Torrence ønsker velkommen

Percussion theatre - labelling who I am

Percussionists are inventive and unconventional. Jennifer Torrence is no exception. But how does a woman gain a foothold in a male-dominated percussion environment?

Jennifer Torrence

Jennifer Torrence studied percussion at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, the University of San Diego and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. She was engaged by the Norwegian Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra and the Bodø Sinfonietta for four years. Since the autumn of 2017 she has been a research fellow at the Norwegian Academy of Music in the Programme for Artistic Development. She will be collaborating with composers for three years to develop new stage works in which she herself will play the main role – in one way or another.

A drama of gestures

“We’re constantly picking up objects we have never used before, to make sounds. All of the odd things that go on in an orchestra are the responsibility of the percussionists. If you give a strange object to a violinist, she feels awkward. We believe in the power of the crisis.”

This attitude is partly the source of the reputation percussionists have of being different from other musicians. Violinists or oboists can more or less agree on what the ideal sound is. For a percussionist it can equally well be the dramatic effect that matters.

“We have a ‘look at us’ attitude. When clarinettists play fortissimo it doesn’t look much different from when they are playing softly. But when drummers are playing fortissimo, you can really see it. You see it through their gestures. So it’s easy to understand why there’s an interest in exploring this drama of gestures.”

The voice and the body

Here Jennifer Torrence is, not least, talking about herself. Her studies in percussion opened up her eyes and ears to the instrumental theatre tradition of composers such as Cage, Kagel and Aperghis. Here both the body and the voice are a part of the instrument, and a percussionist would not need much persuasion to get involved in exploring these forms of expression.

“There are a number of pieces in which percussionists use their voices and bodies in ways that we have never actually studied. But we do it all the same!”

As a part of her artistic development work, Torrence is formulating ideas as to how a percussionist can prepare and present percussion theatre, seen from an artistic and educational point of view, she says. This range of skills is something that she herself will have to acquire during the course of the project. She has already taken voice lessons, and will now take a course at the Roy Hart International Arts Centre in France to expand her repertoire with new vocal techniques.

“I am not a singer, and this is a place for singers, so it’s a bit frightening. Nor have I had any real theatre training yet. All the theatre training I have had up to now has been with my voice teacher, who has had training, but in somewhat the same way as percussionists: studying theatre after having begun to sing.”

“I am a percussionist. I don’t pretend to be an actor or a dancer. So regardless of what I do, it is percussion theatre.”

Logistical challenges

The primary focus of Torrence’s artistic development work consists of developing four solo productions, each an hour long, together with composers François Sarhan (French), Peter Swendsen (American), Wojtek Blecharz (Polish) and Trond Reinholdtsen (Norwegian), all through the use of theatrical performance techniques and elements from the theatre such as lighting, scenography, video, etc. Why did she want to attend the Norwegian Academy of Music in order to carry this out?

“Percussionists face a major logistical challenge. We need space to work in, and we need instruments. I don’t have all the instruments I need, so I have to ask if I can borrow them. And they have them here.  At a more theoretical and contextual level it would be more appropriate to do this at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts, or to study dramatic arts at Østfold University College. But I have the opportunity to collaborate with people at the Academy of Music, so it’s a compromise.

“On the other hand, as theatre constitutes part of the percussion arts, and plays an increasingly large role in contemporary music in general, I think that this investigation will be both relevant and useful here at the Academy of Music.”

The triumph of the triangle

Jennifer Torrence’s first performance production, “No Say No Way”, was created in collaboration with François Sarhan, and has already been presented in Sweden, Latvia, Ireland and Iceland, as well as recently at the Norwegian Academy of Music.

The presentation depicts a lecture about the triangle, a fantastic instrument which the audience, incidentally, never actually hears during the performance. It is a work about expectations, anxiety, insecurity, doubt, clumsiness, opposition and postponement.

“When we created the work we wanted to portray a person who is full of anxiety, who has no self-confidence or charisma. No woman is accepted if she doesn’t have charisma. The gestures are thus taken from a male repertoire. Perhaps the piece is about a masculine little girl who is obsessed with displaying her lack of female charm.”

