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.
TJG: I’d love to talk where the band is now, in terms of personnel and in terms of your band practice. How has the relationship between composing, recording, and touring changed for you over the past couple of records?
JH: The band is in a different place these days as far as recording. I’ve written a record’s worth of music and we’ve performed it a bit in Europe already, but we haven’t recorded it yet. It’s a little more like what we did when we first started playing together. We’d play music for like a year and then record. That was really cool in terms of recording because we’d record it very quickly and easily. But that put us in an awkward position when the records came out because people naturally wanted to hear the music from the record, but we’d already been playing that music for a while and often wanted to go on to newer music!
TJG: I know when you did the music for September, you wanted to teach the music to the band by ear without charts. Has that continued with your most recent compositions?
JH: September was a really interesting collection of music. I think the collection of music is successful, but the idea of putting together a collection of music that wasn’t written down… that was only semi-successful. I’ve seen other bands do it, so I know it is possible, but one blockage in my case is that the music that I want to write tends to be long and so not conducive to memorizing. A lot of the bands that I’ve seen learn music by ear have music that’s based on shorter amounts of composed material. Another issue is when you’re working on music by ear, it takes a long time to teach, but also if you haven’t played it for a long time, those pieces aren’t in everyone’s memory bank anymore. So you have to go back and learn it again! That’s a pretty big stumbling block for this band, since there is usually a lot of time in between gigs/tours.
On the other hand, it was really good to do because it brought up some interesting thoughts about how we learn music. I quickly realized that everyone in the band had their own preferred method. Some wanted to just learn aurally, and some wanted to see some notation, and some wanted to rewrite the music in their own hand to help them remember it.
For some of those pieces, what I ended up doing was not write a chart, but a “memory helper.” It showed the elements of the pieces and the form. There’s one piece from that record that’s dedicated to Wayne Shorter that we still play called “September 9th-Wayne Phases.” When I taught that piece to the band, Chris Tordini was playing bass, so when Drew Gress plays it, he needs that “memory helper chart”, which is understandable. There’s a new piece for this current batch of music where I wrote out a similar type of chart. I just put the elements of the piece on the paper and then we worked on the form and everyone wrote their own notes to help them. It doesn’t read like a normal chart, but it shows all of the parts of the piece. So that is an example how the September music has influenced the present music, another way to get away from purely notated music.
One of the inspirations to learn music in this way was my work with Meredith Monk. That ensemble collaborates with Meredith and puts her pieces together over about a year before they’re performed, we’re paid for our rehearsal times which helps. Performing that music and especially the experience of getting it back after a period without playing it, is very interesting! Where does music reside? I’m often waiting for it, until some muscle memory clicks in and then it all comes back in a wave! Some collective bands, like The Bad Plus—they made a commitment to play with music in front of them, which I think is very admirable and inspirational. But then on the other hand, when Ethan [Iverson] left, that was for sure an immense amount of work for Orrin Evans to come in and learn all of that music by heart! The act of doing it brings up a host of practical obstacles.
TJG: And I think that gets back to the relationship between the musical material and how its communicated, whether on paper or aurally. Some music is more conducive to learning by ear than other music.
JH: Yes, I agree! The unique thing about that Wayne Shorter piece is that the band gets split in two groups and we play in two different tempos in certain sections. By learning it aurally, that kind of thing isn’t a big deal. But it would have been really awkward to write that out and learn if notated. It was exciting to find something that was actually easier to learn by rote than if it was written out!
And beyond teaching the music, I was trying to compose all that music without writing it down, to the point where I didn’t really know what I was playing. That was cool, until someone would improvise something very different than what was written and then at first, I had no idea what to play—I remember this one piece called “September 24th-Interval Dig,” that has a lot of mixed meter. I had to go back and look I at what the time signatures were so I could get more flexibility around them because those particular sections were embedded as “sound” and not as rhythms with a certain amount beats in them! The whole process was really enriching, and I definitely learned from it going forward.
TJG: I’d like to jump to another technical concept that use when building your music, and that is the continual development of small musical cells. What has drawn you to that kind of systematic thinking?
JH: For me, it was Muhal Richard Abrams and how he demonstrated that you only needed one thing to write a piece, and that “thing” could be anything. It then just became a matter of what you could do to that thing, how you process it to create related material. At the same time, I heard Bob Brookmeyer talking about the same idea. At that time, in his work, he was basically starting with 3-5 pitches. Once he had a collection of pitches, he could then easily write 5 pages of pitches from that collection., like a directed improvisation on paper. This collection of pages of pitches retain a relationship, a family-type relationship to the original interval set, so the music usually retains an organic quality.
