This blog consists of an exchange of emails between Matt Horanzy, when he was a student at USF, and I discussing my approach to arranging for the albums “Songs I Like a Lot” and “Songs We Like a Lot.” Matt has agreed to share this email conversation with the ISJAC community. In the time since we had this conversation, I finished and recently released the album “Songs You Like a Lot,” so I have included an addendum to our original exchange to give you an explanation of the final album of arrangements. In rereading our emails, I felt I needed to include some clarifications to my original thoughts. These clarifications are labeled and appear in italics.
From: Matthew Horanzy
Subject – Research Project question
Date: February 5, 2018 at 4:48:23 PM EST
To: John Hollenbeck
Hi Mr. Hollenbeck,
I’m currently working on a research project focused around your music, specifically your arrangements from the Songs I/We Like A Lot albums. My topic is going to be on your influences from wind ensemble music/composers. Having heard you speak extensively on this topic, I was wondering if you could point me to a few pieces or composers that you believe played a great deal of impact on your music for these two projects?
Can’t wait to listen to the new album!
On Feb 6, 2018, at 9:09 AM, John Hollenbeck wrote:
I appreciate the interest and question. I have to stop you at your premise unfortunately, because I do not believe that you need to be influenced by something to do something. I hear too much of that in fact. When I write, I try to let the material itself influence me and guide me. While I sometimes do answer the “influences” question, I am increasingly hesitant. I know it is harder to start at “nothing” and not get a head start from another person’s work, but that is how I work the majority of the time. I know it does not make for a good paper, but that is the truth. 😀
Feel free to follow up!
LATER CLARIFICATION: I believe influences will always be present and what we do is based on what we take in. But I do not believe it is necessary to look for influences or spend a lot of time trying to get influenced. The process of being influenced and letting those influences flow naturally out can hopefully happen organically without conscious intent. I have always gravitated towards music where the influences are not quickly evident and I get immediately turned off if I feel someone is stealing someone’s music consciously or even unconsciously. I realize the frustration in my answer and the educational value of copying others, but I do want to continually stress the significance of trying to come at your work from “you” and not “in the style of” someone else, as a mature goal.
On 06 Feb 2018, at 09:17, Matthew Horanzy wrote:
Hi John – I do appreciate the email! I won’t pry at the subject, but I am now curious about how your statement of treating the big band “as a wind ensemble” (something I recall from your ISJAC talk) can be true without some kind of influence by certain pieces or composers from the idiom?
On 06 Feb 2018, at 15:58, John Hollenbeck wrote:
This issue is a big one for me. So let me try to clarify.
The “big band as wind ensemble” concept was an important thought, a “what if” moment for me, not related to a specific piece or composer, but simply what I had NOT yet heard based on my experiences playing big band and wind ensemble music.
It is also just a general goal of mine. If my vehicle was the wind ensemble then I might be thinking of it the other way around, e.g. “try to put ‘big band’ into a wind ensemble context!”
I’m a firm believer of looking within for the answers, not to other people…it is much easier to be ethical and true to yourself if you can deal with just the music and not with what others have done. I realize that this does not lead to good papers or scholarship if you are told to look for influences and write about them. I think this way of educating is emphasized in jazz education to a negative degree.
In the case of the arrangements that I wrote for these recordings, the answers you are looking for can be extracted by analyzing the arrangements, because everything is built on the DNA of the original songs.
LATER CLARIFICATION: I am trying to emphasize that instead of just asking the composer/arranger for the answers, there is much value in actually studying the music first, looking for the answers on your own, and then presenting the composer/arranger with some very specific questions. The process of looking for the answers will often bring up unexpected rewards. I have discovered the first gem of a piece when looking at some other music and having it lead me to a new place, and it should be noted, a new place for the material too!
An example is the last section (starting at 8:53) of The Shape of Spirit from the album, Tunnel Vision by Ansgar Streipens and Ed Partyka. This material came directly from analyzing and learning Satie’s Gnossiennes No.1. I do not think the result has a direct auditory or foundational basis in the Satie piece, but I found some “new” material while trying to figure out what the Satie piece was about. This process reminds of all the times I went to a library looking for a specific book or score, did not find it, but instead made an unexpected book/score discovery!
