COMPOSER SPOTLIGHT: Jessie Downs

Unlike composers from the classical canon – whose music is contextualized by a greater body of works – when hearing a new opera, it is important to learn about the individual and emergent voice of the composer in question. For this week’s post, we asked one of Jessie Downs’s frequent collaborators – pianist Jonathon Vogtle – to give an overview of her work for the audience of The Second Sight. He writes:

Jessie Down’s compositional style focuses on taking a specific image – [such as a] Van Gogh painting… and invoking the minutiae of that image as accurately as possible in sound.

“Jessie Down’s compositional style focuses on taking a specific image – be it a Van Gogh painting, a babbling brook, or a pack of fireflies emerging at twilight – and invoking the minutiae of that image as accurately as possible in sound. For example, in her Van Gogh-inspired vocal ensemble piece “castings of Light,” Ms. Downs not only captures the mood and shapes of the painting View of Saint Marie, but allows the listener to see each irregular, curving line that makes up its background. In the wind band piece “Dismal Harmony, she does not stop at evoking the motions of the Dismal Brook’s water currents; instead she invites the audience to perceive every stone off of which the water ricochets, and every insect that congregates along its path. When she imitates a music-box – a recurrent sonic image in her output – the listener can both hear its haunting tune, and feel the metal pins being pulled across the tines of the cylinder.

In the wind band piece “Dismal Harmony, she does not stop at evoking the motions of the Dismal Brook’s water currents; instead she invites the audience to perceive every stone off of which the water ricochets

To accomplish all this, Ms. Down’s music makes ample use of extended technique and atypical instrumentation: microtonally sung phonemes, tea infusers struck with serving utensils, felt tipped guitar picks pulled over piano strings. Perhaps more important than this, however, is the creation of a sense of space; Ms. Down’s compositions are built to give each pitch time to appear, sustain, influence the harmonics around it, and then gradually dissipate. The end result is music that physically surrounds the listener, not with amorphous, formless shapes, but with the images that it hopes to reflect. The music is not avant-garde for the sake of novelty; it is meant to create richly detailed acoustic art.

Ms. Down’s compositions are built to give each pitch time to appear, sustain, influence the harmonics around it, and then gradually dissipate.

The question arises – How can one create that level of intimacy in a large-scale work like an opera? It would certainly require precise knowledge of vocal mechanics, different styles of singing, and the operatic canon. Fortunately, Ms. Downs’s experience as a soprano and vocal pedagogue would suggest that she is up to the task, and that the audience of her first opera The Second Sight is in for a treat.

Listen to Jonathon playing a solo piano piece based on the final scene of The Second Sight at the link below, and come out to see the opera’s premiere this June!

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