Interview with Will Healy
On April 29th and 30th, Kaleidoscope will close out an incredible third season. In the last, but definitely not least, premieres of sixteen new works, Will Healy’s West Coast Premiere of Kolmanskop is sure to impress. Generously donating his time, I was able to sit down with Mr. Healy and not only talk about the inspirations and influences of this piece, but discover that where most adversities like illness, injuries, and death would deter anyone else from continuing to pursue music, only emboldened Mr. Healy to be even more of a force to reckon with. It became obvious to me that his love of music and learning, combined with a passionate and adventurous spirit, makes for not only an incredibly talented composer, but a remarkable person.
Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started in music?
Will Healy: I had bad asthma as a kid, so I didn’t go to preschool or much of elementary school. Because of that I had a lot of time on my hands, and my mom wanted to see if there was something I could do. Every time we were near a piano, I would gravitate toward it and make up little things. So, around the time I was four years old I started taking piano lessons. I practiced hours and hours on my own, and just wanted to do it all the time; I was obsessed from a young age.
WH: Yeah. I did pick up the trumpet in Fourth grade, and played jazz trumpet and classical piano for a long time. I mean I tell people I play the trumpet, but I actually kind of just play the piano; I haven’t taken the trumpet out of its case in a year *laughter*
CR: I see. Then did you start undergrad as a composition major, or did you start with piano?
WH: I was just a general music major. There definitely was a time in my life when I thought about trying to be a performance pianist, but when I arrived in my undergrad I had a hand injury so it was clear I was not going to be able to do that. In high school I had been composing and improvising on the piano, and could still play the trumpet so I started playing in the big band and writing music all the time. By my junior year I was able to play piano again, but being injured was the main reason I became motivated to get serious about composing.
CR: Wow, it seems like you’ve had to go through a lot. Everything OK now, with the asthma and the hand injury?
WH: Yeah, *laughing*, I sound so gimpy. But yes, my asthma’s totally gone. I still do have hand problems, but I monitor it and only play certain repertoire. I’ve ended up playing a lot of Bach, which in a way was really wonderful for my technique and my musicianship, all sorts of things. Before my injury I just wanted to play Rachmaninov, Ravel, and Debussy, everything, but the best thing for my musicianship and my life in general was getting injured. I was a decent pianist, but I needed to be forced to slow down and really listen, and by playing Bach and focusing on jazz with my trumpet made me understand music in a way that I wouldn’t have if I had just been practicing Chopin all day.
CR: So, with your injury in mind, being that you feel you re-developed your relationship to music, how has that influenced how you compose?
WH: The main thing that it’s influenced is that during my injury and the time I was playing trumpet I played in an afrobeat hip hop band. We had a horn section, two drummers, guitar, bass, and all that stuff. We used to play at big, hundred-person, sweaty house parties, and the music was so different from anything that I ever had played before. That music has so many grooves, repetitive patterns, complex rhythms, and in classical music we’re not big on patterns. So that music very much influenced my compositional style because I realized how good it feels to have rhythmic impulses in music, how important groove is, that it should be a full body feeling experience.
CR: That’s a great point.
WH: Yeah, and there aren’t many outlets to incorporate that into classical music, so when I graduated from college I formed my own ensemble called ShoutHouse, made out of members from that band and then some of my classical friends. We had two rappers, a string section, and guitar, and was a mix between hip hop, jazz, and classical genres.
CR: Oh, that’s badass. Those are definitely genres a lot of people don’t consider combining.
WH: Generally not. But, there’s always opportunity to make new sounds.
CR: So is exploring new sounds something you explore in all of your pieces, especially Kolmanskop?
WH: I never actively try to put any kind of influences in my music. Usually it’s either a concept I have for a piece, or what I’m trying to depict in the music, or the strengths of the musicians that I’m writing for that create the final product. So, when I write a piece for ShoutHouse it’s going to sound very different from a piece that I write for full orchestra.
CR: I see. So what were you trying to depict in Kolmanskop?
WH: With Kolmanskop, my main goal was to depict this ghost town in Namibia called Kolmanskop. Because I’m literally trying to depict what the town looks like and feels like emotionally, it doesn’t really feel or look like a beat with a dope bass line.
