John Hollenbeck: Reveling in the Unknown

A conversation with Alexandra Gardner
Feburary 23, 2011—1 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Edited by Frank J. Oteri, Molly Sheridan, and Alexandra Gardner
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Composer and drummer John Hollenbeck seems most content when faced with musical uncertainty of any sort. Whatever the musical context, Hollenbeck lets go of conceptions around style and genre, happy to enjoy musical experiences without the immediate need to know exactly what they are or where they might be heading. His primary musical residence is arguably the jazz world, where he composes for and plays with his own groups, Claudia Quintet and the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, performs as a sideman with a wide variety of musicians, and holds a professorship in Jazz Drums and Improvisation at the Jazz Institute Berlin in Germany. In addition, Hollenbeck is an active participant in the new music community, composing for groups including the Bang On A Can All-Stars, and composing and performing with Meredith Monk. His interest in diverse musical experiences and the desire to imbue each piece with its own individual musical language are further informed by the practice of meditation and a deep interest in contemporary composition, creating music that is at once lyrical, approachable, and complex.

Originally from Binghamton, New York, Hollenbeck credits his older brother, also a drummer, for fanning the flames of his musical interests early on. After receiving degrees in percussion and jazz composition from the Eastman School of Music, Hollenbeck moved to New York City, where he has worked with leading jazz musicians such as Bob Brookmeyer, Fred Hersch, Tony Malaby, Kenny Wheeler, and Pablo Ziegler. The roles of sideman and bandleader have always held equal ground in Hollenbeck’s musical life, both necessary forms of musical nourishment. He composes much of his music exclusively for Claudia Quintet, his ensemble comprised of drums, bass, vibraphone, accordion, and clarinet. The 18-piece John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble (he prefers this more open-to-interpretation term to the standard “Big Band”) provides an even larger palette for his compositions; he writes both original works specifically for that group and creates arrangements of his other works, such as “Abstinence,” which was originally composed for Claudia Quintet.

While often highly active and solidly packed with dense counterpoint, Hollenbeck’s music possesses an astonishing clarity of line, form, and structure that he attributes to his training as a drummer. “When I started writing music, I realized if I didn’t play clearly, I couldn’t hear my own music and no one else could either. So I think that kind of clarity is something that I’m always searching for. Like, how to make each voice clear and transparent.” He also mentions that the drummer mindset helps keep the music fresh, in that gravitating towards conventional melodic material or standard chord progressions is not an issue when one is steeped in the world of percussion. In the making of each piece, he also strives to use a different process in order to create a truly unique sound, thus avoiding repetition or ingrained habits.

Despite his devotion to exploring new sonic terrain, Hollenbeck also draws upon a deep understanding of jazz, world, and classical music for his compositions. For example, the work “Foreign One” on the CD Eternal Interlude is based on the Thelonious Monk tune “Four in One”—the full quote is revealed in the middle of the work, but the building blocks can be heard throughout the work in snippets, playfully reformed in different guises.

Like many contemporary composers and performers, Hollenbeck admits to struggling to answer the loaded question, “What kind of music do you play?” Although the temptation is to simply answer “jazz music,” he is well aware that the term holds many meanings for many people. Over the years, his personal definition of “jazz” has remained open, illustrating a rich and varied career in composition and performance driven by the spirit of discovery. “For me, it’s always been about the new thing; something that I can’t define yet, that I just listen to it and I think, ‘I don’t know what that is. That’s so interesting.’ For me, that’s jazz.”

We met with Hollenbeck in late February, as he was preparing for a West Coast tour with the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble. He discusses his composing process, the challenges of organizing tours both in the U.S. and abroad, his thoughts on genre definitions, and more.

—AG

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Alexandra Gardner: I understand that you started drumming because your older brother was a drummer, and his activities inspired you to begin. When and how did the composing part enter into the picture?

John Hollenbeck: Well, my brother was also composing, and he gave me this idea that that’s what musicians do. I kind of thought that you had to; it was part of the package. So I thought about it a lot early on. I don’t think I really had the tools yet, but I thought about it. I had some attempts in high school to write some big band charts and some small group things. I wrote some marimba solos and little things like that. But nothing that I was proud of until I was in college.

AG: Each one of your recordings is so unique. You have a very specific musical language, and yet every recording sounds completely different from every other one. There is music that sounds specifically like jazz, and there are elements of world music in some works, and things that sound like electronic music but aren’t. The Gray Cottage pieces performed by Todd Reynolds fit into the genre of contemporary art music. Are you always trying to do something completely different with every work, or are you just sort of being present in the moment and letting things happen?

