A friend recently sent me a photo of Juliana Hall composing at the piano with an Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602. Since posting the photo here, I’ve been in touch with Juliana and she graciously agreed to answer a few questions. Her thoughtful responses reveal how a pencil can become something more than just a writing tool.
Do you recall when you first came across Eberhard Faber Blackwing pencils? Were they recommended to you by a friend/colleague, or were they something you happened upon by chance?
I had mainly been a pianist until I was 26, at which point I was a piano performance major in grad school at the Yale School of Music…however, through the years I had composed a few pieces in “composing for performers” types of classes. So when I entered Yale, I chose to actually study composition with a visiting professor (Frederic Rzewski) as one of my electives.
When the Yale composition faculty heard the songs I had written, they encouraged me to change my major from piano to composition…which, with their help, I did. But I was new to being a composer, so I was looking for a really good pencil, and I asked a classmate of mine whom I really liked what she used and she recommended the Blackwing 602. (A few years ago that classmate, Julia Wolfe, won the Pulitzer Prize.)
What were your sources for buying Blackwing pencils? Did you have to special order them, or were they generally in stock?
There used to be an art supply store on Chapel Street in New Haven, very close to the British Art Center and the Architecture School. They sold the Blackwings during my time as a student and, if memory serves, they always had Blackwings available.
After Yale I went to study with the famous vocal composer Dominick Argento in Minneapolis, but I returned to New Haven to get married and once again begin a new life. The art supply store closed a few years later, but my husband found a stationary supply store in the next town over, Hamden, and we used to buy Blackwings by the box. One of my husband’s yearly Christmas gifts to me was a gross of Blackwings.
It was a shocking and very sad day when we drove over to buy some more pencils and the shop owner informed us that Blackwings were no more. We bought what was left of his stock…but, of course, they eventually ran out.
Some find it difficult to understand how musicians and writers could be choosy (or so precious) to the point that they even have a preference for which pencils they use. But a writing utensil lies at a unique junction: the point through which one’s imagination is rendered tangible. Therefore it’s not surprising that the tactile experience of writing can become intimately associated with the act of composing. What role then, if any, has your preference in writing tools played in your work as a composer?
My transition from pianist to composer was a somewhat magical time in my life, a time when I seemed to be guided towards what I really was…and what work I would really do…for my time here on Earth.
The Blackwing was wrapped up in that, it was a part of that magic for me. It wasn’t “just” a pencil, but a friend, and my connection to that paper as my ideas became real. I loved the look of the Blackwing’s graphite on the page, and even the scent of the pencil as I worked was pleasant.
It had a sort of “old-time” feeling, because it wasn’t a machine or a computer…it was very human in its warmth, and it provided a cozy feeling as I drew the notes, the dynamics, hairpins, lyrics, and all the things that formed my compositions.
I miss the Blackwing days, as now everything is computerized…and that certainly makes many things easier for me, too…so I have gone the way of the computer as well.
But there will always be a special place in my heart for the Blackwing 602, and for the time we shared as I became a composer with it…I’ve never found a pencil I liked more.
Thanks to Juliana for taking the time to share her thoughts. This interview is part of an ongoing project to document the life and times of the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602, and its place in writing culture.