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Category: Writing

Conversation with Jessie Downs

Categories: Writing

Spring is a notoriously frenetic time at Oberlin College & Conservatory. As a student, one's numerous routine responsibilities are compounded by a limitless number of recitals, performances, and other culminations of a year's work presented by friends and colleagues, not to mention the reemergence of flowers and warmth after a Northeast Ohio winter. On the afternoon of Sunday, April 21, 2013, I entered the sanctuary of Peace Community Church in Oberlin, OH. Sitting amongst a mix of PCC members, town residents, and Oberlin students and professors, I witnessed the result of a unique project undertaken by my friend, composer and performer Jessie Downs, and many of her fellow congregation members at PCC.

That Sunday's presentation of Jessie's senior composition recital, A Musical Service for Peace Community Church, featured several beautiful pieces of new music, primarily performed by members of PCC, rather than performance majors from the conservatory who are typically enlisted to play on composition recitals. The music spanned many styles including a careful timbral study for organ, a concert harp piece utilizing the "found tuning" of an antique instrument, four short sacred songs for an ensemble of American folk instruments, and more. While the music itself is unique and entirely deserving of close attention, the process by which this "musical service" was composed, rehearsed, and realized as a communal event is particularly exciting, especially within the context of contemporary western art music, which consistently struggles (or simply fails) to find a genuine means of reaching outside of its typical communities.

In May, before we graduated from Oberlin, I sat down to tea in my kitchen with Jessie and her partner in life and music, Doug Farrand. Over the course of our conversation, as well as a couple of follow-up emails this past summer, Jessie gave a picture of what transpired to create the event that I witnessed that Sunday in late April. She also spoke of several broader ideas and concerns that she has engaged with throughout her musical practice.

Many thanks to Jessie for her willingness to share with me, and with you on this page. Make sure to check out her website, where you can find recordings and scores for much of her music, along with her writing and photographs. See this page for the service's printed program. Finally, while I have embedded recordings of several pieces on the recital within the interview, you may instead wish to visit this Soundcloud page for the full playlist of recordings in concert order.

Jessie Downs at Peace Community Church

Jessie Downs
Doug Farrand
Tristan Gordon

2013 05 10 ? 5:18-6:13pm
Kitchen of Fakakta House; N. Pleasant St., Oberlin, OH

 

T: One thing that I wanted to hear about is how the work that you did for this recital differed from past music or past projects that you've had. And also ways that it was similar?how it was a continuation but also a new thing.

 

J: Yeah, good question. Well, I guess I'll just take sort of a long path because I'm not really sure how to do the short path. [laughs]

T: Great.

J: So, the first idea was for the vocal piece [Talismane - Charm]. The teachers that I've worked with have had this technique which, as Nick (an alum who came and sang for it) put it, has a lot to do with failure. Or, you hear a lot of phrases thrown around like "finding your voice." I said "letting your body sing you" as opposed to trying to make your body sing. That's a value that I think is espoused in a lot of approaches to singing, but for me there's something there about this idea of voice?actual voice, like singing, musical voice?as relating to this metaphoric voice of who you are. This idea of seeing what its potential is, and also being unashamed of what it does, and letting it grow and change; and putting it in an environment in which it's allowed to do that, where there's an emphasis on individuals and the uniqueness of an individual.

I wanted to put that in the context of a group setting, where there was this mutual safe space where people were able to practice this and then have this mass or this group that was made up of individuals?working as individuals in a group, in a way. That idea really resonated with one of the values of Peace [Community] Church. Also, because I sang for many years in an Episcopal church, I love chant and this idea of focusing and practicing?having something that's simple and iterative, but then breaking that out of this sort of Anglican mold of real refinement. Having this same focus, but being totally unrefined about it, in a way.


Talismane - Charm, for voices and piano (11:56)

So, I had this idea of making church music that embodied these ideas. I found Peace Church, and it was the first time that I felt like I was in a place where that would be honest and not, "Oh, I'm interested in the music but I don't really understand where I am with the actual being-a-Christian thing."

T: "I" being you or the person performing?

J: Yeah, me. This past year has been pretty powerful, with becoming a part of that community and for the first time feeling like the communal practice of spirituality resonates with what I want from an individual practice.

So that got this idea going of writing this music that's for a group and that's for people who, you know, aren't going to micromanage the music. I wanted it to be a process of letting people just open up and make the music. And so the first thought was, ?Okay, if I'm going to present this in a concert hall, what is that?? And Doug helped me to answer that question with the question, ?Well, what if it was presented in the context it's intended for, which is a worship service?? I realized that there's just such a rich community of people with all sorts of things they bring to the table at Peace Church, and that I could just open it up to see who would want to be a part of this idea.

