George Hurd on Musical Translation

george hurd

On our March 4th concert, we’re presenting three short works by composer George Hurd. Two of these were pieces he original wrote for his own ensemble and then adapted for Elevate. The third is a brand-new piece. In this interview, we asked George how he went about translating the pieces to a format that would work with Elevate. We also got insights on the “day in the life” of his compositional process.

You’re presenting three short pieces on the Elevate concert, two of which are adaptations of pieces you wrote for your ensemble. Why did you choose those pieces to adapt?

When Chad came to me about putting together an Elevate Ensemble program on the theme of darkness, he had my piece Fulcrum in mind already as an option. Given the focus on darkness, you can imagine that many of the pieces one might encounter on this subject were more focused on stillness, contemplation, darker colors, etc—things that people often associate with nighttime.

Fulcrum was exciting to him as it is extremely percussive, has a lot of tight, intricate rhythms and lots of energy, so it could work as a balance to the other contrasting works out there while still working well within the program.

I then gave him Grace, a piece I wrote with fellow SF-based composer/electronic musician Joel St. Julien for our electronic duo Nightmare Light. I wanted to rewrite it to include acoustic elements on top of the electronics to bring a new dimension to it.

The piece is a meditation on trying to find personal peace, as difficult a path as that is. The piece is laced with traces of dissonance and friction, but at its core it’s filled with brightness and hope. Darkness doesn’t exist without light, and so the piece itself had to contain both.

What’s different about the original versions and the new ones we’ll hear on the Elevate concert?

The main differences in these version of Fulcrum and Grace are in the instrumentation. Fulcrum was written to include a piano rather than a harp. I had to take the piano part, which has quite a few dense chromatic passages, and rewrite it for harp, which is unable to play many of those chromatic parts. I’m a rabid fan of harp music—it might be my favorite instrument—so having it available for this concert was a total pleasure.

Grace was altered to have bass clarinet take the place of the original double bass, and with a piccolo part added to the opening section.

You’re a composer who runs his own ensemble. Why did you start the ensemble?

I wrote the score to a documentary just after moving from Chicago to SF. It was written for violin, viola, cello, double bass, vibes, piano and harp. I absolutely fell in love with this nontraditional setup and continued to write pieces for it, but now with the inclusion of electronics.

Being in a new city filled with possibility, but few contacts to get music played, I decided that rather than wait to to find someone to perform my work that I’d just do it myself. I formed the group and have been playing together with them for years. It was a great choice and allowed me to be more proactive in my approach to composing.

Another factor: the obsessive use of electronics in much of my work for The Hurd Ensemble makes it hard to perform without my being there. The electronics are usually not static. I perform them onstage with musicians, altering and adjusting them in real time, changing their qualities, timbres and even rhythms. More importantly, I need to lead the players though many of the very hard-to-follow electronic parts where there is no discernible downbeat. Many times, being hands-on can be a necessity, and that makes running my own ensemble the logical choice.

And beyond all that it’s just fantastic to be directly, physically involved. Being up there with the musicians, conjuring electronic sounds, pulling everything together with players I know intimately—it’s incredible.

What’s different about the work you do with The Hurd Ensemble vs the music you write for other groups?

The work I do with The Hurd Ensemble is often more technically difficult, mainly in how involved and interwoven the electronics are in the rest of the piece. Knowing those musicians so well I have full confidence in what I can throw at them. I also know that I have more time to rehearse with them if need be. That doesn’t happen in most other situation where I’ll only have a few rehearsals to make it work.

But simplifying the pieces I write for other groups can be a great asset, too. For instance, in Crèpuscule, which will get its world premiere on March 4 with Elevate, I made performing the electronics part extremely easy, out of practical necessity, and in the process wrote parts that were likewise simplified, with less of the rhythmic complexities I often gravitate towards. It was a blessing, as this piece is an exciting stylistic departure for me. Its soft, flowing nature laid bare a new sound world that I’m excited to explore in future pieces.

Tell us a bit about a typical day of composing/music-making for you.

My days are spent on the mechanical and administrative parts of being a musician—everything from mixing and preparing parts to emails, calls, proposals, promotion, scheduling, etc—plus an hour or two of energetic writing in the afternoon.

But I really dig in deep with composing late at night, and do the bulk of my writing between 10pm and 4am. I love the isolation of the night and the complete absence of distractions. Plus I’m just wired for it. I get sparked and motivated as the night moves on, and often will find myself getting more and more involved with pieces the later it gets.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not doing music?

I travel. Every single chance I get I hit the road. My wife and I are both freelancers (she’s a graphic artist), so we work and travel together as often as possible. She’s German so we travel to Europe a good deal. For instance, last year we lived in Portugal and Germany for the summer, also traveling to the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Norway, and Morocco.

We don’t have trust funds and aren’t independently wealthy, we just know how to do it affordably and have a LOT of friends scattered across the globe that we stay with. Meaning of course that we return the favor and usually have a friend on our couch visiting from abroad. We’re heading to New Zealand for almost a month in March, and are planning a trip to Greece in July. Most of our travel nowadays revolves around my travel-based music project called Echolocation, where I write pieces about each place we go.

I love to be outdoors, mainly biking and hiking. How can you not here in San Francisco? I also  really like seeing great live theater. Sculpture too. It just hits my in the right spot.

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Get your tickets today to hear George’s amazing pieces, as well as the new premiere by Nick Vasallo and works by Jennifer Bellor, Julie Herndon, and Jocelyn Hagen.