Female Agression & Theatre
Broadway World Interviews:
Voice-Box‘s Juliet Palmer talks Female Aggression and Theatre
November 12, 2010
By Kelly Cameron
Voice-Box is being billed as a competitive concert in a boxing ring. Unique and ground-breaking this show is from the team behind the critically acclaimed Stitch and is a genre-crossing, interactive performance that will blow the lid off gender and power dynamics. The show seeks to combine boxing with the power of the singing voice. It unites the talents of choreographer Julia Aplin, writer Anna Chatterton and composer Juliet Palmer. Together they seek to defy assumptions about female aggression as they unveil the woman’s power to withstand blows and go beyond expectation.
BWW spoke with Juliet about what audiences can expect, and about her thoughts on the issue of female aggression:
This is the North American Premiere of VoiceBox, could you give us a rough idea of what audiences can expect?
Voice-Box takes the form of a fight night – but what those fights might be range from a tango to an operatic duel to. I don’t want to say too much as I would like there to be some surprises in the show.
This is a unique piece of theatre that combines boxing with the power of singing – one thing that people seem a bit unclear on is whether there is actual physical contact taking place in the show. Could you explain?
Last night I got hit in the head and I’m just the announcer! It was unexpected, but not out of the realm of possibility. So yes, there is physical contact in the show. Some of it involves free-form sparring, other contact is more choreographed, but inspired by the technique and form of boxing.
What types of singing can be expected in the show?
The singers are an incredibly talented bunch whose experience embraces gospel, R+B, opera, early music, throat singing, free improv and jazz. I try to draw on this richness in the music I’ve created for them – from a full-throttle operatic sound to gutteral chanting.
Finally, the show states that it “defies assumptions about female aggression” What does that mean to you? What kinds of assumptions are tackled?
In researching the world of boxing we learned some pretty provocative things. There’s a tendency to think of women as victims of violence, but there’s strong evidence that women can be as aggressive and violent as men. For instance, the rate of domestic violence in lesbian relationships is not significantly different from that in straight relationships. What happens when we ignore this potential in women? It seems that it’s often children who then become victims of female aggression. How does boxing fit into this picture? I think that giving women a space and a container for their violent or aggressive impulses both empowers women to experience their own strength and to understand how to channel it positively.
Juliet Palmer, 2011
For Canzona magazine
Once upon a time, a family travelled by ship to a tiny coastal settlement in New Zealand. As the ship came within view of the shore, mother and daughter clutched each other and wept, longing to return home.
After flying for hours over the vast Pacific Ocean, a sliver of land comes into view just below the wing of the plane. Panic and relief rush through me as I wonder, how will I ever manage to leave again? And yet, how good to see that first tiny glimpse of home.
The first arrival is that of my great-great-great-grandmother Flora and her daughter Juliane in Port Ahuriri from Copenhagen. The second is my own childhood memory of return after several years of living in Singapore. Both images summon the conflicting emotions of the journey away and towards home. Why do I still feel like a New Zealander after twenty years living in North America? How did I end up making my home in Toronto — and what does home even mean?
My teachers at Auckland University’s School of Music imparted a strong sense of New Zealand identity alongside an awareness of our place in the wider world. John Elmsley — fresh from studies in Brussels and Liège with Henri Pousseur and Frederic Rzewski — connected us to compelling current compositional ideas in both Europe and North America. Our ears were opened! Later on Sue Frykberg appeared seemingly from out of nowhere (Canada, actually). Sue had a very different approach to composition – she was an outspoken feminist, creating works which mixed audio technology with domestic technology, and showed me that being an artist, travelling and working overseas were all possible.
Another incredible window on the world was the university library’s audio collection. This was in the days before you could download anything from anywhere onto your iPod! After spending hours trying to glean some pleasure from a stack of LP’s of East Coast U.S. “heavyweights” — Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions — I stumbled upon a record of American ‘Electronic women’ from the ‘70’s. It was pure gold, a real turning point for me as a composer — a galvanizing mix of early guiro-scraping Laurie Anderson, fellow New Zealander Annea Lockwood’s collage of animal and sex sounds, and Pauline Oliveros’ ground-breaking ‘trance music’.
