Composers: Jennifer Jolley

Photo courtesy of Liz Remizowski

Just putting it out there that I’ve now interviewed 2 female composers in a row named Jennifer. What are the odds?

This Jennifer, Jennifer Jolley, hails from Long Beach, CA. Originally having a specific interest in scoring films (Which explains both her love of film soundbites in some of her sound collages and her interest in writing opera), Jennifer later focused more on straight composing after her graduation from U.S.C. and further studies at Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in Ohio, where she now lives with her librettist and her 2 cats Lindsay Lohan and Coco Chanel. Having been commissioned by many contemporary ensembles and having one of her works presented at MATA’s 2011 Make Music Winter Workshop (“Press Play”), Jennifer writes a blog about her career (Titled “Why Compose When You Can Blog”) and even has time to write several other blogs (Building a Better Opera, MusicX Musings; She also contributes to the official blog for Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music: Center For Computer Music), and she’s also an instructor at University of Cincinnati. I’m just glad there was time for her to take a break and talk to me.

CM: You seem to have different sides to your music; Some of it is minimalist or modern orchestral, and some of it is electronics, tapes or sound collage. Is this a way of saying that you would rather explore and flesh out these styles simultaneously than focus on just one way of composition?

JJ: Maybe I’m accidentally fleshing out my styles simultaneously! Ultimately I want to work with a style that conveys my concept the best. If I need to write minimalist music to get my point across, then I’m going to use it. If I need to use a vocoder, so be it. Over the past two years I’ve changed my approach in my pre-compositional process—I merely thought about harmonies, melodies, and timbre before working on a piece, and now I think about what I’m trying to say with my music and which style would work best. After I figure out my concept, I think about harmonies, melodies, and timbre. Right now I’m working on an opera that’s a retelling of both the Narcissus and Pygmalion myths, and holy cow, I might be writing a neo-classical opera. I’ve already completed a da capo aria, and it looks like I might include secco recitative. Honestly I’ve been a little self-conscious about the style so far (because it may be a little conservative), but I feel that the style fits the story and concept.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Our discussion of Jennifer’s new opera is coming up shortly. ;))

CM: “Paint My Chopper Pink” is one of the tape pieces, and I really like the direction it takes toward the middle (It gets into a tinny-sounding section that is quite soothing to my ears, just so you know). Can you talk about the subject of this piece and about how this was recorded?

JJ: I wanted to write a motorcycle motet for four voices! Since I loved listening to motets and motorcycles, I wanted to combine the two. So, I found four different sound clips of motorcycles starting online (yes, this is probably cheating) and processed them in a Max/MSP external called PerColate. I was also obsessed with the convolve patch which combines any two sounds you like, and I wanted to combine the agressive sound of motorcycles with gentle bell sounds. On a side note, an art professor suggested I create an acoustic version of this piece, and I might do it! I think it would be great to have a live motorcycle motet. Of course, I don’t know what to do about the exhaust, and I don’t have access to four timbrally-different motorcycles…

Paint My Chopper Pink

CM: “Get Your Ass To Mars” and “More Human Than Human” are collages that feature dialogue from “Total Recall” and “Blade Runner” respectively. Were these pieces meant to direct a different point of view on the films’ stories, or were you just making a whole new statement with each one?

JJ: I was creating a Philip K. Dick triptych of tape pieces that would indeed create a whole new statement with each one. I had to go this route because the films are recent—those who are familiar with the films will instantly visualize scenes from the film, and I didn’t want to fall into the trap of retelling the movie. I mean, I instantly visual Arnold Schwarzenegger every time he speaks!

CM: “All Grief Empty, The Clear Night Passes” is one of your orchestral pieces, and it has a powerful cadenza for percussion (It almost sounds like a brief concerto)

JJ: This piece did not have a master structural plan when I started. I had a general idea that I wanted to start with high pitches then meander to lower ones. Then when I finished the first section, I decided to pick up the tempo a bit and then climax to a big percussion section. That cadenza section was fun to write, although I don’t know if the other sections tempered the fiery percussion duet. That’s okay though—I wrote this piece in 2008, and I’ll have more of a master plan when I write my next orchestra piece.

