Off the beaten path in musical America
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., January 16, 2004) – Robin Holcomb has always been sensitive to her surroundings, and her sense of place has always found its way into her music. Having grown up in the Deep South and having lived in New York City and on the West Coast, this has made for a diversity of geographic and musical experiences. It has also made Holcomb, a singer and keyboardist, something of an all-American composer in the tradition of Charles Ives, Aaron Copland and Randy Newman.

But Holcomb’s America is typically off the beaten path. While she draws on classic American genres like Civil War song, Baptist hymns and Appalachian folk tunes, she approaches these styles with the sensibility of one who spent her formative creative years on downtown New York’s avant-garde scene, improvising alongside people like John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Bobby Previte and her husband, Wayne Horvitz.

So it’s not surprising that after living in the Pacific Northwest for several years, the remnants of the region’s late-19th and early-20th century utopian communities should grab Holcomb’s attention and not let go. Nor is it surprising that Holcomb would turn her fascination with these alternative settlements into a musical performance piece, which she will preview as “The Utopia Project,” a work-in-progress at Mass MoCA on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

A “staged theatrical song cycle,” Holcomb’s multi-media show is a collaboration with filmmaker Britta Johnson. The show includes music and texts drawn from survivors and descendants of the communities. In addition to Holcomb, musicians include guitarist/vocalist Danny Barnes, violist Eyvind Kang, and clarinetist/guitarist Doug Wieselman.

While Holcomb herself has never lived in a commune, she does view several of her living situations as patterned alongside utopian ideals.

“I did drop out of college and lived in Carolina and sharecropped tobacco,” she said in a recent phone interview. “We lived in a little converted tobacco barn in the mountains. We had a little idealistic life, briefly. It wasn’t a commune, but the temptation to carve out a quiet space to be in control of one’s own activity is appealing, and I’m curious about the life cycle of some of these communities. Few lasted very long. There was exhilaration and frustration and a lot of hard work. The idea in the Pacific Northwest was to convert the state and convert the nation.”

Holcomb views her time in downtown New York as something of a utopian venture, too. “Moving to New York City when I did and growing up as a young musician on the Lower East Side was really important,” she said. “There was a really wonderful community of players doing innovative and exploratory work. This was in the 1980s. Several of us moved from California and rented a basement in the West Village that was a precursor to the early Knitting Factory, where we tried out all sorts of experiments. That was sort of a musically utopian community.”

The communities that inspired “The Utopia Project” were variously based on socialist, anarchist, religious, feminist and other ideologies growing out of the post-Civil War age of industrialization. The show is more impressionistic than narrative, with Holcomb’s songs conveying portraits or composites of people who may have lived in the settlements.

Since Monday, Holcomb has been in residence at Mass MoCA with Johnson, where they have been merging Holcomb’s songs with Johnson’s images. Johnson had filmed footage in the areas where the communes originally existed, and staged reenactments of communal work situations. Her footage also includes stop-time photography and digital manipulation of maps and texts.

“This piece doesn’t tell a story,” said Holcomb. “It’s more portraits of people and evocative. There wasn’t a clear point I decided it would make sense. It was just something I started doing, collecting notes and snippets of music, and talking to Britta about the imagery.”

Holcomb, who is a founder and co-director of The New York Composers Orchestra, began playing piano as a child. Her father played trombone and led a big band for a while. “I took piano lessons with a neighborhood teacher and we had an orchestra in the elementary school,” she said. “I didn’t really study music except those early years.”

In college she was exposed to a lot of non-Western music, including Balinese gamelan, but she kept playing piano and began composing around the time she discovered free jazz and improvising. “Improvising and composing happened at the same time for me, and I was writing poetry then too, so it all came together,” she said. “But it took a lot of experimentation to find something that felt right.”

What eventually felt right was Holcomb’s trademark blend of American roots music and the avant-garde. “I end up dabbling in different genres of music, with harmonic and melodic roots in hymns and American folk,” she said. “So for example, this group of songs is based in that harmonic language, with open harmonies but with a lot of twists. Some of the songs are storytelling songs; some are like little folk songs. They have different forms. Not all are classic song forms. They’re tied together with instrumental passages, some of which we’ll be developing there. We’ll bring all our history to the project and look at the film and see where to go and how to string things together.”

Holcomb thinks the story of these utopian communities has resonance and relevance for today.

“I think people continue to have the desire to create a refuge, whether to practice a particular point of view or to be in control of many aspects of their lives, which gets harder and harder when there’s a TV in every living room,” she said. “I think we find those communities within the music community I’m a part of. Musicians try to create a perfect little world in their work. And I imagine others try to do that with their colleagues around holidays. We have challenges that maybe are greater than when these communities were operating. It’s more ephemeral now. It’s harder to set down roots. So I think their legacy isn’t something I can point to particularly. It’s more something to aspire to.”

For reservations call 662-2111.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 16, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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