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A Conversation with "Rootless" Composer Adolphus Hailstork

American composer Adolphus Hailstork, during a visit to WRTI in 2023.
American composer Adolphus Hailstork, during a visit to WRTI in 2023.

In February, only a few weeks into the job at WRTI, I was presented with an exciting interview opportunity: Adolphus Hailstork was coming to town. I was going to speak with a distinguished composer who, in his own words, embodies a “historical curiosity” of classical music.

I’ll admit that I was not familiar with Adolphus Hailstork. But I’m eager to speak to an elder in any field — especially those who have devoted their lives to a craft. Hailstork, now 82, is just that. He’s one of the most prolific and versatile American composers today, with more than 300 pieces under his belt, across every classical style imaginable.

He was in Philadelphia this March for a performance of “Done Made My Vow” at the Kimmel Cultural Campus. Composed in 1985, it’s a work for choir, orchestra and narration; he has referred to the piece as a “capstone” of his career.

Click the “LISTEN” button above to hear our conversation. Read some excerpts below.

I understand [“Done Made My Vow”] was a premiere or a commission from Norfolk State University, and you used the words of Barack Obama to build the libretto. But, it did not start out that way.

No it did not. The original, there's an interior climax, which is very powerful. I call it the historical section of the piece, in which the names of particularly important African-American leaders are called out from the choir such as Philip Randolph, Harriet Tubman, etc. And the speaker then tells something about the history of these particular people. The final one had to be, of course, Martin Luther King. And it worked beautifully because the section musically hits this big climax and he’s reciting the “I Have a Dream” speech. And after the big chord, the words “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last.” The King family does not let the words out without some kind of remuneration, and so they’ve closed it down. And kept it in their pocket. If you look around carefully, it’s almost never done. The King family has decided that since their dad wasn’t a public servant, his words are not public domain. But, the words of Barack Obama are public domain because he obviously was a public servant. So I switched the text over to the words of Barack Obama and from an early, I think 2004 speech. When I wrote [“Done Made My Vow”], Barack Obama was not on the scene. And so I originally had King words and fortunately Barack came along and fixed the situation. And I’m using his words, but it can work either way.

I know you were in ROTC and then served in the Army during the Vietnam War.

I became a lieutenant and I chose as far away from Vietnam as I could get. I wound up in Germany. I spent two years in Germany and they would have regular drawdowns of the troops to send them over to Vietnam. But they took a look at me and knew I was not military fighting material. They asked me if I wanted to run the officers’ club in Germany, and I said, “Of course, I'll run the officers’ club, I see a grand piano over there!” And I spent the next two years never having to wear fatigues again, or combat boots, or any of the other paraphernalia that go with being a combat officer. I ran the officers’ club, played the piano, and wrote music and was fed too well by the chefs of the club. As far as “character building,” I don't know about that. It was a joyful time in some other respects. I was in Europe and I could travel. So I had one trip to Munich, and I squeezed in Rome. Rome is an awesome city! I don't know if [the military] had any huge impact [on me] except to remind me that I didn't have a senior relative to give me any advice on how to live in the “manly world” of the Army.

Did serving your country give you a sense of nationalism and pride for your country representing the United States abroad?

I did go through a very strongly nationalistic period, and wrote a piece called an “American Fanfare.” I wrote other pieces like “An American Port of Call” and “American Landscape.” I did a piece recently called “A Knee on the Neck,” post-George Floyd’s murder. And people ask me, “What do you want people to walk out thinking about this piece?” And I said, “I hope they’ll walk out with a determination to do better.” America is in a very fragile spot right now, with so much ugliness, so much vulgarity even from our leaders, that I think the country’s in trouble. What I try to address in some of my compositions is pulling for a sense of unity for us to look at ourselves, and see what we’ve done to our people and to each other, and see if we can do better.

While studying at Howard, you learned spirituals by ear, what you called the “campfire approach.” But you were a singer as a kid. And you grew up not in the Black church, but singing in a cathedral choir. You called it the “bells and smells” experience. Were you religious?

I loved the cathedral [as a kid], but when I went to the cathedral, it was to rehearsals and so it meant something to me musically. And the grandeur of the building meant something to me because I realized 30 years ago that the acoustics of the cathedral impacted me a lot, and the sounds that can swell up in such a huge edifice impacted me a lot. So I love creating grand moments in choral and orchestral music, and if you ever heard any of my stuff, you’re always going to hear a grand bit of choral singing accompanied by a grand bit of orchestral writing, and that’s what I do.

