How would you characterise your compositional language?
I’m interested in music as a kind of storytelling, stemming from the work of J.S. Bach and the music of his era. My own dialect of that language includes odd meters and sometimes strange tunings — elements which are obviously foreign to the baroque model.
How do you go about composing a new piece?
I like to plan collections of pieces having some compelling overall structure. Once I‘ve planned a project, writing the individual pieces is mostly a matter of setting aside enough time to do the work, and then I usually write fairly quickly. For me there is nothing better than writing. Time disappears and I need nothing else.
Of which works are you most proud?
There are some pieces I like better than others, but on the days when things might come together particularly well, I don’t want to start congratulating myself. Shortcomings are usually all too obvious, but it’s also never possible to be totally aware of all the flaws in my own work. The more I learn, the more flaws become apparent, and the more I can improve what I write. That’s a never-ending process. When I look back on something I’ve written, if I don’t see more flaws in it than I did when I wrote it, then I’m not working hard enough.
Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Bach’s music is the most direct stylistic influence, although certainly not the only one. I started out as a drummer, and the younger me listened to a lot of progressive rock and jazz, among other things. I was a percussionist in youth orchestras and later a violist in university and community orchestras. I used to draw a lot, and how I think about form comes in part from visual art.
Discovering Martin Vogel’s book “On the Relations of Tone” and Harry Partch’s “Genesis of a Music” represents a turning point for me in my late 20’s, the realisation that all music is microtonal, which led me to later develop a microtonal theory and to invent the Tonal Plexus keyboard, and also to write a book of preludes and fugues in microtonal tunings (the first of its kind) called “The Equal-Tempered Keyboard”. Of course, I also think of all my teachers and friends, and my departed parents.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring composers?
Harmony, counterpoint, tonality, and microtonality — education should focus on these things. Early music continuo players (and in a different way jazz players) are virtually the only musicians of our time who are fluent in traditional tonality in a competent practical way, meaning the ability to communicate with other musicians in a common musical language. I’d like to see more composers in possession of that kind of skill. The core of instruction in composition should focus on a strong foundation in harmony, counterpoint, form, keyboard skills, and basic improvisation. Those are essential skills, no matter what type of music you want to write. I also hope for a future in which music is taught from the ground up as inherently microtonal, where the theory of music includes all possible pitches and intervals, so the harmony we know today can continue to develop into the future in a way that expands into new dimensions without abandoning our traditions. This is the most important frontier in Western music history, and it involves a number of significant problems: vocabulary, notation, instruments, performance-practice, composition, and education. I dedicated many years of my life to addressing all those aspects with a complete system which anyone educated in the traditional system can easily understand, use, and teach. What happens with that will be up to future generations.
What are some of the challenges of pursuing a career as a composer?
When you’re surrounded by fellow musicians at a conservatory, you can easily have your music performed by your peers, and money plays no role. Later in life, even if that network still exists, it’s not so easy, because professionals have to worry about making a living. If you’re writing in the tradition of high art-music, the hard truth is that most of the world has no time for what you’re doing. So it becomes a spiritual challenge to continue writing. You have to nurture your personal faith, figure out why you are writing, believe in the value of what you’re doing for its own sake, and find ways to reach people. The best music should eventually find an audience, but there are no guarantees. You have to be driven by the pure love of it.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences and listeners?
Some obvious things can be done like providing classically-oriented music education and fostering that culture in communities and homes. I believe the concert-hall will always have a future for preserving the best music of the past, but if it’s to be more than just a museum for old masterworks, then the best new works must be given the time and attention they deserve. The bar has been set very high by all the music that has endured from previous generations, and that should inspire young composers to write new music of the highest quality.
What is your definition of success as a composer?
The music we love, which accompanies us throughout our lives, was usually written by someone else. That love is what ultimately drives music in the broadest sense — the love of it and the sense of personal discovery and meaning connected with that. So while I feel satisfied when a piece I’ve written rings true to me, especially if I’ve applied something new that I’ve learned or improved some aspect of my writing, ultimately a successful piece is one that manages to connect with and become meaningful to someone else. The goal is to contribute to a wider spiritual consciousness.
What is your present state of mind?
I’ve lived in Germany for about six years now, having previously lived in the United States all my life. There are clear differences between these two states of mind, to do with language and culture, forms of government, history, economics, and so on. The German state of mind certainly has its own set of difficulties, but on the whole I have to say I prefer it to the American state of mind. I feel life is much more reasonable here. I’m grateful and contented.
Aaron Andrew Hunt is an American composer living in Germany. He teaches theory, counterpoint and composition to a small number of private students.