Daniel Godsil, composer and member of the Ninth Planet artistic committee, sits down for a conversation with Jenny Olivia Johnson. Hear Jenny’s piece Reflect Reflect Respond Respond plus much more at our debut concert Sat November 2, 2019 at 8:00pm.
Daniel Godsil: Jenny, we’re so excited to playing Reflect Reflect Respond Respond at our inaugural concert. This piece was played by Wild Rumpus in 2012; will the version we hear on November 2 have any significant changes?
Jenny Olivia Johnson: I’m excited too! The first version of Reflect Reflect was scored for flute/piccolo, clarinet, harp, piano, electric guitar, violin, cello, and the two sopranos. This version, which I revised in 2015, adds trombone, contrabass, and percussion to the mix, so it’s a broad expansion of the sound world, and one that I’m very happy with. The added low register instruments, further punctuated by bass drum/cymbal/gong and a sparkly vibraphone part, kind of bring everything into sharper focus. (I do miss the harp part from version 1, however; perhaps a third version can be imagined someday with that lovely sound back in the band!)
DG: I love the title of this piece. The piece itself brings us into a fantastic sound world, and there’s a really compelling narrative...can you tell us a little about the voyage you’re wanting to take the listener on?
JOJ: Thank you! I have always loved the word “reflect,” which describes the physical phenomenon of forces and energies bouncing off of surfaces and back onto themselves, and also conjures certain psychoanalytic concepts, such as obsession and mirroring and projecting. The myth of Narcissus and Echo seemed like a perfect context for exploring ideas related to mirror-like repetitions, reflections, and recursions, and the ways in which those phenomena are observable in emotional experiences of infatuation, melancholia, and grief--the rapture of thinking incessantly and repetitively of a loved one, for instance, or the anguish of spiraling through repetitive painful memories in the wake of a loss. I was interested in creating an immersive world in which all of those emotions are somehow expressed simultaneously, so a lot of the time the music is either incredibly fast, jittery, caffeinated, and loud, or is almost painfully languid, slow-moving, and mournful--two states which to me can simultaneously index both ecstasy and anxiety.
DG: Your bio lists Mario Davidovsky as a primary teacher, someone who was such a pioneer in electroacoustic music (and who we sadly lost just recently). Since a lot of your music blends acoustic and electronic elements, was he a big influence on your work?
JOJ: I only got to work with Mario for one semester, but our time together made a huge impact on me and my work. I actually posted on Facebook after he passed away about one crucial lesson I had with him; if you don’t mind, I’ll share an excerpt of it here:
While I was at NYU, I studied with Mario Davidovsky for a semester—Spring 2006. I was writing an opera fragment at the time that opened with 3 minutes of stark, simple music—major thirds, F to A—on solo piano. I tried to think about how to develop these miniatures into a much larger piece, and I found myself both lost/apprehensive and also intrigued by the challenge of building something massive and mythological from something tiny and glistening.
At our first lesson, Mario reacted to my major thirds by affirming their restraint, by helping me articulate and flesh out the aesthetics of emptiness and loneliness that underscored this impulse. He also asked me, for the next lesson, to write out as many Fs and As as I could—to think of every possible way to orchestrate and consider and represent this interval (the implied tonic and its mediant shadow). I did this, painstakingly, and it sliced deeply into my entrenched ways of thinking and working, and gave me an important new way to think about (seeming) simplicity. The purple color of F, and the soft red shadings of A, ran even deeper and more luminously for me after this effort, and absolutely contributed to the last movement of my (much later) piece “Sylvia Songs,” among other things. I really do think about that lesson all the time. And that particular third will always have a certain valence.
DG: The first half of Reflect has an intense rhythmic drive. Am I far off in detecting some rock or pop influences, here?
