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Originally published in the Summer 2002 Virginia Tech Research Magazine.

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Composer travels the world, studies history, shares life in his music, and shares music history in his writing

By Sally Harris

Holliday's music commemorates people, events worldwide. Large photo by Michael Kiernan and inset photo of Ken Holliday by John McCormick..

Kent Holliday’s research trips off the tips of his fingers onto piano keys, is reported in scholarly journals, and pours forth from National Public Radio’s 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 compositions.

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 book’s 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 Hitler’s 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 Kreiten’s release from many people, including composer Yahudi Menuhin, Kreiten was hanged after six months of being jailed and tortured. Holliday’s 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.

Holliday’s 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 2001-2002.

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 mother’s 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 person’s 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, it’s a threnody, or dirge, in memory of all the good things those people were to their families and friends,” Holliday says. “It’s 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. Holliday’s 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, Holliday’s 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 Stalin’s 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 Bach’s 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 don’t 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 he’s 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 life’s experiences that he would keep trying to find.