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Interview with the composer Jamie Man for her opera Zelle

It’s about creating an expectation and then breaking that expectation. You might say the whole piece is a game of mix and match.


Jamie Man is a London born and based composer and conductor. Her work is primarily concerned with music and the poetic mystery of what we are as human beings. Her first opera, commissioned by the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, premiered in 2016. In 2018, she was composer-in-residency at LOD muziektheater in Ghent.


Together with Swiss writer Peter Stamm, she creates Zelle, a new chamber opera for LOD that stems from the acceptance that reality is full of contradictions. It is a game of voices and mismatch between what is heard, seen, expected, ephemeral and eternal.


Interview conducted by Marieke Baele


Jamie Man:

In a way I’ve been making this piece for five years. Finding different people, different elements, different things and creating connections you might not immediately expect. I am very interested in re-assessing our ocular-centric tendencies and experiences formed of montage of sight and sound, like the way Jean-Luc Godard uses montage as a mechanism of interrogation in cinema or the way Heiner Goebbels creates compositions of things in his work. When you present objects in time and space, people create connections. The mere fact that you put them together, despite your own reasons, encourages the audience to look for their connections, in a way, these connections are pieces of the audience themselves. So what I wanted to do for Zelle is to explore how far you can push this idea. Perhaps I just need to offer the possibility of objects being connected? And for the audience it’s the process of creating the connections that forms the ‘theatre’ of the work. Hopefully there will be surprises. That’s what I love most in theatre: to be surprised.


> Two of these seemingly unconnected elements you chose to bring together in Zelle are traditional Japanese Noh theatre and the so-called Red Room, the anomalous extradimensional space in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The choice for the Red Room is striking, since Lynch himself is a master of disconnection. Of cause and effect, question and response…


…and voices from faces, yes. Of course that’s what all filmmakers are doing: they make the image, and then they create sound to superimpose. Usually to try to match what you hear and see. But with David Lynch, he creates this surreal world by creating a voice that doesn’t match the face at all. You see someone speaking, but the voice is a recording going backwards. And that intrigued me. So for all the singers I have chosen for Zelle, somehow their voices don’t match with what you expect when you see them as a person. You never know which voice belongs to whom. It’s about creating an expectation and then breaking that expectation. You might say the whole piece is a game of mix and match.


> How did Peter Stamm, the writer of the text, tap into this approach?


When Peter and I first worked together for Geburt, we both realised that what we were interested in is what is real. When we talk about ‘real’, it’s the things that exist despite us understanding them. Also on a microlevel, a cellular level. How small we can see, all the way into the tiniest things. But what we see is always subjective, it’s always perception. So there are separate layers: what exists and what we think exists. And our perception is always mostly a way to try and reach what is real. It’s very similar to what scientists do. In terms of cells, Zelle refers to the cellular make up of organic physical matter and also the immaterial psychological prison that we create for ourselves, where questions can help liberate us.


> In the creation process, formulating questions and searching for answers are driving forces. With the interrogation room in Zelle, you seem to elevate the question-answer given to a meta level.


The situation is indeed an interrogation. And the only thing we know, or we think we know, is the woman being questioned has killed her children. The interrogator has the power of society, of being a policewoman. “Where are the children? What did you do with them? Why did you do it?”, she asks. But the woman never answers. And through asking these questions and trying to interrogate the woman, the interrogator in a way discovers herself. Her questions open doors into her own history, her own imagination and at the same time, the audience enters theirs.


> To return to the aspect of connecting and disconnecting: casting, putting singers together, is also a form of juxtaposing different elements. Why the choice for a Noh singer like Ryoko? And how do the other three singers fit in? 


Noh theatre is very strict and dogmatic. It’s not about change, but all about tradition. Traditionally performers are born into Noh families and it is only for men. Being a female Noh performer is already quite a big step. Then being a Noh singer like Ryoko who can also master other techniques, who can read Western contemporary music – while their notation is very different – is something very special. She has a curiosity to question what she’s doing, of what sound can do and I have great admiration for her. The range of Ryoko’s voice sits in the center of all the vocalists. Jackie (Janssens, red.) is, amongst other things, a throat-singer and in her fundamental tones is able to find this immense vibration in her body. It’s a very physical experience to hear her sing and improvise. The voice of the German-Vietnamese countertenor Steve (Katona, red.) meets Natascha (Young, red.) a German-American soprano who also sings jazz and does a lot of improvisation, in a sort of Pergolesi-Stabat-Mater-like way and they are both native German speakers. Somehow all four are connected, but they each have very strong identities as well. In the same way that their voices come together, I wanted to create a physical language where they find each other.


> It is very clear that singing is much more to you than just a means of delivering dialogue.


For me singing is something really extraordinary. Singing can also simply be sounds, where people meet each other harmonically, in a very classical way. In Zelle however, most of the dialogue is quietly spoken but heavily amplified, to create a cinematic distance where the voice is very close but the image is far. Being in isolation (due to the corona crisis), I realised that my work as a composer is quite similar to watching the tempo of clouds. When you’re watching the sky, the sun is a fixed object. When a cloud passes by, it unveils itself really slowly whilst sometimes morphing momentarily into recognisable shapes as they pass. Music is a bit like that. As a composer you can create a counterpoints between fixed, moving and invisible things but it can only be experienced with distance.


> This visual comparison you make is interesting. For Zelle you had strong ideas about the scenography and use of light as well.


In 2018 I started a series of live performanceinstallation works called Outrenoir inspired by the French abstract painter Pierre Soulages. All his canvases are made out of different structures of black paint. When you walk past them, you see the light reflected in the different textures of black. He says, ’I paint with black but I’m working with light.’ Building on this idea, I started investigating with the American light artist Ben Zamora how darkness could help us see differently, experimenting for example, with ultrashort flashes of light in darkness which instigates our brain to create afterimages and extremely slow emerging light which allows us to look directly at light objects for an unusually long time. What happens can only be experienced through the lens of the human eye. It is impossible to film or photograph. For Zelle, Peter and I began with discussing how we could build a world together using darkness as our starting point. The key thing for me is that visually it is not about the objects I’m putting on stage. It’s about what’s seen, the resonance of the objects rather than the objects themselves.


> What they instigate into the imagination of the audience?


Absolutely. The imagination. The imagination is what we use to access the immaterial world. Things we cannot control. Powers that exist regardless of our concerns for them. The things which will always be greater than we are. It’s a part of life that interests me more than our actual activities as human beings because it shapes us all the time in ways we will never fully understand. Perhaps we could spend more time outside of our anthropocentric gaze? Re-assess our assumed hierarchy of things? On the scale of things we’re really small, even though we put a lot of emphasis into the importance of our everyday activities. This doesn’t mean to say we’re meaningless but proportionally, even on the scale of Earth time, we’re tiny. For some people that’s scary, but for me it’s quite calming to know that although I have an effect on the world, the world is so much bigger. There’s a vast universe and it doesn’t care about me.