JH: I think early on I was really attracted to the mystery of something—when I heard something that I hadn’t heard before. So in my own writing, I think I’m kind of trying to capture that in some way. A lot of people would say you can’t do anything new. You know, everything’s been done. But it’s really important for me that each piece kind of be its own little universe. It has its own language and it does sound essentially different than other pieces. As I write, that becomes harder and harder to not repeat myself. And I also enjoy diversity; when I was younger, I was often making little mix tapes that were pretty diverse—it was normal for me to go from Stevie Wonder to Aaron Copland, and I enjoyed that. In the course of a record or a concert, I like to go to very different worlds, and maybe even inside one piece I might be doing that. It was a little bit harder for me to listen to a whole Stevie Wonder record, but to go from one to the other, and then maybe a little jazz in there… I was always attracted to that diversity.

I think it’s like trying to find things that I can’t figure out or that I’ve never really heard before. It doesn’t even have to be incredibly different, but just a slightly different tint on something. And that’s then a piece that I’m going to be able to play and enjoy playing night after night.

AG: It seems as if your style has really evolved in an interesting way from your early recordings, in which everything is thick and tumbled together, and there’s a lot of really intense counterpoint going on. It’s still that way, but now the music fits together more tightly and more precisely. You can hear everything that is happening in the music, even when there are 18 people playing. Nothing gets lost.

JH: I think some of that comes from the drummer part of it; when I started writing music, I realized if I didn’t play clearly, I couldn’t hear my own music and no one else could either. So I think that kind of clarity is something that I’m always searching for. Like how to make each voice clear and transparent. And when I work with people that are improvising, I find myself repeating the same phrases which are usually, you know, you look for your own little place in the sonic universe and do whatever you want there. And someone else will be over here, and the music can be pretty dense as long as people aren’t all in the same area.

AG: How does your composing process work?

JH: I think about it a lot ahead of time. I have a bunch of lists—ongoing lists that I make about the process. How could I potentially start a piece, and then how could I work on a piece, and what tools will I use to work on this piece. Usually it just happens naturally, but I think making a list and thinking about it ahead of time lets me have a slightly different process than I’ve used in the past, which hopefully again gives the piece its own little sound. So the process, I think, is what makes each piece different. A lot of people for instance start on the piano, and, especially if you’re not a pianist, if you don’t have piano chops, then you will gravitate towards certain harmonies and your fingers kind of do the walking and thinking for you a little bit. I try to be careful about that and not repeat the same process. And then I think about the tools; piano being one tool, paper is another tool, the computer is another tool, the drum set, or my voice, and I can use all those tools at different parts of the piece, combining them in a way so that the process is a little different.

AG: When you’re composing, are you thinking specifically about ideas being for one group or another? Like this piece is for your large ensemble, or that idea is for Claudia Quintet? You play in several groups, so I’m wondering how you divvy up the music for everyone.

JH: A lot of the stuff for large ensemble has come out of commissions, so it’s been officially for another group. And then I have it in my mind how I could adapt it for my group. With the Claudia Quintet, I’m usually writing for them specifically. One reason that I do have this traditional instrumentation, even though I think the music’s not traditional, is that I can write for other groups and then at some point still bring it back to my band and it’s not too hard to do.

AG: That’s efficient.

JH: Well, it’s been working out pretty well. I mean, of the last two big pieces, one was written originally for wind ensemble and then one of the guys in the wind ensemble is in my large ensemble and he basically just said, “You should arrange this for large ensemble.” I hadn’t really thought about it. So then I did, and it ended up being the title track on the last record. And there’s another piece on there, “Perseverance”, that was written for a band in Portugal and that works with my group too pretty well.

AG: How does the work you’ve been doing as a percussionist with Meredith Monk inform your composing and performing?

JH: I guess the biggest influence would be that she composes very intuitively. Not a lot of the process is intellectual. It would be more emotional—so what is that sound, or that rhythm, what feeling does that give you. Composing can get very academic and intellectual, to the point that the music part goes away and you come up with a piece that is incredibly well crafted, and is symmetrical and it’s got all this incredible structural cohesion, but it’s in the end not moving. So I think that’s the biggest influence that I can see from her.

AG: To bring a more emotional sensibility to the music.

JH: Yeah, whatever it is, she’s creating pieces that, in the end, are incredibly intricate and layered. Often there’s kind of a theatrical aspect that is really new to me. And then of course, a lot of the pieces incorporate visual elements—either what are we going to wear, or what’s the lighting going to be, or am I going make this movement here—and that’s really a new thing for me to be a part of.

AG: You composed the percussion part of The Impermanence Project. How did that process work?