JOJ: You’re right on the money! I’m a (semi-retired) percussionist who has played drums in a number of bands over the years, most importantly the band Renminbi (later named Magnetic Island), who were based in Brooklyn in the early 2000s. My bandmates (guitarist Lisa Liu and keyboardist/writer Sue Visakowitz) are still dear and cherished friends of mine, and we still talk and collaborate all the time; Lisa actually just tracked electric guitar parts for my upcoming opera “The After Time,” which includes many rock, EDM, and post-punk-influenced sounds. I have also written several pieces that explore pop idioms in a kind of experimental, dreamy way, such as “Dollar Beers” (composed for the Bang on a Can Summer Program in 2006) and the first song from my recent 2018 album Sylvia Songs (“New York”), in which I sample a cheesy 1980s ballad to index a particular time, place, and feeling in a way that only pop music can.
DG: In any case, browsing through your impressive catalogue of works online, a lot of your music has what’s sometimes called “extramusical” influences, almost autobiographical?
JOJ: That’s very true. I’m often telling and retelling the same stories in different ways through music. It’s absolutely a medium in which I play with narrative and memory, and experiment with different ways of thinking about my past experiences and reframing their emotional resonances. I’m also very interested in poetry, and many of my works take their cue from fragments of poems I admire. I also find the genre of poetry itself very inspiring for my music; sometimes entire worlds or oceans or stories with geologic timelines can become revealed by the sound of one simple word or phrase. I kind of do the opposite--I pile on myriad layers and stretch things for strenuous amounts of time--but I think it’s an impulse that comes from obsessing over singular words or sentences in poems, and emotionally processing everything that they conjure for me (such as Sylvia Plath’s phrase “how frail the human heart must be...a fragile, shining instrument of crystal, which can either weep or sing,” over which I musically obsess for about 45 minutes on my album Sylvia Songs).
DG: You’re from southern California?
JOJ: I am! I was born in Santa Monica, and later lived in West Covina, San Dimas, and Claremont before moving to New York for college. While I’ve lived on the east coast for 23 years now(!), California continues to loom large in my imagination, and inspires a great deal of my music. I’m also spending more time in Southern California these days because my partner lives in Santa Monica; it’s been fascinating to experience life there as an adult.
DG: What are you up to now? You’re balancing teaching at Wellesley with your composing activities, right?
JOJ: I am indeed, and it is a balancing act--teaching is an intense vocation--but I often find that my work with the brilliant students at Wellesley inspires my own projects and compositions in some very interesting ways.
DG: What music are you listening to these days?
JOJ: I’m currently listening obsessively to Jonathan Harvey, as I have a performance of his 1994 work “Advaya” coming up this weekend with cellist David Russell and pianist Eliko Akahori. It’s an amazing piece and a great reminder of how skilled Harvey was at bridging the worlds of electronic and acoustic sound. I’m also exploring a lot of minimal and classic EDM, as I’m currently trying to teach myself how to DJ with turntables--an idea that was sparked by the opera I’m finishing, which takes place in 1990s NYC and revolves around a character who loves going to raves and clubs like Tunnel (RIP). I’m currently working my way through several playlists made by friends who frequent underground, late-night dance parties in cities like Paris and Berlin, and I’m finding the music very inspiring, especially on a durational level. Finally, I’m *always* listening to 1980s pop music that would have been played on the Southern California radio station KOST 103.5, especially during the show “Love Songs on the KOST”--I’m especially into a Sade/Chaka Khan/DeBarge kind of mood these days.
DG: Thanks for taking the time to talk, Jenny... we’re so happy to feature your piece here, and hope to continue working with you for a long time to come! Are there any other ways our audience can hear more of your music locally or otherwise?
JOJ: Likewise!! I’m so excited to continue working with all of you as well! And I would be honored for anyone who is interested to check out my two albums on Innova Recordings, “Dont Look Back” and “Sylvia Songs,” which are available on all streaming services (Spotify/Apple/Amazon/etc). I also maintain a SoundCloud page where I post recordings of works premiered both recently and in the past which have not yet been studio-recorded; I’ll actually be adding some new tracks there shortly. Thank you so much for this conversation, and for playing Reflect Reflect again!
Daniel Godsil, composer and member of the Ninth Planet artistic committee, sits down for a conversation with Ursula Kwong-Brown. Hear Ursula’s piece Unwinding III plus much more at our debut concert Sat November 2, 2019 at 8:00pm.
