Jennifer Walshe was in town performing one of her multimedia one-woman shows at the Center. As with many of her pieces, it was a vocal tour de force, spotlighting her virtuosity and charisma as she nailed rapid-fire spot-on impersonations and a smattering of extended vocal techniques for nearly an hour.
I sat down with her before the show for a brief chat.
Joseph M. Colombo: Your skill as a performer is obviously integral to your work. Can you speak to how that relationship has changed over time?
Jennifer Walshe: I’d say that my relationship to performing informs the way I compose in that I am used to being the person on the stage. So I try to be a little bit more sympathetic to the role of that person, because even if I’m writing a piece I’m not involved in, I know what it’s like to go out there. I know what it’s like to have to do these things.
Probably what’s quite central is my practice as a free improvisor. That community is quite unique in the way that it establishes relationships and the way that people build their practice and expand their practice over time. When you play with free improvisors, what you tend to find is that you play with them, and then you play with them again a year later and their setup has changed a little bit. Now maybe they’ve integrated this or they’ve gotten rid of that. Or they’re trying something that’s completely new. But that’s considered completely normal. So, my way of performing on stage in a new music context is that it should be evolving, it should be changing. So I would say that the way it is doing that is, for me, using movement a bit more. This piece (ALL THE MANY PEOPLS) is from 2011, so there’s a little bit of movement in it. Whereas the pieces I’ve written more recently have a bit more movement in them.
JMC: Can you tell me some more about the piece you will be performing tonight?
JW: This for me is the first piece that really came out of the internet cracking open. What we think of as Web 2.0, that craziness really kicking in. Where I had access to loads of weird text. Amazon discussion forums where people were discussing if vampires could get you pregnant, different memes. With this piece there are loads of different texts that I have gathered from all over the place. It’s also just using the material that I think is really interesting, which is often trashy, or things from popular culture which is part of my everyday life. And integrating that into a new music setting where it wouldn’t normally be welcome. But this to me is a piece that is quite deep, and weird, and meshed with the web.
For me it’s a very challenging piece, it’s quite physically exhausting, because it is trying to channel all of these different sounds, switching between all of these voice models, and trying to give a sense always of this mass of multiplicity of information and voices coming at us.
I know people think we should get our meditation apps and switch it all off. But I also think that there’s a real joy to play in that space. And to feel all of this stuff coming at you and to feel that sense of overwhelmingness, that is also in the piece.
JMC: To follow up on your point about free improvisation, I know that some improvisers may get exhausted or stuck with a single bag of tricks, so to speak. Especially as a vocalist, how do you keep your approach fresh?
JW: You just keep doing the research. And when I say the research I mean you just keep listening. All the time.
I just came from New York. And when I was there I was standing in line to buy a coffee or something. And I could hear this woman behind me, and she was talking about a man she’d just started dating recently and said, [here Walshe switches on a dime to a spot-on valley girl accent] “Ya know, he like, offers me his gloves, when I smoke outsiiiiide. And he asks the right amount of questionsss” [and just as instantaneously switches back to her regular accent]. And I just thought, that’s great, that’s going in a piece. So I’m listening all the time to the way people are using their voices. I’m listening to fragments of conversation. I’m listening to music. I’m listening to everything.
I’m also reading a lot of text. Because if you work with your voice as I do, text is really important. And text implicitly has a voice behind it. Or will implicitly suggest certain ways for it to be used or deployed.
So I’m reading a lot, and I’m following text, and watching how language changes on the internet. I think particularly for somebody who works in the way I do, the last few years have been an exciting time, because you are watching language change rapidly on Twitter, for example. And you’re watching the way people tell jokes. And language is so involved in that. And slang and things like that, you’re watching that change a lot. So that gives you loads of ideas and that feeds back into how many people say ‘fleek.’
JMC: Do you feel that there’s a bit of irreverence that you are allowed if it is contemporary material? In contrast to a certain reverence one might feel towards to the work of somebody like Shakespeare. Do you feel that this immediate 21st-century media is devoid of that pedestal?
