The Possibilities of Jacques Emery
This week’s article from the ‘Living Room conversations’ series features conversations between Michelle St Anne and LRT collaborator Jacques Emery.
Jacques is a double bassist, composer and performer who joins LRT for our 2022 Aesthetics-in-Residence Fellowship.
Michelle St Anne (MSA): Your parents are both orchestral musicians and your repertoire, to some, shatters those kinds of musical confines or definitions. How do you think growing up in that sound environment has shaped how you challenge conventions?
Jacques Emery (JM): From a young age, I believed that being a professional artist or musician was something achievable or tangible because both my parents were orchestral musicians. So I think that that gave me a certain confidence that if I could commit myself to making music and art, there would be a place for it in the world and that I’d be able to carve a career path.
My parents were also very supportive of the various creative pursuits that I had. I also grew up with access to the internet, so that felt like a perfect time to be a curious young person—being able to use the internet to listen to so much and watch videos of live performances and read articles and history and interviews and to just soak up as much music as possible. And that’s really what I did. In high school, I became interested in jazz, and I started learning how to play it on the double bass. In addition, I was interested in playing percussion, so my parents allowed me to have drum lessons and lessons for the double bass.
I became interested in developments in classical composition in the 20th century. I loved Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, and the Avant-garde composers of American modernism and mid-century experimental, like Edgard Varèse and John Cage, Morton Feldman, and the European composers Iannis Xenakis and that whole thing. But I was also really into electronic music. I loved craftwork, and through that, I got into techno and other kinds of dance and club music. And I also just loved Radiohead and Joni Mitchell and sort of a bit of everything, as well as the type of classical canon of Beethoven and Bach and stuff.
So I think when you have the access to those things and can view them as if they are in competition with each other, or if you’re able to take in all of that stuff without a kind of either-or perspective, it does lead to or rather, it doesn’t require those strict musical confines or definitions.
So I think more so than the sound environment growing up was just the ability to experiment on the piano and the guitar and the bass and percussion and everything and learn about music independently on the internet and also use the computer to make recordings and make music and compose I think all of those things had a really big impact.
MSA: Who is Jacques Emery? You can play anything – traditional jazz, improvisation, classical sound art and, of course, with LRT within its unique theatrical form. If we could trace a line through all your gigs and projects what would emerge?
JE: If you were to draw a line through the various forms of music that I’ve been involved with, it would be a very strange and bendy, crooked line. First and foremost, I’ve just thought of myself as someone interested in music and sound. So perhaps more language-oriented forms of music, and I don’t mean verbal language, but I mean jazz, classical music, folk music and traditional music. I suppose you can trace languages. Through the construction of the music, but also, on the other hand, is interested purely in sound and, I guess, non-idiomatic or non-language-based sound production. And, you know, the sound of everyday objects like the sound of paper and your keys and cups clinking together and stuff like that. So I think if you boil it down, it’s just a love for and fascination with sound and what would/can sound do and the humbling and awe-inspiring and mundane experience of listening, regardless of what it is.
MSA: It is clear you are comfortable defying genre; what do you think audiences can take from the more Avant-garde expressions of music and music-making.
JE: When I started learning about what we might call “Avant-garde”, or experimental practice in music and art, I was attracted as a teenager to that idea of a radical sort of performance artwork that was going against the grain or imagining or doing something starkly in contrast to an established or institutional norm.
Works going their own way. And artists going their way in this boldly individual kind of stance. But now, I think of it differently because I think perhaps there’s a specific figure. So now I think of it as not just reacting against the mainstream; that idea has been played out. And I’m not sure how effective that is in today’s media landscape.
