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Interview with Jenny Olivia Johnson

Our countdown to this Friday’s concert continues with Jenny Olivia Johnson, a composer and drummer/percussionist currently teaching at Wellesley College. Her new piece for Wild Rumpus is reflect reflect respond respond.

Can you tell me a little bit about where you’re from and how you got started as a musician?

Sure, I’m from California, from Santa Monica originally, and then I moved to Claremont when I was nine years old and went to school there. My last year of [high] school, I went to Idyllwild Arts Academy, and that was a formative time because that’s when I started composing.

I didn’t know you went to Idyllwild; that’s awesome. I went up there once and it seemed so magical.

Yeah, [I went] just for a year but it was quite a year. It’s a small arts school up in the San Bernardino Mountains and I went there as a percussionist; I was always a drummer and a percussionist in band and orchestra. That’s the place where I realized it was possible to start composing. I did and it was an amazing year of my life.

It was a really lucky coincidence in a lot of ways. I went there for a summer camp—they have a music summer school thing for two weeks and my percussion teacher, Bill Schlitt, was the teacher up there and he’s the one who brought me up there for the first time. At that stage I was just a teen and I had no idea this would become so important to me. It was a perfect storm of a situation; my parents had to move to New York for my mom’s work and it was too late for me to enroll in school there. It was in August when all these decisions were made, but I had to be at Idyllwild for the camp and I just auditioned while I was there. It also turned out that somebody had asked me to audition a year earlier for the school and my parents said no. I had been playing this Joseph Schwantner piece, which I loved—and the mountains rising nowhere—which has this huge percussion battery and so I was playing that and the pianist who was playing it noticed me and said, “You should apply for school here,” and I said, “What?” I didn’t even know there was school there or the idea was totally foreign to me, I was so clueless. But it all ended up working out in the end. It was an amazing experience.

Was that the year you started composing, too?

Yes indeed. I had been doing some creative music-making of a sort before that with my Casio and my tape recorders, but at that stage I didn’t take it seriously, it was just a hobby. Just making weird sound collages. But when I finally got to Idyllwild and I saw that other people were doing that—namely, a jazz bassist who had written his own piece for his recital, which I thought was just incredible. I went and talked to him and said, “You wrote that? You wrote that by yourself?!” and he said “Yeah,” and I said, “I never ever thought about doing that, but I’d love to,” and he said, “Well, you gotta do it.” And that was all it took, somebody to say to me you gotta do it, those little words. Ray Clemens was his name. He is a great bass player. Thanks, Ray.

In college, did you keep playing? Did you keep composing regularly?

I did. I auditioned for the Columbia Orchestra, and I got in and I was very happy because I knew I was competing with grad students. It was just a lucky thing, they needed a lot of people that year. I kept playing in orchestra. I was also writing this really weird piece that I had started the summer before. God, it’s a long story, but it was a spoken opera and all my friends were involved. People I went to Idyllwild with, a lot of them had moved to New York or nearby, including the visual artist Nate Lowman, television writer Angelina Burnett, and cinematographer Ava Berkofsky. Nate and Ava were in my band in high school. Nate came to New York to go to NYU and he played guitar in this piece. I was writing that piece for a long time, and we finally actually put it together. We produced it by ourselves; I went and got a job to pay for the production costs, which were about $2000, to put it on in someone’s apartment/theater in Koreatown. We did it! We all just put it together by the skin of our teeth. It was a lot of fun.

I kept doing stuff like that, and then finally I got it together to take some music classes at Columbia. Barnard, where I went to school, had a tiny music department, so everybody who wanted to do theory and composition especially had to go over to Columbia, which was great for me. I finally ended up taking some counterpoint classes with Jonathan Kramer, who later became my teacher. Nothing cohered until the end of college, when I started taking real lessons and writing for ensembles that were hired from Juilliard, and really working with musicians who had been classically trained rather than whoever I could grab. All the people I initially worked with were great, but a lot of them were rock musicians. In a way, I have been trying to return to those roots of writing hybridized rock and classical and experimental music that I initially did when I was at Idyllwild and early college, but it wasn’t until late college that I started working with semi-professional musicians.

