ICA’s ‘Test Pattern’ Series Welcomes the Evocative Holland Andrews


Holland Andrews is a genderfluid vocalist, composer, and performance artist, whose work focuses on the abstraction of operatic and extended-technique voice to build cathartic and dissonant soundscapes. Andrews arranges music for voice, clarinet, and electronics and frequently highlights themes of vulnerability and healing. On Friday, April 7, they will perform at the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU as part of the ICA’s ongoing Test Pattern performance series.

Holland Andrews comes to Richmond after a recent European tour with Son Lux (Oscar-nominated for their score to Everything Everywhere All At Once) and a performance with avant-garde composer Christina Vantzou at London’s Barbican Centre. In this interview, they speak with ICA performance curator David Riley about their musical upbringing, songwriting during the pandemic, and embracing their inner demons.

David Riley: So, you’ve had a busy couple of weeks. You were just on tour in Europe with Son Lux, fresh off their Oscar nomination, and then performed at the Barbican in London with composer Christina Vantzou. What was that like?

HA: Going on tour with Son Lux was a total dream. I’ve been a fan of their music ever since 2012, actually. What was so cool about getting to go on tour with them was that, a week after they just were on the Academy Awards performing, we went and did this tour, which was pretty remarkable to have that excitement and to interact with their audiences. And I got to perform on stage with them as well, singing and riffing on a song that they’ve been performing that doesn’t have any lyrics. That was really exciting, and something really valuable that I got from spending time with them was getting to ask questions about film scoring and their process. And scoring films is something that I’ve been doing more and more recently.

With the Christina Vantzou performance, that was really miraculous because the Son Lux tour ended in London, and then Christina messaged me to ask if I would want to open her show. It was sort of miraculous and serendipitous that it happened that way. So I got to open for her at the Barbican, and then I also joined her ensemble to perform some of the material from her last album that I also sang on. It was this really amazing kind of star-crossing alignment that I got to be performing my music in Europe. And it was the first time that I’d done solo shows under my own name in Europe and to be reintroduced as myself, where before I had done shows performing under the name Like A Villain, which was my old stage name. It couldn’t have been more exciting.

Holland Andrews, ICA Richmond, VA
Photo by Sam Valle

DR: You seem very comfortable in collaborative spaces in many different contexts––playing with Son Lux, with an avant-garde composer like Christina Vantzou, with choreographer Bill T. Jones. How do you approach collaboration?

HA: Something I really love about collaboration is I’m given more and more ways to learn how to listen differently, how to pay attention to what is being shared with another person in that moment, and what I can offer to uplift that moment as much as I can. To be in that flow and exchange is really fun for me. And then I get to take those ways that I can collaborate with other people and try to enrich my own solo work with that by making the aspects of myself so different from each other that it almost feels like a collaboration. I get that practice from playing with so many different kinds of people. My music practice has been pretty diverse in terms of the spaces that I’m in when I perform. You know, I came up in the DIY experimental scene and then was improvising with more jazz and avant-garde musicians. And then I end up in classical spaces as well. And I just see how I can best meet the space where it’s at and then transform it in the most beautiful way that I can. It’s about finding energetic harmony––not necessarily that the sounds are going to be harmonious. And I’m really lucky I’ve gotten to be in so many different spaces, and learned to be as adaptable as possible in all these different ways to express music.

DR: And you were self-taught in terms of both singing and playing instruments?

HA: Self-taught in a way where I didn’t have any kind of conservatory training. As far as my education goes, I just have a high school diploma. But I grew up around a really musical family. My mom’s side of the family, they were all singers. My cousins and I would sing together, coaxing things we wanted out of the adults. We would harmonize the name of a fast-food restaurant if that’s where we wanted to go or practice little routines and sing together. My mom and her sisters had a singing group called M-D-L-T Willis, and they performed on Soul Train, signed to Joe Jackson’s record label, and toured with the Jackson Five. That was all just a part of my life. So, I learned how to be on stage and how to sing in a group.