Pages 1 and 2 of the program for A Musical Service for PCC

And that's what I did. I came to church one day and at the announcement time I said, "I've decided that my senior recital is going to be a church service. Any of you who are interested in speaking or playing an instrument or singing, there are no prerequisites for being a part of this, you just need to be interested." I said, "It'll take some time commitment but I want to work with what people are willing to put in. If you don't read music, for instance, we can work with that, I just need to know. If you have another way that you want to put something towards this, I'm really open to thoughts on what this could be like, because I don't know what it's going to be like yet." [laughs]

So I put that out there and, I mean those people are just so good at engaging with everything and I automatically got so many people giving me all kinds of ideas. Al Carroll said, "You know one thing about Peace Church is that we come from so many different places and we go to so many different places and so I feel like we're sort of a scattered church. I really like this idea of the scattered church. Maybe you could incorporate something about that into your recital."

D: Even more fitting that he has no memory of saying this. [laughs]

J: [laughs] Yeah, Al is fantastic.

D: I congratulated him on it after the recital, I was like "So Al, Jessie told me you gave her this idea and I thought it really came together in the recital" and he was like "Really? Oh, thanks!" It was very peculiar.

Pages 3 and 4 of the program for A Musical Service for PCC

J: And then there were some things that I didn't end up using because logistically I didn't really know how to do it. I originally had planned that there was going to be some sort of participatory thing for the people in the audience, but just could not figure out a way to do it that wouldn't be a logistical nightmare. But there was this lady Judy, who suggested that we could all hum together. I really love that idea.

The speaking parts were originally more interwoven in the experience, but I very quickly realized that it's actually really challenging for people to insert text into music when they aren't familiar with listening to the sort of music that I was writing.

T: To hear cues or ?

J: Yeah, yeah. I didn't want to be master conductor or something like that, so I was like, "Let's just make this simpler." There were a lot of really good lessons like that along the way.

With the main group of people who played [the Four Sacred Songs] in the back of the space, I was really interested in working with them from the beginning. I knew that pretty much all of them didn't have terribly high opinions of themselves as musicians, so I did have to give them a little nudge, or basically say, "I really love your playing. I would love to work with you." For instance Sarah, the dulcimer player, who's the most likely member of the group to say she is a musician and who puts the most time into music, she said, "Well yeah, I'd love to do that but I don't really know. My instrument, it's hard to explain, but it doesn't really have a lot of pitches." I think that's what she said [laughs] and I was like, "That's okay!"?

T: "I don't like pitches." [laughs] "I don't need a lot of pitches"

J: I don't need a lot of pitches.

T: As long as it has one!

J: Yeah, right? It was an interesting journey with those guys because the first step ended up being learning not only about their instruments, which is something that I always do when I write music, but?and this is also something I try to do?learning about how they relate to their instruments. There was a long intermediate period where I was unsure of how best to do this music for them, because the main way that most of them play music is that they know tunes that they've known their whole life, usually with somebody singing, and if they're playing a melody, they play the melody by ear. If they're playing chords they follow the melody voice. It's usually pretty homophonic or if you want to say heterophonic or whatever. The idea of playing in an ensemble, which is basically what they ended up doing, is just a very different idea. They do play in fairly large groups?there are a couple guitarists in the church, and we'll have people singing and things?but it's just the shared knowledge that they have and they work off of that.

I think Doug suggested that I could just use the tunes that they know and do some sort of collaging with them or something, but there was no way to do that that really struck me. Still, there were some things that I tried to do with it. Originally, in the first piece ["Light"] I was going to interweave bits of pieces that they already knew how to play.

During the actual event there was one little arrangement, behind one of the speaking parts, of one of the hymns that was special to us all. Oh yeah, and at one point, while I was working out how this was all going to go, I had everyone share with me music that they really loved. I listened to that and some of it I was familiar with and some of it I wasn't. And through that process of sharing I was able to think about not only what they do physically but what they are engaged with musically, because they all have a really beautiful musicality.


"Silence" from Four Sacred Songs, for 2 autoharps, dulcimers, and harmonica (4:23)

So yeah, I basically at one point, after Doug's suggestion, decided that instead of using this material that they were already familiar with I would try to write things that use that knowledge set, but using my own material. And to do little things that I knew would be a challenge but that wouldn't be so much of a challenge that it would be disheartening, you know?that would be an exciting challenge instead of a defeating challenge. And so actually all those tunes are things that I sort of stumbled upon at various points.

The prelude ["Light"] was a melody to a piece I was writing for piano in high school. The second one ["Mystery"] was based on this little improv that I had done with my Ukelin and my voice. The third one ["Silence"] was this melody that's just been?I don't know I feel like it's ancient. It's been with me for a really long time. It's just something that comes into my head again and again. And then the last one ["Prayer"] was one that I had improvised on my guitar. So I was using these things that I had sort of stumbled across at various points in my life and then just sort of opened up that space.

