Art Talk with Jonathan Bailey Holland

By Paulette Beete
an African American man in glasses and a small straw fedora

Jonathan Bailey Holland. Photo by Sancho Maulion

“[The arts] are a place where we reflect the world around us, and it's the one place that anybody can do that, honestly and, hopefully, in an uncensored way.” – Jonathan Bailey Holland

Jonathan Bailey Holland may be known as a classical composer but he's been influenced by everyone from NEA Jazz Master Wynton Marsalis to legendary rap group Run DMC to 70s rock stalwarts Chicago. A native of Flint, Michigan, Holland has received commissions from the National Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, and the Chicago Sinfonietta, to name just a few orchestras. He has written a ballet (for the Dallas Symphony and the Dallas Black Dance Theater) and musically mused on everything from Chicago's storied architecture to the history of the Underground Railroad. Holland holds degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music and Harvard University, and he teaches at the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston. Holland has commissions upcoming from the Cincinnati Symphony and Left Coast Ensemble and most recently he's completed a work for orchestra, titled Elegy for Humanity, written, he explains,"partly in response to all the injustices and atrocities we continue to hear about in the news these days." We spoke with Holland via telephone about inspiration, failure, and his 2015 cultural resolutions.

NEA:  What was your road to becoming a composer?

JONATHAN BAILEY HOLLAND:  There was always music at home when I was a kid, and I often talk about my dad's eclectic record collection, where he had everything from Lou Rawls to Nat Adderley to Miles Davis to Bootsy Collins to Handel's Fireworks. I always remember getting excited when I would listen to his records, and my mom also played piano just for her own enjoyment…. As a little kid, I would always sit at the piano and kind of make up songs, and then I eventually started taking instrument lessons, piano lessons, and trumpet lessons…. I ended up going to Interlochen Arts Academy for high school, which was great, and started doing some composition while I was there, and this was a kickoff for me, and I’ve just been going since.

NEA: If you think of the world of composers as a family tree, who do you see as your ancestors, and why?

HOLLAND: It's hard for me to really say that I feel like I'm connected to any particular school of thought or any line or composer. I think I've always been open stylistically [in terms of] different pieces that I write. I would say that popular music influences are just as important to me as classical music influences. Growing up listening to jazz--Wynton Marsalis was a big idol of mine, both as a performer and as a composer. But then, there was also groups like Run-DMC or people like Phil Collins or groups like Chicago. I mean, like, just all around everywhere, in general, anything that spoke to me. It didn't really matter what the style of music was; I just wanted to listen and enjoy it.

NEA: Is there any one piece of music or pieces that you find yourself going back to because they continue to inspire you?

HOLLAND: I often mention Appalachian Spring as being one of my earliest memories of listening to a piece and really just sort of… falling into a labyrinth of sound. Like hearing form and hearing orchestration and hearing motivic development and all the kind of elements that go into writing, and just listening to that piece over and over again and kind of Copland general. I think a lot of that is, I wouldn't say transparent, but it's worth repeated listening. I think that spoke to me a lot right away. Music I go back to often? I mean, Bach's keyboard music, like the English Suites. Miles Davis, the Porgy and Bess album is one I go back to often, and recently, I was listening to it, and realized a lot of how I think about orchestration is often influenced by the tracks on that album.

NEA: One thing I'm always fascinated by is that for many artists there seems to be a set of questions they're perpetually pursuing or a narrative they're exploring, no matter the specific piece they’re working on. How does that apply to your work?

HOLLAND: For me, I feel like every piece is a separate entity from any other piece. I think that often, for instance, I'll write a piece that's based on a work of visual art, and in those instances, I think each time that I do it, I'm trying to find a point where the art forms differ. Where are they the same and where do they differ? How is my conception of color and a visual artist's conception of color similar, and at what point does it change? Is it always different because of the medium that we work in or is there a point where we see it the same, but then when it comes to realizing that color, visually or sonically, does our thinking then change? And the idea of a visual piece of art that's there, versus music that has to evolve over time, I think that's something that I think about often.

Just the idea of narratives is something that I come back to often. If I'm listening to something, you have to go somewhere, in a sense, or feel that there is something that has been developed or that you experienced something. You do have to think about the linear aspect of [the composition] and the idea of the narrative--is it a literal narrative or is there a different way to achieve that sense of being transported through time? And the sort of elasticity of time that exists in music? I think those are probably the primary issues that I grapple with. I think a lot about color, I think about just evolving over time, just pacing, and form, and the evolution of sounds.

