5 Questions to Jonathan Bailey Holland (composer, educator)

Composer and educator Jonathan Bailey Holland, a mainstay of the contemporary music scene in Boston, will be the local site host when New Music Gathering comes to Boston Conservatory at Berklee, May 17 through 19, 2018. Jonathan’s composition career began at Interlochen, then wound its way through studies with Ned Rorem at Curtis, and on to a Ph.D. in Music from Harvard, where his teachers were Bernard Rands and Mario Davidovsky. Jonathan is Chair of Composition, Theory, and History at Boston Conservatory. His recent works have been commissioned by Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Radius Ensemble, Dallas Symphony/Dallas Black Dance Theater, and many others. We caught up with Jonathan to find out about #NMG2018 coming to Boston and more.

How did you arrange to bring NMG to Boston Conservatory?

Nearly a year and a half ago, I began speaking with Dan Felsenfeld (a co-founder of NMG) about the possibility of bringing the New Music Gathering to Boston, and specifically to Boston Conservatory at Berklee. Knowing that part of the premise of the NMG is to highlight new music happening in various parts of the country, I wanted to showcase what’s happening in Boston. Dan and I were both graduate students in the Boston area, so I knew he was aware of the vibrant new music community here. It was easy to convince him that this was a great location to present the event. Hosting NMG felt like the best way to bring broader attention to the abundance of activity in the Boston music community. Boston Conservatory at Berklee is also very much committed to promoting contemporary music, which makes it an ideal institution to host this event. 

Castle of our Skins with dancer Lexy Lattimore in Clifton Ingram‘s “Tyaphaka” (photo: Pam Green)

What will be the focus of the NMG panel you’re moderating?

The panel is called “Finding Your Place in a Densely Populated Community.” Part of the reason there are so many new music ensembles, concert series, performers, etc., in Boston is that there are so many different motivations for each of them to co-exist here in the same community. And while Boston is a smaller big city compared to many, the number of highly regarded conservatories, colleges and universities produce a wealth of artists and enthusiasts for every flavor of new music that is presented. We will highlight only a few of the many groups in town and allow them to talk about why they chose to start their organization here and what niche they are filling. The panel will include representatives from Castle of Our Skins, Guerrilla Opera, Equilibrium, and others. 

How does “the music conservatory” continue to be relevant now and into the future?

Boston Conservatory at Berklee is an institution with a strong focus on contemporary music. The Contemporary Classical Performance program is one of the few Masters degree programs allowing students to focus primarily on contemporary repertoire as the core of their study. In addition, every year the school premieres over 200 works written primarily by our composition students. Contemporary works are often featured on programs by the large ensembles, as well as the opera productions, choral performances, chamber music, and more. The conservatory’s purpose is, in part, to perpetuate the art forms represented therein. At the same time, everyone in the conservatory is living a contemporary life, so we must think about how the conservatory reflects our current world. New styles, technologies, and innovations have always been viewed as a threat to that which is familiar, but we are still here, having the same conversation. So, I don’t worry about the future of the conservatory. The conservatory will remain relevant.

What inspires or surprises you about today’s conservatory students?

Some things don’t change. The typical student wants to perform or create at the highest level, and to be competitive. They want to push boundaries, and they want to keep up with all that’s going on in their fields. Students have to focus on developing their own voice and their own story, and they have to be honest about it. That is what speaks to an audience the most. Right now, student composers seem increasingly interested in using texts and theatricality in their works, perhaps because this is a more direct way of communicating their message. I believe that art is essential in telling the story of now, just as art is integral in our understanding of historical times. 

Jonathan Bailey Holland (photo: Robert Torres)

What are you working on?

In some of my more recent works I find myself responding to political, cultural, and social issues because I can’t help but react and respond. Recent and current works of mine deal directly with issues of equity and justice. One commission I am currently working on is for the Cincinnati Symphony, and it will be programmed alongside Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. For any piece that is on a grand scale–be it a string quartet or an orchestral work–I think an artist has to work past worrying about whether it will inevitably be compared and measured against similar works written throughout history. Instead, composers must think about what it is they have to say right now. I am deciding how to respond to the Beethoven 9th, how to foreshadow it, how to co-exist with it, or even whether or not to just ignore it. But ultimately I need to determine what I want to say. That is always an exciting juncture during the process of composing any piece.


May 17-19, 2018: New Music Gathering at Boston Conservatory at Berklee