Jennifer Walshe Brings Chaos, Whimsy, and Nostalgia to hcmf// 2023

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (hcmf//) is a significant part of the contemporary and new music scene in Britain. For over 46 years, the festival has been integral to local tourism, bringing 10 days of groundbreaking art to the heart of the unassuming West Yorkshire town located three hours north of London. Huddersfield is quaint, its smallness felt in the streets circling the town centre. When walking around, you can’t help passing by the same few restaurants that call out to you.

My first experience with the festival two years ago was also one of my first encounters with Britain’s contemporary music scene, having relocated to the UK from New York to pursue a Masters degree at the Royal College of Music. I eagerly took the first train up to Huddersfield on a bitterly cold Saturday morning to see my friends in Riot Ensemble, and even on this whirlwind of a day, the values of the festival were clear: to foster community through unique artistic experiences for performers, composers and audience members alike.

Recently, the festival embarked on a three-year partnership with Culture Ireland to celebrate emerging and established Irish artists, and Jennifer Walshe’s turn as the hcmf// 2023 Composer-in-Residence provided a snapshot of her enigmatic career. For those unfamiliar with Walshe, she has been described by journalist Tim Rutherford-Johnson as “a chameleon artist for a liquid modern age.” While chatting with Walshe over coffee between her performances at this year’s festival, I got a first-hand glimpse into her open and constantly churning mind.

Jennifer Walshe -- Photo by

Jennifer Walshe — Photo by

The festival opened on Nov. 17 with the UK premiere of Walshe’s PERSONHOOD, which featured her trademark interplay between seriousness and pure humor. The Oslo Sinfonietta continually tested accordionist Andreas Borregaard in a sort of cult-like performance, exploring his body, mind, and the idea of being human in an oversaturated and overstimulating existence. Short spurts of pop star ideologies and hokey classical music anecdotes made it feel as though my world – the addicted-to-TikTok existence, flooded with work emails and Instagram notifications  – was represented on the concert stage. It was one of the rare moments where, as an audience member, I felt free. There was no trace of tiredness or boredom; if anything, I wanted more – more push, more pull, more hypnotic dancing to make sense of the world around us.

I was first introduced to Walshe’s work in an Experimental Music module taught by Neil Luck during my Masters degree. Still buzzing from the opening night performance, I asked Walshe the next day how she goes about making audiences feel so present and engaged.

“Sometimes people in contemporary music talk about audiences as purely getting bums on seats; is there a decent crowd? But the audience is an integral part of the performance, “ she said. “I perform a lot, but also as a free improviser, you’re acutely aware of the audience: the energy in the room, what’s happening, when you can feel people getting tired, when you feel them getting revved up. You’re acutely aware of the silences, and the bits where people laugh. So, that’s always in my thinking. It just seems second nature rather than something unique.”

Andreas Borregaard and the Oslo Sinfonietta perform PERSONHOOD at hcmf// 2023 -- Photo by Point of View Photography

Andreas Borregaard and the Oslo Sinfonietta perform Jennifer Walshe’s PERSONHOOD at hcmf// 2023 — Photo by Point of View Photography

Like PERSONHOOD, many of Walshe’s works unfold at a frenzied and erratic pace with quick bursts of ideas and activity. She likens her approach to narrative structure to the ideas put forth in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” The 1986 essay proposes thinking of narrative not as a straight arrow or a thematic conflict in need of resolution, but rather, as a series of compelling objects and ideas that we can collect, put in our carrier bags for safe keeping, then bring out to share with others.

“The way I write, most of my pieces have very vivid scenes that are quite different from what happened before,” Walshe explained. “I think about lots of different things that I assemble into what [Le Guin] calls a ‘medicine bundle’… It’s sort of coming at a topic from multiple different angles, sometimes very obliquely, and I try not to be too didactic with the audience. I try to give them space to meet the material because they complete the work, to a certain extent.”

This concept of granting permission to think, feel, create, and experience was ever-present in the Nov. 24 performance of Ireland: A Dataset, a work that brings together questions of Irish identity and algorithmic processing. The piece was conceived in 2020 as an online project, and the live premiere at the festival featured experimental vocal ensemble Tonnta, saxophonist Nick Roth, sound engineer Úna Monaghan, and lighting designer Aédin Cosgrove in collaboration with AI listening to Enya, Riverdance and the Dubliners.

