Interview with Fjóla Evans

Contemporaneous is overjoyed to work with Fjóla Evans on her new work Nótt, which we commissioned for our February 11 and 12, 2016 premiere as part of our project, Laws of Nature. We asked Fjóla a few questions during our time working with us here in Brooklyn.

Could give us an introduction to your new piece for Contemporaneous and the inspirations you've channeled?

The piece is called Nótt after the Norse goddess of the night. I think a lot about sleep and dreaming. I'm always so interested in my dreams and my friends' dreams (I know it's an etiquette faux-pas to talk about dreams but I'm crazy for it!). It's so curious to me how a muddled memory of a hallucination you have while sleeping can actually have an effect on your waking life.

When thinking about ideas for this piece, I realized that all cultures have mythologies around sleep and dreams and got to researching them. I picked five myths to model the structure of my piece on. It's so strange to me that humans have evolved so quickly and dramatically though the past few hundred thousand years, but we still need to sleep every 24 hours. This daily need for sleep is a reminder that we are all just biological sacks rolling through our time on earth...

The five movements are loosely inspired by these five mythological figures:

I — Nue, a Japanese hybrid-creature
II — Phobetor, ancient Greek god of nightmares
III — Asibikaashi, the Ojibwe dream catcher
IV — Nidra, Hindu goddess of sleep
V — Baku, Japanese dream-eater

What is it like to write an expansive piece like this for a large ensemble? Does your creative process differ in this context from others?

Definitely! It's for sure the longest process I've written. Most of my previous pieces explore only one sound or musical idea, mutating and developing the one idea for the length of the piece. With Nótt I knew that I wanted the music to travel through several different sections. I really worked hard to make the sections feel connected, while still allowing the music to develop and move somewhere new. Having access to the palette of sounds of a large ensemble was really exciting, and allowed me some new opportunities for experimentation. I tried not to have the whole group playing the whole time, so as to showcase the contrast between the different instruments. Practically speaking, I also listened to lots of pieces that were around 20-30 minutes in length, to see how they hung together. I realized my favorite music of that length was usually distinctly sectional, but in a way that each movement or piece transitioned into the next without pause.

A beautiful example of this is Gradual Requiem by Ingram Marshall (embedded above), which I listened to a lot while writing this piece.

Your piece features a vocalist who sings mostly vowel sounds. How did you conceive of the role of the singer within the musical fabric?

In the third movement there is some text. To create it I googled databases of dream records and searched for sentences that started with “In my dream I...” (e.g. ...was walking, saw a man, saw a pair of tracks) and incorporated fragments of these texts into Lucy's line. I didn't want to communicate an explicit meaning with this text, more the feeling of being half-awake and half-remembering the dream you just had. In the sections where the vocalist sings only vowel sounds, I conceived of her voice being another layer in the instrumental texture, bringing the unique timbre of the voice into the mix.

Are there specific experiences or influences — musical or nonmusical — that proved important in this piece?

I was influenced by these recording of Buddhist nuns chanting, I love the texture of them sort of all following the same vocal lines and rhythms but in a super loose way, some of the nuns seem to be a bit sleepy or something and not following the timing very strictly. I think it sounds so beautiful!

I was also really inspired by this piece at the Whitney Museum by Raphael Montañez Ortiz. For Archeological Find No. 9, Ortiz dedicated a half hour every day at the same time to work on this piece. With no preconceived plan or structure, he would spend the allotted time destroying and rebuilding a couch. By following this ritualized approach, he attempted to harness an unconscious urge for creation and destruction. He created a very human piece of art, but without any preconceived notions of artistic structural harmony. The resulting sculpture is very beautiful and interesting, a scraggly mass of fabric, cushioning and coils. It is no longer a functional couch, but still retains its “couch-ness.” I love this idea that one way to make art is simply to dedicate time to it and trust that your humanness and spirit will come through into whatever you are making.