Interview: Jennifer Walshe

Still taken from "THE TOTAL MOUNTAIN"

The first time I saw Jennifer Walshe was when she performed “ALL THE MANY PEOPLS” in London last year. As you can probably tell from my review, I was left brimming with more thoughts and sensations than I could set down coherently. The below is a transcription of our conversation, which took place a week prior to her appearance at this year’s Supernormal Festival in Oxfordshire, UK. We discuss the concept of post-internet art, the challenges of capturing the “here and now” within a culture of such rapid evolution and the potential parallels between performance art and comedy.

How are you doing?

I’m doing grand thanks. Where are you?

I’m at home in Bournemouth for today. I head off on holiday in rural Southern France tomorrow. And you’re in London are you?

Yes, for a few more days, then I have a hectic August of travel – Cycle Festival in Iceland, Biennial Ostrava Days in Czech Republic, Concepts of Doing in Berlin. I won’t get to go to the wilds of Roscommon until the end of August, but what can you do. Everything falls together in August and that’s the way it is sometimes.

So you’re at Supernormal Festival this year?

Yes indeed.

And are you staying the whole weekend?

No, I won’t. I have to go to Iceland so I’ll just stay until the Saturday and then I’ll take off.

At least Supernormal has a certain rural feel to it.

I’m looking forward to that. I’m quite excited about the “utopian living” experiment.

Have you been before? 

No, I haven’t. When they approached me about doing a gig there, I thought “oh wow – this looks really weird and interesting.” It was nice to click the link and see that they seem like my kind of people: feral men’s choir workshops, Arduino, dream catcher building, free improv and noise…

I understand that you’ve got two projects taking place over the weekend – what can you tell me about those?

I’m doing a performance and then a project called “Volunteer Opera” on the Saturday afternoon. The first one is more straightforward to talk about. It’s a 40-minute piece for voice and film called “The Total Mountain”, and it’s to do with living, thinking, making music, reading in the world we live in now after the advent of the internet and its integration into our lives. It was commissioned by Donaueschinger Musiktage, which is the oldest contemporary music festival in the world. They were doing a festival based on composers who compose and also work in other media: composers that made films, composers that wrote…something like that. I did a big piece for voice and film. It’s very physical – I do a lot of physical movements during the piece as well as stuff with my voice. That’s what I’ll do Friday evening. That’s more about the audience sitting down and listening – the standard concert setup. The film part is very trashy. Lots of screen-grabs from Twitter, horrible pre-set menus from certain programs…things like that.

Is that a fixed piece? I watched a clip of the piece online and I see that you take a lot of content from Twitter. Does the content remain the same each time you play it?

The piece is fixed and that’s quite deliberate – it’s locked into late 2014 and that’s important for me. I wanted to make something very much of its time. I do also work the other way, where content changes – I did a performance of a piece called “VOLUNTEER CHORUS” at Café Oto last week where I sang alongside an ad hoc vocal octet of eight people, most of whom had met for the first time on the night. You know on Facebook there’s a strip running down the right-hand side of your screen that says things like “Jack Chuter commented on Chris Heenan’s link”? In “VOLUNTEER CHORUS” volunteers sing all that stuff live, as it comes in, according to a set of instructions I’ve given them. I’m not trying to be patronising, but do you understand what I mean when I talk about “post-internet” versus “net art”?

My only understanding of the distinction derives from a post that you put on Facebook.

[laughs] Right, okay.

I’ve been struggling with the definition “post” prefix for the past year myself as I’ve been writing a book on “post-rock” music. I think I understand the distinction you were making, but if you wanted to clarify it further for me then go for it.

I can only speak from my understanding, and the fact that you’re writing a book on post-rock suggests that we’re both grappling with the same problem – what does it mean to discuss certain styles or aesthetics which come after the advent or establishment of something which seems to define a genre or the set of conditions for it. When I use the term post-internet – and there seem to be a lot of different views on whether it’s post-internet, post internet, Post internet, Post Internet – I’m referring to music written after the advent of the internet, in a time when the network is the condition we live and operate in; particularly music written after 2006, after Web 2.0. When the Internet is normalised and non-specialist. After everyone’s mum got on Facebook. So not post in the sense of our apocalyptic dark fantasies having come true and we’re living in a non-networked Mad Max world.

