Baltimore City Paper

Art and Soul: Local Composer Larry Hoffman Is Living Testament To It All Being About The Music, Man

Music scores, concert programs, obituaries, letters, article clippings, pictures, photos, and a vinyl record--layered atop one another like paper-thin puzzle pieces--grace a corner of the coffee table during a recent visit to composer Larry Hoffman's small but warm Mount Vernon studio apartment. The segmented room teems with other things he's picked up throughout his life: awards, diplomas, shelves, a record player, furniture, press passes, CDs, computers (two), framed photographs, books, and music. Hoffman, a floppy-haired guy in glasses, black T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers, is energetic, animated, gregarious, and a little scattered.

"I'm a blues player," he says. "And I was invited to play at Newport Blues Festival years ago by Skip James, one of the great blues geniuses. I'm very proud of that. You ever heard of Skip James?" He begins to play an acoustic guitar, eyebrows raised, mouth twanging.


During an interview about Colors--his classical piece for trumpet and percussion to premiere at the Brown Center Dec. 4--Hoffman talks about everything from blues ("it's a black cultural thing") to jazz ("it's becoming more academic") to Wynton Marsalis ("historically the greatest spokesman jazz has ever had") to his teachers, regularly leaving his couch to Google his mentions, explain his MySpace page, play a Skip James video on YouTube, or fish out articles and scores from his vast collection.

All of this is because his life has been filled with music--all kinds. Before coming to national attention in 1979, as a student at the Peabody Conservatory when his Music for Six Percussionists won an award in the Percussive Arts Society competition, Hoffman grew up a fan of country, folk, and blues, playing guitar, writing songs, opening for artists like James, Doc Watson, and John Hammond Jr., and dropping out of the English program at the University of Virginia to gig around San Francisco in the late 1960s. When he returned East, he studied with Dennis Sandole, John Coltrane's teacher. And while he was at Peabody--having decided to give up playing blues and jazz in favor of becoming a composer--he was co-chair of the school's preparatory theory department and ran an inner-city music program.


"I have a great love of blues and jazz," Hoffman says. "I was the freak [at Peabody]. I didn't understand their world, so I sort of made my own."

It was that insular yet driven method that made Hoffman thrive at Peabody and which has since borne Colors. Thanks to a close friend, Hoffman says he briefly met Baltimore Symphony Orchestra trumpet player Andrew Balio in passing, then attended the BSO's performance of a Shostakovich symphony in which Balio "played the shit out of" his solo. Those instances, combined with coincidence and Hoffman's own straightforwardness, led to their formal acquaintance.

"So I saw [Balio] around the neighborhood, right in front of my place," he recalls. "He's just walking by, and I said, `Hey, great solo the other night, man.' And he looked at me and he says, `Oh yeah, it's a great symphony.' And I said, `No it's not--but your solo was really good.' And he said, `How do you know that?' I said, `I know that.'"

A subsequent run-in had Hoffman working outside a local café on his wind quintet, when Balio passed by, became interested in it, and wound up in Hoffman's apartment listening to his music. Balio then suggested that Hoffman compose a piece for him and Philadelphia percussionist David DePeters, who played with the BSO until 2003.

Hoffman thought about it; he was also occupied with a new orchestral piece at the time. But even before an agreement had been reached with Balio and DePeters, he dreamed the central part of Colors, which he describes as having a "Bobby Hutcherson-Miles Davis thing--ambiance".

That's the kind of sense I had of it," Hoffman says. "I heard it and I felt it. And I woke up in the middle of the night and I said, That's it, and I wrote like two or three minutes of the piece. The next morning, I was ready for the worst. Seriously, I didn't know how it would sound. And I was very excited with how it sounded."

The commissioning of Colors was finalized in fall 2005. That December, Balio invited Hoffman to a Concert Lab series performance at MICA--real-time collaborations between BSO musicians and Maryland Institute College of Art artists, run by MICA research artist-in-residence and BSO violinist Ellen Orner--of which Balio is a resident artist. Hoffman was impressed with what he saw, Concert Lab became the context for the premiere of Colors, and he completed the piece in April.

"There's one note in here that's not even on the trumpet," he says. "But I needed it, I needed that particular note, you know? It's like, Oh fuck, I need this note. I can't--there's no other note.


"So I showed it to Andy [and] I said, `I know it's not on the instrument.' He said, `I can get it.'" ("It's a little risky," Balio says.)

The most demanding aspect for DePeters is moving between three setups containing a glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone, temple blocks, wood blocks, high and medium tom-toms, and small, antique cymbals called crotales. He and Balio describe Colors as challenging and difficult, but Hoffman takes it in stride.

"When somebody tells you my music is difficult, it doesn't bother me," he says. "I think there's a precedent for that, and I think that's because the composers are writing for the music. They're not writing to make it easily played. They're writing because the music dictates what needs to be done."

Named for the aural shades it contains--long before he knew it would be interpreted visually--Colors presented a test for Hoffman: "to try to get as many different colors as I could with the trumpet and the percussion together. So I have very brittle-sounding colors [leading] up to this multicolored center that I dreamt. And then it comes out back being fairly brittle."

Despite the piece's complexity, Hoffman doesn't feel concertgoers need to be skilled or educated to listen to classical music--or music in general. "I think music has the quality of uplifting you, great music does," he says. "I don't think you need to have any education. I think you need to have exposure."

That exposure comes Dec. 4 when MICA seniors Michelle O'Connell and Ayda Turanli provide live visual improvisation accompaniment to Balio and DePeters' performance of Hoffman's Colors. The composer looks forward to a successful event but says the issue of people liking or not liking it isn't important. "If you're creating anything because you want people to really like it--if that's your goal--then you should be doing it with the idea of making a lot of money," he says. "Because that's what people do when they like something: They spend money on it.


"But if you're doing it as an artist, then your goal is within the music. Your goal is in the art. And that's why that note that's not on the trumpet is in my piece."