by Melissa D. Johnston
It’s not often you’re able to get the story behind a groundbreaking collaborative artistic project, so when I got the chance to interview the artists behind “Year of Glad,” I immediately took it. “Year of Glad,” which premieres this Saturday, April 16, at Roosevelt University in Chicago, is a song cycle composed by Patrick Greene for the coloratura soprano Joelle Kross, inspired by poet Jenni B. Baker’s Erasing Infinite poems. Baker’s poems, which also provide the lyrics for “Year of Glad,” are poems formed by erasing words from each page of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. (Jenni shared her project to Creative Thresholds readers in 2014 with “Erasing Infinite Jest: Five Poetic Approaches.”) The spirit of Wallace suffuses “Year of Glad” and the process of its creation.
Patrick, Joelle, and Jenni give a rich account of what it means to be an artist working with other artists in today’s world. They speak of the value and freedom that constraint can bring to the act of creation, the role of love and grief in art, the joy and excitement of collaboration, the challenge and fecundity of working in many genres/media, and what inspires them in the work of David Foster Wallace. They have inspiring and wise words for all of us who hunger to create and especially for those of us who long to create with others.
Update May 13, 2016: Here is the live recording from the premiere:
Tell us about your journey as an artist. Who or what influenced you the most? What provides your primary source of inspiration? What aspirations do you have for the future?
PATRICK: I didn’t start “seriously” composing until I was in college; prior to that, I was primarily a singer: boy soprano, musical-theater tenor, rock-band frontman, etc. In the spring of my first undergraduate year, I heard a visiting string quartet perform Maurice Ravel’s Quartet in F Major, and the thing seriously changed my life. I’ve been writing music ever since.
I’ve always drawn inspiration from a variety of sources; poetry’s one of my favorites. I’ve set texts by Eliot, Ammons, Crane, Poe, Cummings, Sappho, you name it. Until last year, however, I (somehow) hadn’t worked with a living poet. That changed when I collaborated with W. S. Di Piero on Come Soon, You Feral Cats, a setting of poems from his recent Tombo (McSweeney’s). It was a tremendously edifying, enjoyable process, and led me to seek out a living poet for my next text-setting project – Jenni Baker.
David Foster Wallace has influenced me just as deeply as any composer. My first reading of Infinite Jest was a transformative experience, and it’s stayed with me in a very deep place ever since. I think eclecticism is a fundamental part of my aesthetic; we’re lucky to exist in a time characterized by the dissolving of barriers, and I try to incorporate that into my music wherever I can. One of the reasons I enjoy reading his work is that I feel like we share stylistic priorities: to be complex yet sincere; to be elevated yet vernacular; to be formally playful yet structurally rigorous. He’s definitely emboldened me to compose in a way that feels honest.
My chief aspiration is to continue to collaborate with interesting people on worthwhile projects, and to find new ways of challenging myself to stay artistically relevant while creating a diverse, non-duplicative body of work.
JOELLE: I started in musical theatre and choirs in elementary school and went to college for acting with minors in voice and French. But as I had more classical voice instruction and sang in opera ensembles, I began to realize that was where I wanted to be. It’s so much more comfortable in my voice, and my vocal and character types match a lot better in opera than musical theatre. The big moment was when I was studying abroad in London and joined the London Philharmonic Choir for a performance of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony and just knew classical music was it.
My inspiration comes first from the gorgeous music I get to sing and hear all the time. I’ve been especially lucky over the last year and a half to be back in grad school and surrounded by inspiration from the music, my amazing colleagues, and the incredible teachers I’m studying with.
Aspirations for the future is a timely question, since I graduate in a month! I hope to someday make my entire living from only singing. I’m not terribly picky about what form that takes – opera, concerts, choral, weddings, whatever. I may try the sort of “standard” track of getting into a young artist program apprenticeship with an opera company, then get into a better one, then get into an even better one, then “have a career,” but maybe not. A European audition tour may also be on the horizon; they have smaller opera houses there and tend to favor lighter voices like mine.
JENNI: Over time, I’ve come to discover that, for me, writing under constraint leads to greater creativity. The constraint can take various shapes – you can limit yourself to text written by others, to a specific source text, to specific letters of the alphabet, to specific concepts, to specific forms, and so on. In Erasing Infinite, I constrain myself to a single page at a time from a single source text using a single procedure (erasure). In other work, I’ve experimented with constraints made popular by the Oulipo group and played around with more conceptual approaches – for example, pulling out phrases from a podcast transcript that start with the same words – to craft a piece. I’m always looking for new source texts and new approaches to try.
