Next up in our series of interviews with the composers for The Industry and wild Up’s First Take is Jenny Olivia Johnson. You can read all of the interviews at newclassic.la/firsttake. Here’s Jenny!
Describe the work you’ll be presenting at First Take.
The After Time has many origins. In 2001, while remembering a series of suspicious suicides at my alma mater, I began drafting a darkly comedic, Law and Order-style opera about a series of collegiate ballerina suicides that all end up being connected to an underground sex club. Then two things happened in my real life: I lost a close college friend to suicide in 2002, and I witnessed a stranger’s suicide in Bobst Library at New York University in 2003. These events forced me to rethink my project, but more importantly, they forced me to confront my suddenly acute feelings of loss and disorientation.
Traumas are rarely explainable. They don’t easily conform to straightforward narratives. The After Time, which is cast in spare, electronic fragments against a backdrop of blurred VHS clips, is a meditation on this aspect of loss.
What’s your background in writing opera, or for voice?
I came to opera composition from both a noise-rock and a classical-composition background. I desperately wish I could sing, but the closest I’ve come is screaming not-so-accurate vocal covers of Liz Phair and Courtney Love in a dyke bar with my band a few years back. I’ve always been interested in writing vocal music (sometimes awkwardly called “art song”), and I usually write my own texts, so I found that in writing my songs I also had these weird, sort of fragmented emotional stories to tell. A mentor of mine saw an orchestral song of mine and used the term “kind of an opera” to describe it, so I began exploring what it would mean if I started calling what I do “opera.”
Does/did your composition process change at all when writing for this medium?
Once I started using the word “opera” to provisionally describe my work, I started finding myself arguing with or modifying my understanding of what the genre is in ways that I think have been productive. I often start by imagining a series of scenes, and then either strictly adhering to that format in ways that change the musical idea, or completely ignoring the need for a scene change, and letting scenes bleed into each other in strange ways. I think the stringencies and histories implied by the term “opera” have enabled me to think more experimentally than I otherwise might, merely because I often find that the stories that interest me most are ones that disrupt normative narration.
What else are you working on that you’d like people to know about?
One of my current passions is sound installation. I recently created an interactive piece for touch-sensitive bell jars, LEDs, and digital audio—”Glass Heart (Bells for Sylvia Plath)”—which was exhibited at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in 2013-14, and is scheduled for exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in 2017 as part of a special show on Plath.[vimeo http://vimeo.com/113711828]
I’m also recording my first album, “Don’t Look Back,” which is a set of emotional chamber songs about adolescents and traumatic experiences. “The After Time” will actually be on that album! I ran a Kickstarter campaign over the summer for the album–more information about it can be found here:
Learn more about Jenny at jennyoliviajohnson.com. Come back tomorrow for the next installation of our series on First Take, an interview with composer Paul Pinto. Complete details on First Take 2015 are available at http://theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php.
LA opera powerhouse The Industry just announced the list of composers who have been selected for their 2015 First Take event. The afternoon opera-thon gives first readings to new pieces and, if I’m not mistaken, one is usually chosen for The Industry to produce. 2015’s will be at the new Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 21 at 1 pm, with wild Up serving as house orchestra.
The composers are:
Jason Thorpe Buchanan
Jenny Olivia Johnson
A more detailed post about the project is up at http://theindustryla.org/projects/project_firsttake15.php
The Industry is also holding open auditions for singers interested in First Take and Hopscotch. Interested singers should submit their resume, headshots, and performance sample web links to auditions@TheIndustryLA.org.