“There’s almost a degree of magical thinking that goes along with ‘Can I make a career in composition,’” says Han Lash ‘04E, the Eastman graduate, lauded composer, and current associate professor of composition at Indiana University who returns next week as this year’s Howard Hanson Visiting Professor for a week-long residency. Their works will be featured in two concerts: Tuesday, March 14, 3 p.m. and on Wednesday, March 15 at 7:30 p.m., both in Hatch Recital Hall.
Magical thinking seems especially pertinent to someone with a successful and unconventional career as a multimodal musical artist. Lash not only composes but is also a virtuosic harpist who is often engaged by major ensembles to perform their own works. This includes a double harp concerto, which they recently wrote and premiered with the Seattle Symphony in 2021, as well as a harp concerto they wrote and premiered with the American Composers Orchestra in Carnegie Hall in 2015.
And that’s not all: The harp-playing composer is also a professional dancer looking to fuse together movement, musical performance, and composition.
“One never knows exactly what draws one to the path that one takes,” says Lash in contemplation, attributing their rural upstate New York upbringing to their unusual path. Interested in composition as a small child, “the thought of being a composer was pretty solid in my head, but how to get there was not.”
After early studies on the violin and piano, their aunt, a professional harpist, influenced Lash to shift gears to the most magical instrument of all, the harp. By age 14, Lash’s family was driving an hour and a half, each way, so Lash could study with Eastman professor Kathleen Bride. Homeschooled at the time, Lash received early admittance to Eastman on the harp at age 15 but deferred for a year at the instance of their mother.
Enter dance. Midway through their undergraduate degree at Eastman, Lash left Eastman to pursue professional dance training. But more magical thinking brought Lash back to Eastman to complete a degree—this time as a composition major. Lash always wanted to compose but didn’t originally apply for the concentration because they felt they lacked enough of a portfolio.
It was their first composition lesson when back at Eastman that solidified their status as a composer. Lash brought in a piece based on a tango to a lesson with Professor David Liptak, eager to finally talk to someone about their works. “He played it over with a lot of panache, it was really impressive,” Lash remembered. “He said, ‘it’s a great piece.’ And I remember feeling so encouraged, so nurtured in that moment.”
Liptak also remembers those early lessons. “From the beginning of our lessons, Han’s intuition about melody and lyrical writing was personal and compelling” he says. “This was just at the beginning of things, of course, but the composer’s mind was evident in Han’s work.”
Then there was the model composition class with Professor Robert Wason, with assignments to write short works mirroring the styles of composers from the Romantic period through the first half of the 20th century. It was where Lash belonged.
“I just remember this class being in this very small room and it was a little bit claustrophobic but very cozy and somehow the energy really burbled in that class,” Lash said. “And I remember writing these pieces that felt so meaningful to me. I just remember playing these things over in the class and feeling like ‘wow, it doesn’t get much better than this.’”
Following Eastman, Lash was admitted to Harvard for a PhD in composition. Lash took a detour from that, too, to earn an artist’s diploma in harp at the Cleveland Institute of Music, before returning to graduate. And then Lash received another artist’s diploma at Yale University, in composition, where they were then engaged to teach composition on the faculty while fielding big commissions.
“I’m probably not alone in the experience that you don’t necessarily fully appreciate how formative your undergraduate experience was until you’re really far away from it,” Lash says. “And then looking back on it, you think to yourself, ‘wow, that just had so much to do with the way that my thinking is shaped, my outlook on music, and how I tend to work my way through musical issues.’ Those years that I spent at Eastman were just so important to me in that way.”
Lash will exhibit some of their many talents while back at Eastman for the week-long residency. On Tuesday’s concert, Lash performs harp on Tree Suite, written about connections made through their harpist aunt. Other works, performed by an assortment of musicians, include Lash’s “Songs of Imagined Love,” a song cycle influenced by the songs of Schubert. Wednesday’s concert is performed by the Momenta Quartet, performing a string quartet by Lash and another by Lash’s main mentor at Eastman, the towering serialist Robert Morris, who remembers Lash in their student days as “unlimited.”
Lash won’t dance in any of the concerts, but their visceral music seems as if it could only come from someone with such an innate sense of movement. Lash will hold career and composition workshops and other events with students the rest of the week, reflecting empathetically with students on the magical thinking of making a career out of creating music.
“It’s so lovely to be able to come back with this feeling of ‘wow, I keep receiving what I was given during that undergraduate experience,’ to come back with that real feeling of profound connection and gratitude to the place and the people,” Lash says.
-Written by Senior Writer & Editorial Manager Anna Reguero
Photo by Ryan Scherb.