Jennifer Walshe is one of the most important composers of her generation.
Her chasmic practice encompasses free improvisation, instrumental composition, multimedia opera, AI collaboration and fabricating the history of the Irish avant-garde, the singular through-line being the life-affirming indexing of the human experience as it evolves exponentially through the unsettling times we live in. She is a pioneer of bringing the internet into the concert hall, discussing what it truly means to be alive whilst information zooms through our every waking, sleeping and dying moment like shooting stars in the sky or microplastics in the sea.
Her now-seminal text 'The New Discipline' has been revolutionary for a new generation of composers finessing over what it means to write music for other people, people with bodies that are messy, fallible and non-mechanical in performance. Ahead of Andreas Borregaard's performance of 'SELF-CARE' at VIRTUALLYREALITY presents: Care, artistic director Michael Brailey spoke to Jennifer Walshe over Skype where they discussed the term 'post-internet', the TV show Catfish, love and AI, spam, politics circa 2016/2017, being on a plane, the beauty of euphoria, timestamps of 'LIKE A B0:55' on YouTube brostep tracks back in 2011, and a whole lot more.
photo by Blackie Bouffant.
Andreas Borregaard performing Jennifer Walshe's SELF-CARE, 2017.
"To dismiss the internet as trashy, fluffy
and unreal is to dismiss life as trashy,
fluffy and unreal.
- Jennifer Walshe
[MB] I wanted to open by asking you about your recent performance as part of Tectonics in Glasgow. You were presenting the UK premiere of a new-ish piece of yours, ‘The Site of an Investigation’. How was that for you?
[JW] It was quite fantastic! Going to Tectonics was a deeply profound artistic experience but also profound personally as I was a student in Glasgow and hadn't been back since. I went round to all the flats I used to live in, some of which are in areas that are now gentrified and have sourdough avocado toast available, but some are in neighbourhoods which are still a bit rough, which took me back to some rough experiences I had as a student. It was great to trace them back, and then to get to perform with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra who are such a nice group of people! They have a great morale and are really generous with their time, and Tectonics itself is really well curated. I’m not just saying that because I was performing there - I don't know any other festival where the focus is on orchestral music but also on totally weird free improvisers, so it’s a special one for me.
[MB] To me, the piece is weirdly sobering in some ways. Was that intentional on your part?
[JW] I wrote the piece in 2018 and while I was working on it, a childhood friend of mine passed away. That, of course, soaked in to the piece and became one of its defining themes as I always try to write about the times we live in and be present in the world through my work. There’s lots of things in that piece - grief, plastics in the ocean, precarious work situations, travelling to Mars, quotes from Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook post where he says he wore a tie every day for a year to remind himself of his responsibilities to make Facebook a safer place… it ranges over a lot. I’m glad that you found it sobering as sometimes, I don’t think we have the language in 'new music' to deal with using material we associate with the internet. I think the internet is not something separate from us, it’s something we’re completely interpenetrated with. A lot of new music is totally taken up with the internet at the moment, but to dismiss the internet as trashy, fluffy and unreal is like dismissing life as trashy, fluffy, and unreal.
[MB] A lot of art which aligns itself with this post-internet way of thinking often has this idea of 'amount' associated with it - the infinite vastness of the internet or space or time against the unequivocal index of each living being. I wondered if that’s a sort of dichotomy that you are aware of and work with in your practice?
[JW] It’s funny you say post-internet as I was talking to Olia Lialina recently - one of the early, very important net artists - and we were asking ‘what is the new term’? After Brexit and Trump being elected, it seems like we are onto the next phase. Is it post-post-internet? Is it digital [laughs]? It’s very confusing. We’re kind of post-post-internet as we all operate in this field of information all the time, and as you say, it can feel quite overwhelming at times. How do we deal with having access to this vast archive? I’m curious how it will feel for composers in 20 years who have always grown up with that.
[MB] There’s a lot in this idea of overwhelm which resonates with me through knowing your work, particularly with the idea of spam which I take from a bit of writing by Hito Steyerl called ‘Spam of the Earth’. She talks of spam as the emancipatory shadow of humanity for showing us what we are not through its inability to represent us, con us. I read it really recently at like 3am in a club when I wasn’t enjoying the music and, for some reason, thought I needed academic stimulation.