On 06 Feb 2018, at 18:14, Matthew Horanzy wrote:
All too often, I battle the challenge of resisting the temptation to draw from my favorite moments of other music. I’d love to hear how you manage to stay truly original – because everything has to come from somewhere… no? I can’t say that anything I’ve done has been due to “musical spontaneous combustion,” but listening to your music, I would believe if maybe you’ve had those moments!
Back to a stronger paper topic, yes I think perhaps going the direction of how the original works affected your arrangements could be more interesting. I’ll be looking on my own, but if there are any particular ones that you think might have some ideas/techniques that would really stand out in a presentation, I’d love to hear it right from the source!
On 06 Feb 2018, at 18:31, John Hollenbeck wrote:
“because everything has to come from somewhere… no?”
Yes! From YOU! (:
In other words, from an organic mix of all of your experiences. I’m not sure if one needs to try to, or can, be truly original, but I think the point is to be yourself and to work with the material and let it dictate what you do. This is jazz to me.
Coltrane, Miles, Monk and others are the epitome of jazz because they ended up creating something original by NOT using too many outside influences, but trying hard to create something that had not been done before and was personal to them.
About my SONGS I/We recordings:
Every piece has its own story, so it will be faster if you pick a few that you like or are curious about and then I may be able to help. (Sometimes I remember what I did, and other times it was done in a short period when I was in a zone so then I don’t really remember what happened!)
LATER CLARIFICATION: “Coltrane, Miles, Monk and others are the epitome of jazz because they ended up creating something original by NOT using too many outside influences but trying hard to create something that had not been done before and was personal to them.”
I’m arguing with myself on this a little when thinking of Coltrane because he was totally open to outside influences and looking for as much information as possible and then bringing it into his music pretty quickly. Yet despite that approach, the end result came through the Coltrane filter and therefore did not sound like a copy of someone else’s music.
Feb 7, 2018, at 1:50 PM, John Hollenbeck wrote:
PS Rick Lawn transcribed the ISJAC talk for his insightful book, so here is more on the “wind ensemble” aspect that you asked about from his transcription:
Hollenbeck: It came down to not calling it a big band and not thinking of it as a big band. It has the same instrumentation as a big band, but it’s just a large ensemble. It could be a large chamber ensemble or a wind ensemble. But thinking of it like that helped me a lot because then I didn’t have to think about styles or conventions. I just think of it as a group of people, and they play these instruments, and how could [I] deal with that. So that’s one thing that helped me a lot. Within that pretty traditional instrumentation that exists everywhere I just try to find a couple things that make it distinctive, that make it a little different. Having Theo Bleckmann in the band helps me stay away from what a traditional band sounds like. He can sing like an instrument, he can sing with words, and he can make sounds. Having that one musician really helped me see how to open up the music. And then having mallet percussion, nothing against guitar, got me excited about writing for the big band. It just wasn’t something I’d heard that much of. I’d heard some vibes before, but this allows me to incorporate things like crotales. It also gets me closer to that wind ensemble-like vibe that I wanted. And I think I haven’t even fully realized this yet. I have like 10 pieces that are sort of wind ensemble pieces.
On 27 Feb 2018, at 13:53, Matthew Horanzy wrote:
I wanted to get your input about some analysis that I’m doing of a few of your charts. I was wondering if you wanted to provide a small blurb of what you recall regarding your thought process/motivic usage in each of these tracks, as well as anything you might find interesting to share!
From Songs We Like A Lot: Bicycle Race, Close To You, How Can I Keep From Singing, and True Colors.
These are some of my favorite recordings and pieces of music of all time… truly beautiful stuff.
On Tue, Feb 27, 2018 at 4:34 PM, John Hollenbeck wrote:
At the moment, I’m drawing blanks on these arrangements. It would probably be better for you to ask specific questions and hopefully that will jog my memory. All of those arrangements were written in a short amount of time, so it is difficult to remember anything!
What I can say generally is that I look at the original melodies, sometimes the harmonies but usually just the melodies (maybe the bass lines occasionally) and then generate new material from them. I don’t usually bring new material into the arrangement.
