Transcription: 0312 - Yvette Janine Jackson

Released: February 2, 2020

Darwin: Okay, today I get a chance to speak to someone new to me. This is the first of our series of presentations that are being curated by Seth Cluett; I asked him to help choose and set up these interviews for the month of February. And this is the first of our interviews and it's with Yvette Janine Jackson. Yvette is a professor at Harvard but also an artist that has done some extraordinary work - in mixed media theater production, produced media, acousmatic media work. And so I'm really excited to hear more about the work and about the process that goes into creating it. So with no more ado, let's say hello to Yvette. Hey Yvette, how are you?

Yvette Janine Jackson: Fine, how are you doing?

Darwin: Thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to have this talk - I really appreciate it. Why don't we start off by having you talk a little bit about your body of work.

Yvette: Okay. Well first of all, thanks for inviting me to have this conversation. My body of work, I've been kind of categorizing into two parts lately. One is Radio Opera, which started as an acousmatic, multichannel practice. And then the other is narrative soundscape composition, which is another electro-acoustic practice. So with the Radio Opera, they're primarily episodic compositions that are based on some type of historical event or current social issue.

Darwin: I find that title actually really compelling. I saw it in some of the information about you that's online, this discussion of your work as Radio Operas. And in fact, luckily, I was able to listen to a couple of things, including The Invisible People, Episode One, which is a really compelling work, but it's interesting too because you posited as a Radio Opera. But it's meant to be performed in an almost theatrical space. Right?

Yvette: Right. So the use of the term Radio Opera is, it's distinct from like historical uses. Like I'm trying Carla Maffioletti's early operas that were commissioned specifically for radio. And when I use the term I'm borrowing radio, it's evocative of the golden age of radio; I'm a huge fan of radio dramas from the thirties to fifties that are really effective at creating images in the mind, through tbe use of text and music and sound effects. And so the Radio Opera I compose are designed to help the listener create their own images as they're listening along. Opera is they're usually large works that I'm creating.

Darwin: Yeah. Sort of extraordinarily large. One of the things that is interesting about this [composition] Invisible People is that you specifically want it to be presented in the dark, which I think is actually a very interesting route - with this idea of trying to propel people into developing images in their head or whatever, I think that doing that within the context of being in a dark room, I think you're putting them in a position of maybe discomfort, but also in a position of being able to stimulate their own mental mental magic. Right?

Yvette: Right. I mean, I think Radio Opera, there's a partnership between the composer and the audience because you know, someone can be sitting in the audience and not choose to activate one's imagination and they might not see or imagine anything as they're listening.

But the first series of pieces that I composed using this term Radio Opera began with Invisible People that you mentioned. You listened to Episode One, which is actually Episode Three - I guess Star Wars logic of numbers - so the very first episode was actually called a prologue, and the performance instructions specify that it should be performed in a darkened theater. So you know, as dark as legally possible and slightly, well - it says uncomfortably an uncomfortably loud volume. The idea with this composition was that it was modular composition, meaning that I had all of these elements that can be reconfigured as part of the same series. And for each venue where it was performed, it would be a slightly different version, but still related to the same thing. And along those lines, there were experiments where I did one, a version of Invisible People, which had projection. I had me off stage playing trumpet in addition to the multichannel acousmatic elements. And it eventually evolved into a stage version, which had two actors, a female soprano singer, a soprano saxophone off-stage, and then a sound engineer running all of the fixed media pieces off-stage and also elements of interactivity. So through this initial Radio Opera, I've experimented with lighting, no lighting, projection. And I really find that one of my favorite ways to present Radio Opera is in darkness.

Darwin: Yeah. I would imagine. One of the things I would say in my experience... I bet that in trying all these different experiments, when you start putting imagery in front of a musical composition, it changes people's engagement with that. Now for them it becomes the music or the soundtrack of the visuals rather than being the central composition point.

