Interview with Jennifer Walshe

Used by permission of the Publishers from ‘Jennifer Walshe’, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music edited by James Saunders (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 343–351.  Copyright © 2009

Impressionen der Donaueschinger MusiktageObjects and their sonic properties are central to Jennifer Walshe’s music. The terms of reference for her work are wide and draw in the world around her: everything has potential as material, whether it is found text from food packaging, old answer machine messages, skateboarding, or the texture of ribbons. There is a voracity to her collection of sounds and exploration of ways to elicit them from performers, exemplified by pieces such as Hostess-in-a-Jiffy® Brings You Cooking With Stone: 4 Five-Minute Dishes (2004) which presents instructions for sonic cooking, or elephant (2004) with its unique scoring of ‘harp, gun’. The manner in which sounds are made is perhaps every bit as important as their audible result. Instructions in her scores typically indicate the necessary attitude required to make sounds as a primary focus, or differing forms of documentation are used to enable performers to triangulate her intentions when working with objects. This consideration of the physical situation of performing is a constant in her work, drawing on her own experience as an improviser and a concern with what it feels like to make sounds. Often this involves recontextualizing her material, stripping away some of its inherent meaning so that it can be used as a building block to construct new identities, finding a natural extension in her recent installation, stage, and intermedia work. All of this was present in the first piece of hers that I heard at the Darmstadt Ferienkurse in 2000, her astonishing duo for violin and voice as mo chéann (2000), which she also performed. This piece helped me begin to expand the palette of my own work and its impact on an unsuspecting audience was startling, as was her follow-up lecture there two years later, which mostly used kick-boxing as a presentation medium.

The interview was conducted by email between 10 May – 5 December 2004, and edited in September 2008.

One of the features of your work which has always interested me is the provenance of the sounds. They always seem to have an interesting story behind them, can you begin by saying how you go about finding sounds, and what types of sound interest you?

I like to use a wide range of different sounds, and I’m often particularly taken with «dirty» sounds – sounds we might commonly regard as flawed, or as by-products of normal techniques of playing an instrument, or even as by-products of life, rather than objects worthy of attention. I use a lot of extended techniques in my work, and so I really enjoy digging around on an instrument to find things I haven’t heard before, whether it’s blowing into the soundhole of a violin, using different types of pressure on a drum head, or using an instrument like the trumpet as a resonator/amplifier rather than in the normal way. I am also interested in whatever sounds I can find outside of the vocal/instrumental world – the crunch of porridge in a plastic bag, the creak and split of ice in a puddle, as well as field recordings, found sounds and old recordings. This often means that performers of my music find themselves having to play, for example, bags, stones, tape-recorders, and wool as well as their instrument. I wrote a piece in 2007 for voice and percussion quartet called Physics for the Girl in the Street, and that was such a joy – percussionists expect to be asked to play anything, and they will develop a technique to get it right.

Sometimes the sounds which end up in my pieces are versions of sounds which have significance for me; for example, when I was a child I was home sick from school, alone in the house one day, and I looked out on the empty road we lived on, and I could hear the wind blowing through the vents and pipes of the house, making a roiling, blustery, metallic sound. I’ve used this sound in lots of pieces, it always manifests itself in different ways and through different instrumentation. Other times I’ll have an idea for a sound, and then try and re-create that sound with instruments or find it. Like the sound of a brush scrubbing wet tiles. A lot of the times the sounds might be described as the foley sounds in a film – when I watch films I am always very interested in the sound design, in how light-bulbs sound as they flicker on, a dog’s nails clipping on lino. It’s especially interesting knowing that what you are hearing from a foley track probably wasn’t made with the implements you see. If you watch a foley track being made the disconnect between the objects they use to make the sounds and what you see on the screen is quite wonderful. This appeals to me hugely because the way I think about sound can be very visual, and it’s nice to twist that a bit. Often I find myself writing a piece which is basically the foley track of a film I can see very clearly in my head.

Still other times the sounds I use are either the sonic equivalent of or products of certain physical situations – like holding your arms out over a table, parallel to the ground, and tensing them until the muscles start to tremble and quiver, which induces this certain feeling of focus and tension, and then you can hold shoelaces in your hand so they dance and jump as you are shaking and the tips flick off the table. I’m also very interested in sounds which have dominant visual aspects – I wrote My Extensive Relationship with Mr. Stephen Patrick M. (2007) for the Schömerhaus in Klosterneuburg, a venue with an internal atrium and four stories of balconies. At certain points in the piece the performers poured feathers and packing peanuts off the balconies of the upper stories – they came pouring down in huge, very quiet drifts.

