Maryland Composer Responds to Violence Against African-Americans with Message of Hope

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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.”

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.”

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Source: WBUR | Andrea Shea