There are a lot of people dipping their toes into the experimental writing field right now. It’s easy to write under an easy constraint, and this is alluring to both writers and publishers. I’m inspired by the obsessives, the writer who construct difficult mazes they must compose their way out of. Christian Bök spent seven years writing Eunoia, a book composed of chapters written entirely of words with single vowels. Doug Nufer wrote a 200 page novel, Never Again, where he never repeats a single word. I admire that kind of focus, that singular pursuit.
I’m also very interested in how writers are leveraging the Internet to do new things with their work. I love the poetry bots, the hypertexts. Look at the companion website to Collier Nogues’ The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground. Cool, right? I want to do more in this space.
JENNI: I began work on Erasing Infinite in late 2013 as an act of homage to Wallace, posting the poems as I completed them on the project’s website. All along, I hoped the project would have additional incarnations – I could see, for example, a book length manuscript, a gallery exhibit of selected prints, and erasure poetry workshops. I can truthfully say that the idea of a musical interpretation of the work never crossed my mind! In early 2015, I received an email from Patrick, proposing the idea, and I loved it from the beginning. My job at that point was to just say “yes,” and step back to allow Patrick the space for his own creative work and interpretation.
PATRICK: Joelle mentioned that she’d like me to compose something for her recital, and I immediately said “yes” – she’s a dear friend and a terrific artist, and this project would give me a great excuse to visit Chicago. We agreed to keep our eyes open for texts to set.
Then, a few months later (March 2015, I believe), one of the DFW websites I frequent (The Howling Fantods) posted one of Jenni’s poems (“No More,” from p. 222) to Facebook. It was perfect. It “worked” as a poem on its own merits, and yet it refracted the text of this book that’d meant so much to me for so many years and afforded me the rare opportunity to look at it from a different angle. I contacted Jenni, who was extremely nice about the whole thing; ran it by Joelle, who was game enough to literally read the whole novel before her recital; and set about developing a form that I thought would work.
I think I’m inherently a narrative-driven artist, for better or worse. Even if the story isn’t immediately graspable to the audience – even if it’s just something implicit, something only I know about it – it helps me to channel my ideas and energies in the direction of communicating something. Since there’s this grand tradition of soprano-and-piano song cycles (epitomized by the German lieder of the nineteenth century), I thought it’d be fun to take this thoroughly modern material (new poetry from a relatively new work of literature set to music written in 2015-16) and stretch it over a traditional framework. So then the challenge was culling down the, like, 150 poems that I wanted to set to a manageable assemblage that’d fit into the fifteen minutes allotted to the project in Joelle’s recital.
Then it became a matter of following the flows of the poems and seeing what they wanted to sound like as music. I looked for moments of thematic crossovers and elisions, and tied them together with motivic tools that served to make the whole thing feel like a single, unified piece.
Joelle was instrumental in all of this, of course; she was workshopping much of it as I was writing it, so I was able to guide the piece based on her (very helpful) feedback.
JOELLE: I met Patrick through his wife Micah several years ago when we were auditioning and performing together in Boston – I was actually one of their bridesmaids and now I am proud to call myself the crazy spinster aunt of their son Jude, who is the coolest 2-year-old in the world. I’ve always loved Patrick’s compositions, especially his vocal writing. As I was starting my grad program I asked him if he’d be interested in composing something for my masters recital. A few months later, I got an excited 6 a.m. text from him – he had found Jenni’s poems and wanted to set them! I immediately started reading Infinite Jest with the hope of actually finishing it before the recital, and I’m proud to say I finished it just two weeks ago!
Since I sing a lot of music that was written about 150 to 300 years ago, having the chance to be involved in the actual creation of a work, as opposed to more the interpretation of it, was really exciting. Patrick knows me the person and me the voice (as a singer, it is often extremely difficult to separate the two!) really well. Then we were also in pretty constant communication about how the work was shaping up – from basic things like how long it needed to be to satisfy the recital requirement, or how tired I was going to be by the time I sing it, to more exciting discussions about finding the musical and dramatic arcs. He also asked me to pick one of Jenni’s poems for one of the central movements. And then as I worked on it, primarily with my coach, then voice teacher, then recital accompanist, I would circle back with Patrick about things like an easier way to set the text or a better place to breathe.
I find it funny to think about how music scholarship and research will change as the technology of primary sources changes. Like someday on the music library shelf next to “Collected Letters of Strauss and Hofmannsthal 1900-1916” or whatever, you’ll see “Selected Emails, Texts, and Blog Posts of Patrick Greene”. But that’s how this piece was created!