CR: *laughter* I suppose not. Why did you choose this piece to submit to the Call for Scores?
WH: Well, Kolmanskop is my first large orchestra piece, and had its premiere at Alice Tully Hall in New York. I’ve written some smaller orchestra pieces, but the amount of work that goes into a score, even one that’s eleven minutes long, is really insane. I spent six months writing Kolmanskop, and I also traveled to Namibia for it.
CR: Oh wow!
WH: Yeah. So, when you put that much work into something, you don’t just want to hear it once. So about three days after the premiere, I started cruising around websites looking for call for scores. I was on American Composer’s Forum, and Kaleidoscope was one of the ones that I saw so I decided to submit it.
CR: Great! Did you get a grant to travel to Namibia?
WH: I did. Around my sophomore year in college I was reading a National Geographic article about an island off the coast of Japan called Hashima. It’s an abandoned island, and there’s a ghost city on it. I thought that was so inspiring and cool, that there are giant, abandoned high-rise buildings on this island. So, I decided I would write a piece about that and got into this whole abandoned cities and towns thing, and eventually I wanted to travel to these different abandoned towns and cities. I applied to maybe ten grants, with the same grant application, and eventually got one, the W.K. Rose from Vassar, that financed a full year to write and work on projects. With it I went to Namibia, and this ghost town called Kolmanskop, spending a few weeks there. I spent a lot of time in silence sitting inside the abandoned houses writing down my ideas on paper, it was a really incredible experience.
CR: That sounds equally thrilling and terrifying.
WH: Yes. It’s intimidating because it’s so quiet; it really doesn’t get more quiet than that. Because of that I decided that this piece needed to have a lot of silence in it, and required more space within the piece than I normally would have written. It has more transparent textures.
CR: How does this piece unfold?
WH: You should put “spoiler alert” in the title of this interview.
CR: *laughter* Yeah, I should. Since it’s new music though, what kinds of context are you willing to clue the audience into?
WH: There are three sections in the piece. I decided that I was going to reflect on not just the visual aspects of the place, but also emotional aspects and they mean because abandoned places are very poignant. So relating to the visual aspect, the opening section of the piece is called Dunes. What’s really visually arresting about Kolmanskop is the sand from the desert has filled all the houses, I mean literal sand dunes in the living rooms that go all the way up to the ceiling; they’re amazing. The only difference between these houses is the amount of sand. One may have sand all the way to the roof whereas one just has sand on the floor. I tried to depict that using big glissandos in the strings, as well as with empty space.
CR: What about the other sections? Are they more visual or emotional?
WH: The second section of the piece is called Dust Dances. There’s a darker aspect to this town, in that it’s all crumbling very slowly. Eventually, there will be basically nothing left. So this section is just layers upon layers, starting with one line of instruments and then slowly building until it’s an overwhelmingly large texture. So, the whole second section is based around that idea of decay, as well as things piling on top of each other.
CR: OK. What about the third section?
WH: Well, while I was writing this piece my teacher passed away.
CR: Oh wow, I’m so sorry.
WH: Thank you. But, yes, my teacher at Juilliard, Steven Stucky, passed away in February of 2016. He was sick for a very short period of time, and it was very shocking. I was working with him until late November, and we actually discussed the best way to approach this section, the aspects of time, what events would happen in the piece, that sort of thing. So, the third section of the piece took on a different character than what I had originally expected, and I titled it Time Lapse. This section is a reflection on life in a somewhat uplifting in a way. You’d think it would be the opposite, but everything is inevitable, circular, and doesn’t really matter, you know? So Time Lapse is out-of-control, fast, with pretty harmonies and textures. My idea with that was to picture sand filling up the Kolmanskop until it’s over the roofs, then a new town gets built over it, then that town is abandoned and filled with sand, and it just repeats over and over.
CR: That sounds like a fantastic piece! As you talked about it I was imagining a ghost town.
WH: I struggled a lot with whether or not I wanted to actually purely depict the town, like in programmatic music, or just let what I was experiencing help create the music. I really went back and forth, and it’s really difficult because sometimes I’d have a musical idea that I wanted to use, but I had to determine whether or not it made sense with my narrative.
