Born into a family of musical amateurs, John Hilliard, began his musical training by studying piano at the age of 6 from his cousin, a local piano teacher. His father, Sherlon Hilliard (of Irish and Anglo-Saxon descent), possessed a fine tenor voice and was a popular gospel-style singer with their county Protestant Church of the Nazarene congregations. While his mother, Laurine Hicks Hilliard (of Scottish and Jewish descent), was an amateur accordianist and pianist. Hilliard’s grandfather, John Milton Hilliard, had also been well-known as a congregational song leader (shaped-note tradition) for the rural areas of central Arkansas in the 1930’s and 1940’s. By age 11 Hilliard showed an interest in composing. At the age of 8. he had begun playing trumpet in the elementary band and was taught by the same elementary music teacher as President Bill Clinton, who was a childhood friend. They later both shared another influential music teacher, Virgil Spurlin, during their years together in the Hot Springs High School Band. (Around this time, he also showed interest in Architecture and had begun designing houses during his Junior High days, his father bought him a draftsman desk and instruments. Architecture and shapes in nature played an important part in the inspirations of his music composition work from then on.) By this time, Hilliard had become deeply influenced, through recordings, by major composers of the 20th-century: Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, Schoenberg and Ives. He had also shown a strong affection and affinity for the fugues of J.S. Bach, spending many hours after school listening to the recordings of Glenn Gould. Hilliard’s first completed works date from his days in Junior High School, and were played by he and his classmates at Arkansas state band contests. These were primarily works for brass, such as a trumpet quintet, duets and several brass choir works. At one of these contests he was singled out by Samuel Adler (later on the faculty of Eastman School of Music) as a composer of strong potential.
In 1964 Hilliard played at all-state band under W. Francis McBeth, who would later become his first composition teacher for four years at Ouachita Baptist University, Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Hilliard would earn his Bachelor of Music degree there in 1969 in horn performance, education and theory-composition. He studied piano, horn, trumpet, cello and conducting during these years at Ouachita.
Hilliard later received his Masters of Music degree in composition and conducting at Virginia Commonwealth University. During his years at VCU, Hilliard studied briefly with famed African-American composer William Grant Still. By 1973 was teaching at the Interlochen Arts Academy, Michigan. He had begun working at the National Music Camp (Interlochen Arts Camp) in the summer of 1967, studying composition there with Donald H. White and George Balch Wilson (University of Michigan Summer School). While at Interlochen Arts Academy, Hilliard founded the 20th-Century Chamber Players, a group of students to perform contemporary music. It was at Interlochen that Hilliard met Karel Husa, Pulitzer Prize winning composer. While there, Husa heard the music of Hilliard and invited him to come study with him at Cornell University in 1975. Hilliard studied one year with Husa at Ithaca College, then later went to Cornell and completed his D.M.A. in composition under Husa and Robert Palmer. During this period Hilliard attended master classes with Erza Laderman, Alan Hovhaness, Wlodzimierz Kotonski, George Crumb, Milton Babbitt, Ben Johnston, and Olivier Messiaen. At Cornell Hilliard was awarded the Graduate Humanities Grant and an assistantship as Assistant Conductor of the Cornell Symphony Orchestra, working under Edward Murray, a student of Pierre Boulez.
Hilliard left Cornell in 1981 to become Composer-in-Residence at Howard Payne University in Texas. From 1981–1985, Hilliard did post-doctoral study at Southern Methodist University studying with Donald Erb and Eugene Kurtz. During these years Hilliard often collaborated with the Voices of Change, contemporary music ensemble at SMU, conducting them on several occasions in performances of his music.
