John Holland, composer, arranger & conductor

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

It started when I was about 11-12 writing down passages of music that I liked from recordings of musicals, coupled with an interest in playing with a local brass band, learning, eventually, that I could combine the two and make arrangements. I sang in the school choir and wrote a few short pieces for them, did GCSE and A-Level music, which further expanded my compositions and so, it took off from there. I don’t think I ever considered a full-time music career, aside from following in my mum’s footsteps and joining the RAF as a musician, which nearly happened.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Britten, for sure. I remember singing, whilst in the school choir, his carol, ‘A Boy Was Born’ and thinking this was the sort of music I wanted to write. As I grew older and found more of his works, ‘Peter Grimes’ in particular, they resonated with me and my own sexual awakening, too. On the flipside of that, I absolutely adore dance music and, whilst I was training to be a dancer, became interested in repetitive rhythms, chords and snatches of vocals, which would also inform my writing in a more subtle way. My music teacher at secondary school, Mr Marseglia, was a formative influence on my burgeoning music playing and writing experience, and I go back to visit him every so often to say thank you.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

I haven’t experienced anything remotely challenging (so far); it is disheartening, however, when you submit pieces for calls for scores, or similar, and find that it’s not selected but never are told why – surely, if the organisers were more helpful in providing a short commentary, that can only help make a piece better and given more potential to be performed in the future?

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

I love commissions! The opportunity to work with different people, from a range of backgrounds, to bring their voice into the world in a brand new way. I love the way a piece can develop from the smallest idea and be informed by other influences on its journey to completion. I have experienced nothing but pleasure so far…

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Getting stuck into a piece that involves musicians of different abilities, particularly children, is a fascinating way of knowing yourself as a composer and recognising what people can achieve. I work with an amateur community band and the progress that they make every week, from the quietest to the loudest player, is testament to the fact that people want to connect with each other, to do well, to bring dots on the page to life. I am continually fascinated by this process.

Of which works are you most proud?

The piece that brought me the most attention, ‘Green Sky’ (2006) for which I won a British Composer Award; it was written for an amateur chamber orchestra, who I then became Chair of, and has since gone on to produce more outstanding work. Winning the award didn’t change my life, but it gave me an opportunity to collect a certificate from Nitin Sawhney and get played on BBC Radio 3 every so often. I am associated with music for symphonic wind band, and my ‘Triptych: Honor Oak Park’ (2005), which was composed soon after I moved to south London, is a big, meandering palette of sound that I’m still very proud of; it contains the seeds from which other works were to grow, including my ‘Requiem: Opus 15’ (2009), written after my husband was recovering from a life-threatening illness.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Tonal, with a hint of, ‘what just happened?’ I like raising eyebrows, but also tapping feet. Rhythm is key, and the interplay between musicians trying to keep up with it (like in my wind quintet, ‘There You Go, Then’ (2007)) is something that amuses me.

How do you work?

I usually through-compose straight into Sibelius. I have an idea of where I am going, but sometimes putting in a wrong note could take me off into a whole other direction that I wasn’t expecting. I used to write on manuscript, and indeed, take some with me wherever I am just in case, but almost always direct into the computer now. I don’t play the piano, so can’t really ‘play’ things in or hear harmonies in advance, but my limited knowledge serves me well, I think.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Big question! I’ve already mentioned Britten as a key composer influence, but I also love Walton and Holst, big 20th century names. Philip Sparke has to be in there, too, as a great writer of brass and wind works, which I grew up playing, and must have influenced me subconsciously. I adore Bjork; find solace in her most unusual songs and admire her enthusiasm to work with many diverse artists to create her special sounds. I don’t really have any favourite musicians, afraid to say! I appreciate the complex ways in which several different musicians can approach the same piece and we’ll just leave it there – I don’t consider a version by one person to be better than another to win my favour, just my respect, if that makes sense?

What is your most memorable concert experience?

This sounds silly, but I was conducting my band, Lambeth Wind Orchestra, by the sea, in a little town called Rottingdean, just outside Brighton. We were on the seafront, and it was a gorgeous blue-sky day… We were playing an arrangement I’d made of tunes from ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ and towards the end came ‘Pure Imagination’, which is one of my favourite songs ever… I was conducting this and just started listening, looking up at the sky, watching the birds flying around and then looking out over the audience to the see and I just started crying! How I managed to finish, I don’t know, but I was so overcome and it’s never happened again… J

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Be true to yourself and don’t aspire to be anyone else. By all means, learn new things, try and improve technique if that is available to you, but every expression of music is a valid one and you shouldn’t try to compare yourself or your development to anyone else.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I’ll be 40 this year, so by the time I’m 50, I would have liked to either have expanded my compositions a great deal into larger works like a symphony or two, or turned my attention elsewhere to other creative adventures, like my cake-baking, which is also on the up. Owning a shop is out of the question, but having a symphony published, that might be more doable. 😉

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Cuddled up to my husband on the sofa – can’t beat it.

What is your most treasured possession?

My grandad’s trombone, which I play every few weeks in a wind ensemble; makes me acutely aware of him each time and how life is just too short, so make beautiful music whilst you can.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Conducting, and watching players grow in confidence as an ensemble, particularly if something is difficult; I like being an ‘enabler’ and reaching a goal as part of a team is really satisfying, every time.

What is your present state of mind?

Clearer than it was! I recognised that I was too busy, so have made room to breathe and give my body time to enjoy relaxation; this extra space has afforded me more mental comfort than previously afforded.

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