Is this Jennifer Walshe for real? We’ve met, fleetingly, once before, but the Irish-born composer – one of the most exciting musicians of her generation – revels in a sense of slippery identity, so it’s hard to be 100 per cent sure. Online she hides behind a front, the Milker Corporation, while her Twitter profile shows an aggressive-looking brunette and lists 10 different aliases, but the woman in front of me is blonde-haired, elfin and cucumber-cool on the hottest day of the summer so far.
Walshe is not exactly media-shy but her work has not enjoyed the exposure it deserves – partly, perhaps, because of its breadth and dazzling diversity. Compositions range from compact text scores for individual performers (a work from 2004 titled This is Why People OD on Pills is printed on a T-shirt, and begins: “Learn to skateboard, however primitively”) to larger-scale operas, but she is also a highly accomplished vocalist and improv performer.
“I’m very interested in the sort of debris that we are living in every day,” she says, and certainly her work delivers astute, sometimes savage observations of contemporary life.
It’s almost impossible to predict Walshe’s next move, but her latest project is a 20-minute opera for solo voice and string quartet called Training is the Opposite, which will premiere at an event titled Women Box at the Tête à Tête opera festival. It was commissioned to mark the inclusion of women’s boxing at this year’s Commonwealth Games, and is programmed together with another new work, Women Conduct, by Laura Bowler, who will perform both pieces, and whose company – Size Zero Opera – is behind the event.
Walshe (and this is apparently typical) has prepared for this project with a forensic approach to research: alongside contemporary sports journalism, she’s read Norman Mailer’s The Fight, an account of the heavyweight match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman held in Kinshasa in 1974, and Gay Talese’s classic long-form profile of Floyd Patterson.
“Women boxers, I could be making a gross over-generalisation, but there’s something close to a sort of Zen warrior vibe, like they’ll say meditation is very important and The Art of War will be in the back of their truck when the journalist is there, and that’s when it comes alive,” she says. “They are treated as exotic in the same way that Muhammad Ali, as an African-American, was considered exotic.”
Both Walshe and Bowler signed up for training with Cathy Brown, an ex-professional boxer whose nom de guerre “The Bitch” conveys something of her bullish, no-nonsense character. It’s Bowler, as the performer, who has endured the most intense regime, with Brown instructing her on hooks and jabs, and demanding sets of knuckle press-ups, a stunt that will feature between punch bursts and vocals. “It’s more like a film,” says Walsh, “a sort of method-acting approach where somebody actually has to change their body to a small extent.”
Walshe has tackled themes of torture in the past but does she have a problem with boxing’s violence? “It’s an interesting sport because you do have reservations ... You take one look at Muhammad Ali, with his brain damage, and straight away you’re like, ‘Jesus, this is really scary’,” she says. “But when I went along to Cathy’s classes for women there was a real sense of physical pride, not cockiness or arrogance.”
Physique has become a loaded topic in the world of opera, with singers and directors proud of the greater sense of physicality the art form now demands – and yet seemingly resistant to outside comment. We skirt the topic but Walshe offers a diplomatic view. “I think in the middle ground you get people like Laura [Bowler] who say people can look however they want and my opera company’s going to be called Size Zero as a sort of feminist statement, but I’m also going to learn to box because that’s going to be interesting, not to look thin but to see what I can gain physically.”
She says she would be disappointed if audiences interpreted her piece too literally as a feminist statement – like much of her work, it is about challenging preconceptions of identity and gender.
Walshe’s first opera XXX Live Nude Girls, which premiered in Dresden in 2003, centres around Barbies controlled by puppeteers from the sides of a large dolls’ house. The score features extended vocal techniques, ranging from whispered exchanges, hissing sounds and shrieks, and accompanies a narrative involving disturbing scenes of sex and violence.
The piece was in part inspired by conversations that Walshe had with parents and children. “People would look at little girls playing with dolls and think that it’s very innocent, and they see their brothers playing with cars and think that it’s very aggressive, and you’re thinking, ‘They’re just smashing cars together, and they’re doing a scenario where Barbie – this is what one of the kids told me – doesn’t stay married because her husband gets drunk and the police come and kill him.’”
We return to the topic of opera, a genre Walshe admits did not come naturally to her. Growing up in Ireland in the late 1970s and 1980s, she learnt the trumpet and played in rock bands, but always considered the acting in opera “atrocious” and the text a distraction. It was only when she discovered the work of Robert Ashley, an American experimental composer best known for his TV operas, that it began to strike a chord.
She is now one of a great number of composers contributing to an explosion of new opera writing. “A lot of young composers are appropriating the term and they’re deciding to label things as opera rather than music theatre as a way of owning it a bit, and saying, ‘I don’t have to go to the Royal Opera or ENO, I can do it with my friends’,” she says.
This bold, almost subversive, approach is also evident in Thmotes, a text-score project Walshe developed last year using the photo messaging app Snapchat. A shout-out from the Milker Corporation invited people around the world to sign up to receive instant text scores that were designed to vanish in seconds. It not only proved fruitful, with people reciprocating with Snapchat scores, but offered a means of sidestepping the usual bureaucracy. “With the Snapchat project I had the idea and I was doing it within 24 hours – boom – and I didn’t apply for funding, I didn’t write to the Arts Council saying, ‘I’ve got an app that will engage with youth ... ’”
The Grúpat collective, a fictional ensemble or “insurgency group” of alter egos that Walshe founded in 2007 to generate sound works, photography, self-built instruments and costume designs, carries with it a similar air of provocation.
As if these activities were not enough, Walshe is also a reader in music at Brunel University, and her module on free improvisation is a particular success. She compares the art of improv to yoga – “it’s something that is ongoing, it’s something that you can’t just pick up and do” – and enjoys the contrast with composing. “There’s an immediacy and there’s this sense of really knowing somebody. If you improvise with somebody, you gain six months of friendship, bam, just like that.”
Like many contemporary composers and musicians, Walshe has an enormous appetite for culture across the high-low spectrum, finding inspiration in musical or textural scraps on the internet and in everyday life. Glori, a solo piece from 2005, and one of her best-known works, compresses snippets of pop tracks, from the likes of The Bee Gees and Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and Céline Dion into a brilliant virtuosic medley.
So, come on, I ask – how thick is the irony? “Oh it’s definitely genuine – for me, I mean,” Walshe replies, and she clearly relishes this sense of freedom.
“I think it’s easier for composers to do that now without feeling they’re not being hardcore or ascetic enough, in not dividing stuff up, or making walls,” she says, smiling and adding – as if emphasis were needed – “I’m not interested in walls.”
‘Women Box’, part of Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, Kings Place, London, August 7 and 8. tete-a-tete.org.uk
Photographs: Anna Huix