May 2019 sees the Microfest Records release of May the Bridges | Burn Light My Way featuring brilliant performances of 9 substantial works by Jeffrey Holmes. Composers Edition’s Dan Goren talks with the composer about the music, the performers and his approach to composition.
DG: Firstly may I congratulate you on this recording release, given depth and complexity of the music presented, it must have been quite an undertaking!
JH: Yes, it was six years in the making…and involved many friends and colleagues. I am very grateful to all involved, particularly to Aron Kallay and John Schneider for conceiving of and making this project a reality.
DG: Landscape is clearly absolutely central to your music, providing, it seems to me, a stage on which you analogously probe emotional and psychological experience as well as that of the physical world.
JH: Indeed, the physical and psychological are intrinsically intertwined to me. They shape one another and our interactions with the physical and external …our triumphs, failures, influences, and observations…all alter our perceptions of ourselves. And alternately, imagination is reality, adherence to and the powerful application of our imagination can alter the physical realm.
DG: Several of the works focus on Norse mythology, far from your Californian home, but part of your cultural heritage that you’ve come back to time and again. What do you discover there?
JH:My relationship to Scandinavia and the Norse is deep and multifaceted. I am of complete Scandinavian heredity, and am always in very close contact with my relatives in Sweden…in fact a few years ago my wife and I were married at the special location of Gamla Uppsala. Throughout my childhood, I was steeped in Scandinavian myth and culture…my Grandfather who is from Skane in southern Sweden, spent most of his life directing the Swedish cultural organization “Vasa” throughout North America and Brittan. His life, was deeply devoted to Scandinavian culture…some of my earliest memories are of him and the Norse myths he shared with me, and of the various Vasa gatherings the he and my Grandmother were so deeply involved in. I do travel to Sweden and Norway often, and while I do live in California, I live inside a National Forest at 6,000 ft elevation (about 1,800 meters). So I am surrounded by forested mountains, extensive untouched deserts, and of course the vast and dynamic Pacific Ocean. So my current life, as well as my past lives, are deeply connected to the Norse and to nature. Since in my art I seek to sincerely express myself, in a sort of Neo-Modernist/Romantic aesthetic, I cannot help but interact with these feelings, emotions, and inspirations in all of my pieces.
DG: You employ quite a range of formal, harmonic and rhythmical structures and processes which the works seem to inhabit rather than be constructed of. Is that how you regard them?
JH: Interesting question…I do have a variety of compositional tools that I use consistently in my music: non-octave and microtonal harmonies (both synthetic equal tempered and organic overtone microtonalities); symmetrical rhythmic talas; large-scale formal proportional design; and extensive motivic development. And as you note here, my music inhabits these structures rather than being constructed from them. The reason is that I have always followed my ear…and that has led me to all the before-mentioned techniques. In doing so rigorously, I have noticed patterns and similarities that occur, from these observations I have sharpened my tools and to develop a consistent language. One thing that both performers and audience members tell me is that the music seems to have the feeling of moving in a perceivable trajectory, and that even though the music is highly chromatic and microtonal, there is an obvious sense of “right” and “wrong” notes. I believe this to be the origin of musical language: prediction balanced with surprise. Therein, enough of the language must be exposed in order for the listener to participate in the linear experience, but be consistent enough to allow for the insertion of ambiguity to provide some element of surprise or unpredictability, and thus enjoyment. The universally understood functionally tonal language of the Classical eras allowed the masters such as Bach, Mozart, Brahms, and Wagner, etc, to provide this balance of comprehension with the unexpected. And therein lies the fault of much 20th and 21st century music: an imbalance…where either there is too much exposition of language, and is thus not compelling, especially upon repeated exposure, or there is not enough consistency to allow the listener to follow along and participate, and then also becomes un-compelling as we listeners in a linear experience need to be able to participate and make predictions, though these predictions need to be fulfilled in unsuspected ways.
DG: A 2-CD release, the second disc comprises works all featuring 1 or 2 guitars, the first and last of these being with ensemble. An instrument you identify with personally?