All Grief Empty, the Clear Night Passes

CM: “Laments By The Sea (III: A Farewell)” is so minimalist and current-sounding to me, yet it has a classical beauty towards the middle (EDITOR’S NOTE: Jennifer has 2 other movements of this she hasn’t posted on Soundcloud yet).

JJ: This piece grew from a song for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble that I wrote in 2001. 2001! And then my conductor friend Nathan Madsen asked me if I would be willing to expand the piece in 2007. The biggest challenge for me was linking the two bookend movements with the original one (“The Three Fishers”), and I thought the best way to do this was to have the text dictate the music. With the third movement, I thought it would be appropriate to compose calm and placid music since the narrator is dying and uttering his last words.

CM: Would you program this piece on the same night as “Paint My Chopper Pink”?

JJ: Absolutely not! The concepts of the pieces are completely different and would not curate well on the same concert. Now, if I wrote an electronic piece that had to do with the sea or death, I would reconsider.

Laments by The Sea (III: A Farewell)

CM: The audience participation piece “Press Play” is basically the Ricercar from Bach’s late work The Musical Offering. The first recording of it sounds like you transcribed the original (And THAT sounds so beautiful to begin with!) for various instruments on tape, but when it came time to do what you set out to do with the recording devices at the concert premiere, it took on a whole different feel altogether as some parts were slightly off kilter and there was what sounded almost like a more jarring orchestration of it. Was this exactly what you were looking for, or is this a randomness that works in your favor?

JJ: Thankfully this randomness worked in my favor. I wanted the audience to experience their childhood again by performing and interacting with a childhood tape recorder (I specifically searched for tape recorders from the 1980s) and listening to a piece of music that was performed on toy instruments. (Granted, the only two toy instruments on this piece were the toy piano and glockenspiel, but most pitched children’s instruments are diatonic, and Bach’s fugal line is chromatic.)

So, what tonal piece would survive a toy orchestration and irregular playback from thirty-year old tape recorders? The Bach Ricercar. I figured it survived a Webern orchestration, so surely it must survive vintage tape playback.

The playback was a little more “off” than I expected, but I loved the results. My main fear was that people would think that this was a pure orchestration of the Bach piece, but instead the different tape speeds produced a new piece. Of course, I wouldn’t mind having the original orchestration performed live.

Press Play (Recorded live at the Sonic Explorations concert, Cincinnati, OH 4/19/11)

CM: Your blog “Why Compose When You Can Blog?” (Great title, btw) is such a great read and looks like it can be insightful for budding composers. In it, there are entries you call “Composer Fail” where you talk about your rejections. I love that you can talk about these things that probably make other people embarrassed and shy away from discussing them. Did you always set out to talk about the failures?

JJ: Well, not specifically. My composer FAIL posts began as a catharsis for my turning thirty. As a twenty-nine-year-old composer, you worry that you won’t be successful because thirty is the cutoff year for entering huge young composer competitions. When I was twenty-nine, I had this urge to enter every single “young composer” competition while I could, and I was still receiving rejection letters. So I thought, why not share and talk about my failures? It is my way of dealing with rejection at this point. And now I’m glad I’ve continued this series on my blog because not only does it help me deal with rejection, but I think it also shows other composers that failing is a part of success. Composers (and anyone else, actually) will be rejected more times than they are accepted, but that is part of the process. I’ve learned that competitions aren’t working for me, so I’ve focused more time on establishing my connections and having my music performed. So, I hope to defang composition competition rejection letters and show young composers that you don’t have to rate your success based on your winning a competition.

CM: Okay, about your upcoming opera project–Supposedly it’s about a futuristic society where they practice cosmetic cloning. Can you say anything more about it at this point? Any other opera concepts you have in mind?