The music itself is astoundingly nostalgic; soft folk songs move into musical theatre-like ambiance and stillness adorned with noise. Tonnta helped to discern an Ireland that feels familiar, within reach, while also unrecognizable. The variety within their performance was magical, questioning our new ways of living with both digital mediums and constant influxes of information taking over our brainspace. In particular, mezzo soprano Emma Power held me for every moment, transforming from Valley girl to obedient singer to conniving thief at the World Fair.

Tonnta performs Ireland: A Dataset at hcmf// 2023 -- Photo by Point of View Photography

Tonnta performs Jennifer Walshe’s Ireland: A Dataset at hcmf// 2023 — Photo by Point of View Photography

One of the standout moments of the festival was the opening of Walshe’s exhibition AT THE FIRST SOUND, THE WHOLE WORLD FREEZES at Huddersfield Art Gallery, which had her text scores generated using AI on display. In a conversation with BBC Radio 3 host Kate Molleson on Nov. 18, Walshe said, “Places become weirder the more you talk and learn about them,” and the works in the exhibition got to the heart of what scares us the most: being present with human existence. At one point during the interview with Molleson, Walshe invited the audience to take part in an impromptu performance of one of her neural network scores. Being directed to pant like dogs and do lip trills like Celine Dion to get our “beautiful oxygen” working asked us to reflect on what it means to live our lives through AI interactions, the targeted ads on social media platforms, and the chatter of reels distracting us.

Walshe’s residency was rounded out by a screening of the film AN GLÉACHT and an improvised set with the experimental duo Matmos. AN GLÉACHT was a planned film project left unfinished by the reclusive Irish artist Caoimhín Breathnach, Walshe’s great uncle. The completed film featured footage of occult rituals, relating back to Breathnach’s belief that his series of “subliminal tapes” held the power to “shift consciousness.” And on Nov. 25, Walshe  joined her long-time collaborators Matmos (M. C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel), a duo known for their enthralling performances and bizarre sampling of sounds like the amplified nerve tissue of crayfish or plastic surgery.

hcmf// promises dynamic, life-changing performances that promote inclusivity, forward-thinking, and world-class art. Walshe’s curatorial voice was a dynamic central component of this year’s festival, but other highlights included the innovation behind Laura Bowler’s ADVERT where she was tattooed live on stage, Mivos Quartet’s ambitious programming of works by Henry Threadgill, Sivan Eldar, Chikako Morishita, and George Lewis, and the fifth annual rendition of hcmf// shorts, featuring performances by emerging artists making waves in the contemporary music scene.

Jennifer Walshe at hcmf// 2023 -- Photo by Point of View Photography

Jennifer Walshe at hcmf// 2023 — Photo by Point of View Photography

Reflecting on the festival’s growth since her debut nearly 20 years ago, Walshe said, “The thing that makes me very happy is that I feel that there’s a greater sense of permission, there’s more openness.” But considering the changes she has seen in the experimental music scene over the past two decades, Walshe also noted the loss of anonymity in our constantly-online culture.

“I remember coming to the festival 20 years ago at a point where you couldn’t upload your music to the internet easily, and there was no way to listen to people’s music over the internet easily… I have friends who are absolutely astoundingly amazing composers who wrote works in the 90s and the early 2000s, and then just decided they hated them and burned the scores and destroyed the recordings – and that’s it, there’s no trace. You can never listen to that piece again. They could take risks, and they could actually erase their tracks and it was like it never happened. There was space to play, and space to make mistakes.”

When asked how she maintains her sense of play despite the growing demand to document your artistic process on social media, Walshe credited her practice as a free improviser. “I just work all the time,” she says. “You’re just part of a community and you do it not looking for any financial gain, but simply because it’s part of who you are… You’re just always inquisitive, you’re always open. You’re in an environment with other musicians who are constantly saying, ‘I found this thing, and I realized if I wired it up to this I can get this amazing sound, and I’m not sure what it means yet, but I’m going to use it in the show tonight.’ You see people in the midst of a process rather than trying to have the precise finished product. So that’s it basically – it makes me happy.”


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