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Art and Folklore in the Compositions of Katherine Hoover

Victoria Jicha | May 2020

Originally printed in the January 2002 issue of Flute Talk


   Flutist Katherine Hoover is known to many as the composer of Kokopeli, although her numerous compositions include the tra­ditional as well as contemporary forms. She was born in West Virginia in 1937 and majored in theory and flute at the Eastman School of Music, where she studied with Joseph Mariano; she stud­ied later with William Kincaid in Philadelphia, and at the Manhattan School of Music. She lives in New York City, freelances with ballet and opera companies, and continues an active career as a composer and conductor.

How much does your background with Joseph Mariano and William Kincaid, who stressed the importance of strong liquid intervals and cross­barline phrasing, influence the style of music you compose?
    One of the foundations of music is moving from a weak beat to a strong beat, a lesson I learned from Mariano and Kincaid. The big disadvantage of notation is that people generally give more impor­tance to what they see than to what they hear. Big stop signs in the form of barlines are written into the music before every downbeat, and they send a very strong visual signal to stop the forward motion.

Was Kokopeli written without barlines for that reason?
   It occurred to me to write Kokopeli without barlines after playing facsimiles of Medieval and Renaissance duets that were written without barlines. I wanted long flowing phrases to be performed freely without the walls that barlines create. With freedom from barlines musicians respond to the sounds of the piece, as well as the acoustics of the hall, which should influence the tempo, interpreta­tion, and length of rests and fermatas.

When I listen to Kokopeli I find myself thinking of the Grand Canyon. What is it about the southwestern part of the country that prompts you to refer to it in several compositions?
   Because of the quiet spirituality, the colors of the sky, and the unusual topography I find the southwest a most interesting place to visit. Being in that part of the country is like landing in a foreign place. There are more similarities between Philadelphia or New York and London or Vienna than there are to Arizona or New Mexico. Several of my works have been influenced by this magic place, and by the native American cultures there.

It is relatively easy for performers today to communicate with composers, but does this become a burden when musicians call you with performance questions?
   Composers jump up and down and celebrate when someone calls because those calls are proof that our music is being played. I appre­ciate it when performers ask about an ambiguity in the printed music. It may have cropped up in the publishing process, which is a tremendous, picky, job and some errors do occur. It helps to correct these mistakes if performers raise questions about possible errors.

It would be hard for me to pour my heart and soul into a composition and then have no control over the final product? How do you cope with that?
   When I was a neophyte composer it probably wasn’t much fun sit­ting next to me at the premiere of a new piece because I got so anx­ious with the piece out of my hands. Now this is much easier because I have gained confidence in the performers who play my music.

After hearing performances of your works, have you ever wanted to change the notation to make it clearer?
   I have learned that even performing composers misread music at times. When I recorded Winter Spirits I left out a rest. Only later did I discover that I had recorded it incorrectly for posterity; but I played it at the end of a long day when I wasn’t fresh. Probably some flutists will think that the printed music is incorrect because the composer played it differently on a recording.

Why haven’t you written a flute concerto?
   Simply because I have not received a commission for this, but I am definitely interested in the project. It will happen when the time is right.

In writing a composition, can you hear the music in your head and do composers really jot notes down on napkins in cafes?
   I have done a little jotting in the middle of the night, but it’s not my habit. Research is the first thing I do after receiving a commis­sion, and I adore that part of the project. If the piece is not to be for. flute, I will listen to much of the existing repertoire for that instru­ment and fill my head with the sounds and capabilities of it. I listen for inherently weak and strong notes or particular characteristics, and then I just wait for an imaginative idea that fits this instrument. For the orchestral work I am writing now the inspiration came from a museum painting. I studied and looked at it from many different angles, then began to write. I use myths and references to art to inspire new sounds because I don’t want a new composition to sound like others I have written.

It is said that Paul Hindemith could play all the instruments for which he wrote, but how strong is your knowledge of instruments other than flute?
   I am not Hindemith, although it would certainly be to my advan­tage to be able to play a string instrument. While playing a Broadway show, I worked on the violin during every intermission, but I believe that the process of assimilating the sounds of an instru­ment has taken me much further in the compositional process.

Do you work with the commissioner or make changes during the compo­sitional process?
   My research is usually thorough enough that only minimal changes are in order, but I always reassure performers that an awk­ward or difficult passage can usually be rewritten. A lyrical section should never sound awkward, but I probably would not change an extremely diffi­cult passage that should sound a little stressed.

What is your opinion about using the extended techniques that are so prevalent in contemporary compositions?
   I only use extended techniques when they fit into the emotion I want to express. Frankly, I think that double stops sound a little odd on the flute, which is why I have used them only once, in the clown movement of Masks. In Canyon Echoes I used extended techniques for waifs of grief and sounds of wind. Some composers use extended techniques for the sake of exploring them, but that type of composition is entirely different from the style in which I write.

Although flutists have a chance to meet and talk at national conventions, how do composers communicate with each other?
   Contemporary composers are all very hungry for performance opportunities. The limited number of performers who like to play new works are much like a life raft to keep composers’ hope afloat. The simple fact is that most composers do not welcome other com­posers aboard the raft. Each of us works quite alone in a virtual vac­uum, and our world is very competitive. Although there are organi­zations for composers, most composers are not helpful to colleagues though there are a few blessed exceptions. I am very lucky that one of my close friends is a composer. We talk about music and enjoy each other,· but friendships between composers are not common.

