a voice in the overall progression of the music rather than as a “showcase” instrument. It’s a subtle difference, but to me an important one. Once again he uses contrasting rhythms for his contrasting themes and developments, yet here they seem to follow upon one another more logically and hold one’s interest better. Even the syncopations are knitted into the overall musical progression better than in the horn Concertino, although I found the slow second movement somewhat predictable in comparison to the outer movements.

In toto, then, an interesting disc with many interesting and fun moments and a really great sonata for bassoons and piano.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

Records International reviews "A Warm Day in Winter"

Description: A bassoonist-composer is a relative rarity, but one uniquely positioned to attend to and appreciate the inner voices of an ensemble. Thus it is that Harris has written a work for 12 violas, as well as the pieces for four flutes, or two bassoons, with piano, included here. The composer’s idiom is tonal and neoclassical, with impeccable craftsmanship and a deft, light touch, often with touches of humor. Rosemoor Suite is a set of easy-going character pieces depicting pastoral scenes, a neoclassical take on the once-popular Charleston, and 'cues' for a 'silent movie' score - one scene of which apparently had something Wagnerian about it. The Horn Concertino plays with the horn's heroic, Romantic character, with a bucolic slow movement which briefly gives way to a more dramatic episode, and a lively rondo-finale. The unusual - probably unique - Sonata for Two Bassoons is technically demanding, requiring rhythmic precision between the players; clearly an example of a proud bassoonist giving his colleagues a chance to shine. The piece is neo-Romantic, with some lively jazzy episodes insisted on by the piano in the outer movements. The Flute Concertino is classical in structure and Romantic in mood; sonata form, a nostalgic slow movement, playful rondo-finale. The six movements of Flowers attribute character and even drama to flowering plants, from resilient pansies and clover to the miniature military march of invading kudzu. The Triptych explores the atmospheric, descriptive colors available to an ensemble of flutes. Assorted soloists, Eclipse Chamber Orchestra; Sylvia Alimena.

Music Web International reviews T.Harris' "A Warm Day in Winter"

Truman HARRIS (b1945)
Rosemoor Suite for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn (2015) [12.12]
Aulos Triptych for four flutes and piano (2015) [8.47]
Concertino for Horn and Chamber Orchestra (2001) [16.49]
Flowers for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn (2006) [7.48]
Sonata for Two Bassoons and Piano (2008) [14.33]
Concertino for Flute and Chamber Orchestra (2003) [15.21]
Eclipse Chamber Orchestra/Sylvia Alimena
rec. 2006-16
NAXOS 8.559858 [75.37]

This is a very useful compendium of Truman Harris’ music of the 21st Century. I confess that he was previously unknown to me. Most of his active life has been spent as an orchestral bassoonist (he plays on the present disc), retiring in 1917 as assistant principal bassoonist of the National Symphony Orchestra as well as from the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra (itself drawn from the NSO, and for whom he was also composer-in-residence 2004-2014). His performing work included a period with the Capitol Woodwind Quintet – invaluable for chamber composition – as well as with the Fort Worth Symphony and Opera. He is working for a Master’s degree in Computing Science. New pieces are available on his dedicated YouTube Channel in synthesised versions. As far as I can discover, this new disc is his only CD to date (my researches have not strayed beyond Harris’ own website and YouTube).

The compositions here are much more worthwhile than his relatively low profile so far might have suggested. Unsurprisingly, he has a very keen ear for the textures and abilities of wind instruments – piano parts tend to be strictly accompaniment. The synthesised YouTube versions do not provide the same subtlety as the selection of works on the current disc. Somehow synthetic versions do not capture the characteristic sense of the amplification of human song and expression that accomplished wind players – as here – provide. There is a beguiling humanity to the programme. It is invidious to pick out a favourite, but I very much enjoyed the Aulos Triptych for four flutes and piano, whose three movements, ‘Light and Color’, ‘Dreams of Fancy Places’ and ‘A Warm Day in Winter’ are lyrical and very evocative. The two Concertinos, one for horn, the other for flute, are both highly enjoyable pieces, rather in the style of Lars-Erik Larsson’s terrific set of Twelve Concertinos, Op.45 (available on BIS-CD-473/464). Neither concertino pushes musical boundaries and might have been composed at any time in the last century or so, but they reveal sensitive understanding of their chosen instrument’s capabilities and are hugely enjoyable.

An interesting piece is the set of miniatures, Flowers, for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn, from 2006. The six tiny movements – the longest is ‘Tulip’ at just under a minute-and-a-half – reveal all Harris’ gifts of acute sensitivity.

Performances are as committed as we might hope – the wind soloists are drawn exclusively from the National Symphony Orchestra, with several playing also with the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, and one senses the feeling of music-making among friends. Useful notes on the performances are provided by the composer, and recording quality is very fine – each line emerges clearly, as it should.

Michael Wilkinson
 
Soloists
Alice Kogan Weinreb (flute)
Aaran Goldman (flute)
Carole Bean (flute)
Leah Arsenault Barrick (flute)
Nicholas Stovall (oboe)
Paul Cigan (clarinet)
Truman Harris (bassoon)
Sue Heineman (bassoon)
Steven Wilson (bassoon)
Laurel Bennert Ohlson (horn)
Audrey Andrist (piano)

Recording details
George Washington Masonic National Memorial, Alexandria, Virginia, 24 October 2006, 22 October 2007; Dekelboum Concert Hall, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, 15 April 2009, 28 September 2016, 17 October 2016. 

Gramophone Magazine reviews T.Harris' "A Warm Day in Winter"

Author:

Richard Whitehouse

Naxos’s American Classics series turns to Truman Harris (b1945), his tenures as bassoonist in Washington’s National Symphony and Eclipse Chamber orchestras explaining why woodwind features prominently across his output – with the present disc a representative selection.

His fluency is well demonstrated in both the vignettes of Aulos Triptych and the laconicism of the Double Bassoon Sonata, both of which should appeal to musicians who find themselves participating in such unusual combinations. Of the works for wind quintet, Rosemoor Suite offers five evocations of neighbourhood environs, by turns winsome and engaging, not least in the pithy theme-and-variations of ‘Fantasia’ or the lively imagery conjured up by ‘Silent Movie’. If these inhabit the urbane neoclassicism of Françaix, the six briefer miniatures of Flowers seem closer to Poulenc in their graceful contours enlivened by harmonic piquancy.

More substantial fare is provided by the two concertinos. That for horn follows its muscular opening Allegro with an ‘Arias and Recitatives’ whose incremental revealing of unexpected depths is thrown into relief by the droll closing Rondo. The Concertino for flute follows a similar trajectory – its wistful Andante as deftly complemented by the elegant opening Allegro as by the perky closing Allegretto with its affectionate homage to the French woodwind tradition.

The concerttinos receive admirable performances by Laurel Bennert Ohlson and Alice Kogan Weinreb, while all the other players confirm the respect and regard in which Harris is held. Indeed, the appeal of this music to wind musicians everywhere can hardly be doubted.