Adding further fuel to the fire and to my desire to spread my wings was Phil Dadson, my professor in time-based art at Elam School of Fine Arts. Phil serendipitously introduced me to pianist Nurit Tilles after a concert by the Steve Reich Ensemble in 1990. Nurit suggested that I get in touch with Meredith Monk and go to work for her in New York. And so I did, spending five months as her intern in 1991. I was her apprentice when she created and premiered Atlas at Houston Grand Opera. I was fascinated by the way Meredith handled interdisciplinary work on an enormous scale.
Once I was living in New York I got in touch with Annea Lockwood. Although she was a New Zealander, I had barely heard of her except for that one rare LP in the library. And then…there she was in person, at a café in the West Village, so supportive and encouraging — she made anything seem possible! Annea defied a lot of conventional thinking about music, and it seemed, back then, as though she’d been written out of New Zealand music history. By the time I met her she had made her mark in England with the Piano Transplant series and The Glass Concert. Once in New York her acute sense of timbre and place revealed themselves in works such as A Sound Map of the Hudson River and World Rhythms
During my doctoral studies at Princeton University, visiting composer Eleanor Hovda inspired me with her way of dancing sound into space. I remember a solo piece in which she bowed a cymbal for its entire duration, a meditation on the blooming overtones and shifting timbre of the resonating metal infused with the gracefulness of cross-country skiing. Eleanor encouraged me to understand my music as a way of understanding myself – who I was and where I had come from: a kind of personal sonic geography. I started to think about tectonic plates, volcanoes and disjunct sonic worlds.
“…how many sojourns, the gathered feet, the flight of horses,
the vein of railway, the stray of airplanes,
we brace our transience on the hurtling planet…”
Dionne Brand’s poem, painted on an alley wall in Toronto’s Somali neighbourhood, is part of a large mural project celebrating the UN Declaration of Human Right. Article 13 upholds the freedom of migration, a freedom which has seen Toronto grow to a metropolis of over five and a half million people speaking over 140 languages, a place where successive waves of immigrants are creating a 21st century Babel. I am one of those immigrants, having made my home here since 1998. Although peak oil looms and climate change adds a guilty tinge to our wanderlust, we continue to zip about the globe, disrupting ties of family, land and identity — global citizens on the lookout for opportunity and new beginnings.
The opportunities I have had to make for myself in Toronto are a big part of the kind of work I do. I arrived a few years out of graduate school, too old for the competitions which Canadians use to rank and star-spot composers. When I arrived in Toronto I was met by general indifference from the composing establishment. One composer welcomed me with the comment “Just what we need, another composer”. By contrast, the dance community responded with curiosity and warmth. Perhaps they could understand more readily where I’d come from — the Meredith Monk connection and my association with the Bang on a Can Festival helped. Choreographer Bill James gave me my first gig – two works in Water Sources, an outdoor festival of interdisciplinary works created for public water features. Composer Peter Hatch (artistic director of the Open Ears Festival) heard my music and reached out to support what I was doing. I’ve found it’s the smaller ensembles and soloists — Continuum, Toca Loca, Eve Egoyan — that take more risks. They’ve made it possible for me to act on Louis Andriessen’s advice to “write what I want to hear”.
The abundance of talented singers in Toronto has profoundly shaped my growth as a composer. Christine Duncan, a true vocal chameleon, brings her five-octave range to works fusing gospel, throat-singing, bel canto and everything in between. I first collaborated with mezzo-soprano Vilma Vitols on Room. Performed in an outdoor sculpture at the edge of Lake Ontario, the music is punctuated with her deft flamenco footwork. Flotsam & Jetsam proved Vilma’s dedication with a chilly sub-zero video shoot in the waters of Lake Huron. Most recently, our relationship bore fruit in Voice-Box, spurred by Vilma’s dual talents as an opera singer and amateur boxer. The number of Toronto companies supporting new opera creation is remarkable: Tapestry, Queen of Puddings, Toronto Masque Theatre, Soundstreams, among others. It also means smaller collectives (like my own urbanvessel) have a larger context in which to create new work.
The notion of sonic geography still fascinates me — listening for the distinct sounds of New Zealand’s birds, but also the tram bell in Lisbon, the scrape of a snowplow in the middle of a snowy Canadian city, and the resonant ping of stones bouncing across a frozen lake. An understanding of acoustic ecology influences sonic identity, but so do the complex strands of culture. We don’t create in a void — identity flows from the language and forms with which we give shape to musical thought. We want to be part of a conversation which will be understood, and so we adapt our mode of communication to make sense to those around us. History plays a large part in this. In Canada there is a strong link between composers based in Montréal and those in France. English-speaking composers, by contrast, speak a musical language closer to Dutch, British, or American composers. Perhaps it sounds more like the actual language we speak — rhythmic, clipped, terse. A coherent national identity seems less and less possible (or even relevant) in a country as geographically and culturally vast as Canada.