Yvette: Absolutely. And I think one thing that was interesting to me with all of the compositions I create, one of the most exciting parts is talking to people after they've listened to the Radio Operas because the composition phase is this kind of isolated process, in which I spent a long time by myself. And so when it becomes a social activity is through the performance, hearing what people hear or how they interpreted what they imagine, what they see. And so I would get a lot of comments, whenever I do the dark versions of any Radio Opera or narrative composition of mine: "Oh that was great. Have you ever thought of adding, you know - I saw this X, Y, and Z in my head. Have you thought of adding video to it?"

And so, as you've already noted, by adding the video or some type of visuals, it does take away from... I'm telling the listener what to see instead of their own imagination. And so, II like the idea that there can be infinite interpretations of the same piece.

Darwin: Right. That's, that's really powerful. Now what you said, the other kind of work that you do is narrative soundscape composition and how does that differ from the Radio Opera? What are the ideas that that separate the two kinds of composition for you?

Yvette: Okay. I mean they're both forms rooted in electro-acoustic composition and both terms that I started using around the same time to describe my work with the narrative soundscape composition. I mean, it's owes a lot to the soundscape composition that was developed out of the World Soundscape Project in Vancouver. But I think part of the narrative aspects in my composition is that I'm working with a lot of field recordings to create these compositions and I usually I'm building... I think the difference between the Radio Opera and the narrative soundscape composition, in some ways, I think maybe the narrative soundscape composition relies less heavily on text. It may have elements of human voice in it, but that's not necessarily the focus of it.

Darwin: Right. When you say that you're kind of using field recordings and stuff it immediately makes me think that the narrative soundscapes are maybe more about place than they are about a person or event, maybe. But that might be simplifying it too much. I don't know.

Yvette: I mean if, I think I'm trying to - and I'm sure I'll contradict myself cause I'm still trying to work this out for the past seven years or maybe nine years. But I think with the narrative soundscape composition, putting that "narrative" in front of soundscape composition, it is to introduce more of the human element into it as, as opposed to just place. How that is being done is something that I'm still in the process of developing.

Darwin: Interesting. You've dropped a couple of nuggets here that I want to come back to, but before we go there - one of the things that's an important part of my podcast is talking to people about their background and how they became the artists that they are. And I'm curious about how you got to the place where you were you're comfortable as a composer as well as someone who's willing to define almost their own genre by saying "I'm doing these Radio Operas!" - in a way that's putting some stakes in the ground, and saying that this is going to be an area of focus. What is it that drew you into that, and what is it that drew you into establishing those kind of statements for yourself?

Yvette: Well, I think my background in music may be similar to a lot of composers and musicians. You know, I was introduced to music at a very early age. I started taking formal lessons. My mother enrolled me in the community center and eventually trumpet became my primary instrument. You know, then there's dabbling with the piano and violin, but by the time I got to college, I knew I wanted to study composition and I thought that what I would do with composition would be to return to LA where I grew up and do film scoring.

And what happened when I was at college, I went to Columbia at a time when the Electronic Music Center was being transitioned into the Computer Music Center. And so this was the early- to mid-nineties. And I think one of the greatest experiences during that time was being in this environment where I was making compositions using reel-to-reel tape and splicing these sounds that were designed using oscillators.

And there's something about the splicing and moving these pieces of tape around to create new pieces of music. Having that background before I actually began working in computer music - it still plays a role in my composition now, 20 years later or I guess more than 20... But the point is [that] there's something about that kind of tactile approach to working with sound as a early point and working with electronic or electro-acoustic music is still important to me. And the way I think about sound. So even today if I'm working composing, I think about how I can take these pieces and applies similar techniques to them. I think there are two things that are kind of really important to what I'm doing today in 2020: one is that experience in the mid-nineties working with reel to reel before moving on the computer music.

And then the second would be during when 90's and early 2000's, I lived in the San Francisco Bay area and I was working, first as a soundboard operator, then doing sound design for theater and radio drama. And so those two experiences or activities really shaped in terms of electro-acoustic music and also the desire to think about sounds theatrically.