JH: Normally the process is very collaborative. She comes in with something, and then it keeps getting developed through lots of rehearsing, and she’s video-ing everything, and so you’re kind of right there in the middle. It’s a very vulnerable state for her to be in, and it takes a lot of courage to be open enough to let everyone in on your compositional process. In the end of course, she’s the composer and the decision-maker. But when it comes to the percussion, she’s not a percussionist and so she gives me a lot of freedom, and it has worked out somehow. We’re somehow in tune with each other. Usually she just gives me a sort of idea of where to play and some ideas about sounds, and then I just try. Usually it works out pretty quickly that she likes what I do, and then I just have to remember it!

AG: In addition to your many musical interests and activities, the practice of meditation is also a big part of your life, isn’t it?

JH: Yeah, I would say I practice meditation. Try to.

AG: And would you say that brings a spiritual element to your work? Do you find that meditation has affected your compositions and the way you approach music?

JH: A lot of times the pieces themselves are aspirations. So not necessarily how I am, but how I wish I could be. I have a lot of pieces that are somehow based on spiritual texts, or even just based on meditation. And in the process of writing the piece, I learn a lot about the subject, whatever the subject is. Also then in the end, you’re sharing that with people, and so maybe they will latch onto that and hear about some text or meditation or something that they didn’t know anything about, or only knew a little bit about. It can kind of be some free advertising for something that you want to share.

As far as the meditation, it really helps make things clear. So if you’re composing, that’s very good. But even if you’re, you know, walking down the street, it’s also very good. Meditation I would just say helps everything, composing being one of those things.

AG: Speaking of aspirations, is there a place or situation where you would compositionally like to ultimately arrive? For instance, a lot of composers want to write an opera. Is there something like that in your mind for the future?

JH: I think for the most part I really like to write for the groups that I’m writing for. So I would just like that to continue. But you know, of course, if it could be easier, that would be great! It would be great to do more commissioned work, to really get to know other ensembles and write for them. I feel like I’m on the edges of the jazz community, and maybe on the edges of the new music community. So the jazz part I’m not so concerned with, but I would love to be more a part of the new music community. The one bit of confusion in my mind is about writing for orchestra. Some days, I really want to do that. And then it can be just the next day where I think, no, I don’t want to do that. It would be great if the opportunity came at some point, and then I would just do it and stop thinking about it.

I think when I was younger, that probably would have been the goal. Like, wow, maybe someday I could write for an orchestra. Then other people come around and show you other models where you don’t actually need the orchestra, and you can create your own ensemble and write for your own ensemble and that works maybe even better. So I think I’m kind of somewhere in between.

The other big part, which might not seem like a big part to someone who’s not doing it, is if I could do less of the business part of what I do. That would be great. I could spend more time composing.

AG: Is the balance shifting between the amount of time you’re composing and playing with your own groups as opposed to the amount of time you’re playing for other people?

JH: Well, it’s shifted in that I’m doing a lot more with my own groups. But it’s kind of an OK balance. It’s like a holiday when I can just be the drummer in a band. It’s so easy in a certain sense. Of course you have to take care of the music part, but that’s it. You just have to show up on time and, and play the music and that seems really easy at this point. So I do like to do that as a relief from the leading. I love playing the drums and just being the drummer.

AG: And you’re teaching as well.

JH: Yeah, I love teaching, and it’s something I’ve always loved. I’ve been thinking recently about smells and odors, and I love the smell of a school. I don’t know what it is, but when you walk into a university, it has a certain smell. I’m attracted to that. I’ve always been attracted to the utopian environment of a school. I really enjoy teaching, but it does take a lot of energy, and it feeds everything else, but you have to balance the teaching with doing your own work. I’m responsible for many students, and I really want to take care of that. I also have to take care of myself, and I want to play, and I want to do my own music, and so that’s a constant, daily schedule battle.

AG: Yet on top of all that you’re going on tour with the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble. That’s a huge project, taking an 18-piece big band anywhere, especially to Europe. What do the logistics of that look like?

JH: Right. Well, I have a booking agent in Europe, and I have a new person who’s helping me with the Large Ensemble tour. I actually started doing it by myself, and I booked the whole thing by myself. Then it got down to, you know, oh my god I have to book like, 60 plane tickets, and I have to figure out how to get from here to here. Then an opportunity came up to work with someone, and so I think that’s great. Even if I have a booking agent, I’m the one that’s booking all the travel and figuring out how many hours it takes to get from this city to that city, and what time is the sound check, and where are we gonna eat, and how many CDs are we going to sell, and where do I get those CDs, and how much does the bass weigh, and if we take, you know, Easy Jet versus Lufthansa.

AG: Is the process very different for a European tour versus one in the U.S.?

