5 questions to Jennifer Walshe (composer)

THMOTES, a project by Irish composer Jennifer Walshe, involved a number of text scores sent via Snapchat. After a few seconds’ viewing time, the scores vanished forever. It ran for several months in 2013. Here, Jennifer tells us a little about the motivation behind THMOTES, explaining her fondness for GIFs, “Imaginary Pieces,” and technology in general.

Tell us about THMOTES, your Snapchat project. What prompted you to turn to Snapchat?

I’m very interested in how we use the web now, how intertwined our lives are with it. William Gibson, one of my favourite writers, often uses the descriptor “the internet in its current iteration” when he’s talking about the web, and it’s important to remember that, that the internet is a massive organism which is growing and changing. When I heard about Snapchat I thought it was a platform with a lot of potential and I wanted to jump in and work with it and see what could be gained. I’ve been involved with text scores for a long time, performing everything from Fluxus event scores to Wandelweiser compositions. I thought it would be interesting to take that world, and pump it through Snapchat, with all its constraints and freedoms and see what the result was. Part of it was to do with my own frustrations with text scores. There are lot of composers using text scores, and a lot of them are really wonderful. But I sometimes feel frustrated that the language, the descriptions, the syntax, the grammar, is often essentially the same as it was in the 60s. I’m very influenced by writers when I’m writing text scores—Donald Barthelme, Ben Marcus, Lydia Davis, Tao Lin have all been very important to me, and so with the THMOTES I could sort of work out some of my frustrations/inspirations and ideas of where it could all go, knowing the results were going to self-combust after just a few seconds. Very liberating.

Jennifer Walshe

Jennifer Walshe

How did the project go –  Do you know about any performances which resulted from it, and might there be a future for the project (or its compositions)?

It all went excellently—a lot of people signed up, and I still receive Snapchats from people all over the world, none of whom I’ve ever met. (Like the Australian guy who never wears a shirt.) Some people sent me back their own scores and videos, and the immediacy of the connection was very energising. Probably one of the nicest aspects was the immediacy—I had the idea, and executed it within 24 hours. No writing huge long grant proposals and trying to convince arts foundations about how my project would “engage with technology.” The tech is there, it’s free, and you can achieve significant results extremely fast. It’s more like a hacker’s approach, to get the idea out there and let the community beta test it for you. Quite different from the standard compositional model of spending months alone writing a piece, or hours and hours perfecting a funding application. The freshness and speed of that was really great.

I also think the way people interacted with the scores was very different because of the fact they only existed for a few seconds. I know some people did screen captures, but I heard from quite a lot of people who told me they deliberately decided never to do a screen capture, to really just let it exist in those few moments. So it opens up this contemplative space, which ironically is being delivered through a smartphone.

I studied with Amnon Wolman, who has written a series of “Imaginary Pieces” which are just beautiful. I have programmed them multiple times and had the audience simply sit and read them. There’s a very strange and special feeling in a concert hall when people sit reading a description of sound and you know everyone is imagining the same thing at the same time. I like that notion, that part of being a musician, a composer, is imagining sound, and with THMOTES I could deliver that experience directly into someone’s hand. And the fact that the clock was ticking made it more special, to try and sit and focus for only 5 or 7 seconds knowing that was it.

Snapchat is not the most obvious technological tool for a composer to adopt. How else has the internet informed your work?

In every possible way. Probably the most obvious would be the access to information, recordings, archives of sound and visual. Most of my work is fairly information-dense, and so there’s a lot of research. When I’m communicating with friends of mine who are composers, we are mostly sending links to one another.

At the moment I’m doing a project where I’m generating text scores using Markov Chains, which is teaching me a lot about how the grammar, syntax, word choices of these scores work. I feed already-existing scores into programs, I crossbreed them with all sorts of things, I get a very weird but somehow pertinent essence of what the originals are trying to do, and then I sling the results up on Twitter (@SuperSuperThank). I view Twitter as a text score machine in and of itself. The microblogging it promotes reads like a lot of Fluxus scores. I’m also very big into GIFs at the moment, I’ve been using those in my pieces, getting performers to reproduce them physically, in loops.

Recent technology has certainly affected the way people engage with music – do you think this will change things for composers, permanently?

Of course, I can already see massive changes over the last 5 years, the last 10 years. It’s changing everything for me, all the time, and that’s very exciting. I hope that in a year, 2 years, I’m doing something I could not have possibly predicted now. That’s why I’m reading mostly tech blogs these days.

Are you likely to go back to Snapchat or any similar apps? Everyone’s talking about WhatsApp these days.

There’s always plans afoot. I’m enjoying Vine at the moment.

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