Holliday's music commemorates people, events worldwide. Large photo by Michael Kiernan and inset photo of Ken Holliday by John McCormick..
Kent Hollidays research trips off the tips of his fingers onto piano keys, is reported in scholarly journals, and pours forth from National Public Radios online All Songs Considered.
A pianist, composer, and professor at Virginia Tech, Holliday
does scholarly research on such topics as reproducing pianos and composer
Károly Aggházy. He also often does an unusual type of
research in preparation for composing music he learns about the
myths, stories, and landscapes of different cultures.
Holliday has climbed Mont Blanc, the highest mountain
in Europe, and the Matterhorn to push his physical limits to extremes.
He has journeyed to Mayan sites in the jungles of Guatemala and Mexico
to experience first-hand the remnants of the once all-powerful Mayan culture. And he has hiked the
Kalalau Trail on the island of Kauai to experience the wettest place
on earth. He shares his experiences as sections of his beautiful musical
The composer, who came to Virginia Tech in 1974, creates
two types of chamber music. The first is abstract composition for a
given instrument music for its own sake, he says.
But more and more he prefers having a
program, a person, or an event as the basis of his musical pieces. That
requires more research.
Incantations from the Popol Vuh, for example, is
based on a Mayan book about the origins of the world and the triumph
of good over evil. Although the conquering Spanish burned all the Mayan
documents, a priest later dictated the text of the book. Holliday studied
the text and then traveled to Yaxchilán, Mexico, to learn about
the area of the books origin. His studies included Mayan hieroglyphs,
most of which have now been translated. The work he wrote as a result
was a solo for piano commissioned in 1997 by the Virginia
Music Teachers Association, of which he is a member.
Holliday wrote In Memoriam: Karlrobert Kreiten
about a German pianist who died during World War II. Before composing
the work, Holliday took research leave to visit monuments of people
who had been killed by Hitlers army for speaking out against the
National Socialist Party. Kreiten, just 27, was one of the most prominent
pianists of his time. Despite pleas for Kreitens release from
many people, including composer Yahudi Menuhin, Kreiten was hanged after
six months of being jailed and tortured. Hollidays composition
premiered when a trio performed it at a chamber-music conference in
Talloire, France. Because of its theme, it also was played at the Holocaust
Museum in Washington, D.C.
In Memoriam: Karlrobert Kreiten reveals, through
the use of rolled chords on the piano, the interminable waiting in jail.
Deep, dark, insistent music depicts the insidiousness of the Nazi interpreter
during interrogations of Kreiten. In this
section, a violin and cello play half col legno partly on the
wood of the bow and partly on the bowhair chords repeated over
and over, adding to the chaos of the interrogation. After music representing
the hanging, the piece ends
on a musical phrase representing a question: Did this have to happen?
It leaves us with a sense of futile irony, Holliday says.
When Holliday plays a part of Incantations from the
Popol Vuh, a section about dawn features slow, peaceful sounds to
represent dawn in a steamy rain forest in the Guatemalan jungle. As
the sun comes up, the music brightens. For the sacred Mayan ball game,
the notes become quick and competitive.
Hollidays research for such compositions takes him
to many parts of the world. On his office wall, photographs taken at
Tikal and Antigua in Guatamala, Palenque in Mexico, Shigatse in Tibet,
Machu Picchu in Peru, Tarquinia in Italy, and Bankok in Thailand, as
well as in Budapest and other places, provide a travelogue of his research.
He has won grants from such places as the International Research and
Exchanges Board, the Educational Foundation, and the American Society
of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), and awards from various
musical and educational organizations, including the Virginia Music
Teachers Association and the New Music Delaware Contemporary Music Festival.
He was a finalist in the Aliénor Harpsichord Award Competition
and a commissioned composer for that event
In the spring of 2000, Holliday took research leave to
go to Hawaii, where he studied the sounds, scales, and unusual rhythm
of the gamelan and played in a gamelan ensemble from Bali and Indonesia.
A gamelan ensemble is made up
mainly of tuned percussion instruments, such as gongs, bronze kettles,
bronze xylophones, drums, and cymbals. Holliday also researched the
folklore of some Hawaiian islands and composed Hawaiiana for four-hands
piano. The piece has six movements based on the stories of different
islands. In one story, Haleakala slowed the sun so his mothers
tapa cloth could dry. Another story involves a cliff gravesite on the
Island of Lanai. The legend is that a Hawaiian
warrior hid his wife in a cave for safety during battle. When the cave
flooded, she drowned. The warrior buried her atop the cliff, then threw
himself off in despair.
