Living life with more laughter: Jodie Rottle in interview

When Kupka's Piano performs 'Harrison's Axe' on April 19 at the Judith Wright Centre, we will be giving the premiere performance of a new work by our flautist Jodie Rottle, entitled Wednesday Assembly. In this interview Liam asks Jodie about her piece and about what it means to be a performer-composer today. Have a read, and don't forget to book your tickets!

Liam Flenady: Let's start with the exciting stuff first. I hear there will be some bubble-wrap in your new piece. Tell us about that!

Jodie Rottle: I think I'll preface this answer by stating that humour is a common thread in my music, and that I try to incorporate ideas or elements that make me smile. This is true even if the inspiration for a piece isn't particularly funny, which happens to be the case for my new piece. The bubble wrap – which the flutist and percussionist will step on – serves as a type of comedic relief and also achieves a random shift in sound that I was after. Now that I think of it, most of my music includes some auxiliary element. Wednesday Assembly, my newest work, is only my third composition, but my previous two works have employed the use of wolf howls (The Howl, 2013) and electric toothbrushes (Everyday, 2015). I guess I'm not satisfied with Western classical instruments alone.

LF: You've told me that your new piece Wednesday Assembly is not really written in traditional notation, but moves between graphic symbols and written instructions. What is the creative purpose of this kind of approach?

JR: I think this follows on my last sentence, that I'm not satisfied with only classical instruments... or traditional notation. The written directions indicate certain instruments or sounds, but there is room for improvisation of the material within those parameters.

Perhaps my aesthetic as a composer is to grant performers artistic authority over a provided framework. I would never want to rigidly dictate a musical idea or tell someone what to do, rather I want to plant little seeds of ideas and provide a structure for others to enjoy through their own musical identity. I also love the idea that my music will sound different each time it is performed based on the personnel and choice of interpretation. Then, it takes on an entirely different idea.

jodie in woods_quality

LF: It's a mainstay of contemporary philosophy that the subject is split (between action and reflection, between self and other, and so on). You have the added joy of being split between performer-Jodie and composer-Jodie. How do you experience the relationship between these two halves of yourself? Is there competition, creative tension, a continuum?

JR: There is definitely no competition between the two roles, although I can confirm that I enjoy being a performer more than a composer. Having said that, thinking like a composer has exponentially assisted my abilities as a performer.

Composing has been my artistic liberation. I have a newly found confidence as a performer and as a person in general, and I attribute it to realising myself as a creator of music, not just an interpreter. Most of my life, I have second-guessed myself and favoured rational behaviour out of fear. Boring! I think performer-Jodie and composer-Jodie collectively took over rational-Jodie.

I think the premiere of my toothbrush piece (Everyday) solidified this confidence. I had never been more nervous than when I walked onstage with my electric toothbrush, about to "premiere" my new "piece", but it was a situation that propelled me over this hump of uncertainty as an artist. It was such a humbling experience to look around and think, "holy crap, people paid money to sit in this audience and I'm currently climbing onstage with my toothbrush". It turned out to be a hit, and I still have friends who send me videos of themselves (and their toddlers!) brushing their teeth, making music and living life with more laughter.

LF: Of course prior to the late 19th Century the idea that a composer was not also a performer was largely unheard of. Now that we've had a century or more of a fairly distinct 'division of labour' between composers and performers (at least in Western Art Music), it appears that perhaps this arrangement might be breaking down. The fact that the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music this year are running a specific 'Composer-Performer' next year gives some indication of this. Why do you think more performers are trying their hand at composition, and vice versa, composers deciding they want to perform?

JR: I have a lot of feelings on this issue!

I definitely don't think everyone should feel pressured to become a composer-performer, and that it is perfectly fine to see yourself in one role or the other. What is currently being labeled a "composer-performer" is really just another form of being an artist, is it not? As you have pointed out, it is nothing new. What about improvisers, are they composers, too? Does a composition need to be written down in order for it to exist? Why does everything need a niche label?

I will say that I have always thought of myself as a performer. I actually can't imagine a performance of my work where I am not also a performer. I feel such a close connection to the music I write, and when I'm in the process of writing I'm constantly thinking how I will perform it. Perhaps it is a connection similar to the music of a singer-songwriter? That's what contemporary classical composer-performers are, right, singer-songwriters of new Western classical music? I also realise that not many people are knocking at my door for a commission (haha!), so I have to be responsible for the performance of my work.

Your question has made me realise that I have always conceptualised composers as people who are initially introduced to music as performers (or at least learners of an instrument) who take a brave step into writing music. Until recently, I never thought if myself as a composer, nor have I wanted to be one. I'll reiterate that perceiving myself as a composer has been liberating in that it has instilled confidence in my attitude as a performer.

I identify my drive to become a "composer", or "composer-performer", as just an evolution in my life as an artist, particularly as a female artist. I'm sick of men telling me what to do, what to play, how to play it, etc. (no offence to you or any other dude composers reading this). Taking the initiative to be a creator of music is a way that I can avoid the bleakness of patriarchy and be my own artist in new music. I think this sentiment comes across in my writing; I said before that my objective in composition isn't to tell people what to do, rather it is to provide a framework for others to interpret as they wish.

LF: One quick final question. Where does the title Wednesday Assembly come from? Is it a reference to some traumatic childhood event, perhaps?

JR: Quite the opposite. My work Wednesday Assembly is in memory of my grandfather, but the title was inspired by my youngest step-daughter, Ava. She is very inquisitive, and one day she asked me what people in heaven do on Wednesdays. I had just recently lost my Grandfather – ironically on a Wednesday, although Ava did not know this – and I couldn't come up with an answer, partly out of sorrow but mostly out of wonder. Two seconds later, she told me that on Wednesdays she has school assembly and asked me if people in heaven have assembly on Wednesdays, too. It was a very beautiful moment.

LF: Thanks Jodie. Can't wait to hear it at the gig!