New Music Performance Piece, ‘Columbia Diminuendo,’ Imagines Life Without Democracy


Pictured above: Columbia Diminuendo string quartet, photo courtesy of Ryan and Hays Holladay

What would life be like if our basic human rights and freedoms were suddenly stripped away? For D.C. natives and brothers Hays and Ryan Holladay, it’s a terrifying scenario that felt more real after last year’s polarizing election.

“The day after the election…it just felt like sleepwalking, like we were just going through these emotions,” said Ryan Holladay. “And a lot of the work that we’ve done since has felt that way.”

Feeling frustrated by the outcome, Ryan and Hays channeled their emotions the best way they knew how–through art. The election, and everything that’s transpired after it, is the inspiration behind their 12-part performance piece, Columbia Diminuendo.

“Current affairs shouldn’t dominate your life. You should continue to make the work that excites you,” said Ryan. “But to not have these emotions manifest themselves in some way felt unhealthy… It 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.”

Throughout 2017, on the last Sunday of every month, Ryan and Hays invite a local string quartet to perform on the steps of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, overlooking the Capitol building. Each performance features a unique variation of “Hail, Columbia,” which was considered to be one of several unofficial national anthems of the United States until the “Star-Spangled Banner” became the official anthem in 1931. Throughout the course of the year, the revised versions of the song will become more abstract beyond recognition. Columbia Diminuendo is presented in partnership with local arts non-profit Transformer.

“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,” said Ryan. “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. ”

With a deadline set for the end of January, the brothers had just a few weeks to score the entire piece, all while living across the county in Los Angeles.

It was a bit of a tricky thing to pull it all off in the amount of time we had but I think deadlines can be liberating,” said Ryan. “There was only so much time we had to plan and to refine the idea so we weren’t able to spend months on second guessing ourselves.”

Ryan and Hays approached a number of different players to perform in the project. “We wanted to make sure that, in addition to being technically proficient, they understood and were on board with what we were saying with this piece,” said Ryan. “Their involvement doesn’t mean they personally endorse our positions on this, but it was important that they knew this was a bit different than your typical gig.”

Ryan and Hays have pulled off hundreds of high-concept art projects, like their ambitious sound exhibition at former Rosslyn venue Artisphere and location-based music apps, but Columbia Diminuendo is their most politically-charged piece yet.

“I don’t know if we can create a work that engages with this place [D.C.] that has meant so much to us over the years and not address what’s happening to our country,” Ryan said. “I don’t know what this means to me, honestly, I just knew that it was something I wanted to do.”

For more information on upcoming Columbia Diminuendo performances, follow Ryan and Hays’ Instagram page.