This would also tie in a little bit with James Bridle’s “new aesthetic”. I’ve always been interested in net art, and again, I could be using the term net.art and a whole lot has been written about that. When I first came across the really influential work from the 1990s I found it fascinating, as a whole new genre of art. There’s a 1996 Olia Lialina piece called “My Boyfriend Came Back From The War”, one of the earliest seminal net art pieces, which I did a cover/re-working of under Freya Birren, one of my alter egos. With Olia Lialina’s work, she’s one of the net art people where it’s really about: I’m coding, the art is in the coding from everything to the code itself to how tiny the program is, how it runs over your modem. Often you can’t fully experience the work if you don’t know how Netscape or HTML functions – like with JODI, doing things where if you switch to view their website in HTML, you get these amazing weird patterns.

My first encounter with net art was reading a book about it on a train in Germany – this was way back before smartphones, so there was a lot of ruminating about what it would look like, feel like, and mean before I even got to see the pieces online with my dial-up modem. And I thought: all the composers I know are extremely well read, they like visual art, they go to contemporary dance…why is nobody talking about net art? It’s like new media art. It’s ghettoised, it’s stuck in a weird corner as far as music is concerned. A lot of time in new music, the mind-set is that the web is this magical thing which will connect people so they can play together, or get a lot of people wanting to go to the opera that don’t normally go. There’s also the strange mis-perception that as long as computers or sensors or video projectors are involved in a piece it’s webby in some way. Many projects I see are webtastic versions of pieces that have their roots in the 1960s – when Max Neuhaus did Auracle, he thought of it as a natural development of his radio projects, with fresher tech than he had available back then. Or someone will make a website with an interactive graphic score where it’s like: “once you’re on this module, you can go to any module you want”, and you click on the modules and you hear a clarinet play them. So you take this standard stepping-stone sort of form which is found everywhere in new music and it’s considered more accessible because anyone can click these boxes, whereas historically you had to learn every module in Boulez’s Third Piano Sonata to play it. There’s lots that’s interesting and valid about these projects, but for me there’s something missing – they’re not native to the moment that we’re living in. Sure, the tech is native, but the basic ideas are already in the canon, to the extent that composition students view them as standard forms.

I think for a lot of composers like myself born in the 1970s and after, we have a romantic, very emotional attachment to the music of the 1960s. Fluxus, text scores, experimental and conceptual approaches – they have a mythological, primal status in our imaginations. They’re like the blues of new music. And so we’re re-working them and playing with them the way all cultures have always played with their myths, their collective unconscious. There’s a nice quote from Darren Wershler-Henry where he talks about how conceptual writing is fan-fiction about conceptual art.

So I’ve been trying to figure out what really is different, what is native and rooted to the here and now. And this is a very complicated and messy topic. I’m reading a lot of writing by people from the art world to try and get an angle on what I think it is – people like Karen Archey, Gene McHugh, Marisa Olson, Hito Steyerl, Brad Troemel. There are music critics trying to grapple with this – Adam Harper would be one. In terms of music, there are obvious people, many of whom operate more in the (for want of a better term) beat-based club world – Holly Herndon, PC Music, The Soft Pink Truth. Within the new music world we have composers like Neele Hülcker, Jessie Marino, Johannes Kreidler, Brigitta Muntendorf, Alexander Schubert. I think it’s interesting because there’s a quality to the sounds these composers work with which could only have existed after Web 2.0. That doesn’t mean they all have to be lifted from or reference the web overtly – sure, Neele’s ASMR pieces have a clear reference point, but there are pieces by Jessie where the sound world just sounds of this time and place.

And the thing that’s so exciting is that things are changing so rapidly, sounds “of this time and place” are constantly being redefined. I’m very interested in that transience. Things are changing so fast that we get what Douglas Coupland calls “instant nostalgia”, where you get nostalgia for 6 or 18 months ago. With “The Total Mountain”, I was very interested in the state of what I’m dealing with right now as a human being on the web – just being alive, trying to be aware of how I use my devices, just a way of looking at the world around us. I read this late lecture by John Cage where he talks about how he went to a lecture on Zen Buddhism by Suzuki Daisetz. Cage knew he wouldn’t be able to show up at the cushion, meditating every day, so he decided his way of practicing would be through composition – “to find a means of writing music as strict with respect to my ego as sitting cross-legged.” The composition is the engagement in Zen. Composition for me is about forcing myself into a contemplation of the here and now.

