Interview with John Holland
by Robert Godin (1990)

RG: John, I want to ask you where the original concept came from to develop the form of score writing which you use, which includes simple concepts of notation as well as instructions describing how to perform the works.

JH: I have always been concerned with the player's ability to maximize their own resources. Classical musicians are trained to interpret music, that is, to express a particular composer's ideas or intent. However, I believe that most players have the ability to bring their own ideas to the music beyond that solely of an interpreter. The problem is that players have been trained to interpret musical ideas without being given a significant structure or language to explore their most creative potential. As a composer I am committed to finding a structure...a set of boundaries.. that include ideas which inspire a performer to explore their unique strengths and abilities.

RG: What is essential, then, is that the player becomes, in a sense, a co-composer in the final performance of the work?

JH: Yes, although I am not sure that every performer would want to think of themselves as a composer. My intention is to set up a creative interaction between the player and the composer. By providing a rigorous musical structure in the form of a set of boundaries or framework, often containing non-musical ideas or concepts, I invite the performer to bring to that structure their own ideas and performing abilities. I suppose I am searching for a nearly perfect collaboration between the composer and the performer, one that emphasizes the most resourceful talents of each.

RG: I see.

JH: I tend to think of the music which I compose as interactive music, because without the performer bringing their own ideas to the music, it simply cannot be realized, unlike conventional music. The music literally cannot come to life without the performer bringing to it their particular creative resources. Also, the same piece of music would be different depending on the performer and the performance, unlike music by a composer that uses conventional notation where it would be immediately recognizable as that particular piece no matter who interprets it.

RG: I'd like to ask you a question that might be asked by people that may not understand the specific way in which your scores work. What are the differences, or what is the difference between the structural format of your scores, and the various forms of improvisation, as people may understand improvisation as being a freer form to express themselves.

JH: There is an essential difference, and the difference is that improvisation which expresses itself in the styles of Jazz in the western world and in various forms of World music exhibit very strict forms, and those forms which have evolved over the history of the various styles have not really changed much. Because the formal aspects of the music have pretty much remained the same over time, a player will express oneself in only a few ways which often becomes redundant. In a free improvisation, a player will express a personal style which is immediately recognizable due to the tendency of even the best players to continually repeat the same kind of musical patterns. And this leads to a form of self-imitation or redundancy. In free improvisational styles in general, every performer, no matter how gifted, will begin to repeat the same phrases and to express the same ideas after a fairly short period of time. And the problem for me is that the music gets very predictable. What prevents this from occurring in my music is a balance of freedom and constraints which are built into the structure of the music, which, hopefully, results in a unique interaction between composer and performer.

RG: So you're saying that in general improvisation is essentially imitative or redundant, but that your music allows for a certain freshness each time it is performed?

JH: Yes, because the player is invited to engage the music in a complete way; physically, emotionally, and intellectually, and not only within an isolated set of musical circumstances, but within a much larger context. I am asking the player to search and to challenge who they are and who they may become, both as musicians and as individuals. Of course, in order to accomplish this, the performer must be able to control their instrument with a certain degree of technical facility, and at the same time be willing to challenge and broaden themselves as human beings. In order to accept this kind of a challenge, the player must be able to explore new ideas and concepts and then expand them musically in such a way that they are consistent with one's own ideas, beliefs, and philosophies. In other words, the player must be able to establish one's own voice within the expressive requirements of the score.

RG: John, You have recently finished a book that includes the basic performance concepts and exercises for performing your music. Could you tell us a little bit about the book?

JH: The material in this book is designed specifically for a sound performer or musician who wishes to explore new musical boundaries, or perhaps to expand one's musical vocabulary. For example, I believe that musical patterns simulate the behavior of physical events in our environment, without respect to the particular musical texture or the aesthetic, philosophical, or even psychological implications of the music. Musical elements of say, pitch and dynamics are perceived in relation to spatial direction. And that is not commonly known among musicians. In our mind we perceive pitch as being high or low in an x,y spatial dimension; we think of separate pitches as moving up or down in relation to one another. While loudness is perceived largely in the context of spatial depth, or how far away the sounds are from the listener. In the broadest sense, duration and rhythm represent time-based events. Duration refers to the elapsed time of an event, while rhythm is identified with the forward motion of events in time. This manner of looking at the various elements of music may be applied to all elements of musical texture. So the musical definitions and exercises in this book encourages the player to examine underlying musical elements in the broadest sense, and to build and develop a vocabulary of musical patterns and techniques which are based on non-musical as well as musical considerations.

RG: So, in terms of a philosophical basis for your music, you are attempting to eliminate the more traditional ego-based controls and forced musical expressions which accompany traditional performance?

JH: Yes. But without dwelling on that aspect. Traditionally, the practice of music involves developing a particular type of sound or musical style which is associated with the history of performance practice and composing styles. In contrast, my music depends on the player's willingness to concentrate on some particular idea in their mind, and allowing the music to follow based on the idea itself, rather than on some preconceived notion of what a specific type of sound or a particular musical style should be.