Does this vacuum limit the extent to which the compositional styles of composers influence others?
   To some extent it may, though we all have access to C.D.s and tapes. There are several compositional styles at the present and composers are free to choose any style, but generally composers favor others who write in the same style and are more likely to rec­ommend them for jobs and competitions.

I am surprised to learn that political connections are an important factor in the composer’s world.
   Politics affect who will receive awards, grants, and performance opportunities. I am thrilled about a future performance at Carnegie Hall because I am not accepted as a composer by the New York musical establishment. My works are played all over the rest of the country but not at home. I am not one of the uptown or downtown people, and I was not trained at Juilliard. Because I played as a free­lance flutist for years before I started to compose, in the eyes of the New York composition community this somehow makes me a less serious composer. Someone told me that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a New York composer I should not perform on the flute.

In the recent Flute Talk interviews with Francis Blaisdell and Patricia George neither was aware that their musical activities were clearing the way for future generations, and I believe the same could be said about you as well.
   It didn’t occur to me at the time that I was moving into unchart­ed territory, but at Eastman I was the only female in my undergrad­uate composition classes. I wrote little bits and pieces but nobody looked at my work. Women who chose an unexpected career like composition were not taken seriously. "Who do you think you are? Beethoven?" was the institutional response. It seems incomprehen­sible now because during the late 1970s students, male and female, began writing compositions as a normal part of theory assignments. Today student-written pieces are often included on student recitals and everyone is encouraged to explore the field of composition.

What are your future compositional goals?
   My main goal is to write music to the very best of my ability, and expanding into composition for all types of chamber groups is sec­ondary. I am crazy about writing for strings and orchestras, and recently I have composed some works that include voice. All of these areas interest and inspire me.
   I was trained in flute and theory, not composition, so I feel par­ticularly lucky and very grateful to those flutists who have taken an interest in my music. Since I started composing I have always remembered that much of my success is attributable to the flute community.

* * *

   Katherine Hoover’s Kokopeli offers performers many opportu­nities for varied color effects and mood changes. It is based on the flute-playing folk character with a hump back and uses melodic fragments of native American music. The piece is care­fully notated with precise rhythmic and dynamic markings. There are no bar lines and, according to the composer, "acci­dentals carry through the line but do not transfer to another octave."
    Kokopeli has become a staple in the flute performer’s solo repertoire since its composition in 1990. For a complete per­formance guide to the work see Flute Talk, January 1997, "A Performance Guide to Katherine Hoover’s Kokopeli" by Lillian Santiago-Caballero.
    The Anasazi first carved Kokopelli images on cliff walls over 3,000 years ago. A symbol seen throughout the American southwest the hump-backed flute player has become an icon of the flute playing world more recently and is depicted as a wandering trickster with magical powers. In traditional lore Kokopelli, sometimes spelled Kokopeli, is a multi-purpose deity depicted as a rain priest and a fertility god as well as a symbol of joy and happiness. Ac­cording to Hopi legend, Kokopelli vis­its villages playing his flute and carry­ing seeds in a backpack; everyone sings and dances all night but when the peo­ple awake the next morning they find full grown corn, pregnant young women, and the prankster is gone. When Kokopelli plays his flute the sun comes out, the snow melts, the grass grows, the birds sing, and all the animals gather around to hear the music. The flute invokes the supernatural and carries messages from earth to god while Kokopelli’s hump carries gifts of life from the supernatural to man.
    Ekkehart Malotki, a professor of languages at Northern Arizona University writes that the mythical figure we call Kokopelli is really a combination of Kookopolo, a prominently hump-backed promiscuous robber fly who scatters food from his hump but has no flute, and Kookopolmana, the female coun­terpart, a flute playing cicada that the Hopi call Maahu. The cicada is the emblem of the Hopi flute societies. Malotki con­siders the modern Kokopelli to be mythographically inauthen­tic but harmless and writes in his book Kokopelli: The Making of an Icon, Kokopelli is "an intercultural wanderer, revealing not only the derivativeness and lack of taste and cultural respect in our world but also the innovative potential inherent in any meeting of cultures."
    Mythological tales have inspired composers for centuries, and the flute repertoire includes "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from Orfeo by Christoph Willibald Von Gluck, Undine Sonate by Carl Reinecke, Chant du Linos by Andre Jolivet, La Flute de Pan by Jules Mouquet, Syrinx by Claude Debussy, Afternoon of a Faun by Claude Debussy, Chansons de Bilitis by Claude Debussy, Les Joueurs de flute by Albert Roussell, Kokopeli and Winter Sprits by Katherine Hoover, Narcissus by Thea Musgrave, "Sicilienne" from Pelleas et Melisande by Gabriel Faure, Pan by Johannes Donjon, and Danse de la Chevre by Arthur Honegger.

Works for Flute by Katherine Hoover
Flute Alone
Kokopeli (1990); Reflections (1982); Winter Spirits (1997)
Multiple Flutes
Kyrie, 12 flutes (1998); Sound Bytes (1990); Suite for Two Flutes, Boelke-Bomart; Three for Eight, 8 flutes (1996); Trio for Flutes (1974)
Flute and Other Instruments
Canyon Echos, guitar (1991 ); Caprice, guitar (2000); Dances & Variations, harp (199 5); Homage to Bartok, wind quintet (1975); Lyric Trio, cello, piano (1982); Masks, piano (1998); Medieval Suite, piano or orchestra; Theodore Presser Co.; Qwindtet, wind quintet (1987)
Except where noted all works are published by Papagena Press.