Task vs. Performance

An Interview with Jessie Downs

by Colin Tucker

Jessie Downs is a vocalist, composer, and teaching artist for whom music is a medium for sharing personal experiences and entering into community with others. As a composer, her aesthetic is one which treasures the uncanny and surprising beauty of wild yet delicate things. While she has written for a number of instrumentations, her favorite media include found objects, altered instruments, and the human voice. As a vocalist, she specializes in both Romantic repertoire and music of the present day. She is always looking for ways to unite the wisdom of tradition with innovative experimentation, an aesthetic that greatly informs her work as the Artistic Director of Buffalo-based contemporary vocal ensemble the Sotto Voce Vocal Collective. Jessie has premiered numerous works by living composers, worked with such champions of contemporary vocal music as Jeff Gavett and Juliet Fraser, and coached other up-and-coming vocalists. She holds a BMus in Composition from Oberlin Conservatory and is currently a PhD student in Composition at the University at Buffalo, as well as a devoted student of bel canto under the guidance of the Maestro Franco Bertacci.

I. Voice and Space


CT: I wanted to start by talking about the vocal parts of the piece, especially Part 7, and about how they relate to your background as a singer. What was different from what you’ve done before, especially regarding prioritizing resonance, or the extreme durations?


JD:  In the way I’ve been taught to sing, resonance is important, but it’s not about activating a particular tone, it’s really supposed to be about filling and activating an entire space. From an operatic background, we’re talking about really big spaces; but things that will activate a larger space won’t necessarily activate a smaller space. That was relevant, but finding particular tones was a bit strange. It seems to suggest singing something without vibrato, which is something I do, but it seems counterintuitive because vibrato lends more resonance than non-vibrato, as it resonates more frequencies at once. I tried to pinpoint resonant pitches, but then I found that it worked against me, because controlling the sound to this degree actually inhibits resonance.


Singing outside in general is difficult because it’s considerably less resonant than indoors. Even when the alcove I sang in at Artpark had some resonance, it was still pretty dry. It was hard to get much feedback from the environment, and that felt a bit awkward. But I tried to be in a meditative place about it, focusing on breathing, and tone, and listening. It was hard, because the resonance barely lasted past the tone I was singing, so I had to listen while singing, particularly listening to overtones. I didn’t know if those were a product of the space or me. I’m not sure if you can hear the frequencies of a space in the way a spectrogram can show it. With an instrument as timbrally complex as a voice, it’s hard to say, because there’s so much going on in the sound, compared to say a clarinet or flute.

Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 7 at Artpark (July 16, 2017).

CT:  You mentioned that there was a big difference for you between taking a notated pitch and optimizing its resonance in a particular space versus making the resonances implied in Dunn’s score, particularly in the use of vibrato. Were there other differences between these activities?  At the very least it suggests a different learning process and a different kind of attention in performance.


JD:  Long tones are essential component of my techniques. In contrast to other singers, I don’t do many scalar warm-ups [sings “do-re-mi-fa-sol-fa-mi-re-do”]; my warm-ups are always long tones. So, the difficulty is not so much singing melody versus long tones, but in focusing on the space’s particular resonance. With the long tones in Part 7, they’re supposed to be natural breath lengths; you’re not supposed to hold them. But because there wasn’t much natural resonance, I was pushing myself to go longer, because I was trying to get the tones to do something, and to fill up the space. Doing that with only short breaths in between for 30 minutes was pretty tiring.


I found that I was caught in an attention loop, trying to follow the instructions, but sometimes I found that they worked against themselves. This situation was particularly acute with the suggestion that as soon as resonance dies out, you should begin again, so there was little time to take a breath, hear the tone I wanted to sing, and then sing it. The tension of trying to physically reset between each time, and to not drop the ball, was hard.


CT:  Were there other things that struck you about doing such a limited activity for so long?


