5 Questions to Jessica Meyer (composer, performer)

Seven years ago, violist Jessica Meyer heard someone else perform her music for the first time. In need of a composition sample for an application, she asked Nicholas Tamagna, Adam Marks, and Robert Burkhart to record a movement of her work Seasons of Basho, which earned her a 2014 JFund for New Music award (now ACF | create). Five years later, her debut composer portrait album Ring Out effectively cemented her new composer-performer identity, and since then, she has quickly racked up a couple of high-profile composer residencies with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra and Spoleto Festival USA.

From May 28 to June 13, 2021, Spoleto Festival USA will present more than 70 in-person events across Charleston, South Carolina on mostly outdoor stages with reduced attendance and distanced seating. Jessica will have two world premieres on May 30 and 31 as part of the festival’s chamber music series: a solo violin piece for Livia Sohn, and a new work for St. Lawrence String Quartet. For those outside of Charleston, all live chamber music performances will be video recorded and excerpts/highlights—including Meyer’s premieres—will be shared shortly thereafter on and on Spoleto’s social media channels. 

Congratulations on being named Spoleto Festival USA’s 2021 Composer-in-Residence! Can you give us a brief overview of your works on the program and how the music reflects the Charleston region?

Thank you so much! At Spoleto, I get to hear other people play my works and perform them, as well (which is a balance I really enjoy). I will be playing one of my solo pieces with my loop pedal and one of my first chamber works, But Not Until, alongside fellow composer-performer Paul Wiancko.

I will get to hear the premiere of the solo violin piece I wrote for Livia Sohn called From Our Ashes. When I heard that she had taken a break from playing the violin after struggling with focal dystonia, I offered to write a piece in a way that was comfortable for her when she was ready. I was so glad to get the email this year that she was ready to get back to it, and she sounds amazing!

Finally, I just finished the featured commission for the St. Lawrence String Quartet in honor of their 25-year residency at the festival. I have never been to Charleston before, but when I started to look up what makes the town special, I discovered that it was a hot spot for pirates in the 1670s. I came across the story of Anne Bonny, one of the only female pirates in history. Her story is powerful and fascinating and has since inspired the narrative of this piece. I love being immersed in different communities, and I find that people, places, and stories usually inspire the different works I write.

Jessica Meyer--Photo by Dario Acosta

Jessica Meyer–Photo by Dario Acosta

In addition to having your works performed for the festival, what community partnerships and activities are involved in your Spoleto residency?

I will be getting there before the festival officially starts to record educational concerts alongside wonderful chamber musicians that will be released virtually. We will feature classical works that align with our instrumentation, but also offer performances that talk about creativity and getting into the mind of a composer for middle/high schoolers. I was also fortunate enough to have a meaningful virtual workshop with an adult special needs community last month. After performing with my looper and modeling different sounds I can make on my viola, they went into groups and wrote short poems about joy and what that means to them even during the toughest times. Underneath their text, they then described what kinds of sounds I should play to best express their poetry. Since Zoom is much better now, I then improvised a piece in NYC to go with each poem as they read them aloud in Charleston. It was special, moving, and fun! I will absolutely try to drop by to say “Hi” in person when I am down there.

You were a teaching artist/performer for the first 16 years of your professional life before turning to composition just seven years ago. What inspired this shift?

I spent a lot of my childhood tinkering on any piano I could find, making up my own little pieces to help express what mood I was in. Then in high school, my music theory class was a room with a computers and keyboards where I would hide out and create my own music when I was not practicing. However, for some reason I never considered being a composer at the time. I was always thinking practically and believed that viola = orchestra job. When I got into Juilliard, all my creative impulses gave way to hours in rehearsal or in a practice room. After graduating, I spent years working while investing in other people’s creative processes–either as a founder of the new music group counter)induction, or as a Teaching Artist working in hundreds of classrooms getting students to make up their own pieces so they could better engage with whatever live performance they were going to see at Lincoln Center.

I did this until I could no longer ignore the nagging feeling that something very important was missing from my life.  I bought a looper [pedal] for my birthday and started using it like the piano I would tinker on to express what was going on in my emotional life. A few years later when I turned 40, I heard other people play a piece I wrote for the first time, and I felt that my life finally made sense…so I have been spending the last seven years making up for lost time while also developing who I am as a performer and educator.

Jessica Meyer--Photo by Dario Acosta

Jessica Meyer–Photo by Dario Acosta

Now that you are being engaged more frequently as a composer, what does it mean to you to be “in residence” somewhere? 

I feel that if I am going to spend time in a particular place, I would like to go beyond just a premiere and a masterclass of sorts.  There were many times touring as a performer where I did not see much else besides the inside of a hotel room and the inside of the concert hall. As a composer-in-residence, I like to also perform myself, perhaps develop something site-specific while I am there, help students perform and write more effectively, visit the younger kids in the schools so they can start making up sounds on their instruments or in some other way, and work with adults and seniors who have a lifetime of experience and might have a lot to say artistically if given the chance.

I like having concerts that showcase the creativity of the adults and students of a community featured alongside whatever I am doing, because one will always inspire the other. We naturally engage in meaningful collaborations for a performing art to be successful, and I think the future is extending that role so that we can be catalysts in any given community.

Nina Simone famously said that it is “an artist’s duty…is to reflect the times,” and your work has consistently taken this ethos beyond the concert hall and into the community. For you, what is an artist’s role/responsibility in community engagement?

No matter what style of music you are presenting, from Bach to contemporary music, there is always a way to draw people in so they can engage with what is happening onstage, give them opportunities to consider their own artistic choices, and subsequently make connections to their own lives. I feel it is my responsibility as an artist to reflect what is going on in the world, empower others to feel more connected to themselves, and bring new audiences together. It seems to me that so much inner and outer conflict exists because people are not always given the opportunity to live life as the most authentic versions of themselves.

We are all born with an innate sense of creativity or means to express ourselves, but schooling and society consistently erodes this capacity over time. Somewhere along the way, a judgement is made that one is not good enough and the creative or performative process should be left to “the professionals.” In actuality, I learned over many years of teaching that the desire to be creative or assemble things in order to express something is a basic human need–one that we artists know to our core, and one that absolutely affects how one functions both as an individual and in society.

The past year has taught us that it is clear our field needs to adapt. We spend years honing and developing our craft, and that is in and of itself is a worthy achievement. However, I feel that our work will need to extend much farther into any given community–far beyond enjoying drinks with all involved parties and preaching to the choir of students already studying to be artists. The question I have now is, how can we as artists push through our usual comfort zones as creators and interpreters to make real engagement and change happen? It is much more work, for sure…but the benefits are many, are vast, and are very much needed.


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