Whether writing for his Claudia Quintet or Large Ensemble, drummer/composer John Hollenbeck creates expansive canvases out of small, sturdy ideas. Hollenbeck’s music is equal parts knotty and lyrical, held together with a playful and subversive sense of humor. Ahead of what was to be a North American tour with the Claudia Quintet, we at Jazz Speaks caught up with John by phone to talk about making music from those small ideas, whether melodic cells or “forbidden” words.
The Jazz Gallery: Recently, you’ve written this new batch of music based on words that were left out, or recommended left out, of CDC budget proposals. What drew you to these words, and to turning them into musical forms?
John Hollenbeck: At the time, I was thinking about writing some new music for the Claudia Quintet, and this report came out, which was really big news for a week. Because the initial headlines were sensationalized, it was dismissed as “fake news.” But after reading more even-handed reports, I discovered it was true that the omission of certain words was discussed by career government employees who were actually trying to help their colleagues get their proposals through congressional channels. I was so surprised that this particular collection of words was deemed so sensitive and thought, “wouldn’t it be terrible if those words went out of fashion because of this.” From my perspective, the possibility that someone wouldn’t fund a CDC program because they read the term “science-based” in a proposal document is crazy!
Every time I work on music, I’m using cells, or musical ideas, in different ways. In this case, each word became a title and then I tried have the musical material relate to the title in some way. For example, one of the pieces, “evidenced-based” also has a bit of a relationship to Thelonious Monk’s tune “Evidence,” at least rhythmically. It’s not the same rhythm, but it evokes that rhythm.
TJG: That sort of left jab, right hook thing, the listener not knowing when the next hit is going to land.
JH: Yeah. But a lot of the other pieces have a more fluid relationship to the words. The words were a little inspiration to get me going. The basic idea was to have pieces with those titles to keep those words alive.
TJG: I’d love to talk more about your process of translation from words to music. You’ve used text in your pieces before in different ways, like the recitations and settings of Kenneth Patchen poems from What is the Beautiful, or the Franklin Delano Roosevelt speech recording that you used on September. But in this case, with words acting more as inspiration than surface texture, how important is it for the meaning of the word to appear to the listener in the piece?
JH: Thinking about other music that I’ve written, I don’t think transmitting the meaning of the words is that important, because that meaning is super subjective anyway. Everyone has their own ideas of what words mean. In this case, I think having the words as titles was a way to keep me on a certain track when making compositional decisions.
Certain words, like “entitlement,” are really complex in their meaning. So for me, that translated as a really long, rhythmically-abstract piece. It has a really solid groove to it, but you can hear it in two different tempos at the same time. Of course, someone could easily say, “That doesn’t sound like entitlement!” The titles helped me put the compositions in a certain place, but they don’t define one particular listener experience.
TJG: I’m interested in how titles like these can be evocative of the music, and also provocative. Like if a listener hears this music without the title, they could interpret a very different meaning than if they knew the title going in. Do you think the title words provoke the listeners to experience the music in a certain way?
JH: It might, buy that was not my intention. Writing music inspired by these words was a very spontaneous decision. The words inspired me to write some new music. At that moment, I was not thinking farther than their conception.