NORTH ADAMS — Composer Jonathan Bailey Holland has never visited Mass MoCA, but the chamber piece that he'll present at Saturday's Bang on a Can Marathon draws inspiration from an installation reminiscent of works at the North Adams institution.
Holland's "His House Is Not of This Land" (2015) is based on Cornelia Parker's "Anti-Mass" (2005), a suspended mix of wire and burnt wood collected from a torched Southern Baptist church. Holland's seven-plus-minute composition reckons with the arson's ramifications.
"I wanted to somehow capture the essence of a church and the idea that it's made up of the people and not necessarily of the structure," Holland told The Eagle during a telephone interview.
Scored for alto flute, bass clarinet, violin, viola and cello, Holland's work is slotted second during the six-hour Marathon. To prepare the piece, the composer listened to recordings of old church services "where the congregation was very vocal and people were singing along — not necessarily singing in tune but just responding to feeling the spirit in the moment, church moans and that kind of thing," said Holland, who is the chair of Composition, Contemporary Music and Core Studies at Boston Conservatory at Berklee and has been named composer-in-residence for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's 2018-2019 season.
To mimic the call-and-response nature of church audiences, players have flexibility to freely respond to other instrumentalists within Holland's work, which San Francisco's Left Coast Chamber Ensemble originally commissioned.
Holland said that he has often responded to visual art in his music over the years. Recently, he also has been focusing on racial matters. "Synchrony," another 2015 chamber piece, includes audio from Barack Obama and the arrest tapes of Eric Garner and Sandra Bland.
"I just felt like I needed to write that and respond to the events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement," said Holland, who is black.
Earlier in his career, he wouldn't have been so keen to produce a race-oriented work because people were focusing on his skin color.
"I wanted people to think of my music as music and not as music by a black composer," he said, "because I felt like if you're putting some kind of adjective on it, then suddenly that's supposed to imply something. And I didn't know what that was, but I didn't want any kind of implication that didn't have anything to do with the fact that it's just my music."
He doesn't let that line of thinking constrict his work anymore.
"I think I got too caught up in trying to avoid the adjective," he said, "as opposed to just allowing the adjective to be what it is and just writing whatever I wanted to write."
The Marathon is a fitting host for some of that material.
"I've written lots of music that responds to artwork, so [the] idea of this new music festival that happens in this museum space, in this art space, I'm excited to be a part of that," he said.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.