Percussionist Jennifer Torrence, OC ’09, is a solo and collaborative performer based in Oslo, Norway, where she is a research fellow at the Norwegian Academy of Music. Torrence specializes in contemporary percussion writing and performance, and her recent projects include writing evening-length solo productions and other percussion pieces with artists such as François Sarhan, Peter Swendsen, Trond Reinholdtsen, Woljtek Blecharz, Johan Jutterström, Carolyn Chen and Anna Mikhailova. She plays with the AJO ensemble and NorthArc Percussion in Norway and is the former principal percussionist of the Artic Philharmonic. She has worked with music legends such as Pierre Boulez and Jonathan Harvey and has premiered Unsuk Chin’s “Doppel Konzert” and Steve Reich’s Pulitzer Prize winning composition “Double Sextet.” Torrence received degrees from Oberlin Conservatory, the University of California San Diego and the Guildhall of Music and Drama and was a Fulbright scholar at the Royal College of Music in London from 2009–10. She returned to Oberlin this week to give a solo recital Wednesday and will perform her and Peter Swendsen’s collaborative work, “What Noises Remain,” Saturday evening at Warner Main Space.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your career has been focused around these huge, evening-length pieces. How would you describe them?
[I write] for percussion … deliberately looking to expand and include things from the percussion history that include the body and the voice. People have been writing for speaking percussionists and moving percussionists for a long time. … People have been writing for things in the space, moving in the space, using technology to augment the space, … so that it’s closer to, like, a dance production or a theater production, not so much like a recital. … So I don’t know what to call them, but that’s the tricky thing, is that as soon as you call it something, then it’s defined as such, and that’s kind of against the inclusivity that I’m looking toward.
Having studied in the U.S. and Europe, what do you think the main differences are between the European music world and the United States’?
The European way of working in music is [based on] a totally different funding model. … There is so much money, and … more festivals that can really sustain people. And the festivals are older, too, like Darmstadt has been around forever. … I just experience it as being so steeped in history and in a cultural investment. … [Norway is] a young country and a young cultural society, and they’re just like, “We need art. And so we’re going to put all this oil money in it, because we want that.” And it’s just so different from what we experience here in the U.S., which is just so vibrant and hungry and energetic, but it’s really going upstream, sometimes it can feel like … the American music as we know it really started half a century ago, or longer, with Lou Harrison and John Cage, but it’s a much shorter story.
There’s an argument that the competitiveness of the U.S. music scene leads to more innovation, because artists have to really be different to get funding. Do you think that idea has merit?
From an entrepreneurial perspective, I think definitely. … There’s an aesthetic choice based around putting bums in chairs, basically, and it happens in all kinds of institutions around the world. Orchestras, internationally — they don’t program for anything except for selling tickets, ’cause they require so much money to operate. … There are even more things happening across Europe than I can perceive [are] happening across America. It’s hard though, because I don’t live here anymore, so it’s basically just what I see on the internet [that] tells me this.
What’s special about the projects you’re doing here in Oberlin this week?
[The Wednesday] recital is a series of works, … but they’re short pieces. They’re not this evening-length thing. … What I’ll do on Saturday night with Peter is very special, because it’s a huge piece that’s breathing for the first time, and we’ll have critical eyes on it for the first time, which is so exciting and scary.
What direction do you think the percussion world is going in?
I think we are moving into a time when percussionists are composing for themselves, not necessarily [creating] works that are idiosyncratic to the instrument, which we’ve had for a long time, especially with marimba pieces and snare drum pieces, but now making series works that are building instruments or have an installation format, which are very different things.
Even in a conservatory like this, you have so many musicians who have no idea what percussion ensemble pieces even are, or what’s possible and available, and this is a very musically knowledgeable population. How do you engage the general public in what you do?
I have to say that, because right now I’m living in academia, that I don’t really feel that need, whereas if I had an ensemble, it would be totally different. Right now, I feel it’s more of a necessity to find topics within percussion music and music generally that can communicate across other art forms. And that’s often about aesthetics or performativity or all of these ever academic-looking words, but that these conversations are the important ones to have, rather than engaging the school teachers and so on.
What are things you like — or don’t like — about academia?
[I like] just being a nerd. Reading books and the experimenting thing, and then just justifying it because that’s what academia is about. What can be frustrating about academia is … [when] you start to go, … “This has nothing to do with anything anymore.” … When do we know when to stop and move on to the next thing?
What has been your favorite moment in your musical career?
It’s hard because I had so many of those incredibly important lessons, with [Mi Rosen or with Stephen Schick, and I have to say that the ones that always stick out have nothing to do with music … I played a really hard piece, and I’d been practicing forever, and [Rosen] said, “Ok! You can do it. Now you have to get older and change as a person and get married and move to a new place, and all of these life experiences that change how we then play this piece.” And that was so powerful, this idea of patience. And then, similarly, Steve Schick said a very similar [thing about] how to live life and become an artist that had nothing to do with wrist twisting and buzz rolls. Those are the things I always return to as I go through different parts of my performance life.
Interview by Eilish Spear,