JJ: Yes! The opera I mentioned on my blog takes place in the near future, where a woman decides to clone her husband for an upgrade, only to be dismayed when the original starts to fall in love with the copy. Building a Better Joshua, the name of the opera, is a comic retelling of the Narcissus myth, as a vain couple sees their world spiral into chaos.

My librettist and I are also thinking about creating a sitcom opera about Ronald and Nancy Reagan. We’ll see what happens.

CM: What fantasy project/musician would you like to work/commission with? Personally, I would love to hear how you would write concertos of any kind!

JJ: I’m going to cheat here and say that I’d love to work with LA Opera. I was not a fan of opera growing up, but once I saw Billy Budd at the LA Opera, I wanted to write one. If LA Opera ever produced an opera of mine, I would be absolutely thrilled. (I just realized I would have to figure out what director I’d like to work with, but I haven’t done much research on opera directors.)

[As for soloists] I would love to work with Vicki Ray; she’s such a dynamic and skillful pianist. When I was in high school I went to the Piano Spheres concerts in Los Angeles and heard her perform a piece that required her to read Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis while playing the piano. (I wish I remembered the name of the piece.) She made it seem so effortless! Now, what would I write for her? A piano concerto with percussionists? An installment in my Sounds from the Gray Goo Series? Something for toy piano?
Sounds from the Gray Goo 2.01 (Rebecca Danard, bassoon with pre-recorded clarinet; Northside Tavern, July 2011)

Please do check out Jennifer’s webpage, her YouTube and Soundcloud as she has even more music on those pages that I didn’t feature here.
I highly recommend the blog as well. Official website
Why Compose When You Can Blog? Jennifer’s blog
Jennifer’s YouTube channel
Jennifer’s Soundcloud page


Bang On A Can All Day

Jessica Schmitz (left, playing piccolo) and The Asphalt Orchestra performing outside the World Financial Center at the start of the Bang On a Can Marathon in NY, June 19, 2011 (Photo courtesy of Phoebe Zhang/Epoch Times)

‘Are you experienced?’~David Lang

I’ve come to the conclusion that the Bang On a Can Marathon (And any of the other events given by BOAC’s many artists like “Banglewood” and the various stand-alone concerts) is like a compositional music Woodstock for the mind (You can even quote me on that). Having volunteered for merchandise sales duties for the marathon 2 years in a row now, just within slightly distracted ear-shot I have heard a huge cross-section of the different ideas the new music makers have presented. There’s music that outright spooks you, forces you to think about why it’s spooking you, delights you, makes you happy, makes you dance, makes you sad, makes you despise it, bores you, and sometimes pieces that even all of the above applies to, depending on what you go for. Even though the music and the composers’ styles are all quite different (Composers that range from BOAC founders David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, to Evan Ziporyn, Todd Reynolds, Toby Twining, Yoko Ono, Bjork, Frank Zappa and Philip Glass just to name a giant handful), the common denominator is that they are all composers of contemporary music. So if you expect to hear Mozart or Mendelssohn at this show, this might not be your cup of tea.

Philip Glass: Closing (Philip Glass, piano, and the Bang On a Can All-Stars, World Financial Center, NY 6/19/11)

There were a few people that felt strongly enough to complain to us, the people seated at the merch table, as if we could possibly adjust the music somehow to their liking. One guy was trying his best to explain to me completely on his own volition why he thinks Philip Glass’s compositions don’t work as we were being shushed by audience members standing nearby that did get Philip’s music.
“The audience tends to enjoy the concert overall, but much of the music is very polarizing.” explains BOAC’s store manager and bookkeeper Brian Petuch. “When you perform Iannis Xenakis and Philip Glass on the same bill that is probably inevitable. Overall though I would say most people enjoy the diversity in the programming and we have many diehard fans. One of my favorite things to witness are the tourists and regular mall shoppers that stumble upon this massive event where strange sounds are being blasted throughout the mall. They all have looks on there faces as if they stepped into an episode of the Twilight Zone.”

