American music pioneer Jenny Beck (1985) has always followed her highly personal, idiosyncratic path. She blends found sounds, electronics and her own voice in free flowing music. Beck was one of the four nominees for the Gaudeamus Award 2021.
The first thing you’ll notice when listening to a Jenny Beck piece in a concert hall, are the unusual sound sources. Bowls of rice, beads, dried beans, pebbles: anything can be an instrument for Beck. This originated from when she had to write for percussion at Princeton – where she is doing her PhD – but was hesitant. “We had a seminar with our ensemble in residence, Sō Percussion, and we had to make little exercises for them every week. I wasn’t excited about it, because I’m not a very metrical person. So I made these rules for myself that no one was going to hit anything and I wasn’t going to write any notes or rhythms. What I ended up with was this collection of little descriptions of tasks, like rubbing the head of the drum clockwise for a certain amount of time. Then I started thinking about how these tasks had a natural duration to them that could inform the structure of the music.”
While she acknowledges influences from composers such as Pauline Oliveros, Morton Feldman and Unsuk Chin, Beck’s main source of inspiration in terms of sound is nature. “I didn’t grow up in a very musical environment. We lived out in the middle of nowhere, just woods and fields and more woods. The sounds out there are the best sounds, especially at night in the summertime when you’ve got all the crickets and the cicadas. Then in winter when all the leaves are off the trees and everything is silent, any tiny sound becomes a major event. The intensity of these different soundscapes is essential to my inner sound world.”
Her recent scores often let go of the notion that musicians need to play synchronised with each other. Instead she often lets them play a musical material at their own pace and timing. “At first, my scores were getting more and more complicated, because I was trying to notate things coming offset from one another, things falling apart. So to achieve this, I wrote these really complicated rhythms, which got me the sound I wanted, but caused a totally wrong energy. You’d have these performers on stage concentrating really hard on playing their rhythms correctly, while what I wanted was a sound that was loose. That’s when I realised I actually didn’t need things to be exactly the same every time.”
Doing yoga led her instead to explore using the musician’s breath as a measure and giving them a lot more individual freedom – while at the same time keeping strict control over the material. “I’ve become very invested in this idea of precise ambiguity. Where there’s a lot of openness, but I’m still very clear about what I want. Ambiguity can sometimes feel unrooted or scary, but for me, it’s more truthful to reality. Lots of people like things to be linear and to make sense. You need to have a point and support that. But I don’t think my mind works that way. I think I’ve struggled with that for a long time. Now I’m trying more to embrace how my mind actually does work, which is kind of infinitely dimensional, swirling all the time.”