I’m curious whether you feel that all that early time you spent as a percussionist and a drummer influence the work you do now. I know that you and I have discussed in the past our share of 80’s-type things, and you mentioned working with Casios and tape recorders. I’m curious if you could talk about how your early sound world may have affected your later sound world.

My love for repetition and slowly evolving forms comes from being a drummer and from finding uniqueness within repetitive patterns, and just being obsessed with that kind of continuity—what’s possible to shift within a very static sound field. Trying to work within a very fixed rhythmic grid, trying to work harmonically in a way that’s interesting. The actual harmonies themselves that I tend to favor come directly from the pantheon of 80’s music that I adored. My experiences listening to radio in the car—somehow I just always feel like that was a big part of what made me into a composer.

I wonder if some of that comes from growing up in southern California. It’s such a freeway culture. At least for me, so much of the music listening I did was in the car. So much time was spent in the car.

I’ve never thought of it that way, but I think it’s a huge part. I spent so much time in the car, whether it was going to school every day or just with my parents, going to work. They had to drive at least three or four hours a day from where we lived to downtown LA. We were always just in the goddamn car. Radio became this very familiar presence. It was a subject in my life.

When you commute that long, you almost don’t have time to listen to music at home!

It was rare that we did! When we got home, it was the baseball game, the news, the TV. Once in a while, my dad would pull out the Elton John records and play them really loud, or the Beatles, but I didn’t really learn how to listen to music just for its own sake, on tape or CD until I was eight or nine, which is pretty late for a musician.

I think for me it was more like college!

I still feel kind of pathetic about my music [listening habits]…I mean, I have a ton of CDs but it’s not really a part of my habitual life to put a CD in. It’s more likely that I would turn the radio on or go for something random. Just turn on some object that makes noise and see what happens. I think you really hit it on the head in terms of the earliest musical influence [being] the randomness of the radio. It’s not that random; it’s Top 40 and songs that you hear over and over again—

But to us there’s still a moment-to-moment uncertainty as to what will come next.

There were also stylistic and genre continuities to the different stations that my parents programmed. There was always the easy listening station, the classic rock station. But more the easy listening station. KOST 103. “Love Songs on the KOST.” I used to listen to it at night, falling asleep, because I thought it was so interesting that people would call the radio. To me, the radio was like God. It’s like you’re calling the ether and saying “please play my song.”

I remember calling in to make a request to the radio and what a thrill it was, to know that your song was going to be played all across the Southland.

Later on, it became KROQ’s Loveline, that show where people would talk about their issues, and I had a friend call in who actually got on the radio with the Poorman and Dr. Drew. It was a big deal…Even people talking is a big musical memory for me. Like Dr. Laura and her crappy advice, and some other guy who would just talk about politics, Reagan administration. I have these very deep memories of listening to commentary.

I think [one thing] from that particular memory does carry over, which is that I tend to set text—I [often] write vocal music but I don’t often care what the voices are saying. I often choose words for their Formant value—their timbral value. Obviously, there is some scaffolding of meaning that accrues to the texts that I choose because I’m thinking about this story, and I’m piecing together the lyrics and the poetry, but I don’t even call it poetry because it doesn’t serve that function. It’s more a gateway to a certain sound of a voice. A certain lilt and cadence.

For you, music often has a strong visual connection. Are you synesthetic?

I am, and it’s a weird thing. I’ve written a lot of about synethesia; my dissertation was about synesthesia. In recent months, I’ve given up thinking about it so much because I got just burned out from all the research. I also became—I really hit this crossroad that a lot of synthesia researchers who are not in neuroscience reach, which is that it’s this completely subjective, perceptual experience that one cannot verify and is actually hard to describe in any meaningful way. I often feel that people ask me, “What color is this chord?”, and I tell them and they’re like, “Wow, what about this chord?” and they think that I have perfect pitch and I’m like, “No, actually, I don’t.” I have very strong associations with certain pitch sonorities and pitch collections but it’s actually more timbral, there are so many different factors and parameters that I can’t even really sort it out.

