Interview with Shawn Jaeger

On November 29th, Fonema Consort presents Nina Dante's EVER A NEW CYCLE, a DCASE-supported concert of new song cycles by Pablo ChinJonathon Kirk, and Shawn Jaeger. In a 3-part interview series, Dante dives deep into the composers' approach to the genre and their artistic vision. Part III: Shawn Jaeger and In Old Virginny + Pastor Hick's Farewell.

Nina Dante : One of the fascinating things about your work, is the extent to which it draws inspiration from the folk traditions of Appalachia, to which I can only imagine that you have the deepest of personal connections. What is it that drew you to this style? Why has it proven to be such fertile ground upon which you have developed your work?

Shawn Jaeger : I was initially drawn to Appalachian folk ballads and Old Regular Baptist hymnody out of a simple curiosity about musical traditions from my native state of Kentucky. I got to know these traditions through Smithsonian Folkways recordings, and the honesty, complexity, and immediacy of the music I heard absolutely floored me. There is an incredible sense of rhythmic freedom in this music. If you transcribe what the performers are doing—as I did in painstaking detail in my dissertation on folksinger Dillard Chandler—you see that the rhythmic structure is incredibly volatile, complex, and irregular.

When Old Regulars “line out,” each person sings the tune in their own way, at their own pace. The heterophony that results from this simultaneous variation is a central characteristic of my music. It’s a way of writing I return to again and again, because it’s very flexible, and at the same time, quite economical—one line becomes many varied, but related, lines. For me, heterophony also has an important political dimension: there is a tension between individual freedom and group coordination that serves as a kind of democratic ideal. In my music, I try to treat each part as the expression of an individual, and this is manifested most directly in the rhythmic complexity of multiple, independent layers of musical time.

ND : In Old Virginny and Pastor Hick’s Farewell two pieces date back to the early thousands, and since composing them, you have written numerous works for the voice including the heart-rending song cycle “The Cold Pane” (championed by soprano Dawn Upshaw), and your one act opera “Payne Hollow” (interesting that both pieces have in their title a word homonymous to “pain”). To my ears, these two pieces from the 2013-2014, although still referencing Appalachian tradition, have much more distance from the more direct references of the two early pieces. Are you finding yourself traveling further into a future incarnation of the Appalachian sound world? What does that tradition mean to your work now as opposed to 10 years ago?

SJ : Appalachian folk traditions remain very important to me, but I’ve tried, self-consciously, to explore other ways of writing and other sources of inspiration since the early duos you’re singing on this program. You mention The Cold Pane: the second song in that cycle is a kind of hymn with heterophony, but there are other elements at play—sum-tone harmonies and very gestural text-painting—that somewhat obscure the reference. Other songs in that cycle explore heterophony and canon, but in a melodic, timbral, and harmonic context not suggestive of folksong. The homophone titles—The Cold Pane and Payne Hollow—were definitely intentional! Both works are on texts by Wendell Berry about death, and were written back-to-back. I’d love to do a third Berry piece at some point with “pain” in the title, to round things out.

After consciously moving away from folksong reference in my work, I’m now engaging more directly than ever with Appalachian folksong. My new piece for solo baritone saxophone, The Carolina Lady, was composed exclusively using the audio of folksinger Dillard Chandler’s 1967 recording of “The Carolina Lady.” The composition takes the form of a transcription of audio transformed through various means—stretching, compressing, looping, transposing, etc. Paradoxically, I believe this direct engagement with material I have previously imitated only indirectly has led to a music that is less derivative and more personal. If I’m traveling toward a future incarnation of the Appalachian sound world, it’s one in which there is a deeper engagement with both the underlying structures of the folksong tradition, as well as with the fleeting sonic details that often elude transcription. To me, now as before, the Appalachian tradition means richness, complexity, and singing with heart.

ND : Two questions in one. You have written so many wonderful works for the voice- what is it that drew you to the voice as a young composer, and still today? Additionally, you seem to have developed a close collaboration with three gifted sopranos: Lucy Dhegrae (of Contemporaneous, also your wife!), Mary Bonhag (of Duo Borealis), and of course Dawn Upshaw. Has your approach to composition changed in writing for each of these unique voices? What has collaborating with each of these singers brought to your music?

SJ : As a young composer, I was drawn to the voice because of the unique opportunity it provides to say something concrete (via language). My first vocal work was an anti-war song cycle. As you point out, since then I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with many gifted sopranos, yourself included! The wonderful thing about writing for voice is that each person, and thus each instrument, is unique. In writing for the three women you mention, my approach was always to listen to each sing, and try to discern what is unique about their artistry and how their voice likes to move. In that sense, my approach hasn’t changed, but over I’ve learned much about the voice.

It was Mary Bonhag’s love of folk music that first led me to explore the folk traditions of Kentucky when I began writing Pastor Hicks’ Farewell. She and Evan Premo have performed my music more than anyone, so from them I’ve also learned how beautifully performers' interpretations can deepen with time. Lucy Dhegrae has taught me a lot about the mechanics of the voice, as well as its relationship to body and spirit. By virtue of our close professional and personal relationship, I’ve been able to ask her to try out passages from work in progress, ask her questions about technique, pronunciation, and notation, and gain insight into how singers best learn and rehearse. It’s also very special to write love songs for your love! From Dawn Upshaw, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the communicative power of text, as well as a trust in the sometimes uncertain process of creating new work. She is a model of what a lifelong commitment to contemporary music and new challenges looks like. What has struck me repeatedly in working with her is her great humility and warmth. I am incredibly grateful to these three wonderful women for their impact on my life.