Gaming Tactics
Denny Hartmann, Vi-Dan Tran and Milon Quayim in rehearsals for Die Taktik. Photo: A.T. Schaefer.

Gaming Tactics

Stephen Graham talks to Irish composer Jennifer Walshe ahead of the world premiere of her opera Die Taktik, which will take place at Staatstheater Stuttgart.

Jennifer Walshe was born in Dublin in 1974. Following study with Kevin Volans in Dublin and John Maxwell Geddes at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Walshe engaged in doctoral research at Northwestern University in Chicago with Amnon Wolman and Michael Pisaro, graduating in 2002.

Since that time, Walshe has had a huge impact on the Irish and international compositional scene. Her marionette opera XXX_Live_Nude_Girls!!! was premiered to acclaim by Anton Lukoszevieze and his group Apartment House in Dresden in 2003. Walshe’s vivacious, theatrically-teeming compositions, meanwhile, have been performed by such groups as ensemble récherche, the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester and Crash Ensemble, amongst many others, and featured at international festivals such as the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik Darmstadt, Maerzmusik, and Experimental Intermedia. 

Another important element of Walshe’s practice is her work as a performing vocalist, both in her own compositions and as a collaborating improviser, as for example in her duos with Tony Conrad (Ma La Pert) and Panos Ghikas (Ghikas and Walshe). Additionally, Walshe has been developing her Grupát project since 2007, under which guise she adopts a range of aliases and roles, creating compositions, installations, films and works in other media, notably collaborating with the Wandlewesier Group, of which Pisaro is a member, for the 2011 edition of the renowned London new music festival Cut & Splice, entitled Grúndelweiser.

Walshe has generated a lot of interest internationally, but Germany has proved a particularly welcoming host; Walshe won the Kranichsteiner Musikpreis at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt in 2000, was a fellow of Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart in 2003—2004, and during 2004—2005 lived in Berlin as a guest of the DAAD Berliner Künstlerprogramm. Walshe’s new opera, Die Taktik, was commissioned by Stuttgart Oper, and will be premiered by Stuttgart Junge Oper on 14 June, in a production directed by the composer herself.

Ahead of that premiere, I spoke to Walshe about her influences, her aesthetic proclivities, and the overriding themes and concepts of Die Taktik.

Since graduating from Northwestern with a doctorate in 2002, you have returned to Ireland intermittently. Did you notice any major changes upon your initial return, and in what ways have you felt the Irish musical scene evolve or change in the ten years since?

I think I first started to notice changes when Donnacha [Dennehy] formed the Crash Ensemble [in 1997]; I remember coming back one summer and Donnacha had programmed La Monte Young, and that made me think about the scene in Ireland very differently. I also think Slavek Kwi moving to Ireland was important for me, I find his work exceptional. For me too it was also becoming aware of the different scenes. I was artist in residence at the National Sculpture Factory in Cork in 2003—2004, and I met and worked with a lot of the Cork sound art people through that; Danny McCarthy, Mick O’Shea, Giordai Ó Laoghaire. I look at the work people like Anthony Kelly and David Stalling are doing, not just as artists but also as producers and with their label, and even more recent  developments, like Cliodhna Ryan and Kate Ellis’ Kaleidoscope night, and there has been a massive change. I think it’s energising and exciting and creates new opportunities for everyone.

I recently did a concert with Alessandro Bosetti at the Hugh Lane Gallery [in Dublin]. We did a lot of sound poetry and improvisation, and we had a wonderful response, there were people in their seventies coming up to me at the end of the concert talking about how much they enjoyed it and asking detailed technical questions about the instruments and software. For me that was a wonderful moment, to realise it’s not just the younger generation that have created or are interested in this broadening of definitions of what music is and the ways we can experience it, but anyone with an open mind. I get the same feeling playing Kaleidoscope gigs.

You have spoken before about the major influence that the thought and music of John Cage has had on your practice, whilst Wandelweiser’s Michael Pisaro is a former teacher of yours. Can you discuss these influences a little bit, and also the significance that any other figures/musicians have had in your life, either on a personal level or purely in terms of aesthetic inspiration?

Cage of course is an inspiration. I studied at Northwestern; they’re possibly the only university in the world that has a bust of John Cage in the library. And of course the bust is laughing, it was a really wonderful thing to see every day. Harry Partch used to store his instruments on the top floor of the music building. In addition, Northwestern holds Cage’s notations archive and a massive Fluxus archive, which meant if I wanted to look at George Brecht’s Water Yam I could go to special collections and check it out. Those were very strong influences, to be steeped in that American experimental tradition, and feel that it was a natural extension of twentieth-century practice rather than an experimental side-bar.

