Jennifer Walshe, Oxford’s new professor of composition: ‘It’s a big responsibility’

Her appointment is a first in Irish music, but she just wants to ‘do right’ by her students

Jennifer Walshe: ‘I think sometimes people got into music because they felt it was disconnected from everyday concerns. They felt it was a realm of pure aesthetics.’ Photograph: Katja Ogrin/Redferns

Jennifer Walshe: ‘I think sometimes people got into music because they felt it was disconnected from everyday concerns. They felt it was a realm of pure aesthetics.’ Photograph: Katja Ogrin/Redferns

 

When teaching musical composition, Jennifer Walshe maintains a close connection with the outside world.

“What’s really exciting for me and my students,” she tells me over Zoom from her home studio, “is if I’ve been off doing a festival, and I saw a piece, or saw somebody give a talk, and I come back and go, ‘I’ve got this really interesting thing to talk about, it’s fresh out of the oven. Or this approach or this essay I want you guys to read.’ Then they’re really engaged, because it’s something that’s happening in the world at that moment.”

Walshe, who was last year elected to Aosdána, is inspiring as both a teacher and an artist. Now, in what is an historical first for Irish music, she’s been appointed professor of composition at Oxford University.

“It’s a big honour, of course,” she says when I ask about the appointment. “But I think more than that it feels like a big responsibility. Because you know that how you define what composition is, is going to affect a lot of students’ lives.”

She points out as well that, as a fellow of Worcester College, she will also be responsible for admissions. This means being able “to try to help people to spread the privilege”.

You bump into Irish people who are professors, or who are running companies in London, or involved in the arts or journalism. You feel this sense of pride

Walshe’s multimedia compositions define music in an open way. The Total Mountain for voice, video and electronic tape features a PowerPoint presentation on Oliver St John Gogarty and a rural pantomime with people wearing animal masks, accompanied by Walshe’s amplified whispers. The Site of an Investigation for orchestra and voice features, on the one hand, lyrical brass and strings writing and, on the other, lyrics on microplastics pollution and percussionists using cardboard Amazon packaging. Unifying all this is the attempt to make sense of the contemporary world, of hyper-mediation and our renewed awareness of historically marginalised voices.

Walshe contrasts the experience many Irish now have in the UK compared to a few decades ago. “From my elderly relatives’ generation to the younger generation now, their experiences are completely different. I find a lot of the time you bump into Irish people who are professors, or who are running companies in London, or involved in the arts or journalism. You feel this sense of pride,” Walshe says, noting that the vice-chancellor of Oxford University, Louise Richardson, is Irish.

Walshe’s view of our neighbours is not dissimilar to that Colm Tóibín recently expressed in the Guardian. “What is the border between Ireland and England? It’s in reality an extremely soft border, and I’m not just talking about the Border between the North and the Republic,” she says. From Top of the Pops to football to our Booker Prize-winning novelists, we share many cultural references, and for most the same language. “Of course, it’s incredibly complex given the history of British colonialism in Ireland. But I think that now, with so many Irish living in the UK and vice versa, it’s maybe more useful, where possible, to see the differences in shades of grey rather than in black-and-white.”

New narratives

Underlying Walshe’s work is the effort to create new narratives – narratives to fit our strange times. Her success, like that of her modernist contemporaries Eimear McBride and Anna Burns, is proof of the public taste for such adventurous art. When I ask whether as a teacher she expects her students to similarly engage with the world around them, she distinguishes between her art and her teaching. “Within an educational role, you’re trying to just make sure that you do right by the students, which means you’re listening to them, you’re responding to them.

“For me, the number one thing – and I know it sounds like the simplest thing, but it’s really the most profound thing – is to encourage the students write the music that they want to write, not the music they think they should write. Then your job is just to support them to figure out how they can do the best version of that – to push them, so that they get better technically, whether that technique involves writing fugues or using video, or knowing how to use a subwoofer. That’s what makes it interesting, because it’s different from student to student rather than one-size-fits-all.”

Walshe was previously a lecturer at Brunel University in the UK and a professor at the Stuttgart Hochschule. She says that the neoliberal corporatisation of higher education is less pronounced in mainland Europe, and that Oxford is fortunate in being somewhat insulated.