And I guess I'll add one more influence, and that would be at some point I had come across John Cage's "The City Wears a Slouch Hat" and this idea, I don't know which came first, but for a long time have had this idea of not composing for theater, but composable theater itself. And so composing these lines of text - composing was the order of the sound effects and everything. So I think those would be three major influences, the Electronic Music Center, San Francisco theater area, and then this John Cage piece.

Darwin: Right. But that actually makes a lot of sense because listening to your work now, it would be very hard to imagine a freshman composition student with a pad of staph paper, working their way into some of these things that combine environmental song with spoken word with historical documentation. All this stuff kind of melded together. But it does make sense when you take into account the idea of composition moving into kinds of things that Columbia would have provided. As well as the influence of theater and the influence of space the space of the performance as well as John Cage's work, which was very much about the development of acousmatic kind of concepts.

Now I just used that word, and I'm going to actually ask you: over the course of my podcast, I've had a number of people talk about acousmatic works, but normally they do it in a way that the word gets tossed out there and then when we rushed to the next concept. But I would really appreciate it if, for the listeners, could describe how you think of acousmatic work.

Yvette: I think they think about it in two ways, which probably are the same or similar: one, when I use the term acousmatic, I'm talking about sounds where you cannot see the source of the sound or where it's being produced, or simply sounds that are coming out of loudspeakers. So and then there's a whole myth of the term coming from the disciples of Pythagoras, who would get their lessons behind this screen and wouldn't see him. But yeah, I generally mean just sound that are composed specifically to be played back onto speakers.

Darwin: Right. Now, it's funny that the use of tape and splicing and stuff were so instrumental to your view. I mean, one of my thumbs has this deep scar in it that was literally from a mishap with a razor doing tape-splicing. I certainly wish I would have spliced the two halves of my thumb together a little better than I did. But I too was in the middle of that. For me, it was working in a recording studio that was tape-based. But I found that there something about that is really influential because of the way that it makes you think about segments of sound. It still holds today even when I'm doing dialogue editing or when I'm doing sample editing or something like that, I tend to treat these individual segments as sounds almost like if they were those little pieces of tape, right? The important ones would be set to the side where I would come in, splice them all together later. There are others that are tossed away, but somehow all of these little segments have have importance to me in some way. Does that make sense?

Yvette: Oh yeah. Absolutely. And I think about, as you were talking, I was thinking about other experiences that also inform my current composition. For example, when I was living in San Francisco, I was the webcast and production director at Grace Cathedral and I think I edited over like 2000 programs, a lot of them using voice and music materials. And so I think something about doing that routinely, although wasn't creating a composition per se, something about just kind of reinforcing the way I edit and developing certain patterns, doing that. And also the way that I mix and balance now and think about space. I mean it's true for everyone, but like everything that is a part of my composition now comes from these very experiences.

Darwin: Right. So you come out of Columbia, with some compositions in your satchel and - did you head out to San Francisco immediately? Or were you involved in the New York compositional scene a bit?

Yvette: Well, this is where I confuse people because immediately after graduating I started working on boats - first for a company in Battery Park that took out charters. And then when I came back...

Darwin: Did you say you started working on boats?

Yvette: Yes. It confused everyone - threw everyone. But if you listen to my pieces there's a lot of, like, aquatic sounds that are on to to those experiences. So, I remained in New York for perhaps a summer after I graduated. And then when I went back to LA where I'm from, I was trying to find boats to work on and that's actually what brought me to San Francisco. And the boats brought me, I was working on tall ships and the tall ships actually brought me to theater. And if you think about it, there is a historic connection between the rigging of tall ships and the rigging in theater. But also a lot of my shipmates happened to be musicians and actors and writers and directors. So it was a detour, but not really, cause it definitely influences. There's something about being out on the water and moving up and down for five consecutive days that I would get these aural hallucinations, which that I think the easiest way to recreate some of the sounds I was hearing was electroacoustically or spectral composition.

