In conversation with Jayne Dent

Holly Argent speaks to Jayne Dent about her project with the library, the waves like braids, unravelling via email in June 2020.

Word clouds by Jayne Dent (courtesy of the artist)

Holly: Jayne, can you tell us what drew you to working with the library and which items in the collection you were drawn to as inspiration for your new composition, the waves like braids, unravelling?

Jayne: I’ve always been fascinated with this chain-reaction of inspiration within folk music – how a song could be inspired by a painting, that was inspired by a book, that was inspired by a news event – folkies like me love rummaging through archives for undiscovered songs or events that could spark a new one. I was also beginning to explore making soundtracks, which in a way are compositions inspired by another stimulus, be it a play narrative, a film etc. I came to the idea of soundtracking an archive – what would that mean and how would one go about making that? I wanted to try this concept out with the Women Artists of the North East Library because it’s a living library, a collection of stories that I feel connected to and that I wanted to ultimately contribute a piece of music to.

The works in the library that inspired this piece were selected intuitively based on colour, texture and basic themes: ‘Alpha Adieu’ by Nadia Hebson & Sophie Macpherson, ‘Rhythmic’ synchronised swimming zine by Deborah Bower, a poster for a Phyllis Cristopher photography exhibition and the ‘Pleasure is a Weapon/Interior report’ exhibition booklet by Susie Green.

H: You have worked with three musicians to produce the new work, who are they and how did you approach the collaboration?

J: I worked with Faye MacCalman (saxophone/clarinet), Maisie May (guitar/voice) and Jasmine Padgett (viola) to produce the samples you hear in the piece, all amazing North East based musicians with practices that I admire, making work across various genres. I made ‘word clouds’ in response to each publication I was focusing on – a collection of one-word descriptions, quotes and responses selected intuitively and scattered across a page. This was a way of distilling the works into a way that was easier to translate into sound, both for me and the musicians I worked with. So working individually with each person I shared the word clouds, and we discussed the vibe, the project, the library, and through these conversations we came to a tonne of improvised sample material that was directly responding to the works in the library. I was interested in their intuitive artistic response rather than giving them traditional notation and was really blown away by the exciting atmospheric sounds and melodies that emerged.

Faye MacCalman, Image courtesy of artist and Ken Drew

H: On a visit in November 2019 we talked about ‘feeling’ your way through an archive and discussed the variety of textures in the library: different papers, tactile objects, digital textures, and especially ‘watery’ textures you found in the archive. In the waves like braids… we hear voices speak the words, ‘cold water’ and ‘going under’, also the title itself mentions moving water. Can you tell us more about this significance of water as both an image and texture you have worked with?

J: Water is such a rich source of inspiration, it can be calm, ferocious, dark, awe-inspiring, we swim in it, drink it, it covers most of our planet – and artistically I’ve always gravitated towards depictions of it. So the piece is sort of about water because it is responding to the items I chose, but I likely chose those items because they shared something of a dream-like watery quality.

It is a universal connector of things, so when talking about the connectedness of stories in an archive it made sense to really focus in on that theme – bodies of water, bodies in water and the water in our bodies. I wanted the listener to feel like they were floating inside the archive, being led through the library by a current.

Word Clouds by Jayne Dent (courtesy of the artist)

H: Something the library has a lot of is text. One way the library can be interpreted is a collection of moments and voices but these moments are often tied to text that needs to be read, either out loud or as a solitarily activity. Some of the library’s past events have also relied heavily on reading and speaking together. I am interested in how you have used sound as an instrument to investigate the experience of being with these texts, and focussed less on their content. Were there any techniques you used to move between text and sound during the making process?

J: Making the word clouds, as I mentioned earlier, was a huge step in the process of turning the text and imagery into sound. The word clouds allow the eye to drift across the page and pick up on key moments – they would make me think, ‘maybe I want to include something that alludes to that word here?’ if I was ever unsure of where to go next. I didn’t necessarily want to make a narrative or piece of descriptive music for each publication – instead I wanted to recreate the feeling of the movement between them. There is a consistence of space throughout – similar use of reverb, for example, to imply the same physical location, but the instruments and textures change and shift within these parameters. Though we aren’t moving physically, the space around us is constantly morphing atmospherically as we read and imagine the worlds presented by the publications, that was a big focus as I was building the piece. So to achieve this I spent a lot of time with the word clouds and would listen back to sections while looking at them, reading the publications or closing my eyes and imagining myself in the library space. If anything jarred with that, I went back to examined why. I wrote the piece in Ableton, cutting samples, recording layers – like a collage – so it was a very playful process that allowed these things to emerge slowly.

H: I have been listening to your piece through headphones on some of my daily walks since the country has gone into lockdown (due to the Covid-19 pandemic). The streets are quiet, roadside plants are growing and I can hear soft woodwind sounds distort into electronic fuzziness, then, half audible words catch my attention. Water dripping and melodic vocals steady my thoughts. I have this feeling of being alone somewhere distant, a place between a damp forest and an abandoned radio signal tower somewhere like the Balkans (how I imagine it at least). The works feels quite cinematic in some way.

Word Clouds by Jayne Dent (courtesy of the artist)

Whilst I’ve enjoyed the intimacy of listening to it on my own, we originally intended to share the piece at a group listening event. You are also frequently performing your solo music (as melostme) to live audiences. Can you tell us what the shared listening experience means to you and specifically for the new composition, the waves like braids, unravelling?

J: I’m interested in different ways of listening and there’s something almost euphoric about the shared active listening experience and how it connects you to those around you. Even if the sound is not being performed live there is an element of liveness created by the situation. It’s very moving in the same way a film is often more impactful when it is seen with others in a dedicated cinema space, it’s a whole experience.

I wanted to do an active listening event for this piece as an experiment, partly to see if I had been successful in creating the atmospheric space I was aiming for, but also to play with format a little. It’s pretty common to have artist film screenings, but a ‘listening event’ without any live performance element isn’t something that happens as often. I think it’s a really valuable experience for both an artist and a listener, and a meaningful way to experience time-based work, which is more often consumed passively in a gallery space. There was also going to be a workshop and discussion afterwards, which I think is a good paring with the listening event format because its exciting to be exposed to other experiences of the same work, especially when they experienced it with you in real time.

Word Clouds by Jayne Dent (courtesy of the artist)

H: Schedules, time and priorities during these Covid-adapted days feel very different to earlier this year, but what can you share with us about what you’re working on for the near or far future?

J: I’ve got a couple of really exciting things on the horizon despite the difficulties of the current situation, my second album as Me Lost Me will be out later this year which I’m really looking forward to sharing! I’ll also be completing my MA at the end of August which will culminate in an online exhibition of an expanded audio-visual collage piece “The Walled Garden” about, among other things, digital ‘liveness’, storytelling and observing nature. Though I’ve been able to do online versions, I’m really looking forward to continuing the gigging, touring and workshops that I was engaging in before lockdown as soon as it’s safe to do so!

Read more about the project and listen to Jayne’s new composition here.