Since founding urbanvessel in 2006, I have produced a series of works blending dance, music and theatre. These performances often find their inspiration in the urban environment – from a sweatshop and the city streets to a public bath and the boxing gym. As global migration alters our perception of home, I am moving towards a creative process which relates to our immediate community — to people, place and space. Brand’s poem underscores my own quest for belonging: I am one of those countless “inalienable nomads, global citizens…heartsick for the true world, compelled to place we search for place.”
Should young composers travel and seek inspiration away from home? That decision is a personal one, and will be different for each composer at different times in their life. When faced with turning points in my work and life, I often recall the advice my teacher Louis Andriessen gave to me: “Fear is a bad counsellor.” Don’t listen to fear when it tells you not to do something. It’s probably the best reason, artistically, to tackle something new. I find I’m often in a state of terror as I leap into the void. Exhilarating.
— Juliet Palmer (2011)
Opera Canada Profile
Artists on Stage: Juliet Palmer
Sep 22, 2010
Boxing, we’re told, is the quintessentially male sport. Joyce Carol Oates, in her 1985 book On Boxing, even says this: “Men fighting men to determine … masculinity … excludes women as completely as the female experience of childbirth excludes men. The female boxer violates this stereotype and cannot be taken seriously–she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous. …”
Toronto composer and sound artist Juliet Palmer, a founding member of the interdisciplinary performance collective urban-vessel, disagrees. Palmer’s Voice-Box, with librettist Anna Chatterton and choreographer Julia Aplin, is about women who box, and it takes them very seriously indeed, using boxing as a metaphor for making a distinction between violence and aggression, and for understanding the positive value of aggression.
“Aggression is a very gendered issue,” says Palmer, who initially came to North America from her native New Zealand in 1990 to work with Meredith Monk in New York, earning a PhD in composition from Princeton in 1999. She now lives in Toronto. “If a woman is aggressive, she’s often sidelined. But positive assertion is how we act in the world, how we get things accomplished.”
The initial idea for Voice-Box, commissioned by Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, came when opera singer–and accomplished boxer–Vilma Vitols approached Palmer about bringing the worlds of opera and boxing together.
“It took us a while to find the form for Voice-box,” says Palmer, whose previous works with urbanvessel include Slip, a site-specific performance for bathhouse (performed at Toronto’s Harrison Baths), and the much-acclaimed Stitch, an a cappella work for three female singers whose central metaphor is a sewing sweatshop. “Often there was the urge to push towards narrative, which wasn’t helpful. We’re exploring the structure of the sport–it’s more of an event than a story.
“It was a collaborative process, with the librettist there from the beginning. We spent time in the gym experimenting with training routines and vocal improvisation to see what impulses were triggered by the physical language of boxing.”
The piece, structured in a series of “bouts,” involves four protagonists (yes, there’s some real boxing) and, as in much of Palmer’s vocal writing, shifts fluidly between styles, exploiting the particular skills of its performers–improviser, jazz and gospel singer Christine Duncan; actor and opera singer Neema Bickersteth; actor, comedian and boxing coach Savoy Howe; and Vitols, whose expertise ranges from Baroque opera to contemporary music.
“I write specifically for different performers, and I adapt what I’ve written in collaboration with them,” says Palmer, whose chamber and orchestral music is more abstract and complex than her theatre music. “If they have great improvisational skills, I make sure they have that option; if their strengths are in interpreting precise notation, then I do that. The challenge is in how those different voices can share the same space. Each has a different emotional register that I want to access.”
To expand her understanding of the voice in dramatic contexts in different cultures, Palmer has studied South Indian singing, Japanese folk singing and Georgian singing–to name a few. In Voice-Box, Duncan uses Tibetan throat singing to make the idea of aggression clear in the music. “It’s in your face and uncomfortable,” says Palmer, “a deep, multiphonic sound that’s non-feminine and aggressive.”
There’s also a chorus of grunting sounds taken to extremes, an operatic duel, a tango, an electro-acoustic score that recycles sound endemic to the gym and the sport–bells, punching bags, squeaking ropes–and a cheesy, pre-recorded boxing theme.
