“Captivating…the haunting and slightly disorienting sound disrupts and engages the open ear.” (Joeseph Woodard, Los Angeles Times, 2004.)
“The only American composer in this age range whose music has impressed me at multiple times and for multiple reasons is Jeffrey Holmes. He will get his own article in due time. He plies his trade quietly in California, and does what he wants musically, unattached and unapologetic. The fact that someone of his caliber and skill goes mostly unheralded while the equivalent of spoiled children lead the parade points to the tried-and-true maxim that one can be an artist or be famous, but not both.” (Dan Albertson, La Folia, May, 2019)
“By far the most interesting and musically arresting work on the concert…Holmes’ use of microtones was the most creative and successful uses this author has heard…music to be really heard and deserving of reflection.” (Benjamin Boone, Society of Composers, INC., 2004)
“Holmes’ music engages in the idea of landscape and mysticism through his spectral technique. Through his choice of pitch and rhythmic textures, stunning colors emerge.” (The Talea Ensemble, March 11, 2016)
“Extremely sophisticated…an excellent example of exquisitely crafted sound…Occasus goes beyond what can be perceived from the printed page. The piece is about sound ringing and decaying in space, and about textures. I would highly recommend this piece to a sensitive and sophisticated ensemble that is up for a rewarding challenge.” (John Lane, Percussive Notes, May 2014)
“Drifting, ethereal” (Brett Campbell, San Francisco Classical Voice, 2011)
“MicroFest Records has recently released May the Bridges I Burn Light My Way, a new two-CD album by composer Jeffrey Holmes. With over two hours of music, this is a generous and comprehensive collection of the Holmes output since 2002. Performed by top Los Angeles area musicians, this set consists of one CD of chamber works for mixed instruments, and a separate CD of music for solo guitars and various accompanying ensembles. The album is inspired by Norse legends, primitive myths and “dramatic elemental landscapes in their primal and violent natural states.” Most of the pieces employ microtonal elements that evoke their exotic subjects in new and unexpected ways. This music is brilliantly crafted and beautifully performed making May the Bridges I Burn Light My Way a captivating listening experience.
Thrall (2014) for solo piano and five instruments opens the first CD of the album. The liner notes state that “The soloist alternates between six constantly developing cadenzas, interpolated within three rotating thematic elements that are presented in close succession at the very beginning of the work.” Accordingly, the beginning features dark, primal notes in the lower piano registers with a trickle of higher notes above. The other instruments enter with mysterious phrases that weave in and about. A series of violent cries and shouts are heard, memorably in the bass clarinet. As the piece proceeds, the solo piano line alternately dominates and recedes beneath waves of increasingly anxious accompaniment. Tension builds – only to be relieved by a grand pause – and the process begins again. Towards the finish, a great descending line is heard in all the instruments – as if following the piano off a cliff – and ending in a final shout.
Thrall is based on the old Norse word for ‘slave’, and incorporates equal temperament in the piano as well as equal tempered third-tone and quarter-tone divisions and Just Intonation harmonic approximations in the accompanying instruments. All of this adds to the exotic character of the piece without distracting from the masterful orchestration. The playing in all the parts is extremely precise and the overall ensemble sound is of a very high caliber. Thrall is an impressive fusion of rigorous passage writing and multiple tunings that yield an integrated and highly polished result.
Nastrond I (2006) for violin and percussion follows, and is inspired by a particularly gruesome legend of the ancient underworld. The composer writes: “Programmatically, Nastrond I depicts the shore of corpses, the place of bitter cold and unending night, that is as vile as it is vast; all its doors will face north. Its walls and roof will be made of wattled snakes, their heads facing inward, blowing so much poison that it runs in rivers.” This proceeds in three movements titled “The Sea”, “The Shore” and “The River”, and opens with a high, thin violin tone and light triangle. The feeling is both suspenseful and sorrowful, with a dash of mystery aided by evocative drumming. Additional percussion is then heard with the violin, conveying the appropriate sense of hopelessness. In the second movement, a slightly more playful melody appears in the vibraphone with solemn, sustained tones in the violin. The triangle returns at various times to add a nice transcendental touch. Strong chords in the vibraphone open the third movement, accompanied by a repeating phrase in the violin that slowly builds tension. An active drum rhythm followed by rapid vibraphone passages build the intensity while the violin holds a high, thin note that fades at the finish. Throughout, the percussion is perfectly played and never overwhelms the quietly expressive violin. Nastrond I is highly evocative and atmospheric music that draws the maximum nuance and imagery from its narrow musical forces.