[MB] You’ve spoken a lot about your interest in sounds that people might not deem as beautiful but which you find beauty in, so I was wondering if you think of your music as a spam of sorts?
[JW] That’s an interesting connection that I’ve not made! I’m definitely interested in any sort of detritus or trash. I used to live in New York and I was a demon for going through bins as people there throw out all sorts of really fantastic stuff; I still have books or photographs that I found. There’s something evocative about this for me, and I have found a soft spot for spam ever since my mother phoned me up one time saying “I just got this really distressing e-mail from a Nigerian man and I’m really worried about him!”. She really read it as ‘this is a human being speaking and I must pay attention to him and feel compassion’. The flip-side of it for me is how a lot of spam is machine-learning-lite, AI-lite. Spam will catch my eye as I can see how it has often been generated by Markov chain generators to almost resemble regular text, but not enough. Just enough so our spam filters won’t recognise it.
"Falling in love with a digital construction
of a human being, a still image - not
even a video - is something we’ve
flung ourselves at."
- Jennifer Walshe
except of 'ULTRACHUNK' by Jennifer Walshe and Memo Akten, performed at Somerset
House (London, UK) as part of ASSEMBLY 2018.
[MB] That’s a nice segue to talk about the work you’ve done recently with neural networks. I read recently in an interview with Contemporary Music Centre Ireland that you think the question ‘what does making music mean in an age where computers can make it for us?’ will define music made in the next 20 or 30 years to come. Annoyingly, I wondered if you could prefigure your answer to your own question [laughs].
[JW] [laughs]. I just think everything is going to change. I’ve read/listened/thought about this a lot over the past few years and have spoken to a lot of important post-internet music and tech people about it. I definitely think that over the next few decades there will be AIs which can make film music, genre music, music for games and pop music that will function perfectly well for humans. Instead of Hans Zimmer having 20 people who write a library of themes for him - and that’s not me throwing shade at Hans Zimmer as I do actually like his music - there will be someone simply choosing the best outputs from neural networks instead and there will be jobs for that. A lot of the grunt work of music - writing 27 hours of synth work for video games - will be done by AI. Whether people use it to write music or not, people will have to contend with it socially, culturally, politically. There will be composers who don’t get a mortgage because a neural network has evaluated their mortgage request and turned it down. There will be composers whose lives - or family members' lives - will have been saved by AI predicting the onset of breast cancer up to five years in advance. I do believe it’s going to change our lives, and that it is the next thing for us to deal with.
[MB] You worked on a project with artist Memo Akten called ‘ULTRACHUNK’, a piece for yourself duetting with a neural networked doppelgänger. What is it like to perform with a neural networked version of yourself?
[JW] It’s totally fantastic, completely natural and completely unnatural at the same time. You know those moments when you are on a plane and think "OH MY GOD I AM ON A PLANE! I’M IN A METAL BOX FLYING THROUGH THE SKY AND IT’S BEING CONTROLLED BY COMPUTERS TO MAKE SURE IT WILL GET WHERE IT NEEDS TO GO VERY PRECISELY!"?. There were times in 'ULTRACHUNK' where I would just be responding as I would normally do to another musical presence, and times where I had to stop and think ‘this is a neural network, not a human being’. We're going to have to develop new words to describe the experience of collaborating with something that is a code construct rather than a human being. I think about Catfish... you know, the film or TV show?
[MB] Yeah, I’ve seen it! What a movie [laughs].
[JW] It’s amazing! I’ve watched so much Catfish episodes on longhaul flights to the US and it always ends the same way. I only think I’ve seen one episode where the person on the other end turns out to look like their pictures, but the love is still there, still real. As humans, this idea of falling in love with a digital construction of a human being, a still image - not even a video - is something we’ve flung ourselves at. When people start falling in love with AI and rely emotionally on AI to get them through the day, we’ll have to think about what that means for human relationships. At the same time, there are going to be corporations who are going to monetise everything and mine it all for data. I neither think it’s the best or the worst thing, it’s just something really interesting that’s happening to humanity.
"There's something very old - 200,000-
years-of-human-evolution-old - about
what it means to hear vibrations at
the same time. Euphoria will never
not be important."