JD:  Something similar that I did recently was Eva Maria Houben’s a-men, which is about 10 minutes long, but with differences in dynamics, and that piece is less about optimizing resonance. That’s the thing, the voice likes to move—even with long tones, decrescendos and crescendos can help with comfort. The Houben was similar but had more shaping, so you could plan in advance how to breathe and so on. Dunn was different, in that I was being watched doing a task that I didn’t really know how it was going to go. How was that different than singing other music? I felt focused, but also perplexed, that’s the best word to describe it:  I was thinking, “What can I do to achieve this thing? How much is a task and how much is a performance?”  That’s part of the question.


I was sort of existing between those things. There’s definitely a task element where some of it was probably ugly or inelegant—it was simply the result of doing a task. But there were also elements where I didn’t go to certain extremes because I was still aware that it was a performance, so I didn’t want to try something too risky and fall on my face. I guess I was also realizing that Part 7 is contextualized by everything else that happens in the piece, so I didn’t want to do anything that would stick out like a sore thumb. Part 7 is going to stick out in any case, but I thought it had to have continuity with the rest of the piece.


CT:  Were there particular possibilities that you avoided because of those considerations?


JD:  Yeah. I’m not sure if I could describe them.


CT:  So it wasn’t like you avoided particular registers or timbral possibilities because of this.


JD: I had a way I was thinking of that section in comparison to the other sections. Before, there’s a lot of gathering of peripheral information, in a direct way, with recordings. Over time, the things we’re doing with recordings get more layered and distorted. Then my section becomes a turning point, after which there’s a vocal section and sections with instruments—it’s more musicking and observing. So I felt like I was on this threshold of observing and musicking. So that’s what I meant about being in between task and performance. I felt like I had to be a collector of information, not unlike how the people with mobile recorders had been previously, but I wanted to also move in the direction of emergent musicking. I think there’s a kind of focus of trying to be a sort of looping object. So that would limit me in terms of not trying to be so creative, or even with vocal sounds, not trying to be too relaxed. Even with long tones, it could have been too sing-songy, like warming up. It felt more like a tension between trying to gather and project, gather and project again. So, I think there was a rougher machine-like element of the sounds. I was also thinking about how the sounds that came after Part 7 would be different varieties of yelps, followed shortly thereafter by destroying instruments.


CT: I like your distinction between task and performance, it’s a great way to talk about the piece in general. Part 7 is in ways the most conventionally musical, or at least it’s compatible with being heard by conventional musical standards: it’s got clear pitches that come from a sound-making apparatus traditionally identified as musical. And then, there’s a hard cut from the electronic sections into Part 7. I imagine it is especially tough to navigate that transition in light of expectations people have about vocal sound production.



II. Split Attention



CT: I’m curious what it meant to be listening intensely while performing, particularly in Part 7. The piece demands an intensity of listening that I’m not accustomed to from other musical situations.


JD:  It’s tricky, and I experience this with Sotto Voce Vocal Collective too. There’s some degree to which you can’t actually do both at once; one has to be floating back and forth all the time. I think that listening for me requires some reflection in order for an impression to really be processed. So listening and performing at once is inherently tricky. Performing requires some degree of mechanical action. There are of course different degrees of difficulty; for instance in Part 4, you’re listening and pushing a button. But you could virtuosically record (with particular microphone settings, and headphones, and so on). Strangely, that was actually parallel to the difficulty of performing with voice or an instrument and listening. In all cases, your faculties of performance will be lower if you’re overly focused on the listening element. That was an interesting parallel, in that you can’t use all possible faculties of recording prowess, you just had to push the button and record. It was weird in that you didn’t know what your mic would pick up or not. When one is playing back, one is not sure what sounds one recorded.


