On the last Sunday of every month in the year 2017, a string quartet will convene in the shadow of the United States Capitol building to perform a new work in 12-parts by The Holladay Brothers, entitled Columbia Diminuendo. While the multi-part piece features new compositions by the artist-duo, it is not entirely original, as it is a re-imagining in 12 parts of a piece of music first performed at the inauguration of George Washington in 1789, Hail, Columbia.

Designed to let the music dissolve over the course of the year, the performers are given revised sheet music each month containing fewer and fewer notes. As the original song becomes increasingly abstract, the clarity of the initial melodies recede beyond recognition and finally dissolve into the complete nothingness of total silence.  

In a nod to the alarming American truth that our democracy is always just one generation’s length away from completely dismantling, the duo asks: ‘Will our generation join the chorus of millions that have come before, adding new colors and harmonies to this ongoing national collaboration or stand by as the music fades?’

Just after the first iteration of this 12-part performance, DIRT’s had a chance to speak with Ryan (one half of the Holladay brothers duo) about the ideas behind the work and the ins-and-outs of the year-long project.

DIRT: You and your brother Hays are both DC-natives, now based in LA, in light of such national responses to our current political climate (esp. with LA’s Women’s March even growing larger in size than the one in DC) Why was it important for you that this happened in DC?

Holladay: DC has been an integral part of our work over the past ten years, the Mall in particular has been a staging ground for a lot of our experiments from the boombox gatherings to the location-aware compositions. And in those cases, we were really treating the place as an abstract landscape, kind of divorced from its historic significance. It felt right to come back to this space and approach it in a very different way.

Columbia Diminuendo, January 29, 2017

DIRT: What brought you to this particular project?

Holladay: I think it was borne out of trying to process everything that’s happening right now. It’s felt so surreal -- and obviously a lot of people are feeling that way -- but I think there was a need to do something with our work that addressed this, for no other reason than to feel a little more sane. The day after the election, literally the next morning, we got on a flight to go stage a performance in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It just felt like sleepwalking, like we were just going through these emotions. And a lot of the work that we’ve done since has felt that way. Things we were obligated to before. And that’s how it should be, current affairs shouldn’t dominate your life and you should continue to make the work that excites you, but to not have these emotions manifest themselves in some way felt unhealthy. So, first and foremost, this was a form of catharsis for us.

DIRT: Why this particular piece of music? [Can you speak to the significance of this song?]

Holladay: Hail Columbia is the music that played during the first inauguration of George Washington. And it served as the sort of unofficial national anthem for years later, till I think FDR maybe? Sometime in the 20th century. I think the idea that even our national anthem wasn’t set in stone for most of this country’s history sort of underscored what we were trying to say with this: that these ideas, these institutions, these American values...they are not constants. I think we’ve been lulled into complacency, thinking that democracy is something that will always be there, that it's the baseline. But in reality, we’re constantly having to renew our vows and rededicate ourselves to the mission. I don’t think a lot of us had a great enough appreciation for that. I certainly didn’t. But there’s a continuity of beginning this 12 month long performance just steps away from where the scaffolding for this most recent inauguration took place (I actually didn’t realize it would still be up).
DIRT: What outlook do you hope viewers will walk away with after experiencing this year-long degradation of sound?  

Holladay: There’s been an incredible groundswell of people (nationally), even in this past week, as you rightly pointed out with the Women’s March, who are ready to convene and march and stand up for democracy. And that’s been the most encouraging silver lining. I think, if this serves any purpose for people, and it may not, it may be something that Hays and I do for our own well-being...but if it does serve a purpose, I’d want it to become a gathering for people, who share those ideal, that isn’t a protest. It is not issue specific. It’s a place for people to come together and reflect, mourn even, be still and be together… an outlet to express a different set of emotions than one might at a rally.          

DIRT: Since you both were in LA for this first performance, I am interested to know how you both feel as artists about a piece of your work being performed without you there even as a viewer? How has your involvement been with the musicians thus far?

Holladay: Well I certainly am looking forward to being there for many future performances! This one, though, was put together so quickly and I felt like it was more important to move ahead with it while the reverberations (and even the visuals) of the inauguration were still in place than to wait until we could be present for it. Having people like the Transformer team and others has made that possible.

DIRT: Speaking of being out of town, will the public be able to listen to a recording of each rendition between the scheduled performances, or is this intended solely for those who are there when it happens?

Holladay: I think, right now, it makes more sense for it to be only exist as a performance. My hope is that the changes in the composition are so gradual that you would barely notice it becoming more sparse. And I think having a month between the iterations aids that effect.

DIRT: Do you foresee a continuation of this piece, even after the 12 performances? What do you hope happens once the piece has been completed at the end of the year?  

Holladay: I hope we’re all still here. No, I’m partially kidding, but I feel like there’s so little certainty right now, we don’t know what’s happening next week as evidenced from these first days of this new administration. I am hopeful. But I am also very worried. I think a big part of this was committing to a long-term, 12-month performance as an act of defiance. As in, this WILL continue regardless of what happens. We plan to live in an open and democratic society a year from now that allows us to convene. And if circumstances change and those freedoms are challenged, then this will become a much more defiant act. But we’re marking our calendar, regardless of what happens.

The 2nd iteration of Columbia Diminuendo will take place this coming Sunday, February 26th at the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial at The United States Capitol. Follow @holladaybrothers on Instagram for updates.

InterviewsDIRT Editors