Inside the Music of Niicugni

Apr 19, 2013

Rah Riley, marketing intern, interviews James Everest, music director, composer, and instrumentalist for Emily Johnson/Catalyst's Niicugni. Don't miss this last 2012-13 Women of Substance copresented performance this Sun, Apr 21, at 7:00 pm at The O'Shaughnessy! For more background information, check out this interview with Emily Johnson herself, and this blog about the lanterns used in the performance.

Tell us about the music for Niicugni.

As with The Thank-you Bar, we wanted to create a soundscore that was immersive and active for the audience—where the WAY in which the sounds were delivered was just as important as the sounds themselves. The themes of connection and "many parts of a whole" as well as the obvious title of "Listen" made me seek ways to create the larger fabric of sound out of many individual pieces, and to always engage the audience's attention on multiple levels. For me, there's a ceremonial quality to Niicugni, so I wanted the music to work that way—framing the larger experience with musicians as the "chorus," cycling in and out to lend a ritualistic formality to the proceedings.

Can you talk a bit about your personal style of and taste in music?

I would say that collaboration is a driving force in all of my work, it's what excites me and challenges me. Collaborations with other musicians/ composers, or across disciplines like film and dance. My aesthetic is often minimalist, in terms of using repetition, subtlety, and layering individually simple pieces to construct a more complex whole.

You have collaborated with a lot groups as well as pursued your own personal musical endeavors. How do the varying styles of these groups support, contrast, or influence your own personal music style? Can you recognize specific impacts on your compositions?

All the many varied projects I've been involved with have stretched my imagination and abilities and expanded my own palette, to give me an ever-widening array of options to draw upon for subsequent projects. I love that my collaborations keep bringing me in new directions that I otherwise might not explore—it's what I'm most seeking out of new projects. The Thank-you Bar brought me deeper into the classic country music that was on the Que-Ana Bar's jukebox. Niicugni has brought me deeper into the classical music world, but also the spacial realms of installation work. 

Is the music composition process different when you are working with Emily, as your wife, than when you collaborate with other artists? How so?

The significant thing about my collaboration with Emily and Catalyst is that it's been going for 12 years now, through a wide variety of projects and contexts, and that has added layers of depth to our creative process, where I understand her aesthetic and vision much more deeply and can help shape and fulfill her vision with increasing synergy and (hopefully) magic. I think we're getting better at finding what the other is looking for. At the heart of collaboration is relationship and trust, and that's the determining factor in my creative experience—the quality of those relationships and level of trust—with emily or any of my other projects/collaborators. With Emily, there's a constant feedback loop that hones in on the details and delivery of each section of the score, down to the most subtle moments. 

For the Niicugni tour, you and Emily are also collaborating with musician/composer Bethany Lacktorin, dancer Aretha Aoki, and lighting designer Heidi Eckwall to create the piece. What is it like working with so many different voices and expertise?

Well, Bethany collaborated with us for 2 years creating Niicugni, but unfortunately broke her leg at the beginning of the tour, and so isn't performing with us in Minneapolis or other stops on tour. But Emily and I specifically picked her as a collaborator because we knew we wanted the violin to be the featured instrument (as pedal steel guitar was in The Thank-you Bar) but also needed someone versed in electronic music to help me conceive and construct the installation aspects of the score. 

Emily and I thrive on collaboration—with each other and with those we bring on board for these projects. And we choose collaborators very specifically for each project, based on several factors. For Niicugni, we were fortunate to have our 3 collaborators working with us from the beginning, allowing all aspects to be integrated—lights, movement, sound—rather than having things develop independently or separately. We were all in the same room, writing music and sounds while Emily and Aretha were dancing and Heidi was experimenting with light options—and then Heidi and Aretha and Emily would sing and bethany and I would dance—always switching roles, trying new approaches. It gives everyone a chance to contribute to all aspects of the work, which gives it its many layers. Everyone is so invested in the larger experience, cares so much about how it all comes together, how all the pieces work with each other and express the larger vision. 

What is your process in composing for movement?

I have to get as far "inside" as possible—understanding thematically where the movement is coming from, where the dance is going. What moods and tension and energy each section of the dance requires or deserves. So that involves in-depth conversations with Emily, but also learning some of the dance phrases myself, so I can internalize them in my own body, really feel them. (Of course, this has led to Emily actually keeping some of my "dancing" in the pieces...) 

But I also strive to see the larger picture, anticipating the larger experience we're working to give the audience—from moment to moment as they engage with the performance. Transitions and focus become hugely important to me. My goal is to integrate the music and sound with the rest of the performance in a way that they are inseparable. This means making sure the music and sound doesn't overstep or get in the way. We wanted audiences to experience these pieces (The Thank-youBar, Niicugni) as an unfolding, a series of revelations, layered scenes, images, moments that gain resonance as the work reveals itself. 

Niicugni features a set of hand-sewn fish-skin lanterns, some of which function as speakers for the installation soundtrack. What adjustments or considerations did you make as a musician and composer in working with these works of art?

Well, that was the whole point—Emily began with a vision of fish skin lanterns hanging over the stage, and I immediately wanted to have them be more than a set piece, to bring them more to life, and extend them over the audience and create a new musical instrument with them—like an octopus, with eight distinct signal paths so we could send unique sounds to eight separate lanterns. This allowed us to create a sound score in which we could use them individually or together, incorporating directionality and movement of sound around and amongst the audience, creating a broader aural experience for listeners. That just excited me. After being very guitar-based in creating and performing the country-influenced score for The Thank-you Bar, I very intentionally wanted a new instrument to compose/perform on, to get me into new territory. Niicugni means "listen" and we wanted to create something that spread the corners of what the audience would hear, that would engage them on both gross and subtle levels, hopefully expanding their focus and awareness—breathing life into the whole.

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