interview with jessie marino
For some time now, I’ve had the idea to start a series of interviews with composers, performers, and artists I think are doing really interesting work. The following is the first installment.
I met cellist/composer/performance artist Jessie Marino in 2006 at Manhattan School of Music. She was in the last semester of an undergraduate cello degree, and I was in the last semester of the masters program in composition. I was preparing a recital of original electronic music, and was looking for a cellist to perform with an interactive KYMA patch I had designed. I was introduced to Jessie by a composer friend, asked her if she’d be interested in giving it a shot, and was taken aback by both her enthusiasm and her amazing, thoughtful improvisation.
Since then, after a stint in Berlin, Jessie has been working with the innovative ensembles Pamplemousse and Wet Ink, started a new project called On Structure with flutist and composer Natacha Diels, and has worked on a number of interesting independent projects, including an upcoming solo CD of works for cello and electronics. Last week, as part of SOHO20’s Visual Volume festival , Jessie premiered her latest creation, IGLOO, a sound sculpture built from styrofoam cups, contact microphones, and music boxes. I attended the festival, and asked Jessie if I could ask her a few questions about the installation and other aspects of her work.
AS: What is IGLOO?
JM: IGLOO is an inhabitable sound structure. Its a quasi-geodesic dome (I say “quasi” because I never finished my high school math classes, so while it looks pretty even, the mathematics behind the construction are lucky at best!) made from about 800 styrofoam cups. Small transducers amplify the sound of music boxes inside the dome, and excite the styrofoam, which vibrates sympathetically, acting like a giant low-fidelity speaker.
AS: Where did the idea come from?
JM: The idea came from my shower, where most of my ideas come from! I had been building these little floor lamps for friends out of plastic dental cups, and then one day as the hot water was flowing I just thought, “What if I made one of these lamps humongous, and out of styrofoam, and instead of light, I use sound?” Hot water and grogginess are a pretty amazing combination, creatively speaking!
AS: What was your path from playing classical cello to building sound sculptures?
JM: I didn’t start playing the cello until high school, so there was a mad rush to learn how to play a foreign instrument as well as kids who had been playing since before they could run. But in a way, I think that my late start and late entrance into the “classical world” has been fortunate. I don’t feel required to be faithful to classical music. I love classical music, but have no need to interact with it anymore.
The path from studying an instrument to building sculptures is not as far as you would expect. Its all about committing to a task. It used to be playing Boccherini Concertos, then it became deciphering Lachenmann scores, now its building electronics and making these weird dream like ideas in my head come to life. I’d love to make some sort of deeply philosophical connection between species counterpoint and igloos made of trash, but honestly it’s all about seeing the idea through, regardless of its origin or intent.
AS: Is there a connection between IGLOO and your other current work as a cellist and composer?
JM: It’s a new arena for me, and one that I’m really enjoying at the moment, but there is definitely a connection with my other work as a cellist and composer. The sound world that I am using in all of my work is pretty consistent with my own improvising and with the pieces that I write and perform with Ensemble Pamplemousse.
AS: Do you have plans to continue in this direction? If so, what’s down the pipe?
JM: Katie Shima, from Loud Objects, and I have been talking about doing a project together, which I’m actually super excited about! Besides being an awesome musician, she is also a working architect! There are so many things that I don’t even know exist that she knows exactly how to do, so that is very exciting.
In the immediate future, the next big project that I’m going to take on is building a pedal chain for my cello. All those guitar pedals are really cumbersome to play with, so I’m going to build a bunch of them on a smaller scale and try to figure out a way to attach them to the body and sides of my cello so that i can tinker and tweak them more idiomatically during performance.
AS: You have a performance coming up on Friday, 12/10, with On Structure, your performance art duo with Natacha Diels. What is On Structure, and how did it begin?