With singing, it’s difficult because for me, my process is more involved, you don’t push a button and then the pitch comes out; when I breathe in, I have to hear the pitch in my head, and then I sing it. But when I’m producing all this sound and I’m trying to hear the overtone, then it’s hard because it’s so noisy, with all the partials and weird stuff happening. Trying to isolate or remember the sound and then be able to physically think, “Okay, what do I need to do to pull out that particular sound?” is tricky. Similarly, imitating ambient sounds with clarinet in Part 9, if you had time to listen to a bird call, and then think, “Here’s all the things I can do on my instrument, which one can I practice to make a sound like a bird?”, that would be fine, but in the situation, it had to be on the spot. Of course, we did some practice with it, but because the environment is unpredictable, something you did one day won’t work the next day. I’m phrasing this as if it’s all negative; it’s not—difficult is not always bad. It just created a space where you had to let go of certain expectations of yourself, and that became a nice experience because you do float to the experiential side, “I’m in this place and experiencing this world that we’re creating, but also this world that’s already here.” Maybe that’s the strongest element of my experience. In a way, it seems obvious—if you listen to sounds in the environment and record and sing and play with them, you’ll be more attuned to them. But then actually doing that, it’s something you can’t describe. You really do just start thinking about all these things that go under the radar most of the time. Most of the time, it’s a very peaceful experience. We live in a world of noise—not just sound, but all the input we have to deal with all the time. Coming back to a very simple focus is very refreshing.

Jessie Downs in Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 7 at Artpark (July 16, 2017).


Photo by Tanis Winslow

CT:  So you’re saying that being overloaded in the moment with competing tasks is a way to shut off other things, to focus entirely on what’s audible to oneself at a given moment…


JD: Yeah, it’s a kind of overloading, but this is balanced by the long duration. It’s tricky, it can be frustrating when you don’t reach the point where you let go and say, “Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen.” It becomes more experiential because of the amount of time you have to do it in, in contrast to, say a new complexity piece. In PLACE, time is so open that the stress becomes a reality, but then ceases to be a stress anymore. When you first find out, “I have to do this task,” i.e., I have to record things with a Zoom drive, or I have to pick out specific pitches from a not very resonant environment and sound them, or I have to imitate the sound of water with my clarinet, it seems like an annoying task at first, but then when one lets go, and realizes that it’s sort of an impossible task, one can just do it and that’s an experience.


CT:  You’re using the word experiential as an antonym of what? Some kind of conceptualization or abstraction?


JD:  Maybe judgment. I don’t want to be super judgmental, ever, but there is some element of that when you prepare a piece of notated music. I mean judgmental in that you have to use your judgement to make decisions, and you hope that your performance reflects those decisions. Whereas in PLACE, you’re just being, and not trying to control so much.



III. Limits of Musical Decorum



CT:  What did you make, as a trained vocalist, of Part 2?


JD:  I liked it a lot. The one thing that I “messed up” on was when there were some loud sounds that happened.  When we were initially practicing them in an offsite rehearsal at Buffalo State College, I was bold and went for it—for instance when the clock chimed, or a car horn—but I didn’t have the confidence to go through with it at Artpark. There was a moment when a kid screamed and I was right next to them, and Sonia [Clark, Artpark Executive Director] looked at me as if to say, “Are you going to scream now?” I just started laughing—the moment had passed. I didn’t want to creep out the kid’s parents. That wouldn’t have gone down well, but I really wanted to do it, I was this close, but I decided to keep my composure. But that was the only tension with this section—there is this awkward social element—I wanted to break that wall but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 2 (excerpt) at Artpark (July 16, 2017).

CT:  The piece has a very varied relationship to notions of decorum. Part 2 has a kind of hyper-decorum, but weirdly results in an anti-social situation. But on the other hand, Parts 10 involves an almost anti-decorum, breaking numerous social taboos.  Can you tell me about your experience realizing Part 10, particularly the first time you rehearsed it on site at Artpark?


