Name: Jessica Pavone
Occupation: Violinist, violist, composer
Current release: Jessica Pavone's Lull, for String Octet and featuring soloists Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Nate Wooley, is out via Chaikin.
[Read our Brian Chase interview]
Recommendations: Johnna Beyer - String quartet (1936)
There are 4 string quartets worth checking out, but let’s start here. A quintessential example of a highly underrated genius composer - a woman coming up in NYC in the ‘20s and ‘30s. This book is a great companion - also! She supplemented her income teaching piano lessons in the same neighborhood in Queens (Sunnyside) where I do exactly the same. True inspiration.
The Lee Krasner mural at 2 Broadway in the financial district, downtown Manhattan. Another genius woman dedicated to propping up a man at the expense of her work. I cried when I saw it for the first time. A bunch of suits just walking into a building barely noticing the stroke of genius right above their heads.
If you enjoyed this interview with Jessica Pavone and would like to know more about her work, we recommend her official homepage as an excellent point of departure. She is also on Instagram, twitter, and Soundcloud.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I first started composing music right after I finished college.
I went to a pretty conservative conservatory that had a very structured curriculum. Crossing between disciplines within the music school was very challenging and as I could barely keep up with the twenty-plus credits a semester I was assigned, there was little to no room for creativity. I was generally very dissatisfied and unhappy and sure that after college was over, it would be done with music forever.
In 1998, during my last semester of college, a friend of mine brought me down to Wesleyan to hear an Anthony Braxton concert. It was a trio with Jackson Moore, and Seth Misterka, three alto saxophones. My mind was blown. This is what I had been looking for all along, yet I had no idea until that moment. I made friends that night. I was not used to musicians being eager to meet each other and work together, as the conservatory model was not conducive to it. At least the weirdos that I went to school with. I started going down to Middletown, CT every Sunday for the following two years working in a composer/performer collective where I first started to write music.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
It has taken a long time. And I would say that the first ten or so years of my composition process were trial and error and learning from failures, although at the time, I thought I was presenting work. (I mean, technically, I was)
There was a big pause for me about 12 years into my growth where I suffered a very serious injury that prevented me from playing for a considerable amount of time. I feel like my growth since then has been the most genuine expression of my artistic vision and I approach my music work with greater clarity. Perhaps I needed that full halt.
From there I really focussed on solo music and re-establishing my relationship playing my instrument as that was my actual first encounter with music, learning an instrument. Since, I have grown a sonic vocabulary or ensemble composition grown out of that extensive focus on solo viola music.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Identity is everything, not just in creativity but in life. Identity is something given to us before we even know it’s happening. The first seven years of your life, your environment, and how the world is presented to you shaped your most basic ideas of your identity. Many of us spend a lifetime trying to deprogram that.
I’m not sure exactly how that particular part of my identity shapes my creativity per see. Still, I can certainly say everyone who has underestimated me and never took me seriously definitely shapes the very rigid disciplines I have created for myself over the years, which are essentially a canister for my creativity.
In recent years, my identity, or how I have been choosing to shape it after years and years of trying to reprogram my perceptions of myself, has led me to certain life practices that greatly influence my compositions process. Healing and physical practices or example. It makes the most sense to me that the music I am creating is influenced by the other practices and disciplines that occupy my life.
Unrelated to that, growing up a string player in the classical tradition, (I didn't get that far) has made how playing the instrument feels an integral part of my composition process. It can feel terrific to play a string instrument. There is vibration under your chin; it moves through your body. Some positions are more comfortable, and notes ring clear. Those are the areas of performance I am drawn to and not contouring my body to perform a meaningless virtuosic lick dictated to me by some really out-of-date repertoire that's stood the test of time.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I have big ideas, but I don’t have the means. That is currently my biggest challenge.
I’d say, maybe 15 years ago a challenge would have been understanding my creative process and how to be more effective when executing my ideas. Back then, I really needed to learn time management and the acceptance of procrastinating as part of the creative process. I’d say now, I know my process. I am not overwhelmed by procrastination. I embrace it and have the tools to be productive in that empty space which is actually essential to clearing the mind.
I can confidently say, that at this point, I have excellent time management skills. I have the will and the ideas but unfortunately lack the funds. That has been a big push for me in recent years. I would really like to work with larger ensembles and the financial constraints have been holding me back. I need to plan a project a few years out and in the in-between save money and apply for financial opportunities which I often do more of than actually composing music which is kind of sad, but I’m good at just bucking up and banging my head against the financial hymen.
I can’t say that I have had the greatest luck yet, regardless, the money seems to find me, but often not in the ways I had expected. For example, stimulus checks ...
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
I love the feeling of suspending or manipulating time. Making time feel like a contrived rubber band.
As a result, my ensemble approach focuses on a collective improvisational vision that prioritizes an intentionally indeterminate style. Portions of my pieces will employ elements of indeterminacy navigated via time-based scores. I balance these principles with traditional metered notation to shape the overall form of the work. Through the spaces that are left open within the structure of each piece, we essentially re-create the work together each time we perform.
Using time-based scores allows for the openness of sound worlds and an ability to create inconsistent occultations between pitches that do not fit into a calculated BMP structure.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I borrow from and elaborate upon traditional notation and improvisatory techniques and experiment with alternating between metered and clock-time approaches and improvised and notated instructions, often relying on a digital clock as a conductor to mark sections, duration, and cues. Indicated time frames on the score direct musicians to move freely between sections, creating an overlap of sonic textures. These textures and improvisations can sometimes land in an entirely different notated section of music within a given composition.
The ensemble approach is focused on a vision of collective improvisation that prioritizes a collaboratively sewn musical fabric, in contrast to the traditional improvisatory approach that prizes the individuality and uniqueness of the soloist. The ensemble’s rehearsal method is influenced by my solo work, which includes concentrated long tone practice, an interest in repetition, exploring sympathetic vibrations, and attending to how the body plays a role in sound and intention.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
I partly answered this in the previous question, but also, I have more recently been incorporating guest artists, as demonstrated in Lull, to perform with my ensemble. I am enthusiastic about further exploring recent developments of working with a larger ensemble that includes guest artists who prioritize individual expression rather than stylization on their instruments and creating a collaborative relationship between the individual musician and larger group performance.
In short, stay tuned for more work like this from me in the future.