Satisfying Blues: Larry Hoffman's Steady Rollin' String Quartet

From the opening notes of Baltimore-based composer Larry Hoffman's String Quartet No. 1 "The Blues," 17th-century instruments sound notes in meters for which snide purists may claim they were never intended. During the 15 minutes of its often swinging movement, two violins, a viola, and a cello re-create the strolling rhythms and plaintive peals of the blues, all interpolated into a classical vocabulary. The piece had its world premiere Dec. 1, performed by the Axelrod String Quartet at the National Museum of American History, as part of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society's 2001-'02 season, alongside string-quartet pieces by Franz Joseph Haydn and Beethoven.

"[It] was a historic moment in the history of this country's classical and blues music," says William Ferris, chairperson of the National Endowment of the Humanities. Ferris, who founded the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and ran it for 18 years before joining the NEH in 1997, attended both the Dec. 1 premiere and a second performance the following night. "It was a well-attended and enthusiastically received performance," Ferris says, "and the musicians were clearly excited to play this new music."

Ferris is not alone in lauding the piece. Writing in The Washington Post Dec. 3, Ronald Broun called Hoffman's composition "highly intelligent," noting that it is "inflected not only with the traditional blues notes (slightly flatted thirds and sevenths), but also shuffles forward in a blues time."

In his 55 years Hoffman has worn many musical hats--player, producer, educator, and critic. But it's in the creative activity of composition that Hoffman's lifetime living and breathing music bears fruit. With String Quartet No. 1 "The Blues," Hoffman has risen to meet a personal challenge: joining traditional American music with classical composition.

As a kid the Pikesville native's ears were pricked by folk music, sparking a passion for traditional forms such as country and blues that he nursed into his teens, teaching himself to play ukulele, banjo, and guitar. He entered the University of Virginia as an English major but music remained his focus; he occasionally hitchhiked from Charlottesville to Washington to hear acts such as Mississippi John Hurt and the Country Gentlemen, and he spent the summer of 1964 performing in Provincetown on Cape Cod. Not only were these his first paying gigs, but he found himself opening for Skip James, and duetting with the venerable bluesman as a segue between their sets.

At the end of the summer, James invited Hoffman to the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and introduced the younger man to such then-living legends as Son House and Bukka White. The experience offered a lesson in the difference between playing a form of music and understanding it, culturally and cognitively.

"So I got to Newport and [James] was like, 'OK, we'll do that song between sets,'" Hoffman recalls. "And I looked around and there was Son House and Bukka White, and I was [thinking], There's no way that I can go up on that stage and portray that culture. I was the only white guy up there.

"That sort of changed my whole head-set, when I saw really what that music was. It wasn't just fun music that I took off the records. It was these people. And it was their culture. And so I just didn't [play]."

Two years later, Hoffman left college and headed to San Francisco, playing in Bay Area folk circles and teaching guitar. He remained out west until 1970, when he returned to Baltimore, and began studying music theory as passionately as he had studied playing. He started driving up to Philadelphia weekly to learn about jazz from the late Dennis Sandole, best known as John Coltrane's instructor. Around the same time, Hoffman heard Brahms' Fourth Symphony for the first time.

"I don't know where I was, but I'll never forget hearing that because I wrote a letter to my brother saying, 'Finally I've heard music with a capital M,'" he says. "After all these years of hearing music--not that I loved folk music any less or thought any less of it, but the universality of that symphony, [it] just took me someplace that music had never taken me before. . . .

"And then I knew what I had to do," Hoffman says. "I had to put this wonderful folk music into serious form. Of course there's George Gershwin and other instances of it, isolated cases in the literature. But no one has ever really made of point of capturing that essence."

Hoffman entered the Peabody Conservatory in 1975 and left with a master's degree in music theory and composition in 1983. He enjoyed critical success with some early compositions--his Music for Six Percussionists was a published prize winner in the National Percussive Arts Society competition in 1979, and Blues for Harp, Oboe, and Violincellowas recorded by members of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra in 1985. By the early 1990s, though, Hoffman was back in the blues, producing a number of acclaimed albums (including Corey Harris' 1997 Fish Ain't Bitin') and annotating others (he received a Grammy nomination for his liner notes to 1996's Mean Old World: The Blues 1940-1994 boxed set). Throughout, Hoffman continued to teach guitar students. But the itch to compose was still there, long unscratched.

Returning to his dream of merging folk and classical idioms, Hoffman faced the challenge of finding a way to fix in a score music that is, on a basic level, intuitive--and doing so without losing the vibrancy of the living blues. "I am trying to define the nuance of the authentic music in classic terms for classical instruments," he says. "The composers who are my beacons or my guides along the way are Béla Bartók, with what he did with the music of Hungary, and [Leos] Janácek, with what he did with the music of Czechoslovakia. That's what I'm looking at, and it just doesn't seem to me like it's been taken seriously [in America]."

Hoffman has found a unique compositional voice with his first string quartet, capturing both idioms acutely, making neither subservient to the other. The piece's arch structure features four choruses of blues in different styles, with a swinging bridge based on a prison song and an atonal development at its center. It's a rhythmically complex work that feels and sounds so effortlessly organic that you wonder why no other composer has tried it previously.

"It's not been done before because there have been no classical composers who are conversant in the blues and no blues scholars who are comfortable with classical music," Ferris says. "And Larry Hoffman's piece provides the artistic bridge between those two worlds."

What's most impressive is that Hoffman has found a compositional voice with his first string quartet ever. Composing music, however, is often is as financially desolate as visual art. With any luck, Hoffman will find the resources to continue building on his body of work until it is as rich and rewarding as the music that first grabbed his ears.

"We have such great folk roots and music coming out of this country," Hoffman says. "Why does something have to be European for orchestras? I think [that] is one of the great failings of this country's serious music. The greatness of a Brahms intermezzo or a Little Walter solo or a Charlie Parker solo is its honesty. So for me the question is, 'Can I combine [traditional and classical forms] in a way not so much that it's convincing but in that it's an honest expression of my experience?

"I'm not the blues. I'm not from the country. To me those are cultural expressions. I think they can be translated. But you have to find a way to do it honestly."

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