- Jennifer Walshe
teaser video for Jennifer Walshe's 'THE TOTAL MOUNTAIN', 2014.
[MB] Talking about love in that way takes us neatly onto the title for this event, ‘Care’. The germ for this came from speaking to a composer I’m sure you know called Michael Pisaro...
[JW] He was my teacher!
[MB] He spoke to me about the intersection of caring for sound and for people. The stereotypical composer model is to tell another body to do something, and I wondered how much you’ve struggled with that or wanted to uproot it? Where is care situated in what you do?
[JW] This idea of a composer who tells other people what to do is a relatively recent Western concept. Bach and Mozart were involved in performing their own music but it’s notable now that a composer performs - no-one ever says "what’s the deal with Prince? He performed his own songs!". I’m more likely to describe myself as a musician rather than a composer-performer which a lot of other people have described me as. I’m very interested in working with people and allowing people to be people rather than saying simply ‘this is a flute’. I do a huge amount of free improvisation and the way people relate to each other in that community is very different to how it happens in the conservatoire composers-and-their-performers model. To play devil’s advocate, you can’t get an orchestra to play a piece of music without a hierarchy especially when there’s only a three-hour rehearsal schedule, so it is necessary in some situations.
[MB] How did that care manifest in the creative process with Andreas Borregaard for 'SELF-CARE', the piece we are programming?
[JW] Our paths crossed so many times and I was thinking about Andreas a lot while writing. I’m 5’3 and he’s this hugely tall Danish guy who, when he jumps, really jumps. He’s an accordionist, but he also has red hair and a beard and is very tall and slim and is slightly shy and a wonderfully warm person; all of this was important to me when writing. The other backdrop to it are the Trump elections and the time immediately after that. We were discussing politics and that feeling that everyone had back then when you felt like everything was being overturned, especially as musicians who cross borders and what that might mean for us. At that time, I was living in London filling in forms which asked for all the places I’d ever lived, and as a musician who travels 26 weeks of the year I couldn't even bear to think about where all of those details would be. Side-by-side, I was downloading and reading the US reports on possible collusion with Russia to try and understand it all. There are direct quotations in the piece from those forms I had, and there’s this big explanation in the piece where Andreas tries to explain what cryptocurrency and bitcoin is. I really see 'SELF-CARE' as a late 2016/early 2017 piece - trying to make sense of the world by assimilating all this information in so much detail because you can’t trust the news anymore.
[MB] It's funny... trying to process all these channels of information like a prism taking in light and splitting it into digestible colour, dealing with it all side-by-side in this superimposed, collage-y way - the way you describe that really reminds me of my mentality towards DJ sets. Elements in DJ sets come and go, there are moments when you are reminded of extra-musical things outside of the club, and then the DJ plays an acapella which everyone sings along to and bonds you all as a crowd. It’s all geared towards this idea of making us ‘feel something NOW!’. Can you relate to that idea of euphoria in your own way?
[JW] I have a friend which works for a company which does so much of the track analysis and music information retrieval for Spotify. He’s also an ex-Michael Pisaro student! Spotify are trying to figure out where the drop is in songs - that moment of euphoria - and the fastest way to figure it out is to look at where people fast-forward to.
[MB] It’s funny you say that as when I was at school, the bro-y dubstep was in its heyday and the amount of YouTube comments on those tracks that would read “LIKE A B0:55” to timestamp the drop always being at 55 seconds was unreal.
[JW] Exactly! People are like “get to the euphoric bit!”. There’s something beautiful and life-giving about that way we listen to music, even if it’s the crappiest dance banger ever. I do like having these moments of completely lush euphoria in my music. I always quote Bruce Sterling who says the texture of the time we live in is ‘dark euphoria’ because it’s extremely exciting and terrifying at the same time. At the end of ‘The Site of an Investigation’ there’s a crappy house track about going to Mars and when I’m performing it, I’m so, so happy! It’s really important to remember the importance of euphoria in all music. I felt that euphoria when I went to see a Bernard Parmegiani piece where this huge electronic sound is surrounding you from everywhere and you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. There’s something very old - 200,000-years-of-human-evolution old - about what it means to hear vibrations at the same time and move at the same time, or how our mirror neutrons fire out in the same way. Euphoria is never not going to be important.