New Zealand-born, Princeton-based composer Gemma Peacocke explores sound worlds that combine acoustic and electronic sound, including her song cycle Waves + Lines, which is based on female-authored Afghan folk poems, and the soundtrack and sound design for Undrown’d, a play about asylum seekers held in offshore detention centers.
On June 6, Roulette will present an evening of Peacocke’s chamber works, including three NYC premieres and one world premiere. She recently took the time to tell National Sawdust Log about her motivations and aspirations, and the concert program just ahead.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: So, how was the New Music Gathering?
I was hoping to make it there, but it didn’t work out this year, so I’ve just been watching from afar. Bit of FOMO.
Same! What are your thoughts on the sense of “community” and the state of the new music world more generally?
I always feel totally unqualified to talk about the state of the new music community, because I’m a bit on the outside of it, being a foreigner, here on a visa that doesn’t allow me to stay permanently.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the canon, and how we perpetuate it within our community. Also about this thing, I guess it’s called “virtue signaling,” where people are trying to include more women and people of color, both composers and performers, but it seems to be more about getting funding and looking inclusive than anyone actually giving up their own opportunities so that our community better reflects the world.
Right, it’s all very performative.
Yeah! So it’s surprising to me how male-dominated, how white the community still is, and I think that there’s stuff to do with children, educating children so that they can be confident that they can go into this field. Especially in New York, we need more racial diversity and more socioeconomic diversity – kids in public schools, kids whose parents don’t necessarily go to the New York Phil. Maybe they’ve never been to a classical music concert in their life, but they could come to know not only that they would be welcome but that they could make a career out of it. But there’s a lot of people whose privilege would be displaced by letting other people in.
Tell me more about the Kinds of Kings composers collective, and what your experience has been with forming smaller communities within the larger new music community.
Shelley Washington and I have wanted to have a composer collective for a long time. Our reasons for wanting a collective were a little bit diffuse, but we wanted to band together some of our favorite composers, for all the reasons that collectives are good: you get more publicity when there are a bunch of you, you can support each other and advocate for each other in a very direct way. And we have a lot of plans to work with ensembles as a group; for instance, we’re going to work with the Melbourne-based ensemble Rubiks Collective and do some recordings and performances in 2019 and 2020. There’s something about the warmth of working with funny, friendly, talented composers that makes it easy to find and program and do projects with us.
We didn’t start off wanting to create an all-female collective; it kind of happened naturally when we were thinking about who to band together with, and it was largely women we’d worked with in the various Masters and PhD programs that we’d done. Then when we realized that we could have an all-female collective, we understood the power of what that would look like in the new music community, where there are still not a lot of women composers – well, there are, but they aren’t programmed at the same levels that men are.
It’s kind of funny that you happened to put together an all-female collective when it’s so frequently the opposite in new music, like: congrats, you put together another all-male concert program!
We think a lot more about gender, being women in this industry. And I think that there is a certain amount of interest in our collective because we are all women.
So, you mentioned Shelley Washington, one of my favorite people, who will be performing in the concert of your music at Roulette in June.
She’s going to be playing on two pieces. There’s a new piece called Skin, which is for alto saxophone and fixed electronics, which she will trigger with a MIDI foot pedal, and she will play on another piece called Aglow, which is for piano, bass, and baritone sax, which is her main instrument.
And there will be a lot of New York premieres.
I’m writing a violin piece right now, for violin and live electronics, which will be performed by Adrianne Munden-Dixon. It’s something I wrote down years ago when I was IRCAM, where I put together this Max patch that has a bunch of different live processing, so there will be components that are responding to what she’s doing. It’s kind of cool, but also scary, because technology!
And then there will be the New York premiere of Erasure, which is a string quartet I wrote at the end of last year, which is about the erasure of women from history and from public spaces. And Quiver will be in its New York premiere as well.
I’m working with my friend and collaborator Benita de Wit again, and also with projection artist Anchuli Felicia King, and the same lighting designer as well, Chris Thielking. So it’s really nice to get out of the studio and be surrounded by people in different fields who really support what you do. And for me it really lifts what could just be a standard chamber music concert into something more immersive and more theatrical.
A lot of your music is focused on the marginalization and lived experiences of women – so I’m wondering what you see as the possibilities (or limitations) of new music in addressing issues of social justice or inequality?
It is the main focus of what I do. Audiences tend to be small and fairly liberal, so there is an element of preaching to the choir.
It’s something I struggle with a lot. For me, whatever I create is going to reflect whatever I’m obsessed with, but I would like to find a way to engage a broader audience, and I think that’s important for new music as well, because why would we spend all this time and energy and money getting to a place where we do what we do really well, and then have an audience that is really small and really esoteric.
Part of it is working with education, and building audience in generations that are younger than us, and for me, I’m interested in crossing over more into electronic stuff and producing videos that people can watch online, creating things that are more accessible outside this world that you and I both know well, here in New York.
You’re working on your PhD and I’m always curious to hear about whether or not the “divide” between academic and nonacademic composers is as exaggerated now as it was a few decades ago, or if it’s even still a thing (I’ve heard some argue that it’s not).
There definitely still is a divide, and it’s institutional. So depending on who the professors are at a certain institution, they can select composers that they would like to listen to. At Princeton in particular, there’s a reaction against the Boulezian plink-plonk music, and there’s more of a Bang on a Can aesthetic or approach, of incorporating elements of pop music or jazz.
I’ve never understood more academic music, it’s completely outside my wheelhouse as a listener and as a composer. During my undergrad I felt pressure to write more academic music, to write without using any sense of tonality or tonal center, and it kind of killed my love for writing music for a long time.
But I don’t think anyone should try to change the art they’re interested in, as long as there’s something to say. I don’t really understand music where you’ve just written it for the sake of being seen as intellectual and complicated. To me, that’s not what music is for.
I had this experience last year while I was writing my string quartet where I realized, if this were entered in a competition it would be automatically disqualified because it’s in 4/4, it looks as though it’s in C (even though it isn’t), and it has a lot of whole tones. How ridiculous to only look at a score and judge it by how complicated or beautiful it looks! You could have the most beautiful-looking score and it just sounds like a squeaky swingset.
As someone who has shifted from musicology (which is very focused on the notes on the page) to ethnomusicology (which is much more about issues of aurality and listening), I totally relate. So we’ve now arrived at my last question… instead of asking the cliché “what’s it like being a woman composer” which is so fucking patronizing, I’d like to ask if you have any advice for women who would like to be composers?
I was in Melbourne recently for a performance and I was talking with two of my friends, a flutist and a percussionist, about why they picked the instruments they picked. And percussion is seen as a very male instrument and flute very female. Composition, for some reason, is seen as a male activity… but it shouldn’t be. They came out recently in the National Geographic with this new research that roughly 70 percent of cave paintings in France were made by women (you know, by the size of the handprints and that kind of thing). And there’s all this feminist philosophy about women as creators – in a very concrete biological sense as the ones who create life, but also in another sense as well. So I think composing is for everyone. It’s so important to let kids know, from an early age, that composing is even a possibility, just as much for girls as it is for boys.
Gemma Peacocke presents new and recent chamber works at Roulette on June 6 at 8pm; roulette.org
Rebecca S. Lentjes is a writer and feminist activist based in NYC. Her work has appeared in VAN Magazine, Music & Literature, Sounding Out!, TEMPO, and I Care If You Listen. By day she studies ethnomusicology as a doctoral student at Stony Brook University and works as an assistant editor at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; by night she hatches schemes to dismantle the patriarchy.