5 Questions to Jennifer Jolley (composer)

When you visit Jennifer Jolley’s website, the tagline says, “Composer. Blogger. Professor Person.”–a straightforward, quirky, and confident way to describe her work that perfectly encapsulates the tone of her personality, as well. As a composer who is on the faculty at Texas Tech, Jolley is known for works that explore political subjects, often working collaboratively with writers and communities to use new music as a tool for advocacy. She also writes quite a bit herself: her blog, Why Compose When You Can Blog?, is transparent about the role of failure in the creative process, and you may have read her contributions to NewMusicBox about cultural appropriation and music as political action. This interview explores her various professional roles and how they intersect with the theme of our UNEVEN MEASURES series.

The dreaded and obvious way to begin this interview would be to ask, “What’s it like to be a woman composer?” Instead, let’s begin by asking what, if anything, does gender have to do with your professional identity?

First, thank you for phrasing the question that way. I feel when I’m characterized as a “woman composer,” it actually anticipates conversation. It’s a title that’s too often understood as only empowering. Yes, I’m a woman, yes, I’m a composer, and historically these categories didn’t overlap. But it’s not just an acknowledgement of past exclusion, it’s still necessary today. The title makes gender a modifier. “Woman” is an adjective that must be applied to the noun “composer” before it recognizes me. It’s a reminder that I always come in a shape that doesn’t match the definition of composer for a lot of people today.

Identity is better because it captures the conflict of this dynamic. Gender isn’t a switch I get to flip on or off at will. I identify and present as a woman, and this alters how I am received as a composer. There are times that I’m acutely aware of it, and other times it’s in the background. It can drive me to work harder or make me feel illegitimate. Since I’ve never identified or presented in any other way, it’s difficult to assess how my gender affects my perspective. I suppose what gender has to do with my professional identity is that it’s always there. Whether it’s a benefit or a liability—it’s rarely neutral—it just is.

I think this is why the question brings up anecdotes rather than the big, unambiguously misogynistic moments in my career. Like I remember when I was in grad school and I was trying to figure out what to wear to a premiere of my music. I noticed emerging composers wearing the uniform of sharp blazers, button-down collared shirts, jeans, and nice shoes. I tried to mimic that look, but it didn’t fit my body. I tried again as if things would be different. It was only after repeated failures to fit into it that I thought, maybe a dress and a scarf that fit me would be better. And then I thought, maybe it’s okay to wear costume earrings and falsies since I would look and feel like myself. So I gave myself permission to wear this outfit, and while I was driving and trying to justify why I wasn’t dressed like a composer, I thought, hell, maybe I’m dressed as a composer because I am a composer. And while I remember how affirming it was to declare myself in the moment, I think of how nuts it was to expend that much energy.

Jennifer Jolley--Photo by Neb Macura

Jennifer Jolley–Photo by Neb Macura

The theme of this project is the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave women (white women anyway) the right to vote. Through this project we are “highlighting the complexity of women’s suffrage and exclusion to participation, even in 2020.” How do you respond to that?

This question has particular meaning for me. When I was three, my mother became a naturalized citizen. I remember being confused at the ceremony when we recited the Pledge of Allegiance because it was something I didn’t believe happened outside of my preschool classroom. As I watched my mom recite the pledge, my dad whispered, “Your mom is becoming a citizen!” and I thought, “But she’s MOM. Why does she need to become a citizen?” Why did she have to do what my young self did every school day? Why did my mother have to prepare for an exam to make her what people are just given? So, I was aware early that voting was something you might have to work for. And though I couldn’t express it at the time, I became conscious of the fact that birth and citizenship weren’t naturally connected. It wasn’t like I was radicalized by this—I didn’t think anyone could be excluded from voting—but something about it didn’t feel right.