David Lang: Sunray (Bang On a Can All-Stars; filmed at MIT circa Apr. 2011)

Another great thing to admire about this day-long show is the musicians. The Asphalt Orchestra, an eclectic marching band (Very similar in nature to Chicago’s Mucca Pazza), played outside and walking into the center at the beginning of the marathon and again in the middle of the center by the flat stairway (That was a treat! I know my friend Scott Parker, who’s a Zappa authority, would have loved their take on ‘Zomby Woof’). Cellist Ashley Bathgate, whose dad started talking to me about her when he saw my BOAC T-shirt while standing in line at the nearby Starbucks, sounded gorgeous among the BOAC All-Stars during their collaborative set with Philip Glass. Even though I missed his set at the marathon (Reason being that I was downsized to 2/3 shift when they cut the merch table to one this year), electric violinist/composer Todd Reynolds is always a pleasure to hear. And it really was an incredible experience to see The Sun Ra Arkestra for the first time ever; Even though Sun Ra himself died in 1993, his group carries on their traditional blend of free-jazz and big-band with electronic noise thrown in.

Sun Ra Arkestra (Photo courtesy of Tim N.)

Then there was Glenn Branca. I admire him immensely as a musician, an artist and as an historian for punk rock, but his “Ascension II: The Sequel” (Said sequel to his 1981 album) sounded like a repetitive punk jam. Philip Glass makes beauty from repetition as he did with his opening piece “Music In Similar Motion”, but Branca’s 6-piece group felt to me like some dudes wanted to rock out in the key of E all night long. My apologies to Branca enthusiasts. I hope I can make my way back to his music the same way I did for Schoenberg.

I have to say there’s many reasons to come to the marathon; It’s free, it’s a great place to see, hear and even meet various composers, artists and musicians. And those palm trees are so nice in what kind of looks like a giant sanitarium!

Zappa: Zomby Woof (Asphalt Orchestra; This version is from Le Poisson Rouge Jan 2011; They performed this in the middle of the hall at the marathon)

Bang On a

Composers: Thomas Deneuville

Photo courtesy of Axel Dupeux

My first interview for The Glass! Hopefully the first of many!

Having been both a fan of compositional music and a longtime member of the Twitter and online community in general, I came to know a gentleman by the name of Thomas Deneuville. He goes by the name “tonalfreak” on Twitter, possibly to inform us of the fact that he is a strong practitioner of keeping the melodic element in the world of contemporary music, and this he does very well. Having been invited to come see one of his premieres in NY (This one being of his cantata titled Waiting For Thoreau, programmed in a recital along with some of his other works), I was very humbled to see a quite laid-back presentation of compositions arranged for both classical instruments and those that are more typical of rock like electric guitar and a drum kit. At the end of his Summer Miniatures suite he even has a transcription of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”.

CM: Thomas, you taught yourself guitar as a rock musician, and you went from that to studying classical violin a few years later. Was that an easy transition?

TD: It was actually a relief. I remember struggling with theory for a couple of years on my own while I was teaching myself guitar. Going to a music school brought me to another level. I immediately fell in love with solfege and literally ate the violin methods that were put in front of me, tackling second and third positions after a year. On the other hand it was also my first contact with the French music education system that still owed a lot (in spirit) to the 19th century. The same system pushed me to leave France years later.

CM: When did you decide you wanted to compose music?

TD: It was not really a decision. As soon as I was able to play chords and melodies on the guitar it was obvious that the next natural step was to compose, regardless of my technical level. What else was one supposed to do with one’s musical chops? Immediately after, I spent my spare time recording my compositions in my bedroom on a DIY multi-track system made of two boomboxes and using as many instruments as possible: violin, bagpipes, mandolin, snare drum, guitar, zither, recorder, etc. The white noise level on these recordings was unreal. In retrospect, they were very funny too.

