For those already initiated to contemporary music, Jennifer Walshe needs no introduction. She has performed in and written for the most prestigious and well-known international music festivals (Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik Darmstadt, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and Donaueschinger Musiktagen, to list a few), and has enjoyed a fruitful and varied international career as a composer and vocalist for well over a decade.
For the upcoming concert on Saturday 31st, I have been learning a piece by her called THIS IS WHY PEOPLE O.D. ON PILLS/AND JUMP FROM THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE. It’s one I’ve wanted to perform ever since my composition tutor made me aware of it a couple of years ago (love at first sight, you might say). This is because, first of all, I had never seen a score with pictures of people skateboarding on it before (come to think of it, I haven’t seen one since). Second of all, I had never seen a score that was printed on/as a T-shirt. This was a score that went beyond the realms of simple instruction-giving and made a case for being appreciated in itself as a piece of visual, material, and conceptual art.
Then, there’s what the score actually asks you to do. Something that much of Jennifer Walshe’s work explores is a “method-acting” style approach to composing, where the performer inhabits the piece day in day out, in character, as it were. (She recently wrote an opera where the protagonist is a female boxer, in which singer Laura Jayne Bowler actually learned to box with ex-professional Cathy “The Bitch” Brown). The piece reaches beyond the usual confines of the concert hall and practice room, and becomes a part of your life.
In THIS IS WHY PEOPLE O.D. ON PILLS, the performer is first and foremost asked to “learn to skateboard, however primitively”. This is an activity that I had naively thought would be quite straightforward. It’s not. The first reason why is that, and I know this sounds obvious, the ground rolls underneath you. For a while, gone is that well-loved stability where you are master of your movement. You are a servant to the flow of your board. You’re rolling, bro. All the time. The first step, then, is to get used to moving in what feels like fast forward. (Actual skaters, those for whom the synergy between human and board has reached levels of natural effortlessness, will of course not see this type of movement as fast – if you skate for long enough I’d imagine you might see walking as unbearably slow. But this is a total beginner’s perspective, and I hope I’m not alone in feeling like the first time you try to skateboard, the speed and lack of control is a tiny bit scary. I guess overcoming it is part of the appeal.)
The second reason is that the activity itself requires you to engage differently with the environment around you. An incline is no longer just an incline; it’s an opportunity. A strip of smooth tarmac has a certain feel; a cobbled alley isn’t going to be particularly pleasant; wood is fast, rubber is slow, grass is an injury-safe sanctuary for practising ollies. You go around spotting these different zones where different types of movement and behaviour are possible, earmarking that spot for speed, or that one for smoothness, or that one for attempting a trick. Without wanting to sound too grandiose, skateboarding changes your perception of life.
Examine and meditate on optimum skating environments […] Go for a walk and imagine being able to skate everything you see […] Contemplate the ability of skate-boarding to articulate space, find new paths through architecture, fresh uses for it. – Jennifer Walshe, THIS IS WHY PEOPLE O.D. ON PILLS/AND JUMP FROM THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE (2004)
I had played the roller-skating video game Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 on the PC, a game in which you go around skating everything around you, no matter how impossible it would really be (ridiculous jumps between ledges at great heights, no chance of dying or breaking bones, a skateboard that starts moving automatically like it has a 5L engine – it’s a game after all), and, well, this was like playing that, but in real life. Slower, and in your head rather than on a screen, but real nevertheless. It’s like playing your environment. The function of everything changes – houses are no longer spaces for people to live in, they are objects of certain roughness lying at a certain angle, connecting to other objects with different roughnesses which lie at different angles, which themselves are only a jump and a 1080 away from more objects lying at equally different angles… I spent several days wandering around my neighbourhood doing exactly what the score describes – interacting with every single ledge, fence, bench, or wall, making occasional videos, often to the amusement of bystanders (one of whom stopped and asked me whether there was anything wrong with the handrails on some public steps, presumably assuming that I was some sort of vigilante inspector for rails, ledges and fences). Encircled by high-rise flats, lining a busy road with moving traffic, a public playground, replete with ping-pong tables, see-saws, round metal gyrating chairs and bicycle parking racks, became a sea of potential.
Compose an imaginary path you would like to skate. This path should push and force you to limits, be rich, beautiful, complicated and stylish, and incorporate some tricks. This path is limited only by your imagination. – Jennifer Walshe, THIS IS WHY PEOPLE O.D. ON PILLS/AND JUMP FROM THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE (2004)
Reading this sentence made me remember why I became a musician in the first place: to let my imagination run wild. I’m reminded here of an interview with the author Jonathan Franzen where he says “I think it is what the serious writer is needed for now: to assert the right to imagine.” I can think of few musicians who would disagree if we replaced ‘writer’ with ‘composer’ or ‘performer’. Maybe it’s just worth remembering that you also have the power to unlock that right for others – something all music should aspire to do.