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Horror And Hope: A Local Composer Responds To Violence Against African-Americans07:20

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Jonathan Bailey Holland's "Synchrony" mixes classical music with sound from viral videos related to violence involving unarmed African Americans and the police. (Courtesy Robert Torres)closemore
Jonathan Bailey Holland's "Synchrony" mixes classical music with sound from viral videos related to violence involving unarmed African Americans and the police. (Courtesy Robert Torres)

This year has been prolific and emotional for a local contemporary composer named Jonathan Bailey Holland.

Just this fall, the 42-year-old premiered not one, but two works — a marimba/violin duet and a 10-minute opera. But another one of Holland's accomplishments is the recorded release of his heartfelt response to issues of racial injustice in the United States. He's been grappling with the ongoing social unrest that's come in the wake of police violence against unarmed African-Americans, and it's caused him to reflect on his own identity as a minority in the classical music world.

The composer has wrapped his conflicting feelings into a compact, complex and compelling chamber piece called "Synchrony."

'That Could Be Me'

Holland remembers exactly how he felt at his home in Arlington as the riots in Baltimore led the news in the wake of Freddie Gray's death in 2015.

"All of that really affected me, watching it on TV, and feeling this strange disconnect of 'that could be me' in that situation," he recalled. "But also feeling like I'm not in that situation, and that I'm many hundreds of miles away from Baltimore and all of the emotions that were going on in the city up close with all of that at the time."

That profound pull drove him to create. For him he says, "The whole idea of 'Synchrony' is about two things happening at the same time."

Holland and pianist Sarah Bob after their first reading of "Synchrony." (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Holland and pianist Sarah Bob after their first reading of "Synchrony." (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

The piece channels what Holland felt while witnessing the spate of disturbing, now notorious, altercations, including the viral video that captured a white police officer forcibly holding down a young black girl at a Texas pool party.

"I'm watching that and the emotion just comes up immediately. I wanted somehow to convey that sensation in the piece," Holland told me. "So I ended up including some audio clips that didn't need a lot of introduction."

You can hear optimistic words from President Obama and actress Cicely Tyson. But also sounds from the brutal arrest tapes of Eric Garner gasping for air, and Sandra Bland confronting police as she sits in her pulled over car.

"The contrast is really what he's trying to underscore," said Jen Montbach, a founding member of the local Radius Ensemble, which commissioned Holland's piece. "Synchrony" is one of the new works on the group's recording, "Fresh Paint."

"The thing that I love about the piece is that he explores racial justice not just from its negative perspective, but also from its positive perspective," Montbach continued, citing the empowering excerpt from Tyson's speech at an award ceremony hosted by the Black Girls Rock organization.

Holland conjures tension musically, too, with Montbach's oboe in combination with bassoon, violin, cello and piano. The instruments play off each other — repeating, imitating and responding — to represent the shifting duality between race relations, class relations, morality and emotion.

"Sometimes we're even asked to produce unpleasant sounds," Montbach said. "That's hard to do when you spend a lot of your training trying to make the most beautiful sounds. But sometimes — especially in contemporary music — we're looking to explore the full expressive range of our instruments and it isn't always pleasant."

Radius Ensemble performed "Synchrony" on their latest album “Fresh Paint." (Courtesy)
Radius Ensemble performed "Synchrony" on their latest album “Fresh Paint." (Courtesy)

Holland acknowledges it's not easy to relive the fraught events he's documenting in "Synchrony." But he has hopes for people who choose to spend seven and half minutes listening to it.

"I want people to sit through all of the clips," he told me, "and whatever way they personally react to be able to have the space to do that."

Holland says he lives with his own duality each day as an African-American classical composer. He grew up in Flint, Michigan, listening to his father's vast record collection that included everything from Handel to John Coltrane to the Doobie Brothers, Bootsy Collins and Lou Rawls. Holland was also a fan of hip-hop. He studied trumpet, his mom played piano and his parents took him to see the Flint Symphony Orchestra. In the '80s, it was led by the pioneering African-American conductor Isaiah Jackson.

"In the Flint I experienced, there was a mix of people doing all kinds of things," Holland recalled. "I felt like I saw people in prominent roles that were as diverse as you would want them to be."

That wasn't the case when Holland went on to pursue a career in classical music. Early on he rejected being labeled.

"I felt like I didn't want there to be any adjective in front of the word composer because I had to make a mark as a composer first and foremost," he said. "I thought it to the point that I wanted to make sure that nothing in my music would've suggested anything about who I was."

A lack of diversity has been an enduring problem across the classical music world. At a certain point Holland says he had a realization that his job as an artist is to be honest about how his background influences his art and about who he is.

"I am African-American and I am a composer," he stated emphatically from behind his rounded glasses, "And if that means something to someone that's great. I'm a classical composer and if that means someone that's great. If none of that means anything but somebody still gets something from the music that's great as well."

The Impact Of 'Synchrony'

Since 2014 Holland has been chair of the Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s composition, theory and history department where he's been sharing his genre-crossing approach to making contemporary classical music with students.

Post-grad Joshua Jandreau recalls turning to his teacher for help with incorporating voices into one of his music projects.

"Across the board artists are feeling a need to respond somehow to everything that's going on," Bailey says, "either to reflect it, or to comment on it or to make it more present." (Courtesy Robert Torres)
"Across the board artists are feeling a need to respond somehow to everything that's going on," Bailey says, "either to reflect it, or to comment on it or to make it more present." (Courtesy Robert Torres)

"As a solution to my particular problem he suggested I gotta listen to Biggie Smalls and transcribe the rap so I could get a better sense of the flow," Jandreau said. "It helped reinforce this idea of looking outside of the 'classical' bubble and to look at all the resources as a means for figuring out what you need to do."

In recent years Holland has received commissions from organizations including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Looking back on "Synchrony," Holland says he felt like writing it was his responsibility.

"Across the board artists are feeling a need to respond somehow to everything that's going on — either to reflect it, or to comment on it, or to make it more present."

Or, Holland added, to "confront" the discord — somehow.

This segment aired on December 23, 2016.

Andrea Shea Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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