They were the first two people who I heard talk about this idea, and it was very different from how I was composing at the time. And now that I’ve talked to a lot of students, I know that a lot of younger composers start composing in the same way as I did. In this natural albeit random way. I tried writing using this “cellular” approach, and really enjoyed the experience of it. I felt it was much more honest than waiting for “gems” to fall from the sky. It also got me out of this rut I was in at the time, which I had because I thought I had used up all of my good ideas! With this new strategy, I didn’t need much to start, I just needed one little thing! This concept was very freeing! Muhal emphasized that this “seed” didn’t even need to be a musical entity, it could be a word, number, etc, which was earth-shattering for me at the time.
Then I realized that most classical composers also used this method of taking a small amount of material and committing to working as much as possible with just that! It immediately gave me a greater appreciation for my music theory classes! I was like, “Ohhhh. That’s what retrograde is!” The theoretical information I was getting became immediately more tangible. I was always super curious about the compositional process. I kept asking my theory teachers, “so you’re telling me that the composer thought about the music like this—the way we’re analyzing this?” For a lot of my theory teachers, what the composer actually thought was not relevant I quickly found out!
TJG: That’s interesting, because there are classical composers who wrote extensively about their process—like Arnold Schoenberg was really into this kind of cellular development and wrote a lot about it, both in his own music and in other composers’, like Brahms.
It’s clear that these kinds of transformations of musical material are important to you as a composer. Is it important that a listener can hear these transformations, or hear that family relationship that you spoke about?
JH: No., I wouldn’t expect them to be heard but I do believe that can be felt. What keeps coming back to me when I listen to music with these kinds of transformations is that there’s some unifying element. A piece can be really long, and it can go through many different sections, but it can still feel like a single gesture by the very end. It’s held together by something.
To me, it’s like looking at a portrait of a really big family. Like, “Whoa! Why does that one person have red hair? That’s so weird!” You’ll see all of these differences. But then you keep looking at it, and you’re like, “Yeah, that’s a family.” You’ll look at similar noses or something. It’s something you can feel.
The opposite of that, which I can also feel, is when I hear two really awesome sections or ideas or grooves or chord progressions in a tune, and they just go from one to the other without much preparation. When I was younger, I would often do that, and I quickly realized that the listener would usually accept it, so it seemed ok. Most listeners would hear that these two ideas are different, but they trust the composer and accept that they belong together because the composer put them together. I’ve heard so many pieces with that kind of juxtaposition— a lot of jazz standards are like that—I don’t get rich nourishment from pieces like these in the way that I do when there is a more organic relationship between the materials.
Of course, using cellular development isn’t the only way to sound organic. I don’t think Morton Feldman wrote using that method, but to me his pieces sound extremely organic. It’s not the only way I write. But it’s been really helpful, and it usually makes composing fun!
TJG: I have one last question that speaks to both your current project, and some earlier work as well. There’s a thread in your work of socio-political themes, like the Franklin Roosevelt speech on September, and the big band piece “Perseverance” from Eternal Interlude. Do you ever look back on some of these earlier works and think about how that messaging feels to you now? Do you feel those pieces still have a contemporary resonance, or do they feel very much of the time and place of when you wrote them?
JH: I may not be successful, but I’m trying to make music that’s not based in a certain time or on certain trends, that can therefore sound dated. I haven’t been recording music for that long, maybe twenty-some years, so maybe it is too early to know if it starts sounding dated. But so far, when I do check back in with older recordings, I’m still like, “Oh yes. That’s still good.” I’ve never been like, “Ugh. Listen to the sound of that snare drum.”
I do have this older electronic music piece based on a recording of Maya Angelou reciting this poem by Waring Cuney. I used the synthesizers that were available at that moment, but now I wish I could go back and use different sounds, because those particular sounds have not aged well!
With the FDR speech, it’s an old speech, but it comes back during election time because it is still relevant. He describes why politicians always say what they need to say to get elected, and for various reasons, usually will not do what they say they’re going to do, or simply can’t do what they want to do. That idea feels resonant now, like if Bernie Sanders were to become president, he probably wouldn’t be able to do hardly anything that he says he’s going to do, but it is still very important to try, to try to move the country forward. I feel the FDR speech is timeless, and since the musical setting supports the speech and isn’t based on a trendy sound or device, I think that it will be ok in the future.
“Perseverance” is more about every election, rather than just the 2008 election. In every election, it’s ridiculous the amount of campaigning that has to happen. It was written in that specific moment with those specific 2008 candidates in mind, but I think that it has enough play in it to keep it resonant.