RG: In the earlier versions of your book, you utilized various exercises in the book while working with the American Sound Group, an experimental music group which you founded in the early seventies. How did that work?

JH: At that time there was a small group of musicians who had become dissatisfied with the conventions of music and with art in general, and who were interested in broadening themselves as musicians, both with respect to the kind of music that they wanted to perform, but also in relation to a kind of general performance context, that is, the way in which the music was presented. One of the principles around which the group was organized was the consideration of various methods of presentation and the incorporation of those methods with the ideas and concepts of the performance, so that there was nothing that wasn't considered in terms of how the presentation was going to be perceived by the audience. This involved not only sound, but movement, lighting, visual objects, text, spatial arrangement, etc. And so that was a very big challenge for everyone, not only from the point of view of breaking with conventional musical tradition, but also the demands that were placed on people to quickly learn skills in areas that they hadn't seriously considered before. The members of the Sound Group formed a collaboration which was governed in part by the principle that each member would have an equal input in terms of the development of the group, not in the sense of democracy, necessarily, but that each person in the group would help to develop the full capacities and roles of the other members, as well as themselves. In any collaborative situation, it takes time for this kind process to develop in a way that leads to success, and so it was a great challenge, and although there certainly were setbacks, there is no doubt in my mind that everyone in the group learned a great deal from the experience. I should say that over time, primarily because of the general commitment to the process, interesting results were achieved in terms of developing new musical and artistic strategies within the group.

RG: So to go back to the previous question, the exercises in the book were used as a means to develop larger works that incorporated these new musical strategies?

JH: Yes. Many of the principles that are developed in the book were used within the group to develop unique musical and musico-theatrical works. The book provided specific exercises that allowed the members of the group to explore a full range of ideas and techniques both as individual players and as group members.

RG: So this tended to open-up people toward developing more creative ideas, without knowing in advance how the ideas were actually going to develop?

JH: Yes. The kind of pieces that we were presenting, as well as the context in which the work was presented, were examined critically from every point of view and by every member of the group. Within a single piece, elements of musical texture, structure, form, ideas, and concepts were explored from every conceivable view point. We were able to reexamine the fundamental assumptions of music and its presentation, and then establish new strategies based on broad definitions of music, musical methods and techniques, and its presentation. Of course, the group itself, as a social organism was dealing with these same issues on a much larger scale, at the level of social interaction at a time of great cultural and social upheaval in this country, and these dynamic principles, both of musical presentation and of group collaboration, working together, tended to produce interesting and unique consequences.

RG: After your work with the American Sound Group, you moved into a phase of more personal work. What was that about, and how did that lead to the music you began to produce in the eighties?

JH: First, I think it is always poses a danger to allow oneself to become isolated, especially in the global culture in which we live. The experience I had with the *American Soundgroup and other groups in the seventies such as the **Text Sound Chorus were valuable lessons for me personally, and certainly have contributed to the development of my musical ideas and goals. However, one of the things that began to happen at the end of the seventies and the early eighties was that experimental performance in the areas of music, theater, dance, and performance art began to be perceived as established art forms, at first by the media, and then by other artists. Finite boundaries were being placed around what was, before, a fresh way of looking at the presentation of new ideas and methods of presentation. There seemed to me to be increasingly less risk and questioning in the arts, and finally a nearly complete lack of the kind of growth that interests me as a musician and human being. I have found that for myself, it is important to examine and reexamine assumptions; to ask fundamental questions concerning the nature and process of those things which interest me. So I found myself becoming more involved with computer technology, with questions of the nature of music as it relates to new and more complex patterns of development within the culture. And in order to follow along these new paths, I found that I needed to confront the new technology, particularly the computer, synthesizers, etc. I began to develop a philosophy of wanting to speak directly to the listener. By that I mean that I wanted to create music that could be listened to exclusively in one's private surroundings. Producing music in the form of recordings or compact disks became the means through which I could present my ideas directly to the listener without mediation or interference by the media or the marketplace.

RG: Since the late seventies, you have been involved with writing small and large scale text works, spoken text, and performance texts which might also be regarded as books.

