Nine Questions: for Jenny Olivia Johnson
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!
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