DG: Ursula, we’re so excited to be presenting your work Unwinding III at our inaugural concert! The piece we’ll hear is a new installment, part of an ongoing series for you, correct?
UKB: Yes, Unwinding III is the third piece that I’ve written inspired by the craniosacral therapy process of “unwinding” - it’s something that’s been very important to me ever since I had a bike accident back in 2013, right after moving to Berkeley.
DG: I always enjoy learning how composers find inspiration for their work. I have to say, I’m extremely fascinated by your inspiration of this particular piece coming from physical therapy. Could you tell us a little more about this?
UKB: My music has always been driven by narrative. These “unwinding” pieces are all variations of the same story: landing on my head during the accident and undergoing craniosacral therapy as I recovered. Basically, the therapist holds your head in their hands, supporting its weight entirely, gently allowing the muscles to shift ever so slightly and release their tension. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.
DG: What do you hope to accomplish with the new version of this piece for Ninth Planet?
UKB: My first two “unwinding” works attempted to tell the entire story of my accident; it’s a classic dramatic arc, but it also spans a huge number of emotions, so those pieces are broken up into many contrasting sections. For this work, I decided to cut the whole beginning and simply start with the process of healing. There’s still a sense of building tension, but it’s all within the world of therapy: a sparkling wash of sound with repeated arpeggios and trills, and a rising melody that outlines minor seventh chords.
DG: You've been writing a lot for orchestra these days...how do you translate your thinking to chamber groups? Do find it difficult to deal with a more limited color palette?
UKB: That’s a great question! There are a surprising number of similarities between writing for orchestra and composing for a mixed chamber ensemble. The instrumentation for my piece is flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, marimba and piano: that’s a huge variety of colors to balance! The articulations and timbres are all so different - it’s not like the homogenous sound of a string quartet. It’s definitely a challenge and I didn’t get it quite right the first time, but the musicians were very kind to let me revise the piece after the first rehearsal. The Ninth Planet musicians are all superb players who are excited about being part of the compositional process. I feel very lucky to be working with them!
DG: You lived for some time in the Bay Area. Browsing through your music online, I came across a great piece you did at CNMAT called “In Transit” that seemed to integrate sounds from BART...what are you up to now, and are you finding the same kinds of site-specific inspirations?
UKB: So glad you liked it! That piece for the Black Cedar Trio was the result of a Chamber America commissioning grant for works that reflected community. Generally, my works tend to reflect my personal life, but I’m always open to other inspirations! Ironically, I just returned to trains, sound designing with my partner the world premiere of Stonewall for New York City Opera. The opening moment was a heavily-processed subway screech we created.
DG: Are there any Bay Area spots you miss?
UKB: Yes! I miss so many spots in the Bay Area. I miss driving down to the Berkeley Marina at sunset. I miss sitting on the beach and watching the dolphins swim past in Half Moon Bay. I miss hiking in Tilden Park. And I miss Berkeley Bowl! And the farmers markets. The produce in NYC simply doesn’t compare.
DG: You’ve said that you’ve decided to become more politically active; does this translate at all into your music-making activities?
UKB: Absolutely. Many of my recent pieces engage with issues that are important to me politically. “Cover the Walls” was based on Chinese poetry carved into the walls of the Immigration Detention Center on Angel Island. The orchestral version was premiered by the Berkeley Symphony last year, and a choral adaptation will be performed by the Pacific Chorale in LA at the end of October. “I should have taken the train” was my response to the #MeToo movement. It sets a true story of sexual assault written by my friend, Hannah Howard, using piano and recorded text. And I’ve recently started a work for soprano and orchestra inspired by women’s suffrage, both the uplifting aspects and the darker undertones of racial inequality and voter restrictions - all of which have resonance today.
DG: What music are you listening to these days?
UKB: No one ever asks me that! I’ve been listening to a lot of minimalist-related music, from the older guard (Philip Glass, Steve Reich, David Lang) and younger composers like Nico Muhly and Missy Mazzoli, to more electronic/ synth-based: Suzanne Ciani, Nils Frahm, CFCF, etc. It’s been a joy to discover new music through my partner, Danny Erdberg, who is a sound designer for theatre and dance.