JW: I don’t even think of it in terms of a pedestal. I think of it in terms of this is what it’s like to be alive right now. This is part of the texture and the fabric of being alive, and that’s what I want to talk about. I really feel that for me, particularly at the moment, I want to write works that are enmeshed with current life. That’s very important to me. And that’s my way of being present. It’s very easy to switch off. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed and you just want to watch Netflix or whatever. How I try to be present, and engaged, and critical, is through the work.
JMC: Having worked with text for so long, how has your relationship with text changed over the course of your career?
JW: It changes all the time. I think certainly fifteen years ago, when I was a student, if you were using text, you were saying ‘I have these poems that I am going to set’ or ‘I have these lines of Heidegger I’m going to set.’ It was much more about I take a worthy object, that’s revered in some way (to go back to what you were bringing up). Whereas I’ve always been thinking, well, we use those bits of text, but we also use bits of our diary entries, or we use little bits of scraps of conversation that we overheard everywhere.
There is a cultural moment now that I think has shifted. For example, one of the books I’m reading at the moment is Maggie Nelson’s book Jane: A Murder. And the book is ostensibly a poetry book (it was in the poetry section when I saw it in the shop), about the murder of Maggie’s aunt before she was born. But the book is two hundred pages of mixtures of poems Maggie Nelson has written and scraps of Jane’s diaries from when she was twelve or thirteen, she has newspaper reports, scraps from books about the murder, poems she’s written in response to it. All these different types of texts. All edited. All sensitively and artistically edited.
And I see a lot of that now. Where people are trying to figure out ways to weave together theory and text. So with Maggie Nelson, or with Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, it’s like taking heavy duty theory but weaving it into an everyday narrative in a way that you get something that is actually more than just the sum of those parts.
With text what I’m trying to do now in a lot of my recent works is take texts related to biology or technology’s impact on our lives, and weave that in along with weird scraps of text that I feel speak to me of 2017.
JMC: How do you feel that intellectual property comes into play when dealing with these sorts of media? How does copyright apply to setting a tweet?
JW: I know that the piece I’m going to do tonight has text from a wide variety of sources, and I’m very explicit about where I took it from. And it will be released on vinyl and under a Creative Commons license. So it’s trying to nod to that quite specifically.
I don’t ever claim that I wrote every single thing in a piece. A lot of the text I might edit it, or I might get an idea from Twitter then I’ll play with that idea. I believe in the right of the artist to try and make sense of the world that we are living in. And the way that we do that is by playing with the material of the world that we live in. If we can’t play with that material then we can’t talk about these things explicitly. So I think that that’s very important, and I do believe very much in Copyleft.
Here in San Francisco you’ve got Wobbly, Jon Leidecker, who makes this amazing work. And that’s all to do with samples. He’s showing us patterns that we haven’t seen across culture that we absorb every day.
JMC: We’ve been talking a lot about this multiplicity of modern life. As an artist you have a lot of artistic outputs and you do a lot artistically. How do you manage working in different genres? Obviously you are primarily situated as a composer, but with all of the movement and the visuals, how does that all coalesce for you?
JW: When I’m writing a piece that has visuals or movement in it, I think of them as polyphonic elements, so it’s contrapuntal in a way. Or harmony, if you want to call it that. So I’m thinking, if the musicians come out and they move their arms like this, that for me has a rhythm and a sound and a texture to it. So it’s just another contrapuntal element.
It means I’m always kept on my toes. Maybe it’s sort of an Irish Catholic school upbringing where the nuns are sort of going ‘Work harder!’ I always feel, working with film or movement, you’re trying to not think ‘oh, I can dabble, and be tourist,’ instead you’re thinking ‘ok, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to try and learn as much as I can.’ I’m going to go to contemporary dance shows, I’m going to go to theater, I’m going to look at film, go to art galleries, look at contemporary video practices. And try to learn as much as I can and make the work that I do as robust as possible.
JMC: Do you find those other artistic genres open to you if you’re an outsider looking in, just touching it as a composer? How have you found traversing the media and purely visual work as a composer?
JW: Despite the fact that we’d like to think that there aren’t, there are very clear boundaries between what we would call a visual art practice and contemporary music, contemporary dance, and contemporary theater. It’s a little porous when you have a contemporary choreographer who decides to use music by a living composer. But as much as composers want to try and get their art into a visual arts practice, it’s not so common to see composers programing visual art into contemporary music practices. The problem goes both ways.