My connection with the types of sounds I use is quite visceral. When I write a new piece often I draw up a sort of a mood-board, the way a lot of fashion designers would, beforehand, where I think about colours, textures, smells, anything. And the sounds will often grow out of this – so choosing beige, off-white, dirty cream and pastel milky blue colours, with felt, greasy metal and shaved suede textures, chalk stinging your nostrils and dust mites blinking in dry light, thinking about crackling and spitting and sounds which create tiny clouds of dust, sounds like a lighter bristling into flame or spray cans of water articulating irritated text or vitamins fizzing in water with radio static beside them.

In the past I’ve also worked with sounds which are imaginary, sounds which function as conceptual descriptions. A lot of the time this involves textual notation, just pure text with no standard musical notation involved. I did a series of «cooking» pieces which described sounds in highly-detailed imaginative terms. The performer for example might be required to imagine the inside of their body as the interior of a mountain full of mines, feel the blood moving through their veins as tiny carts carrying diamonds to and fro through a tunnel system, and then tip these tiny imaginary diamonds into their lungs to prepare for creating a sound. The audience of course can’t «see» the performer creating blasts of white light in their lungs to pulverise the diamonds they just tipped into them. But my intention is that all this preparation and delicate attention means that when the performer emits a vocal sound which atomises the diamond dust, creating a crystalline mist through the air, there’s a quality to the sound which comes from these imaginings. Preparing these scores for performance is a complicated experience which requires a lot of thought and meditation on the part of the performers. The cooking scores have been performed in a wide variety of places, probably the most special for me was during a Deep Listening workshop with Pauline Oliveros in Switzerland in 2004 – the performers had spent the entire week listening, meditating, doing Tai Chi and generally fine-tuning their ears and bodies. Their sensitivity and thinking about sound was heightened in a way that only a week of healthy living and getting up at 6am in the Swiss Alps can produce, and you could hear this clearly in the sounds they produced.

Do the sounds ever act as a catalyst for a piece though, or do you always start from the perspective of developing a conceptual soundworld then populating it? I imagine you have a few archived sounds waiting to appear in pieces and wonder if they ever become starting points for future compositions.

It works in different ways depending on the piece. A lot of the time I find sounds which I think are really beautiful, and then I archive them away or note them, or just keeping making them obsessively, and they get processed and understood over time. For me it’s very important to make the sounds a lot and, listen to them, think about them, live with them, until you begin to understand things about them. In that case, its like the opposite of the first process – you create this piece, and you keep listening and stripping things away until at the end of the piece you have formed the conceptual soundworld, instead of creating that first. My mother is a writer, she always says you have to kill your darlings, and that’s very true of music too, you need to keep listening to what the sounds need or demand and be willing to take a knife to those beautiful bell sounds you found in a German mountain town and have imposed on the piece. Sometimes it’s a matter of scanning the sounds I have collected or been struck by, when I need a certain sound, like trying to find something in your wardrobe that matches. When I worked on my sci-fi opera set phasers on KILL! (2004), the music functioned as sound design in a film would. In one section I wanted sounds that were very sparse and dusty and had these recordings I had made of all these different central grooves of records, and that was great because it fitted perfectly what I wanted and I could then work with and expand on them.

Is the stripping away of information something that is also important to you when deciding how to recontextualize sounds within a piece?

Yes, it is. I don’t want to leave all the information out there. Part of the process involves stripping away old contexts and building new ones around the sounds. You can take a sound from a Britney Spears song, where she does a glottal groan moving into a throaty note, something which in context is highly-sexualized and provocative, and get rid of everything except the glottal groan, string it out for minutes at a time, and surround it with banal answering machine messages about getting rid of flies and the sound of ice cubes plonking and cracking into glasses of water.

