Updated: Aug 17, 2020
June 26, 2018. I have just arrived for an interdisciplinary rehearsal of Jenni Brandon’s The Woman with the Unfathomable Eyes. The piece is for Pierrot ensemble––the name given to chamber groups comprised of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and vocalist––and, out of unfamiliarity with the building we are to rehearse in, I am among the last to arrive. Today is the first day that all individuals involved in the collaboration will be present, notably Liz Sexe, a solo dancer who was added to enhance the storytelling of the work’s text. In addition, the composer will be joining us a few minutes into the rehearsal, the first in which she has been present.
Performing a work for its composer for the first time is a double-edged sword. On one hand, I wonder whether our preparation for this day will have been enough, whether our realization of the inked manuscript pages now tucked underneath my arm will match the swirls of sounds within the composer’s mind. On the other, playing for any composer is a somewhat rare experience; classically trained musicians––of which all the instrumentalists today are––tend to develop their technique and musicality with the music of composers who have long since passed.
Adding to the importance of this rehearsal is the date of the concert, just over 48 hours from now. Although I have rehearsed with the instrumentalists on three separate occasions already, we have just two hours to put together the finished product with the vocalist (a spoken, rather than sung, role) and dancer before a brief dress rehearsal at the Overture Center for the Performing Arts on June 28.
I walk into the large space, a bright dance hall on the east side of UW-Madison’s Lathrop Hall. Mirrors don every inch of the room’s perimeter, so as I gaze around the room from its entryway, I see multiple instances of the single upright piano sitting in the left corner of the room. Brian Grimm, cellist, and Aaron Yarmel, violinist, have already set up chairs and music stands around the piano; they are both tuning their instruments; Iva Ugrčič, flutist and LunART Artistic Director, is making notes on a tablet computer that is propped onto one flattened music stand; Buzz Kemper, male vocalist/speaker, is in a seemingly deep conversation on the opposite side of the room with Liz Sexe, dancer, about matching the timing and theatricality of their respective parts. I make my way to the piano and pluck out a few notes as I sit on its tall, wooden bench.
As soon as Kristina Teuschler, clarinetist, arrives and assembles her instrument, pleasantries are exchanged around the room. “Do we know when Jenni will be here?” she asks. “I think fifteen or twenty minutes. Satoko Hayami (LunART’s current Community Engagement Coordinator) will bring her up so that she doesn’t get lost,” Ugrčič says. "Shall we go ahead and get started?” I ask, which is followed by silent nods, raised instruments, and an inhale from Teuschler. The start of her slow clarinet line marks the first measure of the piece. We have begun.
In many ways, Jenni Brandon was instrumental in the original conception of the LunART Festival. In the early summer of 2017, Iva Ugrčič and Laura Medisky (LunART’s co-founder) met Brandon while performing with the Black Marigold Wind Quintet at the International Double Reed Society Convention. Over breakfast, the topic of female representation within the musical world (or lack thereof) filled the conversation. Ugrčič shared some preliminary ideas, research, and planning of a festival intended to celebrate women in the arts. What would become LunART was met with great enthusiasm, accepted as necessary, timely, and important. Although Medisky’s direct involvement came at a later date, the three began sharing ideas, the first being that Brandon should serve as the festival’s composer-in-residence. Over a year later, Brandon booked a flight from Southern California, where she is based, to Madison for the inaugural LunART Festival.
Performances of Brandon’s music were planned throughout the three days of performances, including Breakable for women’s choir, and one world premiere, Great Sand Dunes, a work for flute and marimba inspired by the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.
“I’m often influenced by nature, by poetry and art, and I use these influences as tools to create a musical world within a piece,” Brandon wrote to me during correspondences in July 2020. “I think about motives, or gestures, in music and how these can create a particular character that appears throughout the work. As composers, we are storytellers! If we’re personally clear about the story we want to tell, it is reflected in our music, and our audience and performers are drawn into the world we create.”
The Woman with the Unfathomable Eyes is one of the best examples in her oeuvre of this compositional philosophy. In 2010, Brandon approached Timothy Decker, a children’s book author, to write an original text in the style of a Raymond Chandler detective novel. Brandon’s program note for the work begins: “Mystery. Intrigue. Murder… Welcome to the gritty world of our detective in the 1940s as he takes on the case of the woman with the unfathomable eyes. Her sister’s been kidnapped, and her husband has stolen the ransom money and disappeared. The detective sets out to find the husband and the money, blinded by the woman’s beauty and lies. It’s only a matter of time before he finds out her true motives, but will it be too late?”