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Afraid to laugh

There is a great deal of body language in the piece, and scarcely any elements that could be considered traditional for a percussionist. Is it necessary to be a musician to perform it?

“Yes, you have to be a musician. An actor could not do this. There is something about the virtuosity a percussionist has in his or her physical memory. Motoric memory. How we treat our things. How we do several things simultaneously.

“Humour is a part of the performance – as always when one is focusing on roles and stereotypes. But there is something that is sad about presenting this in concert halls and for a music audience,” Jennifer Torrence says.

She adds, “People conceal their laughter. We’re not used to laughing in a concert hall. It’s really a pity if people are afraid to laugh when the work is so obviously a tragicomedy. In a small theatre the situation is totally different.”

Within the discourse

Jennifer Torrence has collaborated with composer François Sarhan since 2012, on several works. She uses this experience as an inspiration for further development.

“The way in which I work with the composers in this large-scale project is that we create pieces in the same space. The composers propose a concept, and then we work with the material for around two weeks. My job is to be as open, receptive and patient as possible, because there are not only different personalities to take into account, but also different working rhythms. I am the only constant. The situation when working with ‘No Say No Way’ was special, because I felt as though I was, literally, François’s material. We conducted a dialogue based on his concept, where I gave him feedback.”

“No Say No Way” poses questions about several prevalent concepts within dramatic art. Who, for instance, is the director, choreographer, scriptwriter or dramaturg in a close collaboration such as this? And why does Jennifer Torrence call her partners primarily composers, when they definitively play other roles?

“I use the term composer because I want this project to have its roots in music. There are many examples of directors and choreographers creating musical works. And musicians, too, for instance percussionists, who create their own works. But for some reason these works are not included within the musical discourse. If a person does not identify as a ‘composer’, it’s difficult to be incorporated into the discourse. This is a tradition, and I want to bear that in mind in this project.”

Jennifer Torrence has created a few short works herself – improvised works. But these are not enough for her to feel that she can call herself a composer.

“Maybe it’s due to a lack of self-confidence and time. But it could be part of a progression. First I played pieces by people I didn’t know, then by people I knew, then music I created in collaboration with composers. So maybe the next step is for me to be the composer.”

A clear gender problem

“There is a dynamic academic environment for percussion at the Norwegian Academy of Music, with collaboration and interaction being explored across genres and national borders,” according to the Academy’s website. But not across genders, one might add. All the percussion teachers at the Academy are men. Jennifer Torrence’s two supervisors are men. As a percussionist, she has never had anything but male teachers. “I have never had a female mentor apart from my mother,” she says. What would a female teacher or supervisor be able to offer?

“A woman would enable us to conduct a broader conversation about gender politics. I think about gender and sexuality quite a bit with regard to works that don’t even address those elements. But I live in a music world where the people I respect most are men. I have learnt a lot by being surrounded by men all my life. Is that a problem? It’s a question of how we can acquire a balanced education and a balanced view of the world when we only get the male perspective. We lose some of the poetry from our own existence.”

Jennifer Torrence has been very successful. She is an outstanding percussionist, has received a number of international grants, has played in a variety of groups and orchestras, including under the direction of Pierre Boulez in Lucerne, and has received support from Arts Council Norway for several percussion productions. How does she see her career developing further?

“I don’t think in those terms. I hope to continue doing research, as I am now, and creating works like this one together with composers. I would like to continue doing solo projects, and I am hoping I won’t get too lonely. But I also enjoy playing chamber music, among other things. And I want to teach, as soon as possible, in fact. At university level. To teach musical performance rather than only percussion. And if I end up not doing any of this, maybe I’ll earn a degree in philosophy or something of the sort.”

Creativity drives percussionists.

Torrence triangel

Last updated: 11. March 2018

Jennifer Torrence

Jennifer Torrence studied percussion at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, the University of San Diego and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. She was engaged by the Norwegian Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra and the Bodø Sinfonietta for four years. Since the autumn of 2017 she has been a research fellow at the Norwegian Academy of Music in the Programme for Artistic Development. She will be collaborating with composers for three years to develop new stage works in which she herself will play the main role – in one way or another.