Michael Pisaro was a wonderful teacher, and he introduced us to a lot of the Wandelweiser musicians. Manfred Werder and Antoine Beuger came and visited Northwestern, and we performed their work; in return they were extremely generous with their time. I remember Antoine performing in one of my student works. To see the thoughtfulness, thoroughness and humanity with which Michael approached composing was very beautiful. He wrote a piece called pi (1 - 2594), I think it must have been the late nineties, and the performance lasted over a month. It was divided into lots of performance, which increased in length over the course of a month. It was February, and each time we went to a performance the sky would be a little brighter. Bill Karlins, another of my teachers from Northwestern, and I were the only two people who went to every single performance over the course of that month. Those sorts of experiences, engaging with large bodies of work, extended over time, and with other musicians, are things I cherish very much. I remember attending the screenings of all of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series with Donnacha and Kevin [Volans] over the course of a week in the summer of 2002, and that still sticks out for me as a strange and wonderful week out of time.

As a performing musician and composer your practice spreads across a wide variety of areas, from experimental opera to sonic installations to vocal performance to solo and group improvisation to ‘conventional’ instrumental composition. How do you yourself conceive of your work; do you identify with labels such as ‘experimental’, ‘underground’ (and I’m thinking there of your improvisatory work in particular), ‘contemporary classical’, and even ‘composer’? Do you think these labels still make sense?

These labels are usually most useful to the people wielding them; for a programmer to be able to describe a concert to a venue, or a musicologist trying to shape a movement they perceive happening, for example. The musicians I work most closely with tend to be people whose work falls into several different categories, and regard labels with a certain level of disobedience. I am teaching at Darmstadt this year, and my friend Tony Conrad is coming and we’ll be doing a concert. Tony and I never talk about labels, we just talk about projects we’re doing, whether it’s opera or orchestra pieces or gallery work or improvising or film. We were talking recently about how we want to use Darmstadt as an opportunity to think about what we think the future of music should be, to write a sort of manifesto for ourselves. Maybe the future of music is that string quartets do Skype performances for infants in neo-natal units, maybe it’s all on an iPhone but everything is processed to sound like a low-quality mp3 you downloaded from Napster in 2002, maybe it’s sound installations inside holy wells. I’m much more interested in thinking this way.

Following from this, I’m interested in your attitude to the very different economic contexts of each of the areas just mentioned. Notated music and gallery work obviously carry a great deal of cultural prestige, and they receive state funding commensurate with that perception, whereas improvised and underground experimental, in the main, has to rely either on self-generated funds or on none at all. Have you noticed this distinction, and has it affected your own work, which after all is itself rather ‘permeable’?

This distinction is extremely clear to everyone I know. It affects the work in the most practical terms; a budget can stretch to either zero rehearsals, the standard three to six hours, or hundreds of hours spread over weeks depending on the project. All I care about is that I make the best work I can make at the end of the day, regardless of the funding situation. This is why I love improvisation: the entire community is built around a practice of getting together and playing. It’s about finding the sound, and I’ve seen a level of dedication from free improvisers that is outstanding. The improvisers I work most closely with at the moment Tony, Panos Ghikas, also Tomomi Adachi the way we play evolved out of hours and hours of playing together in each other’s houses. There was no funding, no grant applications, no commissions. It was just musicians getting in a room every week to play.

Across the wide variety of your activities a sense of theatre seems to be of prime importance, whether that theatre is manifest in the slight choreography of a feather’s fall, in the drama of virtuosic solo or collaborative performance, in the toying with artifice and aliases of Grúpat, or in the more obvious theatre of operas such as your condensed but powerful marionette piece XXX_Live_Nude_Girls!!! What are your perceptions of the relationship between your music and theatre?

I think all music is theatrical. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a string quartet performing Beethoven or Kagel, it’s visual, it’s theatrical. We pretend musicians don’t have bodies, that they don’t look a certain way or move a certain way onstage, but they do, and it affects how we listen to the music. We all grew up steeped in film, and TV, and MTV, and then YouTube and Vimeo, and the way we listen is affected by all this. Cage said, ‘What next? Theatre, because we have eyes as well as ears.’ That was a long time ago.

I’m also interested in your incorporation of ‘non-musical’ micro-sounds into your music, à la recent Jonathan Cole and a whole range of sound artists and improvisers. Do you think that there is an ontological difference between ‘musical’ and ‘non-musical’ sound, or has the distinction arisen purely as a result of cultural habits and prejudice?

