Full Transcript of Kevin Cooper's Interview with Jeff Holmes
Kevin Cooper: OK, Jeff, I think we’re rolling.
Jeffrey Holmes: Take one.
KC: Take one.
JH: So, we’re on the air.
KC: So, Jeff, let me first say at the start of our conversation here that I really admire you as a composer and as a person, because I really think that you have a stark sincerity about you that always comes through in your music and maybe that’s just because I know you so when I’m listening to it it just seems so Jeff Holmes…and, uh…
JH: I feel like I should tip you for that comment. [laughs]
KC: Yeah, yeah—a little brown-nosing.
JH: And likewise, I may add, as well, as our interactions with you as a performer have been incredibly rewarding.
KC: Oh, thank you—thank you. I mean, I think the comment that I said. I think maybe you kind of see yourself that way, too, in this kind of honesty, in that you have a piece entitled, “May the Bridges I Burn Light My Way.” You’re not trying to—
KC: You’re not trying to please anybody.
JH: Nah. I’m not looking for friends. [laughs]
KC: And yet you’re friendly. [laughter] I’ts just that you’re not pandering to anybody.
JH: Yeah. Absolutely. That particular piece is an obstinate piece in a number of ways, but most obviously in the required instrumentation being two guitars that are out of tune to a specific amount, coupled with oboe, violin, celesta and percussion—is a very odd and unusual sort of grouping of instruments.
KC: And it’s one that I think you have used—like, do you favor those instruments?
JH: Umm. Mainly bec…—well—yeah, I have written a—yeah, I have. Largely because I have friends that play those instruments that are people that are willing to really devote themselves, you know, on a deeper level to learning this music, so that—that helps a lot. Also, that particular piece, the instrument were—I—I chose those particular instruments to compliment the register of the guitars—to stay out of the similar register.
JH: Another obstinate element of that piece is that it’s twenty-five minutes long and in one movement so it demands quite a bit, not only out of the listener but as far as any group that would be interested in programming the piece in their—you know, as well as just the—the, uh, density of the musical ideas and the, uh, the—the consistent sort of small note value activity going on. It’s just a very large, obstinate piece in a lot of ways. So that title seemed fitting.
KC: Yeah, and if the listener’s not up to the task then-
JH: Yeah, just don’t even try. [laughs]
KC: Don’t listen to my music.
JH: Yeah, go turn on the radio. [laughter] But, uh—yeah, yeah it definitely—right off the bat I think the title might serve as sort of an indication that uh—you know, uh--I’m taking no prisoners.
KC: [Laughs] Yes. Yes, all right, well that kind of sums up where you’re at, uh—right now. Do you see yourself—I’m sure you do—continuing this—let, let me rephrase the question. Have you ever had to make career decisions that kind of conflict with your artistic decisions?
JH: Absolutely. And I kind of feel like I walk back and forth between writing pieces that I feel are going to be playable by wider number of different performance groups based only on available instrumentation. That versus—ideas I have for unusual ensembles, which is where I feel the most creative. I’ve written a number of pieces for unusual ensembles but oftentimes I’ll write a piece for a very usual ensembe, though I do unusual things with it. But that is always kind of a concern when I write any piece—is—not only what group I’m writing it for for the premiere, but how accessible it would be to groups besides the intended, first group.
JH: And, that’s not an—that’s not an issue of, of, ahh—complications in terms of the actual music itself. It’s not an issue of writing simpler rhythms or simpler intervals, it’s just an issue of selecting instruments that would be more available to a wider range of groups. The actual content of the music—I refuse to alter that based on commercial—or, or—based on those sorts of reasons.
KC: Yeah, and I think that that is going to serve you in the long run—uh. Although it may be a rockier road…
KC: that you have chosen.
JH: …to a certain extent. But, ah—you know, um--I think sometimes you have to go with what you believe in artistically and let the commercialism and the accessibility in terms of the logistical aspects—you just have to kind of let that fall into place because what good is a piece that’s using only very common instruments that a lot of groups could play if the piece ends up being a lesser quality based on those considerations. I don’t think that that in any way is a success.
KC: All right, well—let’s uh—
JH: Let’s get into some of the specific—
KC: Yeah, let’s talk about your, uh—maybe the style of your music so that our listeners, here can, uh, they can get a sense. If they haven’t heard a Jeffrey Holmes piece, what are they in store for?