The opening melody of the piece, a slow, solo clarinet line, is marked “Without hurry; like a lone man walking down a dark street” in the score––a directive also taken by Kemper, our suspender-clad vocalist, who begins the performance by sauntering next to the instrumentalists. His first lines: “My father always said, ‘Nothing ever good came out of the rain, at least not in Los Angeles.’ And she was obviously no good. Not in that dress, not with that hair, not with those lips. Lips that could pour lies like smooth, Kentucky bourbon. But it was her eyes, that’s what got me. I couldn’t read them, and that’s what made me a sucker.”
The decision to pair a solo dancer who interacts with Kemper throughout the piece creates an on-stage representation of the characters in Decker’s story––Kemper, the detective, and Sexe, the woman with the unfathomable eyes. Brandon’s music, a character in itself, functions as a quasi-soundtrack to the text and movement occurring at center stage––elements that Brandon would describe as “a highlight for me at the festival.”
A couple of minutes into the Lathrop Hall rehearsal, the group quickly decides to forego a full run-through of the piece. Instead, we will start and stop during the moments that must line up with the work’s text. The decision saves us time; luckily enough, just as we complete a segment of the final section of the piece, Brandon enters, admitting to us that she was standing outside the rehearsal room listening for several minutes.
It is the first time I have seen Brandon in person, and right away I sense that she will not only be entertained by our inclusion of dance in the piece, she will appreciate the embodiment it brings to the already-theatrical sonic elements. For although her gait is short and her steps are quick, Brandon has a certain stature that I can only think to describe as centered, balanced, and lithe––like a dancer.
(It is no wonder: Brandon is a certified yoga instructor who has been teaching yoga since 2012. In our correspondences, she shared, “I love sharing yoga with others and enjoy offering classes and workshops both in person and online. I find getting on my mat to practice and teach yoga is a great way to help with work-life balance and really helps to keep me grounded and focused for making music.”)
Pleasantries and words of appreciation are exchanged with the 2018 LunART Composer-in-Residence, along with immediate questions regarding specific measures of the music. “When we get into the brassy swing section,” someone begins, “are you thinking the bass line should be most prominent?” “Could he [Kemper] possibly start reading his line of text before we begin section D?” “Should the melody be more agitated at measure 106?”
Brandon answers these questions with grace and thoughtfulness, but a conversation between her, Sexe, and Kemper is cut short when the rest of the group decides a best plan of action is to simply run through the piece in its current state, allow Brandon to take notes, and discuss it thereafter. Once everyone is in place, Teuschler inhales and begins the opening clarinet melody for the second time of the day.
“My father always said, ‘Nothing ever good came out of the rain…’”
Asked why collaborative elements are so exciting, Brandon writes, “It’s truly a symbiotic relationship in that composers need performers to perform their work, and performers need composers to create the works they envision performing. It is exciting to see the work come to life and take the storytelling of it to a new and wonderful level.”
A brief glance through the list of Brandon’s works, published on her website, corroborates her preference for programmatic music (music written to evoke or describe something extramusical) over absolute music. Titles such as Three Desert Fables and Dancing Naked at the Edge of Dawn are common, rather than titles such as Sonata No. 3 or Quartet in B minor, Op. 29. Her titles harken back to a love of nature and poetry, and her music is characterized by its lyric, accessible quality.
In The Woman with the Unfathomable Eyes, a variety of musical styles can be heard, including slow, finger-snapping swing (meant to evoke a smoky bar “on the wrong side of town”), traditional Mexican ranchero music one may hear in Baja, and big-band jazz. “I love finding a way to represent the many facets of the story I’m telling and clearly defining those through recognizable gestures,” Brandon says.
Leading up to the climax of The Woman with the Unfathomable Eyes, the detective narrates himself being “cold-cocked from behind” during his investigation in Baja California, Mexico. This is one of the more frenzied, delirious sections of the piece, as the music becomes a swirl of layered, chromatic scales between each instrument group. Immediately after the music reaches its final breaking point, the text reads, “I awoke to a blood-red sunset....” The music responds with a sparse interchange between flute and clarinet, which sonically illustrates the detective regaining consciousness after his encounter before narrating the close of the story.
