Music with Minnesotans: Patricia Hampl

by Alison Young, Minnesota Public Radio
December 14, 2011
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St. Paul, Minn. — Patricia Hampl returns to her first love with music for piano.

Yes, yes, she is one of our most celebrated writers but she started her college career as a music major, saying that it was "devoutly to be wished" that she leave music because her image of piano performer had more to do with a black velvet dress, a plunging neckline and flowers on the stage and not so much about proficiency.

She was lucky to have a great teacher Bernhard Weiser at the U who helped her get inside the music and that experience stuck with her for the rest of her life musicians, composers, pianos and pianists make their way into her writing.

That writing got its sustenance in the English Department where Garrison Keillor became one her first champions. Now, Patricia teaches in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota, her work listed in the New York Times "100 Notable Books of the Year," she won a Guggenheim Fellowship and she gets to spend her summers teaching in Prague.

I wanted a piano for my birthday. I want one now.
- from "Birthday during a Lenten snowstorm" by Patricia Hampl

We'll hear gorgeous music in Patricia's playlist - music she studied herself - along with a poem "Birthday during a Lenten Service" that describes the delivery of a grand piano to the Hampl home on her ninth birthday in the middle of snowstorm. She describes perfectly that anticipation and desire of a young budding musician.

And having made music herself she has a kind of connection to Bach in particular that she describes as beyond emotional but to a kind of spiritual core - a connection between consciousness body, mind, spirit all together that's so charged but has a kind of reticence that resonates with her.

Another piece she brought in is a work we do not play often, Leos Janacek's "On an Overgrown Path" a piece she discovered through writer Bill Holm - also a writer and part-time pianist. During the Cold War it was music that was all but unavailable in the United States. Years later, Patricia could buy her own copy in Prague. Particularly resonating with her are the titles of the movements which Janacek added after he wrote the piece to give more of a literary quality and meaning to the experience.

Patricia Hampl has written text for choral works as well. Libby Larson was commissioned by Philip Brunelle's ensemble at that time called the Plymouth Music Series. It's "In a Winter Garden" that tells the story of a nun losing her faith and being led back by a gardener. She laughs when she tells me that it's surprising how few words are needed in a libretto; one must be judicious!

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Patricia Hampl's playlist:

Leos Janacek, On an overgrown path - Rudolf Firkusny

J.S. Bach, French Suite No. 2: Allemande - Andras Schiff

Claude Debussy, Girl with the Flaxen Hair - John O'Conor

Libby Larson, In a Winter Garden - Philip Brunelle, Plymouth Music

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Next week visual designer and web developer David Simmer joins me. He's also a tri-athlete and in his last race he tell me he heard Elgar's Nimrod. "Intensity isn't solely the domain of electric guitars and distortion pedals, for sure!"

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