5 Qs for Jennifer Bewerse

My dear friend (and female doppelgänger) Jennifer Bewerse and I met in Boston in 2008 as graduate students at The Boston Conservatory. I immediately grew fond of her thoughtful approach to performing music new and old. At that point in my education, I had yet to dive in to new music and Jen had already developed an incredibly mature approach to the music of our time. Since our days in Boston, I've looked to Jen as a model of the modern cellist: she is a brilliant performer of the music of the classical and contemporary eras; she balances a love of performing with solid education philosophies; and she is an out-of-the-box thinker in all aspects of life. I think all readers will find her answers to these five questions to be a model for the modern performer. I encourage you all to check out her website, her design blog, and her awesome duo, Diagenesis

JD: Chamber music is a medium that is constantly changing. Where do you see it going in the 21st Century? Is it moving in the right direction, in your opinion?

JB: So true, and in fact, the entire music industry is constantly changing in ways that are sometimes unpredictable. I think chamber music’s agility is allowing it to adapt to 21st century cultural needs and makes it a much more viable career option than many other more traditional music career paths. 

We’ve seen wildly successful groups with innovative instrumentation (Sō Percussion), structure (ICE), and repertoire (JACK Quartet). The new pathways they and others like them have forged, give groups opportunities to stand out in a crowded market (there are 123 String Quartets listed on Chamber Music America alone). Compared to orchestras or opera companies, chamber ensembles can have flexible and agile artistic direction, lean infrastructure, be more affordable for presenters, and have a better chance at group consensus. 

To be honest, I’m not sure where chamber music is going to go, but the work that many ensembles are doing to push the boundaries of the medium is paying off for us all. Groups with the most popular chamber music instrumentation in the world – one or more guitars, drum set, and vocals – are blazing trails for all musicians in terms of self-management, direct contact with audiences, and innovative methods for distributing recordings. Yes, I just called pop bands chamber ensembles; borrowing good ideas from other art genres never hurt anyone!

With words like “industry,” “infrastructure,” and “distribution” you might start to think I’m just a cold-hearted businessperson only concerned with the bottom line. Not true, and you can vouch for me. (JD: it's true)

In 2010 I met a classically trained singer, Heather Barnes, who is one of those musicians you just need to perform with. But… singer and cello? Is there any music for that? At the time, I didn’t know of any other cello/soprano chamber groups. To make matters more challenging, Heather lives in Montana and I live in San Diego. Could we make meaningful chamber music over 1,200 miles?

We were artistically compelled to make it work, no matter how untraditional our path would be. Now, Diagenesis Duo has been an ensemble for nearly three years. We have commissioned and premiered nine new works for soprano and cello, performed in six states and two countries, been ensemble in residence at the Banff Centre and UCSD’s Springfest, were recently recipients of the Myrna Loy Center Grants to Artists Award, and are about to release our first CD. 

This is the direction of 21st century chamber music: artists able to share their work no matter how strange, niche, or just plain unrealistic. I think it’s a good thing.

JD: Can you describe your approach to practicing and performing (but mostly practicing) new music - commissions and things without recorded reference points - versus practicing the war horses like Bach, Beethoven, and the boys?

JB: In general, I like to stay away from recordings when I’m learning a piece. I know this is potentially controversial and a personal decision, but, in the learning process, I find that recordings limit my imagination more than they help it. So from that perspective, learning contemporary music isn’t very different from learning works in our tried-and-true canon. 

But, contemporary music scores can be much more intimidating (on first glance) than scores that are more traditional. When I’m confronted with a piece that’s particularly thorny, I like to absorb it in layers. First, I take a stab at finding phrases that will help me focus on smaller portions of the music at a time (so I don’t get overwhelmed). Then I look at rhythm, pitch, extended techniques, and timbre separately. Slowly but surely I map the different musical parameters onto each other. 

No matter how you dissect the music, I think one of the most important practice techniques for learning a new music score is trust - trust that the composer has something important to say and that you can help them say it. Once you’ve flipped the idiot switch (“this composer is horrible,” “this technique is impossible,” “this score doesn’t make any sense”) it’s extremely hard to flip it back! 

In terms of performance, I believe that contemporary music has much less room for interpretive “fuzziness” than traditional music. As I learn a work I’m constantly looking at narrative lines, emotional impulses, and broader artistic ideals. Because composers today have such individualistic sound worlds, audiences don’t have the same frame of reference as they do when listening to say, Mozart. As a performer, I strive to have an unimpeachable understanding of what I’m “saying” through the music – in Susan Langer’s words, an undeniable “power of utterance.” When a performer believes in the music deeply, it translates to audiences, no matter the musical language. 

JD: How would you suggest that non-musicians and musicians who are new to contemporary music begin listening to this music being composed all around us?

JB: If I were to oversimplify, I would say there are two things to do:

1. Leave Your Expectations At the Door – Melodies and harmonies are wonderful musical devices, but if those are the only things your ears are looking for while you listen to modern music, you’ll often be disappointed. Enter the concert hall excited to learn something new and ready to be an adventurous concertgoer. You won’t be disappointed. 

2. Find Better Questions – I think a lot of new-to-modern-music listeners begin listening with questions like “is this even music?” or “is this good?” Both questions tend to sabotage the listener, tethering them to preconceived notions of music and barring them from entering the piece’s unique sound world. Try questions like these instead:

Does this piece challenge a construct of music? For example, is silence music? Is noise music? Can the way a musician moves or thinks be a part of the music? 

What is this composer reacting to? For example, the sounds of an over stimulated modern city? The traditional ideal of beautiful sound? The music of other cultures?

If you can let new music help you explore these questions (and others), it will often open doors to new and very exciting venues of expression, that, I promise, are as deeply human and emotional as our old favorites.  

JD: What piece of non-standard repertory should EVERY cellist (amateur, students, and professionals) know?

Since my answer follows Rhonda Rider and Scott Klucksdahl’s (both my former teachers) the pieces I would normally suggest are taken! So instead, here are some pieces that were modern music gateway drugs for me:

Figment No.2 by Elliott Carter – the first time I was able to hear leaping notes as grand and intense instead of “random:"



Pression by Helmut Lachenmann- a stunning exploration of the entire cello for music making



Black Angels by George Crumb – because it hadn’t occurred to me that I could play other instruments while I played cello



Body of Your Dreams by Jacob TV – because modern music doesn’t have to be deadly serious



JD: Is there an emerging composer that everyone should be on the look out for in 2013/14?

Oh it’s so hard to choose, so I’m going to pick the composer that immediately came to mind when I read this question – Mischa Salkind-Pearl. His music is wonderfully imaginative, evocative, and inventive without ever sounding gimmicky or being awkward to play. I don’t know how he does it, and I feel in my gut that he’s going to be an important composer to our generation.

Two selections of his music…

Diagenesis Duo, V. Madrugada al Raso Daybreak from Hands and Lips of Wind



Me, Solo, In the morning light gathered at my window