That theme goes public for the first time when Voice-Box premieres on Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage Series in Toronto, Nov. 10-14. We hear it’s a knock-out.
This article first appeared in the Fall issue of Words + Music magazine
Playfulness in Music
STEENHUISEN: In your dissertation, you write that it’s “a defense and celebration of the playful in music and art”. You mention a number visual artists (Jeff Koons and Marcel Duchamp, for example), but I’d like you to talk about examples of the playful in music.
PALMER: At the time I wrote that, I was very excited about C.P.E. Bach’s music. Its over-the-top rate of change borders on the comic. I wanted to look at his music more closely and understand how it works. I was also drawn to Franco Donatoni’s music because his outward stance was so playful, though I suspected it was a kind of deep silliness. I wondered how his music might manifest that attitude. His piece Refrain hints at jazz, but it isn’t jazz: it teases you into listening in a way where you’re going to be frustrated, or disappointed, or surprised. That approach intrigues me because I’m interested in music that isn’t what it seems to be. For me there’s no appeal in writing a piece that’s a convincing example of a particular style. I’d rather write a piece that seems like it’s one thing and then it’s not. It fools you. Then your whole understanding of the genre or style is altered. It’s that alternation between different states and different ways of thinking that attracts me.
Frustrating expectation. I started thinking about it as an oscillation between different states. In that oscillation energy is released. Think about a kid’s game like Peekaboo. What’s so funny about that? I mean it’s just…someone’s there, and then they’re not. And yet it’s hilarious. So, an alternation between two extremely different states can bring humour, but humour is extraordinarily perplexing to comprehend or to plan.
What’s an example of humour in contemporary music?
I find a lot of my own music funny.
Humour is pretty subjective though.
It is, and highly contextual. A lot of it has to do with timing, but obviously humour relies on a language that people share. If you’re using a gesture, which to that particular audience has become hackneyed or a signifier of a certain situation or language or style, then the way you use it can have a humorous effect. But if your audience isn’t party to that, then it’s lost. How is Beethoven funny? Or the Haydn symphonies? It’s hilarious how they end because there’s a convention of the cadence, but he repeats it the nth degree so that it becomes ridiculous.
I’ve never thought of Beethoven as funny.
What would you consider to be unplayful in music?
Music that takes itself so seriously. Rather, the composer takes themselves so seriously that they lose sight of the connections between their own art form and the outside world, or other art forms. There is no sense of a play between ideas — it’s just a presentation of technique, or a manipulation of musical materials.
How did this become an issue for you? Did you feel there was an absence of playfulness in contemporary music?
Yeah, that’s why I was talking about a defense of playfulness, because I felt there was this pressure to be serious, to somehow embody a particular set of ideals that made your work Authentic Contemporary Music. That was very interesting to me.
Were you reacting to your own choice to go to Princeton, one of the more serious places?
It is and it isn’t. Steve Mackey, who I studied with, has an incredible amount of humour in his pieces. Ideas that are just off the deep end. He has an orchestra piece where at one point there’s just this recording, quite a hokey recording, from a boombox, of his dog barking, which is so well integrated that it goes beyond any gimmick. I guess that’s what I’m talking about by playfulness — not necessarily humour, but allowing your imagination to take flight beyond convention.
What’s the line between that and entertainment?
There’s still an element of seriousness involved in the endeavour. What we’re playing with is our ideas. Before coming to Canada I had heard that Cirque du Soleil was an incredible postmodern circus, so when I saw them I was really disappointed: it’s just entertainment. There’s no deep intellectual rigour to what they’re doing.
How are these ideas evident in your own work?
Many of my music theatre works are obviously playful. For instance, back in 1999, I went to the composition atelier Voix Nouvelles in France. Les Percussions de Strasbourg were there that year, and somehow or other, I ended up having to write a music theatre piece. I immediately thought of Maurizio Kagel’s music theatre works, but from everything I’d seen, I really disliked them. I didn’t find them at all funny, though I felt they were meant to be funny. So I took upon myself the challenge of exploring that language — all the more tricky as the piece was entirely in French. It was a way too of reappraising Kagel. The audience seemed to find the piece funny, although the material they were confronted with was quite bleak. Of course humour can be a way to approach material you otherwise couldn’t face head on. In this case it was the futurist writings of Marinetti glorifying speed and violence. One stand-out line says people should ‘follow a constant hygiene of heroism and every century take a glorious shower of blood.’ It’s a high-macho position that I wanted to subvert.