JM: It started with Natacha and I wanting to perform more together as a duo. We did a lot of improvising after I moved back from Berlin, and played a few shows that incorporated a lot more “performative” elements (dancers, yarn, ping pong balls, filtering speakers with physical objects). Now we are not really playing our instruments in our sets, but more composing sonic motion. I like the idea of movement as a compositional material, and I think that is one of the driving ideas behind On Structure.
JM: The pieces on the website track our progression from being a flute and cello duo to our work now which incorporates movement and light as well as sound. The tape piece that Natacha wrote also has this beautiful visual element where she manipulates green and red lasers and reflects them on the walls in these gorgeous abstract patterns. We’re still working on getting some good documentation for that piece. It’s tricky filming things in the dark!
AS: Rot/Blau is a very cool piece. I like the precision and the theatricality. There seems to be an element of absurdity as well. Can you say a few words about this piece in particular?
JM: Thanks! Yes, the piece is totally absurd! I am fascinated by the juxtaposition of severity and absurdity. There was a time when Natacha and I were getting confused for one another by many of the people we were meeting. We had very similar hair cuts and have similar body types so it was understandable that people were getting us confused. But then it started happening all the time! I wanted to write a piece where this confusion was happening on purpose. Throughout the piece we are switching which color we are (red or blue) and which side of the table red and blue sits at. The idea is that, if you don’t know us personally, you might not even recognize that there is a different person wearing the blue wig at the end of the piece, that you would only identify with the characters by their most obvious physical attributes.
AS: Do you consider the sections of rot/blau to be movements, in the traditional sense? What was your approach to time/rhythm in that piece?
JM: I do consider them to be movements, but not in the traditional sense. There wasn’t any consideration for traditional formal structures that happen in a sonata or a symphony, for example. The “time” and “rhythm” in the piece happen pretty organically. They’re inherent in the actions themselves.
AS: Are there particular artists or projects, contemporary or from the past, that inspire your work?
JM: Well, Ensemble Pamplemousse is a big source of inspiration for me. Working with them always gives me new ideas, and they almost never say, “No, we can’t do that.” It’s awesome to be able to work with them on a regular basis. I’d also say that George Aperghis and Manos Tsangaris are big influences of mine. They are the hip guys in the European experimental musical theater scene.
AS: Judging from the imagery on the On Structure site, I get the impression that a thread of comedy, or perhaps satire (at least, irreverence?) runs through the On Structure project. Is that correct? Is there anything in particular, in the art/music world, or the world at large, that On Structure is responding to?
JM: Hm… I don’t think so. We’re just writing and performing pieces that challenge our own comfort zones, and that we think might be interesting. We’re giving ourselves another performance platform to fool around with. It’s certainly a playful group, but I wouldn’t say that there is any intentional comedy or satire. We just really enjoy goats!
AS: You mentioned your time in Berlin being important in your going in these new directions (performance art, sculpture, installation), and that Aperghis and Tsangaris are influences. What was your time like there? What was your reason for going? What did you work on there?
JM: I think you only move some place totally new for love or money. I fell into the former catagory, but once my personal relationship fizzled out, I fell deeply in love with Berlin. There were endless amounts of time (a dream in terms of constantly doing work, but a nightmare for actually finishing it!), which allowed me to explore a lot of different kinds of music that I probably wouldn’t have been directly involved with in New York. Wandelweiser and text-based scores, reductionist improvisation, IDM, sound art, and experimental musical theater. This last category, I think, can really only exist on a regular basis over in Europe because of public subsidies, so I tried to fill up on my fair share of theater in my last few months of living there. Composers like Aperghis and Tsangaris were really hot at the time (they both subsequently taught at Darmstadt) so they were being programmed quite a bit. I guess what I’m trying to get at in a very long and convoluted sort of way, is that my work there was to listen. I listened to everything and tried to play in as many random scenes and settings as possible. I was filtering the aspects of all these kinds of music that I liked and disliked, and trying to figure out a way to incorporate my own voice. It was after I left Berlin, that I started composing.