Whether she finds herself on a concert hall stage or in an underground venue, Jennifer Thiessen relentlessly seeks a deep musical authenticity, in which she carves her own unique voice. She is a founding member of Cénacle, Toninato/Thiessen Duo and Park Sounds, and performs regularly with collectif9, Ensemble Caprice and Ensemble SuperMusique, among other historical and new music ensembles in Montreal. Mixing new sounds with instruments of the past, she is known for her performances of new works on the viola d’amore for Innovations en Concert, Ottawa New Music Creators and Cluster Festival. A multi-disciplinary artist, she appears as singer-songwriter Daily Alice and toured the world with La La La Human Steps from 2007-2012. From within the multiplicity of artistic adventures she is called to be part of, she remains grounded in her passion to create thoughtful and meaningful musical experiences for herself and her listeners.
At Sound Symposium, Thiessen will be performing with Ida Toninato as the Thiessen/Toninato Duo. From experimenting in abandoned buildings to performing in concert halls around the world, the duo cultivate an ongoing conversation in sound. The unexpected union of baritone saxophone and viola d’amore, with opposing idiomatic timbres and tendencies, provides fascinating material for creative debate and surprising agreement. Their album, The Space Between Us, was released on the Ambiances Magnétiques label in 2018.
This interview has been edited for length and concision.
Annie Corrigan: Looking at your bio, I see the phrase “musical authenticity.” What does that mean to you?
Jennifer Thiessen: I’ve always wondered why some musical situations are inspiring while others are exhausting. This is something I thought was related to genres and scenes of music, and I tried for years to find a place that suited me, where I could thrive. Hopping around between folk bands, string quartets, songwriting, symphony orchestras, obscure baroque instruments, new music and free improv, I kept thinking I was finding a more honest, expressive music rooted in a community full of integrity. Invariably, of course, I encountered some toxicity in what I thought was my holy grail. Gradually, I’ve realised the spirit I’m looking for isn’t about a style or scene. It’s in having integrity to who I am and where I’m from, valuing my intuition in creative and business decisions, and fostering healthy relationships. This is what I mean by “musical authenticity,” and that’s why I still play so many genres of music, but try to choose situations to nurture that are in line with my priorities.
AC: Describe how you and Ida Toninato started making music together.
JT: Ida and I met when she joined the quartet of musicians playing with the Montreal contemporary dance company La La La Human Steps. It was a two-year contract of world tours playing Gavin Bryars’s score written for saxophone, viola, cello and piano, performing on stage with nine outrageously powerful dancers. Needless to say, we got to know each other extremely well during two years of rehearsals, shows and touring adventures. We started improvising together backstage on the road, then started playing shows with other members of the group or people we knew in common. Ida started sampling the viola d’amore for a project she was working on, which evolved into playing together one-on-one, particularly in extremely reverberant spaces like the Gésù church in Montreal, an abandoned floor of a old factory building Ida found, stairwells, and such. We developed a vocabulary of sounds we loved to make together, some recurring themes that really wanted to be played, and a surprisingly complicity between our very different instruments, developed through deep listening, imitating, blending — a real conversation. We decided early on that we didn’t need to know where this music would fit. We were both craving making something beautiful and personal with our instrumental voices.
AC: Viola d’amore is a very old instrument, and yet you play some very new music with it. Why do you think it works so well in a variety of musical settings?
JT: I totally fell in love with the viola d’amore after hearing a recording of baroque music by Ariosti and Huber for soprano and viola d’amore. Once I finally got my hands on one, my goal was to bring it into all the areas of music I like to play — its original baroque repertoire, folk music which works well because of its droning ability and fiddle-like timbre, songwriting, new music, and improv. Improvising was one of the first contexts I was comfortable playing it in, simply because it took forever to learn to read music due to the tuning and number of strings! In improv, I could also explore its non-traditional sounds and see what else it could do besides play gorgeous D minor arpeggios and sweet melodies. There are a few other people out there using it in folk or new music settings, but it is still extremely rare. I think a deep love for the instrument is actually what makes it work, to be honest. It’s a bit overly complicated and difficult to master, but once you’re hooked on that reverberant silvery tone, it’s all worth it.
AC: Your career is inspiring — starting your own groups, performing with established groups, touring, playing a variety of different genres. You could probably write a book on how to build a music career in the 21st century. Can you give us a brief description of how you got to where you are today?
JT: I wish someone would write a book on building a music career in the 21st century! It is definitely a transitional time, as classical musicians adopt the business models of jazz and pop bands, genres are not as clearly divided and musical versatility is the new normal. My career has been built at a turtle’s pace, one step at a time — getting into classical music school after a different degree; moving away from Manitoba to study music in Ottawa and Montreal which were huge times of growth; auditioning and starting to gig with freelance orchestras in Montreal, knowing it wasn’t quite the right fit but not knowing what was possible; increasing my attention on the creative aspects of music; auditioning and getting a job performing with La La La Human Steps, which widened my world and increased my confidence; exploring baroque music where I found curious musicians who love to research and experiment; commissioning my first piece when I had no other work; learning to write a grant, listening to a lot of improvised music and starting to join in; going home to Manitoba to play pop music and make an EP of my own songs with old friends; playing free shows; playing paid shows; starting ensembles; learning how to book a tour; discovering the viola d’amore; commissioning pieces, performing them; playing more free shows, playing more paid shows . . . and so on. One venture at a time until the present, and still turtling forward. My approach has involved a certain stubbornness about playing music for a living, alongside a cautiousness about becoming a creative musician which has become my life’s work to overcome. I think I’ve always worked hard at whatever is in front of me while looking to the horizon, imagining where I want to go and making choices to steer in that direction. While I like to see my work as a self-run small business, involving the necessary paperwork and promo, I’ve found it helpful to recognize that if I was not in music, I wouldn’t be drawn to running another kind of business but to work on something else related to the internal world of psychology, spirituality and stories, or the natural world of plants and animals. So while doing business is a necessary part of a music career, I have to stay rooted in what is rewarding to me about music in order to be fulfilled, not spending my best energy on getting enough Facebook followers to impress a granting organization, for example, or doing only paid gigs that are not in line with my goals while my creative work slides, which can easily happen while trying to make a living. I fully realize that I will not likely be the most funded, awarded or commercially successful musician with this approach, but I will go deeper with the music that matters to me and hopefully cultivate a life that is healthy and wealthy in time and presence, if not in dollars and cents. I like to imagine a monk doing their work, meditation and rest, finding fulfillment in simple dailiness, not in clamoring for a spot as head of the monastery, although that probably happens. Having grown up on a small, mixed farm on the prairies, I think of my musical work in the same way I learned to work on anything — I’m tending my garden through the needs of each season and harvesting each crop in its time.
Thiessen / Toninato Duo At Sound Symposium XIX*
- Concert — Tuesday, July 10 at 8:00pm (LSPU Hall)
- Sound Exploration, Acoustics and Architecture — Wednesday, July 11 at 10:00am (meet at LSPU Hall)
*Times and locations subject to change.