We learn that the woman with the unfathomable eyes has been the one following him, and she has escaped with the ransom money intended to free her (fabricated) sister. The entire inciting action of the plot has been a con; the detective has failed, and we’re left with his final words, spoken over a soft clarinet solo, “All I could think of was what my old man used to say. That nothing good ever came out of the rain.” The piece ends as it began.
After those final notes during the initial run-through for Brandon, a second of silence is followed by, “I love it”––words that provide some payoff to the work that the group has already put in. There is another emotion I cannot help feeling, however, that assumes art is never perfect. A divine dissatisfaction, perhaps, that oftentimes wants collaborators, teachers, spectators, and creators to be constructive by being as critical as possible.
Brandon excitedly admits to the instrumentalists that she was completely distracted from our playing by Kemper’s theatrical elements and Sexe’s choreography happening before her, and rightly so. “Nothing stuck out in the music, which is great, really.” We glance at one another with close-mouthed smiles before launching into a series of questions for Brandon about specific moments in the music. More tenuto there, more staccato here, softer accompaniment, a longer pause between sections, follow the bass line more… Brandon is satisfied, which is a relief for all, but we seem to be asking questions in order to do the work itself justice. All music, after all, is deserving of the most thoughtful, well-crafted performance possible. Even better that the composer is in front of us, answering many questions of interpretation with enthusiasm.
The bulk of the remainder of the rehearsal is spent coordinating certain moments of movement between Sexe and Kemper, timing each as precisely as possible with respective measures in the music. At one point, Kemper asks, “How much do you want me to play up this character? I have a trench coat and fake cigarettes, if you want me to bring those.” Almost in tandem, Brandon and Sexe proclaim, “Yes!” “The audience is going to love this,” Brandon continues through laughter.
Nearly an hour is spent trying different versions of choreography before a final, full run-through, which, in the moment, feels as if it is going especially well. At the work’s conclusion, Brandon stands and applauds. “Really, this is such an honor,” she says. “Thank you all so much for the thought and time spent. You’re ready. We could do the performance tonight.”
After plans for our dress rehearsal are confirmed, the instrumentalists stand to begin stacking chairs and unfolding music stands. Everyone goes home confident and primed, and why not? I walk out with Brandon, Ugrčič, and Sexe, who turns out the lights of the dance hall. She is still wearing ballet shoes. “It was such a wonderful experience…. working with everyone who performed my music,” Brandon says as the door locks behind us.
At present, it is nearing the end of summer 2020, and the world looks much different than it did during the days leading up to the first LunART season. Several months ago, Ugrčič announced that the festival would be postponed to a later, unknown date. Undoubtedly, the state of the arts world as a whole is in constant flux; COVID-19 has changed the musical landscape, as many organizations and festivals have made the difficult decision to close their doors permanently.
While the arts community continues to scale back and wait in limbo, I used the months of June and July to reconnect with Brandon and receive some final thoughts on how she recommends musicians handle the current situation. Echoing the helpfulness and generosity I received from her during LunART’s 2018 season, her words offered here remain hopeful and practical.
“As emerging composers and performers I say embrace this time to re-connect with those you’ve worked with in the past––fellow musicians at school, your teachers, your mentors––and make this a time to reach out to people you hope to collaborate with in the future. Make a list of five composers or performers you’d like to work with, and then reach out to them with a simple introduction of yourself and your interest in future collaborations.
“Festivals like LunART are incredibly valuable for making personal connections. The art of connection is a skill that we must practice, so if you feel uncomfortable reaching out to people or introducing yourself, it’s okay to feel that way! The more we do it, the more comfortable we get at making connections. Remember––these are symbiotic relationships we’re making––we need them, but they need us, too, to make music! And those personal connections are what will lead to incredible collaborations, now, and in the future.”
Author: Kyle D. Johnson
Kyle D. Johnson is a pianist and educator who has been involved with LunART since its inception. His podcast, Art Music Perspectives, which is devoted to understanding contemporary music, has been accessed thousands of times by listeners around the world. He received a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2018. Currently, Kyle is based in the Washington D.C. metro area, where he works for the National Association of Schools of Music.