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John Hollenbeck: Exploring the Boundaries, Part 1-2

By Published: March 2, 2005

AAJ: ...pull it back in.

JH: Exactly. J.C. goes to see my quintet all the time so he understands my music, he likes it, and it's really easy for him to get in there. I'm really happy I found him.

AAJ: With the Claudia Quintet, but also with the Large Ensemble, which has much more instrumentation, you always manage to keep the sounds crisp, light, and very discernable, even on dense passages like the slow, coalescing intro of "RAM," or "Weiji,"—which sounds very thick, very Charles Ivesy—all the instruments have their own identity and it sounds really clean and accessible. How do you manage that?

JH: Well, that's what I do in my own playing. I'm constantly trying to look for textures that have their own sonic universe, their own little place, and they don't get in people's way. Therefore I can do whatever I want because it's not hurting anything else. So I'm thinking about that all the time; I'm talking about that all the time. Collective improv to me is a very dangerous thing; the first person I think I heard talk about this was Roscoe Mitchell. He was talking about improv where there are four or five people and they're all improvising, and everyone's listening, but no one is really reacting to the other people. They're all playing something really strong. And he was saying, if five people are playing something really strong, then the audience has a choice of listening to all five, or two, or one. They can let their attention go from one to another because everyone's playing something really strong. So that is something I talk about all the time and it's probably also reflected in my writing. A lot of time the writing is not so ensemble-oriented, it's very individualistic: in a piece like "Weiji," everybody comes together sometimes, but usually they're just on their own. So everyone has to really make their part count and really play in the right place and with the right sound, so it can be heard beside all this other stuff that's going on. Every little thing that I write, I really want it to be heard. Same thing in the beginning of "RAM": each person has their own cell and it's really important that you can hear those cells. If you wanted to hear sixteen things at the same time, they're there.

AAJ: I really love the little melodic tag that ends "Weiji." After all the other stuff that goes on in that tune, it just really hits the spot.

JH: Sure. The definition of "weiji" that I use is "crisis and opportunity." So the whole first part of the piece is crisis, and that last section is just the opportunity that can happen from the crisis.

AAJ: The Large Ensemble album begins and ends with Theo Bleckmann singing or chanting two texts. The first is the traditional Irish blessing that starts the CD off, and the other is "The Music of Life" by Hazrat Inayat Khan. The way these bookend the CD gives them a sort of resonance. "The Music of Life" describes the positive, even essential effect of music on us physically and spiritually. Do you agree with this?

JH: Oh, totally. That's why it's there. It was very deliberate for me to start and end an album of what some people would call "big band" with pieces that were very un-bigbandlike. Also, pieces that are really talking about spiritual, soulful concepts.

AAJ: Which brings me to Theo Bleckmann. You two seem to have an especially close musical rapport and you collaborate with him a lot in a whole lot of groups. What do you like about working with him?

JH: First, Theo is a great guy. I just love hanging out with him, he's very funny, and very, very interesting. He's very individual and not afraid to really be himself when it comes to anything. He's very versatile when it comes to music; the reason I play with him so much is that we can play a lot of different kinds of things. We can play written-out jazzlike music, we can play free improv, we can play with Meredith Monk. I haven't found anything that he can't do. I would like to think that I'm the percussion version of Theo Bleckmann. The instrument that he's developed—it's amazing, the scope of what he can do. It seems like he can do anything: he's studied enough of all the different vocal traditions so he can really draw upon them, and within even one piece you can hear two or three very different vocal styles.

Have a question for John Hollenbeck? Ask him on the AAJ Bulletin Board.

Part 1 | Part 2

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