Kirurgi, String Quartet No. 2 (2009) is next, performed by the acclaimed Lyris Quartet. The composer writes: “This work journeys through a wide range of emotional territory, and was inspired by my adventures in the Swedish and Norwegian Arctic landscapes.” String Quartet No. 2 consists of several movements that each posses a distinctive texture but share a consistent harmonic landscape. “Funeral March”, the first movement, opens with appropriately solemn tones in all voices and then seems to oscillate between long, sustained introspective sounds and more active, but stressful passages. There are two fugues and these also are grounded in a sense of regret and despair, with quietly flowing lines and a relaxed tempo. The second fugue contains a somewhat more active and purposeful feel, but this, too, is mostly introspective in character.
“Fantasy” has a driving feel as the quartet joins together in a pulsing rhythm and distinctive harmonies. A nicely settled tutti passage with sustained tones acts as an interlude before returning to the agitated texture of the opening. New, independent lines break out, escalating the tension that only slows and fades at the finish. There is a mysterious “Nocturne” movement with an evocative violin melody and the quiet “Elegy” which closes the work with appropriately mournful and subdued tones. Kirurgi exhibits all the strengths and virtues of the other pieces on this CD, beautifully expressed as a string quartet. The Lyris Quartet expertly extracts all of the drama and passion in these movements with maximum effect.
Oscularum Infame (2009), a piano trio, completes the first CD and is comprised of four continuous movements inspired by the elemental forces of fire, air, earth, and the sea. Dark piano chords and a mournful cello solo open this piece, followed by a high violin line that floats lightly above. A series of deep piano crashes ratchets up the tension, along with active passages in the strings. A haunting violin solo at about 5:40 is very expressively played. More tension and then a quietly dramatic cello solo at 11:50 is accompanied by dark piano chords underneath. Towards the finish, surging, wave-like rhythms evoke the open sea with sudden, strong chords that suggest a rising tide. This ultimately subsides and retreats into deep cello tones that bring this to a close. The internal structure of this piece is only occasionally evident, but even as each instrument moves more or less independently, there is a sense of cohesion that is a credit to the careful orchestration. There is just the right color, dynamic and emotion from each voice in the trio and this attests to a high level of performance excellence. Oscularum Infame is abstract music, but there is a polish and artistry about it that stands comparison with any of the 20th century masterworks.
The second CD of the set features works for guitars alone and works for guitars with instruments. Of the guitar pieces, Five Microtonal Studies (2002) was originally written for the duo of Michael Kudirka and Eric Benzant-Feldra. The composer writes that “Throughout this work, one guitar remains tuned approximately one sixth of a tone lower than the other guitar, though each is in tune with itself. More precisely, one is tuned to the 7th partial harmonic of the other which is 31% (or 31 ‘cents’) of a semitone lower.” Each of the five movements is short – from a little over one minute to three and a half minutes – and each deploys the microtonal tuning in diverse ways. The opening study, for example, begins with strong strumming followed by a series of soft scales that seem to creep in unexpectedly. More quiet scales follow in Study 2 as the guitars alternate to create spare, but endearing harmonies based on a simple four-note scale. Study 3 features two scales played in slightly offset phrases, inspired by Iannis Xenakis. Study 4 is played on the sixth string of each instrument and includes strummed chords that have a distinctively Spanish flavor while Study 5 is based on a series of dense trills. All of these short pieces are played with exacting skill in this recording by Michael Kudirka and Brian Head ,with careful attention to the implications of the unorthodox tuning.
Danzleiker (2012), for two guitars is a three-movement work inspired by the folk music of Scandinavia, and was composed during an extended exploration of its remote forests and arctic countryside. Both guitars are pitched in a microtonal tuning derived from a seventh partial harmonic and this imparts an exotic feel to the standard folk forms of polka or waltz. The first movement begins with quietly introspective guitar riffs that amble along, as if walking and thinking. A somber andante second movement – a ‘sad polka’ – follows, and this is deliberate and hardly dance-like. A cascade of descending microtonal scales add to the antiquated flavor. The guitar lines become more active with a flurry of notes before returning to the slow, moody feel of the opening. The final movement has more energy, with a solid beat and busily independent melody lines that alternate with strong strumming, but even here there is a return to a subdued finish. Danzleiker is an interesting update to old folk forms as seen through the lens of contemporary musical sensibility.