Darwin: Well that's really interesting. What a crazy bunch of times. First of al,l I had no idea that you could find a bunch of musicians and actors and stuff on a tall ship. I would have expected it would be all grizzled sailing vets. So my vision of being on board is very different, but I can just imagine the influence of that environment on your imagination of what soundscapes can be.

Yvette: Yeah. I think also, even though I wasn't familiar with the term soundscape composition when I was doing these things, I think those experiences opened me up to listening and a way that is similar to practice and things like "sound walking" and things like that. But just hearing everything around me, hearing distant sounds, this kind of low kind of squeaky sound as it's being stretched between the dock and the pier, like all kinds of just really wonderful sounds I begin to take interest in.

Darwin: Sure. That, that sounds amazing. Now, once you started working in the theater as a as kind a sound person, what did that bring that would've been very different from some of the experiences that you had at leading into this? What did that add to the mix for you? What were the things that that ended up it, what, what did the influences of that look like for your work?

Yvette: Well, I think one of the best days for me I was working in theater, but kind of theater-adjacent, meaning I was working in the box office of Magic Theater, which is in Fort Mason. And one day the production director said, "Hey, are you free? We need a sound person, someone to runs sound for this preview that's happening tonight." And like, okay! I hadn't run sound for theater before and I agreed to it. And the composer, David Molina, who's a very good friend now, but his sound design was... The play was a three hour play and it was nonstop sound. I think the sound sources for something like two Minidisc players, two CD players and then I think there was at least one additional source and it was constant - like multiple sounds happening at the same time. And it was basically like being thrown into the pool to learn how to swim with this award-winning director who was like, "Why are there horses sounding right now? There are no horses on the stage!"

Yvette: I can't remember how long the show ran, maybe two months or something or less - I don't know. But there was something about it, once I got the hang of it and you know, it was like the stage manager is kind of like the conductor, and David Molina, as the composer of both music and the sound effects that were being interwoven between the dialogue and actions of what was happening on the stage, and the interaction with the audience and with their responses of what is happening. And that was like, "This is it! This is what I am interested for." Running the soundboard became like playing a musical instrument and it was an instrument that I wanted to compose for. And so I think that that experience is probably one of the best experiences I had early on to lead to what I now call Radio Opera.

Darwin: Right. Well, that sounds like that would have been a real eyeopener because again, I think most people's assumption would be that there's maybe there was like maybe one CD, and you would just like every once in awhile hit play at a specific index. I think the idea of your first gig being juggling all of these different machines, I mean - was it scored, was there a score that you had to follow or was there somebody whispering in your ear and it's like "The horses, right now, go!"

Yvette: I considered the cue sheet to be kind of like a score and let you have these cues that are organized by letter and you have the stage manager telling you when to execute these and each sound has its own starting point. It may fade in, it may fade out, it may fade out for specific duration and may have a short dropout. There may be sound effects that are overlapped with one another. But all of this, it becomes very musical. After a while, and I think this was like further developed...

Another Bay area influence was - I was like this, I forgot what my the title was, but I was working with sound with Joe Goode Performance Group, which is a a dance troupe that uses - well obviously - movement, but in addition to that, there is a lot of text and there is a lot of... So these dancers have microphones that have texts, but then be slamming into one another and being able to smoothly bring in and out these mics while they may be singing or playing to music that is being played out from various sources, again, like CD or computer or or whatever.

And so, the organization of all of these elements is something that I am currently working on and thinking about composing, not just using pitches, not just using found sounds, but composing, introducing elements of movement into the score itself, introducing elements of lighting into the score itself, props as part of the score, et cetera.

Darwin: That's really interesting and really smart. Now it makes me want to though delve a little more into the idea of composition - of the kind of work that you do, and what the documentation process actually looks like. So, when people think of a of a score, they sometimes will think of like a great big pile of notation paper that represents the pitches over time that an orchestra would play. In other cases, like you described with the theatrical production, you have a cue sheet - and a lot of times film production looks like this, too, where there's a cue sheet that says, "Here's where these things go." And you know, placement and coordination with something else that's going on ends up being a key part of how that documentation is developed.

