Composer/singer/songwriter Robin Holcomb embodies so many musical currents, you’re sure that there must be three of her. Or more.
Could the composer of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Oct. 15-17 premiere, titled Paradise, be the same artist who was a fixture in the downtown Manhattan new music scene of the 1980s? And the West Coast-based singer-songwriter who matched Joni Mitchell’s soulfulness? And now writing for orchestras and chamber-music groups?
In fact, all of the elements that are now identified with Holcomb, 67, have been there in some capacity all along. The unifying factor is a creative personality whose music was once described by journalist Gordon Marshall as “braided, like roads on maps along which tumbleweeds roll... like baskets that have the rustic grace of birds’ nests, always on the verge of promising a truth, but brimming with natural mysteries.”
The mysteries may be anything but intentional. Her orchestral works are descriptive tone poems — Paradise refers to a town that was devoured by California forest fires — though there’s not always agreement on what she is describing.
At the Portland (Maine) Symphony Orchestra premiere of her piece No Thing Lives to Itself in early 2020, Holcomb realized how little control she had over listener perception. The piece is a meditation on Rachel Carson (1907-1964), the biologist/author who lived in that maritime community. “The audience for that orchestra is really great. They stick around afterwards and really want to talk to the conductor and composer,” Holcomb recalled in an interview last week. “But several came up to me and said, ‘I can totally hear the tide pools and the sea creatures.’ Which I didn’t even try to do.”
Having also scored films, Holcomb has thought a lot about description in music. Orchestras can’t help but want an explanation of the piece for the program books. With Paradise, the journey from original wildfire idea to what is heard onstage was elongated by revisions during lockdown when the premiere was delayed from last year to now. “Fire? Do you write triple forte for the whole ensemble?” she said. “I had to figure out a balance that felt good to me... I would hear a section [of the piece], tear it apart and make it different.”
The small town of Paradise in the Sierra Nevada foothills was threatened by a series of wildfires, but was ultimately destroyed in 2018 by one of the worst in the area’s history, killing 86 people and displacing the rest of the population, which was 26,000 in the years prior to the tragedy. One thing that especially drew her attention to the tragedy was the fact that her grandmother had been buried there. But again, the music’s meaning isn’t explicit. “A series of short events are all part of the piece, all related... but it doesn’t have a single peak,” she said. “It tells some sort of story, and you don’t quite know what it is.”
Composing starts at the piano for her, often with improvisation that she later writes down. Sometimes she’ll use a box of ideas she’s had in the past but never found a home for in previous pieces. Given her intuitive, non-academic approach toward composition — combined with her singular, deeply-considered outlook on the world — one could argue that Holcomb is an “outsider” composer. And she wouldn’t argue with that.
Born in Savannah, Ga., Holcomb discovered Civil War songs — Stephen Foster included — while in high school in Santa Cruz. However, one early vocation, oddly enough, was sharecropping on a tobacco farm in North Carolina. Later in adulthood, she migrated back to Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and later to New York City in the 1980s where she was part of the free jazz scene. With husband Wayne Horvitz, she formed the New York Composers Orchestra in 1986.
Her artistic transition into songwriting, by which she is now best known, wasn’t easy: “It took me a long time to get around to writing songs that were successful to my ears. I went back to my old poetry, and that helped.” So did the varied terrains of her life. The song cycle Angels at the Four Corners draws on her sharecropping period.
One of her most characteristic songs is “Deliver Me,” built on a haunting repeating motif — the sort that earned her a reputation as a minimalist — with visionary lyrics such as “the light is only perfect for a very short time.” The song also poses enigmatic questions, such as “Can you prove what is holy when the river runs dry?”
No surprise that four of her solo recordings are on Nonesuch (a haven for artists who don’t easily fit in pre-established categories), or that her admirers tell her, “We don’t know what to expect when we come to one of your concerts.”
Indeed. Now based in Seattle, she and Horvitz reincarnated the New York Composers Orchestra into the Washington Composers Orchestra. She has continued with an output that might be described as offbeat Americana, such as a song cycle with film titled The Utopia Project that examines the Pacific Northwest utopian communities of the 1800s. Recent activities include commissions from the League of American Orchestras, as part of their Women Composers Readings, funded by the Toulmin Foundation, through which she had a 2018 Philadelphia Orchestra reading of her work All the While. From that came the Philadelphia Orchestra commission of Paradise.
It’s hard to say if she is benefiting from the greater attention to female composers in recent years or if her reputation on a number of musical fronts is simply becoming more evident. She does feel that the awakening to female talent in the industry is permanent. Yet one can’t help but observe that the cutting-edge collaborations with her husband, song cycles drawing on American pioneer history and improvised jazz can’t have been the express route to a Philadelphia Orchestra commission.
Has the diversity of her activities held her back? She thinks not: “We did what we wanted to do... it was great.”
Robin Holcomb’s “Paradise” will be premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra Oct. 15-17 in a program featuring Richard Strauss songs sung by Pretty Yende. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 on Oct. 15 and 17 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 on Oct. 16. Tickets: $48-179. Information: www.philorch.org or 215-893-1999.