Grasping for Light: An interview with Jessica Meyer

A Far Cry is thrilled to be presenting a world premiere written by Jessica Meyer in our season opener this weekend at the Gardner Museum. Jessica's an inspiration to all of us; a brilliant composer and violist whose works have a freshness that allows you to "see" differently while you're listening to them. She spent a week with us in the Gardner Museum last spring, and this new piece, titled "Grasping for Light" started to emerge. We asked her some questions, and boy, did we get answers! 

You started thinking about this piece last spring, on a week-long residency at the Gardner. What was it like to spend that time in Isabella's space; what struck you? 

Isabella's space is simply... amazing.  To have art grouped together in such a beautiful yet specific way provided such a thought-provoking context.  It was an honor to live in the museum's apartment for a week, to wake up and read books about her and the artists she chose to surround herself with, and to visit (and revisit) the different rooms throughout the week.  I have since been to Venice and saw the palazzo that was her "home away from home".  The best part of all is that I got to know an extremely interesting person whose personality was as large as her collection.

"Grasping for Light" references a Whistler painting; what's your experience of the painting, and how do you think it might differ from Isabella's? 

Upon arriving, I was concerned that the collection was going to overwhelm me and that choosing just one (or a few) works for inspiration would be a struggle.  However, on the first day, from the moment I entered the famed "Yellow Room", this painting just sucked me in.  I stood in front it slack-jawed for quite a while, and knew without a doubt that it would be my inspiration.  

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Here is an interesting tidbit from an article posted online which tells of how fascinated Isabella was with the painting:

..."when perplexed by an annoying problem" she liked to go and "sit quietly before a beautiful object . . . the problem tended to solve itself in the process." One such beautiful “object” was James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne, Blue and Silver: Battersea Reach, considered a bold purchase in its day for its daring abstraction and supposed “lack of finish.”  But surely that’s what attracted Gardner most. Here was an acclaimed artist thinning his paint and quickening his brush strokes not to obscure the Thames night scene, but rather to depict it more accurately through a cloak of fog. It was mesmerizing.

Many people did not appreciate Whistler's work at the time - feeling it was too stark or thrown together.  However, I read that his use of color routinely caught her eye, and she defended his choices often.  For me, my first experience of the painting was intensely emotional, which might have been different from Isabella's.

Would you describe the genesis of the work and its inspiration? 

 Besides the mesmerizing effect the painting had, I was struck by how dense it was, and how the subtle layers drew you in.  However, I also came to see it as a metaphor - specifically about depression.   My father had just died a few months before my residency, and the depression that follows such an event can make you feel like you are trapped in that very fog you see in the painting.  It can be so debilitating.  It's as if you are wearing ten leaden dentist aprons at once and can't move.  As I found out more about Isabella's life and how her collection came about, I discovered that she had a son who died while he was a toddler.  He was her pride and joy.  Upon his death, she became depressed for quite some time, especially when it was clear that she could not have another child.  Eventually, the doctor simply prescribed "travel" as the best antidote, after which she discovered the world and her passion for art - so much so that she started routinely buying it.   Essentially, it was out of this darkest time she discovered what she was meant to become.  In the Whistler, you have these tiny specs of light colored paint that draw you through the fog the longer you look at the work.   The work I have written for A Far Cry uses sound to express the different feelings related to getting through a physical and mental fog in order to emerge on the other side of the river where the light is.

Does "Grasping for Light" feel like a natural part of your "catalog of works" or is it an outlier in some way? 

In one way, I feel it is a natural part of the collection of works I have written so far because it uses almost all of the compositional techniques I have been developing over the past few years.  I enjoy varying ensemble textures in different harmonic and rhythmic ways to express various emotional states, and it was really fun using the full palette of string colors I have come to know after so many years as a player.  However, what could make it qualify as an outlier is that this is the first piece I have written for so many solo parts.

What inspired you to write so many distinct solo string parts in this piece? 

Having played in many, many string sections throughout my life, there is one thing I find myself repeatedly explaining to my clarinetist husband: when winds and brass play in groups, often they are one on a part.  Of course, they have to blend, tune, match articulation, etc - but everyone usually gets ownership of their own part. Conversely, when you are playing in a string section, you are almost always playing the same part with many people and it is a specific craft to be able to play in a section well. On occasion, I have performed in viola sections that were so tight that if someone was bouncing in a slightly different part of the bow with a slightly different kind of stroke, it was very obvious.  One also usually has to know how different one needs to play when you are sitting in the front, middle, or back of a string section.  Therefore, when a string orchestra is playing with the typical 5 sections, the energy is simply different than when everyone gets to have their own part to express.  This was evident when I saw A Far Cry perform in Jordan Hall while I was there in March. Your performance of Beethoven's Op. 135 was gorgeous and elegant, but when you performed Strauss's "Metamorphosen - a study for 23 solo strings" ...the energy of all of you putting all of yourselves into your own parts blew me away.  I know how that feels as a player, and I wanted to give you all the opportunity to be able to "go there" again.

How does being a violist allow you to write the best music?  (AKA does that "middle perspective) inform your work? 

For the past (*cough*) 30 + years I have been sitting in the middle of everyone as a violist.  From that perspective, you get to hear most things equally from the bottom up, and your part is usually about being the glue between what the lower voices and upper voices are doing while influencing the phrasing and momentum as you can.   This is probably why I am so fascinated by rhythm, counterpoint, and texture as a composer - because those are things that violists are often most aware of.

What do you think A Far Cry will find challenging about your piece? And conversely, what are you looking forward to hearing? 

Having a piece that is so texturally dense at times will be a challenge for an unconducted orchestra to put together quickly (let's face it...time is always an issue).  However, I made it so that the pulse just clicks along at the same rate - so once everyone is grooving in the same way and knows how it goes, it will be OK.  I can't wait to finally get to hear it in rehearsal!  There will certainly be things to quickly tweak in regards to color and individual dynamics to make it gel and that moment is always nerve-wracking, but that comes with the territory.   However, I am really looking forward to hearing all of the expressive colors everyone can make, with the virtuosity that I know all of the Criers are capable of, while playing from the bottom of their hearts.