The 2015-2016 season was our first with cellist, composer, and musician extraordinaire Jillian Blythe. We will perform her piece Item 8, which was written for NCP, at our 2016 Benefit at (le) poisson rouge on September 27th. Before then, read up on Jillian's path to composition, the ideas behind Item 8, and her passion for coffee and improvisation.
Tell us a little about yourself and how you got started with NCP.
Well, I’m a cellist and composer based here in New York City. A few years ago I was living in Bend, Oregon when I felt desperate to come back to a place more fully concentrated in the arts and music. As much as I felt inspired by the surrounding beauty I was lucky enough to experience daily, it was time to move back to NYC. Trust me, it was a difficult choice to leave the mountains and community I enjoyed so much. Anyway, it wasn’t too long before I reconnected with the lovely Mara Mayer (clarinetist of NCP), whom I’ve known for quite some time now, and she mentioned the search for a new cellist was on—things kind of took off from there. I had been looking to join an ensemble that was willing to push the norm and explore new ideas, allowing the creative process to really unfold. I’m grateful that our paths crossed and I’m excited to see how things evolve from here.
Composing is something you began doing recently. What inspired you to go in this direction?
I actually began writing when I was much younger, though I guess I didn’t really think of it that way at the time. I wrote things for myself to play—pieces that used unconventional techniques and bits that I heard in my head over and over again, sometimes graphics that represented shapes I imagined. Some thoughts began as improv and worked themselves into full form ideas, and sometimes the other way around. Lately I’ve been trying to step outside what I know, which is how to translate thoughts straight to the cello, and branch out into other instruments and sounds. Sometimes it is incredibly uncomfortable, but those are also some of the most beautiful moments in the process. These days I write quite a bit of music for fixed electronic track with mixed or solo instruments, sometimes free and sometimes not. Playing with a fixed track can be limiting, but also freeing—I think perhaps my inspiration is more a curiosity, to investigate how something fixed and synthetic can exist in the same aural moment as something free and organic.
How does your experience as a cellist inform your compositions?
It probably isn’t so simple as to say my experience as a cellist informs my compositions. I would say that for me, everything begins on a physical level. You throw a sound and then others come to follow in whatever trajectory that happens naturally. As a cellist, what I pay attention to most is that a piece of music evolves organically, and without force. This is equally important for me as a composer, and it is something I come back to again and again when writing.
What is the inspiration for your piece Item 8? What was your process in creating it?
Sugar approached me about a piece for NCP while we were eating tacos in Texas on a break from our recent collaboration with DJ Spooky. She asked me to write something that could really highlight the whole ensemble and I immediately though to try working with a fixed track and went on my way. In a sense, the players of NCP inspired what the final product of Item 8 has become. In my mind, I chose carefully the material and instructions, dependent on who would be playing and their individual approach and relationship to their instruments. For instance, Laura Cocks, who is an incredible improviser and flutist really inspired quite a bit of the direction in this piece. In a brief technical breakdown, the flute’s (important) role in this piece is to copy, interpret, and then do away with any inkling of the primary musical material. I can’t even really take much credit for this—her first read through nailed exactly what I was hoping to hear, and I don’t think I had to say anything more about it to her. Every time we play it down, things are slightly different, and that’s something I really love about writing music—creating a space for freedom within an otherwise ordered template. Additionally, Item 8 calls on the players to use sustained bouts of vocal vamping, improv, and extended techniques—I’m thankful NCP is such an adventurous and experimental group of people!
What are your interests outside of music?
Well that’s a tough question… not. I love coffee, climbing all over rocks, poems, puppies, and biking—pretty much anything that gives me the opportunity to hang upside down, from a rope, or on the side of a mountain is my thing. Also, did I mention I love coffee?