Outer Worlds #16: On Retreat With John Hollenbeck

The rather restrained, almost minimalist jazz of the Claudia Quintet has much to do with the group's instrumentation: Its melodies are often carried by clarinet, accordion or vibraphone. 

But the meditative qualities of the group's musicare also driven by the playing of band leader John Hollenbeck, and the manner in which he writes much of its material. 

When the 45-year-old is ready to cook up a new batch of songs, he takes himself out of his home in New York to an artists' retreat, where he is afforded the solitude and lack of distractions he needs to create. That feeling of being tucked away in one's own little corner of the world can't help but bleed into the music. 

As well, Hollenbeck's approach to drumming is much different with the Claudia Quintet than with any of his other projects. He does everything he can to remain in the background and let his fellow musicians take center stage. Sometimes that's just a matter of him playing more muted drums than he might otherwise, but just as often, he lets a light washing of cymbals and delicate brush work be his only contributions. 

I caught up with Hollenbeck in the midst of his current writing retreat—and prior to tomorrow night's performance by the Claudia Quintet at Lewis & Clark College—to talk about his group's latest album, September, and his approach to both performing with and writing for this incredible ensemble.  

Outer Worlds: You've been doing writing retreats for a while now, and are on one right now. What does a typical day on a retreat like this look like? 

John Hollenbeck: Usually I get up really early and try to do something physical. This month I did yoga. There's actually a yoga teacher here. If there was no yoga teacher and I didn't want to do it by myself, I went for a long hike. Have a little coffee, a little breakfast and then get to work. Sometimes, only, for me personally, I just maybe take a break for the bathroom and maybe I don't get out much until maybe six. They do have a little lunch here, so I can always stop around twelve and have a little lunch and then get back to work. There's always opportunities to just walk outside and you can really refresh yourself very quickly. There's a lot of things to do here, a lot of great physical things to do, but mostly they just give you space and you're able to just get into a deep place and think about things you usually don't have space to think about. Somehow, by just returning to this secluded area, you can really kind of get deep into some things.

I imagine doing the physical activity you're talking about, the hikes and the yoga, can help stir up some creativity as well.

Totally! Oh, definitely. Every time I go for a hike I get a good idea or solution to something I've been thinking about, it just occurs. I'm not even trying. Those little periods where you think you're not thinking about music, those are really great. Something always comes up.

So, if I'm understanding the history of the new Claudia Quintet record, most of this stuff was conceived on one of these retreats.

Yeah, last September I was in Italy, in a really great retreat place near Genoa, named Bogliasco. One of the things that I did, probably the main thing I did there, was just try to write as much music as I could for the Claudia Quintet and also music that hopefully we could learn very quickly or without music or wouldn't have too much information on paper, so that we could kind of get away from that. So that was the main objective. I wrote a lot of pieces, and some of them worked out, and we recorded them in the spring. Since I was writing a lot of music at the same time, you have to kind of organize each piece in a way. So I kind of organized it at first according to the date when I started it. Then that became more or less the title for me, then I had some subtitles that were just kind of working titles to help me in my head to separate each piece to kind of keep it different than the other pieces. I just kind of left that the way it is on the record, the dates and the subtitles. They're not what I would think of as great titles, but I kind of wanted to just keep that part of the process kind of open.

I read in another interview where you said that this album was looser than previous Claudia Quintet records and I was wondering what you meant by that.

Well, when the music's not written down and it's just in your head, then you could, for one, you could not remember it or you could remember it incorrectly, but also just it's a little bit more liquid, it's not in such a solid form, there can be more looseness. It's not like every piece is like that, but there's definitely some pieces that the version that was recorded is different than what we would play now or than what we played before.

I wanted to ask about a couple of specific tracks, starting with "September 29th, 1936 'Me Warn You'" where you use an FDR sample throughout. How was that conceived?