Of course, everyone listens to the sounds and hears completely different things, depending on how ‘stripped-down’ the sounds are, and what sounds are next to them, and also on the listener themselves, what music they like, how sound has played a role in their life, what they had for breakfast, whether they are in a good mood. I strip the sounds down as much as I can because it is impossible to be able to get them to the point where they are semiotically neutral – instead, I just want to confuse things a bit and make things less clear. But one person’s ‘clear’ is another person’s ‘muddy’ so you can never absolutely know. And I think one of the problems in contemporary music is that, from some points of view, there is this idea that something should be absolute – the meaning of the piece should be very specific and unalterable, everyone should get a very clear point that the composer is making very clearly and absolutely – you go to concerts where the programme notes describe how the piece is based on the behaviour of fractals or something like that. And so if you can’t «hear» the behaviour of fractals, you haven’t listened to the piece the right way. I don’t like this thinking. And when I work with these types of sounds, there are lots of different ways people hear them, and quite often the way they interpret sounds has a lot to do with their life, their experiences, and when people talk to me about what they heard in a piece of mine I am always very interested, because it tends to show a lot about them, often very personal things. Sort of like inkblot tests. I agree with Roland Barthes about the death of the author, and so I understand that people are going to form their own listening of the piece, and I actually like this idea that there is a space where people ultimately hear the sounds for themselves. This can result in quite beautiful stories from listeners about what they heard in the piece, but it also leaves you open to less-pleasant experiences. When I was lecturing at Darmstadt in 2002, I was talking about this topic, and I played one of my pieces and one of the students, a man, commented aggressively ‘That piece was in the structure of a male orgasm!’.He felt this because the piece had a climax. I don’t have the medical training to outline the extremely similar climactic structures of the male and female orgasm here; suffice to say that for me, the male student’s making that sort of ridiculous comment told me a lot more about his feelings about women composers, gender and sexuality than his musical thinking.

Is this also true of the performers in your imaginary sound pieces? There’s always a degree of degradation or alteration of an initial idea in the composer-performer-listener chain and, given your last comment, I wanted to know how far you feel you can stretch this as a composer whilst still feeling comfortable with the end result?

I think that me sitting in a room on my own, being the composer is one aspect of the process. I perfect the sounds in my head, but they are really a very specific version of the sounds. In that version, I have the best seat in the house for the piece, and I can hear everything perfectly, and in the case of my vocal pieces, can make the sounds perfectly. But then there’s always a loss when you give these sounds to other performers, and that’s to be expected and its okay, because now different people make these sounds and even if you are incredibly-specific/verging-on-completely-anal in the way you notate things, as I often am, some things will always change, when the sounds are in space, moving around, being played by other living, breathing human beings. And you could drive yourself insane rehearsing for 400 hours with each performer, trying to get it to be so completely specific, miking every instrument with 17 mics instead of one, using four conductors and synchronized stopwatches and so forth but in new music there’s often not enough money for two rehearsals and life is too short. I understand there’ll be some change, some deterioration as you put it, but I don’t think of it as deterioration. And in fact, sometimes, the sounds can change for the better. But I enjoy that experience, in my room, working on my private bag of sounds and trying to put together this perfect little puzzle, and when I show other people the pieces I know they’ll chip them a little bit or the paint will rub off on their coat, but it’s still my puzzle.

The degree of deterioration which occurs before the sounds hit the listener is even more problematic, I think, because mostly we forget that listeners are also human beings, and (similar to performers) the way they hear a piece will be affected by their mood, their back, their knees, the temperature of the hall, the day, what they had for dinner, whether they had dinner, whether the person they came to the concert with is their long-lost childhood sweetheart who they found on the internet and are trying to impress by bringing them to a contemporary music concert on their first date in 25 years. My mother has tinnitus and is deaf in one ear, and so she always has a different impression of concerts than other people do; the same goes for where somebody is sitting. And there’s no way you can control this unless you had a masseuse, chef, psychiatrist, hearing specialist etc. on call before a concert. What you can do is, where possible, frame the piece well, pick a great space for the concert, programme it interestingly, use the seating imaginatively, so that the odds are with you. I curated a concert in Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart with Apartment House where every piece was in a different location – it kicked off with Ellen Aagaard doing Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody under the arcade of the schloss, then I did Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters up in a tree, then we had pieces in the chapel, in the ballroom; we finished with Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, which we did in the vestibule under the Schloss. The vestibule is an open-air space – you have a view over the whole of Stuttgart, sitting tucked under a Baroque pleasure palace. We timed it so that we performed the Lucier during sunset, the generations unfolding as the light faded over the city, and we had benches and mattresses out. And people’s attention was so focused in this concert, and I think a lot of it was the moving around – each time they moved, they got their blood circulating again, and the change of place kept their senses from shutting down. This, for me, was the ideal situation, and of course its not easily emulated again, but I want to do so.

