Jenni in conversation with Peter Wiegold, Part 2.2

Wiegold, Guildhall, Gemini and Turning Point 

P.W. Prior to that you were working with Peter Weigold.

J.R. Right here, with me now.

P.W. Yes, that’s right.

J.R. Yeah. How are we going to talk about that?

P.W. What kind of things did you do and what kind of influence did he (I) have on you?

J.R. We started to talk about music after that electronic music module in 1981 (for the dance piece I mentioned at the start of the interview) and I attended some of your Gemini workshops. Then we became involved in a relationship and you started to talk with me about my final piece for the Guildhall degree. It was a massive task to write a piece for orchestra. I was working with the composition teacher Robert Saxton and there was quite a tension going on between Saxton’s thinking and your thinking, in my mind. I also had Alfred Nieman’s thinking playing on my mind as well. I attended his improvisation sessions and he was my piano teacher for a while. I got into this triangle of brain madness between the three of you! I did always feel that you grounded everything for me in something practical and tangible.

It wasn’t abstract, as with Saxton, dealing with cells of manipulated notes in a post serial style. With Nieman there was a zany, creative energy. You were very hands-on, building blocks of material. We created September Boxes (my final year Guildhall piece) from those conversations. You said; ‘why don’t you draw different size and shape boxes on a piece of paper and fill each box with a musical graphic and then translate those graphics into music?’. It wasn’t a concept, and it wasn’t a crazy vision. It was real material, stuff, and that made sense to me. There was a lot of gratitude to you at that point for that. And then we went on to have deeper conversations around the nature of what was going on in culture, at that point in music, and where we fitted in. You were making your own transitions which I talked to you about. The DX7 synthesiser was a nightmare for you to decide to buy ‘Will I buy that DX7??’ It was a difficult decision for you. Once you’d got it you were a different person.

P.W. Yes, and we did lots of workshops together, lots of improvising, lots of realising of one-page scores, which you and I both wrote.

J.R. Yes, yes. Remember that Music-Theatre festival in Huddersfield? We were realising music-theatre scores with Gemini. We took maybe ten scores in two days and then presented them in a concert. Then we had the band Turning Point together.

P.W. Yes.

J.R. You then left Gemini, which was another wrench we lived through together. Turning Point was more ‘cabaret’, as you used to call it, and more about song-writing and improvisation. You always had amazing improvising musicians around you. I was the vocalist. I wouldn’t exactly say ‘singer’, but I was doing music-theatre, text based, rhythmic speech, and then writing a few things as well for the band.

P.W. What were the years when we were working?

J.R. 1984-1989.

P.W. What kind of music did I give off?

J.R. Uh oh! Well, I think you were steeped in classicism, at a doctorate level. You understood the underlying meaning of music and that was something that’s been a valuable gift. Whenever we talked about music you just penetrated to the centre of what was going on. You gave off this air of being an incredibly perceptive musician when it came to the nuts and bolts of how music is built.

You were on an edge between that and your background in a jazz band, playing the bass, rocking and rolling in the 1960s with this tendency to be very abstract and insightful about subtle musical ideas. You were giving off an air of breadth between those different worlds.

P.W. I don’t see that as classical. I just see that as understanding what’s going on. The same mind looks at Indian, Chinese or Japanese music. It’s the same mind. I do seem to have an understanding of deep form.

J.R. Absolutely.

J.R. Deep form, yes. I think I perceived it as classical only because I was a bit naïve at that point. But yes, it was so much more.

The structure of the session is ‘chat, breath, move, sound, play, deliver.’

P.W. So, if we go back to Voice Movement Therapy, after a year of Paul Newman’s course you started to have clients?

J.R. I did.

P.W. That’s a different thing from being a contemporary classical composer or an Indian music improviser – suddenly you’ve got clients. What’s that word sound like to you – ‘clients’?

J.R. Lucrative.

P.W. You have a certain detachment from them?

J.R. You had to have a certain detachment. It was a different headspace. It was part of my growing up curve.