JH: As a composer I produce music which I hope will challenge the performer and listener to experience various aspects of nature and the universe in which we are all connected, but are not necessarily the exclusive domain of music or art. As a result of these interests, I have developed a presentational form by which I can share ideas which are of interest to me as a musician, but which are typically not part of the musician's education. For example, I have been interested in the subject of time since I was a child. I have always known that time is a fundamental aspect of my experience and that it is important for me to know about time, particularly as a musician working in a time-dependent medium. Yet the more I tried to learn about the subject, the less it seemed to be available to me. I decided to go to the library and answer some questions about the subject of time, hoping to come away with a clear understanding of the subject. I believed that when I acquired this knowledge it would impact significantly on my musical life, although I wasn't clear exactly in what way. But the more I tried to gain access to the information, the clearer it became that this subject was closed to persons outside the scientific community; it was simply not available to me as a musician. Furthermore I didn't know the language of physics or math. So I decided that no matter how long it took, I would learn for myself exactly what time is. And so I spent several years and did exactly that. And the result is that I have put this information into the form of a...well lets call it a performance text...a text which is designed to be read aloud to others so that this subject may become available to other musicians. I have also gone through a similar process involving the subject of sound waves in the surrounding medium. Sound waves is the first in a series of three related performance texts which I have been working on for some years. The three texts include Sound Waves and their Properties in the Surrounding Medium, The Human Ear, and The Perception of Sound in the Brain. These three subjects, taken as a whole, constitute the path of sound which determines our ability to experience music in the way that we do. Like the subject of time, this information, as a comprehensive subject, is not available to the layperson, and I am committed to the idea that it should become available to any musician or person who wishes to have some knowledge of these subjects.

RG: You have expressed a fundamental interest in establishing a direct connection to your listener, and I assume that is why you became involved in recording. You have released two albums so far, Music From A Small Planet, and Paths of Motion (Sets and Simulations for Small Computer) which are both involved with computer-generated synthesized music. How do these albums and the new album you are working on relate to the ideas that are represented in your musical scores?

JH: 20th century recording has an interesting history. Typically, a record will contain a series of individual pieces which don't necessarily have a connection to one another other than that they are written or performed by the same artist. In my work with the American Sound Group in the seventies, I began to develop a philosophy based on a total state of presentation. I became interested in the idea of having all of the elements of a presentation be consistent with one another in some way, and I suppose this carried over into the recordings. Each of the two recordings that you mentioned represents a complete idea in itself, and all of the elements which go into the making of the recording are associated with that single idea. In the first album, Music From A Small Planet, there are three sections, two sections which are included on side 1, and the third section which makes up the second half of the album. Those three sections are concerned with the way in which human beings think, feel, and act, respectively, which, as a whole, marks our overall activity as human beings. All patterns of human behavior involve some combination of thinking, feeling, and acting. And so the three sections of this music simulate, in a manner, each of these principle aspects of human behavior. Paths of Motion, my second recording, is comparatively more complicated and expansive than Music From A Small Planet due to the nature of the ideas on which the music is based. In general, I used this recording project to explore and model patterns of motion which occur throughout the universe. My intention was to present the fundamental ideas of motion with more importance, or at least with as much importance as the music itself. This accounts for the choice of simple timbral elements within the music and a comparatively low sound resolution, in favor of structural emphasis. All of the pieces that are included on this recording were realized according to specific computer programs which simulate fundamental aspects of motion, including periodic and aperiodic motion, as well as linear and angular motions that result in the formation of interactions, cascades, oscillations and waves, branching patterns, radial symmetry, random meandering, and chaos.

RG: Would you say that during the time of the development of these albums, especially in the second album as I perceive the vastness of the work, that your musical scores tended to become more specific, incorporating smaller aspects of these broader ideas?

JH: Yes. The concept of using extra-musical material to generate musical forms and the practice of making choices which reference non-musical material is true for all of my recent scores and is true for much of the musical recording I am doing as well.

RG: I understand that you are working on a third recording project. I wonder if you would provide us with some insight into how that's evolving, and what specifics are involved in the project?

JH: I have recently completed two sets of Keyboard Etudes which I have been working on for a while. Unlike the two previous recordings, this music is recorded digitally and includes a variety of synthesizer voices incorporating what I hope are interesting timbres. The computer programs which generate the music use simple elements of musical texture, combined with simple structures and forms. In detail, the Etudes consist of the juxtaposition of simple elements of musical texture (pitch, dynamics, duration, speed, rhythm, articulation, etc.) combined with simple structural elements including discontinuous sound-groups, silence, repetition, variation, and chord structures which are derived from the melodic flow of the music. Each Etude focuses on a fundamental element of musical texture or structure. An Etude might contain sound-groups which are high or low in pitch, loud or soft, legato or staccato, fast or slow, and so forth. Overall, the music incorporates sounds which are traditionally associated with keyboards, including the harpsichord, cembalo, organ, accordion, piano, celeste, and synthesizer. In addition, the music simulates various timbres of different keyboard instruments, including sounds which are evocative of struck and plucked strings, bell-like tones, and percussive effects. Modern uses of the keyboard are referred to in the different Etudes, such as 1/4-tone music, various percussive effects, prepared piano, and use of the piano strings as a solo instrument. All of the Etudes are generated by the computer in real-time. Each Etude is realized according to a separate computer program containing specific instructions to realize the music. In general, the decisions made by the computer which determine the music for each Etude are based on processes which simulate the general flow of dynamic systems and patterns in nature. I am hoping to have this music available on compact disk in the near future.

RG: John, I enjoyed talking with you, and I look forward to hearing more of your music.

JH: Thank you. It was a pleasure.