It is a pleasure to begin this new series of "Listening To" posts with Jenna Lyle, a composer and vocalist from Carrollton, Georgia. Jenna currently resides in Chicago and is pursuing a Doctor of Music in composition at Northwestern University. I recently presented a few questions to Jenna about breathpiece, an intense work for voice, cello and double bass. Her responses provide insight into a compositional process that draws upon extensive investigations into breathing and the impact of breath upon the body, instrumental/vocal techniques, and the resultant sounds. Jenna also talks about important artistic influences including the painter Pierre Soulages and singer-songwriter Tom Waits. A complete recording of breathpiece and the interview are posted below.
DB: How did you come up with this somewhat unusual instrumentation?
JL: The piece was commissioned by my friend, bassist Scott Dixon, in the Spring of 2011. He wanted a piece that we could perform together and gave me the option of writing for bass and soprano or bass, cello, and soprano. Since we live in different cities, I thought it might work best if I wrote a piece whose main elements he could work up with a performer in Cleveland and then add me (the soprano) in a smash-up, weekend-long rehearsal session. I'm working a lot lately with concepts of intimacy and community, and I wanted a situation where at least two performers were able to spend some time together developing that intimacy as an ensemble. So the instrumentation was one of geographical practicality, really. The string parts are very tightly knit, and I wrote the soprano as kind of a narrator fairy who flies in at the last minute with a new timbre.
Aside from that, there are some sick cellists in Cleveland, many of whom I've had opportunities to work with. The cellist in my soundcloud recording, Daniel Pereira, is an extremely versatile performer who brings a wonderful enthusiasm and physicality to the things he decides to invest in. Both he and Scott are, much to my delight, two spectacular performers who are able to balance technical precision with deep conceptual reflection. I knew they would have no trouble living in the conceptual world of the piece.
DB: Were there any extra-musical or conceptual ideas that informed your compositional approach?
JL: Oh my. This is always a tough question for me. I'm not what you might call a "focused" composer when it comes to concepts. I usually start with one idea, and then the more I work with the piece, the materials begin to develop a life of their own--so I go with that. And then I live my life and experience things, and they become part of the piece as well. I'm not opposed to letting a work wander off somewhere weird. I'd rather do that than hold so fast to my concept that I limit the possibility for growth somewhere else. I try to keep the idea of aesthetic unity somewhere in the back of my mind while I'm working though, so that occasionally keeps me in check.
The work's concept actually came from the way that Scott approaches his instrument. His rootedness in Feldenkrais techniques is evident in his bowing. In our work sessions, we discussed the way he connects bow strokes to breath, breath to the rest of his body, and body to the ground. I wanted to write a piece highlighting his particular sense of body awareness, where the musical materials themselves became somewhat corporeal. The piece quickly became about breath.
In my reflections on the idea of breath, I did a lot of sitting alone in the dark, listening to myself breathe, and watching shards of light peek through the blinds in my living room (*This is precisely why I've never been great at having roommates.*). And I became really obsessed with this painting by Pierre Soulages (Painting 220x336cm, 14 May 1968):
I was interested in the way that the large, connected, dark gestures in the painting point more to their foundation, the white space, as a primary material rather than to their own existence as materials. And breath, I guess, is a foundation, like the white space in the painting. Breathing isn't something that you instruct your body to do. You breathe or you pass out. It's how you exist. To isolate breathing as something more materialistic than foundational, I tried to create a setting in which my own breath was the loudest thing I could hear. So I covered my ears with my hands. There I was, sitting in the dark, hands over my ears, thinking about Pierre Soulages, and looking an awful lot like someone most people would worry about. And that became the piece! The sound that results from covering your ears and creating a pressure vacuum is a low rumble and kind of a high, barely-present hiss. Breath, in such a context, is piercing, even though it's relatively involuntary.
Timbrally speaking, the qualities of the cello and bass make them perfect to purvey the low rumble and high hiss while the high voice actually IS piercing breath. Eventually all three transform into one another. I was also inspired by the way that Soulages brings attention, not only to the final visual product of his work, but to the gestures and apparatus with which it was made--In a way, making a piece out of what's left over from his physical process--giving both the leftovers and the process equal billing. Something similar happens in breathpiece, where (1) the timbral world itself is imitating the sonic refuse of silence, and (2) certain sounds are simply the results of specific instructions for movement and breath.
What tied everything together for me was the harmonic material (not that it's extremely prominent) which I nabbed from a few bars of Tom Waits' "Ghosts of Saturday Night [After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House]" and then tweaked for my own purposes of leaving strings open, etc. It's a song from my favorite album, The Heart of Saturday Night, where the lyrics are basically a list of everything that's left over after a night of whatever there's been a night of.
And then I actually wrote the piece, and it materialized into something of its own...out of leftovers!
DB: There is an intense physicality that seems to define breathpiece, a raw, course quality that stems from the dramatic gestural content as well as the constant presence of indefinitely pitched sounds/noise. With this in mind, would you talk a bit about how you worked with the instruments (the voice included) to develop the material for the piece?
Beginning with my initial timbral idea (low rumble/high hiss/piercing breath), I set about working with Scott (via phone and various trips to Cleveland throughout the year), and Chicago cellist Russell Rolen to explore the methods they as string players might use to achieve the sounds I wanted, methods I might not have considered. In my sessions with them, I watched their movements and tried to orient them on a spectrum of intensity--intensity of bow pressure, intensity of breath, range of motion, speed, and a few other variables which I've forgotten now. And I looked for relationships between all of them and considered how I might exploit those relationships, build new ones, turn them upside-down, or morph individual techniques into one another. Underpressure of the bow on the string, for example, might seem like an un-intense technique, but it actually requires a lot of control on the part of the player and results in an unstable sound which, in the right context, can be kind of nerve-racking. Then I might ask for a double stop, where the player puts less pressure on one string and more pressure on another string, allowing one string's resonance to disappear into the other.
As I discussed in some detail above, I was definitely inspired by the idea of movement and breath as materials themselves that might result in indeterminate sounds. As a result, there are a few sections in the piece where the performers are instructed to move and breathe according to diagrams in the score, and then further instructed to listen to their own breaths in relation to each other's. As an added layer, I wanted to expand the concept of 'body awareness' established early in the piece with breath consciousness and movement instruction to 'instrument body awareness.' In the final section of breathpiece, I actually climb a stepladder to open and close chromatic gates on the bass while the player performs double stop harmonics. It's partially practical, because I actually wanted a chromatically descending passage of double stop harmonics, but it also serves as a means of relationship-morphing between instrument and performer/performer and performer.
DB: The use of the voice in conjunction with the other instruments is interesting - the voice sometimes stands out, punctuating phrases or sections, and at other times it blends seamlessly with noise sounds in the strings. Was there a particular formal strategy with regard to the voice?
JL: Practically speaking, the voice had to be its own entity. As I said above, "The string parts are very tightly knit, and I wrote the soprano as kind of a narrator fairy who flies in at the last minute with a new timbre." The high female voice in breathpiece balances and creates a nice contrast to the inherently low tessitura of the cello and bass. At the same time, the three are capable of existing in the same register and executing techniques that result in similar sonic effects...a lot of possibility for contrast and combination.
Formally, I wanted the voice to mark sections in the piece and to instigate and respond to events in the strings, and vise versa, with all three performers eventually coming together to form one instrument. Additionally, the opening vocal cadenza outlines the form--or at least the energy of the form, breaths inward and outward, strained and relaxed, are placed linearly in imitation of the way breathpiece builds up and releases tension.