5 Questions to JIJI (guitarist, composer, arranger)

Guitarist, composer, and arranger JIJI is most known for her striking performances on both the classical and electric guitar. Her collaborations and premieres include new works by João Luiz, Hilary Purrington, Krists Auznieks, Gulli Björnsson, and Nina C. Young. JIJI continues to push the boundaries of modern musicianship, with her only artistic limitations being those of her own imagination. Most recently, she took on the role of bandleader for Wild Up’s latest album, Julius Eastman, Vol. 2: Joy Boy. Released June 17, 2022 on New Amsterdam Records, the album is the second of several forthcoming volumes in which Wild Up will explore the late composer’s music. 

There are numerous technical differences between the classical guitar and the electric guitar, with each needing a drastically different approach to performance. What made you choose to begin playing the electric guitar after having already excelled at playing classical guitar?

I’ve always played electric guitar. I’m not great at it, but I love it. Actually, my first choice of instrument was electric guitar! My heroes were Jimi, Ritchie Blackmore (from Deep Purple), PJ Harvey, and Eric Clapton…But my parents bought me a classical guitar first and promised to buy me an electric guitar after a year of studying classical (which never happened). I bought my own many years later.

Growing up, I was always listening to pop music. I always wanted to play in a band–I did play in a punk band one summer in Winthrop, MA, and it was awesome. I started to write more stuff on electric guitar and realized that I didn’t see the need to separate my passions. I started playing electric guitar in my “classical” recitals, and it’s been really fun! The stuff I write is inspired by midwest emo, drone music, and doom metal.

JIJI with both acoustic and electric guitars--Photo courtesy of the artist

JIJI with both acoustic and electric guitars–Photo courtesy of the artist

Collaboration is a large part of your artistic practice as a performer and something that seems to excite you. Can you share why collaboration is so important to you?

I think a huge thing has to do with my personality. I love working with others–I feel like I become a better artist by working with others because it requires a lot of flexibility, open-mindness, and curiosity. For example, I have been working with architect Drew Busmire and composer Gulli Björnsson. We were like, “We like technology and music, what can we create together?” We developed three VR projects together, and we had no idea how we were going to do it, but we just started and things came together. For me, at least, it’s exciting that three folks from different worlds can create new and exciting art together!

You were a featured bandleader on Wild Up’s Julius Eastman, Vol. 2: Joy Boy where you arranged and recorded Touch Him When (Light) / (Heavy). Though you had performed the work prior to this recording, what led you to continue expanding it, and how has your relationship to the piece changed over time?

WildUp started the Julius Eastman anthology project with New Amsterdam records a few years ago, and we decided it would be a cool thing to release my arrangement of Touch Him When on the new album! I love performing the piece, and I really wanted it to be part of Wild Up’s large vision. It’s an honor and an absolute dream to be part of the band’s project.

“Light” is the version I had performed regularly, and the “Heavy” version came together just in December 2021 when working with Wild Up Artistic Director and conductor Chris Rountree and producer Lewis Pesacov. Wild Up has been performing other works by Eastman for years now, and we’ve been approaching the pieces with our own interpretations that I feel are very unique and exciting.

Why did you decide to release two versions of Touch Him When, and what do you hope that listeners get from hearing them concurrently?

Chris Rountree, Lewis Pesacov, and I went back and forth before the recording session. When I had arranged this piece back in 2017-18, there wasn’t a score available, just a recording on YouTube, and it’s really cool. It sounds like it was recorded in an apartment; you can hear all the noise of NYC: cars, people walking, birds, etc. I thought it would be cool to recreate that.

When arranging this piece — since I don’t have a perfect pitch — I had to listen with headphones and play on the piano like every five seconds and write down each note. It took me a whole week! But during the process, it felt like a beautiful mind scene. I started finding all these clues and answers in the phrases and intervals. It totally made sense to me. I felt like Eastman left a cookie crumb path for me to find. I found myself being totally immersed in the beatings, each interval producing a different rate of beatings, and it just made sense to me. (In acoustics, a beat is an interference pattern between two sounds of slightly different frequencies, perceived as a periodic variation in volume whose rate is the difference of the two frequencies. With tuning instruments that can produce sustained tones, beats can be readily recognized.)

Chris and Lewis also know that I love doom metal, so we thought, “Why don’t we take that acoustic beating to the extreme, the next level?” Lewis was really the master of the sound world for Heavy version: the right fuzz and distortion, and dubbing with baritone guitar. We also used frippertronics (we love Robert Fripp and Brian Eno), and we had fun taking this piece in a different direction. The notes are still the same, but it feels like a totally different piece! That’s also why it was so important to us. The notes (Light/Heavy version) are identical, but a new interpretation can really make the piece so different. I really think Julius might have enjoyed the heavy version, at least that’s my hope!

JIJI--Photo courtesy of the artist

JIJI–Photo courtesy of the artist

You have a wide variety of interests and wear many hats in your day-to-day work, but what is something that you haven’t had the chance to do yet artistically that you would like to in the near future?

I’d really like to work with a gaming company! In my free time, I play a fair amount of video games. I think video games are a perfect art form, in my opinion. It checks all the boxes: visual/auditory/interactive/story-telling. I mean, I would die to work with a gaming company. These days, I’m really into Don’t Starve Together by Klei Entertainment and Stardew Valley by ConcernedApe.


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