To give you some more specifics, I will usually take the melody, retrograde it and then turn this line into something vertical (chords/harmony). Or I might take the interval set from a melody and process that into more sets and then use that. (ala Bob Brookmeyer)
In True Colors, Theo is singing the original melody, but very slowly, so it ends up sounding like a chant. The piano is also playing the melody and/or some material that was generated from the melody, but much faster, so it also does not overtly sound like the melody, but actually is! The hi-hat part accentuates the piano part and fills in the sub-divisions in a typewriter-like fashion. My goal was to create something that sounds free and not in an obvious meter.
The processes when I’m arranging are virtually the same when I’m composing. This article will give you more insight into “the process of processing”:
Also, I wrote an extensive analysis of Drewslate, a Claudia Quintet piece, that demonstrates in depth the composition process for this particular piece. It has been published in Arcana VIII, one edition of a series of journals that John Zorn has put together.
I would like to note that with most arrangements, I’m trying to keep the essence of the songs intact while giving them new life, like a new coat of paint or a renovation. The songs are still there but might sound quite different than the original.
LATER CLARIFICATION: The way I look at it, there is a scale of how much something can be arranged. In Imogen Heap’s “Canvas” from Songs I Like A Lot or “Blue” from Songs You Like A Lot, I felt like I just orchestrated the songs according to the players and instrumentation on this project. On the other end of the scale are “Get Lucky Manifesto” from Songs We Like A Lot or “Knows Only God” from Songs You Like A Lot which were arranged to the extreme, to the point of “re-composition,” which is why I re-titled them.
On Apr 15, 2018, at 11:36 PM, Matthew Horanzy wrote:
Hi Mr. Hollenbeck,
Thank you for writing me several weeks (months?) ago! I’ve been digging deeper into your charts, and your words continue to ring true, with the majority of these works being creative manipulations of the melody.
I wanted to ask some questions that were less technical in terms of analysis, but more conceptual. First and foremost, I wanted to know if there were any differences in your approach when writing arrangements for Songs I Like A Lot compared to Songs We Like A Lot. Did you notice any tendencies when tasked with re-arranging music that was not as dear to you?
And last, what pieces did you also consider for these two albums that did not make the cut? I’m very curious about your thought process when choosing pieces to arrange for projects such as these!
On Apr 16, 2018, at 9:56 AM, John Hollenbeck wrote:
“First and foremost, I wanted to know if there were any differences in your approach when writing arrangements for Songs I Like A Lot compared to Songs We Like A Lot.”
Not really, it felt similar – the main difference was in how the material was selected. I liked more of the material from the 1st project since I selected most of the pieces! But what I learned in the 2nd project was that I did not need to like a piece in order to make a successful arrangement out of it!
“Did you notice any tendencies when tasked with re-arranging music that was not as dear to you?”
I learned that it might even be easier if I did not like the original piece, because then there was less pressure on myself to do it justice. Also, if I did not like it, I did not listen to it much ahead of time, so it was easier to make it my own.
“And last, what pieces did you also consider for these two albums that did not make the cut? I’m very curious about your thought process when choosing pieces to arrange for projects such as these!”
Many, many pieces, but alas that list was on paper, and while I’m sure I still have it, I’m not sure where it is! For the last album in this trilogy, “Songs You Like A Lot,” we are inviting anyone to suggest a piece that they want me to arrange. We will then have an internet-wide vote, so I’m taking myself out of the selection of pieces!
To re-iterate, the process once I start arranging a piece is the same as my compositional process:
- Find the core/cell
- Process it and try to find the “gold” that is hopefully embedded in the material, something that speaks to me and gives the material a new life.
August 9, 2020
An update to this email exchange: Songs You Like A Lot is done and is about to be released (August 14th) so I can conclude this conversation with Matt by giving you some insight into the whole project with the liner notes to this final album:
SONGS YOU LIKE A LOT
with Theo Bleckmann, Kate McGarry, Gary Versace and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band.