CR: I can imagine. Changing gears, have you ever worked with a conductorless orchestra before?
WH: Not a full orchestra, but when ShoutHouse had started, for the first two years we did not have a conductor. I still struggle with when we need a conductor and when we don’t, because it’s a really different effect. In some ways the conductor can help you kind of organize your emotions and help you figure out how you want to interpret it, but with that you do lose a bit of the feeling that everybody really feels the rhythms, the feeling of togetherness. But, I’m really excited to work with Kaleidoscope because they understand why that mission is important. In classical music there can be such a disconnect between the musicians and the conductor. Having an orchestra without a conductor is more democratic. Don’t get me wrong, I love big, traditional orchestras, but I wish I saw musicians smiling more, moving with the music, and understanding what they were playing in a bigger way.
CR: It’s really incredible when that happens. So, a core value of Kaleidoscope is this idea of having all people be a part of the equation, regardless of their social and economic status, and be collaborative and engage with the Los Angeles community. We put on performances in different kinds of venues, providing free concerts, and this year they implemented a “Pay What You Can” model by eliminating ticket sales. What are some of your own personal goals to try and connect to the community through your music?
WH: The biggest thing for me has been bringing artists from different backgrounds together. The classical music community is a wonderful group of people, but it’s a very limited subset of our society. In terms of building a community, I focus on people who are talented artists who have an important message to say, and write music specifically for them, not just write any old string quartet or orchestral music. The main reason I’m a composer is because classical music is one of the only ways that we can tell a more intricate story, and you don’t get in other genres. So, it’s really important to bring it back to people and show all the amazing things that can be done with sound; anybody can get on board with that. With the Pay What You Can is really great though because classical music concerts, especially in New York, and many other cities, are very expensive. It’s not the kind of place that you would go if you were 18 and didn’t have a background in playing the oboe.
CR: Agreed. Regarding Kaleidoscope, though this will be the last concert of the 2016-2017 Season, they’re gearing up to do a hopefully even bigger 2017-2018 Season. If someone asked why they should consider supporting the orchestra, what would you say?
WH: There are two reasons. First is that Kaleidoscope gives you the broadest possibilities in terms of sound, aside from in electronic music. In electronic music, you can do an amazing array of sounds. The difference is that an orchestra is real people, so it will connect with you in a really different way because it’s organic, it’s created by humans. That leads to the second reason, it’s the only depiction of community in our society that you can visually see. Watching a hundred people create a piece in front of you is magical. It’s so cool that this art form has that much power, where people have been trained to be able to express themselves all at the same time toward a common goal. One of the biggest hurdles that society has to overcome is the fear we have of each other. If there’s an art form that shows that people are able to understand each other and work together toward a common goal, it’s the orchestra, and it’s classical music.
CR: Great point. To finish up, what are some of your hobbies or other passions?
WH: Well, I have a few nerdy hobbies.
CR: I love nerdy hobbies!
WH: I really love history, maybe the reason I love ghost towns. When I was nine years old, I used to go into my grandmother’s attic, sift through all the boxes and look through all the pictures, letters, all this stuff. I even asked my parents for a metal detector when I was nine. I wish I could say that I was only into it when I was a kid, but I still love metal detecting. I like going to old farmhouses and dig up stuff. I also like imagining all the people who lived in the place that you lived. I live on 85th Street and Broadway in New York, and on 84th Street, there stood the farmhouse where Edgar Allen Poe wrote “The Raven,” which is literally probably 100 feet from where my desk is, which is so crazy to me!
CR: That’s amazing!
WH: Yeah! And we’re only a couple of generations away from things that seem pretty historic. My teacher, Samuel Adler, used to hang out with Stravinsky and Bartok. Hindemith was his primary teacher in school. It’s very hard to understand time as humans, because life is pretty short, but it’s definitely an incredible thing.
CR: Is there one last comment you want to leave with readers or people who will be in the audience?
WH: Stay in school, don’t do drugs.
CR: *laughing* That’s good advice.This has been a great interview, thank you so much for taking the time to talk!
WH: Thank you!