What piece is that?
It’s called Bloodshower. I ended up with a weird, almost sadomasochistic relationship between the two performers. They work with Marinetti’s text, a drumset and some very everyday objects: a ton of beer bottle caps, a lot of water, buckets, chairs, jars… In the final scene they’re just sweeping the floor, cleaning up, singing a bizarre love song: “and yet it feels so sweet to cause you pain”. It’s a painful text, but it’s presented in a humourous way, so that it sneaks in, and you can digest it later.
Kind of like how some games are really borderline funny, but also disconcerting?
Disconcerting is a very good word to use. Someone once said that my music almost grooves, but never lets you feel like you’ve quite got a grip on it. Either I’m a louser groover or, more to the point, I’m interested on riffing on the idea of grooving. How do you set that up and then thwart someone’s expectations, disconcert them, so that there’s a gap between what you expect and what you get? I believe that in that gap, people enter into the piece. I think if something is too expected, there’s no room for anyone enter into a dialogue. You neeed to have some kind of discrepancy or flaw that lets people into the music.
Do you think things like timing and expectation change with the decades?
Acting and singing styles definitely change. And certainly, timing is key to a lot of those changes. So, yes, it’s certainly possible. If you’re wondering whether those changes might affect how a piece is received in the future, I’d say I’m not so worried about posterity. That’s more a ‘composer-hero’ thing. But I think performers are adept at making sense of music from the past, at adjusting the music’s pace to our own. In 1990 I worked with a Chinese poet called Gu Cheng. His poetry was simple and jarring, very present-tense — a bit like graffiti. I wrote a couple of pieces with him including Self for three percussionists. It’s a very physical piece, where the performers’ movements embody the text. At one point they run as fast as possible around the entire percussion battery playing and speaking. Their panting afterwards is as much a part of the piece as the sounds of the gongs.
When you’re talking about the pieces it’s as though the elasticity of thinking and that quality you’re looking for really is concentrated more on theatre than it is on how you deal with materials.
No, not necessarily. I think it manifests itself that way in a music theatre piece, but in a concert piece like Mother Hubbard it was the compositional process itself that was playful. I wanted to see what would happen when I cut together instrumental transcriptions of found sounds with the original source material from the internet. If I cut them into small enough pieces and mixed them, would they start to form a new substance? In a way I’m playing a game with these materials, and the listener and myself get to judge what the result of that game is. Does that seem like a game to you?
Yes. It has that quality.
It was an experiment: how much would I edit that process before it was presented? Mother Hubbard is one of the more raw examples that I have unleashed to an audience. The piece is different every time because the ensemble is not chained to the CD part. They’re just playing along separately — when they collide, they collide. If something beautiful happens that’s serendipity. If I did that piece again, I’d like to deal with individual sound files and silences, with some triggering from the ensemble or conductor. Still playfulness and unpredictability, but more causality .
One consistent factor in your pieces is that they constantly look outside of themselves.
Absolutely. For me to sit down and play a chord on the piano, starting at the beginning, and to go from there plucking pitches from some beautiful pure soundworld hovering around me…I don’t work like that. There will be something that strikes me in my everyday life. Take the sound in Mother Hubbard. The computer part all comes from one little audio clip of the Quebec Summit protesters that I found on CNN’s website. The other sound is a burst of digital distortion which my computer added somewhere along the line. What pulled my ear to that particular clip was the incredible emotional depth in such a flattened sound. The sound quality is really wretched, but there’s this amazing sense of so many people gathered together to fight this huge machine of corporate globalization. Just the sounds of their voices and their drumming were incredibly moving. More recently I wrote a piece for l’Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal, and was inspired by being sandwiched between Stravinsky’s Firebird and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. I ended writing a piece called Buzzard, which is a hideous-looking bird that doesn’t even sing. The music is completely scavenged from those two pieces.
So, in looking outside of the pieces, you’re wanting to tap into signification?
Yes, I’m not interested in a pure music. I’m very engaged in the world around me. I don’t know if it’s a political music. That’s a very slippery term. I’m not sure whether political music even exists. But, I certainly can’t separate my political concerns from the way I would approach music or what would motivate me to write a piece. You don’t want to beat people about the head on an issue, but I also don’t want to put my time and energy into something that is simply entertaining or decorative.