P.W. You have to be very adult if you’ve got clients

J.R. You do.

J.R. But what was I going to do? I couldn’t go back to university to do a music post graduate degree because I was not in that world anymore. I had already taught on your Performance and Communications Skills course at the Guildhall, which was the most interesting creative music course going at the time. I’d also become a ‘professor’ myself at the Guildhall teaching improvisation to the first-year students. I was in this left field place. It would have been hard to pin myself down to academia at that point.

P.W. That’s pragmatic –but you also you wanted to work with people in a different way?

J.R.  It was a gestalt moment. It coincided. I was interested in people as well as music, so the VMT training was manna from heaven.

P.W. Yes, that’s what I thought. When it came to, particularly some of those early clients, what’s the first thing that happens? What was the first thing in your mind when a new client walked in the room?

J.R. You look at the signals that are nonverbal and you listen to the presenting issues.

P.W. What’s a presenting issue?

J.R. The presenting issue is ‘why have I come’? Often the presenting issue isn’t really the story, it’s just the presented story. You have to work out what’s underneath that and you listen to the way they speak. That was one thing that I got very woke to. The nuance of the spoken voice and the idiosyncrasies that give you more information and real data than the surface words.

P.W. So, people come in with ‘wants’?

J.R. They do. They may not completely know what they’ve come for. They may say ‘oh I’m a bit shy’, but actually they’re raging.

P.W. And you need to get to the rage.

J.R. Yeah.

P.W. What’s it like? They come in and present themselves and they may say ‘well I’m a bit shy’. What’s the first thing you do with them together to begin the process?

J.R. I would usually start with breathing, standing, posture, taking the space, some people don’t have a sense of space. It’s about expanding awareness within the space. Then looking at ‘the four floors of the vocal house’, which is the central skeleton of the system, along with an awareness of all the ways that you can breathe and the different parts of the body you can breathe from. Doing a ‘breath-reading’ and then a ‘voice-reading’. You can give feedback on all those things. You just have to hear one note, and you’ve got plenty of information already. I don’t know if I want to go into ‘the four floors’ now. I think because I’m a musician/composer and can use intuition, I always seemed to know what to say. I never planned the sessions, but had enough tools in the kit, and space in my attention, to let the session unfold.

The basic structure was ‘chat, breathe, move, sound, play, deliver’. The deliver was the ‘aha moment’. There was always an aha moment, ninety-nine times out of a hundred.

P.W. So, they leave with an ‘aha moment’. Is that a musical moment or is it a therapeutic moment? What do you hear? Do you hear ‘she’s got in touch with X or Y’? What do you hear? An extraordinary musical landscape?

J.R. Both, it has to be both.

P.W. It has to be both. Do they go out ‘more musical’? Do they discover something about music as well as something about themselves?

J.R. Yes, they do, I think so. They discover something about the nature of sound and their sound, how to sing it, embody it and how it can help. They discover that they can make their voice, like you might make a painting. It allows them to breathe and sing life into themselves. It’s crackling in the space, like electricity. That’s music. Pared right down.

P.W. Do you talk to them about what it’s about? Is it all experiential, rather than analytical?

J.R. Experience and dialogue are dependent on what’s needed. Some more, some less.

P.W. And some people you might have seen a lot, over a long time?

J.R. Yes, years sometimes.

P.W. Right. Is it satisfying?

J.R. It is. Yes, it was. I don’t do it quite so much now. I’ve moved on to a slightly different thing. But yes, I was in the stream in the 90s. I had my spiritual friend (Tibetan Lama), therapist and creative work. I was being commissioned and had lots of music to write. I had clients coming in. All these wonderful vibrant, electrical (voice) energies in the space. It was a rich time. I even had a boyfriend! It was all going really nicely. Apart from some bereavements.

P.W. Voice Movement Therapy then moved towards Vocal Tai Chi?

J.R. Yes, it did, tangentially. Vocal Tai chi was like a new beginning. It happened later, another ten years before that started.

P.W. Sketch out what happened in those ten years, once Voice Movement Therapy established itself?

