Nov. 2, 1947 — Feb. 8, 2023
For those who heard composer Hilary Tann *81’s music, her creativity and connection to nature were unmistakable. Her ability to blend unusual combinations of sounds to paint vivid pictures of scenery and landscapes was a gift that many truly admired.
Eventually identifying as a “nature composer,” Tann explained the journey she hoped her music would provoke for listeners: “As a composer, I’ve given you, the listener, license to be visually and referentially imaginative when you hear my music,” Tann said in a 2013 conversation with theorist Arthur Margolin *83 published by the International Alliance for Women in Music. “For me, the title is very often a guide to the leading idea of the piece, and I would like the listener to enjoy the growth process while listening as much as I did while writing.”
Tann’s music career began at an early age. By the time she was 6, the Welsh native took to the piano and began writing. She learned to play cello and participated in local youth orchestras. Her love for music never wavered, as she went on to earn her first degree in music composition from the University of Wales.
She excelled but had a choice to make if she truly wanted to follow her dreams to become a composer. The role of women in Wales was very traditional and confining, says Tann’s cousin William Todd-Jones. “The chance of her becoming a composer and being taken seriously … was not going to happen here,” he adds. So, Tann left for Princeton.
“Her reputation among musicians was just phenomenal, and it was clear that the people that played her music just fell in love with it.”
— Rain Worthington
Composer and colleague
At that point in the late ’70s, women on campus were still a new phenomenon, and that was especially true among those getting advanced degrees in music. Tann was among the first women to earn a Ph.D. in composition from Princeton. It wasn’t hostile, but it was cold, recalls composer and musician Stefania de Kenessey *84.
At Princeton, Tann studied with professors James Randall *58 and Milton Babbitt *42 *92. She already stood out as a woman, but her compositions and the fact that she would give them titles and indicate sources of inspiration were also unique. Tann’s music incorporated counterpoint — a technique where two or more lines of melodies are present in a piece — featured unusual combinations of instruments, and was complex in ways that differed from others. “That was the first inkling that she was moving in a different direction,” de Kenessey says. “Back in those days, both stylistically or aesthetically, it took some courage to be different from the norm.”
From there, Tann’s career took off. Among her accomplishments: She taught at Union College in Schenectady, New York, for nearly four decades, composed works for more than 60 CDs, was commissioned by various festivals, ensembles, and artists, founded groups, established scholarships, and participated in a number of professional music organizations.
“She was prolific … . She always had a commission, always had a new project going on,” says Rain Worthington, a composer who had a close working relationship with Tann. She was in demand, Worthington adds. “Her reputation among musicians was just phenomenal, and it was clear that the people that played her music just fell in love with it.”
Music was Tann’s life, but she was so much more. She loved dogs and used the opportunity to take long walks and hikes with her pets to indulge in nature. She loved haiku poetry and was a founding member of the Route 9 Haiku Group. The small group met monthly over dim sum to share their short poems and collaborate on published journals they released twice a year.
Tann’s interest in haiku — a form of poetry that originated in Japan — is not surprising considering how much she loved Japanese culture. She learned to play the shakuhachi (vertical bamboo flute) and spent time in a number of other Asian countries, including China, South Korea, and Thailand.
This passion led to Tann meeting her husband, David Bullard, who also had an affinity with Japanese culture. The couple lived in the Marshall House — a historic home in Schuylerville, New York, that was one of the sites of the Battle of Saratoga during the Revolutionary War. “They were very content, you know, living in their country place, walking the dog, playing music. It seemed idyllic,” says David’s daughter Spring Bullard.
Maybe most of all, Tann enjoyed working with students and helping to set them up for success. Eunmi Ko, a pianist, was a student at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and connected with Tann through emails. They met a few years later in 2011 when Tann was the composer-in-residence for a music festival at the school. Ko was surprised Tann remembered her. Tann became a mentor to Ko and always supported her work. “I felt very lucky to get to know her and get her support,” says Ko. She always told Ko she was happy to help — those were Tann’s last words to her.
Tann’s death came as a shock. She had a successful cancer treatment in 2020, and had COVID during the pandemic but appeared to many to be fine. Bullard was very ill — family and friends had begun to prepare for his death. But when the phone rang, it was about Tann. She died of a heart attack on Feb. 8, 2023. Bullard died less than two weeks later.
Though retired from Union College, the 75-year-old was still working on commissions. “She was full of plans, you know, to come home [to Wales] and there were so many of the other pieces that she wanted to write,” says Rhian Davies, a historian of Welsh music and longtime friend of Tann.
Her music and passion for working with students will be Tann’s legacy. All the materials from her professional career, including notes from her Princeton classes, will be archived at the National Library of Wales. But family, friends, colleagues, and students will miss her intriguing way with words, wicked humor, emotional responses, infectious laugh, and soft-spoken nature that was taken away unexpectedly.
“It’s a reminder that life is very ephemeral,” says Jennifer Matsue, chair of the Music Department at Union. “Which is something that Hilary would probably tell us to embrace.”
Carlett Spike is PAW’s associate editor.