Everything all of the time
Both in her composition and her performances, Jennifer Walshe is never anything less than surprising, thought-provoking and restlessly imaginative. With her new work Everything is Important receiving its UK premiere at the opening concert of hcmf// 2016, the composer tells us about improvising with the Arditti Quartet, filming nuclear bunkers and singing like a solar storm.
"Every day when I open up Twitter I see ways that people are trying to name emotions that they have and express a new way of feeling about something."
hcmf//: What inspired your new piece, Everything is Important?
Jennifer Walshe: William Gibson talks about these artistic or cultural microclimates that we develop: whatever music you listened to this morning, or the article that you read on your phone on the way in, the movie you might see tonight, you’re carving out your personal microculture, which we can do with the internet. I never really say that a piece was influenced or about one particular book; instead there’s an ecology of all the books that I’m reading, movies that I’m watching, music that I’m listening to and ideas that I’m thinking about while I’m working on a piece.
Everything is Important is, as a philosopher would put it, a way of thinking 2016 – what it’s like to be alive right now, as slippery a concept as that might be. I had Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects within 10 feet of me for most of the composition process and he gives this wonderful description of DNA microarray machines, and solar radiation and zombies, which anchored the piece for me on some levels.
The piece is concerned with the texture of life in 2016 – technology, incipient disastrous climate change, vast financial inequality, the “dark euphoria” of Bruce Sterling, the Anthropocene. What’s it like to live in a time when the internet is embedded in our lives at an infrastructural level in the same way that electricity or the postal system or the NHS is, but the same time we’re not quite sure what to do with it or how it works, and the way that it works is changing continually.
hcmf//: And how do you explore this in the work?
JW: One of the ways reality manifests in the piece is through text. I think the internet has done weird and amazing and crazy and stupid things to text and to language; every day when I open up Twitter I see ways that people are trying to name emotions that they have and express a new way of feeling about something.
I sourced a lot of the text from all over the web; I’ve also used text from a project called The Bureau of Linguistical Reality, which is an artist-led project to try to develop new words to describe what it’s like to be alive right now. They developed these interesting words like apex guilt, metapredator, Netflixalypse – that’s the feeling that the apocalypse is impending, but it’s happening slowly so people are bored and watching Netflix as they wait for things to play out.
"This piece is, as a philosopher would put it, a way of thinking 2016 – what it’s like to be alive right now, as slippery a concept as that might be."
hcmf//: You’re performing the piece with the Arditti Quartet, so what can the audience expect to see?
JW: The Arditti Quartet have an ongoing series where they are plus or minus one: they have an extra member for a certain project, or they lose one of their members and gain a new, completely different person. They wanted a piece where I was the vocalist and would perform with them. The piece is about 40 minutes long and it’s for voice, quartet and film, which I shoot and edit as I do for all of my pieces with film parts. So there’s those three elements onstage working in tandem – a three-body problem, if you want to talk about it in terms of physics.
hcmf//: There’s pretty much nothing they can’t do, so what do you make them do?
JW: The whole range of things that they can do; I mean, they’re the Arditti Quartet; they’re great. It’s like having a Bugatti car or a Rolex watch; you have these people who are incredibly skilled, and incredibly precise and talented. If I may extend the luxury brand metaphor, as a composer I imagine I feel somewhat similar to an avant-garde fashion designer who is approached by Louis Vuitton to design a handbag. You have access to a factory and all of the resources at their disposal.
I’ve written parts which allow them small moments of very highly controlled improvisation, so I can shape things in the moment by being part of the ensemble, rather than having a score that’s 800 pages long which everyone has to execute perfectly.
I’m very excited to be onstage with them because it’s a fresh new direction for all us together. The initial sessions that I had with the quartet were just free improvisation. I went over to Irvine’s house and we all improvised together in his studio.
hcmf//: That must have been very interesting to hear…
JW: I have a friend who says that when you improvise with somebody it’s as though you have a second, secret friendship underneath the primary visible friendship. If improvisation is your practice, you do get to know people very rapidly in a way that might usually take three to six months; you learn something about them within half an hour. You have to be completely present in the moment with them in a way that’s difficult to sustain at that level in a conversation. It’s a very beautiful aspect of being an improviser.
hcmf//: Can you tell us some more about your vocal part and what it will sound like?
JW: [laughs] Everything! The kitchen sink! The piece has an overarching structure of several sections and – this is quite common in my work – I use my voice in different ways, with different techniques in each part.
In one section I want to have a voice which is a composite of many voices including Anohni, previously known as Antony from Antony and the Johnsons; I think her voice is amazing. In other parts there’s this distortion that Mykki Blanco gets on her voice; I’m looking to get that in an acoustic situation.
In the first section of the piece, all of the vocal material is derived from video that I watched of DNA microarray machines, solar storms and recordings of plasma. I have a folder of video that goes along with the score, where I’ve listened to the sounds and tried to absorb them into my voice so that it doesn’t sound like a regular sung voice. I’m trying to work like a musique concrète composer, except I’m doing it live and acoustically with my voice.
hcmf//: What about the film element of the piece?
JW: I travel a lot and shoot stuff constantly so there’s a huge amount of different footage from the places I visit: New York, Iceland, Stuttgart, Berlin and so on. Also places I wanted to shoot for thematic reasons: I shot footage in Limerick County Council’s nuclear bunker, as well as some of the kleptocracy’s property holdings in London, properties that are essentially money-laundering tools.
After 9/11 the Irish government issued everyone with anti-radiation iodine pills that they could take in the event of nuclear apocalypse. My family kept their little package because it was so bizarre to be given six iodine pills – not even enough for one person to take – so I made 3D models of those pills.
I have very vivid dreams and I’ve kept dream diaries all of my life where I’ve written down the images from them. As part of an ongoing project, I Google the images I see in my dreams, to see if they do exist on the internet and simultaneously do this performative act where I leave a trail of my dreams in my Google searches. So there’s footage from my dream diary and also the searches where I try to find these images.