When I lived in Portland, Oregon, I took private lessons with a teacher called Wolf Carr for a year because I was doing more screaming in my sets and shredding my voice. I didn’t know what I was doing and wanted to learn extended techniques safely. I felt that it was the most responsible thing for me to be taught how to do that, as I missed the aspect of mentorship that comes with school. Now, when I’m around other singers and musicians, I try to be the best student possible, learning from every musician and artist I meet and deepening my understanding.

DR: Speaking of screaming, I’m fascinated by your control of your voice and how you can move from an extremely operatic, ethereal, angelic place to the complete opposite. Can you talk about your vocal approach and explain extended technique to someone who has not studied it?

HA: In my sets, it’s essential for me to feel like reality is being acknowledged if I’m going to experience bliss. This also requires going to really dark places in order to be pulled out of them and shown that there is light. I know those metaphors may sound corny, but it’s just how I experience it. It’s really hard for me to connect with beauty sometimes if the whole truth isn’t present. I know I’m not alone in that, so it feels like an offering of hope, a symbol of pain and suffering. Evidence of transformation is built into how I like to write music because all those elements are present in me. I only really know my own life and my own feelings, so those are the things I write with.

As for extended technique, I’d say it’s about trying to make as many possible sounds with your voice as you can. It’s about exploration, play, and making yourself sound like anything you could ever think of, even things that don’t sound human or animal.

It’s a really playful way to use your instrument. Extended technique, in any form of art, is simply an expansion of conventional technique, exploring how far one can go in creating their desired output.

Holland Andrews, ICA Richmond, VA
Photo by by Ariel Crocker

DR: Pushing the limits. I’d love to discuss some of your EPs. In the past few years, you released a trio of EPs on the Leiter label: Wordless, Forgettings, and Doubtless. Were they all recorded during the pandemic?

HA: Yes, the EPs were recorded during the pandemic, with some of the material for Wordless created before it. Actually, it will end up being a total of four EPs, with one more that I’m finishing up right now. The last one will be called Answers, and that felt like a nice completion to this series.

What was really important for me was to write, produce, and mix the entire thing myself, for better or worse. I always write my own music, but I wanted to deepen my production practice. During the pandemic, it was really hard for me to listen to music in lockdown. Any sound just felt too overwhelming. So I started making ambient drones, single pitches with harmonics or very subtle changes for like, 30 minutes. Then I would just listen to that all day because it was all I could listen to. What got me into that was finding an album of cello tuning, where it’d just be one note for 10 minutes, all the notes that a cello can tune with.

For these EPs, I really wanted to get better at hearing what I wanted to make, feeling what I wanted to make, and then articulating that in production as best as I possibly could. That includes doing all the mixing myself, which I’m learning a lot. It feels really worth it because I’m learning a language and building a language for what my music sounds like as this new emerged version of myself. It’s always an emergence. And I think that these EPs really reflect that emergence.

DR: You mentioned something about language which I want to pick up on. The liner notes from Wordless describe the songs as “emotional transmissions which exist outside logic in the place of wordlessness.” And then I notice many song titles that speak to words or language––“Gloss” reminds me of glossolalia, speaking in tongues. In some of your songs, it feels like words are being layered, pushed to their limits, or collapsing in on themselves, disintegrating and falling apart. How do you approach language itself?

HA: I think my approach to language and words comes from how words have always been difficult for me. I think about how I express myself. It’s taken a lot of work and a lot of practice because often what I feel, feels like an indescribable universe. And so when I try, it comes out in really simple ways. And I think that simplicity is a vessel that I use to make what I’m saying as understandable as possible, the most essential things that I can say to convey what I’m feeling versus something more elaborate.