DG: You’ve been involved with Ninth Planet in its various iterations for some time now... we’re happy to feature your piece here, and hopefully we’ll continue working with you for a long time to come! Are there any other ways our audience can hear more of your music locally or otherwise?
UKB: I’m very much looking forward to continued involvement with Ninth Planet! Uniting the performers of Wild Rumpus with the composers of Composers, Inc. opens up so many exciting new possibilities for collaboration and performance. If people are interested, many of my pieces are linked from my website, ursulakwongbrown.com. Also, the UC Berkeley orchestra will be performing a piece of mine featuring Ann Moss next spring (2020). Stay tuned!
Take a listen to the music of Expedition #1: Reflect Respond before we launch! You'll find this music to be exciting and groove-y, and downright awesome, but don't be fooled– the live experience is lightyears better.
Dan VanHassel, Balance of Power
Balance of Power opens Expedition #1 with a deep, otherworldly drone. Written for bass clarinet, percussion, electric guitar, cello, bass, and piano, the piece evolves from a minimalist trance into a groove-filled jam session between the instruments.
Kaija Saariaho, Cendres
Kaija Saariaho's Cendres, French for "ashes," is written for alto flute, cello, and piano. It is ethereal at points and passionate at other points. Saariaho masterfully uses various musical elements– pitch, rhythm, timbre, and more– to bring the listener back and forth between tension and release.
Ursula Kwong-Brown, Unwinding III
Kwong-Brown is presenting the premiere of her third iteration of her Unwinding series. Originally for string trio, Unwinding III employs a six piece mixed ensemble. Unwinding documents the composer's experience with a traumatic bike injury and the effects of craniosacral therapy treatment. The above recording is of the original Unwinding, which is considerably different than Unwinding III.
Eve Beglarian, Play Like a Girl
Play Like a Girl is based on the Bulgarian State Women’s Chorus's performance of Kaval Sviri. Eve Beglarian composed eight variations of the piece for various types of keyboards (including toy piano), which can be played in any combination or succession, generating tens of thousands of different versions of the piece. What will our pianist Margaret do during our concert? You'll have to go to find out!
Eve Beglarian, Until It Blazes
As a composer, Eve Beglarian can be described as very chill. She often writes music as a framework for performers– leaving lots of room for players to make their own compositional decisions. Just like Play Like a Girl, our guitarist Giacomo is given room to decide the fate of the composition– how it grows and how long it lasts. Enter the meditate state of Until It Blazes.
Jenny Olivia Johnson, Reflect Reflect Respond Respond
The main course of Expedition #1 is Reflect Reflect Respond Respond, written for a large chamber ensemble with two vocalists. It opens with an intense rhythmic tapestry, which then opens up to introduce the voices of Echo and Narcissus. Instruments and vocalists alike are amplified with delay to create simmering echo lines throughout the work. The recording above is the original (2012) version of the work, premiered by Wild Rumpus. The piece was revised in 2015, which will be the version performed at Expedition #1.
Enjoy what you heard? Experience the music live at Expedition #1: Reflect Respond:
For immediate release:
NINTH PLANET NEW MUSIC- the union of two established Bay Area new music groups, formerly known as Wild Rumpus and Composers, Inc - announces its inaugural concert: Reflect, Respond with works by Eve Beglarian, Jenny Olivia Johnson, Ursula Kwong-Brown, Kaija Saariaho and Dan VanHassel.
“We seek to continue presenting and commissioning exciting new music and particularly bringing attention to the work of younger composers,” says Nathaniel Berman, Artistic Director of the newly-formed Ninth Planet ensemble. “Our inaugural concert is centered around the work Reflect Reflect Respond Respond (Echo and Narcissus in reverse) by Boston-based composer Jenny Olivia Johnson. The works on the program are united by this theme of Reflection and Response: how do we react to the world around us, especially in the wake of transformative life events?”
The Ninth Planet’s core of nine players -- Jessie Nucho (flute), Sophie Huet (clarinet), Brendan Lai-Tong, (trombone), Mckenzie Camp (percussion), Giacomo Fiore (electric guitar), Margaret Halbig (piano), Mia Nardi-Huffman (violin), Joanne de Mars (cello) and Eugene Theriault (double bass) -- will all perform in Reflect Reflect Respond Respond, joined by the fantastic sopranos Ann Moss and Amy Foote, and conducted by Nathaniel Berman.