J.R. Alongside that I was writing my second opera for Lontano. I’d done the first (The Descent of Inanna) in the early ‘90s and then started Spirit Child, (retitled Siddhartha Spirit Child), at the end of the ‘90s.

P.W. What was your worst moment with a client?

J.R. I don’t think I ever blew it with any clients. I think my record’s clean. The most difficult moment was when two sisters came to see me together. They’d just lost their mother and that was very close to the bone for me. They were dripping with grief and pain. It stirred me up a lot. I can actually feel it right now. It’s funny, isn’t it?

P.W. What did you do there? They’re dripping with pain. What did you do?

J.R. I just used all my experience and tried to hold back my own response to what was happening. I had to really get my professional hat firmly on. I worked in a very responsive way, so I didn’t initiate that much. I just suggested things based on what they needed. I was at their service. I had no agenda. I just wanted them to feel they could deal with what they were dealing with. Voice was being followed like a lifeline.

P.W. And they did deal with it in the sessions?

J.R. Yes, I think we had about six sessions over twelve weeks. That was so hard. 

P.W. It clearly had an amazing therapeutic effect. Did they change their sense of music in that time? Did that help?

J.R. It’s such a long time ago. What tends to happen is people say; ‘I never knew that’s who I was’. It reveals a different part of them. ‘Is that my voice?’ is very common. ‘Can I explore that sound?’ It opens a new sense for people of who they are. That may be the most musical thing that could possibly ever happen! Music is reinventing them. You’ve got to remember that this is all improvisation-based, combined with my subtle sense of form and timing, guiding them through the session. It becomes a living composition with raw material of being human.

P.W. Yes, absolutely.

J.R. That’s the joy.

P.W. And that stays with them?

J.R. Well, people have their habits and their problems. I don’t know how long it stays with them, but when you have a breakthrough, which was happening, those things do shift something.

P.W. Yes. Moments of breakthrough – they might be sudden? Are you aware of yourself pushing and provoking towards that fault line or Achilles heel – or however you define something that is about to break?

J.R. Yes, sometimes I’m coaxing because I know they want it. As if they are saying – ‘oh give me permission, give me permission’. And I’m holding, supporting and pulling as well. Sometimes I just let be, and it happens by itself.

P.W. That’s an incredible skill.

J.R. I just know what to do. I’ve never had any problem with it.

P.W. And, who are you in that?

J.R. Yes, that’s a good question. Well, I am a composer, actually, funnily enough, because I am composing the session.

P.W. The sequence.

J.R. The sequence.

P.W. Unfolding –

J.R. The ups and the downs. It’s like an improvisational piece, as I was starting to say. I’m there with my skills as an improviser/composer, listening to what’s going on and listening to the whole human being, the voice, body, the instrument.

P.W. ‘Composer’ sounds quite detached.

J.R. It does, doesn’t it. But I think it’s a way of listening.

P.W. So, you’re not an ‘earth mother’, as it were? You’re not breathing and drawing them through it? Perhaps you are?

J.R. I’m doing that, to some extent, but I think the composer in me is listening and recognising the quality and content of each note. I value that highly as sound in the process of becoming music.

P.W. And implicit energy.

J.R. Implicit meaning and energy,

P.W. Latent –

J.R. Yes, and it suggests all sorts of things. Some people are more musical, some less musical in themselves. You can get people to go so far, in terms of what they can do with those sounds musically, depending on what they’ve got in the engine, musically. I can encourage new musical territory.

P.W. These therapeutic sessions, they are, in a sense, symphonic. They’re the unfolding of a musical line, a musical potential or implicit journey.   

J.R. Completely. I found it so much more avant garde than the current avant garde. I wasn’t sitting at the back of the concert hall. I was in there with the sound having this radical, vocal, musical and human moment.

P.W. Radical musical and human at the same time. That’s wonderful.

J.R. Thank you. Yes, that’s what was happening.

P.W. And your profound sense of music would be what sustained it, gave it it’s confidence.