NEA: Can you talk a little bit about your process for composing?

HOLLAND: I don't feel like I have a necessarily set process. Often I will maybe have a sound in mind, and then have to figure out how to craft a piece out of that sound. Other times, I think it might just be a concept, and I know I want to get from "A" to "B," and then just figuring out how does that happen, and "A" and "B" may not be really clearly defined in my mind. Sometimes it may also be in other pieces where I'll have an influence from maybe a different genre of music, and so the challenge becomes how do I translate something that might be more jazz-inspired or [rhythm and blues]-inspired? Sometimes popular music inspires how I translate that into a "classical work" without sacrificing either the genre [or] cheapening the music, but making it feel as though it's a classical piece. But I think every piece is different. Every time I start out to write something, there's a different set of parameters, especially if it's commissioned, around what the project is, what's involved, what the forces are that are going to be performing it, and inevitably, all those ingredients go together to suggest an idea at some point.

NEA:  Making a work of art is trial and error, and hopefully, eventually, getting to the place of success, whatever that might mean for that particular work. Can you please talk about the role of failure in your work?

HOLLAND: If I think about failure in composing, the first thought that comes to mind is failing to actually finish a piece, failing to meet a deadline. I think that stresses me out more than the idea of failing in a work of art. I remember hearing a quote somewhere about the fact that as a composer you're always ready to write the next piece, or the reason you write the next piece is that you didn't quite say what you wanted to say with the last piece. Or you keep thinking of a way to say what you were trying say better in the next piece. If you apply failure to that I don't feel like failure is necessarily a negative thing. I don't think about failure. I think more about “fail until you complete an idea.” There's a failure to take advantage of opportunity. I think that that happens often, like say you're writing a piece for violin and piano, and by failing to take advantage of the opportunity, I mean, if you get so engulfed in the music that you're not actually thinking about who it is that you're writing for, and taking advantages of the sound of the piano, the sound of the violin, the things that they can do together, the things they can bounce off of each other. I mean, it's failing to fully embrace a particular project that's the failure that I think about the most if I'm thinking about failing.

NEA:  Who’s a composer that you don't think enough people know about and should listen to? And what would you recommend we listen to?

HOLLAND: I think of composers like Samuel Barber, the vocal music, I don't know that people aren't listening to him, but I think people should listen to more Barber vocal music. When I was a student [at] the music library at the school I went to, you could look through the records on the shelves, and you could go to the library and flip through records and discover people you hadn’t heard of before. Just say, "I'm going to pick a composer that I don't know anything about and listen to this piece." Or you go to a CD store and flip through the rack and just hang out in the classical annex for just endless new stuff to discover. And nowadays there isn't any of that.

To a certain degree, everybody needs to listen to everything, because nobody knows what they're supposed to listen to. You can go to Spotify and hit "Discover," but it's not going to get too deep and too anything that's not the top selling, top grossing thing, or really closely related to what you're already listening to. So I think that, unfortunately, nobody listens to much outside of what they're directed to listen to. Because there's no way to kind of discover things anymore, which I think is kind of sad, and I'm hoping that somehow the next thing helps to reverse that trend, but I doubt that there will be that. Especially, in the world of music there's no tangible object for you anymore. You don't have CDs. You don't have records. When you buy music, no money exchanges hands. All you do is click a few buttons and have some music that you can carry around with you all day. I don't know where the value lies and there's also no ability to find new things because there's no new actual thing to find. So I think it's a strange time in terms of listening to music.

NEA: Finish the sentence: The arts matter because....

HOLLAND:  Because they are a place where we reflect the world around us, and it's the one place that anybody can do that, honestly and, hopefully, in an uncensored way.

NEA:  We’ve just started a new year. Any cultural resolutions for 2015?

HOLLAND: I'd like to make more time to make art, and [I hope for], in terms of arts funding, more focus on time for artists to create art, funding just directed not necessarily toward specific projects [but] just allowing artists to be artists, which is harder and harder to do. I’m an acoustic composers, but there are electro-acoustic composers, and electronic composers. I've always had an interest in electronic music and I'm familiar with some electronic music, but I guess it's partly the time to learn the technology that I haven't had or taken. I always feel like I should be writing something as opposed to learning about the technology, but I'd like to explore that. Not necessarily because I want to write electronic music, but rather explore the sound world and the way that you think about sounds when you're generating them completely from scratch. That's something I would like to tackle sometime in the future. 

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