You perform in a lot of your pieces, as a vocalist, or violinist, or playing other instruments, and I wondered how you feel this has shaped aspects of your work as a composer?

This has shaped how I think tremendously. From a practical standpoint, there are many benefits to playing in your own pieces – firstly, you can take part in the piece, and there’s the sheer enjoyment of playing, and playing with other musicians. You can write things which you know you can do, which other people might not be able to do, or which might otherwise be extremely difficult to notate, and you know how to do them, how to interpret the notation. It shapes how you think in so many ways. Probably the first thing that is affected is notation, because you can use shorthand, or leave things a little free, and its hardwired into your brain how you want it to sound – this is especially useful with the voice, when notation can be so problematic, and you are dealing with so many parameters that to leave a few a little loose allows you to finish writing the piece…..that said, though, I often push myself to notate everything as accurately as possible, as if I were writing for other people, which I suppose is the conservatory training, because through the festivals and masterclasses and whatnot I’ve found there is this real feeling for a lot of contemporary composers that other people should be able to play it/sing it, that it should be notated in such a way that they can, and if you’ve written something that only you can perform, then it shouldn’t be considered a ‘real’ piece of music, worthy of merit or discussion in such arenas. And this sort of idea of notational accessibility is quite amusing at times when you consider, relatively, how few people perform or listen to a great deal of contemporary music…..but that’s a shame, I think, because if you start performing in your own pieces, often you vastly open up the range of sounds available to you as a composer, and sometimes these sounds are easily done by other performers, and sometimes not, but you should be able to use all of them anyway, and notate them however you want. When I started improvising, that really forced me to rethink all aspects of performance and notation because I started to build huge vocabularies of sounds which would be extremely difficult to notate, and was using them in conjunction with other musicians in extremely flexible ways, and I realized that in the context of free improvisation, we could build pieces which were ‘valid’ in the classical sense, which were structured and elegant, but they did not need to involve a score. I could write pieces for both other musicians and myself that could have improvisational aspects, and these could work in different ways but still be the piece. Especially I found with writing pieces for myself as solo performer, the pieces became part of a sort of an oral tradition with hints; I could create maps and guidelines as scores, and let them have some space to breathe and come alive on the page and in performance.

I think this is part of the problem of being ‘trained professionally’ as a composer, like you can take a poet and send them to poet school and then they know how to write poetry. Preferably in rhyming couplets…young composers are told that they should notate their pieces so that everyone can perform them, and they spend a lot of time doing this, and then…..not very many people perform them. It’s not that I’m against the idea of learning to notate sound, I highly support that because I think its important to understand what you want transmitted, what you want to be understood about your music and the sounds you use, and how this is presented to other people. Plus, I have synaesthesia so I have an interest in how information is presented visually from an intellectual standpoint, and I will always spend time choosing my method of notation and presentation. The other part of the problem is that young composers are told that the path to success is winning competitions and getting performances by big-name ensembles. So they trawl through Gaudeamus Foundation news or whatever, and all that is available to them are competitions for pieces which are 10-12 minutes long, for flute, oboe, violin and piano or some such ensemble, and everyone knows that if you were to submit a non-traditional score you would not have a hope. My recipe pieces are text scores, printed on pastel-coloured recipe cards, all individually hand-stamped, and they come in limited-edition envelopes. My skate-boarding piece is an embroidered transfer on a t-shirt.

So if you’re writing a piece in which you are not performing how do you approach notation, particularly given the timbral precision required by the sounds you use? Do you tend to notate sounds or actions (or a combination of both)?

It depends on the situation. I strongly believe the method of notation should reflect the overall philosophy of the piece – you should learn something about the piece just by looking at the way the information is organised notationally. I also believe that one of the most important technical skills as a composer is to learn how to organise this information as clearly and simply as possible. Some pieces I notate in a way which is incredibly complex and highly specific – I want a particular sound and so I notate it as accurately and in as much detail as I possibly can. Anyone can perform it, because the notation locks everything down. This can involve developing my own notational methods which build on standard techniques, augmenting the normal systems we use, such as the five-line stave – in passenger (2006), a piece for string orchestra, I used a large number of different clefs which allowed me to turn the stave into a continuum which indicates positions on the fingerboard, horizontal cross-sections of the instruments, and points along the body of the instrument and bow. The performers’ parts retain the standard look of musical notation; the clefs open up what the staves mean.