 

T: And then how did you convey those things that you had composed to them? Did those players read music?

 

J: Very minimally.

T: Were you working by playing and having them play something back, or singing?

J: Actually they really mostly read music. They say they don't read music but it's not as simple as that. The idea of rhythm was certainly a very difficult one for most of them, but each person's on a different level. For one of the songs, I had started writing it in regular notation, and then I ended up just doing slashes to show beats. But I think at the end of the day they would write in numbers, so either way it worked. And I made a learning CD?I recorded all the parts myself so that they had an idea of what they were trying to do.

The harmonica player, I think, mostly learned all of it by ear, but would use the notation as a memory device. One of the autoharp players plays at nursing homes so I think she's a little bit more used to reading notation. And the dulcimer player, her's is all in tab. She's very musical and the most comfortable with reading rhythms. And then Joyce, the other autoharp player, was very afraid that she wasn't going to be able to do this. It was really just a matter of assuring her that all I wanted was to spend time with her and that this wasn't about her giving some sort of virtuosic performance or something, but that I love hearing her play and that I love being with her and that I wanted us all to work through this together. And that's what we did, we spent over a month, every single week, for a good four hours per rehearsal. We'd go to somebody's house and we'd be like, "Okay, let's do this thing!"

Excerpt from the score for Mystery
Excerpt from the score for "Mystery"

At first it was very, very rocky, but I was totally not worried. My fear was always just people's emotional health, because there were certainly times with everybody when their insecurities came through. With Joyce, it would usually be, you know, "Are you sure you want me to play? I don't want to ruin this for you." The other autoharp player, Peggy, who basically got me through the whole process because she was always so supportive, her insecurities would come out when she'd be playing and mess up. She?d tell herself to "Stop it!" and she'd hit herself, "Bad! Peggy why're you doing that?" And then I'd say "No, don't hit yourself! It's okay, it's totally cool. I know you know how to do this. We've been practicing a long time." There was a lot of exhaustion, I think, along the way.

With the dulcimer player, Sarah, there was one story that came out that showed this underlying tension, not aimed at me but at the idea of the conservatory. We were just talking about how her dulcimers are so cool and she said how it really bothers her when a violinist will come up and say, ?Oh what's that instrument? Can I try it?" And then take it and start doing crazy runs all over. Sarah was like, "I hate that!"

And I think those were all things that happened just in one day. Yeah, there were a lot of things that came up. There was so much positive feedback the whole time, but so much clear insecurity. It was really such a journey of friendship for us all, in supporting each other. They were so good to me and I really tried to be good to them too. They were just awesome. By the end of it, by the time we got to the week of, they were lifting me up. It had started off with a lot of fear on their part, and then they could see I was getting anxious about the performance and they were like, "It's going to be so great. So great. Yeah, we're going to do great!" It was so awesome, the things they've shared with me all along the way. Joyce gave me a series of texts about art and life, and there were a lot of other wonderful things from them, a lot of sharing.

D: Lots of cookies.

J: Lots of cookies. That was Polly, one of the readers.

With the vocalists [for Talismane - Charm] it was not too dissimilar. We met at first as a big group and I did a workshop. I invited anyone that was interested. Some people dropped out and some people stuck with it. By the second time we met, I realized that this was not going to work as a whole group. We had to break it down. So I ended up doing a lot of meetings with groups of two or three people, and I then also did individual lessons for every person in the group.


Jessie leading the performance of Talismane - Charm at Peace Community Church

With both of those rehearsal processes there was much more of a focus on concepts of music, in a way, and less focus on getting the specific details of the notation. And I actually wanted to teach the vocal piece by ear but they ended up overthrowing my authority, saying, "We want sheet music!" Which I actually think got in their way somewhat, but ? [laughs] But yeah there was a lot of working on really general concepts, more than this idea of perfecting a piece for the performance. I guess that's something that maybe I tried to do in the past, this idea of general musicianship ?

 

T: Of having a piece come out of a sort of engagement with ideas of musicianship?

 

J: Mhm, yeah. But when you're working with conservatory people, I think it's harder. I think maybe the most challenging thing about the music I write is that often I'm asking people to reevaluate their relationship with making music. Sometimes if music making is what you do, that's a bit of an offensive call. Whereas, if you're doing something in a totally new forum, it's maybe more natural or maybe the only way that you can get to where you want to get to. I just really emphasized the journey, as it were, more than the destination. I always love the rehearsal process, no matter what I'm working on, but this was certainly emphasizing that more than usual.

