here we are now (2002) by Jennifer Walshe. For voice, cello, trombone and percussion. Commissioned by Sudwest Rundfunk (SWR), Germany. Performed by Jennifer Walshe, Anton Lukoszevieze, John Kenny and Dirk Rothbrust at the Donaueschinger Musiktagen, October 20th 2002. 


A great deal of my music, whether vocal or instrumental, has been influenced by my experiences as an improviser. I have been living in Chicago for the last five years, and have had many opportunities to perform with different improvisers around the city, and these experiences have profoundly affected the way I think about sound. Improvisation gives me the opportunity not only to be immersed in a situation of complete sonic focus, but also to test-run ideas for pieces in real time. I go to a gig and find myself singing fragments of the piece I was composing earlier in the day - the result is an extremely intimate relationship with the sounds. Ironically, my compositions do not involve a huge degree of improvisation in performance; once I choose and hone the sounds, I spend a great deal of time working on systems to notate them as accurately as possible.

The sounds I use, whether as a composer or improviser, often stem from popular music. (I use the term “popular music” to cover music from a wide variety of genres – pop, rock, hip hop etc. – all of which falls under the “popular” rubric.) It is the wide variety of voice-types found in popular music which appeals to me most. For the last two years I have taught classes on popular music and gender at Northwestern University, and one of the analytical focuses of the classes has been how meaning can be constructed through vocal timbre. Artists such as PJ Harvey, Björk, Janis Joplin and Mary J. Blige, for example, paint every single syllable and note of their songs with different parts of their voices. Drawing on semiotic theory and the ideas of scholars such as Roland Barthes, Philip Tagg and John Shepherd, my classes have examined how, for example, the use of hard nasal timbres has specific connotations with regard to sexuality and power. This has in turn led me to examine not only vocal sounds but all musical sound in a semiotic context, and to look at the connection between sounds and their meaning in everyday life.

Many of the sounds that I am concerned with are connected to specific situations, whether physical or psychological. I hear these sounds as being intensely personal, and as a composer try to isolate them by scrubbing away as much of their emotional context as possible and placing them in a new one. A screaming sound can be the result of fear, rage, laughter or ecstasy. It's more interesting to me if the context is not made explicit, if the listener is left to deduce or supply their own. Of course, removing all sense of context is impossible - there will always be a residue, whether in the sound or our perception of it. If these sounds were a 40-page document, pages 3, 5-11, 13, 16-24, 27, 29 and 31-38 would be missing.

In here we are now, I wanted to create a situation in which the four performers were placed onstage together, playing in the same time and space, but rather than performing as an ensemble, were absorbed in their own private worlds. Together in their isolation. I composed the piece by writing four solo pieces, one for each performer. Each piece was written independently, without reference to any of the others, and without trying to conform to any specific structure or situation. When the four pieces were finished I placed them side by side, manipulated and edited them together to form one piece for four performers. The listener is free to choose which performer(s) they wish to focus on at any given time.

-- Jennifer Walshe, Chicago, USA, 2002