Commission statement with 'No. 2'
Sep. 23, 2004
Chris Slattery
Staff Writer

Photo by Tisara, Inc.

Who does No. 2 work for? Composer Garrison A. Hull (above) dedicated Violin Sonata No. 2, "The Appleman," to virtuoso violinist Michael Appleman.

Talk about a busman's holiday. When composer Garrison Hull, 48, isn't busy composing operas, sonatas and other masterful musical movements, he's off to the Western Highlands of his native Virginia, finding inspiration in the musical traditions of the past.

"I'm an amateur ethnomusicologist," says Hull, whose latest composition, Violin Sonata No. 2, "The Appleman," will have its world premiere on Thursday at Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda. That means he likes to take the indigenous music of the Appalachian region and incorporate it into the concert music he composes.

"What I choose to do is take the kernels -- melodic and rhythmic kernels -- stylistically weaving them in with my own technique," he explains.

It's an idea that's worked for Strathmore before.

"They commissioned me -- their first commissioned piece -- to [compose] a piece that celebrated the millennium," says Hull, whose 2000 "Strathmore Sonata" will also be on the program Thursday evening. "But this piece is probably the bell-ringer, the starting gate."

This piece, dedicated to internationally known violin virtuoso Michael Appleman, will be performed by Appleman and pianist Alexander Paley.

And although the sonata does indeed spring from Hull's fascination with the fiddle music of the Virginia highlands, he insists it's "a little more than what people generally associate with Americana.

"I steel myself for it," he adds. "They'll say, 'He threw in some 'Ginny tunes.'"

Country classic

For Hull, it's all about achieving a balance: How can he cover new ground musically while following the traditions for which he has so much respect and admiration? It's a challenge he's savored since childhood.

"Growing up in Alexandria in the '70s, you still had a lot of real blues being played in town," he recalls. "Real country music, too, before it became pop. There's always been the Birchmere."

And just across the river, as Hull discovered, was the land of opportunity for a youngster with an interest in musical traditions -- and a need to stay cool.

"Growing up in Old Town we didn't have air conditioning. As kids, we'd catch the 11E bus to the Smithsonian and spend our days just walking around," he says.

Well, not just walking around. There was the folk life catalogue, and the opportunity to find recordings and listen to them, renowned bits of musical history from Gaylax and Union Mountain.

"I remember one instance that still stays with me," he says. "Four hours of folk fiddling and banjo from 1922 -- with musicians [playing] who were born in the 1840s."

Even now, he says, whenever his work takes him somewhere new, Hull heads for the county courthouse to "see what they have." And he spends as much time as he can spare listening to the music, expanding his sense of history and remaining on the lookout for the kernels he treasures.

For Hull, the juxtaposition of folk and classical music, of traditional and contemporary, is natural. His parents were from Western Virginia, and both were singers, steeped in the rural tradition.

"My father hopped the first train when he was 18 and made a career in the army," says Hull. "Ended up in the Pentagon."

And the family ended up city folk with sophisticated tastes. Hull started piano lessons at 8, taught by his sister. At 11, he took up guitar. Ever the Virginian, he studied composition at George Mason University, earned a bachelor of science degree in music and embarked on a 20-year fascination with ethnomusicology.

"I've been blessed," he says. "I've had commissions continually, and I've been able to explore."

Highland heart

The place names offer the first clue: The Highland Region. Bath County. These remote areas where Hull goes to find musical inspiration were named by settlers from Scotland and England, people who brought with them a particular kind of music, embellished it over the course of their life on the frontier and handed it down through the generations.

"If you have a tune like 'Man of Constant Sorrow,' from 'O Brother Where Art Thou,'" he says, referring to the Coen brothers movie that launched a huge folk-and-bluegrass revival. "That song has been around since the 1600s -- like 'Greensleeves.' They were performed, but they weren't necessarily written down.

"The community assigns a purpose: lullaby, work song, worship song. And it gets honed over seven generations, and all the fluff and extraneous stuff gets weeded out."

"I think it's a way of holding on. Everybody has computers, but when you get to the Apple Festival in a little Appalachian town, people are auctioning off quilts," he says.

The quilts, he's quick to point out, are exquisite -- and they're also a direct link with the past. It's as if the community is saying, "We're with the world, but we're here, too." And everywhere he looks, Hull says -- at fiddle festivals, in African-American Sunday school choirs, in the mountains and the river valleys, the music is strong.

"The music is always constant, no matter what occasion you have," he explains. "The melodic jumps are expressive at just the right points. It's made for an emotional accent."

And translating those emotions into concert music is what Hull does best. He looks to the masters for inspiration: Haydn's "Drum Roll," he points out, features elements of Hungarian folk music; Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" incorporates pre-Byzantine chant. Indeed, of the latter Hull says, "He was [closer to] what I'm doing than Copland."

In "Appleman," however, Hull says the music is more abstract, almost totally so. Gone are the built-in functional folk elements like the "field holler," a children's song with a west African lilt that carries the loaded connotations of childhood innocence and the damage inflicted by slavery. For Hull's Sonata No. 2, he says, "I didn't have an emotional line, a pathos I wanted to construct. It's pure music."

Music where the absolute angle takes priority over the programmatic, in the tradition of Beethoven as opposed to Wagner. Music that is the link between the Old World composers and their pioneer contemporaries. Music that continues to inspire Hull.

"There's so much left to be learned," he exclaims. "You have to be excited when you sit down at a desk to write: What's going to make what I'm doing give an utterance to the human condition that people want to hear, that they can relate to?"

The amateur ethnomusicologist and professional composer answers his own question.

"It has to sing to me," he says.

Strathmore's Music in the Mansion opens with the world premiere of Garrison Hull's Violin Sonata No. 2, "The Appleman," at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Dorothy M. and Maurice C. Shapiro Music Room at Strathmore Hall, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda. Tickets are $26, $23 for seniors, $15 for students. Call 301-581-5100 or visit