Jennifer Walshe: ‘A lot of the pieces that I’ve made over the last years are interested in dealing with AI in different ways.’ Photograph: derVisagist.com
Jennifer Walshe: ‘A lot of the pieces that I’ve made over the last years are interested in dealing with AI in different ways.’ Photograph: derVisagist.com

“That’s something I have found saddening about what’s happened with a lot of institutions. Teaching in Germany was very interesting, because a lot of that project has not progressed quite as far as it has in Ireland and the UK and the US. So that was interesting, to be in an environment where you are given a lot more latitude and a lot more freedom as a professor.”

Much of Walshe’s work explores how information technology affects our sense of self. It’s topical right now, when an AI programme has made a remarkably serviceable completion of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony. “A lot of the pieces that I’ve made over the last years are interested in dealing with AI in different ways. Because even on a pure musical level, one of the reasons why I think musicians’ lives are going to be changed by AI, is that all those MIDI files of all those classical symphonies, and all those baroque piano pieces, can very easily be fed into AI networks and trained to make the sort of television or film background music that we listen to constantly every day. I think it’s important to talk about for those reasons.”

Wind of change

With a technological revolution under way in AI and blockchain, the wind of change is blowing, and digital literacy feels essential in a sink-or-swim way. Recent years too have seen a long overdue diversification of university curricula, with more visibility for women, people of colour, and other marginalised voices in music history, and greater multiculturalism. This has led to heated debates on decolonising the curriculum, with some invested in Western classical music opposing the efforts. Why does Walshe think there has been such pushback?

“I can understand that some people resist it because they were raised within a system where they were told quality is everything, and that somehow, if somebody is talented, they’ll definitely make it no matter what the odds. But the reality is that that’s not the world that a lot of people live in. So it takes a lot of work to decolonise the curriculum: it takes a lot of consideration, a lot of research, a lot of time looking for new material, and it’s the sort of quiet work that we should all be doing as human beings every single day. I can also understand that there are some academics that feel completely overwhelmed with the amount of work they have to do already.

We’re uniquely positioned to know both sides of the story of decolonisation... So hopefully that gives you a position to see where you, as a white Irish person, have privilege

“I definitely think some of the pushback comes from people who are obsessed with this idea of ‘quality’, but maybe they haven’t interrogated the idea of what quality is. We don’t talk about how there’s a lot of considerations that go into why a piece is programmed in a concert that have nothing to do with the quality of the piece of music. There’s a lot of networks – sometimes friendships, sometimes institutional, sometimes to do with gender, sometimes to do with other things – that influence which pieces are programmed, and we don’t often interrogate those and talk about them. I think it’s important to look into these things.”

The Irish academic and author Emma Dabiri has addressed how the Irish, as post-colonial people, should have more empathy with historically subjugated people of colour, remarks Walshe echoes. “We’re uniquely positioned to know both sides of the story of decolonisation,” she says. “You know what it’s like for the national psyche to deal with the legacy of having been colonised. So hopefully that gives you a position to see where you, as a white Irish person, have privilege, in an intersectional sense, over a person of colour that lives in Ireland dealing with racism.

“I think sometimes people got into music because they felt it was disconnected from everyday concerns. They felt it was a realm of pure aesthetics. So if you take music, which is supposedly this abstract depiction of reality, which is beyond language, and then you start to say, ‘Well, no, it’s embedded in the world. It lives and breathes in the world in all these power structures’ – that’s complex for people, to have to re-situate it in the world.”

Recently Walshe performed at the Venice Biennale, and her new accordion and ensemble work Personhood premiered in Oslo; it will air next April at New Music Dublin. At the moment she’s composing “a series of pieces about Mars, which will culminate in an opera for Irish National Opera about Mars. So that’s my focus: the stars.” The libretto is by Mark O’Connell, author most recently of the funny and compassionate Notes from an Apocalypse. “I thought, I need somebody like Mark, someone who thinks about science in a way which takes in everything from the personal to the astronomical. So I’m excited about that.”

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