David R. Holsinger, twice the recipient of the prestigious Ostwald Composition Prize of the American Bandmasters Association, was educated at Central Methodist College [Now Central Methodist University], Fayette, Missouri; Central Missouri State University [Now University of Central Missouri], Warrensburg; and the University of Kansas, Lawrence. His primary composition study has been with Donald Bohlen at Central Missouri State and Charles Hoag at the University of Kansas.
Holsinger’s compositions have received kudos in several national competitions. He won the National Federation of Music Clubs Band Composition Contest in 1970. In 1971, ‘The War Trilogy’ was awarded first place in the Kent State University Band Composition Contest. ‘Liturgical Dances’ was first runner-up in both the 1981 NBA-DeMoulin and ABA-Ostwald competitions. In 1982, the ABA-Ostwald prize was awarded to Holsinger’s ‘The Armies of the Omnipresent Otserf’. In 1986, Holsinger’s ‘The Deathtree’, was a finalist in both the NBA-DeMoulin and the Sudler International Competition. His composition, ‘In The Spring, at the Time When Kings Go Off to War’, won the 1986 ABA-Ostwald Prize.
The composer was recently honored by Gustavus Adolphus College with the awarding of a Doctor of Humane Letters Degree for lifetime achievement in composition and the Gustavus Fine Arts Medallion, the division’s highest honor, designed and sculpted by renowned artist, Paul Granlund. Holsinger, as the fourth composer honored with this medal, joins a distinguished roster which includes Gunther Schuller, Jan Bender, and Csada Deak.
When did you start composing? What got you interested?
I entered college in 1963. Central Methodist College, now university, in Fayette, Missouri. In the spring of my junior year, my life changed.
Like a number of small colleges in the Midwest, the Central Methodist Band always had a spring tour, usually consisting of seven days of travel with three concerts a day at schools or churches. In the fall of 1965, our band director announced that we would have a guest composer traveling with us on the upcoming spring tour. His name was Vaclav Nelhybel and he would be conducting two of his recent works, ‘Trittico’ and ‘Chorale’. The pieces arrived. The music was big and brash, loud and gritty. The music was vibrant and full of musical thunder, and we couldn’t wait for this man to show up on our doorstep! My classmates and I were all young and ego-maniacal in those days. The first thought in our collective mind was “we’ve hot players and we’re going to show this guy what music is all about!”
Two days before tour, Vaclav Nelhybel walked into our band hall, stepped on the podium, lifted his arms. As I watched that first slashing downbeat of the baton, I realized I didn’t have a clue what his music was all about. I had absolutely no idea how ‘personal’ music could be. In that one electrifying instant, I saw brutality, beauty, angst, anguish, joy, triumph, sorrow, exhilaration, devastation, despair, hope, faith… all in the eyes of one man conducting his music. For seven days we rode the bus and played the schools. At the close of the final tour concert, I sat in the back of an empty stage and wept. I was overcome by the transformation I knew was happening in my life. I had now come face to face with my future. I wanted to be a composer.
The following week was spring break. I went home to the family farm, set down at the piano and proceeded to work, writing my first composition. At the end of the week, my first composition emerged; a work for band I entitled Prelude and Rondo. A few years later, it was to become my first published work.
Who are your influences? How did they inspire you in music writing?
The most important thing to realize is that composing is first and foremost a craft. You have to become an artisan before you can be an artist. The sooner you forget the romantic idea of the artist as a divinely inspired madman, the better off you will be. No matter how much talent you have, without professional training, as well as sincere examples of musical and moral excellence, many times that talent will go to waste.
Admittedly, we are shaped by the deposits left in our lives by those we have chosen to know and interact. Obviously, I as a composer, have been influenced on a personal level by Nelhybel, and my two major composition teachers, Donald Bohlen, and Charles Hoag. Neither being ‘famous composers’ but being the exact influence I needed at that certain time of my life. I as a musician, have been guided by several band directors, whose diversity of influence and taste has culminated in the conductor and composer I am today.
My first college band director was a man named Kenneth Seward. He may well have been the most overtly passionate musician I have ever known. He was a stickler for ‘right notes in the right places’, but in addition, to a nearly fanatical degree, he was a pursuer of the passion of music. When Seward was through with you, you felt like you had wept over every note you’d played and that you, personally, were the most intense, passionate, and world-changing musician ever to walk the earth!
Thank goodness, I met my next best friend! The Director of Bands at Central Missouri State was Dr. Russ Coleman. Let’s just say that Russ Coleman had a ‘settling influence’ on my raging ego. We all need someone to ‘sit’ on us occasionally, and he did. But he also became my most faithful advocate and supporter, both professionally and personally, and in turn, one of my few life-long friends.
