Jonathan Bailey Holland’s Philosophy of Stylistic Generosity

How should future composers be trained? For Jonathan Bailey Holland, a busy composer and the Chair of Composition, Contemporary Music, and Core Studies at Boston Conservatory at Berklee College of Music, supporting students’ process of professional individuation is a key challenge. “For the composers, the message that we as a department carry forward is that our job is to help them come into the program to figure out who they are, and then how to do what they want to do, to the best of their abilities, as opposed to making sure everybody prescribes to a certain style, or a certain way of doing things or thinking about things. It is tricky at times to know how to best serve someone if they don’t fit into the traditional parameters of what a conservatory might normally offer, and how to present things so that everyone who is taking part feels included in the conversation.”

Is there a higher purpose to art than to generate freedom? Not the freedom to dominate. Not the freedom to live apart from interdependence or consequence. The freedom to fulfill your potential as a human being, which must include the right to pursue resonance and connection, and to take pleasure from it on your own terms.

It would be wonderful if every student’s education was like a well-curated feast, and this metaphor seems to fit Holland’s philosophy as an educator. His pedagogical approach speaks to generosity and adventurous appetites, and to placing value on a radical equality of musics. “One of the things that we do is we give students a listening list every semester in the hopes that they will discover repertoire that they may not know to increase their palate. I’ve always made a point to try to make sure that it was as varied as possible stylistically in terms of which composers are on the list in every possible way. At the end of a student’s time, they’ve heard music from everybody that covers a wide range of things, so that there is no sense that there’s one way of doing things…. [we are] trying to to figure out how to get rid of this idea that X is not as good as Y, even if X is different from Y.”

It often seems that it’s the purview of critics and historians to locate and categorize artists in relation to their contemporaries, certain “schools” or styles, and their era in general. Holland, like many artists, went through a period of internalizing certain questions about where his work fit in, but by now has grown to largely set these aside. “There was a period of time where I thought a lot about that and tried to second guess how I would be perceived in the field. And then I reached a point where I got tired of trying to do that because my second guessing didn’t necessarily line up with how other people conceived of my music. So I stopped doing that because I also felt like, if I’m spending all this time thinking about what other people are going to think about what I’m trying to do, as opposed to just thinking about what I’m going to do, then I’m not spending enough time doing what I want to be doing and trying to refine that.”

Jonathan Bailey Holland--Photo by Robert Torres

Jonathan Bailey Holland–Photo by Robert Torres

In a 2015 Art Talk interview with the National Endowment for the Arts, Holland talked about his pursuit of this kind of freedom and joy as a musician. “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.”

The word genre has come to mean a certain type of work within a broader artistic field, but its root, from the Proto-Indo-European root “gen” meaning “give birth, beget,” speaks to its closeness to the concept of originality, to genesis. As an educator, Holland expresses a value for the generation of a work itself over genre considerations. “I don’t even know how everything is defined these days. There are certain composers who would probably want their music defined a very specific way…I think there are other composers who write their own music, and that’s what it is. And they probably could care less about how it’s labeled or what box it fits into. I mean maybe everybody says that’s what the future is going to be. But I think that’s what the present is, that on some level we’re all doing the [Marcel] Duchamp thing, like hitting the urinal [“Fountain,” 1917].

This focus on genesis as opposed to privileging theory is not necessarily surprising for a teaching artist, or a mature artist who works as an acclaimed and sought-after creator who is also a leader in prominent circles of higher education. “You write what you want to write–I could write a hip hop tune and say I’m a classical composer and this is my symphony, and who’s gonna argue with me about how I proceed with my creation? I tell my students when they’re trying to figure out how to describe how they put their notes together, ‘Look, you just need to write the music, and then let the theorist tell you how you put it together.’”

As new music as a field looks both backward at its past practices, and forward in order to build more inclusive structures, some organizations have taken action beyond solidarity statements, and had been doing so even before this exceptional year of outrage and grief. Efforts in the realm of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” are not new, nor is “multiculturalism” before them. Given the past four years, in which hate crimes rose sharply and white supremacy (over and covert) increasingly showed its ugly face, many Americans attuned to cultural conversations have been glad to see more space shared with creators and critics who are Native and people of color.

Jonathan Bailey Holland--Photo by Robert Torres

Jonathan Bailey Holland–Photo by Robert Torres

On September 7, 2019, Holland was on a panel at the American Composers Forum’s Racial Equity and Inclusion Forum titled “Inclusive Programming: Opportunities, Obstacles, Integration with Artistic Vision,” moderated by Patrick Castillo with fellow panelists PaviElle French, Delta David Gier, David Hamilton, Garrett McQueen, and Dameun Strange. Holland remembers discussing the issue of homogeneity (a lack of a distinctive identity, whether regional, stylistic, or otherwise) among organizations. “The conversation was kind of centered around how organizations can actually move forward with more diverse repertoire and programming and inclusiveness…I think a lot of the issue is that a lot of organizations are cookie cutter; as in, there is no difference between an organization in one city versus in another city, especially the larger the organization gets. The easiest comparison is with orchestras, but I think it’s probably true of many organizations, even smaller organizations, that they’re all presenting the same programming. If you were to close your eyes and teleport to another location and go to a similar organization’s performances, in a lot of cases, you’re going to see the same programming, same repertoire.”

“I think organizations having an identity of their own is important. Orchestras are kind of the easiest target and I don’t want to make them out to be like the scapegoats in this but, I’m not sure that for most orchestras in this country there was a clear American identity most of the time. I think they’re still holding on to this idea of bringing an art form to this country and preserving that art form. I don’t know that that’s necessarily a value statement, like, should they not be doing that, or should they be doing that, I mean, I think the organization has to decide…If an orchestra does a certain thing and that’s what they want to do, it’s for them to do that. And I as the consumer can make a choice. [Their changing because of my hypothetical demands is] not necessarily what I want from an organization….With all the organizations that came out with their statements and solidarity with Black Lives Matter and all of that this year, you know, that’s great if that’s really what they’re about, but if they’re not really about that, I’m not sure that that is necessary or does anything beneficial. I think they have to define for themselves who they are, who they want to represent, and how they want to represent that, and I don’t necessarily think that everybody needs to represent the same thing.”

Holland, like any trained, talented, and ambitious composer, just wants to compose. “There’s an assumption that if you say Black composer, that the Black part is the part that’s interesting, whereas I think calling myself a composer, a Black composer, could be considered controversial because I don’t call myself a producer, or I don’t call myself a beat maker, or I’m not a songwriter. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about it. Yeah, I’m Black, and I write music. And that’s a thing in different contexts, and different people have different feelings about it.”


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