A (Very) Brief Interview with John Hollenbeck

John Hollenbeck

Tafuri:  Whether it's in the small ensembles you write for and play with or for the Large Ensemble, your music sounds generally more distinctive than other composers' music.   It seems as though one goal of a true artist is to find one's own voice but, in listening to your music, it seems like you make a special effort to make your music sound different?  Is that a priority for you and, if so, why?

Hollenbeck: I'm not making a special effort; I am just being myself.  I have always instinctively looked for my own personal vision.  To be this is obviously top priority.   It is a blessing and a curse.

Tafuri:  What are your specific goals musically and — from the sound of it, more generally — sonically with the Large Ensemble?

Hollenbeck: I want to take the big band sound, energy, and force, and use it a way that doesn't sound dated or generic.  To just treat it as an ensemble of musicians — hence the name "large ensemble" — but to keep the practicality of the normal big band instrumentation and, as always, to create personal, non-genre specific music.

Tafuri:  What, if anything, do you not want it to be?

Hollenbeck: I do not want it to be irrelevant to any time.

Tafuri:  Has your approach to composing and bandleading been influenced by certain composers and bandleaders and, if so, who or what might those be?

Hollenbeck: In bandleading, I think I'm learning by experience, but Mr Brookmeyer could definitely be an influence. In composing, Maria [Schneider], Jim [McNeely], Bob [Brookmeyer], Gil Evans, Billy Strayhorn, Duke [Ellington], the Stan Kenton writers, [Gyorgy] Ligetí, Peter Garland, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, and John Adams.

Tafuri:  Some composer/players tend to be more composer-oriented or more player-oriented, but you seem to have found a good balance between the two. Do you think your playing influences your composing and vice versa and, if so, how?

Hollenbeck: My playing and composing are one in the same. I have noticed my playing style change through the years as a result of wanting to hear the music that I written. I have gravititated towards clear, softer, drier, lucid textures that have their own sonic region and do not kill the tones of the other instruments.

Tafuri:  Though there's quite a variety of music on A Blessing and, even though the "big" piece on the recording is "A Blessing" and it and the CD is dedicated to her, you could have chosen a lot of other names for this album. But seems like, from the titles of the pieces and from the sound of the record, there's might be a unifying theme running through several the pieces related to being blessed or blessings or recognizing one's blessings. What was your motivation for picking the title you did for the recording and how do you see the pieces, if at all, related?

Hollenbeck: Since I wrote all of the pieces, there must be a connection. Often, I pick a subject to write about based on an ideal of how I wish I could be or the how the world could be. In the case of "A Blessing," The Irish Blessing was used on a mass card for my grandmother's funeral. While I had seen this text many times, it didn't resonate with me until that moment. I wanted to write a simple piece based on this simple text and then deconstruct the material so that, when it is recapitulated, it has a completely different resonance. I guess this is actually something I do a lot. I like the title, because it can immediately be taken in many different ways. It is a blessing to listen to music, to play music, to live, to die. This music is a blessing; all music is a blessing; my grandmother was a blessing; everyone is a blessing.

Tafuri:  You and Theo Bleckmann have collaborated quite a bit over the years, ranging from your duo project to (now) the Large Ensemble, so it appears you two get a long (at least) musically. What do you think is special about that relationship and how do you think you've contributed to teach other's art.

Hollenbeck: We get along personally very well; he is one of my closest friends. We have a great time traveling the world. We trust each other. We instinctively have the same musical likes and dislikes, although we play vastly different instruments. Theo is one of the few people who is not afraid to open up to an audience — or to anybody — to show his true self. He is one of the few musicians who I have been able to talk to, after a gig, about the gig. A lot of musicians are not comfortable with talking about their own playing and/or interaction.

Tafuri:  Since it has words, it's clear why you needed a vocalist for the Irish blessing contained in "A Blessing," but why did you choose to use Theo more instrumentally on some other pieces on the CD? What do you think he, personally, or the human voice, more generally, brings to the music?

Hollenbeck: "A Blessing" was written for Theo, not the other way around. Theo is our secret weapon (along with Matt).

I think people, especially non-musicians, like the voice because it brings the music closer to their own world. It is easier to relate to, because everyone at least possesses that instrument. The blending of Theo's voice with other instruments like clarinet, trombones, etc, is a sound that I love. I have always personally liked the voice more as an ensemble instrument and less as a foreground lead instrument, as it is usually used.

Tafuri:  I understand you've recently completed some choral music. Generally, that type of composing is usually considered to be (for want of a better word) "classical" – which, I suppose, means mostly through-composed. Can do you tell us a little about that project and how you approached it, writing for the human voice and in more of a "through-composed" mode?

Hollenbeck: Sorry. Can't answer.

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