Another highly regarded influence was Robert E. Foster, former Director of Bands at the University of Kansas. Here too, is a gentleman who 40+ years ago, looked past my quirks, and let me ride full gallop through the ranks of his band! He gave me means and opportunity to move into the ‘big-time’ band world and has become a good friend and colleague, a person whose advise I am quick to heed.
The value of the friendship and camaraderie of fellow composers should never be underestimated. Of course, composer get-togethers have undergone one drastic change in the past decades. Where we used to talk about the next big piece, we now somehow always get sidetracked about the next big computer. Instead of motives and movements, we’re buried in music software analysis and hard-drive capabilities. We used to be intelligent people, all drawn together in a great spiritual mist, lost in the wonder of soaring melodies, rhapsodic harmonies, and the emotionally fulfilling fruits of our musical journey. Now our conversations are motivated by ‘Ram Envy’!
I’m nearly 77 years old. Working the DVD in the den is still a mystery.
Where do your ideas often come from, and how do you put them into the music?
As a ‘maturing’ composer, I realize that ‘personal emotion’ is a primal factor in my output. I easily ‘wear my heart on my sleeve’, compose music that is experience motivated, and make no apologies for compositions that are written, expressly, to be ‘in your face’.
I don’t produce a lot of music in a year. It’s not that I’m a slow and meticulous composer, but rather, my output is a direct product of my lifestyle. Up until six years ago, I was on the road most every weekend conducting. However, six years ago, I had a stroke that paralyzed the left side of my body. With only one hand that works, it does take longer to produce a composition than it used to. My conducting is also limited to my right arm. My wife, also a conductor sits in front of my conductor’s desk and turns the score pages for me.
As with that very first composition written over spring break of 1966, some things have not changed. I am basically a ‘binge’ composer. Whereas many composers set aside that special time of the day when they are most apt to feel the muse rising, I, on the other hand, grab any chance I can get and then ‘go around the clock.’ Music is easy. When it’s there, it simply pours out. This is not to say that I don’t have a process. I do. But I have also always had a good intuition about the movement of music.
So what is my process? At its inception, it is a ‘visual’ process. I need a ‘picture’ to paint. This explains why I write very little absolute music, but rather find myself exploring “story” music; writing compositions that depend on “word painting” even when no text appears in the finished product. I write about events in my life, people I know, my family, stories in the Bible inspire compositions, memorials for friends or others. I suppose that I need a personal involvement of some kind to “paint” the music.
I need a title before beginning a piece. I knew the story line for To Tame the Perilous Skies for weeks. It was intended to be a composition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, but until the actual title was birthed, no note was put on the page. Silly quirk.
I, as a student of composition, learned an important lesson studying the result of that evolution. I believe, over the past 50 years, I have managed to combine chosen concepts of the craft of composition with the limitlessness of intuition and establish a ‘style’ of writing that fits my personal perspective of what music should be.
What do you think makes a piece of music great?
Difficult question to answer. Unfortunately, it is easier to recognize the opposite.
Contemporary music today is in upheaval; there are more possible choices for medium and style than ever before. Somehow, if you are serious, you will eventually have to find your own voice. What does it mean to find your own voice? An important distinction: originality vs. strangeness.
It’s a plain fact that the number of composers in any era who are really, profoundly original, in ways which move people, is always going to be very small. Too often, a frantic search for originality ends up being an incentive to just make your music strange. It is not hard to be strange; the problem is that the number of innovations which really have any expressive impact is very, very, small. Your own voice will not emerge from
cultivating such random odd-ness.
By far the most common weakness in poor music is what I call distraction: Various aspects of the music don’t contribute to the emotional effect, in fact, they may even contradict or weaken it.
But I can say that ‘real composers’ write because it is part of them, because they love the music they write themselves. In other words, they love doing it. If you are also a performer, you will have the pleasure of playing music (including your own) all your life. And nobody can take that away from you. Making music should be an activity which enhances your quality of life, and which allows you to share what is best in yourself. It is worth quite a lot of work to make that happen.
Another point: There are very, very, few serious composers who have not spent a lot of time learning to play an instrument. And I don’t mean two years of guitar study; I mean learning an instrument to the point where you can really perform in public, where you understand how performers feel and think, where the reality of musical performance is absolutely visceral for you. Young composers who have little experience with the instrumental qualities are easy to spot.
Is it difficult to write for young bands, especially in educational music?
Yes. I’m so glad that there are others who are proficient at that level!
Your works are often full of energy, with many tempos and vigorous melodies. Will you say that you have a certain compositional style?
I think that you answered this question with the question. My compositional style is often full of energy, with many meter and tempo changes, and hopefully vigorous melodies. In reality, I hope that same intensity and vitality is also apparent in my slow, more gentle compositions.
But also, it is obvious to me that orchestration is as much a product of the composer’s style as are the choices he or she makes compositionally. In that regard, I consider myself a fairly ‘straight-forward’ orchestrator!