Most of my pieces in the last 10 years have been
based on some story, a persons life, or a culture different from
mine, Holliday says. But I do still write abstract pieces
without any connection to stories or an extra-musical program. One was
the toccata for harpsichord for the Aliénor harpsichord competition
in 2002. A toccata allows a display of virtuosity in the art of
touching the keyboard. Abstract music often comes to Holliday as he
improvises at the keyboard. As Stravinsky said, Fingers
are great note
finders, Holliday says.
Musical pieces sometimes change purpose even during composition.
The last piece I wrote started out as the slow movement for a
piano sonata for a performer who records my work. Then September 11
happened and it became
Remembrance for Those Whose Life Was Taken September 11, 2001.
In that way, the piece took on an extra-musical connotation.
Once we have gone past the anger, bitterness, and
hatefulness, its a threnody, or dirge, in memory of all the good
things those people were to their families and friends, Holliday
says. Its very loving.
Besides his 18 published musical compositions, Holliday
also has done scholarly research for publication, such as his book,
Reproducing Pianos Past and Present, which has been reprinted.
A reproducing piano resembles the
player piano, but it also reproduces the pedals for loudness, softness,
and other subtleties of music. Holliday became interested in the instrument
after seeing one in the Deutsche Museum in Munich. The sound was
so musical and expressive, even though the person who recorded it had
been dead half a century, Holliday says.
For this book, Holliday did research for 10 years in different places. He went to Australia and New Zealand to visit the electronic labs at universities for one project and to visit some reproducing pianos. At a Piano Players Guild meeting in England, he interviewed members who collected reproducing pianos. He visited Wayne Stahnke in California.Stahnke invented the modern reproducing piano using light-emitting diodes to measure the hammer speed, which controls the loudness and softness of the sound. Hollidays research also took him to Berlin and Nuremberg. Besides culminating in a book, the research also provided material for a chapter on Some American Firms and their Contribution to the Development of the Reproducing Piano, published in the book, Perspectives on American Music, 1900-1950.
As with his compositions, Hollidays scholarly work sometimes reflects the tragedy of a period. In 1960, he spent six weeks in the Soviet Union interviewing composers and performers who had survived the Zhdanov Purge, an attempt by the Soviet Central Committee in 1948 to legislate what kinds of music should be composed and performed from then on. It was a touchy issue that affected some of the greatest creative minds of the decade, he says. Fortunately things got better for Soviet artists after Stalins death, but the effects were felt far and wide.
Holliday interviewed artists in Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and then went to Samarkand and Tashkent in Uzbekistan, where the artistic climate was much freer, due to the greater distance from the capital. He lectured on the topic extensively when he returned to the United States and wrote a monograph on his interviews.
Holliday also had a monograph on Károly Aggházy, the Hungarian composer who died in 1917, published in the book New Light on Liszt and His Music. Nobody had done much on him, Holliday says. I went to the Szecheny library in Budapest and got out his scores and reviews of his music.
The scholarly articles Holliday has published in professional journals range from Solving a Fingering Problem in Bachs Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and Give Your Old Upright a Facelift to The Origin and Evolution of the Sarabande and A Liszt Legacy Brought Up to Date: The Recorded Treasures Welte Piano Rolls Recordings.
Holliday earned a B.A. in music and philosophy magna cum laude from Hamline University in Minnesota and an M.A. and Ph.D. in music theory and composition from the University of Minnesota. When he first went to college, he majored in philosophy and music because he was not able to choose. However, he believes the old saying that you dont choose music, but music chooses you, and music seemed to appeal to him more strongly. He did postgraduate study with music masters in Paris, Florence, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Berlin.
At Virginia Tech, Holliday wins awards for teaching excellence. He is or has been a member of several professional societies, including Phi Mu Alpha Music Fraternity, the Society of Composers Inc., and the American Liszt Society.
Holliday is one of those lucky people whose profession and avocations all meld into each other. When he hikes new terrain, he hears the music of the land. When he learns a new story, it becomes a composition in his head. When events happen in the world, he turns them into music.
When hes relaxing at home, he listens to all sorts of music. For fun I like to listen to music from different parts of the world: Indian music, Caribbean music, including reggae, gamelan music from Indonesia and Bali, Central and South American music on native instruments.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, Without music, life would be a mistake. For Holliday, with his many interests, perhaps life without music would not be a complete mistake; but it surely would leave an empty space where the notes should be something hinted at in lifes experiences that he would keep trying to find.