An Audience for it All

  Professor Jonathan Holland

On paper, Jonathan Bailey Holland, an associate professor in the Composition Department, might seem like the typical academic contemporary classical composer. He spent his high-school years at Interlochen Arts Academy High School, and then earned a bachelor's degree in composition from Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia before completing his doctoral studies at Harvard.

But growing up during the 1970s in Flint, Michigan, Holland heard a mix of music, from Cannonball Adderley to Bootsy Collins to Beethoven to Aaron Copland at home. Consequently, his ballet, operatic, orchestral, and chamber music is imbued with colors from many genres and cultural reference points. Some of his descriptive composition titles - Motor City Dance Mix and Party Starter - might offer clues about his musical sensibilities.

Holland's 17-minute orchestral work Halcyon Sun appears on the recently issued album American Portraits by Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The Cincinnati Orchestra commissioned the piece to commemorate the opening of Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. With shimmering orchestration and dramatic textures and harmonies, Holland vividly portrays the feeling of light at the end of the tunnel and the hope for freedom for those who used the underground railroad system of safe houses to escape slavery in the South 170 years ago.

Early on, Holland was drawn to classical music, but he was also tuned into the sounds of popular music. "I remember when I started building a cassette collection," he says. "I was a big Copland fan. Appalachian Spring was a piece I would listen to over and over again. I also loved Lincoln Portrait." But Holland also came of age as hip-hop began to blossom, and he was not immune to its lure. "I remember listening to groups like Run D.M.C. and the Fat Boys and all of that kind of stuff. I really wanted to be a breakdancer. The stuff that I was into when I was younger somehow speaks more directly to a lot more people than contemporary classical music does. I'm trying to negotiate those two things in my head, somehow."

Anyone who has heard Holland's music would know that he's not trying to create a fusion of popular and classical music though. He defends the cerebral approach to writing music in search of something fresh and different as "completely valid." "But as a listener, I'm looking for an immediate connection," Holland says. "I want to find something I can grasp onto without having to really research or listen 100 times to a piece."

In the Mix

During the past 10 years of teaching at Berklee, Holland has found the faculty and student acceptance of almost any style of music refreshing. "I've found that music programs at other institutions place a heavy emphasis on the classical tradition," he says. "And more and more, you are finding strong jazz programs. But then everything else is sort of considered 'fringe.' At Berklee, it's almost the opposite. Everything else is the focal point at the school. And while classical music is not at the center of what Berklee's about, it's definitely in the mix. It's pretty cool that people know Berklee as the place to go if you want to do almost anything. There's a niche for you here somewhere."

Holland is also quick to note that he thoroughly enjoyed his undergraduate studies at Curtis Institute, where his focus was exclusively classical music. "At Curtis, it was classical music all the time," he says. "There were recitals three nights a week, you always heard people practicing, and guest conductors from the Philadelphia Orchestra would sometimes come in and read through pieces with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra. I would spend time with friends in the practice rooms listening to them play. I was curious about what other instruments sounded like up close and about the repertoire they were playing." The experience helped Holland gain a deep understanding of orchestral music and how to write for various instruments.

While earning his doctorate at Harvard, Holland had a difference experience. "At Harvard, there was no graduate performance program," he says. "Their programs in music theory, ethnomusicology, musicology, and composition were research oriented. The music building was a pretty quiet place. But I feel that I got a lot on the analytical side of things that maybe I didn't take quite as seriously as I should have during my undergrad years."

Holland enjoys the smorgasbord of styles at Berklee. "I love the fact that I could go and hear the gospel choir, and it will be an amazing concert. I could also hear a bluegrass group or the Rainbow Band, and I'm going to hear great playing. There's an appreciation here for all the different stuff that goes on and an audience for it all.

"At an undergraduate institution, it's probably more important to expose people to the variety of styles available and to try to create musicians first. Later, they can go on and focus on something specific. But I think you kind of have to know everything that's out there first."

While some worry about the future of audiences for orchestral music, Holland is hopeful. He's excited to see the continuing evolution of Berklee's orchestra. "I don't think that orchestras are in danger of having no one interested in them," he says. "I have students that go to hear the BSO [Boston Symphony Orchestra] and are really excited about going. They'll attend open rehearsals and try to get seats up close so they can watch what's going on onstage. There's a hunger for that music that I can see among the students. I hope it continues."