Each of the pieces you’ve mentioned also deals with juxtaposition?
That’s true. That’s an essential condition of how we live. Particularly now. We’re not living in a holistic, agrarian culture where I grow a tree, make it into the beautiful chair, sit on it and eat a bowl of barley that I grew in my garden. We live in an age of juxtapositions where geographic and temporal realities are constantly colliding. Those kinds of juxtapositions permeate my music…to me, it seems inevitable.
Can you talk a bit more about that, specifically in relation to Secret Arnold?
When asked to write the piece in 1999, I said, “what am I listening to?” And I was listening to Portishead and a fairly obscure dub album by Clive ‘Randy’ Chin. I was also reading Bernstein’s The Unanswered Question. He writes about the last movement of Schoenberg’s second string quartet where the soprano suddenly comes in out of the blue, singing “I feel air from other planets” and the language moves us into the new realm of the twelve tone. So, in that piece, I wanted to create a space where these three very different musics could cohabit. What was fun about it, was that once I started to break them down, there were so many areas of overlap. It was kind of spooky. The Portishead and the dub clip, shared this wonderful harmonic space, and then the Schoenberg formed a counterpoint…it was surprising how they opened up to each other, like characters finding things in common and making music together.
Do you try and achieve a unity between them or separately amongst them?
At times they’re playing with each other, so to speak. And other times, one strong identity interrupts. So, there is that juxtaposition of very different musical materials. That being said, some of the most extreme juxtapositions are of materials derived from the same composer. I’m not keeping one person’s identity so intact that they’re the same throughout the piece. It’s more what happens if you speed the Portishead up and slow down the Schoenberg.. Do they start to ooze into each other? I think of that process as a way of re-listening and re-hearing music that’s already familiar to you.
Are you seeking out connections between them despite their disconnection?
Yeah, but I don’t want to homogenize them into each other. It’s more an experiment of what happens when they share the same space.
How do you want it to be perceived?
In that piece, I felt there were elements of humour in the interpolations of the contrasting materials. But also there are moments that turned out to be very beautiful, where you heard something that in dub is raw and funky, but when orchestrated becomes luscious and Mahlerian. That’s fascinating to me — a character showing another side of themselves that you hadn’t realized was there.
That’s a recontextualization thing?
Perhaps. I hope that people who think these divergent musics have nothing in common would maybe think again, would open their ears in a new way.
What would Schoenberg have to say about that?
I’m sure he’d be fine with it. I followed dodecaphonic procedures throughout (laughing).
How have these ideas come together in your recent work?
I just had a piece mindmeat premiered in New York, which was for piano and percussion. The texts were by Dennis Lee, from his new book UN. The players had wanted something theatrical, but in fact, the theatricalities ended up being pretty subtle. They don’t really move, other than to play their instruments and to sing and speak the text.
What is the subject matter of the texts?
It’s a cycle of 54 very short poems. The language itself is breaking down and reconstituting itself into words that don’t exist, but which make absolute sense. It’s about the destruction of our world. There’s a cyber-apocalyptic-bebop feeling to the whole book: the poems are utterly dark yet beautifully musical. In some movements the words aren’t heard explicitly, but in others the players sing or speak them. The performers (Danny Tunick and Kathy Supové) were blown away by Dennis’ poetry. It’s very bleak, but the energy of the poems sustains you through that bleakness. I’m also writing a piece for Continuum for February. Each of the players is keeping a dream diary. It’s kind of an alarming prospect, but I thought I’d like to hear the music of their dreams.
by Michael Norris
Music in New Zealand, November 1999
If you listen carefully enough, you can hear the sound of Schoenberg turning in his grave. The poor old codger; he would never have imagined his angular melodic lines pitted against those of nineties band-noir Portishead. But Secret Arnold, for symphony orchestra, is just that.
Welcome to the world of Juliet Kiri Palmer: a genre-bending, groove-laden universe of humour and iconoclasm. She is a composer who likes to pitch her tent in the interstices of style, critically engaging with the music that “turns her on”. She works in diverse media, her output ranging from small solo pieces to large multimedia installations, music theatre works and symphonic works. She is, perhaps, a typical New Zealand composer, in that she spends most of her time overseas.