Nocturnes (2005), for solo guitar, was originally written for Nic Nichol, and is performed on this CD by Michael Kudirka. Three nocturnes are combined in various ways in this piece, beginning with light, quiet notes at the opening that suggest a soft summer evening. Strong strumming follows, interspersed with a series of faster passages. The second nocturne follows directly and is also softly reserved, but with a somewhat more active, questioning feel. Languid at first, this gradually builds so that in the final nocturne unexpectedly percussive sounds and strong strumming dominate before quietly trailing off at the finish. Nocturnes sketch a wide range of emotions – from leisurely to vigorous to agitated – with the playing always under careful control.
Hrith (2013) is written for solo guitar & six instruments and consists of several sections that mix various movements for the ensemble and soloist as well as for the soloist alone. Hrith explores the question of death and the afterlife, set in a fanciful Scandinavian landscape. This begins with a sharp percussive strike that includes timpani, bell and horn, recalling the aftermath of a Norse battle. The guitar enters, almost furtively, as the heavier sounds continue to dominate until the guitar is alone and strumming actively, followed by a long string of descending microtones. The ensemble follows with a long falling scale, perhaps evoking a swift journey to an underworld. The liner notes explain that “These various harmonic languages create multiplicities of timbre that alternate, interact, return and disappear. Microtunings occur throughout the instruments: in the ‘detuning’ of the solo guitar from the rest of the ensemble by a specific microtonal interval, [and] through pitch bending by most of the instruments…”
As the piece proceeds, a series of diverse moods, landscapes and images arise – sometimes restful and calm and at other times furious and forceful. The use of microtonal intervals in Hrithamplify the masterful orchestration and highlight the superb playing to effectively create an otherworldly feel throughout.
The final piece of the album is Malen (“May the Bridges I Burn Light My Way…”) (2004) and this is is a double-concerto for 2 guitars and 4 instruments. A series of quiet chords and single notes open this work, followed by an animated back-and-forth conversation in the two guitars. A bright, sustained oboe tone is heard and as the strings and percussion join in there arises an alien, ‘twilight zone’ feel to this that is very appealing. The alternating tension in the instruments and the calming influence of the guitars propels the piece forward. The combination of the various instruments adds to the strong sense of the exotic and the microtones provide dramatic tension. A series of strong beats in the percussion followed by a high, thin oboe tone, strumming in the guitars and a sinuous violin all make for an enigmatic finish.
This entire album – May the Bridges I Burn Light My Way – represents a definitive summation of the work of Jeffrey Holmes to date and demonstrates extraordinary craftsmanship as well as a mastery of contemporary musical forms.
The album features extraordinary performances throughout by many of California’s best musicians (in order of appearance in the album): Mari Kawamura, Rachel Beetz, James Sullivan, Shalini Vijayan, Ashley Walters, Kyle Motl, Donald Crockett, Yuri Inoo Miyoshi, Lyris Quartet, Alyssa Park, Luke Maurer, Timothy Loo, Charlie Tyler, Richard Valitutto, Michael Kudirka, Tara Schwab, Allen Fogle, Alison Bjorkedal, Tereza Stanislav, Maggie Parkins, Brian Head, Paul Sherman, Nick Terry, Nic Gerpe
May the Bridges I Burn Light My Way is available from MicroFest Records as well as Amazon. A physical CD set, digital downloads, and an informative 12 page digital booklet are also available.”
(Paul Muller, Sequenza 21, May 19, 2019)
“Jeffrey Holmes’ Ur was a break through premiere. With the ensemble surrounding the audience, each musician surrounded by similar set ups of gongs, toms, bass drums, flower pots, and cymbals, we listeners were bathed in swirling cascades of sound…it was magic.” (Nick Norton, New Classic LA, October 06, 2016)
“Nastrond, composed by Jeffrey Holmes for flute and guitar, explores its varying material in a most compelling way. The composition presents a beautiful exploration of multiple soundscapes, wherein each player has ample opportunity to showcase a full band of tone colors and individual virtuosity, and it also offers a true duo blend. Effects include flutter-tounging, microtones, Bartok pizzicato, and other percussive guitar effects.” (Flute Quarterly, November 2017)
“American Jeffrey Holmes, who studied with Donald Crockett, Georg Friedrich Haas and Stephen Hartke, is one of the few modern composers who follow in the microtonal footsteps of Harry Partch and Júlian Carillo. This double-CD release is a fascinating glimpse into his musical mind.
The opener, Thrall, is described by him as “a concertante work for piano and five players …composed in 2014. The title comes from the Old-Norse language meaning ‘slave.’ The equal tempered confines of the piano [is played against] the microtonal intonations of the melodic instruments.” The slightly weird-sounding world of Partch is immediately evident from the opening piano flourish, and continues as the music develops—and develop it does in its strange, dark manner. Although not really jazz-based. there is a certain boogie-woogie feel to the eight-to-the-bar rhythm of the keyboard that comes and goes. The strings play mostly slurred figures around the piano’s rhythmic music. The whole piece has an unsettling sound, not so much atonal as sounding as if every key within the 12 tones of an octave are being played against one another at various points. Descending chromatics are used for the melodic instruments, or rather descending slurs through the whole of the tonal spectrum.
