Robin Holcomb: Fostering New Music

Originally published in Earshot Jazz November 2011

A very used Steinway upright piano stands against the dining room wall. The ivories on G below middle C, D above middle C, and the highest F keys are missing, exposing the rough wood below. “It’s hard to find the right thickness to replace them,” says Robin Holcomb. From this piano, in the heart of the house, Holcomb works out her song cycles, telling her own version of obscure but vital American historical tales.

She evolves a long tradition of American popular music. Our first national music that transcended regional styles from other countries can be traced back to songs by Stephen Foster in the mid 1800’s and ballads that followed the Civil War. The words were in English, telling stories with classical depth and drama, favoring direct expression over complexity, set to music with undemanding technique for amateurs. Likewise, Holcomb’s music uses English and tells deep and dramatic stories. But the expression balances ideas directly stated with those merely implied. She juxtaposes music with hymn-like harmony next to free jazz exploration by masterful improvisers. The resulting sound is simultaneously old and familiar while remaining fresh and surprising. It feels like drinking from a cool, clear deep well with some unexpected but refreshing flavors, even a few tickly bubbles.
Holcomb finds the words, historical popularity, and hymn-like quality of Stephen Foster’s music engaging. But she says, “I don’t like the whole package. ‘Old Dog Tray,’ about a dog dying, sounds too happy. I re-harmonized it very darkly.”

Holcomb’s musical trajectory stems from her father. He played trombone with the Air Force band in Savannah, Georgia during 1954 when Holcomb was born. They moved to San Jose and she began musical life with five years of piano lessons from a neighbor. Her father rehearsed a big band in the living room.

Years later at school, a skeleton key unlocked a storage room containing five acoustic basses that towered over her. She switched from piano to bass. In high school she retreated to her bedroom, singing folk music with guitar and writing poetry.

After graduating from Santa Cruz high school in 1971, she enrolled at the University of California Santa Cruz. Holcomb switched to a junior college after a quarter but left California and music behind to sharecrop tobacco in North Carolina with a boyfriend. Near the end of two years farming with bootleggers, she rented a piano and began a return to music making.

Back on the left coast in the late 1970’s, she created an independent music major of Music Composition Utilizing Non-Western Resources at the University of California Santa Cruz. She studied Chinese, Mexican, and Balkan music and performed in a Gamelan orchestra. Playing Sundanese music from Western Java, she performed on the Kendang, a two-headed drum that leads the ensemble in tempo, meter, section transitions, and endings. The Kendang player follows the dancer’s movements and communicates them to the rest of the musicians.

Holcomb’s introduction to Javanese music came through a class – Percussion of the World. She met the teacher’s roommate, pianist/composer Wayne Horvitz and soon Holcomb and Horvitz were taking trips to San Francisco’s Keystone Corner to hear the free improvisation of pianist Cecil Taylor. Holcomb began improvising free jazz on piano.

Holcomb and Horvitz deepened their musical relationship through performing a three piano piece written by Horvitz. Another step together on their musical path came in 1977 at Horvitz’s senior recital when Holcomb performed a Horvitz piece with her father. Holcomb and Horvitz married in 1980. They are still together thirty two years and two children later.

Creating and nurturing environments for new music is their forte. In 1977 the couple, along with a few other musicians, formed a group called White Noise and moved to New York City. They rented a basement formerly used as a television repair shop by “a guy named Henry.” Studio Henry was born. Five musicians pitched in $25 a month for the rent. They rehearsed there, eventually turning it into a performance venue. There was no water in the basement and therefore no bathrooms. A benefit performance brought in enough money to install plumbing.
Above the performance space was a pet store, Exotic Aquatics. Some crickets escaped and moved downstairs. You can still hear them on some of the live recordings made there.

Eventually the success of the venue brought crowds unwanted by neighbors. After the space was shut down, Horvitz was asked to book artists into a new space called The Knitting Factory.
Beginning with the Studio Henry space, Holcomb explored writing for a larger ensemble. The vehicle was the New York Composers Orchestra (NYCO), founded in 1986 with five saxophones, three trumpets, two trombones, French horn, and rhythm section.

Family life became a priority. In 1989, Holcomb and Horvitz, as new parents of a three-year-old daughter Nica, wanted to get out of New York but not return to California. Horvitz was familiar with the Northwest through a backpacking trip so they arrived in Seattle to housesit. “We bought the last cheap house here,” says Holcomb. They recreated their big band as NYCO West and performed at the OK Hotel. Eventually this ensemble was renamed the Washington Composers Orchestra (WACO). Their son Lowell was born in 1995.

