The Irish composer and vocalist Jennifer Walshe was born and raised in an artistic family — her mother was a writer, her sister was an art student. Calling her clan “artistic” sounds “terribly middle-class, like something out of a film,” Walshe acknowledged in a recent interview.
The reality was both more mundane and more exciting. Rather than a salon-like atmosphere where people sat around and talked about art, her home was a place where people were busy doing art. “I came from a family where people were always tinkering, messing around,” she said by phone from London. Sometimes that meant her mother printing out a story on “the dot matrix printer” for a competition after an all-night writing session. Other times it meant her father creating something new in his workshop.
“I think that’s a gift,” she went on, “because you’re around people who understand that when you get bitten by an idea, you just want to follow it through. Nobody says, why are you doing that? They say, that’s interesting, we have a tool out in the garage you can use.”
You can draw a straight line from that curious, interactive upbringing to the inquisitive, destabilizing, and wonderfully strange artistic projects that have made Walshe — who is the subject of a residency at the Boston University Center for New Music — such a force in avant-garde music circles. Her works have embraced film, electronics, and improvisation, all guided by a subversive and playful conviction that art exists, in part, to question the world and reflect back to us something about our place within it.
Walshe began playing the trumpet at 10 and later played in the Irish Youth Orchestra. But she knew from an early age that her true interest lay in creating music rather than reproducing the works of others. She counts herself lucky to have encountered open-minded teachers who, she said, not only embraced her experimental tendencies but reminded her that “composers weren’t just interested in music; they were interested in books and art and film and politics.”
Two recent works in particular exemplify Walshe’s penchant for creating new forms and palettes to address an elemental yet crucial question: What is it like to live now, in a technology-saturated age? The first is “Everything Is Important,” for voice, string quartet, and video (which will be performed at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Feb. 28). While the film projection shows images of places and gnomic messages, Walshe delivers frenzied bursts of text (written by her, with an assist from the Internet) in declamations, growls, whispers, any technique other than conventional singing, in counterpoint with the quartet’s interjections.
Even more overpowering is the album “All the Many Peopls,” released last year. Walshe’s voice is now backed by a torrent of electronic sound that threatens to engulf Walshe’s voice, the words, and the whole idea of communication itself. Rather than use music to create a metaphor for how we live in the now, what Walshe creates is a scarily truthful enactment of it.
“I’m trying to say, this is what it’s like being alive,” she explained. “You probably took out your phone when you got up this morning, and you’ve probably looked at Twitter or Facebook already. The amount of visuals and images and live video on that page were much more complex than what I’m singing. So as overwhelming as [the music] can be, it’s still not as overwhelming as the equivalent of time spent on Facebook, for example.”
One of the most intriguing projects Walshe has undertaken is “Grupát,” a series of works begun in 2007 that were putatively composed not by her but by a series of fictitious alter egos. There would be nothing particularly radical about this kind of identity play in the pop music world — think of David Bowie’s mutation from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke. But as Walshe pointed out, “in new music, it felt like that wasn’t normal. You were to find your voice, and that was it for the rest of your life. That seemed kind of boring to me.”
She’d also noticed that “there was a whole lot of stuff that had nothing to do with how the music sounded that affected how people judged the music, how they thought about it.” She overheard enough comments to realize that it mattered whether a composer was male or female, gay or straight. It seemed like something worth tinkering with.
So, supported by a sizable grant from a local county council, she began writing pieces in the guise of invented characters — all members of an imaginary artists’ group, with Walshe as the curator. She was fascinated when audiences would tell her, unsuspectingly, that while they’d hated the composition by the Estonian woman, they loved the one by the Japanese man. “I started to see, when people don’t think you’ve written a piece, they tend to be more critical. They’re not nervous they’re gonna hurt your feelings.”
Like most of her work, “Grupát” is both serious and mischievous. It folds difficult topics into a musical format, but it does so in order to get a glimpse of what it might be like to be free of them. It’s in the same questioning, tinkering spirit that made Walshe want to be an artist in the first place.
“To say that somehow art is this special realm where all the regular human [expletive] and bias doesn’t exist is just not true,” she said. “I’ve known that since I was a child. So why not play with it? If it’s something we have to live with, maybe we can play with it rather than feeling so depressed and oppressed about it.”
Jennifer Walshe Residency
Presented by Boston University Center for New Music. Feb. 17-March 1. www.bu.edu/cfa/creative-research/research-centers/boston-university-center-for-new-music/