Now, I think that a work that’s avant-garde somehow pushes to expand perceptions. For me, in terms of what an audience might take away from avant-garde music or performance, is this idea of ‘I haven’t seen something like that before. Or when I saw that it challenged certain ways, I thought about music. And I remember having that feeling when I would be learning about John Cage and reading about stuff that he did and just having this feeling of like, ‘Oh, what is that? What’s going on there?’ And not even being fully able to register it as music. But something was compelling about it that I didn’t just think, ‘Oh, well, it’s not music, and it’s not really worth my time. And that sense of impossibility and striving for something that we live our lives for. Everyone lives their life in their own way. And we have these daily routines where we get used to the way things are. We get accustomed to hearing certain things from politicians. We get used to the cost of living. We get used to economic conditions. We get accustomed to career paths being open or closed.
The idea of a radical or avant-garde artwork popping that bubble- reminds you that there is more. I think that’s what I’ve always found attractive, and I don’t think too much about the impact on the audience member because I think there’s a limit to how much you can do that. But that is very gratifying when that does happen. So, for example, I performed a few weeks ago. I have a solo set where I treat the double bass as a percussion instrument and I love it when people afterwards say, ‘you know, I’ve never seen something like that, and I’ve never thought about it again. It’s exploding a possibility because the double bass has a history of being played a certain way, and it works well for its roles in classical music and jazz. But the instrument can access this whole other dimension of sound making. And so I think when people see it again, it’s that idea that it’s expanding their notion of what’s possible. And I find that really gratifying when it happens.
Taking something familiar and then exploring its possibilities is really what audiences can take away. And that’s why avant-garde works can be received poorly. Because it can be challenging, but perhaps not intriguing or not with reward, people sometimes feel frustrated when they see a work they perceive as weird or alienated from. I’m really trying to strike a balance where there’s still something about the work that will invite someone in and hopefully ask someone to experience it. But, I also don’t just want to give someone a comfortable, extremely familiar experience I’m interested in. This can sometimes push the boundaries of their everyday experience.
MSA: A couple of years ago, you created work for solo bass to celebrate AAO’s 25th anniversary. The Vimeo page includes a great liner note from you and AAO artistic director Peter Knight. We want to take a step back and ask how you prepare for an improvised performance piece like this?
JE: I think with improvised performances, different people have different levels of “preparation.” And other styles of preparation. Some people are extremely committed to the idea of being spontaneous and using the kind of adrenaline and heightened focus situation of the concert itself as a way of turbocharging their musical decision making. And that’s amazing. But there are also people, there are also improvisers who perhaps are more focused on specific techniques, certain sounds, certain shapes, and treat that as a little repertoire of building blocks; of structure that they can then spontaneously choose from, in the moment.
This project with the solo bass drumming falls a bit more onto that spectrum – less of pure spontaneity and a little more of loosely working out some ideas that I might eventually make my way to it during the improvisation. In that piece, there’s a rhythm that comes in about halfway through, and that was the only composed part. I knew that I was going to end up there. But the whole first section was just improvising in terms of preparing. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I think you’re always preparing for those things for a performance like that. I’m just playing all the time. I’ll play every day, and I improvise throughout my day. I might wake up and answer some emails, and then I’ll see a bass, some drumsticks or a guitar, and I’ll just pick it up and play it, put it down, and do the next thing. It’s just this thing that you’re constantly doing and constantly cultivating, and there’s the technical aspect of being able to execute things with your hands, like with the drumsticks. But there’s also the mindset of maintaining focus whilst improvising and committing to ideas. And that’s something that you can practice. Not just on the instrument but in many life situations.
Jacques Emery is a double bassist, composer and performer who works on Cammeraygal and Cadigal landHis teenage years laid the path for an ongoing curiosity with many different musical disciplines, playing in youth orchestras, and jazz band and composing his music. He has toured Europe with the Australian Art Orchestra and regularly plays around Sydney with many groups, including Zela Margossian Quintet and HEKKA.
In 2020 he is a finalist of the Freedman Jazz Fellowship and is LRT’s 2022 Aesthetics-in-Residence.
Anastasia Mortimer is an editor and writer for The Living Room Theatre. She is studying for a PhD in climate change studies, disaster-induced human displacement, and social vulnerability. Her research and activism draw attention to societal issues that continue to be ignored.