And there are people that can articulate that so beautifully with poetry––poetry is spells, poetry is magic. My way in is a distillation of how I want to say something as understandably as possible. Also, when I was growing up, if my dad noticed that I was having a really big emotion and I wanted to articulate something, he would always say, “ten words or less.” I think that’s something that stuck with me in a lot of ways where, okay, how can I just be as clear as possible? With just a few words. So it’s also just as honest as it can possibly be. And what the music does is take the place of all of the words that I don’t really know how to say, that I can’t really say. It’s through the layering of these tones and these sounds together with these textures, with these changes, with these abrupt stops, with these silences. That is for me the most accurate way that I can communicate.

Holland Andrews, ICA Richmond, VA
Photo by by Ariel Crocker

DR: I really respond to that simplicity. It becomes meditative in a way. I also wanted to touch on movie scoring. I saw that you scored the documentary film Another Body, which recently premiered at South by Southwest and whose subject is deepfake revenge pornography. How did you engage with a topic like digital abuse and translate that into a score?

HA: Yeah, it just premiered at South by Southwest and it actually won a special jury award in documentary writing, which is really cool. So when I was first approached about that film, something that felt really important to me was focusing on the characters. It’s about this young college student who had her face put on to pornography as a way to sort of humiliate and terrorize her. The documentary follows her to find out who did it and also talks about some of the history of deepfake technology. But it’s really about this young girl, Taylor—it’s not her real name. But, for whatever reason, people ask to use my music for pretty intense work. I do music for this dance piece called Unwanted (by choreographer Dorothée Munyaneza), where the focus is rape as a tool of warfare and also genocide. So, the heaviness of atrocity in work that I score tends to be something that people are like, “we want Holland for that.” But what felt really important to me was to be as compassionate to Taylor as I could be, and also getting to work with the directors, listening to their input, and then just getting a whole scope of the film to see how the music can be driving and telling the story, telling the emotional side of a story as effectively as possible.

Yeah, that one was really exciting and also really heavy. There were moments where I was like, “How can I keep watching this scene?” It’s just diving into somebody who is the most terrorized that they’ve ever felt in their life, the scared-est they’ve ever felt in their life. So, there are definitely parts of working on those intense pieces where I need to find ways to take care of myself and just pause. That was something that I learned—the emotional toll of diving into really, really heavy material. There are ways that I need to take care of myself and also ways to work within the scoring environment where I can really feel like what I’m doing is offering support and care to those who are having a really, tremendously painful experience in their life. So, that was a big learning opportunity for me.

DR: I hear a lot of people describe your work as healing or as holding space for vulnerability, pain, and grief. I was wondering if you could give a sneak peek of what you’re planning to do at the ICA in terms of creating an immersive performance, bringing together music, visuals, and even scent.

HA: Yeah, well, this is the first time that I’ve ever worked in this multimedia kind of way. I really feel like this will be a pivot for me in being able to try new things and expand how I express myself as a musician and an artist. Something I’ve been really thinking about in my own life is how to remember the sensation of a miracle as something that you’ve always known to be real. Coming back to this angel and demon-like aspect of reality that I experience, a lot of us experience, is the necessity to acknowledge that, yes, shit can be really fucked up, shit can be really hard. And with that, the magic that is required to say, yes, this is real and also this is real too, and creating as compassionate of a container as possible as I can for people to come and experience that feeling—because it’s impossible to continue within the suffering without evidence that there will be a way through. It’s completely impossible, and I feel like it’s really important to offer that space of hope and transformation in the belief of this sensation of a miraculous thing, for people and for myself. I’m excited about trying to communicate that feeling as effectively as I can. It may be a failure, and that’s okay. But I’m excited to try, and to connect with the audiences of Test Pattern and those at VCU. If anything, I want people to come out of the experience feeling better than when they came in.

DR: That’s a perfect way to end.

For their Test Pattern performance, Holland Andrews will perform at the ICA at VCU on Friday, April 7th at 7pm. Visit icavcu.org for more information and to reserve tickets.

Main photo by Sam Valle

David Riley

David Riley

video maker • curator of performance at @icavcu • dj at @animalrva

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