Lisa Hilton: Composer, Pianist, and Woman Extraordinaire
// Image courtesy of Lisa Hilton.
Interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
What's your earliest memory of music?
LH: I remember at a very young age begging my mom for a piano. She wanted to get an instrument that had drum patterns and different sound capabilities, but I wanted a piano—and that’s what we got!
I know you have quite a background in art, as well. I wonder how you think of visual art compared to music?
LH: I like thinking of art in that it is more physical while music is ephemeral, so that makes it hard to create descriptors for it, right? We try to do that with words like flowy, or rhythmic, or staccato—but what do those words really mean? If we take the idea out of the context of music it’s easier to describe, and solve. I need texture here, the form is weak right there, I’ve got to firm that part up—we understand these concepts if we give them more of a visual description and using art words helps our minds find solutions.
Can you talk about Impressionist themes in your music?
LH: Like many people, I love the stories of the artists of the Impressionist era and their desire to represent life in a different way through their painting techniques. Even their subject matter was scandalous—haystacks! So many different approaches all ignited around the same basic concepts about 100 years ago. I think we want to hear new things that also remind us a bit of our past. We could tell Monet was painting haystacks and water lilies but his brush strokes and colors were new to the eye. I think I can do that with music—use new ways of putting familiar ideas together, but I'm not using a brush or colors. The Impressionists were also engaged in creating beauty—something I appreciate, too.
Do other visual art or design forms manifest in your musical work, too?
LH: I often think of sculpture too. But I am influenced mostly by the ideas behind the art and the great artists that committed their lives to their creativity.
Creation is such a special and sacred act—as a composer, what is some advice you might give to aspiring student composers and arrangers? (Asking for a friend… who is myself!)
LH: I personally think there is nothing more fun than creativity. When I say we should nurture it, I am really saying take time for yourself doing what you love—we often put our own desires last. I think you need to be quiet to hear your creativity though. If you’re really busy it’s hard to produce with a snap of your fingers. You can but that’s more about luck and inherent talent, but nurturing something great is a wonderful feeling! The “creative high” is very real. Just be patient and kind and listen to your creative spirit and trust it.
Thoughts on theory, and its role with regard to the actual act of creating or composing? I think there are different ways to create.
LH: Looking at art: conceptual artists, pop artists, color field painters—they had a specific theme or concept that led their work through exploration of those ideas. Other artists, like myself, write from the inside out—the music just pops out of me when I’m quiet, and then I listen to it and develop it. Other creative people prefer to work with an assignment approach: such as fulfilling a commission, following certain principles of theory, etc. I personally don’t rely on theory in any way, and I think I can tell which composers are like this too. I think that at best, theory can help you solve an issue if you get stuck maybe. I like to compare composing to falling in love—the excitement, newness, getting to understand the positive parts and the issues. I would not want to follow any rules or theory in love! But I know artists that prefer an assignment to compose or create to. For me I think I would feel pressure. I remember I had a class and our first assignment was to write a fugue. Well, I dropped the class because I did not want to waste my time on a fugue, but I’m sure others found it interesting to solve.
Favorite performance memory?
LH: Right now that would be February 21, 22, 23, 2020—the last three shows I did with my band in California. All three shows were great! Also, the first time I played Carnegie Hall was a big deal—a wonderful feeling of accomplishment too.
What's your favorite piece of music (written by you or anyone else!) to play at the piano?
LH: All my songs are ALL my favorites! I know I will spend about 100 plus hours with each composition from development, notation, practicing, recording, editing and listening, so I promise you I audition everything thoroughly—nothing gets by that I don’t like. On our new album Transparent Sky my favorite is "Santa Monica Samba"—it was written on a beautiful fall day at sunset last fall and it’s very fun to play. C.P.E. Bach, Solfiggietto, and Miles Davis, “Blue In Green” are favorites. Every summer I sight read the entire collection of all Chopin’s compositions—900 plus pages and enjoy a lot of them and I normally play a bit of J.S. Bach—The Well-Tempered Clavier. I also love playing Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Jazz, jazz, jazz… I've had some interesting conversations in the past around the idea of genre or categorization, especially in the classical vs. jazz naming system, or even subset labels like "free jazz" or "modal" or "improvisational." What do you think about this type of categorization? Any benefits? Any disadvantages?
LH: I was discussing this actually with the copyright office: how do you describe music? Jazz is similar—how do you describe something that has no physical capacity and lasts a moment only? I try to focus on where we are going instead. When I was little I studied “Modern Music”—which had a lot of atonalities and is now called twentieth century music. I feel that what is happening in music is much more genre-less—I don’t think we should call it jazz, free jazz or modal—all twentieth century terms—twenty-first century music sounds different than last century and has certain characteristics across the board. What you and I write and play should be called twenty-first century music, not something from 100 years ago.
As an incredibly accomplished person in so many fields—performance, bandleading, composition, and so many more!—how do you look forward? When you look to your future, what do you see or hope to create?
LH: Wow, thank you for your kind words! I think mostly of what I would like to do in little blocks of time—or “seasons.” Right now I’m polishing my compositions before the studio. Spring is my composing season. Of course there’s always media and marketing season—getting the music ready to go out into the public. I don’t ask myself to be creative in all ways all the time—I focus for about three to five months on one aspect. If I’m in post-production I don’t compose, for example. I use different parts of my creativity at different times. So I don’t look forward too far. When I’m finished with a project I feel euphoric and content. But then… it starts up again… the urge to work on the next creative project….
Favorite non-music-related moments in life?
LH: Of course time with family and friends is the best and I always enjoy being in nature. I think recording in the studio is really the most exciting for me because I can listen after again and again. When you perform you’re never quite sure how everyone did! When you record you can savor the moment and the displays of virtuosity and talent later—I love that part—but I guess those are music related moments! (Sorry!)
How would you describe yourself in three words? How about your music?
LH: I hope you could say consistent—one of my sayings is "Consistency is King”—it rules in terms of moving anything forward in your life. You don’t need to cram or push or stress if you are consistent. Clarity is where it all starts though: where are you going? What is the goal? Would you get in the car and not know where you were headed? No, but we do that with our life all the time! When you clarify you have a high percentage possibility of reaching your aspiration—it really helps. Lastly I’d like to say I’m committed: I’m willing to say no to a lunch or a party or a trip or TV because I have a commitment to my art. It’s very quiet but you can feel it I think. Clarity, commitment and consistency.
I see that you speak up about women who are composers. Can you please tell us a bit about your experience?
LH: Throughout time women have been composers—most famously classical virtuoso pianist Clara Schumann who would give advice to her husband Robert, and American composer, pianist, singer, arranger and bandleader Lil Hardin, who was the wife of Louis Armstrong who also taught him musical theory. Surprisingly, we know these husbands so much more than their more educated wives. Today we continue to see women being under-represented as composers and bandleaders, although they are credited as singers and instrumentalists. Every opera house, performing arts center, and jazz club in the world today plays the compositions primarily of men, and we also see men primarily as conductors, band leaders, and orchestra leaders. We really need to improve the parity in music. When I played January 2020 at Carnegie Hall, I noted after a standing ovation that all the music we performed that night was written by women composers. The audience loved hearing that! I hope that by speaking up I can help bring more attention to this. I’m sure at Harvard on any given program, if it’s not in a pop field, the program presented was created by men. I’d like to change that!
// Aarya A. Kaushik ‘24 is a staff writer for the Jazz Spectrum.