I am so impressed with people who really deal in the color palette available. Philip Sparke’s use of muted brass in his second Dance Movement is incredible. I very rarely think of using mutes. Fellow composer Jim Barnes, who I consider a master instrumentation list, is constantly aware of the instrumental color spectrum he deals with. He is consummately mindful of the the coloristic qualities of each instrument. The scores of his major works reverberate with vivid tumbrel hues. I hardly ever write solos or think about soloistic qualities. Mark Camphouse’s instrumentation choices always seem to forge a grand and glorious, almost Mahler-esque orchestral canvas. I think we’re fortunate he choose to compose for bands rather than orchestra!
Instrumental color is as much a signature of band composers as is their content. Let’s face it, Percy Grainger SOUNDS like Percy Grainger. There is a distinctive quality in his instrumental choices that, in combination with his musical style, sets his music apart. No one scored four-part horn sections better than Claude T. Smith. I’m not sure what he did, but his horn writing always sounded different than anybody else’s horn writing. That particular sound became just as much a musical signature as his whimsically notorious use of the 7/8 measure.
And even though at times, I wish my orchestrations were ripe with refined timbrel explorations, I know that what I do is exactly what my music demands. The choices I make are a direct product of the music I write. My high woodwind parts are always extreme, because I want edge and enunciation in their lines. The doublings I use are not meant to acoustically produce new sound spectrums. They are employed to dominate the spectrum. I am aware that my music is very mid-voiced, therefore more and more, I score for only one or two F Horn lines. I more often than not, double my horns with trumpets, rather than alto saxes, because I want that brassy edge to be paramount. The saxophones, over the years, have become the section I use as the ‘engine’ of my orchestration, considering their flexibility and brashness. Many times they serve as the motor for animation or agitation in my music. I also consider the versatility of the instruments. My clarinets can be penetrating and edgy or full and reverent. My reviewers refer to “no mercy” horn lines, and yet at times, I ask those same players to be the timbre of weeping.
One aspect of my orchestration has very little to do with color. It has everything to do with the individual musician seated in the ensemble. When Vaclav Nelhybel conducted the Central Methodist Band, I was a baritone player in the ensemble. (I was never good enough to be classified a Euphonium player!) One of the dynamics of that meeting was that I had a great part to perform in the compositions. In fact, it seemed that everyone in the band had important lines to play. No one seemed to think of themselves as ‘filler’ material. I was always very aware of that feeling of ‘essentialness’ when I begin writing and scoring music as a young composer. In an Instrumentalist review of one of my early works, Hopak Raskolniki, John Paynter stated, ‘Every player has an exciting part to play.’ The desire that every musician involved feel that he or she was important to that performance, has really been an influence in my writing and scoring for a great many years.
One of my pet exhortations is, ‘when the piece is over, you should to feel like you’ve been somewhere!’ Every musician needs to feel like a vital cog in the machinery of a performance.
‘In The Spring, at the Time When Kings Go Off to War’, is a work widely programmed for concerts and competition. What are your thoughts about this piece of music, and what was the idea behind it?
Although I have written a number of compositions inspired by either passages from the Bible or actual historic events, I believe the only two of them can actually be called, In the vernacular of classical music, actual tone poems. ‘To Tame the Perilous Skies’, a US Air Force commission honouring the World War II Battle of Britain, the first air battle of the war, and ‘In The Spring, at the Time When Kings Go Off to War’, based on a passage from I Chronicles 20. Verses 1 thru 3. This short passage tales of the gathering of King David’s armies and their attack and siege to the land of the Ammonites, eventually capturing and executing the Ammonite kings before returning triumphantly to Jerusalem.
This 12-minute composition, to the best of my ability, attempted to paint a musical portrait. Verse by verse, using a plethora of techniques including unmetered aleatory passages, vocal inflections from the musicians mimicking my perception of crowds of keening women and free meter-less pseudo-prayers sung by survivors on the battle field. Great use of nonsense syllables and the force of a large percussion section and full symphonic range of instruments. This was one of my first pieces to incorporate the voice into the action, hoping to enhance the story line for the listener.
What are some of your newer works that you have written? Could you talk about them?
After taking about a 18 month hiatus from composing, basically because of some cognitive problems from the stroke, in the past couple of years, I have slowly returned to composing.
I have recently joined the Barnhouse family with 7 new works, two celebrating granddaughters, and a number of large grade 4 to 5 pieces, among them ‘Last Run’, a piece about a favourite railroad locomotive, ‘Prelude and Presto’, paying homage to my first Barnhouse publication in 1966, ‘Ancient Dances’, which are only ancient in the first 40 measures, and new this year, a Slovenian folksong fantasy entitled ‘Of Sun and Wheat’. Among the last publications for TRN Music was ‘Zinphonia’, dedicated to the memory of a well known bandmaster in the states. I liked that one very much.
Of course, I have others already lined up for next year.