surveillance and slime collide in the scores and sounds of composer jeanette olivia little
"Classical musicians are like athletes: they train for hours a day over years, and watching them perform is, for me, a bit like watching athletes perform at the highest level.”
Musician and composer Jeanette Olivia Little discovered the piano and violin at age three. A Suzuki method trained prodigy, her childhood was filled with practise, precision and winning classical competitions all across the nation. As she entered her teens, the high pressure classical world lost its allure and lead Jeanette to discover house music in the key clubs of Melbourne's underground dance scene.
Fast forward to the recent premiere of No Optic, an original composition Jeanette was commissioned to write as a part of the collaborative Speak Percussion project. It's classical meets the future, marrying of the worlds that ruled her youth. In No Optic, Jeanette explores the digital panopticon and the interplay of personal freedom and surveillance via the synthesis of a percussion quartet with electronics and a video collaboration with London-based Russian video artist, Sasha Litvintseva.
In London, where Jeanette is currently based, she co-hosts the show SLIME on NTS radio with partner in crime Rohan Bell Towers. The two just launched a music supervision agency called DOLCE and she's currently at work on her debut dance music record. An old friend of i-D, we caught up with Jeanette ahead of No Optic's international debut.
Jeanette, right up top I want to ask you to give us a '101 course' in No Optic...
Sure, No Optic is a 14 minute work for a percussion ensemble, so there are four players and there's an electronic backing track which Rohan Bell Towers has contributed towards. Then, there's the visual element, for this I've collaborated with Sasha Litvintseva, she's a Russian, London based filmmaker, flying around the world, making very interesting work.
How did you and Sasha come to work on this together?
I saw a music video she did for an electronic producer posted on the NTS radio site. Rohan and I contacted her saying, "hey, I really like your work, I'm doing this project for a moving image inspired festival" and she was really responsive to it. The first meeting we had, I basically gave her a nearly finished electronic track, and she worked with that. During our second meeting Sasha showed me her kind of 'first draft', we mutually said, "you're so easy to work with, this feels very natural and organic".
The themes you speak of, this interplay of personal freedom in the computer age, was that already a preoccupation of yours?
Definitely, it's an area that's interested me for a long while....thinking of all my work it's almost all thematically centred around this sort of Orwellian,1984 idea. I suppose No Optic is just more contemporary, as in, digital age. The piece I wrote for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Ades, was based on Philip K. Dick. I'm a sci-fi fan, so it was based on his general body of work and exploring this idea of reality and illusion, and surveillance and this kind of business. That was the first work I based on this early interest of mine - sci-fi novels and stuff. I only started writing music during university, I never wrote music before that.
When did you first start playing music?
I played piano and violin from a very young age, I don't wanna' say I was a prodigy or anything but I was quite advanced for my age. There were a lot of competitions and recitals with some of the country's best young musicians, but I burnt out. We were was so young...
And that classical world is so extreme.
Exactly. When I was 13 or 14, I completely rejected it and I got into partying, going to raves and being a bad teen!
That's when you got into electronic music, when you were being a 'badgal'?
For sure, that was my diet as a teenager! I was going to the club waaay too much for my age but that period really informed my next pursuits. I want to do a techno album next. I'm now so happy and thankful to have this foundation in classical music that I can couple with my love for electronic music.
In 2015 have things evolved in the classical world or is it still steeped in tradition?
Essentially it's difficult because society at-large now doesn't have knowledge of the context of the seminal classical works and the contemporary classic world doesn't do much to bridge this. There have been certain books like Alex Ross', The Rest is Noise, which is such an important music book of this decade because it has truly helped to contextualise classical. There was a 'The Rest is Noise' festival that went for a year, they performed crucial works from throughout the 20th century and informed the audience of the history of the world wars and what was happening in the culture at the time.
What works and composers were really influential on you growing up and coming up through university?
Definitely Morton Feldman. He was a New York artist, he came out of the New York school, he was a protege of John Cage. He was interesting because he was mates with the abstract expressionists, like Rothko and wasn't exclusively kicking it with "classical music people". So he was a fucking dude who smoked a lot of cigarettes and was a heavy drinker and listened to really cool music. He wrote very abstract, ambient-esque kind of music, he wrote his own language. I'd also say [Iannis] Xenakis and [György] Ligeti. Ligeti's a Hungarian composer whose music has been used a lot in Kubrick's films. He does amazing orchestral works where a lot of the sound walls are blurred.
And who has made an impression of late?
Mica Levi's score for Under the Skin made a very strong impression!
Is writing and composing music an excruciating process?
Yes! Putting an orchestral score together is insane. You have no idea. If I was doing an orchestral work full time it might take say four or five months to complete. There are composers who revise scores their entire life. Elliott Carter wrote his three symphonies and it took him nine years. Rachmaninov wrote a piece over three years, and everyone hated the performance so he went into a deep depression for six years…..these numbers aren't exact (laughs) but you get the idea.
Let's talk about some of your other musical output. You do the NTS show [Slime] with Bell Towers, how's that going?
Good, it's a fortnightly thing we do on NTS. NTS is great because it's run by guys who have really fucking great taste. They are true music lovers and it covers everything.
What's Slime's underlying theme?
Well the theme is, there is no theme. We've got this tagline, 'Sticky and green, served ambient', but it's everything. It's not beatmatched, it's just my kind of dark, experimental classical kind of thing, and my techno background, matched with Rohan's love for disco and house.
It must be nice having Rohan (Bell Towers), working with you on projects...
Yeah we've become collaborators in a way, I'm often helping him with arranging ideas for his tracks and we're always giving feedback on each other's work. We come from different schools. It feels very easy and very exciting to be bouncing ideas around with him. He's helped me rediscover this interest in electronic music, I'm excited.