Nurturing a family never eclipses Holcomb’s expanding musical horizons. With roots in free jazz piano, folk music, world percussion, and big band composition, Holcomb also works with words and singers. In 1984 she set words from Shakespeare’s Tempest to accompaniment by Gamelan orchestra. Holcomb wrote personally crafted melodies that proved challenging to the actors. Eventually she would discover that her own voice was the best vessel for expressing her music.
In 1989 she drew on her visceral experience with sharecroppers to create “Angels at the Four Corners,” blending gospel, folk, and classical voices. “I write for people I know,” says Holcomb. While rehearsing, a singer asked a seminal question. “Why don’t you sing it?” She’s been singing her own vocals ever since.

One listener described her voice as “a little girl with an AK-47.” Another said she has the “voice of someone who drinks her own urine.” What the f*ck? Distinct for sure. It leaves a strong impression. It fits perfectly with her compositions and arrangements.
This first historical song cycle spawned more – one based on environmentalist Rachel Carson, another on Pacific Northwest Utopian Communities, and one based on the true story of an Oglala Sioux in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show told in James Welch’s novel “The Heartsong of Charging Elk.”

Holcomb also brings her unique musical perspective to music written by others. Hal Wilner, musical director for Saturday Night Live tapped Holcomb for his production of contemporary artists covering classic American songs from the Anthology of American Folk Music. She also arranged, sang, and recorded music by Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, Serge Gainsbourgh, Burt Bacharach, Nick Drake, and Jerome Solon Felder (a.k.a. Doc Pomus), a Brill Building songwriter who wrote many early rock and roll hits.

Her discography of compositions performed by a wide variety of ensembles – solo piano, chamber jazz ensemble, big band, string quartet – includes eleven recordings since the late 1980’s, two of which are on the prestigious Nonsuch Record label. Other artists recording Holcomb’s work include Horvitz, Marty Ehrlich, Myra Melford, Paul Taub, and the ROVA Saxophone Quartet.
Holcomb branched out into film soundtracks. Jaime Keeling at Northwest Film Forum produced a festival of Japanese film maker Yasujiro Ozu and commissioned Holcomb and Horvitz to create scores for several of the films. A live performance was staged last year at New York’s World Financial Center. Additionally, Criterion just released a DVD of five films by Mikio Naruse with original scores by the composing couple.

Films, television documentaries, theatrical plays, poetry collections, and modern dance pieces have all benefited from Holcomb’s unique musical touch. Her resume catalogs thirteen commissions, ten grants/fellowships, and performances in cities across the globe – Honolulu, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Minneapolis, New York City, London, Cologne, Guimaraes, Milan, Venice, Perth.

Holcomb shares her musical wisdom with students as a private teacher, guest lecturer, artist-in-residence, and instructor at several schools. She co-facilitates the Composers Colloquium at Cornish College of the Arts with faculty members Jovino Santos Neto, Janice Gitek, and Jarrad Powell.

After the Earshot Jazz Festival performances, Holcomb will return to work on a song cycle for soprano, tape, and piano about the 1916 Everett Massacre titled “Smokestack Arias.” Holcomb will collaborate with Britta Johnson and Curtis Taylor to take on the Donner Party story in “We are All Failing Them.” Holcomb continues to post songs on the internet based Radio Free Song Club hosted by Nicholas Hill.

Holcomb’s children are continuing in the musically creative footprints of their parents. This summer Nica wrote poetry at the Blue Mountain Center in New York and recently tried her hand at writing songs. Lowell is an award-winning bassist attending Garfield High School. Holcomb says, “He actually does more music outside of school.” Just like his parents.

Selected discography of Robin Holcomb’s compositions:
todos santos (1988), Larks, They Crazy (1990), New York Composers Orchestra (1990), Robin Holcomb (1990), First Program in Standard Time (1992), Rockabye (1992), Little Three (1996), The Big Time (2002), Solos (2004), John Brown’s Body (2006), The Point of it All (2010)

Selected discography of Robin Holcomb’s singing and arranging:
Rubaiyat (1990), Nashville (1996), Frisco Mabel Joy (2000), Poor Boy: Songs of Nick Drake (2004), The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Fold Music Revisited (2006), Joe Hill: Sixteen Actions for Orchestra, Voices, and Soloist (2008), Things ‘Bout Comin’ My Way: A Tribute to The Mississipi Sheiks (2009)

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