Yvette Janine Jackson Looks to the Cosmos in Double Bill of Radio Operas at Roulette

Does our perception of the space around us affect our experience of a musical work? As the audience at Roulette was plunged into total darkness at the beginning of Yvette Janine Jackson’s Swan on the evening of Jan. 19, I questioned if this idea was just a gimmick. Were we going to be uncomfortably trapped, or would this make it a more complete experience?

I quickly became aware of how my lack of sight impacted my listening, and how effectively it enabled me to embody the claustrophobia of a confined cargo hold and the weightless disembodiment of outer space expressed in the piece. Something happens in a classical music setting when the first thing that is asked of an audience is to let go of the awareness of the venue; to shed the skin of sitting, looking, and behaving properly, and fully enter into the meaning and narrative of the music. Listening to the pre-recorded work in total darkness, our breath didn’t have to be bated the same way as when musicians are on stage; instead, we had to monitor our bodies, the shifting and squirming sounds that were only heard rather than seen.

Swan is a transportative music journey, beginning on the ships of the transatlantic slave trade and morphing into a spaceship — a literal rocket to freedom. The 11-minute work is one of Jackson’s radio operas, an ever-evolving term that encapsulates her narrative electroacoustic works and live performances that engage with history, the environment, and socioeconomic issues.

Yvette Janine Jackson--Photo courtesy of the artist

Yvette Janine Jackson–Photo courtesy of the artist

From “cargo hold” to “transit” to “space,” Swan moves through claustrophobia and disorientation and floats into the infinity of outer space. The darkness closed in as the recording of Jackson and her Invisible People Ensemble began with daunting piano chords and sustained whispers on strings and vibraphone. This holding of the body was effective in creating a sense of suffocating confinement; it was clear that the audience wasn’t intended to feel safe.

Disjunct lines from Jackson (piano), Kjell Nordeson (vibraphone), Shayla James (viola), Judith Hamann (cello), and Sam Dunscombe (bass clarinet) fed one another. An electronic blip pulsed like a radar detecting an approaching vessel, the time between each getting shorter and shorter while the sound of inhales and exhales permeated the room. Clicks and squeaks, like rusty haunted doors, were overlaid with eerie clock-tower chimes. Though the cacophony was disorienting, there was also something grounding about recognizing concrete sounds and staying there, cocooned rather than tossing about. An eruption of synthesizers acted as a sudden praise break, poking at high staccato notes before arriving at a zero-gravity sonar pulse accompanied by a steady rim shot.

The world premiere of T-minus, another radio opera, picked up where Swan left off: in outer space, although not entirely untethered to the world we live in. Performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble and accentuated by muted stage lighting, the work is a thoughtful expedition through space that engages with the impact of space tourism on local communities near launch sites.

The International Contemporary Ensemble performs the world premiere of Yvette Janine Jackson's "T-Minus" -- Screenshot courtesy of Roulette

The International Contemporary Ensemble performs the world premiere of Yvette Janine Jackson’s “T-Minus” — Screenshot courtesy of Roulette

T-minus specifically considers the livestream of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Demo-2 during the summer of 2020, when massive protests against police brutality followed the murder of George Floyd. The work is built on a series of repetitions that are broken into different rhythms and varying interruptions, continually surprising the listener and drawing attention to something different with each reiteration — a magnificent feat. The brass section played a prominent central role and eclipsed the strings, which seemed both novel and necessary. The two trumpets (Gareth Flowers and Sam Jones), trombone (Michael Lormand), and tuba (Ben Stapp), were tasked with warmth, their round sound stretching through the venue in recurring loops.

Ross Karre on electronics whooshed through the atmosphere with strong gusts of sampled wind, birdsong, gaming inputs, bass drum clusters, and spoken voice. “Welcome to the division” was heard through the speakers, followed by “questions about life’s urges,” a switch between the institutional and personal. Jackson’s use of electronics provokes questions; when pre-recorded voices grumble, “What is your destination?” her audience has no choice but to wonder — or wander.

One of Jackson’s best qualities as a composer is her conception of space. Her radio operas swallowed Roulette — a beckoning of a universe much more expansive than our everyday experiences, while still leaving room for each listener’s individual interpretation. Mixing electronics with live musicians can be a tricky balance, placing much of the onus on the performers to distinguish their presence rather than simply stacking live sounds on top of pre-recorded sounds. The International Contemporary Ensemble didn’t always rise to the challenge, at times feeling static rather than inhabiting the music with palpable symbiotic energy. But Jackson’s compositions were indeed weightless, and carried her audience into various dimensions.


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