J.R. I was really there because I knew about music, and there was a fascination with the humanity of voice.

P.W. That’s it. So, you do know about music?

J.R. Yeah, I do actually! (laughs). When you’re in your twenties, you feel (said in fake Italian accent) ‘I know nothing’.  You walk into the library and think – ‘how am I ever going read all these books?’ but, I think it was already all in place, in a way.

P.W. Yes, I think so. You were born with it, maybe. Just now, you said ‘some of them were more or less musical’. What do you mean by that?

J.R. There is an innateness about musicianship, which we’ve just identified I’ve got. Some people have that part of their brain (or whatever it is) really finely awake, and some people have not. Some are more awkward musically, and don’t have the same creativity, as musicians, as others. You can allow anybody in the room to have a musical experience, through voice and the process I’m doing. They will come out feeling ‘wow, I made music, it was fantastic’. But in terms of my own assessment of what they’re doing musically, I would say, ‘this stage, that stage’.

P.W. ‘Somewhat awkward’. That’s an interesting word about people who are apparently not very musical. They’re ‘awkward’ with music. What is that?

P.W. What is musical? If someone has a deep musicality, what is it they’ve got?

J.R. Just ask me that again. I didn’t get anything when you asked. I just blanked out.

P.W. Okay ‘some people are more or less musical’.

J.R. Yes

P.W. What is it to be musical? What does a ‘musical person’ have?

J.R. Well, the ‘awkward person’ – is not trusting – a musical flow. They won’t let go to it. Others may flow but they don’t know how to focus. Either a lack of flow or lack of focus.

P.W. They can’t hear it, and they won’t let go to it, or they won’t commit to it.

J.R. So, it would follow that the musical person is ready to trust it, flow and focus on it.

P.W. – and embrace it in all its aspects, not fearing or censoring it in any way.

J.R. I think there’s a large element of trust and focus that we take for granted as musicians. It’s quite a scary space, I think, for some people for a variety of reasons.

P.W. Yes, I’ve never thought about that. Because if you can’t hear, it’s like you can’t see, or something. You can’t spot the dangerous elements. It’s fearful.

So, do you think, in all these years, through the whole sequence, of having clients and Voice Movement Therapy, did you develop as a musician yourself through those sessions? Did you gain something?

J.R.I think I gained experience of the huge, vast array of vocal sound. Every instrument being unique. The grain of each voice, you had to hear those grains. It’s like the bow on this instrument and the bow on that instrument give you different perceptions of the sound.

P.W. Yeah.

J.R. So, it was a very expanding for my listening.

P.W. It’s non-genre, isn’t it? There are no style police, no stylistic norms.

J.R. Yes, I felt relaxed in that. I think if it had been – ‘let’s all learn how to sing raga or scat’, I would have not stayed in that space.

P.W. That’s interesting. I think that might apply to all your work, mightn’t it?  Something in you doesn’t want to stay in a ‘style space’. I think that’s still the case, is that right?

J.R.  I think so.

P.W. You don’t want to be only absorbed in one particular way of doing that.

J.R.I think so. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next. I think I’ll always want wide references.

P.W. Wide references or no references?

J.R. I think it’s hard to have no references.

P.W. But no references in the sense of no hierarchy of references?

J.R. Certainly no hierarchy.

P.W. For me, the moment I said to myself nine months ago – ‘I’m truly non-genre’ was a great moment.

J.R. Mm hmm mm hmm mm hmm.

P.W. I guess part of me wants to kick away the chocks – whatever they call it – what are they called?

J.R. Starting blocks? Crutches?

P.W. Crutches, a bit of me wants to kick away the crutches of stylistic norms and more than that, wants to be in a space where stylistic norms are ever shifting.

J.R. Mm mm mm mm mm.

P.W.  Mm mm mm mm mm mm. So, to be between things. Maybe that’s similar for you?

J.R. Yeah. I just don’t like any sort of style chains.

P.W. Yeah.

J.R. But now I’m identifying in my voice that there is some hereditary style of singing which comes from my D.N.A. I think. That is probably part of a style. Maybe I’ll feel differently in five years’ time?