Yes, in the grand tradition of talented artists who up and leave these shores – thanks to our small size and geographical isolation, not to mention an embarrassingly low apportionment of per capita arts funding and parochial attitudes towards artistic freedom – Palmer now lives in Toronto, Canada. A number of factors prompted the move, but primary amongst them was the need for a serious artistic and cultural challenge, something she felt that the New Zealand artistic community was not able to provide at the time. It comes as no surprise that her move abroad has increased her international standing as a composer and media artist, evidenced by an impressive resumé of performances and commissions.
Palmer comes from a globetrotting background: born on the Kapiti Coast, she lived in Singapore for five years, followed by a one-year stint in London. As a child, she had dreams of becoming an architect, until an architect friend invited her to a “hands-on” demonstration: pouring a concrete slab in a South Auckland factory, having the immediate effect of dissuading her from that career path. (Nevertheless, it is something that still sits in the back of her mind today, permeating her music.)
Her student years were lived in Auckland, completing a performance degree in clarinet and coming into contact with some of the twentieth century’s great works (Quartet for the End of Time, Contrasts). Feeling somewhat frustrated by the creative limitations of performance, she shifted her focus towards composition and completed her Masters degree before heading off to New York City, where she worked with Meredith Monk, landing a commission for the Bang on a Can Festival.
While in America, Palmer had a number of encounters that helped solidify her musical sensibilities. In 1992, for instance, she took part in an all-vocal Cobra (John Zorn’s musical improvisation “game”), which included, amongst others, a spoken-word artist, Jeff Buckley and a country-and-western singer. Such colliding musical worlds have now become the sine qua non of Palmer’s own oeuvre. In 1996, Palmer had a teaching job at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, for a year, which opened up a world of creativity for both her and her students. She is keen to encourage a complete openness of conception to her students, to give them a chance to really let their hair down and experiment: one student situated their installation inside a parked car, shadowy figures on the back seat being the “performers”.
It is pleasing to note that New Zealand performers are now beginning to acquaint themselves with her music: Auckland-based new music ensemble 175 East recently performed trellis for saxophone, bass clarinet and cello; the New Zealand String Quartet performed Egg & Tongue as part of their “Hot Young Things” tour and have just commissioned a new work; the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra recorded her Parted Tongues and the APO played and recorded Secret Arnold.
While she was in Wellington recently, digging through the film archives researching a new interdisciplinary work based on the 1924 silent film Venus of the South Seas, Palmer managed to find time to talk over coffee about her musical and her artistic outlook.
The first thing that strikes you about Palmer, aside from her lightly Americanised accent and her good-natured humour (“I don’t like the idea of taking myself too seriously”), is a concern with disruption or destabilisation of anything purporting to constitute a coherent musical system. In other words, her music, like her conceptual frameworks, never lets you feel like you’ve quite got a grip on it: it’s always being tugged between opposing forces of style, rhythm and conception.
For instance, take her use of rhythm. Unlike minimalism “proper”, which despite phase-shifts still maintains an underlying pulse-structure, Palmer’s rhythmic cells are constantly being varied so that just as you think a beat has been established she shrewdly inserts or removes a semiquaver. This is the aural equivalent of someone pulling the ground out from underneath you – the whole rhythmic cycle is thrown out of kilter, giving the rhythm a “limp”, or the effect of a skipping needle. It is, to say the least, disconcerting.
Another of Palmer’s preoccupations is with “found music”: extant snippets of material that she plays around with until she can call it her own. A phrase which she used to describe her music sticks in my mind: “it is like throwing things together and then embracing the accident”. Trellis, by way of illustration, takes as origin a sample from Earth Wind and Fire’s Can’t Hide Love, which Palmer maintains she “screwed around with, obsessively rehashing it”. Or in Secret Arnold, where Schoenberg meets Portishead: “when you start mixing them together, you get a strangely large amount of harmonic and melodic overlap…”
This destabilisation of the groove and the deconstruction and reconstruction of extant material hints at a deeper suspicion of stylistic agendas; her tastes in music are broad, but she is searching for a voice that acknowledges the inherent divisions between the opposing worlds. She is happiest when letting stylistic tokens come into contact or opposition with one another, creating juxtaposition, fusion or metamorphosis: “it creates a kind of energy that I can then bounce off”.