JD:  I knew from the beginning that I really wanted to play the clarinet in the water, because I like water and I like the kind of animalistic quality of that sound—it sounds like a screaming animal, and I haven’t had an opportunity to do it in a while. And there are not a lot of other options for a wind instrument, aside from scraping it on things, which I did some of, and that was fun. It was tricky, because I was trying to find different ways of doing it. All the sections are particularly vulnerable in that there is a specific task the performer is supposed to be doing. In Part 10 I was trying to activate materials with the mouthpiece. But it was too tricky in a natural environment, because you have to engage with so many different kinds of materials—you don’t know which rocks will generate which sonic results. Sometimes, I would try going around putting the mouthpiece to dirt, and nothing was happening. I was thinking, “I don’t know if this is what I should be doing.  Probably not, it’s not really working.  Maybe it’s interesting to look at…” But I felt like people would be confused as to what I was doing, and disappointed. So I stuck with scraping the instrument around following [violinist] Megan Kyle’s path, proceeding to the water, and thinking about how part of my task was getting to the water, and that in itself was pretty difficult due to the terrain moving down the hill to get there. But it was very task-oriented, so it wasn’t a big deal that it took time to get to the situation I needed to be in.


CT:  When I introduced this part’s basic situation to certain performers, there was trepidation, even regarding doing these actions with a cheap instrument. It wasn’t like that for you?


JD:  No, and in fact I often think that people can be overly precious with care of their instruments. When I was starting to do improv on the clarinet, Peter Brotzmann was one of my big role models—he gets these big, animalistic sounds. And you don’t need to do anything particularly damaging to the instrument to get those sounds. The water was borderline—if you have a good instrument, you shouldn’t do that, I guess, but, at the same time, it’s not that damaging. Scraping the instrument—it was a little painful, I didn’t want to go so far as to totally ruin the bell, even though it was not the best instrument in the world. I have scraped things with the bell before. I didn’t go super-far, but it felt a little safe; I wasn’t disturbed by what I was doing.


By the end of that section, it felt like we’d reached a natural conclusion with the rain. It was almost as if we had conjured up the rain.


Megan Kyle (L) and Jessie Downs (R) in Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 10 at Artpark (July 16, 2017)

IV. Indeterminacy versus Improvisation


CT: I’m curious about your improvisation background, and whether you felt that it related to this project at all, or if you feel like there are ways that this project was different.


JD:  Yeah, it was related in a few ways. It was related in that I’ve done a lot of stuff that is eliciting quiet sounds and environmental sounds. Broadly, it’s things I’ve done before. Again, that wasn’t really what I had to do in the vocal solo in Part 7, but that’s what I did in Parts 9 and 10 with clarinet. Also, in the early vocal section, Part 2. But it was different in that there were instructions about blending in, and I don’t feel that that’s something one is traditionally supposed to do in improvised music, you want to have your sound be heard. I worked with Tim Feeney and Vic Rawlings, and one of their main points in teaching improvisation is “make a decisive action.” I think that makes a lot of good music a lot of the time. It doesn’t have to be a loud, or referential action, but it needs to be clear. Whereas Dunn’s idea of blending in with something, leads more to uncertainty or sneaking sounds in. Also, part of being a performer is trying to make sounds that are one’s own sounds, that are unique sounds. If you’re only imitating, it takes away some of the specialness of what you’re doing.



V. Public Voices



CT: After the experience of performing the piece, do you have a different impression of Artpark, of its soundscape, or its physical environment?


JD:  The way we were recording, one of the main things that was played back was speaking voices, and especially kids. Because kids have no filter, they were just shouting random things, or singing songs to themselves.  I found that really quite moving, because it draws one’s attention to being a human being in a space with other human beings. The field recording elements were so different than my vocal solo in Part 7, the emphasis on people’s voices abstractly sets up the transition towards singing. For me, this is what singing is about, that everyone’s voice is unique. Kids are a great example of how I think about singing, since they are just themselves, they don’t control themselves. When I sing, I similarly want to have my sound, and let my sound be what it is. As adults, we learn to speak politely, and not shout in public spaces. When you look at kids, it shows that it’s a natural inclination to let your voice ring out.


All that is to say that I do have a renewed appreciation for Artpark, where people were coming together for different reasons:  kids, families, older people, and then us weirdo artists, plus the employees, and our friends. It was more about people for me, than about the ambient soundscape or its particulars.