Quite frankly, a lot of times for people - especially whether you go back to the original tape composers or even to current musicians - a lot of times it's much more improvisational or it's the score is the end result. The thing that I ended up doing, that's what I did and so it's impractical to actually score that stuff ahead of time. What I'm wondering is, from your perspective, how do you organize it, organize before you create the piece and then what is the process you go through in creating the piece, and then how do you present the documentation to others when they're either going to perform or in some way present the piece that you've done.

Yvette: I have a few processes, and I'll start by giving you an example of one. So for Invisible People, which you've mentioned a few times, and for a lot of compositions, [they] usually all start with the conversation, because the themes that I'm working with again are about some current issue, or at least the current issue is the seed of what the pieces about, or some historic events. So the conversation is usually the beginning point and then there's some type of research: it could be archival research around that topic, it could be YouTube videos of people talking about whatever issue, it could be newspaper clippings, et cetera. Then I go into kind of sketching out ideas - that could be at a keyboard or on the trumpet using some type of software. Just sounds that I hear or making field recordings of things that I hear that I feel are relative to both the topic of the conversation and the research that I've done.

The fourth stage usually involves some type of storyboarding. Since narrative is the focus of most of my compositions, usually I'll work in panels of three. So I have these three scenes that I storyboard, thinking about a specific action or emotion or some image that inspires part of the narrative, and whatever comes to mind for each of these blocks gets developed. And then from the storyboard, then usually there's some type of scoring. And so the scoring can be a combination of things. It can be traditional notation. It can be some type of graphic notation. Sometimes it'll be verbal, like a verbal score of "This should happen, that will happen, then that will happen."

After the scoring for a lot of my electro-acoustic pieces - well, the Radio Operas, at least - and maybe this is part of what you asked about the distinction between Radio Opera and the narrative soundscape composition, is I go to the studio with my chamber ensemble, so I have an ensemble - I call them them The Invisible People Ensemble, partly because they were initially brought together for the Invisible People Radio Opera, and also because they're never seen.

And with the studio ensemble I present to the musicians, again, both traditionally notated music or sometimes graphics scores. Usually there'll be at least one free improvisation just to get people warmed up. So it's a combination of improvised and notated music created with the ensemble in addition to some solo takes with specific musicians. And with those protocol sessions, I use part of that as a source material now in my own studio where I can tear apart these different elements and create part of the narrative. Again, returning to the storyboard that I earlier created from that point, there's kind of this process where I may jump to revisit any of the points or phases that I mentioned of the process until it is... I won't say complete cause I feel I like to call my compositions living because there's always, I mean, they're never done. They can always be modified and changed.

Darwin: Right now the thing that you do with Pro Tools files in your own studio though, in a way, is kind of a real advanced means of arrangement. And I'm wondering, I'm curious because of the deep level of detail that your compositions hold, I'm curious how often do you get to the point where you start that arranging process and all of a sudden, in laying things out, a missing part is revealed or an opportunity was revealed that you didn't see ahead of time. And then, all of a sudden, in the process of pulling things together, you're like, "Oh, I really need X." And then that puts you into a cycle of, "Okay, I need to write some more stuff and go back in the studio and develop more material." Is that cycle occurring a lot?

Yvette: I'd like to use a process that I call destructive editing. It's kind of a response to non-destructive linear editing where you can have as many undos as possible. And to create this process. I usually work either in a series - Invisible People was created in a series, and in multiple studios. Wherein I would, whatever I did in Studio A, that's what I have from there, for Studio B, whatever happened in that, during that phase, the ability to go back and make any changes for what happens in that second studio will be limited. Then I go onto the next phase. And so, if I'm editing all in my home studio, I may do some things in Ableton and then I may do some things in Digital Performer and then I may go back to Ableton, and doing it that way kind of again prohibits me from hitting too many undos.

