Serious About Music and Little Else

Sitting in the window of his mother's secretarial school, a young David M. Hollister `51 used to type as fast as he could think.

He had studied the piano since age six, so his fingers were dexterous and his skill on the typewriter was good advertisement for the school, which was located in Los Angeles, where his family lived at the time.

"This is how I spent my childhood and adolescence," he says. "I spent it at the typewriter."

Today the composer still writes prose and poetry, though now he says he thinks before putting words on paper. He accumulates unpublished pieces and occasionally sends selected works out to 100 or so of his friends and family in the self-titled Hollister Report. (Some recipients officially subscribe; others get the Report free of charge.)

By his own account, David Hollister has lived a "miscellaneous" life, shying away from committing himself to any one pursuit. The man who wants to be known for composing "serious" music also likes to write "nonsense" and dabbles in numerology. He suggests, with a chuckle, that he has got a "split personality."

Music of all varieties has long come first in his artistic life--and he has composed pieces ranging from chamber and symphonic works to dance and film scores. In his entry in the American Biographical Institute's 5000 Personalities of the World, he lists himself as "composer, writer, teacher, poet," as well as editor and publisher of the Hollister Report.

He reckons he's written nearly 500 songs in his career, including pop and classical and songs based on the poetry of medieval troubadours.

He grew up in a musical family, though music kept his father away from home for long stretches. As piano accompanist for John Charles Thomas, who billed himself "America's Favorite Baritone" in the first half of the century, his father traveled with the man who introduced "Home on the Range" to American folk tradition and who hosted a popular radio show called the "Westinghouse Hour."

At the College, Hollister took several classes in music theory but concentrated in American History. Still, he says he knew all along that he would end up in music.

"I was destined for a musical career," he says.

In the years just after graduation, Hollister, like his father, took his music on the road. In 1952, he went to the mountains of New York, where in the 1950s summer festivals were popular diversions for young couples.

"The purpose of these places was to find a mate, a one night stand," he says of the audiences who came to hear musical revues in the Adirondacks, Berkshires and Catskills. "They were busy flirting and dating and picking up and getting to know each other. Our job was not to do that but to entertain them."

The troupes staged different revues each week, so singers and musicians would perform one show while they rehearsed the next. Lyricists brought trunks full of songs--mostly boy-girl love duets--and composers like Hollister would rush frantically to complete melodies, which would be sent off for orchestration and brought back in time for rehearsal.

At the Taniment festival in the Pocono Mountains, Hollister worked with two sketch writers known as the Simon brothers, "Doc" and Danny. The creative team would gather for weekly meetings to plan the next week's show.

"I think the Simon brothers were really kind of quiet and kept to themselves," he says. "I do recall there was a lot of humor and joking. After all they were great humorists."

"Doc" Simon, the more reserved of the two in Hollister's recollection, went on to become one of Broadway's greatest names. His first name was Neil.

After five summers of mountain musical revues, Hollister took a break. In 1957, he traveled to Europe, Russia and China, then came back to New York and turned to classical music, composing orchestral and chamber works.

Hollister says he turned his back on the Broadway beat, thinking it too trivial for his talents. He wanted to fulfill what he called "higher ambitions": becoming a "serious" composer.

"I was living a bachelor life," he says. "I was freelancing in everything--freelancing in music, freelancing in romance."

When he married his wife, Barbara Witriol, in 1965, he says he settled down. Fifteen years after graduating from the College, he returned to higher education. The couple moved to Iowa City, where Hollister pursued advanced study in classical music. He has since taught at schools in Louisiana and New York, and is currently at Long Island University.

The years in Iowa City produced a doctorate in music for Hollister--as well as his wife's favorite piece of his music. She says Corronach, a work for string symphony prompted by Hollister's reading about the Holocaust, is unique for Hollister because of its "dark, gestural" character.

"I've always liked Mahler and expressive music," she says. "David's work [on Corronach] is very personal and has a kind of deep lyricism."

Corronach was Hollister's second-year composition, required for his fine arts master's degree. The pressure was on academically, he says, and so the piece was written "in a state of heightened intensity psychologically."

Hollister calls it his most ambitious work, a demanding piece to play. And he complains that the only public performance of the piece--by the New Orleans Symphony--was "ragged" and not "terribly well rehearsed."

Someday Hollister says he hopes to hear the piece played by a top-drawer orchestra, but he characterizes the one rendition the work did receive as "intense" and "overwhelming."

More recently, another of Hollister's works has received public hearing. Contraries, a piece that sets poems of William Blake to music, has just been played for a second time.

According to Hollister, finding orchestras willing to play pieces of modern music that they didn't commission is unusual. He encounters similar problems in getting publishing firms to print sheet music for new compositions.

None of Hollister's music has been published, and he singles this out as "one thing I haven't done" which he still hopes to accomplish in his musical career.

At his home in New York, he keeps filing cabinets and shelves full of scores. He hopes to donate a large amount of material to Harvard's libraries, if they want it.

As for recordings, his two string quartets were put out on vinyl by a label called Opus One. But Opus One hasn't made the switch to compact discs.

"It's a one-man operation," Hollister explains. "He's a little peculiar. He's decided that if he doesn't sell every one of his LPs, he's not going to put out any CDs. Personally, I think that's insane."

He says one of his current projects is to transfer his favorite compositions onto CD.

Along with his composition, Hollister practices numerology on the side--keeping up a commitment to mysticism that he says arose in his early twenties out of a feeling of disillusionment with his parents' leftist ideology.

"Most of my friends look at me and say, 'Something's gotten into Hollister. He's a little nuts,'" he says. "I don't take it as seriously as they think I do. Hobbies don't have to pass any test of rationality."

Hollister has coined the term "dodecasophist" to refer to his base-twelve system of matching numbers with letters to describe personality traits.

The dodecasophist arrangement works something like a clock, divided up into four quadrants: thinking, sensing, feeling and intuition. By adding up the letter values in a person's name and locating that number on the clock, Hollister believes he can learn about the subject's personality.

As for his own name, David adds to "four; Manship, his middle name, is an "eight"; Hollister is a "ten." Four and eight add to twelve, so they cancel out in a base-twelve system.

"Ten is another thing altogether," he says, "a little like narcissism, a little intuition involved."

Numerology, which he sometimes supplements with character tests designed by professional psychologists, is just part of Hollister's lifetime of dabbling.

"I don't have a vision of a future and working toward something," he says. "I just keep doing things as I feel like doing at the moment."