Nastrond I, described as “the first in a series of tone-poems that each depict a region of the Scandinavian mythological underworld,” pits violin against percussion in yet another application of microtonality. Yet it is surprisingly lyrical in its middle section, starting around the three-minute mark, where the violin plays a simple but effective series of held tones while the percussion plays lightly behind it (triangle, woodblocks, etc.). At one point, there’s a slight resemblance to Marius Constant’s Twilight Zone theme (surely the strangest TV show theme music ever written). At 7:57 the music again becomes very syncopated, with the violin taking the lead and the percussion echoing, but this, too, eases up and the music develops.
This is followed in turn by his second string quartet of 2009, titled Kirurgi. Its six movements “are separated by textural differences, but united through motivic unity and a consistent harmonic landscape.” This music is simply bitonal for the most part, not as microtonal as the preceding works, and is played with energy and great style by the Lyris String Quartet. Again, strong rhythms are featured, syncopated but not really jazz-like, alternating with long held notes by the quartet as a unit and by the solo instruments therein. The second movement, a long (seven-minute) fugue, is again somewhat bitonal and features another surprisingly lyric melodic structure, including a stand-out violin solo in the closing minute to which the second violin adds its own plaintive counter-song, followed by the viola and then the cello. This is one thing I really liked about Holmes: he doesn’t just have one style or one “voice.” His music is quite varied in approach. The succeeding movements of the quartet, in fact, each have their own character and feel, which contributes to the whole.
Oscularum Infame, written for piano trio in 2009, consists of four principal movements with three interludes as well as a prelude and postlude. Here, too, Holmes is “simply” atonal and not microtonal, yet the music moves in a slow, slithering fashion through the chromatic scale.
Percussive crushed chords in the piano introduce the first movement after the prelude, a busy and complex movement with solos for each player. Some of this music has a bit of a George Antheil sound to it. Around the seven-minute mark, however, the music does become microtonal, and to interesting effect in context. Holmes created some real moods, and not just an intellectual exercise, in this astonishing work.
In CD 2 we encounter Holmes’ works for guitar, sometimes two guitars. Since this is an instrument that can easily be re-tuned to satisfy the whims of any composer, we are back in Microtonal Land. Hrith, the opening piece, was written for Holmes’ friend, guitarist Michael Kudirka, who plays on all of the works presented here. But most are not for guitar(s) alone, and Hrith is no exception. It begins, literally, with a bang from the percussion, following which we hear the French horn, strings, flute and harp before the guitar comes in against them in its own key or keys. One thing I especially liked about this music is that it uses the guitar in a strong way, often playing percussive chords à la Django Reinhardt or using “scrubs” like a Flamenco player. Very little of it is in the wimpy, Segovia-based style which has all but ruined classical guitar music over the last century. Kudirka does have a long solo in which some of the single notes are lightly plucked, but he is frequently asked to play with great strength and energy against the massed sextet behind him. The music has moments of quasi-modality in it but keeps melting in its microtonal morass. Holmes keeps our interest with his strong sense of musical structure. (Warning to programmers on classical music stations who just love to stick guitar pieces in: this is NOT music “for your body, mind and spirit.” It’s too good to be musical wallpaper.) The French horn blares long-held notes; the guitar becomes more agitated; the percussion booms once again, and the strings and winds slither upward like rising banshees—and yet, it ends softly.
The 5 Microtonal Studies, written in 2002 for two guitars, has one of the instruments tuned “approximately one-sixth of a tone beneath the other” although each guitar is in tune within itself. This gives the impression of one instrument constantly being “off.” The listener can take this one of two ways: as a purposeful, serious piece or as sort of a musical joke on those musicians who always seem to be off in pitch but can’t figure out which one of them is wrong. Either way, it’s fascinating music. Holmes plays with the guitars bouncing rapid triplet passages off each other in No. 5, ironically marked “Tranquillo” when it is nothing of the sort.
In Nocturnes, Holmes claims to be using “a new and unique theoretical and harmonic system” while combining three nocturnes in one, all of them “compiled, collected and juxtaposed upon one another in a variety of ways.” Again, some of the music is quite rapid in tempo, here belying the title of “nocturne,” although in some places a nocturnal mood is indeed created and sustained. Happily, the music is more than just a theoretical exercise. It is logically constructed and fascinating, often using upper harmonics as single notes within the harmonic framework.
