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Artist's Corner: An interview with Jennifer Baker


Today on Aella's blog, we interview local poet Jennifer Baker, with whom we are collaborating in Her Voice.  Hear Jennifer performing her original poetry during Aella's final full-length concert of the season, 7:00 p.m. at First Baptist Church, Ottawa on June 4.

Tell us a bit about your background. How long have you been writing poetry? What sort of themes do you tend to write on?

I hate to sound like a cliché, but I have probably been writing poetry with the goal of publishing or performance since I was around 12. First, I was writing to please adults, the way that over-achieving, anxious children do. Now I write more for myself, which is both the problem and pleasure of poetry.

Broadly speaking, I tend to write on themes of place, trauma, class, nature, dialect and identity, and the ways in which all of those issues are connected. I come from small-town Ontario, and have always been fascinated wih the way people—both people who live and work in rural places and people who don't—talk about place and community and culture, and class. I find the cultural differences between urban and rural places, the barriers and asumptions made between people there, striking. Most of my poems are about exploring the cultural history of Huron County, and our inability to see the culture that surrounds us—and often the pressure of keeping that culture's secrets—until we leave it.

How did you get involved with this project? What drew you to Aella and "Her Voice"?

I've been lucky enough to know Jennifer Berntson, Shawn Potter, and Erin Joyce for a few years, now, and have been living vicariously through their choir stories and listening to performances for quite some time (and lamenting my inability to sing!). And I think our talks eventually influenced my writing practice in that I've started to become really interested in form, and the way that a certain ear for language can bump up against, say, musical composition, or even sculpture. I'm still just getting started on experimenting in that sense. 

But the simple answer is that I was drawn to Aella because these women are ultra-talented and I love listening to beautiful music, of course!

What did you use as inspiration for your "Her Voice" pieces?  

While I'm not sure I would call my poems explicitly feminist, I have seen my overall project as a feminist one. Because I write lyric poetry, which is poetry about the Self, my pieces try to make a space for my version of home, with all of its difficult complications, inelegancies, and embarrassments. There is enormous power in honesty—it's something that sounds so easy to achieve until you realize you need to be honest with yourself, first.

My inspiration, then, is that I think the idea of women making their voices heard is a powerful one, and I have tried to pull together poems that represent my attempts to do that.

Have you ever undertaken a collaboration of this nature?

No, this is my first! I'm so excited to see how this will go. I'm sure I'll learn tons.

Aella was very excited to work with you one-on-one. What was the experience like for you? Was it what you expected? Did hearing the choir change anything about the way you envisioned your pieces?

I was very excited to work with Aella as well! I think the most surprising part of the experience was listening to the recordings (which weren't of Aella's performance), of Magnificat, which is to come before my first reading, and hearing Aella sing it for the first time in the space. The effect is just such an experience. I felt a lot more excited for the performance and a lot more nervous to do justice to that piece in concert. It was so good. 

Final word: in your ideal world, what would you like the audience to take away from this performance?

I'd be happy if people found themselves moved and entertained. But beyond that, I think the title, Her Voice, is particularly fitting for a performance that mixes poetry, instrumental, and choral performance. In so many of the instances that the audience is going to see, they're not just creating a space for women to have their voices heard; they're also witnessing what it takes to build a voice of one's own. I'd like the audience to come away with a sense of the vital and powerful nature of that work.

Artist's Corner: 'A little Snow was here and there', Matthew Lane

A little Snow was here and there
For four-part women’s choir
by Matthew Lane on a poem by Emily Dickinson

When Jennifer Berntson asked me to write this piece in the summer of 2016, I was overjoyed. I had heard Aella’s inaugural concert, and have rarely heard a women’s chamber choir with such a lovely blend alongside such a capacity for musical complexity. It was one of the few concerts where I truly stopped analysing the music, and just entered into it. She asked if I could write something snow-related.

While planning the piece in the fall of 2016, the overt sexism of the US election campaign was on display, so I looked for poetry by women, specifically those from North America. It felt necessary, perhaps only as a consolation to myself with a young daughter, to use poetry showing women had persevered and created in more difficult times than these. Knowing Jennifer for many years, I presumed she would approve of this sentiment. This meant passing over beautiful poems by Robert Burns, Robert Frost, and Christina Rossetti. Lucy Maude Montgomery was a close second choice, but I eventually settled on Emily Dickinson.

A little Snow was here and there
Disseminated in her Hair -
Since she and I had met and played
Decade had gathered to Decade -

But Time had added not obtained
Impregnable the Rose
For summer too indelible
Too obdurate for Snows -

Emily Dickinson

I love the poem for its simplicity, and for its juxtaposition of a sort of cause and effect: time, and who we become. On the surface, it’s about snow, but underneath, I understand it as a reflection on the passing of time between two people. How can we age gracefully, and allow ourselves to be moulded by the beauty and the joyful connections in our lives, and yet not allow ourselves to be deformed by the dark, cold “winters” we all pass through? It testifies to a special kind of endurance that only allows the “summers” of life to change us. This is a quality I always search for in life, a quality I want to be able to pass onto my children, and one I deeply admire in both Jennifer Berntson and Shawn Potter.

On a musical level, I wanted to contrast the simplicity of the initial image (“A little Snow was here and there”) with the kind of stubbornness and persistence I read into the fourth line of each verse.  For me, stubbornness and persistence begets complexity. I chose to endow those fourth lines with a chance to proliferate, to grow, with obstinate repetitions of short passages, building to the “mystic” chord of Scriabin in the whole choir.

A cascading density is created by layering the voices, one singer at a time, giving each one the freedom to begin their passage when they wish. This is what’s called “controlled aleatory” writing: it’s been a hallmark of contemporary composition, strongly associated with the Polish composer Lutoslawski. Much of the inspiration for this particular passage, however, came from a piece I sang in the fall: Jerome Blais’s Conductus 2. This work contrasts simple chant melodies in the choir, with spaces where each singer takes a portion of the melody and the choir collectively builds towards a dense effusion of sound.

The overarching structure of the piece was a build from the simplicity of youth towards the complexity of a mature individual, with all the turpitudes and contradictions therein. The different lines echo the multiple factions of a personality we develop over time; I sought to encapsulate the layers, internal conversations, and changing priorities of the different streams of our life in the four voice counterpoint.

The piece, like many of mine, took time, but not in ways people often presume. It took a month or so to consider what I wanted the piece to be about, which poetry to use, and how I might allow the poetry to guide the music. Writing the actual notes, the actual “composing”, took a little over two days. This was not so much out of a haste to finish the piece, but out of a necessity to express everything I needed to while the emotional impulse from the poem was still fresh. Through time and rereadings, I tend to reinterpret a poem many different ways, and it’s important for the unity of a piece that the understanding of the poetry does not change halfway through the composition. Thus, speed often creates a better-connected piece.

Come hear the premiere of "A Little Snow Was Here and There" on February 11, 7:30 p.m., at First Baptist Church (140 Laurier Ave W, Ottawa). 

Classical Ottawa interviews Aella members

Aella is everything modern choir should be – innovative, technically precise, joyous, comforting and representative.
— Classical Ottawa

Aella members Jennifer Berntson, Erin Joyce, Amy Reckling, and Teri Slade had the opportunity to speak with Andrew Riddles of Classical Ottawa, who put together a fantastic profile on the choir.  Head on over to Classical Ottawa to get the inside scoop on Ottawa's artistic community and be sure to check out our profile. We hope that you have as much fun reading it as we did chatting about Aella's vision and goals with Andrew!