When Sara Holtzschue opens the windows in her Crown Heights home, her neighbors’ booming reggae music becomes her soundtrack. Holtzschue, a musician and composer inspired by jazz, poetry, and American folk music, doesn’t mind. In fact, she suspects that reggae might be her next influence. “There’s been this huge infusion of reggae into my life,” Holtzschue says with a laugh. “Everyone’s stereo is louder than the next. In the summertime, it’s pretty amazing.”
Holtzschue, 40, continues to refine and reinvent her music, drawing on her education at Barnard and the New England Conservatory of Music—as well as some tunes she penned two decades ago. At a small New York City venue this spring, she performed “a very eclectic set” that included blues and music by Joan Armatrading and the Southern California rock band Queens of the Stone Age. The evening also featured Holtzschue’s “Dark August” with lyrics from a Derek Walcott poem. Joining her for the gig were a classically trained bass player, two guitarists, and a drummer. “I have all these interests, and we’re just trying to make sense of the set,” says Holtzschue, who loves Bjork, Radiohead, and Beethoven. “I’m not sure it’s really working, but it’s all music I like. We really careen around the musical universe of songs.”
Her new direction is something of a surprise, considering her lengthy involvement with jazz and classical music. As a child on Long Island, Holtzschue was enchanted by “Peter and the Wolf” and knew she’d be a musician. She studied at Reed College in Portland, Ore., and San Francisco State University before transferring to Barnard after her sophomore year.
There, she was inspired by English professor Mary Gordon, who taught a nineteenth-century literature class that “literally changed the way I look at art,” she affirms. “I think there are people in [everyone’s life] who help you to home in and focus on the complexity and profundity of a piece of art that opens up a new level of ability to observe art in all its forms. Mary just flung the doors open for me. I’m a ridiculously huge fan.”
As a Barnard senior scholar, Holtzschue spent a year writing music. She earned a jazz composition degree from the New England of Conservatory of Music and spent the next 15 years composing and playing and singing jazz. In 2007 she recorded a jazz album, Beneath, and made it available for sale on cdbaby.com.
“Then, about a year ago,” she says, “I decided I didn’t want to do it any more. I wanted to take a break. I’m fascinated by people who play music in one idiom for the entirety of their lives. I just want to do other things. I’ve kind of reverted my 20-year-old self. I’m playing a lot of guitar—badly!—and singing.”
One constant in Holtzschue’s life is her commitment to teaching. She’s an adjunct assistant professor at the City University of New York, where she teaches four music-appreciation classes. Many of her students who hail from the Dominican Republic, Africa, and the West Indies, rarely leave the Bronx or have much exposure to music other than reggae, hip-hop, or rap.
“They walk in and you say ‘classical music’ and the light switch turns off,” Holtzschue says with a chuckle. “So for me it’s a really fun and interesting challenge to win them over.” Tom Cipullo, the deputy chair of CUNY’s department of art and music, says Holtzschue engages and connects with her students while simultaneously challenging them. “It’s unusual that the most popular teacher is the most demanding,” he says.
In educating her classes on how to listen to classical music, Holtzschue is also teaching them how to embrace the unfamiliar. “I think the ability to let go of all their preconceptions is critical in creating the person who is able to engage in the world in a way that allows them to be open and accepting to new ideas,” she says. “The idea of turning out a complete human being is really critical,” Holtzschue insists. “And the process of revealing the connection they do have to this music is transformative in terms of critical thinking and openness to all kinds of art forms.”
-by June D. Bell, photograph courtest of Sara Holtzschue