Composer Jennifer Walshe on researching the concepts and sounds of time for her new opera, celebrating its German premiere at MaerzMusik.
When Jennifer Walshe took the stage of MaerzMusik in 2017, she gave voice to DNA microarray machines and solar winds with her piece Everything Is Important. This year, the Irish experimental composer and vocal artist made it her goal to stage the concept of time, no less, with her latest opera Time Time Time featuring Matmos’ M.C. Schmidt and others.
Do you worry about time?
Time causes a lot of anxiety in people’s lives, especially now when there’s a Victorian obsession with being productive, using your time well and being able to squeeze more time out of time somehow. Tim Cook from Apple apparently gets up at 3:45am every single day, like what does that even mean? At what time must he go to bed? Also, so much human energy has gone into such obsessions like Easter being on the right date. You really look and you go, “God, we’re idiots.”
You’re known for doing a lot of research.
It’s really an excuse just to gather ideas and think. I spent an awful lot of time over the last year and a half rewiring my brain to think about deep time, going to natural history museums and places like the Isle of Wight, which is the number one site for dinosaur bones in the UK. I also went to the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, the UK centre of atomic clocks. It’s been a huge amount of work, but also very satisfying and interesting.
Any curious anecdotes from your research?
One day I was in this “hall of evolution” and they had this rock, and there was a sign saying, “This is one of the oldest rocks you’ll ever touch.” And it’s sort of a bit greasy because people have been touching it. And I’m standing there looking at this rock, and my phone beeps and it’s my friend and it’s a message that says, “Fuck my life, I just had an allergic reaction to anti-aging face creme.” A sublime experience.
How did the research translate to music?
Part of the research about how dinosaurs might have sounded leads me to certain recordings and listening to what we call living fossil animals like crocodiles. We reckon they’re just about the same as they were 250 million years ago. So, you’re listening to these elephant rumbles and cassowaries and crocodile sounds, and you think, okay, this is probably in the rough direction of what a dinosaur would’ve sounded like, and I start extracting pitches from it and slowing them down and speeding them up and playing around with that.
Any compositions that come to mind if you think about time?
I studied with [US experimental composer] Michael Pisaro, so I saw a lot of really long and sparse pieces back then, like an 80-minute piece by Antoine Beuger in which maybe 11 times a flute just went “huh” – that was it, nothing else, and the score says for the last 20 minutes just “silence”. I saw a lot of pieces from Wandelweiser composers that really pushed the envelope.
What were your criteria in finding musicians for your opera?
Having good free improvisers in the band is really important to me, and how they deal with time because they have to construct things live, and they have to be very aware of the context and the space that they’re in and how the energy is feeding into that trust in each other to literally build things together in time and allow other people to witness that.
How will you make the concept of time tangible for the audience?
Everybody in the audience will get an ammonite shell which they’ll keep afterward. It’s an object that’s 140 million years old. We’ll also ask everybody to switch their phones off, not airplane mode, completely off, because we’re hoping to have a machine that this German company made called QED which demonstrates quantum entanglement. It’s a very boring-looking machine, it’s very small, but it really does untangle the particles live. And we know that even just to ask people to do that is slightly terrifying. For every performance, we’re also working out where the planets are in relation to the stage. Planets are much nicer things to hang on to than what time your phone says it is. We’re trying to situate where we are in space, working out what are the GPS satellites above and what are the cell towers, so when all the phones get switched off, we know which cell tower goes, “Hey! 700 cell phones just went dead.”
Time Time Time Mar 24, 20:00 Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Wilmersdorf