In an interview with Larry McCaffery in the “Review of Contemporary Fiction” (and as Jenni points out in an interview), David Foster Wallace says, “Fiction’s about what it is to be fucking human.” Is there an aspect of being human that you especially connect with in Infinite Jest? Do you believe that what Wallace says about fiction here applies to your own practice of art?
JOELLE: Absolutely. I was on a train on Christmas Day when I read the passage about American society treating anhedonia as “hip and cool,” in opposition and in fear of and in secret longing for the messiness of actually being human. I gasped and flailed at my boyfriend next to me and made him take out his earbuds and read it too. I think Wallace got it absolutely right, and I love that Patrick has updated the emotional arc of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -Leben to include some more of that messiness. It’s one of the things I love about being a musician and a singer specifically – the human voice moves people in such a unique way among the instruments. I always try to honor the very human impulse to connect and tell stories when I sing, and not just stand onstage and make pretty sounds.
PATRICK: Going off of what Joelle said: DFW’s greatest influence on me, personally, is his taking a very strong stand against the very dark, anhedonic forces that are constantly beckoning to us. It’s so much easier to just not give a shit, you know? It’s so much simpler to live stuck in your “default settings” (as DFW beautifully articulated in This Is Water); it’s a lot easier – and sometimes a lot sexier – to just sort of assume you’re right, and that the world’s actually a pretty simple place. And the path to that sort of mindset is paved in denying yourself human, deep experiences. In Infinite Jest specifically, every one of the main (and semi-main) characters is a fully fleshed-out person. They are complex and mercurial, and they aren’t what they appear to be on their surfaces. And that’s the way we all are, right? And if we’re aware of each other’s complexities, we’re suddenly treating each other like human beings. We’re a little bit less alone.
JENNI: At the root of Wallace’s comment about “what it is to be a fucking human being” is this understanding that we are all multidimensional and complex human beings. Infinite Jest is a book about the search for happiness, and all of the sadness and self-questioning that goes along with that quest. It follows characters who alternately embrace and reject the entertainments and addictions (and addictions to entertainment) that promise relief from that sadness and self-questioning.
I think the people who really connect to Wallace (myself included) do so because they recognize these struggles in themselves. Which is not to say we’re all sad, depressed people – there’s a difference between realizing your struggles and being consumed by them. When I’m sad or anxious, I can spend an entire day sitting in the movie theater or lying on the couch binge watching entire series of shows on Netflix. Now, I’m self-aware enough to know these activities are distractions, attempts to deactivate the think, but I can still connect with the characters in the book who lack that awareness and take their entertainments too far.
Some of my poetry certainly addresses human emotions and experiences, though I wouldn’t necessarily call that my purpose or aim. If something I write makes someone think, “Yes! I feel that way too!,” that’s certainly great. But I also embrace the practice playing with language and form for its own sake. Maybe Wallace would say I’m not creating real “art,” but I’m okay with that.
Especially for our readers who don’t know the work of David Foster Wallace or Infinite Jest, could you share the reason you chose the title “Year of Glad?”
JENNI: In Infinite Jest, Wallace conceives of a future with “subsidized time,” where corporations sponsor the year. Gone is our numerical way of numbering the years, and instead we get years like “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment” and “Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken.” Each year, the Statue of Liberty gets new accoutrements to reflect that year’s sponsor (including a giant diaper in YDAU). In the book, “Year of Glad” literally refers to the year subsidized by Glad, maker of sandwich and trash bags. It’s the first chapter of Infinite Jest and the last, sequentially, in the novel’s timeline. But it has a nice figurative ring to it, doesn’t it? A “year of glad” — who doesn’t want one of those?
PATRICK: Exactly! I’ve always found the idea of “subsidized time” sort of hilarious, and Year of Glad in Infinite Jest is something of an annus mirabilis. Also, I’m just immensely grateful this whole shebang materialized in the first place.
JOELLE: I was just sort of along for the ride on this one! I didn’t address it in my program notes either. I kind of like that the title will mean different things to my audience whether or not they are familiar with the novel.
In “Year of Glad,” each of you has worked within a set of constraints as an artist—not just because it’s a collaboration but also because the nature of the work is cumulative. Each artist works within the framework(s) provided by the artist(s) before. How did you negotiate artistic freedom and creativity in relationship to the project?
JENNI: Every piece of creative work has its influences, its inspirations. With “Year of Glad,” our lineages and connections are just more exposed. I go back to what I said earlier about finding creativity in constraint – that’s so clear here with this collaboration. We were each handed something to work with, and used our own talents (writing, composing and performing) to interpret it and make it new.