Something I realized over winter term is that my music, I think, often shares something with the way I see the world or about the things I find beautiful or inspiring?fun, interesting. Because I was presenting it in this form of a service, I wanted this to be less about me sharing those things and more about, yes, me sharing those things but other people sharing with me, and a sort of a larger sharing, with things coming out of that. Because, in that setting, I knew that ultimately it was going to be my recital so there would be some sort of authority, but I wanted to take the focus away from that and put it more on the fact that it was really, truly?in my mind, I wanted to give a gift to this community in a way, or I wanted it to be a way of the community giving a gift to itself or something like that [laughs].

In the past when I thought about writing church music, that was one of the things that got in my way the most. I felt like I didn't really want to do this because when you write sacred music there's this idea of like, you have some sort of holy inspiration and you're giving it to the masses, whereas that's totally not what I was looking to do. It seemed like Peace Church was the perfect arena for that not to be the thing that happened, just because everyone's so involved all the time.

At the same time, I mean, of course it's music that I wrote, so there was quite a degree of the things that I love or am interested in, but very much informed by what everyone was bringing to the table. That isn't excluded in other pieces I've put together, but in this case I was talking with everyone about their musical engagements on a regular basis, constantly feeling where people were with that, and so it was even more palpable. There necessarily had to be more meeting points. It seemed more like a web than a scribbly line.

 

T: Yeah, I like the web metaphor, I guess as opposed to a more traditional western art music composer['s process]?gives piece to performer, and performer works with composer some, but is then giving piece to audience. I definitely got the sense with your recital that with the connections of all of the people in the room?you as composer, the performers, and the audience?that there's a lot more focus inward into the community. It didn't feel as linear.

It reminded me of a conversation that we had at one point. You were writing your piece ["I did not see it to the end?"] for Eugene [Kim], David [Bird] and Christian [Smith]?ACADEMY [Ensemble]. I think you were having difficulty using these certain objects for the percussion part and trying to convey this relationship that you had with these objects. And thinking about notation for these parts, how so much of what you were trying to get at was based on your particular relationship with these objects and the sounds that they make, that can be made in these particular ways. Just that question of how to convey certain musical ideas, or generate certain musical ideas and share them with people who are then going to perform them.

For me, that felt like a connection or continuation?that this recital made a lot of sense to me as a way of doing that, a way of trying to convey information or ideas about making music, that question of authorship and sharing. I don't know, I'm maybe not making sense on that connection. Does that seem like a similar situation, does that seem relatable?

 

J: It's a really good question, that's a weird piece [laughs]. I don't know if this was part of the conversation we had, but part of that question for me at the time was that I had this personal relationship with those things, but I also realized?like yeah, I guess a constant question with my music is, I have these personal relationships with my musical ideas but then I don't necessarily know that people other than me are going to connect with them. So, how can I maybe instead communicate what it is about that relationship, and then have others make their own relationships? For instance, with that piece this idea of describing what it is about these objects, and then having the person who plays the percussion part pick their own.

Eugene Kim, Christian Smith and David Bird (not pictured) of ACADEMY performing "I did not see it to the end..." for electronics, percussion, and piano

T: That's what you ended up doing with that piece?

J: I didn't end up doing it with that piece. As that performance was, I just gave Christian the things I had, but I felt like that was a barrier?or, a lot of people seemed to think that that was a barrier in that these were my things and not his things. And then add to that, that in that performance experience, even though we worked really intimately with each other, in some ways the fact that they were seasoned musicians meant that I couldn't be as hands-on with them. Things were less interactive. I sort of had to be watching.

T: They were going to take it in their own direction.

J: That's a funny piece, in that regard. I think the constant question for me is, how much is this overwhelming want to share something very personal with others too dictatorial? In the music I've written over the past couple of years, I answer that question by trying to do things as many different ways as possible, and cater towards the situation I'm in, or cater towards potential situations. If that makes sense, I don't know if I explained that very well.

 

T: Yeah, you explained it better than what I was trying to point towards. [laughs]

An experience that I had at Peace Community Church was this question of coming into that space as a non-member of that community, and the effect that that had on my experience of the recital. I think I could have this feeling in any recital setting, and I think it's a useful place to put myself in, but it was definitely much more present with your recital than it is in most other recitals, especially ones in concert halls. But this way of approaching the experience of it as, ?This is something that's happening that I'm not necessarily a part of. I'm being invited into this space to witness something?I don't necessarily know or understand what's going on and that that's okay.?

That feeling encourages me to experience and listen, I guess, releasing myself to the fact that I'm not necessarily going to understand everything that's going on. It's somehow not necessarily a part of me, and I don't need to figure it out, but I can enjoy it and get out of it whatever I do. I can feel satisfied with that and then also want to engage afterwards and ask about what people's experiences of it were, which is why I was really sad that I had to run right after your recital and couldn't attend the reception, because I would have been really excited to chat with members of the community and hear about their experience of the recital.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from people who maybe weren't involved in the recital but are members of the church?