JH: Well, in Europe it’s not based on the quantity of people at the concert as much. Because there’s more funding, there are a lot of places where you play where it’s not about how many people are coming to a concert. It’s about, “This is really important to present this music. We want to present this music, and we’re gonna pay you really well.” And then, you know, 20 people come to the concert. It’s like OK, here they are, and here you are. Great. Whereas in the U.S., usually it’s much more based on numbers. For me as the leader, I’m getting paid according to the number of people that are there. So it’s just because there’s less support. Unfortunately, a lot of the funding in Europe has gone down pretty drastically. I think I got in kind of on the tail end of this, but I think it used to be pretty incredible that most of the musicians that were living in New York were making a living in Europe. And at one time even in Japan, there was a lot of work. It’s much harder to do now because the money’s just not there anymore.

AG: Do you change up what or how you present the work depending on which side of the ocean you’re on? Do you think at all about audience expectation?

JH: Well, when you play in the U.S., I think you might be playing for people that are more familiar with the music, because I think people are less likely to take a chance on something if they don’t know anything about it. In Europe, it’s a lot of times more based on the venue, so they’ll say, “Let’s go to that venue because we know it’s always good. I’ve never heard of this group, but let’s just go.” It’s different when you’re playing for a bunch of people who know your music and know at least something about your music versus playing to a group of people that know nothing about your music at all. The vibrations are completely different.

I try to show the audience that I’m a human. We might be new and weird, but we’re also kind of friendly, normal people. I can do that in English, but I don’t do that very well in other languages. So sometimes that can be really strange when we go to a place where we can’t really warm up the audience. I think it’s nice sometimes to explain the titles of the pieces or the story behind the piece, and sometimes I can’t do that because they don’t understand. I’ve had a lot of incredibly awkward experiences where I kind of say the same thing I might say in the U.S. and then at some point they’re supposed to laugh, and then no one laughs and I realize, OK, they don’t understand anything I’m saying. So we might tend to play a set in a place like Spain or something where we kind of just play every piece, and go into another piece, and don’t really stop too much because if we stop, then I have to talk. But otherwise, I don’t think we’re presenting the music differently. It’s more that the audience is different, and it makes us feel a little different. But the music is the same.

AG: You mentioned that you are on the edges of jazz and of the new music world. Do you find yourself affected in any way by the discussions revolving around genre? Tonality, versus atonality, classical versus indie-classical, etc.? Do those conversations take a different form within the jazz community?

JH: Jazz might be a little bit different in that it’s always been a hybrid form of many different types of music. Some world music and some European music and some folk music, and it’s always open to adding new influences. It kind of just matters what definition you use for jazz. So for me, it’s always been about the new thing; something that I can’t define yet, that I just listen to it and I think, “I don’t know what that is.” That’s so interesting. For me, that’s jazz. The real innovators in jazz were people that didn’t think about that at all. And later on people named the music that they made, but they never really were concerned with the naming of it. Probably the hardest question to answer is when I just meet someone and they say, “Oh, you’re a drummer. What kind of music do you play?” And there’s always like a huge silence there. They just think, “What’s wrong, I just asked a very simple question. Why can’t you answer that?” And it’s a hard question for me to answer. So I answer it differently according to whom I’m talking to. The Claudia Quintet is on the Cuneiform label, which is mostly known as a progressive rock label. I don’t even know what Prog-Rock is, you know, but to some people we’re automatically that. They hear it as that. To other people, they would hear it as jazz. For people that really know jazz, they probably wouldn’t think of it as jazz. So everyone makes their own idea. A lot of people are very uncomfortable with the mystery of not knowing. So a lot of people will even say to me, “Yeah, I don’t like jazz, because I don’t understand it.” And the same thing with a lot of contemporary music, “I just don’t get it.” But I enjoy being in there when I don’t get it.

All the names and the genre stuff, I try to leave that to other people because I’ve always been interested in the music that you can’t classify. It’s not a great business decision, but musically it’s natural for me.

AG: Do you have a way of describing the work to yourself?

JH: I guess I would say I’m interested in lots of music, and always have been interested in lots of different kinds of very diverse music. And I just let that kind of naturally go in and come out, and usually I’m most interested by hybrid forms. So you take like a Joni Mitchell tune and a Morton Feldman tune, and you put them together, that’s not a combination I’ve heard too much. So that could be a disaster, but it might be very interesting.

It’s a very natural process for me, so that’s why it’s hard to talk about, because it’s just normal. I don’t think about it. This is just what comes out. Then later on, you know, people want to know, well, what is it? And that’s when I think, “Oh, I’m not sure what it is, but this is it.”

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