An Ear to the Ground

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Blake Cole
Friday, February 14, 2014

From nine to five, Joseph Hallman works at Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies, interfacing with faculty and departments on course logistics. Outside the office, however, Hallman has a side gig dreaming up musical landscapes that recently landed him a Grammy nod.

Hallman began writing music at the age of 12. A multi-instrumentalist and singer, he composed two pieces on the album Sprung Rhythm, nominated in the category of Best Surround Sound. The two works are entirely different beasts. "Three Poems of Jessica Hornik" is a song cycle based on “lost-love/love-lost poems,” while the second composition, titled "Lovecraftian Elsewheres," is a suite of miniatures based on the horror writer’s works.

“For the poetry song cycle, I wanted something pretty and modal and gorgeous,” says Hallman. “The Lovecraft-inspired piece is creepy, weird, and not necessarily beautiful—it’s from the opposite universe. Some of the passages have whispering and strange aural effects.”

Both pieces were commissioned by Inscape Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble founded by one of Hallman’s high school friends. The music label, Sono Luminus, who submitted the pieces to the Grammy Recording Academy for consideration, is a pioneer in surround sound. This allowed for the compositions to be written for and recorded in seven channels—up from normal surround sound’s five. While the basic structure—cycle versus suite—is usually decided upon when a piece is commissioned, Hallman was given a wide berth in choosing their themes.

“I try to create the world that the piece is coming out of,” says Hallman, “be it text or some other inspiration, and to understand the piece in and of itself before I start it. Then usually the piece just kind of writes itself.”

The song cycle is a result of Hallman’s longtime collaboration with poet Jessica Hornik, while the Lovecraft-inspired miniatures are born out of sleepless nights—literally.

“I was having bouts of insomnia, and Lovecraft was the only thing that would help me sleep,” Hallman says. ”I would have these weird dreams afterwards. So I tried to reimagine some of the surreal settings of those dreams as pieces.”

After the writing process is complete, Hallman sends the score to the orchestra. This includes not only each musician’s parts, but the complete score so conductor can see how things line up. Hallman will sometimes Skype into rehearsals to provide guidance, and also gets a final “draft” of a recording to review for possible adjustments.

Hallman’s nomination might afford him a different access. Already a facet in the local music scene, working on everything from remixes to experimental pop, he hopes to create community through a Philly Grammy chapter and a series of EPs with local musicians.

He is already hard at work on a follow-up with the same orchestra. “I dreamed up a fictional witch—I guess all witches are fictional,” he laughs. “Anyway, I just sort of imagined her learning spells. So it’s like a tone poem in the form of three spells that sort of structure the way the piece is set up.”

In addition, he recently completed a new song cycle in Vermont in collaboration with the state's poet laureate, Sydney Lea. The piece, called “Suite in Mudtime,” is a reference to Vermont’s muddy springtime season.

Hear some of Hallman's works

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