We had a great music festival in London a year and a half ago. There had been a lot of talk for some reason in London about Ryan Trecartin and his video work. There was myself and some other composers, and we were sort of saying ‘If you don’t think this could be opera, you can’t be our friend’.
But it was very serious, in that we were thinking, Ryan Trecartin is laying down what could be one way forward for opera, in the same way that Robert Ashley laid down a very clear proposition of what it could be. London Contemporary Music Festival screened one of Ryan Trecartin’s films in their ‘Redefining Opera’ night. And it was very interesting because normally when you see Trecartin’s work in a gallery, there are these sort of sets. So you go in and it’s fake bleachers, and sweatshirts lying around the place, and pool noodles. So it’s a very specific vibe that these are installed in, whereas it’s very different to watch in a concert situation, projected, where you watch it all the way through. In an installation setting you’d be drifting in and out. So I’m curious for people to start curating both ways.
Contemporary art has its own concerns, its own questions that it’s asking, its own curatorial projects at the moment. They somehow overlap with contemporary music, but they also don’t. So I enjoy being in those contexts. It’s interesting to go into a field, where, to be quite honest, there’s no investment, so you can get away from the drama and the gossip. If you go to a craft fair, you think, nobody here knows or cares about new music, I can just really enjoy the crafts.
JMC: With all of the different elements that you are balancing in your work, how do you think about narrative / form?
JW: If you’re a performer, you have a very visceral sense of the power of a three act structure. Or the power of a piece that pushes towards a place of great energy before ending. You understand the power of that. You also understand contrast. You can feel from the audience, ok, they need some quiet sounds now, or something like that.
But I also like form that does really weird things. I really like Donald Barthelme, the short story writer. He’s had short stories where every sentence is a question, or a short story that is a list of points that are numbered. I sometimes use devices like that, that sort of throw form off.
Otherwise you’re thinking about it the same way that anybody working in a time-based medium, whether filmmaker, theater maker or dance practitioner, is thinking. You’re thinking ‘How do I shape the time?’ ‘How do I build things up?’ ‘How do I throw people off so that they’re not sure what’s happening?’.
For me, I have a low threshold for boredom. I have a very visceral sense from performing so much how the energy changes over the course of a piece. And I tend to write long pieces. Most performances that I make are between 30 and 50 minutes long. I like that length because it takes people about that long to really calm down and sink into an idea and really spend some time there. Because TV has become the dominant medium we are really used to this chunk of time that is between 40 and 50 minutes long. We understand that chunk of time. We can sit and concentrate for that chunk of time.
JMC: Different composers would certainly use that chunk of time differently. You mentioned briefly before about some styles of music that are more akin to meditation, but your music very obviously is not that. I was wondering if you could speak to your sense of musical priority and what it is you hope the audience comes away with after one of your pieces.
JW: When I go to pieces I like to be confused. And I like to not be sure of what’s happening. And I like to think to myself I’m not quite sure what’s going on structurally. Because if I want to go to a piece to be relaxing, generally, I know exactly what is going to happen. If I choose to go to a Morton Feldman string quartet, or a Wandelweiser piece (and I like this music, I’m not being critical of it in any way), I know how the evening is going to be and I go for that reason. Whereas the composer that I am interested in now, they are generally people where I am sitting there and I’m going ‘I’m not sure what’s going on.’ Of course I can go see a Bernard Parmegiani concert and think it is amazing, and it blows my mind. Just the sounds are fantastic.
But at the moment I feel I want to make things that are also critical. There are recordings in this piece that are taken from YouTube videos that US and UK soldiers uploaded where they were filming themselves on their cellphones blowing things up. I want to drag that material in, alongside the memes, alongside everything else, and try and look at it. Because I don’t think that a piece by me that is 50 minutes long is any more overwhelming than 50 minutes spent on the web. If you spend 50 minutes on Facebook, you come away and you want to jump off a cliff, and you feel really overwhelmed, and you don’t ever want to see that color of blue again. Every day we expose ourselves to this, willfully.