JH: I do identify with the guitar personally…though the result of having a whole disc of music with guitar would not have been my original intent. After childhood studies of the piano and clarinet, I played the electric guitar in Hollywood nightclubs from the ages of 12-18, before turning to classical guitar from 18-25, and I have not touched the instrument since. Even from a young age I knew I was going to focus on composition. During my teenage years I played in bands as more of a social identity (and wrote all the music for all the bands I played in), and I burnt out on the lifestyle a few years later. I then studied classical guitar with the goal of getting into a Conservatory to then study composition once accepted, and a few years later devoted myself entirely to composition…and I haven’t looked back. I have over the years composed several works for or that use the classical guitar, but usually upon request from a performer rather than as a creative goal.
DG: You must have developed a close relationship with Mike Kudirka and Brian Head, the two guitarists on this recording.
JH: In 2002, after I turned entirely to composition, Michael Kudirka approached me and asked me to write a guitar duo for him and his then duo-partner Eric Benzant-Feldra. This work became the Five Microtonal Studies that are featured on this disc. Michael and I have remained extremely close friends over the years, and have collaborated several times. Many of the works on this disc are not only written for him, but are inspired by both his incredible level of technical proficiency and his rigid adherence to artistic integrity. I consider Michael Kudirka to be the most important interpreter, analyst and preserver of my music and musical ideas. Brian Head is a friend of ours and both a composition and guitar faculty member at the University of Southern California (where both Michael and I attended). Since Eric no longer plays classical guitar, it was immediately clear to both Michael and myself that Brian was the only person who could replace Eric in these recordings, due to all of our social relationships as well as Brian’s fantastic artistry as a performer. The solo piece on this disc, Nocturnes, was written for and premiered by my long lost blood-brother in arms, Nic Nichol, and will always be dedicated to his memory. Michael also knew Nic, and thus is the only person who I (and likely Nic) would trust to record this work.
DG: There is great sense of commitment from all the musicians on these recordings which it seems to me mirrors a deep personal exposition through composition – a kind of laying bare, which makes me wonder about the process of composition and how it opens up your inner world.
JH: Yes, I have been very fortunate to have several amazing musicians take on my very difficult works wholeheartedly. Michael is perhaps my greatest champion, but many of the performers on these discs have played my music repeatedly over the years: Michael, Shalini, Paul, Brian, Don, Nick, and so many others.
As you and I have discussed previously, here in California, we do not have all the big musical institutions or publishers or commissioning organizations that New York has, but we do have a sincere commitment to a legacy of integrity and experimentalisation. This is evidenced in the many amazing performers who have delivered fantastic performances on all of the pieces on these two discs. Our legacy is built upon our predecessors, such figures as John Cage, Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, James Tenney, Terry Riley, Conlon Nancarrow, etc, and many of the most important developments in modern music have come from California including minimalism (with Young and Riley, and the Oakland studio where Reich discovered tape looping and phasing, and where John Adams discovered minimalism at the San Francisco Conservatory), the influence of pop and rock styles of music from Hollywood, and even our geographic connection with the Pacific Rim…not to mention Los Angeles being the final destination of the two most important 20th century composers Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. Additionally many of the biggest names in current music have ongoing and robust relationships with the highly progressive Los Angeles Philharmonic…the organization that I grew up watching during the 18-year tenure of Esa-Pekka Salonen, who provided me with many of the most influential musical experiences of my life.
Now, everything that I do in life revolves around whatever I am working on at any given time: my mountain, ocean and desert adventures, fighting and martial arts, whatever music I am listening to in any period of time, whatever books I am reading…all adventures I am undertaking in my life all are intertwined with creation. Art must be a sincere reflection of oneself. To pursue the true eternal Crown of Fire, one must be born with the Storm in the Blood. To create meaning out of the vast and empty chasm, one must live an adventurous and dynamic life, only one who is devoted to living a compelling life can create objects of compelling art from the dark void. Thus true art is an autobiography, it must project an identifiable aspect of personality. Anyone not living the Storm can only write fiction, or at best, biography…but these are forms of entertainment and do not engage in the timeless transcendence of true art that sincere autobiography does. Timelessness, immortality, existence in the moment, reinterpretation, legacy, above all expression, communication, and comprehension…these are all various modes of victory in pursuit of the Great Work.