Jenny Olivia Johnson: Interview

Jenny_Olivia_JohnsonWe last interviewed Jenny Olivia Johnson in 2012, when we originally commissioned Reflect Reflect Respond Respond. Soprano Vanessa Langer checked back in with Johnson, speaking more about her piece and her inspirations. Join us tonight to hear the revised version. You can learn more about Jenny Johnson’s music at her website.

Let me start out by saying we are thrilled to be performing this new incarnation of Reflect Reflect Respond Respond for Wild Rumpus. Even as it has its own particular challenges of endurance, it feels like a crossbreed of Wagner, Philip Glass and Bach.

That’s the most amazing compliment I’ve gotten in my life, as those are two of my paragons. I’m a huge Wagnerite despite all of his horrible politics and personality.

You are a native Californian?

I am from Los Angeles. I actually just came from there today, but I’ve been living in New York and Boston for a long time, but I’m a Southern Californian girl. I love the Bay Area though, God!

Well it sounds like you might be coming out to tinker on our upcoming album.

I would love to actually. I love recording. I just did my first album, and I just got obsessed with the whole studio process. It’s also something I would just love to learn how to do myself, be an engineer. That’s a weird aspiration of mine.

What was your source of inspiration for writing this piece, and why do you feel you had to communicate this body of work at this particular time?

I wrote this piece in 2012 and as you know I just re-did a big arrangement of it, but when I think back on the original impetus of this piece, it was really about teaching counterpoint. It was about teaching theory, about teaching Bach chorales and becoming newly obsessed with what those chorales meant to me as a composer, and especially the Jesu meine Freude set, because Bach set that melody in E minor so much. So I became obsessed with teaching through that chorale, through those different settings of it. For me, it’s incredibly sad, and I was interested into in the concept of sadness. What does it mean to lose something? What does it mean to obsess over something that you can’t have, and that erupted for me over this melody that you could set so many different ways, but each way being a different lens into this idea of loss. So I wanted to express all of the various lenses of the different Bach settings that I had studied as a kid into this piece about loss. I wanted it to be this multivalent repetitive delayed miasma about loss. And I wanted it to be this ecstatic version, because that is something I have studied a lot when I’ve done scholarship on trauma. I’ve thought a lot about the energy that is generated around negative feelings and sometimes that energy can be very euphoric. Sometimes it can be the energy that propels you into a new state of being. And so I wanted to think about sadness and loss as this sort of propelling energy to a new phase of life. I wanted to look at sadness from a lot of different angles. That’s when I took this idea of the Jesu meine Freude chorale and set in a repetitive, energetic, intense, circle of repetitions and had these idea of delay lines that would mirror it out into the universe and create this energy that would be propulsive, that would propel you into another state.

In terms of loss and euphoria is there a point in the piece that the transformation happens that the audience can look for?

Well you know after the singers sing “Jesu meine Freude…will you sing my sad songs…if I can’t touch you let me gaze.” That for me is a transformational point where it’s clear that actually what I am experiencing is not real. But let me still gaze upon it, let me still experience this simulacra of my emotional state in the most intense way I possibly can, even though its not real. That intensified, repetitive fast part ‘let me gaze upon you’ which I gather is really hard for the musicians to do, to me that is traumatic repetition. That’s the repetition compulsions. That’s the compulsion to repeat because, as Freud writes in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” we have this drive to repeat things that are traumatic for us that we don’t yet understand. There is a weird way in which we gain another kind of pleasure from trying to understand where we come from, even though we know we don’t have all of the information around it. We gain pleasure from the pain of the past. For me, that’s the point at which the piece hinges and turns toward the recognition of loss.

What can you tell us about the instrumentation you chose?

I was really excited about the idea of any stringed instruments as plucked tear drops, that was something I was playing with vis a vis my studies of Purcell and early music. What we the call the affect and lear, the theory of affects, different types of keys and also instrumentation techniques for evoking emotions is something I wanted to play with a lot. But at the same time that I was obliquely reference early music I was at the same time interested in a big sound. And so at that point and this point as well, what ever you guys have I’m going to write for it. So when Dan said, “Okay, here is out new band,” I said, “I’ll take them all!”

Your mythological reference to Narcissus and Echo and the play between self love and self destruction is a really fascinating one. Is that personal?

It hit home. I had been teaching a couple of classes on psychology and music, psychoanalysis in music. And I was interested in the concept of narcissism and what that means. And you know it always has this very negative connotation. You know, “Don’t fall in love with a narcissist, you are going to get your heart broken. And everything terrible is going to happen to you.” And in a way I’m thinking we are all narcissists. What does it mean to examine that, examine the idea of having a relationship with yourself and examining having a love relationship in which you really confront yourself. Which I think is what happens in all love relationships. I wanted to concentrate on that feedback loop of what happens when you are examining yourself and what happens – why is that necessarily good or bad. I wanted to remove the reductive veillance that our society gives narcissism and think about the fact that we are all narcissists, we have to be constantly examining ourselves when we interact with each other.

In a way, it’s impossible and in a way all of these terrible things that can happen to you when you confront a narcissist or your own narcissism are so important. It’s so rich you know, and I wanted to celebrate that richness. I didn’t necessarily want to just write a morality play about this. It’s just an inevitable fact about being a human being. You are going to be a narcissist and run into narcissists.

In a way we are discouraged from being narcissists. It’s so sad that we are taking selfies of ourselves but in a way with or without the camera we are always doing that. Everybody that we encounter is a selfie because we are always getting reflections of ourselves off of other people. And learning how to acknowledge the other with the inevitable fact that we are going to be “selfie”-ing with the other, always!

Favorite book?

Well Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a favorite no doubt. It’s a beautiful science fiction book about adolescence in space, having to engage in a battle that they don’t know they are fighting. They think they are training to fight a battle and then they find out they are actually fighting this other species and they kill them. And actually that’s what this tattoo is on my arm with the carrots. What happens is that this young genius is charged with killing this race of insectoids, these aliens that are like insects. And he thinks he is training. He doesn’t know that in fact he is going to destroy their planet and destroy their species. But there is one cocoon left that he eventually discovers after the war and it communicates with him telepathically. And the way that that telepathic communication is indicated is with these carrots around the word yes. And that is the word that the cocoon conveys to him. Yes you have found the right spot for us. Put us here so that we can eventually regenerate and regrow. So for me this idea of intuitively knowing something is right is very powerful. And having somebody else just be able to communicate that yes this is right telepathically is like a load stone for me. That is everything.

Dream project?

Oh man, well it’s funny, my girlfriend is writing an opera that she wants to put on a beach and I think that is so great, but that is her dream project, so I’m not going to take that on. For me a dream project is actually having an opera in an art gallery, in a hall of mirrors, and the audience has to be in that hall of mirrors and it’s very disorienting. Definitely sight specific opera, like the Industry in L.A. what they are doing in limos and cars is blowing my mind. That kind of opera really excites me.

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