Composer Jenny Olivia Johnson will be present to oversee the electronics of her piece. Reflect Reflect Respond Respond (Echo and Narcissus in reverse), which was commissioned by Wild Rumpus in 2012 and revised in 2015. The work is an extended meditation on Ovid’s story of Echo, the nymph cursed to only repeat what she hears, and Narcissus, who loves his own reflection and is oblivious to Echo’s love. With live delay creating ripples in her already shimmering and canonic textures, the piece traces the emotional journey of the two figures’ doomed communication. Jenny Olivia Johnson is Associate Professor at Wellesley University.
Unwinding III, by Ursula Kwong-Brown – a Ninth Planet board member and former Composers, Inc. member – tells a personal story of recovering from a traumatic bike accident which left the composer with ongoing pain and memory troubles. The term “unwinding” refers to a craniosacral therapy treatment in which tensions of the muscular and nervous system are unravelled and the patient is left feeling light and free. An early version of the work for string trio was performed by the Earplay ensemble in 2017. This version will feature six members of Ninth Planet’s core ensemble.
Two pieces by Eve Beglarian highlight contrasting elements: Play Like a Girl, and Until it Blazes. The former, written for one or two or more keyboard instruments with pre-recorded tracks, weaves material from Bulgarian choral music into a twinkling spiral. Until it Blazes, played in this version on solo electric guitar with live delay processing, is a spellbinding journey guided by Beglarian’s simple patterns and the choices offered the performer.
The wonderful Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Cendres, a trio for alto flute, cello, and piano, delves deeply into the timbral world of the instruments, at times bringing them together and other times opposing them, to create a sound world that ranges from ethereal to sensual.
Finally, music by Dan VanHassel, one of the founders of Wild Rumpus. His Balance of Power juxtaposes funky, noisy percussive elements against a slowly unfolding chord progression. The result is a shifting sound world that is rich with color and catchy rhythms. Like all the works on the program, this work for sextet will feature core members of the Ninth Planet ensemble.
WHERE: Osher Salon, San Francisco Conservatory of Music
WHEN: Saturday, November 2. 8:00pm.
TICKETS: $20 general admission, $10 students/seniors/persons with disabilities. Available at the door or online at ninthplanetmusic.org
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music is wheelchair accessible.
Our first concert, Reflect, Respond, will present six works, including a few drawn from past and current commissions by Wild Rumpus and Composers, Inc. Dan VanHassel’s sextet Balance of Power plays funky, noisy percussive elements against a slowly unfolding chord progression, with the two sound worlds in a constant shift. Kaija Saariaho’s Cendres, a trio for alto flute, cello, and piano, delves deeply into the timbral world of the instruments, at times bringing them together and other times opposing them, to create a sound world that ranges from ethereal to sensual. Unwinding, a sextet by Ninth Planet’s own Ursula Kwong-Brown, is an aural reflection on the composer’s own process of treatment and healing from a traumatic injury.
Reflect Reflect Respond Respond (Echo and Narcissus in reverse), by Jenny Olivia Johnson, was commissioned by Wild Rumpus in 2012 and revised in 2015. For nine players (the full Ninth Planet complement), two sopranos, and live processing, the work is an extended meditation on Ovid’s story of Echo, the nymph cursed to only repeat what she hears, and Narcissus, who loves his own reflection, and is oblivious to Echo’s love. With live delay creating ripples in her already shimmering and canonic textures, the piece traces the emotional journey of the two figures’ doomed communication.
As a kind of extended prelude to Reflect, two pieces by Eve Beglarian that contain complementary elements: Play Like a Girl, and Until it Blazes. The former, written for one or two or more keyboard instruments with prerecorded tracks, weaves material from Bulgarian choral music into a twinkling spiral. Until it Blazes, played in this version on solo electric guitar with live delay processing, is a spellbinding journey guided by Beglarian’s simple patterns and the choices offered the performer.