This is the final chapter of a trilogy of albums in which I explored and arranged popular songs. The entire project was made in collaboration with vocalists Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry, pianist Gary Versace, and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. For the first recording, Songs I Like A Lot, I selected the majority of the songs for the album. Many of the songs I chose were from my childhood, and as I started to really listen to them again, I was surprised by how well I actually knew them. The second recording, Songs We Like A Lot, is composed primarily of songs that Theo and Kate liked and chose for me to arrange. Uri Caine held down the piano chair on this recording. And for this third and final recording, Songs You Like A Lot, we asked listeners to nominate their favorite songs for me to arrange. We then had an internet-wide vote on a list of nominated songs, and I chose (with the help of Kate, Theo and Gary) from the top 20 most popular songs.
This project brought up questions I asked myself numerous times: What is arranging? Why arrange? Why arrange popular songs? Is it still a “pop” song if it was not “popular”? Must the original still be recognizable in the arrangement? What can you arrange and what must be left intact so that the original is still there? When does it stop being an arrangement and transition to being a re-composition or original-composition-based-on-another-piece? And, do you have to like a song or composition to be able to create a good arrangement of it? Going into the project, my answer to this last question was “yes,” but now at the end of this project, my answer has changed to a definite “no.” As it turns out, for this recording, I was able to enjoy arranging pieces that I did not know or, in some cases, even like. This brought up subsequent questions: What does it mean to “like” a song? Is it possible to know a song so well, so completely, that even though you don’t really like the song, you realize that because you have heard it so much and know it so well, you end up kind of liking it anyway? (Yes!) And finally, how do you arrange something that you really do like, that you’re not sure you should even try to change?
What I do know is that above all, I want the listener to be reinvigorated and have their interest in the original versions of these songs revived! Through the course of this entire project, I have come up against many listeners that are so attached to the originals that any changes are considered blasphemy! I understand their feelings, but I also believe that this could be a great lesson in non-attachment? The Buddhists would say non-attachment is the key to happiness, so for the “poo-poo’ers” out there, consider this a path to enlightenment!
My arrangements may also highlight facets of these songs that were not obvious to the listener in the original, perhaps revealing hidden and exciting new layers. I sought to emphasize material that is present in the original, but not featured or in the foreground. I also tried to rewind what I perceived may have been the original compositional process to then figure out what I would do from that same point of departure. This approach always brought me down a much different path than the original composer. Throughout the course of this entire project, I also learned new methods of arranging that center in on how to change the original as little as possible while still achieving something “new.”
To give you some specifics on my process: in “Down by the River to Pray”, I let each verse exist organically in its own “room”, culminating in the last verse where all the “rooms” come together simultaneously. Keeping in mind the deep meaning this piece has to Kate, and many others, including myself, I tried to be very careful in not forcing the material, but allowed it to be what it wanted to be.
The Refuge Trio, a collective trio I have with Theo and Gary, was originally formed to perform in a Joni Mitchell tribute concert in New York City. In fact, the name of the band comes from her song “Refuge of the Road”. Having performed her work extensively, I knew that Theo could make “Blue” come to life in his singular way. I tried to do as little as possible with this one and mostly orchestrated the original piano part.
“How Deep is Your Love?” is a nostalgic tune for me. All of the Bee Gees tunes remind me of what was on the jukebox in the local bowling alley where I would bowl on Friday afternoons as a kid. Looking at the song many years later, the title’s question “How deep is your love?” took on an even deeper meaning to me and I heard an urgent intensity in these words, which I chose to emphasize.
The classic “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor was one of the most challenging pieces to arrange because I’m simply in love with the original and was reluctant to even touch it. I imagined how Kate would bring her own magic and then subtly shaped the original by accentuating certain qualities that were present but not explicit.
The Kate Bush/Peter Gabriel pairing in “Don’t Give Up” seemed very suitable to Kate and Theo, but in order to get away from the original, I thought it would be interesting to have them switch parts. This concept of switching is explored also in the last section of the song with an escalation of intense vocal hocketing. While the original version of this song fades out like a gentle pat on the shoulder, I chose to end this arrangement with a coach-like fervor, imploring: “DON’T!” (GIVE UP)
“Kindness” doesn’t officially belong on this album of arrangements because it is an original, but I love this magical poem by Naomi Shihab Nye and want more people to hear it!
