The irreverent, agitated and deeply serious productions of Jennifer Walshe | ET REALITY


A few weeks ago, Jennifer Walshe was backstage at a concert hall in Essen, Germany, looking for an exit when she stopped near the green room. She strapped on a double bass bow, ready for the evening’s performance; Attached to it, wobbling in the air, were several black and white balloons. Walshe smiled and pulled out her phone to take a photo.

This esoteric musical device had been prepared for a new piece, composed by Walshe, which would premiere in a few hours. Called “Some notes on Martian sonic aesthetics, 2034-51” invites a chamber ensemble to pose as a musically trained team that has established a colony on Mars and is transmitting performances to Earth.

While researching the piece, Walshe, 49, said he had asked NASA how sound waves travel in carbon dioxide-rich atmospheres (“you don’t hear high frequencies”). He had also requested that packages of freeze-dried food be placed on the drummers’ tables, so that the audience could hear the sound of the astronauts chewing, along with cans of compressed air to imitate the hiss of airlocks opening and closing.

And balloons filled with helium? Here to make the double bassist’s bow feel 60 percent lighter, as if he were playing in Martian gravity. “I’m a huge science fiction fan,” Walshe said as he walked toward the street. “I want things to be as accurate as possible.”

Although the Mars piece may be otherworldly, by the standards of Walshe’s work, it is not that extravagant. In 2003 she produced a 35-minute opera, “XXX naked girls live” whose protagonists were Barbie dolls manipulated by puppeteers, whose voices were female vocalists. In 2017 it came “My dog ​​and I” a piece for cello, dancer, cinema, electronics… and the cellist’s pet, who curled up on stage.

A few years later, Walshe began working on a tribute to his homeland called “Ireland: a data set” partly created by feeding fragments of “Riverdance”, Enya, James Joyce and the Irish Sean Nos. popular song in a songwriting engine generated by artificial intelligence. In the piece, which Walshe described as “a bit of a strange radio play,” the results are played alongside video mixes and an instrumentalist and vocalists performing skits, one of which pokes fun at Irish American tourists visiting the country. in search of his roots. .

It would be a mistake to think of these pieces as jokes, but not entirely wrong: a streak of anarchic humor runs through much of what Walshe does, as well as a taste for frenetic, Dada-style theatre. She often appears as a vocalist in her own pieces, makes accompanying films and writes screenplays and essays, in addition to her day job as a professor of composition at Oxford University.

“It’s hard to keep up with him,” said critic and broadcaster Kate Molleson. “Her mind is very restless and inquisitive. “I can’t think of a composer more interested in the way the contemporary world works.”

Walshe said she sees what she does as a way to pay attention: “I want to be present, curious and engaged,” she said one night over dinner. “The work is how I do it.”

Born in Dublin to an artistically inclined working-class family (her father worked for IBM, her mother was a writer), Walshe began as a trumpeter, initially in local youth orchestras, before studying the instrument at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. .

In college, she said, she felt like an exception: She practiced, attended concerts, and worked on her own compositions, but she was also fascinated by the visual arts, literature, film, and a million other things. These obsessions were “considered my strange hobby,” she said, laughing.

He felt most at home when he did his graduate work at Northwestern in Chicago, discovering not only avant-garde composers and performers like La Monte Young and Laurie Anderson, but also the city’s bustling comedy and free jazz scene. Despite never having received vocal training, she began singing and improvising, and the limits of his creativity exploded.

Walshe believes that almost anything can be material: text messages, memes, irritating conversations overheard on the train, Old TV Shows and Movies Discovered on YouTubeonline message boards, Samuel Beckett and the gang Only one direction They have all appeared in their work.

The other week, he said, he was asked to record his dentist performing a procedure: “By the time you say, ‘Let’s pay attention to this and see what’s going on,’ maybe it’ll be something interesting.”

But it would be a mistake to interpret his work, extraordinary as it often is, as irreverent for the sake of it, Molleson said. “There is real compassion and tenderness there. And he is fascinated by big themes. Take AI, which she was exploring a decade ago: she was miles ahead of most of us.” For all her antics, the performance of “Some Notes on Martian Sonic Aesthetics” was a disconcertingly moving meditation on the loneliness of space exploration.

Later this month, Walshe will travel to the northern English city of Huddersfield, where she will be the resident composer at its annual contemporary music festival. “Ireland: A Dataset,” released online during the coronavirus pandemic, will have its first in-person performance on November 24. And a gallery will house the collaborative work “Aisteach: historical documents of the Irish avant-garde”, an archive of sound clips, videos, musical scores and texts that aim to document a forgotten history of Irish experimental art, which he has been working on since 2015.

Needless to say, it’s all a bizarre fiction, concocted by Walshe and a team of collaborators (“aisteach” is Gaelic for “strange”). But “a lot of people have been fooled,” he said, laughing.

The festival will open on Friday with another recent work, “Personhood,” created with accordionist Andreas Borregaard. It explores what individual identity looks like in an era of relentless technological surveillance, where many of our movements are tracked and much of our data is mined and extracted.

According to Walshe, Borregaard and the ensemble are instructed to perform choreography as if they were controlled by a “cult of the mind.” The director will be equipped with the type of clicker used by dog ​​trainers and there will be references to the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

A reflection on what it feels like to cling to individuality when tech corporations seem intent on trying to turn people into biological fodder for algorithms, “Personhood” is both funny and deeply serious, like much of Walshe’s work.

“Maybe it sounds serious, but the way I think about my role as an artist is to try to look at the world around me and process it,” Walshe said. “That’s how I understand what’s going on.”

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

Until November 26;

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