5 questions to Nick Hallett (singer, composer, multi-arts producer)

Composer, vocalist, and curator-producer Nick Hallett presents a concert of his songs later this month at Joe’s Pub, curiously titled Hallettiade, in the vein of Schubert’s legendary salons. We talked with him about the community he is creating for this evening, along with other highlights of his fall season. 

Nick Hallett (photo by Sabine Rogers)

Nick Hallett (photo by Sabine Rogers)

Your multifaceted artistic practice begins with the voice, how did your early training set the stage?

My musical education was primarily performance-based. I resisted the temptation of composition and studio art classes in favor of studying voice pedagogy, opera, electronic music, avant-garde theater, film/video, and dance. My current practice centers on the voice not only as a means of musical interpretation, but as a source of embodied creativity and inspiration for all kinds of cultural production. Just as my voice box is capable of communicating a diversity of sounds and genres of music, my proverbial voice extends way beyond singing, into art-making and community building, especially through my activities as a curator and cultural producer. At the core of this concern is what voices are drawn to do, and for me this starts with singing songs.

Your songs are central to your upcoming Hallettiade at Joe’s Pub in New York, how are you building the community for that performance?

The upcoming Joe’s Pub evening involves bringing opera singers together with voices from the worlds of indie rock, cabaret, and experimental performance. It will be interesting (for me at least) to hear these artists sing my material, both as individuals and with each other as a choir, the most elemental of musical communities. The Schubertiade-inspired format is a structure that helps me look at all the different ways in which a song becomes an art song. Sometimes this happens the traditional way through the uniting of music and language, but also via non-language as well, treating the voice as an instrument or sound.

How did your practice evolve as a hybrid of music and other art forms?

In different ways over the course of my career, I have been working to cultivate a connection between musical and visual forms of art. I try to capture this relationship in both my songs and performance projects. So I hope this connection is evident, even in the material I’m presenting at my Hallettiade. But I also think of this synergy in terms of community as well, by bringing together musicians and other artists in my cultural projects. I’m the music director of the Joshua Light Show, a team of live cinema artists founded by Joshua White in 1967, that will play with bands like Television and the duo of J. Spaceman and Kid Millions for our own festival at NYU’s Skirball Center in late October. The Darmstadt series that I co-curate with Zach Layton celebrates its 10th anniversary at The Kitchen in November, with a performance of Stockhausen’s 1961 music-theater piece, Originale, which was the composer’s response to the Fluxus and Happenings movements. I can’t announce all the participants just yet, but an interesting cross-section of artists, dancers, performance makers, and musicians will gather together and reframe a work that hasn’t played New York in 50 years, but in a very contemporary way that speaks to the ideas of community and diversity I am so obsessed with.

Nick Hallett in Whispering Pines 10 in Kraków, Poland  (photo by StudioFILMLOVE)

Nick Hallett performing Whispering Pines 10 at Cricoteka in Kraków, Poland, 2014 (photo by StudioFILMLOVE)

How do you see contemporary opera and how does it fit in to your overall practice?

My definition of opera is “art for composers,” and my approach involves collaborating with contemporary artists. I’m just back from Kraków, where Shana Moulton and I performed our work, Whispering Pines 10. It’s crazy to me that when we wrote the piece in 2010, we had a hard time getting the art world to present something that called itself opera. That word seemed too old-fashioned and pretentious. Nearly five years later, opera is all over the art world, and that is a good thing, as long as the musical aspects of what make opera so great continue to evolve. I’m composing music for the next chapter of the Whispering Pines opera cycle now, and will premiere some of this at the Hallettiade. I’ll also present an aria from another new opera project I’m developing for the Experiments in Opera series.

How are other recent collaborations affecting your ideas of community and diversity?

I’ve been lucky this year to have been involved in two extraordinary projects that further inspire my sense of what it means to be part of a community of artists. This past spring, I was one of 12 vocal soloists in performances of Anthony Braxton’s opera Trillium J at Roulette. More recently, I have been brought on to compose a new musical score for choreographer Bill T. Jones. This involves working directly with his company of dancers and coaching them to sing, which is very exciting for me. What I’m just in awe of is how both of these major artists in different realms of the cultural landscape deeply and authentically engage with diversity, and how that fundamentally affects the work they create. Bringing together artists of different skin colors, ages, genders, and sexualities is not just a forward-thinking approach to making opera or dance-theater, it is the future of art.

Upcoming performances:

September 27, 2014: Hallettiade: The Songs of Nick Hallett at Joe’s Pub in New York

October 23-25, 2014: The Joshua Light Show at NYU Skirball Center in New York

November 7-8, 2014: Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Originale at The Kitchen in New York