“Pure Imagination” was arranged with Gary Versace and Theo Bleckmann in mind. These two musicians embody pure imagination to me, so I created a musical fantasy world as described by the lyrics for them to explore and make magic in!
The easiest solution to arranging extremely popular songs like “God Only Knows” (which was #1 on the voters’ list), is to simply re-orchestrate it. I chose instead to challenge myself to re-cast this classic in a new light. I had such a great time re-arranging the lyrics that this became the key to finding what often sounds like a completely different piece, which I call “Knows Only God.” Perhaps after several listenings of both versions, you will start to hear that “God only Knows” is still totally present and intact!
Songs You Like A Lot along with my other albums can be found on Bandcamp (the most friendly platform for musicians) in physical or digital formats. Because I know it is a challenging time currently for musicians and composers, if you would like a digital copy of SULAL but can not afford it right now, please write to: firstname.lastname@example.org with “SULAL ISJAC SPECIAL” in the subject and we will send you a free download code.
In the years since this conversation, Matt Horanzy has moved to Washington DC where he enjoys staying busy as a guitarist, composer, and educator. He’s currently a member of the BMI Composers workshop, and his latest quarantine project entitled “Quartz” can be heard here:
I hope this article clarifies a process that is often mysterious and solitary.
About the Author:
It’s traditional, when paying compliment to drummers, to draw comparisons with the octopus, implying agility beyond the means of a paltry pair of human hands. But when considering John Hollenbeck, the multi-limbed creature that seems most appropriate to invoke is the mythical hydra; for while Hollenbeck is certainly no stranger to rhythmic intricacy, it’s ideas that seem to spring forth like so many heads, two more arising as one falls away.
Hollenbeck is a composer of music uncategorizable beyond the fact of being always identifiably his. A conceptualist able to translate the traditions of jazz and new music into a fresh, eclectic, forward-looking language of his own invention, intellectually rewarding yet ever accessibly vibrant. A drummer and percussionist possessed of a playful versatility and a virtuosic wit. Most of all, a musical thinker – whether putting pen to paper or conjuring spontaneous sound – allergic to repetition, forever seeking to surprise himself and his audiences.
The prolific and unpredictable nature of Hollenbeck’s output has been evident since he first emerged as a leader in late 2001, releasing four completely different albums within a matter of months. Three of them (Quartet Lucy, the duo CD Static Still, and no images, featuring several different configurations) introduced the partnership of Hollenbeck and iconoclastic vocalist Theo Bleckmann, who continue to collaborate in a variety of offbeat settings. Along with keyboardist Gary Versace, they form the Refuge Trio, as boundary-free a small group as one is likely to find.
The last of that initial burst of creativity was the self-titled debut of the Claudia Quintet, Hollenbeck’s longest-running ensemble. Over the course of its eight CDs, Claudia has cemented its reputation as one of the most innovative and adaptable units in modern jazz, so deftly attuned to one another that Hollenbeck’s most dizzying compositional leaps are taken with an air of playfulness and skewed humor. Claudia’s latest release, Super Petite, is a potent package that condenses virtuoso playing and a wealth of ideas into ten compact songs.
Claudia has received grants from the Chamber Music America New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program to compose a suite which was recorded for 2009’s Royal Toast, and from Arts International and the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation to travel to Brazil, Nepal, and Canada for performances. The quintet was commissioned by the University of Rochester to set the work of Kenneth Patchen as part of their 100th birthday celebration of the ground-breaking poet, which can be heard on the 2011 release What Is the Beautiful?, featuring vocals by Theo Bleckmann and Kurt Elling. The Claudia Quintet can also be heard performing the theme music to Poetry Off the Shelf, a weekly audio program on PoetryFoundation.org.
Hollenbeck has been acclaimed for his unique twist on big band music – most notably through the work of the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, which trades the gale force blowing of most such bands for a multi-hued palette of tonal colors and rich, evocative atmospheres. Their third album All Can Work, pays tribute to the Large Ensemble’s late trumpet player Laurie Frink, a key force in the group and the jazz community. The JHLE received GRAMMY nominations for all three of its releases: All Can Work in 2018, A Blessing in 2005, and eternal interlude in 2008. John was nominated again in 2013 for his arrangement of Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” from the album Songs I Like a Lot, commissioned and recorded by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, featuring vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann, and pianist Gary Versace. That album and its companion piece, 2015’s Songs We Like a Lot, puckishly reimagine pop songs by the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Daft Punk, Queen and Burt Bacharach with big band arrangements, transforming familiar songs with surprising insight and audacious wit.
