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Martians, Dolls and a Cellist’s Dog: The Many Worlds of Jennifer Walshe

A few weeks ago, Jennifer Walshe was backstage at a concert hall in Essen, Germany, searching for the exit when she paused near the green room. A double bass bow was laid out, ready for the evening’s performance; attached to it, wobbling in the air, were several black-and-white balloons. Walshe grinned and pulled out her phone to snap a picture.

This esoteric musical apparatus had been prepared for a new piece, composed by Walshe, that would be premiering in a few hours’ time. Called “Some Notes on Martian Sonic Aesthetics, 2034-51,” it invites a chamber ensemble to impersonate a musically trained crew who have set up a colony on Mars and are beaming performances back to Earth.

While researching the piece, Walshe, 49, said that she had asked NASA how sound waves travel in carbon-dioxide rich atmospheres (“you don’t hear high-end frequencies”). She had also requested that packets of freeze-dried food be placed on the percussionists’ tables, so that the audience could hear the sound of astronauts chowing down, along with cans of compressed air to imitate the hiss of airlocks opening and closing.

And the helium-filled balloons? Here to make the double bassist’s bow feel 60 percent lighter, as though he were playing in Martian gravity. “I’m a hardcore science fiction fan,” Walshe said as she strode onto the street. “I want things to be as accurate as possible.”

Otherworldly though the Mars piece may be, by the standards of Walshe’s oeuvre, it isn’t that outlandish. In 2003, she produced a 35-minute opera, “XXX Live Nude Girls,” whose protagonists were Barbie dolls manipulated by puppeteers, their voices supplied by female vocalists. In 2017 came “My Dog & I,” a piece for cello, dancer, film, electronics — and the cellist’s pet, who curled up onstage.

A few years later, Walshe began work on a knowing tribute to her homeland called “Ireland: A Dataset,” in part created by feeding gobbets of “Riverdance,” Enya, James Joyce and Irish sean nos folk song into an artificial-intelligence-generated composition engine. In the piece, which Walshe described as “a slightly bizarre radio play,” the results play out alongside video mash-ups and an instrumentalist and vocalists performing skits, one of which pokes fun at Irish American tourists visiting the country in search of their roots.

It would be wrong to think of these pieces as jokes, but not entirely wrong: a vein of anarchic humor does run through much of what Walshe does, as well as a taste for hectic, Dada-like theatricals. She often appears as a vocalist in her own pieces, makes accompanying films and writes scripts and essays, in addition to her day job as a professor of composition at the University of Oxford.

“It’s hard to keep up with her,” said Kate Molleson, a critic and broadcaster. “Her mind is so restless and inquisitive. I can’t think of a composer more interested in the way the contemporary world functions.”

Walshe said she sees what she does as a way of paying attention: “I want to be present, and curious and engaged,” she said over dinner one night. “The work is how I do that.”

Born in Dublin to a working-class, artistically inclined family (her father worked for IBM, her mother was a writer), Walshe began as a trumpeter — initially in local youth orchestras, before studying the instrument at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.

At college, she said, she felt like the odd one out: She would practice and attend concerts, and work on her own compositions, but she was also fascinated by visual art, literature, film and a million other things. These obsessions were “regarded as my weird hobby,” she said with a laugh.

She felt more at home when she did graduate work at Northwestern in Chicago, discovering not just avant-garde composer-performers like La Monte Young and Laurie Anderson, but also the city’s rambunctious comedy and free jazz scenes. Despite never having taken vocal training, she began to sing and improvise, and the boundaries of her creativity exploded.

It is Walshe’s creed that practically everything can be material: text messages, memes, irritating conversations overheard on the train, old TV shows and movies unearthed from YouTube, online message boards, Samuel Beckett and the band One Direction have all appeared in her work.

The other week, she said, she had been asked to record her dentist as he performed a procedure: “The second you say, ‘Let’s pay attention to this and see what’s going on,’ maybe that’s something interesting.”

But it would be wrong to interpret her work, extraordinary as it often is, as irreverent for the sake of it, Molleson said. “There’s a real compassion and tenderness there. And she’s fascinated by big issues. Take A.I., which she was exploring a decade ago: She was way ahead of most of us.” For all of its high jinks, in performance “Some Notes on Martian Sonic Aesthetics” was a disconcertingly moving meditation on the loneliness of space exploration.

Later this month, Walshe will travel to the northern English town of Huddersfield, where she will be the resident composer at its annual contemporary music festival. “Ireland: A Dataset,” premiered online during the coronavirus pandemic, will have its first in-person performance on Nov. 24. And a gallery will host the collaborative work “Aisteach: Historical Documents of the Irish Avant-Garde,” an archive of sound clips, videos, musical scores and texts purporting to document a forgotten history of experimental Irish art, which she has been working on since 2015.

Needless to say, the whole thing is zany fiction, invented by Walshe and a team of collaborators (“aisteach” is Gaelic for “strange”). But “a lot of people have been fooled,” she said, chuckling.

The festival will open on Friday with another recent work, “Personhood,” created with the accordionist Andreas Borregaard. It explores what selfhood looks like in an era of unremitting technological surveillance — with many of our movements tracked, and much of our data scraped and mined.

According to Walshe, Borregaard and the ensemble are instructed to perform choreography as if being controlled by a “mind cult.” The conductor will be equipped with the kind of clicker used by dog trainers, and there will be references to characters resembling Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

A rumination on how it feels to cling to individuality when tech corporations seem intent on trying to turn people into biological fodder for algorithms, “Personhood” is both funny and deeply serious, like so much of Walshe’s work.

“Perhaps it sounds earnest, but the way I think of my role as an artist is to try and look at the world around me, and process that,” Walshe said. “It’s how I understand what’s going on.”

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

Through Nov. 26;

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