P.W. Maybe you’ll accept the yoke of that and go inside it. Having been satellite-ing around.

J.R. Maybe

P.W. That’s it. That’s very interesting. What we’re talking about, how the voice work was beyond norms and how the person related to whatever kind of sound they made. It’s very pristine.

J.R. Mm

P.W. You would sing in those sessions? You would join in with people?

J.R. There was a lot of ‘demonstrating’ as we used to call it, to give permission for the other to go to the corners of their voice that they weren’t sure about. I would go to those corners, and then they would attempt to. I didn’t want to lay it out on a plate for people and say, ‘do it like this’ but when it was difficult for them to find a way through, I would offer. I would also be an inspirer.

P.W. Using your performative energy and colour into the room.

J.R. Definitely.

P.W. You’d done work with Roy Hart Theatre and Gilles Petit and so on, and then, from that point on, your musical persona as a vocalist has been very important.


J.R. Yeeeaaah. In the first opera (The Descent of Inanna) which was in the early ‘90s, just before I started Voice Movement Therapy, I sang in that opera. I was the storyteller. That was important, but then when Lontano asked me to write the second opera (Spirit Child Prelude and Siddhartha Spirit Child) she didn’t want me to sing in it. I was disappointed about that because it was central to the way I worked.

P.W. Yes absolutely.

J.R.  I became a bit more remote from that piece. The role of the duduk took over from where I left off. After that performance there was a parting of the ways with Lontano. At the time of finishing the premiere, my relationship with my spiritual friend (Tibetan Lama) was finishing – (amazingly that relationship came back after ten years, but that’s another story). My father had died in 1998, my childhood best friend died suddenly in 2002 and my sister and I became estranged over a family business dispute. A depression opened up for around two/three years between 1999 – 2002. Too many endings.

And then, I hit the piano in 2003.

P.W. (laughs)

Wild Geese

J.R.  I wrote many extended songs on the piano over a period of about ten years.

P.W. Yeah, yeah. Back to what you were as a teenager.

J.R.  Yeah, with the added richness of the intervening years.

P.W. Yes.

J.R. The piece that broke the silence (of the depression) was a piece called ‘Wild Geese’ for piano and voice, setting that famous poem by Mary Oliver. It’s a big piece to perform, nineteen-minutes. I brought the wild geese into it as well as the landscape, the mountains, the rivers.

P.W. Through your vocalising

J.R. Yes, other elements were there – quirky modality, rhythmic drive, lyricism.

P.W. Back to the idea that there’s a lot of drive in your music.

J.R.  Have we talked about that?

P.W. The yang quality in your music. The ‘get up and go’.

J.R.  The front, the forward energy. The opening lines of that poem are:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

P.W. Liberating.

J.R.  That was just a divine line to compose, to sing, to think about, and feel and believe in… I kept that bit simple, musically.

 P.W. So, then we come to Vocal Tai Chi

J.R. Yes. Well, this series of piano pieces is quite a substantial chapter of compositions which was happening at the same time as I was uncovering Vocal Tai Chi. There’s an oeuvre of pieces (rooted in piano and voice) that go alongside the uncovering of VTC from about 2003 to 2009. But VTC was another uncovering. 

P.W. Why Tai Chi?

J.R. Because as I was singing, I was moving my hands in a Tai Chi way. Each note, each up and down was mirrored in my hands, which is like the way the Indian singers do it. My friend Jazz, my former partner, was a Tai Chi teacher. He saw it very much like Tai Chi (which I’d studied in the 1980’s) and said, ‘it looks like a vocal form of Tai Chi’. It stuck, as a name – Vocal Tai Chi.

P.W. But it’s not consciously Taoist or dealing with yin and yang or any of those core Tai Chi things?

J.R. No, I actually synthesised in some of the core principles of Voice Movement Therapy

P.W. That’s what I was thinking.