And because our use of our devices is so haphazard, error-ridden and messy, I’m interested in a digital-to-human translation where there’s a lot of failure involved, in what it is like being a person trying to deal with all of this information. With the “VOLUNTEER CHORUS” piece, I’m reading Wikipedia edits and it’s impossible for me to keep up with it. There are certain algorithmic rules that I have in place where I say, “I’m going to say these ones but not those ones” and things like that. When people come to those Facebook shows, someone always comes up to me afterward as says, “I had no idea how vapid and inane it was”. It took eight people singing it for half an hour for them to realise that something they use every single day is completely inane and vapid. The people who sing it all say very interesting things afterward, because they’re monitoring their own network in a way that they don’t normally do, instead of interacting with it and then flying off to explore a link. After one show, one of performers commented how they were getting a lot of updates from a composer who was liking lots of contemporary music ensembles and composer pages. The performer said it felt sort of dirty to see the likes and clicks come in in real time, to see someone doing their professional composer social media hyper-employment. A bizarre thing to have such explicit access to in micro-data form. I come from Ireland at a time when there was no money. I did my undergrad at the Royal Scottish Academy. When we first took electronic music we weren’t allowed to touch any of the machines, so we had to do exams where we drew pictures of sine waves and sawtooth waves and square waves, but we weren’t able to actually generate them. I think a lot of weird imaginative space opens up as a result of this type of education. That’s what I was doing with the Aisteach project for the Irish Avant Garde – it’s to do with this imaginative space that opens up in people’s heads, which computers can help create but they can’t access.

STILL TAKEN FROM "THE TOTAL MOUNTAIN"

STILL TAKEN FROM “THE TOTAL MOUNTAIN”

There’s a video of that Café Oto Facebook performance up online at the moment, and it’s categorised as comedy.

Oh really?! [laughs]

I know those categories are often applied arbitrarily, but do you see an element of humour in what you’re doing?

Of course there is, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about more and more. For an old school stand-up comedian – you know, the ones we think are great – timing is hugely important. Knowing what the energy is between them and the audience is incredibly important. Being able to read a room very rapidly and making something longer or shorter is incredibly important. These are all things that classical music performance doesn’t normally dwell on, because you’re supposed to be faithful to your vision of the Beethoven piano sonata each time, but free improvisers are masters at it. Marina Abramovich talks about how the material of her art is the energy between audience and performer. Stand-ups know this.

A more extreme example would be someone like Derren Brown – I went to see Derren Brown perform last year because I wanted to know how he does it. It’s stagecraft every step of the way. His team knows precisely what they’re doing. They’re manipulating and massaging you into a certain headspace from the second you walk into the theatre. You also have this crossover with people like Stewart Lee, who are doing Cage. The first time I listed to “Indeterminacy” and heard Cage’s voice telling the stories I thought they were hilarious. “There were arrangements for sliding into the water” and so forth. Those stories are completely wacky and you need a comedian to pull it off – someone who knows how to just talk in a seemingly meaningless but in fact highly structured way to an audience. I mean, Stewart Lee often has parts in his routines where he’s re-arranging words in a way which has more in common with George Aperghis’ “Recitations” than anything else.

Those conversations with composers that are interested in the same things that I am…comedians have been coming into it, and it’s certainly not because we’re trying to be funny. Let’s put it this way – we’re really happy if humour comes in, but that’s alien to classical music. Traditionally, classical audiences think a musical joke is that you thought there was going to be a cadence and there wasn’t. Literally. Or a surprise in a symphony, where all of a sudden it’s like: “BAM!” For the sort of people I’ve been improvising with recently – like Tony Conrad and M.C. Schmidt from Matmos – that’s a place where something can come in and it’s weird, you know? We can actually do stuff that’s too avant garde for any comedic circles, in terms of starting with a topic, messing with the text and then doing the sound of amplified snow for 15 minutes. That stuff is in the mix but I’d never say that we’re trying to be comedic, because we’re not comedians. It’s more that we’re just letting in the absolute bizarre bat-shit madness of everyday life, which is hilarious and weird and tragic.

Do you think it’s got anything to do with the dynamic between the performer and the audience? For a comedian the audience reciprocation is constant, so you have a feedback loop to tell you how you’re doing.

You never know quite what will happen, and so all you can do is rehearse and rehearse and commit 110%. The first time I performed “The Total Mountain” was in Donaueschingen last October. Donaueschingen is the oldest contemporary music festival in the world, it’s highly respected, very upscale. My dressing room shared a bathroom with Herta Müller. I had to do the piece twice in one day. The first audience was the older, die-hard fans of the festival. The whole front row was men in their 70s with white hair. I walked out on the stage and I thought “oh no I’m about to sing about the Doge meme”. But they were super warm and loved it. You do always know whether people are into it. It’s extremely rare that I don’t know what the quality of the applause will be before it starts. You can just tell from the crowd. I think opening up to being aware of the energy in the room is very important. It’s a sort of shamanic exchange. Every audience is different, it’s never static. More and more composers are saying things like, “Andy Kauffman is one of the people that composition students need to know about.” They’re not saying this because of the jokes, they’re saying it because of presence, performance skills, timing. Have you seen the film The Aristocrats? About the joke?