So initially part of that would be like, if I make a mistake - like there is a soundbite in Invisible People that is distorted, and I made a decision during one of the earlier stages that I wasn't going to fix it. You know, fix the distortion. And so that was a part of the composition itself. The other thing is as I'm composing, even though I have a storyboard or a score, I can still veer from it because I still will prioritize listening and my interpretation of what I'm hearing as part of the composition process. So, for example, in another composition - Destination Freedom - I was using a modular setup that I had put together and I can't remember the exact patch that I developed, but it sounded like there were voices speaking when there were none.

And so I kind of use that to build a character that I called Sirens and I would place in the score when the Sirens would come in and out of piece, or there's a lot of misinterpreting sounds. And by that I mean taking something that originated as a "musical" phrase or a "musical" passage and trying to make it unmusical. And at the same time, you know, taking things that might be considered unmusical, like the radiator in my apartment, and then trying to make that as musical as possible. And so that's where listening becomes an important part of the composition process itself.

Darwin: So most of the stuff that we've described as your work is large format work. Do you have anything that you do that is like more intimate or, whether you frame it as Radio Opera and... I guess the name opera even implies a size or a significance to it. And you know, your narrative soundscapes again sound large. Do you ever do anything, whether for yourself or for other kinds of projects, that are small or that represent a different kind of process? Or do you really see yourself embracing this one direction as being the expression of your voice?

Yvette: I think, just as personally designed etudes, I create shorter pieces where I will go in and usually use it in whatever digital audio workstation I'm using at the time, which again is usually either Digital Performer or Ableton. So I will use one of them and just make this short piece and it may be may be a project for the day, where I'm going to make a three minute piece, or... I mean, I guess the short answer is "Yes". I've been building a catalog, a library of shorter pieces that are shorter compositions that primarily have been going on to building my own library because [in] my larger compositions, I'm always sampling myself. And so, these shorter etudes or shorter productions just kind of increase my library of things that I can draw from in my larger compositions.

Darwin: That makes a lot of sense too, because then it builds a practice. The reason I was asking is, and it's just personal curiosity, but you know, with your work, I think of it being these really large format things and I'm like - man, it would seem intimidating to start on something that I know is going to represent something with this level of heft to it. Right? But having a working process that says, "Hey, today I'm just going to work on an etude of some sort or I'm going to work on a little piece that's just going to go in library." That makes a lot of sense to me in a way of being creative and being more immediate while still serving the bigger goal. I like that.

Yvette: Yeah. And I think, for example I mentioned part of the larger process is this studio time with my ensemble and, you know, for the ensemble we're creating pieces of music, whether they're scored or improvised. And I do re-release those recordings as a separate project. So I can release an EP of these sessions, which is I consider it to be like the pure unadulterated form of these pieces. And then I have these elements from those pieces that are in these larger works. And one thing I find that's interesting, especially when programming, my works for larger shows is that because each piece has an element of a previous piece, all the pieces are connected. And I think working in curating pieces, it kind of creates a nice flow because even if there are different approach or a different style, there is some kind of overlap between these various compositions.

Darwin: Right. Well, Yvette, unfortunately our time is up, but before we go - for people who would be interested in hearing more of your work, I obviously had been yammering on about it since we started talking. Where would people go - where would you like to send people, to have them hear your work and learn more about the pieces that you've created?

Yvette: For a general overview, people can go to my website, which is And they're there, there's some snippets. People are always welcome to email me because I do have a few pages that are hidden from the main website. And this year I've started a new ensemble called the Radio Opera Workshop. So there will be some live performances of Radio Opera. I'm looking forward to that.

Darwin: That sounds fantastic. I'm really excited to hear more and get more involved in the work that you're doing. I really appreciate it. And I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to have this talk as well.

Yvette: Well, I really appreciate you inviting me. It's been a great conversation.

Darwin: Yeah, indeed it has. Well with that I'm going to let you have the rest of your day. We'll talk to you again soon. Bye!

Copyright 2020 by Darwin Grosse. All right reserved.