Dr. Edward Hart’s Approach to Composition

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As a fledgling high school graduate nervously performing for a Music Department scholarship, I was understandably intimidated by meeting the department chair Dr. Edward Hart. Of course he was extremely friendly and I had the recommendation of my friend and mentor Dr. Vassilandonakis, and yet, the department chair! This man was known for his fluent, down-to-earth classical pieces that represented the Lowcountry’s natural beauty and evocation; I figured composition came to him as did breathing, and that a theory professorship was an endowment reserved for his supreme level of talent.

How remarkably far from the truth I was. All in a simple fifteen-minute interview I heard the true feelings of Dr. Hart on his career. Still friendly and willing as ever, he let me sit in the more comfortable chair in the back of his orderly musical office. He sat down and recounted the birth of his musical affinity: the Mozartian boon of practicing piano from age 4. He conceded that “practicing” was more of improvising for fun and weaseling through lessons, writing down his favorite ditties. He always had an interest, but throughout his education, other pathways than music beckoned. Dr. Hart even began college with an economics major, with no more time for noodling about the piano. Yet he still found himself preferring Beethoven’s symphonies to the gross domestic product, and soon he decided to steer his determined efforts toward a career in composition, his fondest calling.

With the help of his cherished mentor Dick Goodwin, Dr. Hart produced several research compositions at the University of South Carolina. He realized that his greatest inspiration was simply the world about him: the natural splendor of the Palmetto State to which his agrarian roots attached, and the idiosyncratic city life of Columbia and Charleston. As Dr. Hart adjusted to his new career of teaching at the College of Charleston, he grew increasingly drawn to this abundant inspiration, and he developed his unique musical voice, the dream of all composers. He now resides as chair of the department, and his research is the lustrous pieces he weaves.

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Yet the weaving process is not simply absorbing inspiration and translating onto paper. Dr. Hart does believe that notes form an abstract language, and are meant to express and suggest, not just to entertain the listener. Therefore composing requires intensive inventing and understanding material. The hardest part for Dr. Hart is inventing; he jettisons countless motivic ideas (though not completely discarding them) before finding the mot juste. Once he understands the piece he is writing, he contends that it writes itself. But that understanding takes a tuned mind, a seasoned ear (his ranges from Alban Berg to Led Zeppelin), a stamped passport, and above all an undying determination. In the climax of the interview, Dr. Hart tells all past and future undergraduate composers that composing is not easy and never second-nature; it takes determination, self-honesty, and patience. He encourages seeking out evocative senses and perceptions, and never letting those go. He suggests not to throw out a bad idea but to save it for another context. And he promises that the work is worth hearing the work performed. No one could have left that interview uninspired; I thanked him and exited with a wide grin, my own determination to become a music professor reinvigorated and augmented tenfold.

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