 

J: I'm really glad that you felt that way about it, because I know for some people it could be?or, it seems like it was positive for you?

T: Yeah I meant to say that all of that that I was describing was a positive thing.

J: Yeah yeah yeah, because it could also go the other way right?

The reception was maybe one of the most joyous things about the whole project for me because I saw all these people from different parts of my life having food and talking to each other. That was really awesome. There were some really good conversations had, it seemed. Doug can attest to that. Sarah had some friends of her's who were other folk-instrument players and luthiers and they came to support her and were talking to Doug about that.

But as far as reactions from people in the church, even people who played in the recital didn't really know what the other people in the recital were doing until late in the game, and it was really awesome to see how excited everyone was about what each other were doing and how things were interacting. The morning before the recital, a bunch of us hung around and ate lunch because we went to church and we figured there wasn't enough time to eat elsewhere. Some of the people that were helping out with food and greeting were chatting with the people who were playing the music, and I ended up talking about my parents? feelings about my music, without talking about the music itself.

Then I walked away and the people I?d just talked to started having conversations with each other about what my music is actually like, and and I could sort of hear the conversations but I was doing my own thing. It was really interesting to hear, first of all, immensely positive feedback from pretty much everyone involved. Of course, part of me knows that no matter what I do, Peace Church is going to give me positive feedback because they would never put anyone down. One thing that I heard a performer share with someone who was helping out with the food was that, "This is not music that you're, on the first listen, going to necessarily be in love with, but the more you are with it, the more you love it."


Icon: Wood, Stone, Cloth, for solo organ, with text written/spoken by Pastor Mary Hammond (15:22)

Or, the organist [on Icon: Wood, Stone, Cloth], Ron, was sharing with people about how?well, I remember when I first was showing him the sounds and everything he was really interested. He said, "You're giving the organ a makeover" or something like that. "People just use the same sounds over and over, and people need to come up with new sounds. I'm so glad you're doing that." But at the same time there were definitely some comments like "Oh it doesn't really matter that it's an F here right? Because it's about the sound." And I would say, "Well, yes and no, because the F has the sound."- So it was amazing that the day of the recital he said to this group of people hanging out in the community room, "You know, it's so special because I know I have these sounds in my head now that no one else has. And I hear, and I feel its phrases and I feel its unfolding, and I hear its melodies." He was saying how he became intimate with the piece and began to embody and understand that it does matter that it's an F.


Ron Gibson and Pastor Mary Hammond performing Icon: Wood, Stone, Cloth

So there's that sort of thing from the people who played it. I don't know if you know Lynn Powell, she teaches poetry at the college. She came and she said that it was the most powerful musical experience that she'd ever had. And that was pretty awesome. Just so many people were positive. One thing I was wondering if people would get is the way in which some of the ideas that we talk about in church, sort of the social ideas or personal growth ideas, relate to what I'm interested in with music making. And I think that really came across to a lot of people. Part of it also is the inclusion of text, pointing to relationships between the spiritual practice there and the music.

But yeah, so many people saying it's been such a journey?all the performers. I got a message last night from Don and Joyce, the harmonica player and one of the autoharp players, because I sent them the recordings. They said that "It's so revelatory to hear what we did, because we've had no idea. We were so focused on doing it. It's such a pleasure now to be able to listen to what we've made, and what you've helped us to make. Just to be able to appreciate it."

Right after the performance there were a lot of comments like, "Thanks so much for giving us this experience to do something that we would have never had the chance to do otherwise, and for being so positive about it and not making it about the product, but about doing it." And yeah, from the people who listened, it was a lot of comments about, "I don't know that I'll ever hear something like that again." [laughs] So, it's pretty awesome.

 

T: [You received those kinds of comments] from both the listeners from the church community as well as students?

J: I don't know about how the students feel ?

T: Because I was thinking that it almost seems like members of the church community?I see the potential for them to have had a richer experience than students that were listening, just because of being able to see some of those connections that you were talking about that were made, especially through the text or that the text helped to make. Whereas a lot of students that were there, maybe are less used to engaging with that interspersed text and ways of listening to spoken text, and relating it to a service. I don't know, it's an interesting situation.

J: Yeah, certainly. Danger- I mean, not dangerous but clearly a jump. I don't know. [laughs]

T: There's something there! [laughs] But I guess more so than having a piece like the organ piece [Icon: Wood, Stone, Cloth] or the piece for harp [Noticing and Truth-Telling]?I'm just kind of comparing the experiences of say, members of the church who maybe haven't had much experience listening to music similar to that, to those pieces especially, versus the students' experiences of the recital, and it having this text. I'm generalizing obviously that things will be foreign to people, but I think it's an interesting comparison, that everyone's a little bit outside of their comfort zone, but also within a space that's a nurturing space.