The reason I’ve stopped trying to figure it out is my figuring it out was becoming a deterrent to me using it as a tool. Its chief value to me is that I use it as a tool to compose. I knew, for the piece I wrote for you, for instance, that it had to start very red, and so I chose appropriate pitches and appropriate timbres and rhythms to some extent. I chose lengths of phrases based on that, types of color shifts that I was imagining. But I know that doesn’t have meaning for anybody but me. Unless I were to accompany it with something visual.

It’s a tool, a language for you.

Once in a while, especially in the piece that I wrote for you, for the first time, I was really wishing I could have somebody choreograph dance to it. I really see dancers. This is the first time.

Listening to the piece, it feels very grand in scope and I can only imagine that once it’s paired with the delay lines that will be even more of a thing. I could easily picture it having a very visual dimension to it. Maybe we could do it again, get some people!

That would be phenomenal. That’s the next step for me. I have a year off; I’ve been blessed by Wellesley with an early sabbatical. It’s blowing my mind! I feel it’s really incumbent upon me to take this time to figure out all the things I’ve always wanted to do and said, “Oh, if only I had time or space or whatever I would try this,” and really just frigging do it just for once. That’s something that I really want to think about, types of collaboration I haven’t tried yet. Dance is definitely one I have not tried and would love to. There are others. It’s interesting this is all coming together at this time in my life. Maybe down the line we could do this again; I would advocate for something like that. We’ll see how it is in the concert version.

We were talking about your text and your relationship to text, and you alluded to the piece you wrote for us. Can we talk about that a little more?

Most of my pieces that involve these types of voices, and there’s a few of them, I have a story in my head and, it’s not a straightforward narrative at all. It’s a collection of tableaux, and usually what happens is I start piecing the work together—stitching it, really—suturing it with different random word ideas or phrases. The phrases usually come from some other poem or some other person’s work, but I’m usually culling other fragmentary lyrical ideas from a variety of different texts that usually have nothing to do with one another.

One of the cases in point that I always think about is a piece that I wrote in 2005 called Leaving Santa Monica that is a combination of texts from Luce Irigaray’s [When Our Lips Speak Together], a post-structuralist feminist essay about lips and about multiplicities of identities and sexuality. I took one sentence in French from that and I paired it with some of my own text, and I also quoted the Song of Songs here and there in an English translation from King James. I was literally shovelling all this stuff together and for some reason it made sense to me and I can’t really explain why. But that’s usually how my pieces come together.

Your piece is no exception. What happened is I started writing these lines, these triadic lines, in a combination of Ab and Eb Major, and I was kind of singing them up and down. I was thinking, this kind of reminds me of “Jesu, Meine Freude.” I don’t know why, it doesn’t have anything to do with it musically, but those are the worlds that I was hearing to it. So I just went with that. I followed that initial weird impetus and it became a story unto itself. It became another dimension to the story, that the two people in question, these mythical creatures, were also choristers. I started thinking about the orphanage that Vivaldi taught at in Italy, and student choir members, because that’s a large part of my student body here [at Wellesley]. It was all just conflating from a variety of different narrative ideas and experiential things that were happening to me at the time. That was one part of it. At the end of the piece there’s this Latin from the Narcissus myth. I was just piecing it together from Ovid, taking out fragments that I thought sounded good, that to me suggested emotions like loneliness, sorrow, despair, but also colors. I chose a lot of words based on the color. That’s how it came together. It’s an opera that doesn’t have a straightforward story; it’s more a collision of different emotions and colors.

You can learn more about Jenny at her website, or just come to the concert, because she’ll be there!

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