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Robin Holcomb: Distinctive Mysteries

Gordon Marshall By

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But I don't set out to 'genre mash,' it just kind of comes up because it's what's in the air.
Robin Holcomb's songs are knotty like tumbleweeds, braided like roads on maps along which tumbleweeds roll. She lays her songs down like baskets that have the rustic grace of birds' nests, always on the verge of promising a truth, but brimming with natural mysteries. Mysteries accrue, creating a keen urge to get at the kernel of their solution, but the singer, poet and pianist keeps pushing it back, shuttling her audience back and forth between the search for that meaning, and a deferral of its gratification. Do the mysteries, then, the very plethora of them, become the thing that matters? The interplay, the shuffling of questions in the audience's mind that somehow recapitulate the roiling interplay of lines and themes in the music and songs themselves...

Holcomb sheds a floodlight on the deep veins of glory hidden in the plains of Americana. A cosmopolitan exposure complements an American life that includes work among the people, for example, the tobacco croppers of Asheville, N.C. With every new discovery involving the human condition, she has learned, new mysteries crop up, mysteries which we can only solve through the labor of the hands and body, as if curing the tobacco leaves of the Carolina plantations in the sun. But again, certainty curls up like burning smoke, piling up in the air in more clouds of mystery, leaving us as if lost and singing to ourselves in deep wilderness, until paths bring us back to human comforts. It is work such as Holcomb's that blazes those paths.

Holcomb's own paths have brought her from a childhood in Georgia and California, to budding success in New York City, where she started with her husband Wayne Horvitz, the legendary basement club Studio Henry, the precursor to The Knitting Factory. At the root of many of the innovations and ambitions of the '80s Downtown Scene, she was, so to speak, the salt of its earth, never losing the humility and earthiness gleaned from her often rural past, and infusing that quality into her own work and that of others. Holcomb is best known for her cryptic and romantic singer-songwriting, but her musical skills are multifarious, and she has worked in jazz and in classical composition, as well as many other types of projects.

All About Jazz: You've been working on some silent film projects...

Robin Holcomb: I am, yes. I just finished three scores for films by Mikio Naruse. He's a Japanese film director from the '30s, and I'm mixing another score by Yasujiro Ozu.

AAJ: Is he a more recent director?

RH: He made films for many years. The film I did is from the '40s, but he did films in color and films in sound as well. And these are all for Criterion Eclipse.

AAJ: Now, there's a certain quiet, almost silent quality to your music, and it would seem that when you put together sound and image there would be a process similar to when you put sound to words in your songs. Is that the case?

RH: Yes, I think that's true. I tend to go for minimalism without being a minimalist, so to speak. And when I write poetry, I go for the fewest number of words that evoke a lot or let the readers connect the dots, or relate it to their own experience, and the same with music... These films, in the silent film tradition, require continuous scores rather than music that comes and goes as in talking films. So that was a bit of a challenge, not to overpower the screen with what was going on with the music, but at the same time extend the emotional content rather than overwhelming it with, say, a stride piano.

AAJ: Did you have any models?

RH: The only film I had written an earlier score for was more improvised. For this I ended up writing it and turning it into a through-composed piece for a chamber ensemble. I'd worked in the past with my husband, Wayne Horvitz. He wrote a score for a Charlie Chaplin film called The Circus, and I thought he had a really great approach to it and I think that was really inspiring to me. The music was very bittersweet, and the film was extremely bittersweet and it had a score that felt liked a lot of taped-together music from romantic and classical eras, but also some of Chaplin's music as well. That was the original score. But Wayne had a very different approach to it that I think was really appropriate to the film—but of course the Chaplin Estate didn't see it that way...

AAJ: They didn't appreciate it?

RH: No, they basically forbade that it ever be performed after the first time...

AAJ: What were the Japanese films like?

RH: They were sort of like, in a weird way, comic-tragic soap operas. It seemed as if in every film there was a man with a hole in his shoe. He's always sort of a clown—not always... And then there's always a dripping faucet and a ticking clock. Often a woman who's a single mother who's a geisha, because she can't figure out how to make a living otherwise.


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