JH: Um—well, my music differs from traditional music in some fundamental ways, but also is connected in other ways. Um, the main connection would be that my music is basically purely acoustic written for standard orchestral instruments with the addition sometimes, in some pieces, of either instruments like harps or guitars or percussion, but basically your standard orchestral instruments—that would be a starting point--as well as usually, my music uses pretty much traditional notation. Um, the difference is, is that I don’t really identi—I guess a lot of the differences really would come in terms of specific theoretical aspects. Um, one of main differences is that I don’t really use octaves in a similar way as basically any other composers that I’ve seen. My music has uh, a very dissonant sort of sound quality though it is hierarchical and there are clearly notes of resolution and there’s modulation in the large-scale harmonic sense. Um, but, but the way the music—And it also--And another feature that it shares with more traditional music is that it is basically tertian. In terms of harmonically, it’s really a harmonic-based language and uh, all the harmonies are basically chords spelled in thirds, which is common to all music of the common practice, as well as jazz, as well as pre-common practice music. But due to certain things in my brain and certain ways that I identify with sound, no octaves repeat,and I have certain patterns in one octave that will be a dissonant interval in another octave so you never have any sort of octave equivalence. So as you look at the music expanding throughout the register from high to low, every octave is sort of almost in a different key. So you end up with sort of a spectoral, or sort of, uh, not a polytonality, or not an atonality, though there’s chromaticism if you just look at the overall result, but sort of a multitonality where every octave has sort of its own color identity to it.
KC: So let me just interject here. Would you say it’s fair to paraphrase that scale degree number one in the lowest octave is not going to correspond to the same pitch as scale degree number one in a higher octave.
JH: That’s exactly correct.
KC: Although there will be the same amount of pitches?
JH: Yes. Basically, I have sort of a flat-octave system where every octave is a half-step flat and that way performers and audience members are able to latch on to diatonic shapes and tertian chords in terms of chords spelled in thirds and familiar sounds but it will be unfamiliar or surprising or unique in the sense that as these materials travel through different registers they never replicate the same pitch. As you’re saying, pitch one in one octave will not be the same as pitch one in another octave, though the intervallic consistency will remain intact.
KC: And Jeff, is this something…. So this is a characteristic of your music, but is it a current characteristic or something that you’ve always been…
JH: Yeah, that’s a good…It’s something that I’ve always been doing since I was a pre-teenager I’ve just had certain chords in my ear and these chords just led to this particular type of approach to color and pitch…harmonic content…that sort of thing. I’ve always been working with the same sorts of chords and the same basic sounds and I’ve progressed more in areas of form and texture as opposed to actual harmonic language.
KC: That’s extremely interesting, and I have to say, not that I’m a good gauge, but I haven’t heard of another composer using that same kind of diminishing octave idea.
JH: Yeah, yeah. I haven’t come across anyone who really…I mean, there’s people whose scales don’t repeat at the octave but not in a hierarchical, tertian language where wrong notes can be heard.
JH: The hierarchy where there is clearly right and wrong notes in terms of…ahh.. nothing’s right or wrong ever, but in terms of the grammatical hierarchy. You can hear when wrong notes are played.
KC: Yeah, that’s interesting.
JH: Even when it’s densely chromatic music.
KC: Sure, I mean preparing for this interview I was trying to put into words what I thought your harmonic and melodic language was, and I couldn’t do it, but then when you just said a moment earlier, you know, “dissonant yet hierarchical,” I think that really makes a lot of sense.
JH: Yeah, I feel that, you know, all art in some way needs to be hierarchical for us, as human beings, to have some sort of sense of…We need to be…we need to have some sort of expectation, and then have that expectation fulfilled in an unusual way for us to really derive a deep enjoyment and understanding of art. But, you know, the real…the key to really being able to…to…in any genre of art to really have a viewer or a listener follow along with the journey that you’re trying to take them on you need to have some sort of hierarchy, regardless of the content. I just, I don’t believe that any, any…It’s a totally subjective opinion, but I, I don’t believe that abstraction really has a place anymore.
KC: Interesting. Uh…I also find it maybe telling that you…when you write a piece you’re thinking of what you just said, uh…the journey of the listener. You’re thinking of the expectations that are set forth and taken away and such, in order to have a pleasing or disturbing experience.
JH: And even that is an old fashioned sort of concept, a teleological concept, that would connect these sort of ideas with older, older musics. Maybe another connection there, it’s just that I…
KC: What was that word you just used?
KC: OK, what’s that?
JH: Musicologists all know that term. [laughs] It is a term implying a goal-orientated or goal-driven sort of macroform where something happens, something changes, and works toward some sort of point and then diminishes in a larger background sort of shape, as opposed to uh, something that might be more abstract and just be a series of images or a series of sort of sound portraits that don’t necessarily have a connection to one another or don’t necessarily contribute to one another’s sense of forward motion.
KC: Yeah, I think that really sets your music apart. I think that some people may be caught up too much in the uh, the bricks and mortar and-and they forget what the-the building is that they’re---
JH: Yeah, the larger form. For me, the form is the most interesting parameter of music…is-is form. Because after all, as musicians, you know, in addition to other genres such as filmmakers and even poets to some extent, our canvas is time. And we really, our challenge, you know, if we’re going to ask someone to experience our art and sit and donate “x” amount of time whether it’s five minutes, or twenty-five minutes, or an hour, or what not, we need to really be aware of how we’re partitioning that time if we want to in some way—You know, I-I guess what I’m saying is that large-scale form is gonna happen whether you pay attention to it or not, and you can either use it to your advantage or not. But that partitioning of time and that block of time is gonna be what the viewer or listener experiences, and so to me, that is the most interesting aspect of music is how it works on a larger form, how things move through time. [laughs]
KC: All right, let’s take a break here.