I was not aware of that speech until the presidential elections when it got sent out all over the place and then for some reason, it got re-sent to me or somehow I got it again last September and I started listening to it and just really enjoyed the melody and rhythm of it and I just transcribed it. There wasn't a piece in mind, it was just one of those things that you can do on a residency. You have time. If something moves you, today I'm just going to do that. So, one afternoon I just transcribed the melody, just for fun. Then slowly I started thinking about a way it could be a piece, something that we could record to play along with the speech, to play over the speech, to play with it, so the speech I think goes through the piece a couple times, but we do different things, then sometimes I loop certain parts of the speech and that becomes more of an accompaniment and we improvise over those loops.

Obviously, we should talk about the last song on the album, "September 12th Coping Song," that was written earlier than the rest of the album, correct? 

That was written on my first retreat, in 2001, the day after September 11.

Why did it take until now to get that recorded?

Well, that was just kind of a personal piece. I had just driven from New York the day before and I was at this retreat ready to work, and then, what do you do? What can you do in those moments? I just wrote that piece as a coping mechanism, just to do something. It was just one of those pieces, it wasn't anything that I thought would be performed or played. Then once I conceived of this idea, which was, what came into my mind, was that every time I write down or see a date in September, I think of September 11. That was why I kind of wanted the pieces to have other dates in September and that's also why I thought it would be fitting to include this piece, even though it's an old piece, but I thought it made sense to include it.

A lot of music that came out of that experience tends to have a mournful quality to it and I don't really get that sense from the piece that you wrote. It feels very hopeful.

I mean I was not yet feeling mournful. I think I was still in shock. But I was still also just hoping for peace, you know? Sometimes when I write music I start with words and letters and so, you know, I took those letters out of the piece so people don't read it when they look at the music, but the words that I used are "peace" and actually "World Trade Center," so those are the four words that are kind of used to conceive the piece.

Another interesting aspect to this record is this introduces Red Wierenga as part of the group. How was that to bring him into the fold and did that affect any of your conception of how the music you guys came up with was recorded?

Yes, certainly. Red's been playing with us for quite a while, probably at least a year, maybe year and a half. Ted Reichman, the original accordion player, he moved to Boston a while ago and then he had a son and it just wasn't really possible for him to travel. So, Red had been his sub for a little while and it was pretty organic for Red to just keep going with us. But yeah, they're quite different. Ted was more of a self-taught person coming maybe from more of a rock place and free jazz place; Red comes maybe a little bit more from contemporary classical music but also jazz, so yeah, he just improvises quite differently. I think actually he has a lot of space on the record and it's really nice. I love Ted, but it's really nice to hear kind of another voice on the accordion, too.

What keeps you coming back to this group and writing for this group with them in mind? What keeps that going for you?

Well, the musicians are great. They're so creative, so it's really just the live playing situations, when I'm able to hear them take the music to a different level than where it started, where I started with it. It's just being continually inspired by the guys in the band. Even if I didn't have the band, they would be some of my favorite musicians.

How do you feel that your approach to drumming has changed over the years?

Well, when I started really writing a lot of music especially for this group, which is quite soft in a way, the vibraphone you can't play really loud, the clarinet, especially the way Chris [Speed] plays it, is quite soft, so what happened at first was that I couldn't hear the music when I was playing it if I would play either too much or use certain sounds, like certain cymbals or drums that would cover up those instruments. It's really been in the front of my mind to play less, to play softer, and to use transparent sounds, which means like dry sounds and short sounds, and very high sounds or very low sounds, but not too many sounds in the middle. That's a big change. If you go to a drum store and you try out drums and cymbals, what you love are the big, washy sounds that take up lots of room and ring a lot, so I'm going kind of on the other side to go for sounds that aren't like that at all. So, sounds that drummers wouldn't like.

Has this sort of approach affected how you play in different ensembles or in different settings?

Yeah, because right away I realized maybe other composers want to hear their music, too. So that's affected my drumming, no matter if it's my group or someone else's group. I still tend to go for those sounds that don't get in the way, I try to find my own little sonic area that people can hear but it's not getting in their way. It helps a lot if you're playing acoustically, which i've been drawn to a lot, or playing with instruments that are quite soft. It makes it easier for them to play when they don't have to play as loud as possible.


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