J: Yeah, exactly, that's a big part of it, this really strange?

D: Gentle challenges ?

J: Yeah, there've still been a few people who said their favorite part about it was that there was something for everyone. I don't know if that's true, but just this idea of?

D: [grumpily] Nothing for me! [laughs]

J: If there's an environment in which there is ostensibly something for everyone, there's going to be a lot of things that are not for everyone. It's this sort of funny thing. There were definitely a few comments, like one of the people that Doug talked to was saying how, in the organ piece or maybe even the harp piece too, they really just wanted a melody.

D: No, I heard this through the luthier guy, who was saying "Yeah so-and-so was saying how they just wanted a melody." And then he went on his little spiel about how for him that was the point and how you're supposed to want a melody but then you're supposed to realize that this constant iteration of the same note is about pointing to the oneness of all existence or something. [laughs] He'd made a few comments along these lines that I sort of smiled at or given a little laugh, but he hadn't seemed to respond too well to the laugh so I sort of kept my face rather straight when he said this. And then he threw his head back and started cackling.

J: Basically I just wanted to say that, surprisingly, maybe it's just because of the atmosphere of that community generally, but I feel that people from the church were more receptive to the challenges posed to them than?or I don't know, I've had more composers problematizing the things I've done than I had?

T: But also maybe it's partly because that's like?

J: ?they feel like they have authority?
T: ?that's what they do?

J: Or, yeah it's the way that we interact with each other, you know, we tell each other what we did wrong. [laughs]

[PCC pastor] Mary Hammond described it at the dress rehearsal as a "contemplative feast," which I really loved. One of the reasons I started going to Peace Church admittedly was Mary Hammond's musical and social voice. The fact that it resonated with her in that way means a lot to me. The thing is, if you present something challenging to someone but they're invested in you and you're invested in them, people are going to meet those challenges.

T: Because they have a reason to.

 

J: Yeah. This has been something that's come up in the past before, it's like "Oh, would people like your music as much if they didn't know you?" And, I don't know?

D: Of course not! [laughs] That's absurd.

J: But does that matter? That's not what I care about.

D: No.

J: I don't think that means that it's bad music, but I do think that it's important that it's a music that's made with and for people, community. It's not anonymous. And it's made by a person, a person with certain predispositions and quirks and faults and strengths. And you know that's just sort of what it is.

T: Yeah. Well and I'm excited for all of us, including you, to be going other places and starting to engage with other communities?both more traditional artistic communities as well as less specifically artistic communities, just general communities. Because Oberlin is just such an insular?or can be a place with a very specific way of engaging with music and with other art.

J: This is sort of this question of “what now.? And I actually shared it with a few of the people who were performing in the recital. Sarah, the dulcimer player, was saying "Yeah, I wonder how I can keep engaging with this. I guess I could ask people to write music for me." And I was like, "Yeah that's great!" She also said that when she's been playing the standard tunes that she plays, she's been thinking about ways that she can do new things with them. That's the way that I've always approached music making, but that was a really exciting thing for her to think about, to do things that you wouldn't just do automatically, or because they're what you do. But to do things because you're interested in something different.

But yeah, it seems like a lot of people not only thought of it as this passing thing, but as something that they want to keep being involved in. And that's what made me happiest. And same here, right back at everybody. They have so much to teach me and have taught me so much. Some of them, I could tell them that til the end of the world and they won't believe me, but it's true.

 

Follow-up:

2013 09 11 ? 2013 09 17
via email

The antique Ukelin whose tunings and tendencies Jessie captured and mapped to a concert harp
The antique Ukelin whose tunings and tendencies Jessie captured and mapped to a concert harp in Noticing and Truth-Telling

T: We didn't speak at all about Noticing and Truth-Telling in our conversation in May. While I remember enjoying it during the recital, it wasn't until listening to the recording that I was especially struck by it. I've continued to feel that way on many repeated listenings.

Taking a look at the score added further interest: seeing how you mapped the "found tuning" of the Ukelin onto the harp, and not only the tuning but the very physicality of the instrument; the use of Mary Hammond's sermon text, unspoken but giving the performer guidance in this "musical sermon"; and the structural and textual means by which you very effectively encourage and elicit this sense of discovery, closely related to "the physicality of the Ukelin," and I would venture your own relationship to the unique (and entirely so, given its tuning) instrument.

I would love to hear any perspectives you would be interested in sharing on that piece, perhaps all the more so given that you said you have a mixed relationship with it. Maybe you can start by talking about the process by which you composed it?


Noticing and Truth-Telling, for solo harp (11:36)

J: I'm so glad that you enjoy listening to the piece! Its roots?in my relationships with the Ukelin and Mary Hammond?are very dear to me, and perhaps that is why my feelings about the actual piece are so mixed. I'm happy to tell you about the long journey that was the composition process, which might shed light on my feelings about what it has come to be.