The composer’s large-band pieces have also been recorded by Austria’s Jazz Bigband Graz on 2006’s critically-acclaimed Joys and Desires. In 2010, the CMA/FACE French-American Jazz Exchange Program awarded Hollenbeck a grant to develop work with Daniel Yvinec and the Orchestre National de Jazz of France, resulting in the release of Shut up and Dance (Bee Jazz, 2011), which includes the GRAMMY-nominated composition “Falling Men.”
If these projects can safely be termed “jazz” (at least by those comfortable with the label’s more progressive interpretations), they should by no means be taken as indicating that Hollenbeck’s output is limited to even that genre’s most elastic borders. His growing body of commissioned compositions relate just as obliquely to the “new music” tag, exemplifying his ability to not so much defy categorization as to evolve beyond its necessity. One of Hollenbeck’s earliest appearances on record was as the composer of “The Shape of Spirit,” a piece for wind ensemble issued on the Mons label in 1998. The following year he composed “Processional and Desiderata” for wind ensemble and orator (released by Challenge Records in 2001), written for and featuring the voice and trombone of John’s mentor, Bob Brookmeyer.
John’s piece “The Cloud of Unknowing,” commissioned by the Bamberg Choir in Germany, fit comfortably alongside works by J.S. Bach, Igor Stravinsky & Paul Hindemith when it was released in 2001 on the Edel Classics label, while his 2004 chamber piece “Demütig Bitten,” commissioned by Germany’s Windsbacher Knabenchor, was released on the Rondeau label along with works by Giovanni Gabrieli, Josquin des Prez and J.S. Bach (again). In 2002, his IAJE Gil Evans Fellowship Commission piece, “A Blessing,” featuring Theo Bleckmann’s stunning vocals, was performed to critical acclaim at the IAJE Conference; and in 2003 his IAJE/ASCAP Commission, “Folkmoot,” was premiered in Toronto, Canada.
In 2009, John compiled several recordings of his chamber pieces on the CD Rainbow Jimmies, made possible by his 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship. The disc includes commissions by Bang on a Can and the People’s Commissioning Fund; Ethos Percussion Group funded by the Jerome Foundation; Youngstown State University; and a piece written for the Claudia Quintet’s cross-cultural educational journey to Istanbul, commissioned by the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall. Hollenbeck’s other notable works include commissions by Melbourne Jazz Festival; Edinburgh Jazz Festival; University of the Arts, Philadelphia; and Ensemble Cairn, Paris, France.
Hollenbeck received degrees in percussion and jazz composition from the Eastman School of Music before moving to New York City in the early 1990s. He was profoundly shaped by the mentorship of two hugely influential artists: trombonist/arranger/composer Bob Brookmeyer and composer/choreographer Meredith Monk. His relationship with Brookmeyer reached back to the age of 14, when he attended the SUNY Binghamton Summer Jazz Workshop, and continued at Eastman, through NEA-funded composition study, and finally on the bandstand with Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra and in the studio with Brookmeyer and trumpet great Kenny Wheeler. For Monk, Hollenbeck composed and performed the percussion scores for five of her works: “Magic Frequencies,” “Mercy,” “The Impermanence Project,” “Songs of Ascension” and “On Behalf of Nature.”
Hollenbeck’s awards and honors include five GRAMMY nominations; the 2012 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, the 2010 ASCAP Jazz Vanguard Award and a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship; winning the Jazz Composers Alliance Composition Contest in 1995 and 2002; Meet the Composer’s Grants in 1995 and 2001; and a Rising Star Arranger win in the 2012 and 2013 DownBeat Critics’ Polls as well as in 2011 for the JHLE as Rising Star Big Band. John was a professor of Jazz Drums and Improvisation at the Jazz Institute Berlin from 2005-2016 and in 2015 joined the faculty of McGill University’s Schulich School of Music.