Naples Philharmonic Jazz Readings: Composer Spotlight – Yvette Janine Jackson

Yvette Janine Jackson is a composer, sound designer, and installation artist with a focus on through-composed and improvisatory forms that draw from history and contemporary social themes. She recently was guest composer-in-residence at Stockholm’s Elektronmusikstudion (EMS) and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Music-Integrative Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Yvette participated in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Summer Intensive last year and was selected for the EarShot Naples Philharmonic Jazz Composers Readings, May 25-26, 2016 at Artis–Naples’ Hayes Hall, for her piece Atlantic Crossing, the first movement of a programmatic suite themed around the Middle Passage.

Yvette spoke to SoundAdvice about her JCOI experience and her piece Atlantic Crossing.

Composer Yvette Janine Jackson

American Composers Orchestra: You have a strong focus on radio opera and narrative soundscape composition in your music and studies. Atlantic Crossing is part of a larger work about the Middle Passage, the stage of the slave trade in which millions of Africans were sent to the Americas. Why did you choose this as the subject for your work?
Yvette Janine Jackson: I’ve used the terms radio opera and narrative soundscape composition to label many of my works from the past few years: radio opera refers to my compositions which invoke the theatre of the mind and narrative soundscape composition is both a type of electroacoustic music and the method I use to bridge my music and research.

Atlantic Crossing is the fourth work I have composed that centers around the Middle Passage.  I prefer to explore historic and socially relevant topics in my compositions, because I find these subjects far more (un)imaginable than fiction.  I have only scratched the surface in terms of accessing shipping records, logbooks, diagrams, journals, and other documents that help paint an accurate picture and inform my music, but I keep returning to this topic because it’s an important part of American history that is often dismissed or misunderstood.  During a rehearsal for Vernaculus II, a composition for improvisation ensemble, I described the conditions of human cargo being packed below decks and one of the musicians remarked that I was being twisted for imagining such a thing. I hadn’t imagined anything, but only based my description on historical documents instructing shippers how to maximize space in their cargo holds. This incident drove me to focus on actual events and to bring to the forefront parts of history that get marginalized.  I still have a lot to learn about this period and it is through composition that I wish to explore it.

ACO: Can you talk about what musical elements in Atlantic Crossing evoke the narrative?
YJJ: Atlantic Crossing, like the majority of my compositions, is programmatic; however the narrative is meant to guide me as a composer rather than influence the audience’s experience of the music. When I have an idea for a composition, I imagine the scenes that are necessary to tell the story which sets the emotional character of the music.  Then I create storyboards in order to help determine the order and amount of detail I will express.  I decide what roles specific instruments or families of instruments will serve.  Musical phrases develop throughout all stages of this process.  I don’t expect the audience to hear or be aware of any of this.  My main objective with Atlantic Crossing was to capture the atmosphere and mood, rather than convey a literal story.  As I expand this work into a suite, I will focus on different aspects of the Middle Passage.

ACO: You were recently composer-in-residence at Stockholm’s Elektronmusikstudion. Has your experience with electronic sounds affected the way you write for the acoustic instruments in an orchestra?
YJJ: My relationship with electronic sounds has definitely impacted the way I write for acoustic instruments and vice versa.  The residency at Stockholm’s Elektronmusikstudion began two days after the first phase of the JCOI intensive and I began sketching Atlantic Crossing while I was still in Sweden.  I was cognizant of the fact that there was so much information packed into the JCOI workshops and demonstrations, that I would not begin to digest much of it until the following weeks when I was sitting in front of the Buchla and Serge synthesizers.  My initial impulse was to approach Atlantic Crossing timbrally, but it’s not spectral music and, except for the strings, there are no extended techniques.

If anything, my experience as a student at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, before it was transformed into the Computer Music Center, had the greatest influence on my orchestral writing. It was during this time that I was exposed to composing tape music, and I like to think of my musical motifs as pieces of tape that can be spliced, cut up, slowed down, etc.  Whether I am composing for acoustic or synthesized instruments, it is the narrative that drives my aesthetics.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the readings?
YJJ: I’m excited to see how the entire process of creating an orchestral work unfolds.  No matter what I do, it’s important that I learn something.  Rehearsals are my favorite part of the creative process, so I am looking forward to the first reading session.  This will be the first chance I get to hear my score realized by a real orchestra and the first opportunity to critique my decisions regarding dynamics, articulation, color, etc.  I’m excited to hear the suggestions made during the feedback session, because I think that will be one of the most valuable moments of the reading process.  Of course, I am looking forward to the final reading and getting a recording of my orchestral music.  I have dreamt of working with an orchestra since I was 12, so I want to learn as much as possible from this opportunity so I can be ready for the next.  I am also eager to hear what wonderful works my peers have created since we last met in August 2015.

ACO: What has your experience in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute been like so far?
YJJ: My experience with JCOI has been and continues to be amazing.  I’ve kept in touch with and worked on projects with participants I met last summer.  One of the most remarkable things about the JCOI intensive was the diversity of participants -34 amazingly talented musicians from all over the country in various stages of their careers.  This created a fertile environment for learning and sharing ideas. It truly was an “intensive”  -six consecutive days, mornings to nights, packed with workshops, demonstrations, conversations, and performances.   My mentor, James Newton, has been extremely supportive in providing suggestions for the score and working with the conductor and orchestra.  I can’t imagine how Phase II at Naples will shape me as a composer, but I just hope to learn and grow as much as possible from this experience.

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