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.

JenniferJolley.com Official website
Why Compose When You Can Blog? Jennifer’s blog
Jennifer’s YouTube channel
Jennifer’s Soundcloud page

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