John Hilliard is currently Professor of Music, Resident Composer, and Chair of the Contemporary Music Festival at the School of Music, James Madison University. His works have had wide international performances in Austria, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, South America, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States including performances at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Merkin Hall NYC and at over 20 new music festivals. He has had orchestral works performed by the St. Louis Symphony, Danville Illinois Symphony, James Madison University Symphony Orchestra, Kansas City Conservatory Orchestra, Ithaca College Symphony Orchestra, Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra and the Richmond Symphony. His piano concerto Okeanos was premiered by the JMU School of Music Wind Symphony, Dr. Eric Ruple soloist, in 2000 in honor of the 20th-year celebration of the Contemporary Music Festival. It was subsequently performed at the College Band Directors National Conference. Recent honors include an annual ASCAP Award, a commission from the International Horn Society and the first-place award in the Virginia Music Teachers Association’s commissioned composer contest. In January 1993, he was one of two composers requested to compose music for newly elected President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. In 1995 Hilliard was given a six-month residency grant to be an Artistic Fellow for the Japan Foundation in Tokyo and Nara, where he studied Gagaku, Shakuhachi, traditional Japanese music performance, and composed his Symphony No. 4. He has received commissions and grants from various organizations and institutions, including the Lanier Trio of Georgia State University, the Northwest Trumpet Guild, the Young Keyboard Artists Association, James Madison University, Cornell University, Virginia Commonwealth University, the Mid-America Arts Council, the Fulbright Program, the American Symphony Orchestra League, the Meet-the-Composer Program, the Virginia Commission for the Arts in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Arts. For over 12 summers, Hilliard taught on the composition and theory faculty of the National Music Camp (now Interlochen Arts Camp) at Interlochen, Michigan. Consequently, his works have been featured on the National Public Radio Series “Music from Interlochen”, and on one of their CD samplers. He has previously taught at Cornell University and Washington State University. His teachers include Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Karel Husa, Donald Erb, W. Francis McBeth, George B. Wilson and Ned Rorem. In addition, he has attended masterclasses with Erza Laderman, Alan Hovhaness, Wlodzimierz Kotonski, George Crumb, Milton Babbitt, Ben Johnston, William Grant Still and Olivier Messiaen. In 1998–99 Hilliard was selected to be composer-in-residence in Hong Kong, as a Senior Fulbright Scholar-Artist in music composition, where he composed his Mass for Chorus and Orchestra (1998). In addition to the mass, Hilliard has composed for a variety of media, including a piano sonata; two piano partitas; a violin sonata; a clarinet, violin, cello and piano quartet; a saxophone quartet; a piano concerto; a trumpet concerto; a chamber concerto, a double concerto for alto saxophone and horn; various songs, a theater/ballet work, and four symphonies. He received his doctorate in composition and conducting from Cornell University in 1983.
Hilliard has also been active as a conductor. While in graduate school he was the conductor of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Collegium Musicum, performing vocal works of the Renaissance. In 1976, he founded Interlochen’s 20th-Century Chamber Players, a group dedicated to the performance of new music. At Interlochen he conducted not only symphonies of Mozart, but several performances of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat. Later, while in graduate school at Cornell, Hilliard became the Assistant Conductor of the Cornell Symphony under Maestro Edward Murray, a student of Pierre Boulez. There he conducted works of Beethoven, Berg, Stravinsky, Pergolesi, Vaughan Williams and various premieres of Cornell composer’s works. Since that time, Hilliard has conducted opera (Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro), and numerous chamber masterpieces of the last century including Walton’s Facade, Stravinsky’s Octet, and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire., in addition to premieres of his own works.
2002 brought Hilliard world-wide performances of his new work for solo piano Four Partita Movements. Sarah Lawrence College’s internationally recognized pianist, Carsten Schmidt, premiered the work in Yamaguchi Japan in January, then did the U.S. premiere at the JMU Contemporary Music Festival in February. These were followed by performances of the work at Sarah Lawrence College and at the Gaudeamus Contemporary Music Festival in Amsterdam in March. In May of 2002, Schmidt performed it once again on tour in Germany and recorded it for Bavarian Radio Broadcast. In April of 2004 in Merkin Hall in New York City, Schmidt performed the New York premiere of these same pieces. The Staunton Music Festival premiered Hilliard’s unique work “Music for 50 Players” for one piano 10 hands during its sixth festival in August of 2003. The piece features five pianists sitting at one piano keyboard, where during a single chord the total 88 keys are struck at once.
Hilliard’s recent (2003–5) projects and commissions included a woodwind quintet for Montpelier Winds, a second piano concerto commissioned by the Staunton Music Festival (premiered in August 2004), and a completion of a Mozart fragment, commissioned by the Augsburg, Germany Mozartfest. This assignment was to finish a manuscript fragment left by Mozart at his death, in Mozart’s mature style for cello and piano. Along with this, Hilliard was to compose a work in his own style based upon the fragment themes (Mozart Mosaics). Both were premiered in Germany in May 2004 at the festival. In July of 2004, he appeared as a guest on the National Public Radio show “With Good Reason”, speaking about the completion of these Mozart-related works. He was granted a leave of absence by the university for the Spring of 2005 to compose, which resulted in his Variations on a Theme from Firebird for the JMU Wind Symphony. On January 31 2007, the Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre presented a full concert of Hilliard’s music. Plans for beyond 2007, include a third piano concerto written for James Madison University in celebration of the opening of its new performing arts complex projected for 2010. In 2007 Matt Labarge commissioned Hilliard to write a set of Preludes and Fugues for piano, as an hommage to J.S. Bach.
Hilliard’s works are published by Gitchi-Mukwa Music, his self-owned publishing concern.