CM: Did you ever feel pressured to imitate or write in a certain style? Or did you know what your voice was when the music came?

TD: When I was still interested in indie pop, I used to try to emulate the sound of my favorite bands (The High Llamas, The Divine Comedy, Tahiti 80, etc.) as I wanted to fit the Parisian underground musical scene. Apart from the fact that I actually never got a band together (I left France to study voice in Italy), it felt wrong and contrived, and I learned from this experience.

I am not saying anything new by claiming that the concept of style is outdated. Composers have a vast palette of techniques, tools, aesthetics they can illustrate their (musical) ideas. I believe that very few composers define themselves as “purely” minimalists, serial, spectral, etc. but most of them borrow whatever they need from these “schools” to build their own sound.

The important thing for me is to find an emotional place where I feel honest, that seems to reflect the Zeitgeist and also contains an element of risk for my writing (Just outside of my comfort zone). I don’t really know in advance what the next piece will sound like, but I know that this is the place I want to be in to write it. One would call this a “voice’, but a vibrant, changing evolving voice.

Delicate Structures; David Pearson (sop. sax), Ryan Shapiro (piano)

CM: Why Henry David Thoreau as the subject of your cantata?

TD: A year or so ago, I decided to focus on my growing concerns about the prevalence of technology in our society. Years of experience provided me with an insight into I.T.: I took my first programming class at the age of 8, and I currently work as an application trainer, web designer/coder, and social media consultant. These experiences have left me wondering about technology’s impact on our well-being. Are we not experiencing a collective loss of savoir-faire (As craftsmanship, cf. Richard Sennett) and savoir-vivre (Of civic experience)? How can we, as composers, raise awareness of such issues?

The underlying ideas for my cantata came to me when I got acquainted with Thoreau’s philosophy. Even though I had studied French literature extensively in high school and college, the Transcendentalists were unknown to me before I moved to New York (Surprisingly enough, I discovered Thoreau through Gandhi’s writings).

Waiting For Thoreau is a 5-movement cantata whose texts are drawn from Transcendentalist literature, New Thought tenets, and a web-based “bragging generator”. The textual contrast is reflected in the instrumentation: 3 winds (Flute, oboe, Bb clarinet), soprano, baritone, harpsichord, viola da gamba, and drum kit. I was really excited to write for viola da gamba: Ever since my teenage years, I have emotionally associated the sound of the gamba with an age when craftsmanship was valued, long before the advent of the digital era and its consequences on our lives, on the arts, or on cognition (cf. Nicholas Carr).

The title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to [Samuel] Beckett’s play. The ideals that Thoreau believed in could be reached nowadays but at the price of a deep introspection, through a fair critique of technology and faith.

CM: How do you feel about the current and future situation of classical/contemporary classical music and its audience?

TD: There’s never been a worst time to be a musician. There’s never been a better time to be a musician. The industry is not going well but we often don’t really need the industry. I believe in DIY and most tools a musician needs (Recording, promoting, selling, etc.) are largely available for very little money, if not for free.

Like many others, I also witness a shift in {new} classical music to something that’s hipper and appeals to larger audiences. Borders are blurred: Sufjan Stevens, Owen Pallett and Joanna Newsom were recently listed among the 100 Composers Under 40 by Q2 [Online substation to NY’s WQXR-FM], while Nico Muhly collaborates with Bjork or Bonnie “Prince” Billy.

I am both excited and worried about this: I enjoy the new energy and the experiments in new classical music, but I anticipate some empty fads. Nothing new, though. I’m pretty sure that people during the Baroque era, for instance, were facing the same challenges. As long as composers stay honest and never forget that music is intended for an audience, we should be fine. Easy on the synths, though…

Cyclothymic (Love) Diaries; Amanda Hick (soprano), Walter Aparicio (piano)
I care if you listen(.com) (Thomas happens to be an avid blogger as well! ;))