For the past 11 years, the Minnesota Orchestra has been cultivating young orchestral composers through its Composers Institute. Writing for a professional orchestra can be exciting but extremely daunting, not to mention sitting in a rehearsal of your new work. This institute gives young composers valuable time working with an orchestra in a mentoring environment with composer Aaron Jay Kernis and other guests from the industry. This year a recent graduate from McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul was chosen to be among the six composers participating. Michael Holloway’s Rhythm: Theta Beta Theta receives its world premiere at Orchestra Hall tonight at 8pm. Michael answered some questions from Classical MPR’s Program Director Daniel Gilliam about his new work and the experience of writing for orchestra.
How long have you been writing for orchestra?
I’ve been experimenting with orchestral forms and textures since I began writing at the age of 10, but, more or less, this is my first fully fleshed out work for orchestra. I had sort of Brahms-ian thought processes regarding the orchestra, not so much that Beethoven and Mozart or any other composer had perfected the medium, but that it can be intimidating to write for an orchestra and it demands a certain amount or maturity on the composer’s part, both musically in terms of harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, etc. and I think mentally and emotionally as well, I am relatively young so that was in the back of my mind for quite some time. The orchestra itself sounds inherently pleasant, but I think it’s a medium in which flaws illuminate themselves in quite obvious ways.
What can you tell us about the process of writing Rhythm: Theta Beta Theta?
My work Rhythm: Theta Beta Theta was inspired by some work I was having done on my brain, I was having an EEG done and would watch the waves as they were being measured and found it to be incredibly musical, as I learned more about I found that there are many types of brain waves, 2 of them being Theta and Beta. Theta waves are slow oscillating waves and over time they it’s called a theta rhythm, the same holds true for beta waves, but these are waves that oscillate much quicker at a higher frequency. I began to postulate about a work that used brain waves as a sense of form and material. I began working on it in late 2010 during my sophomore year of my undergrad and finished it about 4 months later.
Who are some composers whose orchestral music has had an influence on your style?
This is a difficult question for me, perhaps because I’m not entirely sure the style of writing of composers whose symphonic works I most admire reveals itself in my work. I was discussing this recently with a friend and he said that my orchestral writing in some ways reminded him of Mahler, which admittedly is not something I had every considered, but I think my brass writing is very Mahler-esque, as well as German in terms of its broadness of scope. Liszt’s style of thematic transformation has always been interesting to me and my work Rhythm: Theta Beta Theta re-works a theme throughout the piece, not nearly to the extent of Liszt though, I tend to move a little more freely in terms of form, the beginning of the work also has a very Adams quality about it, although it quickly gets abandoned.
Is this your first professional orchestra experience? Are you nervous?
This is my first real orchestral premiere, I have worked with much smaller sinfonietta type groups but never with a group the size of the Minnesota Orchestra and certainly not as talented or refined in their craft. I must admit my nervousness was quite overwhelming, you wonder if your parts are prepared correctly, you pray there aren’t any missing measures which results in the trombones entering fortissimo during a pianissimo string passage, and these are just pedantic things, then you have to worry if it’s going to sound as good out in the hall as it does in your head, there are so many moving parts, so many things that have to go right, and making a mistake is typically very expensive, in every sense of the word. Thankfully there were not large issues in my work, just a missing slur or accidental here or there. The orchestra is really quite incredible, their first reading through my piece, which is by no means easy, was flooring, typically you have to discuss very large concepts after the first read through, you find yourself saying this entire section should be thought of like this or that, and it takes a while to get it to where it needs to be, but with the orchestra it was just things like, the brass should enter quieter at bar 142 or more strings at bar 50, simple, tedious things. To be able to start working at that level right away is incredible, and allows you to reach your true vision for the piece in a short amount of time.
What are your career plans?
I just finished my undergrad in late December and filled out my last graduate school application on the 1st of January, so that is the plan for the immediate future. I enjoy a lot of other disciplines and research so I would say that a Ph.D/DMA is something I will eventually tackle as well, teaching is also a big part of my life and a doctorate will allow me to continue doing that at a higher level.