Haskell Small Creates a World of Musical Contemplation with Silence

Nov 10, 2017

Music is a combination of sound and silence - a concept that composer and pianist Haskell Small has explored extensively in his performances and in his own music. As he prepares to perform in the Northwest November 10 and 11, Anjuli Dodhia sat down with Haskell Small to chat about silence, sound, contemplation and his programs in Seattle and Wenatchee.

Anjuli Dodhia: Thank you so much, Haskell Small for being here and speaking with us today.

Haskell Small: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

AD: So I wanted to start by asking you about your Journeys in Silence series. Silence is something that you’ve explored extensively in this series. So how did you come to have this sort of relationship with sound and silence?

HS: Well it’s been a fairly long journey. Personally and artistically, the idea of playing quietly exploring inwardly; this is part of my personality. Musically, as a pianist and composer, I first got introduced in-depth to the possibilities when I played the piece by Federico Mompou, the Musica Callada, it translates as “Quiet Music.” I’m very interested in the notion of playing as quietly as possible on the piano; right on the edge of being audible. This is a world that is, I think... Many pianists are interested in playing loud and fast, and I like to do that too, but the notion of exploring inwardly with this possibility, musically, has been fascinating to me for a long time.

AD: Sure, yeah. Kind of jumping off of that, how pianists are making a lot of noise, as you said, today’s world is really full of noise. Not just audibly, but visually and we’re being bombarded by a lot of information as well. Do you think your use of silence and space in music is a reaction that that?

HS: It’s possible, certainly I know what you’re talking about. And I think all of us need some kind of stepping back and removing ourselves from the chaos and hectic-ness of life. Those of us that do music in one form or another, I certainly can understand how that could lead to this type of expression, by all means.

AD: Do you listen to music to relax, and if you do, what kind of music do you like to just sit back and listen to?

HS: Well, actually that is an interesting point. As a musician, I frankly do not like to listen to music while I’m doing anything else. I don’t listen to music in the way that I want to listen to it to relax. And my notion of writing and playing music is not to provide a comfortable, quiet, atmosphere to relax in, but rather I think of it as thoughtful, contemplative... a quiet sound for the sake of relaxing is not what I’m after. To put that more positively, what I am after, specifically, is the notion of contemplating one’s own inner being through the mechanism of allowing the sound, this particular type of sound, to carry you there. To open a world for you that, in this day and age, as you say, we have a hard time finding that space.

AD: Absolutely. What I hear you saying is that you’re trying to get your listeners to be really engaged in your music.

HS: Exactly. I hope the music invites that. That’s my goal.

AD: You’re playing one of your own compositions, the Reflections on the Book of Hours on this tour. Let’s take a listen to the very beginning that, sort of, brings the listener into this world that you’re creating.

[Clip of Introduction from Book of Hours]

AD: That was just a bit of the introduction to Haskell Small’s Journeys in Silence: Reflections on the Book of Hours. Haskell himself playing piano there. So describe for us, if you would, what is the book of hours and how did you decide on having this be the inspiration for your composition?

HS: The book of hours is an ancient...essentially a prayer manual. And each hour in the book of hours is a time of day set aside for specific prayers. It begins with Vigils in the middle of the night. The monks don’t sleep then. They are up and very actively reflecting, listening. The Vigils is followed by Lauds, which is the sunrise, the coming of a new day.

Terce is next, which is sometimes referred to, glibly as the monastic coffee break, which I think is a wonderful notion. That hour of the day is also the hour that Jesus carried his cross to his own execution. So it also contains some very heavy music. Then the... Sext is the next hour, one of three “short hours” as they call it. That’s followed by None, a very prayerful part, which in my music... I made it a little more extended than... the monks might have prayed it for ten minutes. Then Vespers, that special time of day when it’s dusk... twilight, the lamps are lit, and there’s a wonderful flavor in the air. That’s followed by Compline, essentially the precursor to what we call the... what we teach our children, to say their bedtime prayers.

Finally, The Great Silence. This is a return to the middle of the night and the cycle continues forever. So, this was all the different manifestations of this meaning of these prayers, at least in my interpretation, and the structure it affords. That’s been the basis of this work.

Also of interest, I’m playing not just my own composition, but I’m playing some Bach as well as music of Hovhaness. And I’m very honored that Hovhaness’s widow, Mrs. Hinako Hovhaness is going to be attending the concert. That’s going to be a thrill for me.

AD: How did you come to select or design this program? How did you put the Hovhaness, the Bach, and the Taverner, and your Reflections all together?

HS: On this program, I chose to do some Bach, just as a way to... I think Bach is spiritual composer, and pure music; a way to set up the more exotic flavors I have coming later. Specifically, on the Hovhaness pieces, I’m doing the Pastoral No. 2 which is a piece that involves some inside the piano sounds. I brought with me a couple of timpani sticks and so forth, and a little bit of plucking the strings. At one point the keys... playing on the keys there’s almost like a hymn that comes out of nowhere, out of the mist. And then I’m also playing the Hymn for Mount Chocorua. This is the last movement on a sonata Hovhannes wrote for this mountain that he knew personally. He lived in New England for a while. And I think of this mountain as having hot lava inside and this is that part. [Laughs.] Anyway, it’s a very evocative piece, and I have a lot of fun playing it.

AD: That was Haskell Small speaking about his composition Journeys in Silence: Reflections on the book of Hours, which is a part of his 2017 west coast tour.