J.R. Yes, but Tai Chi was a very useful part of the warm-ups because of the breathing, the grounding, balancing, especially when you’re working with shadow material. You need to have an anchor before you dive off, you need to have a harbour and Tai Chi provides all sorts of harbours. Energetic, bodily, breath-wise, movement-wise because Tai Chi is very harmonious and centring, so I can use it as a way of supporting. We also sing and do Tai Chi at the same time, sometimes, which is hard work.

P.W. So, it’s an advance on Voice Movement Therapy. It’s more integrated and more connected to a flowing outcome.

J.R. Yes, and another difference was it had a performance element to it, whereas VMT was private sessions only. VTC has a central performing side. One night, in December in 2011, I stood up at a party on the stage and said, ‘This is Vocal Tai Chi’. That was the beginning. It didn’t stop for years. It’s still going on.

P.W. It’s still going on, yeah. 

J.R. I wanted to work with instrumental backing, which was very different from VMT as well, which was all acapella. I created backing tracks that allowed me to have a tonal centre or atmospheres that were evocative of certain worlds. Then I could be a soloist. That’s the first time I was thinking ‘I am actually a creative vocal soloist’.

P.W. Is that the first time you were thinking that?

J.R. I think so – ‘it’s high time I stepped up and used everything, to try to actually… sing it – as it is’.

P.W. This is a good moment. This is an important moment.

J.R. Yes, it is actually, and I think it was really bursting to happen.

P.W. Yeah and that’s been your mode ever since.

J.R. Well it got totally subsumed in running workshops!  It’s the old story!

P.W. But that was a key moment, and you haven’t looked back. You are now a proud singer.

J.R. Certainly. But, looked at in another way, I’ve always been that to some extent, it was just the Guildhall years (1981–1987) in which I was vocally silent.

P.W. OK but now the proud singer gets prouder and prouder, I would suggest.

J.R. Thank you. Yes. It’s a door that is never closed after that.

P.W. It is a point of arrival for you. It’s centre stage.

J.R. Absolutely. At that party it was midnight, everyone was about to go home, and they said, ‘but you haven’t sung anything’. ‘Go on sing’ I hadn’t prepared, everyone was doing their jazz numbers. Vocal Tai Chi had been around in my mind for three years, but I’d done the Brunel University Master’s course, so I hadn’t developed it. I said, ‘This is Vocal Tai Chi’ and I could feel everyone wondering ‘– what’s that?’ I asked the pianist to play an open G chord, floating, and out came this improvisation.

P.W. Do you remember any of the vocal moments of it?

J.R. It was low voice. It might have had a few pops up into the head voice, but it was meditative, it was chesty, earthy and slow, very slow.

P.W. So, you held the pace of it.

J.R. Yes. A few weeks later I ran the first workshop. I’ll never forget the feeling when people walked in here, to have the first workshop. There was this energy around people. They were already deep in with something. I didn’t know what it was. It was a sacred space, that’s what it felt like.

P.W. And that’s back to your presence.

J.R. It was the music, it wasn’t me. I mean it was me because I sang it but, yeah.

P.W. But you talked earlier about presence. It was in your presence that they felt that heightened quality. Your presence must’ve been there for that.

J.R. I guess so. Yes. It was quite a shock when I walked in. It was a very interesting moment. I felt like I’d walked into a forcefield.

P.W. It was alive.

J.R. The workshops have just run and run. I don’t sing very much in the them because everybody’s desperate to sing. Everybody wants to do this improvising to the backing tracks. To feel ‘the four floors’ and find their way to somewhere new in themselves. The additional piece that’s so helpful is the performance, which was missing from VMT. That was inward looking, therapeutic. Whereas in this you take material and honour it to the degree that you perform-discover it in the second half of the workshop at the microphone, with accompanying music and with people watching. The performances are often extraordinary. Way, way off the barometer of anything you might find in an avant garde vocal performance, because they are living it. It’s not a delivered interpretation. It’s a discovered unfolding and the people with the least vocal experience are often the most stunning, because its –

 P.W. from inside

J.R. Yes, from inside, yes. We often had people in tears listening to stuff.

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