Other systems of notation are quite complex and explode the individual part into multiple information streams – in pieces like your name here (1998) which is a piece for solo vocalist, where there are six or seven streams of information, covering all aspects of sound, and they could laugh smile (1999) for solo trombonist, where there are also multiple streams of information, I was challenging myself to see how particular I could be, in a way that was digital, being so precise. Other pieces are notated more freely – the pieces I’ve written recently are recipes to cook with sound (#112: dear hero imprison’d; #132 the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat (2004)), and I know that the basic actions will stay the same globally, but timing and sounds will change locally depending on performer, but I welcome this because you get very interesting things from it. Sometimes I notate actions, because that is easier for the performers to deal with than trying to notate the sounds in traditional terms – in a sensitive number for the laydeez (2004), it was easier to insert photographs of actions in the score, of things the pianist and percussionist did with shoelaces, of the positioning of card between the strings of the viola; the performers will pick it up instantly from the image.

Recently you’ve been working on a large scale project, your Barbie opera XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!! (2003). Could you explain how this piece developed?

The Barbie opera developed out of several different impulses. I don’t like most modern opera. Robert Ashley’s work I love, but I am not interested in hearing someone walk around the stage singing in a standard word-setting style. I grew up with TV and film and MTV and that sort of work doesn’t make any sense to me anymore. As a composer who works in the contemporary music sphere, you continually find yourself confronted with these genres which many of say are dead – the symphony, the opera – and you have to negotiate your place in relation to them.

And I had been thinking about opera, because I do love the theatrical, visual element of performance – on one level I consider everything I’ve ever written music theatre – and I was considering whether it would even be possible for me to write an opera. Part of this was the financial aspect – most modern productions are incredibly expensive, both to stage and to see. One day I was reading about Mozart and Haydn’s marionette operas and this low-cost was very interesting to me, and in thinking about updating it I instantly fell on Barbie dolls. That led to a lengthy meditation on Barbie dolls, and to a lot of research about them, including talking to many people, most importantly a lot of kids, about their views on Barbie dolls. I wasn’t interested in making points about whether Barbie dolls are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – this is the focus of most research and writing about the dolls. I was interested in how people used them. When I was a child and we played with dolls, they were embroiled in very complex storylines which involved very adult themes, and I found that to be the same when I talked to other women and men, and also to the kids. All the things that the dolls go through over the course of the opera are storylines that you can easily see if you look closely at the way little girls play with the dolls. Or indeed the way little boys play with GI Joes. Traditionally little girls are viewed as taking part in innocent and passive play, usually sequestered in their bedroom, and in fact their play is sophisticated, intelligent, often very violent and in my view, sees them implementing all sorts of social situations they don’t understand and are trying to figure out into their play, producing quite sensational and bizarre storylines in the process – one group of kids I talked to, for example, loved marrying their Barbies over and over. And when I asked them if they divorced the dolls after the wedding so they could have more marriages, they answered ‘oh no, the husband gets drunk and the police come and kill him. Then the Barbie can get married again.’ In the universe their dolls inhabit, Barbie gets pregnant unknowingly, gives birth and leaves the undesired baby on the kitchen table then goes to the disco; Barbie’s legs are both broken by a nasty fall and the doctors don’t believe her so she has to crawl around trying to find someone who will treat her; Barbie will marry a horse or a 4-year old boy because ‘there are no men left.’ This universe seemed like a very interesting and suitable place to set an opera.

How did you translate these ideas into a music-theatre context? All of your work has a strong visual impact in any case, and I was interested in the more overt staging of the opera, and how it relates to the music.

The basic visual idea of how the opera would work – the house with the two video screens and the musicians spread around it – was there right from the very beginning. I really liked the idea of having a stage which was so tightly focussed on the house, and that the audience would be able to see the movements and actions of the dolls blown up on the video screens, so that everything would be extremely clear. Using the videos meant that in a tight close-up, a doll’s head could be 5′ tall, which is a very bizarre way to see a doll, and meant that there were a lot more visual details made explicit than would be a standard opera stage working just with people. The puppeteers move the dolls, whilst listening to the recorded libretto on their headphones, so the movements of the dolls function as a silent film, and the music is then layered on this, pushing and pulling against it.

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