No, I haven’t. 

Oh okay, well I highly recommend the film. It’s about where the line is in comedy. Where’s the line that says, “okay – that’s really disgusting but it’s still hilarious”, or “that’s really disgusting but it only would have been hilarious 10 years ago”. It’s a retelling of a joke that people can put their own scenario on, and the scenario tells you where the line is in comedy right now. Sarah Silverman tells a version of it that’s just…well, when they do the South Park and the Sarah Silverman versions, you get the whole point of the joke. It’s showing you what’s okay to joke about and what isn’t, and that this changes over time. Comedians are very aware of that and it’s very immediate.

STILL TAKEN FROM "THE TOTAL MOUNTAIN"

STILL TAKEN FROM “THE TOTAL MOUNTAIN”

You mentioned that you compose these pieces in isolation from an audience. That sounds incredibly difficult. How do you do it?

That’s just the way that it works. You have to compose it mostly by yourself, because that’s the classical model, it’s how the funding works. I do enjoy bouncing things off people, and I try to do that. My friend the composer Matthew Shlomowitz lives in London, and we bounce work off of each other fairly regularly. During working on “The Total Mountain”, Matt saw parts of it and discussed it with me. For me, what becomes really fun is that I do the piece again and again, and I learn a lot about the piece. You can’t really do that unless you’re in the room with an audience. For the first five or six performances, maybe 80% stays the same and small things are changing. And then it locks down. I’m excited to do it at Supernormal because I’m now at the point where it’s locked down. I did it in Germany, Denmark, Café Oto, Brussels, Italy…there have been a bunch of performances and there are a bunch more coming up in the next few months. It’s very, very fun at that point. If we really want to milk that stand-up comparison…all of the people due to do their routines at the Edinburgh Fringe are doing previews in London. It must be curious to see how it changes between London and Edinburgh, where they’re hoping to win the Perrier or whatever. They’re previewing it down here to what I’d presume would be considered a hostile London crowd in the hope that that will fix the last few problems. The normal model in contemporary music is that people don’t get many performances of pieces. This is something we talk about again and again. I’m lucky in that, most of the time, everything gets done more than once. You get to learn a lot about the piece through that.

Fantastic. Well I’m sad that I won’t be around to see you at Supernormal but I hope it goes well.

Thank you.

And so you’re playing a few more dates after that?

Yeah, in Iceland, Czech Republic and Berlin…that’s why there’s all this travel coming up.

Something additional I’ve been thinking about actually – people seem so much more prone to laughter when there’s a human voice involved. When I saw Phil Minton at Supernormal last year, he was doing all of these incredible vocal sounds and some people were absolutely rolled up. I guess people can’t help but frame the human voice within the social cues, expectations and etiquettes that govern conversation.

I think you’ve got a different chance with the voice. Huge range of sounds at your disposal. But also text becomes and option and vocalists know how to do text. They’ve been messing around with it for ages. I think if you have a clarinettist doing something, it can often turn into pantomime or old-style clown school. Like, “look pathetic and lonely while you hold your trombone.” When vocalists start using text – and that’s something I’ve only started doing in the past few years, since I started working with Tony Conrad – they realise that there’s so much weird shit. I’ve collected text in notebooks since I was a child: things people said, things from magazines, things from books. On one level, all you have to do is pick four things, read them aloud and they’re already funny and weird.

Sarcasm and emoticons have so many different meanings depending on who’s using or interpreting them in text, you know? Just the other day, mum sent me a picture taken on an old holiday in France from my childhood. We were out fishing at a lake, and her accompanying text said: “I remember that your cousin was responsible for clubbing the fish”, followed by a smiley face emoticon. 

[laughs] That’s the thing. The internet’s a huge sprawl of ways of being. It’s not like everybody’s a teenager wired to their dramas on Facebook considering a career as a vlogger; or a bunch of hipsters on their MacBook Airs in a really hip café in Shoreditch and that’s the internet. It’s your mum trying out emojis or mine sending me a What’s App of 57 blurry photos. That’s where it becomes much messier and human and more interesting to me.

 

TOTAL MOUNTAIN excerpt: youtube
Donaueschinger Musiktage: http://www.swr.de/donaueschingen
VOLUNTEER CHORUS: soundcloud / youtube
Freya Birren: vimeo.com
Aisteach: aisteach.org