Composer Adolphus Hailstork on Representation in Classical Music

I saw you respond to a question about Black representation in concerts, and you said that one solution to increasing Black representation in concerts was to shine a light on more Black composers. And I agree with that, but I just want to push a little bit further and say composers are not seen. We could put a piece of your work on the music stand and not know [your skin color.]. However, performers are seen! What does it take to get more visibility on the stage? Not necessarily on the page. Have you thought about that at all in terms of moving the needle?

Whether a piece is performed or not is dependent on artistic administrators and the conductors. For an African American — and also for a woman, although the women can at least get name recognition by the feminine name maybe — but, the conductors and the administrators have to care about opening their doors and lifting their ceilings. They have to care. The conductors of the world can have entire careers playing just dead Europeans. You could have your entire career based on Mozart, Hayden, Handel, and Bach. You don’t have to go beyond that, and you could still make a living wage. And if you care about maybe adding some Americans, then that’s a fringe repertoire. And then if you say you want to add some African Americans, that’s a fringe of a fringe. And it depends on how bodacious you wanna be and have a sense of inclusivity. I used to have an attitude of “Don’t tell anybody my race before you played the piece.” Because when they’re standing up there giving a cheering ovation, I want to shock them a little bit when I walk onstage. But I can’t shock anybody anymore, because everybody knows my name a little bit. But the important thing is also that attitudes have changed.

Alex Ariff and Adolphus Hailstork, during Hailstork's visit to WRTI in March of 2023.
Ryan Hankins
Alex Ariff and Adolphus Hailstork, during Hailstork's visit to WRTI in March of 2023.

Now, my question: is it only a temporary “George Floyd fad,” or can this go on a longer streak so that the great leaders of our orchestra and other managing directors and the great living conductors would go beyond the safe place and include African Americans? Now, it’s up to the composers to have quality stuff. You don’t get the door open for you just because you have brown skin. That’s not the way it is. You’d better have some quality stuff that the conductor will proudly put in front of these quality players. Don’t waste their time by giving them pablum or junk. You’d better have something to say and you better do it well. That is my preachment to any young African American composer coming along. That certainly goes for women. Women don’t automatically get put on the stage just because they’re built differently. You’ve got to have music that has an impact. [I ask young composers] where do you stand? What do you have to offer? [To stand out] you’d better have a different gimmick.

But you don't have a gimmick.

No — I have a point of view, though, and I try to express it in my work for the most part.

What's so remarkable is you could throw a dart at any style in [classical music], and you could hit it.

Yeah, that’s partly it. That’s part of — I hate to say this term, though, part of “playing the game,” but I always wanted to be diverse. I never had solid roots. I said the title of my biography is gonna be “Rootless.”

What does that mean, to be rootless?

I have no roots! I did not come up in a community. I did not come up in a family. I came up rootless. And so I was free and in some ways, it was good. I was free to do a lot of different things, anything I wanted to do, because, what am I… you’ve got brown skin, OK. Does that automatically make you African American? One of the things that interests me [is] people said [to me]: “You’re going to be the Dean of Black Composers.” I say, “What’s ‘Black’ mean? What does Black mean?” I asked a friend of mine a couple years ago: “Is Black a style or is Black a culture? What is Black?” He said “It’s a culture.” And then [I asked]: “Which culture? There are many types of Black culture. Which one am I?” I didn’t grow up in the common schematic of being an African American where you play basketball, you play football you learn to say, “Hey man, what's happening?” And all those kinds of things. And that isn’t me. That just is not me. And I didn’t grow up in a Black church. Had I grown up in a Black church, I might have been stylistically very different from the way I am.

We’ll never know. What do you feel like your legacy is?

I hope I leave a few works that’ll still be done after I’m gone. I’m a historical curiosity, because there aren’t that many Black composers who have written symphonies, big choral pieces, [and] small pieces. I read once that especially the romantics like Strauss and Mahler, they either did small pieces like songs or these mammoth symphonies. And that’s how you can tell a Romantic, by the way. But I wanted to be more balanced than that and include chamber music and solo songs and band music. And so there’s a variety out there. If anybody wants to look back at it then they can. I think I’ll be totally forgotten for 50 years after my death. But then somebody will come along and say, “Hey, I discovered this stuff by this guy named Hailstork. Let’s take a look at it.” And then they’ll say, “Oh, there are a few pieces worth doing again.” Maybe my future Mendelssohn’s down the road somewhere.