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Robin Holcomb: Distinctive Mysteries

By Published: February 14, 2011
AAJ: Same thing with your music itself, there's all these fragments of American folksongs, you have a "Blue Monk" fragment somewhere—is this a conscious melding of sources where you want to create a picture that says something, or is it, again, something more unconscious, involving play?

RH: It's a little bit of both. Basically, it's whatever comes up, and I don't set out with an agenda to create a certain kind of music, or series—a "Blue Period," say. I have done some rearrangements, or engagements, of other composed work. I've been working on a bunch of Stephen Foster songs. I take the original song, and the melody's in there somewhere, and the words as he wrote them. The accompaniment is in there: it's quoted. But otherwise I reset the accompaniment. And he has a song in there called "Old Dog Trey," which is a very sad song about his dog who's died, and friends who've died, and he has this very upbeat, major accompaniment and I made something a little darker and then I quoted his but it was a quotation.

But I don't set out to "genre mash," it just kind of comes up because it's what's in the air. I am drawn repeatedly to hymn-type harmonies. I was fascinated by Civil-War songs when I was a kid. I come back to those things.

AAJ: You do a very post-modern treatment of American Heritage material, and that works really well... Which comes first, the words or the music, or is it an interactive process when you're composing?

RH: It works all different ways. It's sort of easiest when words and music come at the same time. But I often write instrumental music and I have boxes of scraps of themes that might be something someday, and poems that I've started, and then sometimes a project will come up and I'll just sift through it and see what might be appropriate and mash them together and find a way to make them work, and sometimes I start from scratch. Rarely is there an idea ahead of time.

AAJ: Where do you draw your subject matter: from literature or life?

RH: Not exactly personal experience, but sometimes about a person I've met. I wrote a whole song cycle many years ago called Angels of the Four Corners, where I speculate on the future of some people I met when I sharecropped tobacco in North Carolina. And I speculated on the life of one of these people I met if she were to move to a city, and how she might take her experience with her. She had a father and a brother, and they would scavenge in the woods, literally, for moss to sell to funeral parlors for floral arrangements, and ginseng. And that's just how they'd always lived. It's not like they'd returned to the land. They lived in a log house. And people still had stills there, at that time, and it was pretty wild.

The song I wrote [about her] in that cycle was called "Deliver Me" (Robin Holcomb) and I wrote that after reading The Doll Maker by Harriet Arnow, and that was inspired by a similar scene. The song is not about that, but it was "supported" by reading it. I have a song called "Iowa Land" inspired by photographs. So sometimes it's my experience, but not my life experience, but sometimes it is.

AAJ: You're not a confessionalist.

RH: No.

AAJ: What are your roots?

RH: My father was stationed for four years in the Air Force as a trombonist. He was a musician, he had different combos and he was also an actor and had a theater company for a while. He wrote a kind of a Western musical at one point.

AAJ: So you owe a lot to him?

RH: In a way, yeah. There were musicians in the house when I was a kid, and that was kind of fun.

AAJ: What would you say the cultural heritage that your parents bestowed on you was?

RH: Well, my mother's a craftsperson, she's always making things. And so, I was encouraged to be an artist. Not a big legacy of musicians or artists, but they both were.

AAJ: The sharecropping: what led to that?

RH: I moved to North Carolina for love, at that time. I was in love with a guy who had moved there from California, and that's the only work there was there. It was a very impoverished community. He was helping out some people with the crops and he was approached by a farmer to help him with his crops, so we were kind of official partners and we worked sunup to sundown, six days-a-week. Tobacco is a very long crop, you plant it in January and you sell it in December. We raised Burley tobacco which is a very beautiful leaf that cigars are wrapped in, so it's very hand-labor intensive because you don't chop it up and you have to try to preserve the leaves. We also grew a ton of tomatoes.

It was a really different life, I have to say. There wasn't a lot of local music there, I have to say, which was surprising. There was music nearby, but not many of the people played music.

AAJ: How did it end?

RH: We finished our crops and moved back to California and continued my studies at U.C. Santa Cruz. I got very involved with Javanese Gamelan music, which is how I met Wayne. I got very into free jazz, and we started composing.

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