I think about this in neurological terms. In the same way that we have neurological modules for processing speech, most people have one module which processes what we call musical sound and another for non-musical sound. Stephen Mithen talks about this in The Singing Neanderthals in the context of injury, that a stroke can knock out a person’s module for musical processing, but leave their non-musical module intact. But given what I’ve read about neuroplasticity, I’m inclined to believe that many composers like myself are probably functioning with two modules which are far more inter-related than at any point in history. This isn’t a value judgment, it’s an observation about the way lots of people I know think about sound. ‘Musical’ and ‘non-musical’ sound are integrated into ‘sound’ (and I use all of these terms knowing that they are loaded and problematic). I can be writing a string quartet and know that the sound of glaciers is the right sound to bring in to form a type of chord, or I can be working with sounds of water lapping against the flat bottoms of gondolas and know that an opera voice is the right sound to bring in to complete a certain melody.

Your new opera Die Taktik premieres in Stuttgart at the Staatstheater on 14 June. Could you introduce and discuss the opera?

Die Taktik is about games in the broadest sense, from video games, tennis and chess to the games which influence our everyday life such as evolution and quantum physics;  it’s about being engaged, embedded, in the flow and play of everything around us.

The opera doesn’t tell a linear story; there are twenty-one scenes and they all function with different vocabularies of vocal sound, instrumental sound, and movement. There’s a variety of concurrent lines of action and I expect the audience to find their own patterns in the flow of information. We have four singers, two dancers (both from street dance/hip hop background) on-stage, as well as what they call a tricker in Germany — a guy who specialises in martial arts, parkour, stunts. There are thirteen chorus members surrounding the audience. There are six musicians spread in front of the stage, and then we have a massive stage which looks like a distorted tennis court crossed with a massive spaceship cockpit which has crashed into the theatre.

The performers on stage, the chorus and the musicians form three different ecologies which connect with each other obtusely. At one point the chorus might be singing, or using flags to snap out rhythms, or carrying out Rupert Sheldrake’s staring experiments on members of the audience; the dance vocabulary covers everything from hip hop battle styles through Fred Astaire, the haka, and the mating dances of birds of paradise; the singers might sing in standard opera voices, make insect sounds or sing in synchronised vibrato like a haunted silent film organ. There is no recitative or aria, all the text is located in voiceovers which we have recorded at various locations around Stuttgart, and these drop in and out over the music like in a documentary. The voiceover texts cover a wide range of subjects, from the Smoke-Filled Room experiments of Bibb and Latane to chess legend Bobby Fischer; the Jedi-like abilities of space shuttle pilots to Hugh Raffles on insects; the philosophy of Alan Watts and Alphonso Lingis.

Can you describe the process of having the opera commissioned, and working with your team of collaborators in bringing it to fruition?

The Junge Oper Stuttgart (JOS) approached me in early 2011 about writing an opera for them. I knew right from the beginning that I wanted to work with video game footage and that it should be an integral part of the piece. I first became interested in video games and machinima because I saw it as a great way to create scenery for opera without having to spend any money. I was working on my last opera (The Geometry, performed in New York in 2010), and we didn’t have very much budget, so I bought an XBox and started to play games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Halo with the idea of shooting footage inside them which could be used in place of expensive scenery. I ended up not using any in The Geometry, but the idea and the interest was very much there, and so when JOS approached me it felt natural to move forward from that point. The irony that this production has the support of one of the best opera houses in Europe is not lost on me.

The work process was quite intensive. I met with Barbara Tacchini, the head of the Junge Oper Stuttgart, and other members of the team many times, in Berlin, in London, in Stuttgart, and this was quite an interesting process. Ideas that I had right from the beginning, like using video game footage, breakdancers, and extremely rich and vibrant costumes all resulted in different people coming on board to the project. For example Andrea Boege the choreographer and Amit Epstein the costume designer. The JOS engaged with the work very intensely: every reference has been researched, and they produced information packs explaining the ideas in the opera to send out to schools so that teachers could workshop concepts like pattern recognition and the extended phenotype before bringing the kids to the opera.

Outside the opera, could you discuss any projects you have in the pipeline, particularly ones that will see you return to perform in Ireland?

At the moment I’m writing a piece for the National Chamber Choir of Ireland; the first performance is in October in Dublin. I’m also working on a project for the Quiet Music Ensemble (QME). One of the more recent members of Grúpat is Padraig Mac Giolla Mhuire, the Cork-based traditional musician who some musicologists credit with inventing drone music. I’m ‘transcribing’ the Irish Folklore Commission recordings of Mac Giolla Mhuire’s work for performance by the QME.

Finally, your music was recently given to Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II as part of the ‘Music from Ireland’ CD. How did that make you feel; can you picture Obama smiling along to you neighing like a horse!?

Clearly, I can see Obama sitting in a special listening room with Bose sound-cancelling headphones.

Jennifer Walshe’s Die Taktik premieres in Stuggart on 14 June and runs until 14 July.

Published on 11 June 2012

Stephen Graham is a lecturer in music at Goldsmiths, University of London. He blogs at www.robotsdancingalone.wordpress.com.

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