In Danzleikr, Holmes has tried to bring some aspects of Nordic legends (his ancestral background) into the music and to “at times blend it with my personal musical language, and at others clash with it.” The result is a fascinating piece that sometimes sounds like Nordic folk music, only played by two guitars out of tune with one another.
The final work, which is the title track of this album, is a double concerto for two guitars and four other instruments: violin, oboe, celesta/piano and percussion. Yet it starts with just the two guitarists playing off each other until 3:06, when the flute enters holding a long D, with the oboe occasionally playing a microtone under it. The violin and percussion (it sounds like Chinese cymbals or finger cymbals) then enter playing edgier figures, joined by the oboe as the guitars placidly go on their own way in front of them. Eventually the whole group falls into these two styles, the flowing string-and-wind combination with percussion accents against the two guitars picking repeated eighth-note patterns. At the 12:234 mark, the percussion becomes quite strong and the music more rhythmic. It’s a fascinating, almost hypnotic piece.
All in all, this is quite a feast for lovers of the edgiest in modern music, well-conceived pieces and very well performed.”
(Lynn René Bayley, The Art Music Lounge, May 13, 2019)
“Holmes’ composition [Nastrond (III)], named for the Norse mythology, features contrasting sonic events. Its characteristics include dramatic increases in pitch and dynamic; descending passages, some including third tones; and long periods of stasis that suggest many shades of gray. The guitar sometimes imitates and sometimes creates tension through opposing musical gestures. Technically demanding and musically fascinating, Nastrond is a signature piece.” (Karen E. Moorman, Classical Voice of North Carolina, CVNC Online Arts Journal, November 10, 2013)
“With melodic profusion, the piece [Nastrond (I)] morphs through several timbral palettes. Monophonic passages for crotales and violin alternate with thumping low drums and heavy bowed attacks. The piece ends poetically, a long-held tone fading glacially into niente.” (Damjan Rakonjac, The Artificialist, March 06, 2014)
“Holmes craftily develops his melodic material into an exciting flourish…cascading lines emote an ethereal “waterfall-esque” feeling.” (Marcus D. Reddick, Percussive Notes, 2013)
“Jeffrey Holmes’ Fragments for soprano and piano challenges the typical role of voice and instrument. He treats the voice more as a chamber instrument than the usual declaimer of expression. The singer here is abstract and equal to the piano, given to melismatic chant (singing multiple notes on a single syllable) on a compilation of Latin phrases that focuses the listener on vocal timbre more than content.” (Russell Steinberg, “No Vocabulary for Music Today?”, June 02, 2014)
“Fragments (2010) by Jeffrey Holmes was next, from a Latin text compiled by the composer from a variety of historical sources. “Horumque visum contegas”, the first of four movements, began with a loud, dissonant piano crash that immediately introduced a strong sense of anxiety and menace. The voice entered with sustained and sorrowful tones that suggested a lament, and the piano joined in underneath, building the tension. The trading off between piano phrases and solo voice was especially effective in the small sonic confines of Monk Space so that when the two were heard together the sense of terror was doubled. The tempest continued in the second movement, “Fera pessima”, following the grim lines of the text: “Most evil beast… you, whom the old fierce Dragon are called… “ About midway through a quiet vocal solo added a subtle anxiety to the emotional mix before building back to a more forceful feeling of distress. The third movement, “Stella Maris”, began with a more subdued piano and a high vocal line that hinted at suspense and, ultimately, resignation. These emotions were artfully expressed and carefully balanced, especially at the lowest dynamic levels. A strong vocal line flashed above the roiling piano making a solid conclusion to this movement. “Qui Lux es et Dies” completed the piece with a long crescendo, the voice soaring and dominating with a potent sadness that bordered on despair. Soft piano notes followed, fading at the finish. Fragments is an unflinching look at the inner feelings of the disconsolate from a distant past, sharply drawn and artfully performed by Wiest and Lee.” (Paul Muller, Sequenza 21, April 02, 2018)
“The concert’s mood and the texture took on a much darker complex tone. The players returned from intermission to perform Tjur (Swedish for “bull”) a piece meant to evoke mythic figures battling giant bulls in a frigid interstellar environment. The pieces complicated structural vocabulary (according to the composer’s notes) is built upon, ‘non-octavating scales; symmetrical chord structures; several types of microtanalities; and a variety of manipulations of one rhythmic meta-tala’. It was too much for players. It was too much for the ears.” (Jim Farber, San Francisco Classical Voice, April 30, 2018)