For Yvette J. Jackson, every sound leads to discovery. Jackson, who joined Harvard as an assistant professor in the Department of Music this fall, is a composer of electroacoustic, chamber, and orchestral music, with a focus on radio operas and immersive narrative soundscape productions. Her work is performed in concert venues, as part of theater works, and in art installations. Jackson’s goal is to help students explore the unexpected ways sound can tell a story. In addition to teaching in the Department of Music’s Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry graduate program, Jackson also teaches composition and theater courses in the Department of Theater, Dance & Media.
Yvette J. Jackson
GAZETTE: What comes first for you when starting to create a piece: the sounds you want to use or a theme you want to explore?
JACKSON: I like to work with stories rooted in historical events or social issues. I’ve created a series of pieces about the Middle Passage and the stories of enslaved Africans, with seven compositions in the series to date. The research for the series has involved looking at everything from diagrams about how to pack human cargo into ships, to trade routes, to narratives of enslaved people. The Library of Congress has an archive of interviews with people who were born into slavery, and I listened to them tell their stories in their own voices. In one electroacoustic composition, “Swan,” I immerse the listener in the story, starting with historical fiction and then moving into Afrofuturism to question what freedom even means. Another, separate piece, “Invisible People,” is a sonic essay based on President Barack Obama’s approval of marriage equality in 2015. It’s a radio opera with found text from things people have actually said or published, and I wanted to explore different perspectives and media on the topic. I wanted to respond to responses from leaders in the African American community to that announcement, because there were no women or queer people represented in that group. I called the piece “Invisible People” because I was asking: Who is left out of this conversation?
GAZETTE: How does sound tell stories in ways that other media can’t?
JACKSON: As part of my practice, I developed something that I call narrative soundscape composition. It’s a dialogue between creative practice and research — they feed one another. One example is my interest in acoustic ecology or sound studies. When I was living in Southern California, I was constantly bombarded by the sounds of leaf blowers, helicopters, military jets, traffic, and the sounds of neighbors. I began to question things like noise laws and the effects of certain frequencies on the body, and thinking about how sounds that penetrate the domestic space affect one’s body. The piece is called “Atkins-D73”and I worked with many field recordings on that soundscape, exploring these questions through research and through sound itself. I like to use sound to immerse the listener in an experience through multichannel compositions. An example is a site-specific composition in my Middle Passage series called “Destination,” for 140 speakers at the Cube, a theater and lab at Virginia Tech. When there is a scene set in the hull of a cargo ship, the immersive experience becomes very powerful.
An audio excerpt and storyboard image from “Swan,” courtesy of Yvette J. Jackson.