Award-winning composer Jonathan Bailey Holland is the Bienen School’s new dean

By Kingsley Day

Over the Bienen School of Music’s first 129 years, only seven people served as dean, with backgrounds ranging from choral conducting to music education to collaborative piano. Last September inaugurated a new era with the arrival of Jonathan Bailey Holland as the school’s eighth dean—and the first to have achieved international prominence as a composer.

Born and raised in Flint, Michigan, Holland recalls “sitting at the piano and making up little songs” as a child. After taking lessons in piano and guitar, he soon settled on trumpet as his primary instrument. Holland credits his middle school band director as his “strongest initial influence, because of the kind of rigor that she demanded of all of us.” By his last year of middle school, his musical interests had become so pervasive that he applied to Michigan’s famed Interlochen Arts Academy. “It seemed like a place where I could find like­minded people my age,” he says, “and so my parents agreed to send me there for high school, which was an amazing experience.”

It was at Interlochen that Holland began to pursue composition. As he recounts, “My first year I just did trumpet. Then I attended the Interlochen summer camp and pushed myself a little too hard, so that by the start of my second year at the academy I was having playing issues and needed to take some time off. In my brain, the obvious next thing to do was to take composition lessons, and something about the composing process clicked for me. I stuck with trumpet and composition for the rest of my time there but leaned more and more toward composition as my primary focus. When I applied for colleges, I applied to some places for trumpet and some places for composition—I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do.” Being admitted to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music for composition decided it.

At Curtis, Holland was one of a class of three studying composition with Pulitzer Prize–winning composer and Bienen School alumnus Ned Rorem ’44, ’77 H. “Rorem lived in New York,” says Holland, “and so the school would send us to his apartment there for lessons, which always began with lunch.” As the students sat around the dining room table, Rorem would tell stories and ask what the students had been doing the last few weeks, while one of his cats might be lying on top of their scores. After moving to the living room, all three were involved in one another’s lessons.

“At first it was a bit of a shock to get feedback with your peers sitting right there listening, but over the years it began to feel natural. A lot of us grapple with the same thing as composers but feel like we’re struggling with something that others aren’t up against. In the right settings, there’s a lot of benefit to a group approach where you can understand that you’re not the only one dealing with that issue and can hear various viewpoints to overcoming it.”

Holland went on to earn a PhD in composition at Harvard University and then began teaching in the composition department at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. It was there that his career began to expand into music administration.

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“I understand the significance of listening, which has informed my work as a composer but also my administrative roles."

Jonathan Bailey Holland



“Berklee had a day of workshops and training for new employees, and at the end of it they asked if we were interested in participating in future faculty development workshops,” Holland says. “I must have checked the box, because shortly thereafter I did get involved, gradually becoming more and more engaged with faculty development. In the composition department, I volunteered for a number of committee opportunities because they directly affected my work. On one committee I expressed an opinion on a particular topic, and so the department chair decided I would chair that committee. Not necessarily what I was looking for, but it was a positive experience.”

In 2016 Holland jumped into administration with both feet as he simultaneously became composition chair at Boston Conservatory at Berklee and began a three-year term as chair of the low-residency graduate composition program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. “At Boston Conservatory, I first was chair of composition, theory, and history,” he explains. “The school had just started a graduate-level contemporary performance program, and eventually that was also folded into my portfolio, so I ended up overseeing four areas.”

After more than two decades in Boston, Holland moved to Pittsburgh in 2022 as the Jack G. Buncher Head of the School of Music at Carnegie Mellon University. “Having overseen four departments at Boston Conservatory, it didn’t feel like a huge leap to head a music school,” he says. “It was an adjustment to be one more step removed from the classroom, but I felt that there was a lot of similarity in terms of the types of issues to deal with and the type of thinking necessary to see how it all fits together.”

Approached about the Bienen School deanship during his first year in Pittsburgh, Holland was initially reluctant. “My first response was to hesitate. But just knowing of this school’s legacy, and having previously interacted with Dean Toni-Marie Montgomery, I became more and more curious about what was happening here. That year in Pittsburgh gave me more experience that’s relevant to this position, but each new opportunity has felt like a natural next step along the way. I felt very conflicted about whether or not to accept the offer when it came, but I also felt that this was not the type of offer that was going to come often and I should take advantage of the opportunity.”

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Dean Holland's Activities

Dean Holland spoke at a Meet the Dean event as part of Reunion 2023.

He met Nemmers Prize winner Tania León during her first Northwestern residency.

In Phoenix, he moderated a panel on music and medicine featuring Northwestern faculty.

He celebrated composer and alumnus Jerod Tate ’90 at an event in New York.

Following a performance by the Gateways Chamber Players, he congratulated alumnus Alex Laing ’96.

He met alumni and friends in Los Angeles before the premiere of his own composition with the LA Phil.

Holland finds a symbiotic relationship between composition and administration. “I understand the significance of listening, which has informed my work as a composer but also my administrative roles. There have been moments as a chair or dean when I’ve felt I needed to be prepared to act but then realized what I needed to do first was just listen.” He adds that “as a composer, I spend a lot of time thinking about the entire arc of a piece—I can think about various events along the way, but it also has to make sense from beginning to end. And that way of thinking broadly and comprehensively has definitely served me in administrative positions as well, understanding that while each program has a responsibility to focus on its area, there also has to be someone who’s looking at how it all fits together, helping make the connections or guide things in a certain direction for the benefit of the entire entity.”

Holland’s compositions have been performed and commissioned by the Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras, the Los Angeles and Florida Philharmonics, the ensemble Roomful of Teeth, and the Atlanta, Baltimore, BBC, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, New World, Richmond, and San Antonio Symphony Orchestras, among many others. He has served as composer in residence with the Cincinnati and Detroit Symphony Orchestras and received awards and honors from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Boston Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Music Center, ASCAP, and the Presser Foundation. In addition to orchestral works, his output includes chamber music, art song, and choral music. Since his arrival at Northwestern, the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble, Symphonic Wind Ensemble, and Northwestern Medical Orchestra have all performed his music. Holland’s current creative projects include his second commission for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and his first full-length opera for Odyssey Opera and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

“As a composer, it’s great to be at a school that has a tradition of supporting new music as much as any other music,” Holland says. “And just as I’ve always been attracted to composition because I’m always curious about the new thing or the next thing or how we’re going to evolve to the next stage, I’m excited to be along for the ride and at the helm of the next chapter for the Bienen School. I’m thrilled to be at Northwestern—such a highly regarded university—and in Chicago, a great town for all kinds of music. This feels like the right place to be.”

Kingsley Day is a freelance writer and editor and the former lead publications editor in Northwestern’s Office of Global Marketing and Communications.

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2024 Fanfare magazine.

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