Turning Infinite Jest into poetry is both an easy and challenging task. It’s easy in that the book contains a plethora of characters and voices to work with. It contains great varieties of of dialogue and description. The palette is large, so to speak. At the same time, David Foster Wallace is “Saint Dave” for many, and Infinite Jest a holy text. If I’m going to create poetry from it — an act in and of itself that some see as sacrilege — it can’t just be a poetic retelling of the book. Nobody wants to read that. So there’s a challenge to do something that’s more authentic to my experience and my voice as a poet.
As far as our “Year of Glad” work goes, I trusted Patrick to incorporate the poems into his composition as he saw fit and didn’t try to exact any influence that front. To put it another way: I wouldn’t have wanted Wallace (if he were alive) to be directing or setting parameters on what I create from Infinite Jest. So I wanted to extend Patrick that same freedom and courtesy.
PATRICK: I’m definitely in the Jenni camp on this front: I really love working within very specific constraints. Knowing there’s a “before” – Jenni’s poetry – and an “after” – Joelle’s premiere – took a ton of pressure off. I knew exactly where I fit in, and I felt relatively free to take my portion of things in whatever direction it wanted to go. I just knew that I had to completely respect two things: the words and the performance needs.
JOELLE: Being a singer and an actor for me can sometimes feel a little divorced from the creative process – I’m not actually writing the words or the music, or even with some directors, really creating my own physical or vocal interpretation of a character (I do not like those directors). As I’ve prepared this piece, and all the other music on my recital, I’ve tried to keep in mind that the singer’s interpretation is the extra dimension that gets the words and music off the page. Patrick’s score is beautifully designed, but this piece wants to be heard! It also feels empowering to know that Patrick trusts me as an artist and supports the interpretive choices I’ve made. And though he wrote it with my voice in mind, the next person who sings it will create an entirely different performance, because she will connect with it in her own unique way.
“Year of Glad” originated with Jenni’s erasure poetry, which was meant to be a celebration and tribute to the life of David Foster Wallace in the wake of his death. The structure of “Year of Glad” mirrors Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und –leben, a song cycle about love that ends with death and mourning. Do you believe “Year of Glad” as a whole is one of both love and mourning? Can creativity function as a practice of both?
PATRICK: Year of Glad is an ode to living life boldly and bravely. The final movement – which took literally, like, four times as long to compose as any of the others – is an exhortation of sorts: she is telling the audience, as an old woman (the piece progresses chronologically, a la Frauenliebe), what she’s learned. And what she’s learned is that a loss can be a beautiful thing, because it means you’ve found something in the first place. She’s saying we should get off our asses and trust that we’ll figure it out.
JOELLE: I think both love and mourning, which really is another form of love, are so central to the human experience that it’s tough to create something that is not related in some way to one or the other. When I think about my whole recital program, which is 60 minutes of music by six composers in four languages spanning four centuries, it’s all there – love of God, a lament for a departed loved one, maternal love, love of nature, nostalgia for a lost homeland, and above all, love of love itself. And while Schumann’s cycle ends in mourning, Patrick’s final movement pretty joyfully transcends it and celebrates a love that was worth it.
JENNI: I think Joelle has it right when she says that mourning is another form of love. After Wallace’s passing, McSweeney’s put together a collection of reflections from those who knew him and who were impacted by his work, called “Memories of David Foster Wallace.” Read through that page: it’s all love. Also, isn’t the majority of art — in all its iterations — about either loving a person, place or thing, or missing that person, place or thing? You love somebody, you miss somebody. You love that mountain outside your window, you reminisce about the time when you had a mountain outside your window. (You get the point.) Indifference and ambivalence aren’t very good instigators for art.
Do you have any words of wisdom for artists who want to collaborate?
JOELLE: I don’t think you can be an artist and not collaborate. The 19th century Romantic solitary genius Artist, if it ever really was a thing, is over. Contemporary lives are so connected. I think it’s really important to know yourself first – how you like to work, what you bring to the table and what your weaknesses are. Then try to find other artists who complement that, figure out what you want to say, and do it! I also have to echo Jenni’s sentiment of saying yes. Since moving to Chicago I’ve really tried to embrace the pervasive “yes and” spirit that comes from the huge improv scene here. I’ve found it a really fulfilling way to make art and to live in general.
JENNI: You’ve got to find your creative kindred. Find the people who want to make cool stuff more than they want to make money. If someone wants to charge you to use their work, or you’re charging someone to use theirs, it’s not a collaboration – it’s a business transaction.