By funnelling her raw mélange of down-to-earth sounds through institutions which have traditionally represented the epitome of refinement and bourgeois values (such as string quartets or orchestras), not only is she acknowledging her own musical interests and imperatives, but she is also conveying subtexts which question dominance, power and class. “I like the idea of classical musicians getting into music which has a real physicality, which moves you. I’m excited by music that connects physically rather than just cerebrally. It becomes more of a sexual engagement with the music.”
The physicality was certainly tangible when I watched the New Zealand String Quartet tackling her Egg & Tongue. The material for the piece is inspired by decorative motifs on the Elgin Marbles; Palmer also chanced upon these patterns while in the Syrian city of Apamea. The imagery of “tumbled-down stones of Roman structures bearing this same pattern, rain-washed stones in a field of crocuses” vividly depicts the thought-processes behind the work. The work constitutes a hypnotic braiding of pitch and rhythm, but it is an edgy, fidgety sort of patterning, discontent and imperfect. Disjunct portions of motifs are strewn around the quartet in a manner not dissimilar to so many rain-washed stones; half-recognisable figures seem to come and go, buried beneath layers of accretion. It is quite undramatic, unsentimental music, having a palpably detached air about it. (The performance directions in Egg & Tongue give this mood a more apt description: “mellow”.) You could tell, however, that the quartet were really getting into it.
Circus Dog, for six pianos with “a modest amount of intra-piano intervention”, employs similar devices to generate material. In this work, commissioned by UK sextet Piano Circus, brittle chromatic patterns seductively intertwine in an atmosphere which Palmer describes as “a little more ‘acidic’ than the other music they play”. Out of the heady, jangly ferment spill shards of Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor and John Cage like a rainfall of razorblades. The work explores accidental juxtapositions and coincidences of phrases, sounds and styles: each piano has its own individual flavour, dynamics, tempo and preparation. She likes to think of this as “breaking the hegemony of the synchronised minimalist concept”. Circus Dog is one of her more quirky works: the performance directions range from the obscure (“obstreperous”), to the worrying (“quietly remove the knitting needles”), to the downright wanton (“casually violent”). Even when their meaning is clear enough, there is still a sense of mirth (“play the material between the repeat signs 1.7 times through”).
Palmer’s engagement with the imperatives of biculturalism demonstrates a refreshing honesty. She told me how her schooling as a Pakeha kept her at a distance from Maori culture: “…while my encounters with Maori culture at school were moving and wonderful, they were alienating at the same time.” As a composer she doesn’t engage in any “naïve ideas about identity” by using material disconnected from her own life experience.
This is succinctly encapsulated in the work W is for, for two sopranos, drum set, keyboard and ensemble. “I certainly didn’t want to naïvely write a piece based on Maori songs,” says Palmer. “It’s not my own cultural background, so I’m being honest about the distance I felt.” The text is taken directly from the Reed Dictionary of Modern Maori, from waka to wareware. The English translations range from the traditional “waka: canoe; confederate tribes of one canoe” to the more contemporary “waka atea kopiko: space shuttle / waka pana: bulldozer”. Towards the end of the text, the translations become strangely autobiographical (although, of course, it’s just another case of Palmer’s ’embracing the accident’): “wakainga: true home, far distant home / warawara: yearning, longing / ware: ignorant / warea: occupied with, overcome by, immersed in, oblivious / wareware: forget, forgetful, forgotten”.
But it seems Palmer’s most strikingly original work is as a media artist, with a wide range of installations and music theatre pieces. Take Miasma, for instance: a sound installation for two CD players, weather TV and living room (commissioned by Artspace); Blood Shower, music theatre for percussion duo; or the citric-acid-trip Citrus, for tape, voice, electronics, slides, food blender and grapefruit (commissioned by SoundCulture Japan). The sheer theatricality of these pieces is where Palmer’s most unfettered dynamism and originality shines through, and that an encounter with one of these pieces is always guaranteed to be surprising, shocking and delightful.
And so how does Palmer now view New Zealand, as seen from a distance? Well, by the time we finished our coffee, I had gained the impression that she had found her turangawaewae in North America. But no, she later tells me, “each time I come back to New Zealand I feel more ‘at home’ and realise how much of me is connected to this place.”
If her music can be taken as a guide, then her feelings have just been substantiated, for her next project is to be a dance piece involving Douglas Wright, which includes a “strangely ethnic twist”: sheepdog trials.
“This piece,” she assures me, “couldn’t happen anywhere else in the world!”