I still think about this, especially during election cycles. I think about how so many people have to work so much harder to vote. Too often people think poll taxes and literacy tests are inequities of the past. They aren’t. And the widespread voter suppression by elected officials should shock every citizen no matter where they sit in the political spectrum. I’m in Texas right now. The strict ID laws and history of voter suppression in Texas keep the state dead last in voter turnout. Instead of being embarrassed about this, they’re making it worse. The Texas State Supreme Court upheld the Attorney General’s refusal to issue absentee ballots for people worried about contracting COVID-19. So, this November, I have no choice but to mask-up and vote.

Your work is often deliberately engaged with political topics. How has your outlook on political composition changed in the Trump era, and in the COVID-19 era?

Oh goodness, you know I’ve always been drawn to political art, and there is no question that this space has become a lot more political recently.

When I wrote Prisoner of Conscience, for example, I was drawn to the refusal of artists to succumb to state authority. I certainly saw parallels of unjust incarceration within the United States, but I didn’t think the suppression of free speech, misogyny, xenophobia, and corruption would keep becoming more and more relevant. I think we need to recognize that these things didn’t just emerge—they were already there. They were hiding, and now they’re being flaunted. COVID-19 just accelerated an ongoing crisis. America was so weak that we couldn’t even finance a necessary lockdown to get the pandemic under control. Now we’re pretending that 1,000+ people dying a day is something that happens in a functioning society. We’re 5% of the world’s population and we have 25% of the COVID-19 fatalities. And it shouldn’t be lost on us that this indifference is in part because the victims are poor and people of color.

Going forward, I think politics will be increasingly dominant in music, but we need to rethink what it means. A lot of things that shouldn’t be political are. We’ve engineered a country where the survival of too many people is an act of defiance. I think one really important political act to encourage is the audience. Listening to the silenced, the ignored, the neglected, and the dispossessed is going to be critical.

Your blog, Why Compose When You Can Blog?, explores your many successes and failures as a career composer. In what ways do you see composers, classical music, and/or the new music scene succeeding and failing in 2020?

I know my previous answers have been a bit dark (00ps), but I’m actually hopeful for the future. What we’ve done over the last few months as a musical community has renewed my faith in our creativity and our ability to make spaces where we can exist. 2020 is objectively a dumpster fire, but we keep finding ways to perform. It reminds us that music isn’t superfluous, it’s necessary like breathing and eating. These aren’t perfect solutions (how could they be?), but they reveal what’s important to us. I look to open instrumentation, improvisation, and adaptable music as ways to allow ensembles (and especially student ensembles) to play. The online performances (live and pre-recorded) are thinking about new venues and new audiences. We’ve all been attending forums where we discuss the future of our field in bold new ways. There is a great coming together at the micro level, and that excites me. My one worry, however, is that this level of reinvention isn’t reaching the big established organizations. They’re holding on to an older corporate model; they’re having a harder time adjusting their performances and practices. It’s exacerbating a divide in the music world that already existed, and we need unity.  

What’s next for you? Tell us about any projects you have coming up that you’re particularly enthused about.

Initially for a good 2-3 months, my creative brain was foggy and stuck in pandemic mode. Now I’m excited to write again, although admittedly my brain is scattered, and I’m having a hard time focusing on big projects. However, I’ll be writing a piece for soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw and the Stargazer drone synth, and I told her I learned how to make a DIY talk box (thanks Dogbotic!), so now maybe my piece is for soprano, Stargazer, and talk box (if I don’t mess up the soldering!). I also want to write a collection of cell-based flex pieces, but I don’t know when I’m going to get around to it. I’m just happy my brain wants to create again.


UNEVEN MEASURES is a series dedicated to amplifying today’s women, trans, and nonbinary artists on the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment leading up to the 2020 presidential election. This series is made possible through a generous grant from The Elizabeth & Michel Sorel Charitable Organization Inc. to the American Composers Forum and their partnership with I CARE IF YOU LISTEN. The Sorel Organization is committed to supporting gender equity in music and addressing systemic inequities by providing greater visibility for women musicians from underrepresented communities.