Good collaborations should raise all boats, with everyone involved standing to benefit equally from the exchange. Patrick, Joelle and I are at relatively similar points in our respective careers, which helps. Nobody is in a position of power over another. Everybody’s intentions are good. We share in any publicity and, most of all, get to put something new out into the world. It works from all angles.
Ultimately, if you want to collaborate with people, ask. How many awesome projects go undone because one party was afraid to ask the other? Oh, and if people ask you to collaborate, say yes.
PATRICK: My best piece of advice is just do it. There is nothing to be lost in trying. If you stumble across something on the internet that hits you the right way, send that email. The worst thing that can happen – and I really mean this – is that the person who’s inspired you can’t take on the project, but is left knowing that his or her work touched somebody. The best thing that can happen is Year of Glad.
The creative world is simultaneously larger and smaller than it’s ever been. There are more artists alive and working today than have ever existed at any point in time in the history of our species, and yet we’re all just a few keystrokes away from each other. It’s amazing! And we can all complain endlessly about how the system isn’t set up to support us, but in some very tangible ways we’re actually more empowered than we’ve ever been to create awesome, lasting, relevant, multivariate art that can come together to change the world.
But these things don’t happen unless we harness the fact that we’re all out there to begin with. So just ask. Reach across that electronic threshold and make a human connection.
Thank you so much, Jenni, Patrick, and Joelle!
Jenni B. Baker is a poet and editor based in Bethesda, MD. She is the founder and editor-in-chief ofThe Found Poetry Review, a literary journal that publishes experimental forms of poetry including found, erasure, constraint-based and conceptual pieces. In her multi-year project, Erasing Infinite, she creates poems via erasure from David Foster Wallace’s 1,076-page text, Infinite Jest, one page at a time. Her chapbook, Comings / Goings, a collection of poems generated by applying Oulipian constrained writing techniques to Washington Post articles, was released in 2015. Her poetry has been featured in journals such as DIAGRAM, BOAAT, Quarterly West, Washington Square andLunch Ticket. For more information, stop by her website or follow her on Twitter.
Hailed by The New York Times as a composer of “enticing” works, Mr. Greene’s music has been described as “shimmering” (New Music Box), “unearthly” (The New York Times), and constructed with “true musicality” (Boston Musical Intelligencer). Recent engagements include performances by Boston Musica Viva, the Atlanta Chamber Players, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, loadbang ensemble, Christopher Houlihan, Transient Canvas, Balletik Duo, and many others.
His theatrical sound design has been called “disturbingly real” and “memorable” (ArtsImpulse). Recent design projects include the Boston premiere of Cassie Seinuk’s Eyes Shut. Door Open. (Wax Wings Productions) and D.W. Gregory’s Radium Girls (Flat Earth Theatre).
Patrick’s abstractEXTRACTION won the 2010 Rapido! New England Competition (and took the Audience Prize at National Finals in 2011). In 2014, he was Guest Composer at the inaugural Birmingham New Music Festival, and, in 2015, his My Dearest Friend earned a C7Prize as a “Recommended Work.” Most recently, the St. Botolph Club Foundation selected Patrick for the 2015 Emerging Artist Award.
Mr. Greene earned his MM degree in Composition from The Boston Conservatory in May 2010, where he studied with Andy Vores and Dalit Warshaw. He graduated with a BA in Music from Trinity College in 2007, as a student of Gerald Moshell, Douglas Bruce Johnson, and John Rose.
Patrick is a member of the Society for Music Theory, the American Composers’ Forum, CompositionToday.com, and the Society of Composers, Inc. He is also a founding member of the Fifth Floor Collective and the Equilibrium Concert Series.
He lives with his wife (the actress Micah Greene) and son in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where he serves on the town’s Cultural Council.
Joelle Kross, coloratura soprano, is currently pursuing an MM in Voice Performance at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, where she studies with Judith Haddon. Praised as “a vocal knockout” (Hub Review) and “petite, spritely, and utterly delightful in every scene” (Theater Mirror), Joelle has performed extensively in the opera and musical theatre communities in her hometown of Boston. She has appeared with Boston Midsummer Opera, MetroWest Opera, Lyric Stage, Gloucester Stage, Wheelock Family Theatre, Hanover Theatre, and Reagle Music Theatre. Recent opera roles include Le Feu/Le Rossignol inL’enfant et les sortilèges, Amore in L’incoronazione di Poppea, and the Fairy Maiden in the world premiere of Heidi Joosten’s chamber opera Connla and the Fairy Maiden. She is thrilled to present the premiere of Patrick Greene’s song cycle Year of Glad, with settings of erasure poetry by Jenni B. Baker from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.