Symbiotica, John Holland’s Online Recording
                          by Amber Vistein

John Holland considers any given moment not as a point on a timeline, but as a system of intersections. He considers position not only according to time and place, but as the combination of a complex set of physical, cultural, technological and historical factors. Each moment is the culmination of many interacting processes at work simultaneously and their culmination creates something entirely new. His online recording project, Symbiotica, explores these interests in a variety of ways.

The experience of Symbiotica itself, an on-line recording complete with program notes and complementary texts for certain pieces, has been carefully constructed. Holland allows the listener to determine many parameters: would you prefer to listen as the podcast plays straight through or to select the order of the pieces and how many you listen to at a time? Do you prefer to read the complementary texts prior to the pieces they accompany, or will you read them aloud to yourself after listening? The structure of the experience is one of intersecting options, determined yet open, prompting listeners to make decisions for themselves. This evokes the kind of choice experienced by a subject enmeshed in a complex sociocultural situation. Holland creates a tiny city, complete with road signs, and invites us to explore. Like any good city planner, he has created multiple routes for our exploration.

In compliment to Symbiotica’s structure, the pieces themselves refine connections to symbiosis and diversity in the technological age. They alternately focus on elements from historical, geographical, cultural, and aesthetic domains. In a modern city we can routinely walk down the street and hear classical music, hip-hop, and West African drumming as we pass different restaurants and retailers. Or we might hear fragments of English, Spanish, German, and Chinese spoken by people we pass by. Holland is a flâneur navigating us though complex moments, exploring juxtapositions, and creating his own fusions. Electronic sounds mingle with field recordings, symphonic strings rise in tandem with cartoon sound effects, and the human voice appears speaking, chanting, rapping, and singing in a multitude of styles. He navigates his environment with an exquisite sense of timing, a highly developed understanding of human psychology, and a thorough-going knowledge of music history.

History plays a unique role in the project. There is a microhistorical level at work: What was the last thing you listened to? What were you hearing a moment ago? Simultaneously there is the level of cultural history, as we hear fragments from Rossini, Dvorak, Schoenberg, Messiaen, Berio, Billie Holiday, and Quasi Moto– to name a few. In the end we reach towards the origins of music itself, beginning with birdsong (New and Ancient Voices, Songbirds of Europe and North America, Musik Antique.) History is a lens, or a collection of lenses, that structures the way we perceive our world. It is something we live with and through. Our environment, our society, our biology, technology, our habits, our customs, and our interactions with other people are directly influenced by the past. Our bodies themselves are archives of human evolution, our culture is a culmination of all that has come before, our identities, our habits, our selves are accumulated collections. Holland’s work questions the passivity of our human legacy and demonstrates that history is something we are constantly in the process of living.

Inherent in both the form and content of the recording as a whole are questions about technology and our unprecedented ability to record and distribute information. Holland does not confront the past in order to topple it, but to make us aware of it as a living thing. He navigates the supersaturation of the information age and asks us to consider how we attempt this process everyday. He samples widely differing musical styles, not to demonstrate their similarity or central alikeness, but to give us a microcosm through which to contemplate complex interactions and ponder new possibilities. For example, Symphony of Episodes does not seek to perform a comparison, nor trace the trajectory from simple to complex compositional styles, or the movement from tonal to microtonal systems. There is no system of ranking. It demonstrates its point, not through dense layers resembling human psychology, but through quick transitions more evocative of human recall– what makes something memorable? What could memorable events possibly have in common?

The last piece in the series, Humoresque, turns our entire experience back upon itself and asks us to consider what it is to have a personal listening experience. In an age when more and more people primarily listen to music through headphones or on their laptops, what does it really mean to listen in isolation? Is such a thing possible?


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