I caught up with Valérie shortly after a successful Classical Minds Guitar Festival (she is the festival’s Artistic Director).
The interview was conducted by Zoom, and it didn’t go exactly to plan. I had prepared a set of questions, but Valérie was far too engaging and interesting an interviewee for me to do anything but go with the flow of conversation.
First, give us a little background about your education in guitar and music generally.
My mother (a French national) was a classical guitarist who studied in Paris under Alberto Ponce and later at the New England Conservatory – she moved to the USA with my father, an American citizen. My childhood was split between America and France. I used to love to watch my mother practice, and I first picked up the guitar at the age of two. I would listen to her playing and look at the scores. While I was still a young child, I had a Ramirez guitar made for me. When I was about three and a half, my mother overheard me playing something to myself, and realised I was reading Villa Lobos’s Etude no.1. From then on she realised there was something special going on, and she started teaching me music seriously – solfège, sight reading etc. By the age of six, I was studying in summer school in Nice and playing in a masterclass with Alexandre Lagoya. Later I went to a ‘Magnet School’, a High School specialising in art, dance, music and theatre, where I was the only classical guitarist.
[A little more biography. Valérie met her husband in Virginia. She held a teaching position at the Houston Community College for several years, which she says was great from a professional point of view. It was there that she instigated the “Classical Minds” Guitar Festival at University of Houston through the Texas Music Festival. However, she and her husband had a taste for travel and new experience. They lived for some time in Anchorage, Alaska before moving to Europe, both having an affinity for European culture. In 2013 they settled in the UK where Valérie has maintained her successful concert and recording career, embarked on composing, continued directing the “Classical Minds” Guitar Festival, and teaches guitar and piano.]
I’d like to focus on your composing. When did you start?
I started writing about three years ago. Way back at the Magnet School I had a bad experience of trying to compose music – I was involved in a multi-arts project that I wrote the music for, but for various reasons it went badly wrong on the day of the performance, and got a bad reaction from my teacher, and that knocked me back. There was no recognition at the time for female composers and I guess I started thinking it was something boys did.
Years later, in England, I was doing a lot of arranging for classical guitar. When I was recording a version of the Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven”, my producer told me I should write a solo for it. That forced me to think about how to compose for guitar. It was daunting at first, but I did it – in effect I composed a short piece within a piece. This led to me writing and recording a couple of outros for rock bands who had got in touch on the strength of “Stairway to Heaven”.
My first complete original piece was “It Takes Two”. It was triggered by a dream where my left hand was complaining that my right hand was getting all the glory, especially when it comes to tremolo. My left hand argued it did not need the right hand. After a battle between the hands, they decided they needed each other after all. In the dream I heard specific phrases and, when I woke up, I immediately felt compelled to write the piece as I heard it in my dream. It took me two days to complete it.
How do you approach composing?
I have to write on the guitar. I can read a score and hear it in my head, but I can’t write direct from my head to the page, I have to try it out on the fingerboard. I record on video as I work. I work very intensely over long periods of concentration [Valérie describes herself as OCD].
What came next?
“Through the Ages”. This is a travel through time, like a history of music for the guitar. It took longer to write, because I studied music of the different eras. It takes the listener from early music through to the modern day. I went deeply into reading and thinking about the styles and techniques of those different ages.
So you use your knowledge of music theory in composing?
Yes, and even more so in composing for ensembles – I’ve written a number of pieces for guitar orchestra, and for various ensembles. I’m now thinking of getting deeper into music theory for composition, even maybe looking at doing a doctoral degree in composition.
Those first two pieces are published in a suite?
Yes, they are in the suite “Wanderlust”. (https://bergmann-edition.com/collections/hartzell-Valérie /products/hartzell-wanderlust). I seem to compose in suites of three pieces! The third piece in that suite, “Story of Us”, I wrote for my husband and me as a reflection on our travels. It took some weeks to write, and originally had a B section which we realised just didn’t really fit in the piece. That section eventually became a piece in its own right, “Garden Waltz” (premiered in a recital for the “Classical Minds” Guitar Festival by guitarist Eleanor Kelly). The three pieces seemed to have a common theme – travel. “It Takes Two” travels along the guitar; “Through the Ages” travels through time; and “Story of Us” is about physical travel. The title of the suite, “Wanderlust”, encapsulates that.
Then came a second suite?
Yes, “Three Nordic Sketches” (https://bergmann-edition.com/products/hartzell-three-nordic-sketches). These came about because I had an engagement as recitalist aboard a cruise ship sailing the Norwegian coast to the Arctic. The first piece, “Aurora Borealis”, was written over Christmas, 2 months before my trip because I knew the audience would get to see the Northern Lights, and was written very quickly. The second, “Ice”, started with a short phrase in harmonics, and I then challenged myself to see whether I could keep this going and write a whole piece in harmonics. It became an all-consuming task over several days. The third piece was inspired by the sight of great birds of prey over the ocean at Alta, up in the Arctic Circle. Having composed the piece while on board, I premiered it in a recital at the last concert on the Aurora Ship. I told my audience about the sight that had inspired it, and challenged them to come up with a title, which they did: “Wings Over Alta”.
Your compositions all seem to come with a story.
Yes. Both in playing and in composing, I am always telling a story. I don’t compose a piece unless I have something to say. I compose and play to communicate with a general audience, rather than an audience of guitarists. I write for classical guitar – though I would at some point like to try writing larger scale works, such as for orchestra, chamber music, choir and concerti, and maybe movie scores.
Why do you compose, do you think?
For myself, for my own enjoyment and self-expression. And now, having started, I feel I have wasted a long time not doing it.
You’ve talked a bit about under-representation of women in composing, and both your suites are dedicated to female guitarists who promote the work of women composers. Is this part of your inspiration?
Yes – and like I said, I felt from a young age that there were barriers to women doing this. But I’m not on a bandwagon about it. I don’t believe music should be included in a recital simply because it’s written by a woman: it has to be good music, music that I like and that the audience will want to hear.
You mentioned pieces you’ve written for guitar orchestra – tell me something more about that.
That’s a different approach altogether. I write those pieces by building them up on paper, using my knowledge of music theory. I write them for a specific purpose – for example to celebrate a particular place (geographic) or an event or occasion. The seasonal and topical ones are fun to do. I’ve done pieces for Christmas and Hallowe’en (the Hallowe’en one has evil fairies and Dr Who villains!). It’s great, particularly for a teacher or for working with guitar societies etc, if you have a stock of pieces that will get players participating.
Last question – for now. Thinking about your own legacy, would you rather it was as a performer or as a composer?
Now, I’d say composer. Also for my teaching – but yes, I’d really wish to be thought of as composer first, performer second. That’s quite a change!
Thanks Valérie for a tremendously entertaining conversation – I feel we might have to come back for more instalments.