Ever since I found the Ukelin in an antique shop near my home in NJ I had the idea of documenting its intonation and using it in a piece. Quite soon after I gifted it to Doug three Christmas holidays ago, I borrowed it and took its "vital signs." Meticulously, I made a record of the intonation of every string, the layout of the instrument, timbral characteristics of strings, and the effects of different attacks. The instrument was very character-like to me; I felt it had been on a great journey over the past 70 or more years, and that it could tell a beautiful story of its changing with age. I wanted to make a music that immortalized it, not knowing how long we could keep its damaged body in one piece.

Though it would be a long time before I began using these "vital signs" to compose, using a concert harp to re-create the instrument always made a lot of sense. The sound would be similar, the physicality less fragile and exclusive. Plus our friend from OINC [Oberlin Improvisation and New Music Collective], Jen Ellis, she was very interested in harp intonation and in my writing a piece for her.

Excerpt from score, the Ukelin as mapped on to the harp
Score excerpt: the Ukelin layout, and as mapped onto the harp.

The idea of relating Mary Hammond's view of Jesus as a "noticer" and "truth-teller" arose when I decided that my recital would be a service. I didn't know how to make a harp piece fit into that model, but upon re-reading the sermon "Noticing and Truth-Telling" one evening, I had an "aha" moment. Mary's description of Jesus' receptiveness to beauty in unlikely places paralleled the experience I wanted to create with this unwritten music, and the story of the character of the Widow seemed to parallel my sense of the Ukelin.

In their sermons for Peace Church, Pastors Mary and Steve take a detailed look at scripture, tradition, and modern Christian and non-Christian culture and present a highly personal text to the congregation. It is the most complex element of the service. In a way, that was how I approached writing the harp piece?as my own musical exegesis, rather than something more functional and ceremonial.

I really wanted to incorporate Mary in the service but didn't want to burden her with music to learn while she was undergoing cancer treatments. I think Mary's was a shining star, just as it is for the congregation at PCC, from her narration in the organ solo to the text in the score of this piece to the final words of the event. Using Mary's words to guide what I was saying with my music made me feel more like I was speaking with a communal rather than an exclusively personal voice, helping me to engage with other people's ideas even in the most isolated parts of the composing process.

I'm also really happy that Steve [Hammond, the pastor of PCC with Mary,] allowed me to use his texts throughout the recital. While Mary's reverence for beauty, sadness, and deep love aesthetically parallels the feel of a lot of my music, Steve's sermons?which are often calls to social action?really served to highlight the intent of the recital. His words were the most overtly challenging thing about the event, especially for Conservatory students, as he is never afraid to talk about Jesus in a direct and radical way. The combined spirit of my pastors was a huge inspiration for everything.

I was also so glad that Steve spoke his own words. He did a great job in what was his "first recital," even though I don't think I quite orchestrated things to show just how amazing of an orator he is. The same with Polly Caroll, the aforementioned cookie-maker. Her speaking the philosophical texts with her wonderfully sweet and communicative voice was only one of the ways in which she helped make the recital possible. As my "church parent" she was hugely supportive every step of the way. I only wish I could have incorporated her ability to make amazing quilts somehow.

 

T: What were you hoping to achieve with the piece?

 

J: I wanted this work to be an outgrowth of my Verdi piece [Il ciel avaro un giorno sol mi die?] and Variations for solo piano. I wanted to combine the depth of intrigue of the former and the surface-level clarity of the latter. The way the piece has ended up, it seems like a house only half built. For one, I wanted a sense of discovery to be built into the structure of the piece so that the listeners felt like they were getting to know the character-instrument along with me, first-hand. Because I needed to spend so much time making sure that all the other music for the recital got to the performers with enough time, the harp piece got a lot less attention than it deserved, and I think the result is that the rhetoric is a bit choppier and less immersive than I had hoped.

I could imagine revisiting the material at some point and really gaining a fluency with the intonation and unraveling material over a much longer period of time so that the music tries to investigate all the ideas in Mary's sermon, instead of just gliding swiftly through them.

 

Excerpt of score for Noticing and Truth-Telling
Excerpt of score for Noticing and Truth-Telling for solo harp

 

T: How did you come to use the text of the sermon in the score without it being explicitly sung or spoken?

 

J: Using text in the score like I did with this piece was something I'd been interested in since the Verdi piece because I had used text to guide much of the rhythmic and structural content of that work, but never shared it with performers. Shortly thereafter, Matt Chamberlain started explicitly using text to inform performers about rhythm and affect, and I wondered if I might try doing the same. In this piece, I think that Mary's words capture the affect of the music and give the performer a context from which they can really "sermonize," trying to "notice" and "tell truths" with the music.

 

T: Describe the rehearsal process. Were you as involved as with the other pieces?

 

J: The rehearsals for the piece were very last-minute, because sickness and rehearsal schedules for the other pieces drove me to finish it quite late. Luckily, the performer Beth Wheeler and I had already worked together for months on the "instrument-building" side of things. Along the way I had given her little ideas to play, relationships between her remodeled instrument and the Ukelin of which she should be aware. Despite that, I think that there wasn't enough time for her to truly adapt a Ukelin-like physicality for the performance, a more rough approach to playing. That is partly my fault too, and if I had time to do so, I'd go back through the score and figure out how to give more precise instructions about articulation and string dampening that might fix this issue. As it is, I think I'll just write a very important performance note!

I was very grateful to Beth for pulling the performance together in basically a week (from the time she had all the music to the performance). I knew that she'd be capable of doing that, hence why I left things so late. Of course, this is potentially a big issue; in writing for musicians who come from a different background than me, I need to spend more time planning and rehearsing the music so that it works, while in writing for musicians from a similar background, it is easy to not put in as much time because it's not as "necessary." That's a huge issue I need to work to overcome. I want all kinds of musicians to receive the same care when I write for them.

T: What distinctions would you make between Noticing and Truth-Telling and "Mystery," which you said you based on an improvisation of yours with voice and Ukelin?


"Mystery" from Four Sacred Songs, for 2 autoharps, dulcimers, and harmonica (3:01)

J: Great question! In my mind, "Mystery" is an object I found on the Ukelin, presented in a relatively unaltered state. Noticing? tries to trace a story of sorts through the discovery and extrapolation of several Ukelin objects. Noticing? is also very concerned with the precise Ukelin intonation, while "Mystery" has this weird in-between quality about it. The physicality is folk, more explicitly like the intended physicality of the Ukelin, while the harmonies aren't? but nor are they the real "decayed harmonies" used in the harp piece. There was also a "something else" factor right from the start with "Mystery": my voice, which became the harmonica melody. While at first I thought the harp piece could include auxiliary parts, it quickly became a solo affair.

At first there was no guarantee that "Mystery" would be "Mystery" and not a part of Noticing?, but the idea of using a steady stream of eighth notes pretty quickly seemed to be antithetical to where the harp piece was going, and yet the idea still seemed so beautiful. That's when I knew they had to be separate entities.

 

T: Looking ahead, are you eager to share your music with others, be it with listeners, performers, and/or collaborators? Do you hope to share past music you have composed, or are you more interested in embarking on a project similar to the PCC one?

 

J: I am always really touched when someone listens to my music. I feel very deeply connected to everything I make, even though I sometimes dwell on my shortcomings, more often then not I try to embrace them. I love music that doesn't seem over-polished too, that still has a bit of dirt on it. The other day, you and I talked about how wonderful Soundcloud is for sharing one's music and learning about others through their music. When Doug and I went to a Wandelweiser concert series in Montreal this summer, this idea of supporting and getting to know people by being involved with their creations was really potent, and since then I've been making increased efforts to listen and re-listen to music by friends and friends of friends. I'm really grateful that you've been doing the same with my work.

I would also like to have pieces re-performed sometime, for instance, the Academy piece or the Verdi piece. I think there is room for those works to gain new life, something that only my piano piece has had the opportunity to do before [see this page for several recordings of Variations for solo piano]. This said, I'm mostly excited to do more projects like the PCC service. Of course, there is no place quite like PCC, but I hope to find new places for making music and discovering how ideas can be shared there.

This year I'll be composing three new works for youth ensembles: a high school honors choir in NJ, the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra, and a middle school band. With each of these pieces, it will be essential to collaborate with the teachers who run the ensembles and with the students - to get to know them, to learn from their expertise and interests, and empower them to bring their own abilities to the table. But I also want to keep working on the type of issues that the harp piece has presented; I really need to find ways of giving my music that time and care that it needs so that I can shape musical rhetoric that is more lucid.

I'm also currently applying for a Fulbright to study in Germany next year. I believe that in Germany, under the tutelage of Rebecca Saunders, I would have the time, space, and fresources to work in a more concentrated manner on connecting my love of unusual sounds with my interest in the role that the human body plays in creating musical affect. I also really want to work with amateur musicians in Germany and learn from them just as I have from the variety of musicians I've now had the pleasure of working with in the U.S. I don't know if anything will come of that, but I can dream!

Most importantly, I know that people will continue to be my primary inspiration for being a composer. That will mean meeting and working with lots of new people in new ways, as well as developing old relationships; I want to make my engagement with people both broad and deep. That is a difficult balance to strike, but as far as I'm concerned, I have a whole lifetime in which to do it.