Arie Altena

Dinosaurs, Trauma and AI

An interview with Jennifer Walshe about TIME TIME TIME

Arie Altena


This interview with Jennifer Walshe was published in the Sonic Acts book HEREAFTER, 2019.

TIME TIME TIME is an opera by the Irish composer and vocalist Jennifer Walshe, developed in collaboration with philosopher Timothy Morton. In December 2018 Arie Altena interviewed Jennifer Walshe and asked her about the process of writing the opera and her ideas about time, composition, performance and AI.

"The Natural History Museum in London has a rock from Greenland. It’s 3.5 billion years old; you can touch it. I was standing there touching it, letting it go into my head: how do they know this rock is older than the other rocks, what was the rock doing all these 3.5 billion years, and then my phone beeped. It was a text message from a friend of mine saying: ‘fuck my life, I just had an allergic reaction to anti-ageing cream’. He’s only 45. I laughed so much. If I had to describe the opera in one anecdote, then that’s it." – Jennifer Walshe.

Arie Altena: What motivated you to make an opera about time? And how did the collaboration with Timothy Morton come about? 

Jennifer Walshe: I’d already been thinking about doing a piece about time for a couple of years. I composed a piece for voice, string quartet, and video, Everything Is Important, which was also performed at Sonic Acts in 2017. I would never say that it demonstrated Timothy Morton’s philosophy, but his ideas were part of the ‘ecosystem’ of the piece. Tim’s Hyperobjects was one of the books that were lying on my desk when I was working on it. Tim came to a performance of Everything Is Important in Copenhagen, and we got along really well. Basically, I asked him straight away: ‘Hey Tim, would you like to do this Time opera with me?’ It seemed totally natural that we should do this project together. That first weekend we decided to do it. Since then we’ve had numerous Skype-conversations, we meet in person when we’re both in the same city, we text back and forth. We talk about life, about ideas, about art, about time, about general things. The conversations mostly start by asking what country each of us is in, what time difference is, and how tired we are. ‘Did you sleep?’ ’It’s four o’clock in the morning here’. Tim talks in his sometimes strange and almost psychedelic way about the world and how he perceives it, and we riff on what each of us is saying. For months now, I’ve been absorbing a lot of ideas about time, and it’s as if this has caused my brain to re-form in strange ways. If you think about time every day, when you really try to get your head around what time is, it soaks into every crevasse.

AA: Are you doing any research apart from talking with Timothy Morton?

JW: Oh yes, so much research! Books, lectures, films, scientific papers, visiting different important sites and locations. I’ve been visiting natural history museums all year – London, Chicago, Gothenburg, Vienna, and many more. I probably go to the Natural History Museum (NHM) here in London about once a week. I like to hang out by the dinosaurs and think. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at dinosaur bones, trying to really understand that dinosaurs existed as creatures that walked on the Earth. A museum guard at the NHM told me that the longest they have ever seen anyone look at a dinosaur bone is five minutes – most people are there for less than a minute. So I try to spend long durations, sitting for 45 minutes in front of Sue (the largest and best preserved T. Rex in the world) at the Field Museum in Chicago – that’s sort of the minimum amount of time needed to make contact. In London, they have Sophie the Stegosaurus. Stegosaurs date back to the late Jurassic – 155 to 150 million years ago. They’re among the oldest dinosaurs. The T. Rex is Upper Cretaceous, which is 68 to 66 million years ago. So the time interval between the Stegosaurus and the T. Rex is almost the same as the time interval between the T. Rex and us. That’s crazy! 

This week, I was in the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in London. It’s the laboratory that is responsible for time in the UK. I saw three different types of atomic clocks – caesium clocks, strontium-87 clocks, and ytterbium-171 clocks – and made films and recordings of them. I talked about micro-time scales with the scientists there. The day I was visiting, they were doing experiments trying to resolve the second to seventeen decimal places. A couple of weeks before, I was at the NHM to meet Paul Barrett, who is a legendary palaeontologist, and we were talking about a 150-million-year time scale. I’m trying to get my head around these different scales – that we have deep, deep, macro-time and these tiny, tiny, slivers of time. I’m not trying to do this to make the opera pedagogic; I’m trying to do it because I’m a human. I’m just trying to understand how messy time is, how messy being alive is. 

Scientists have to resolve the second to 10–17 in order for our smartphones to communicate with the satellites accurately. As we know from general relativity, time is passing faster for the satellite than for us down here on Earth. Our satellites are not on our time, they are faster because they are high above the Earth. So there are equations built in the GPS to accommodate different types of time. I try to really understand this and realise that when I run down the street, I’m in a different time to the people around me because I’m moving faster. On the petasecond scale, I’m on a different time. I try to live this every single day. It has been a very intense period. Every moment becomes interesting because our ideas about time are intrinsic to being human. I also read papers about how the brain keeps time and I went to a lecture about time by quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli, where he referenced a really good book by neurologist Dean Buonomano, Your Brain is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time, in which he explains that time is extremely messy in our brain. The idea that we all keep time is ridiculous because time is fluid for the brain. 

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the quantified self. All these crazy ideas such as listening to podcasts at twice the normal speed so you can listen to more, Ray Kurzweil taking 150 supplements a day so he can live forever, Aubrey de Grey and his Methuselah project, Silicon Valley people getting blood transfusions from 27-year-old boys who have better blood. Another thing that fascinates me is the polyphasic sleep communities, people who try to sleep four times for only 20 minutes per 24 hours. It’s all about just one thing: being productive, having more time. There are many ideas, many experiences, and many philosophies that are feeding this piece.

AA: How are you translating the research into a composition? I know that you have brought together a group of players.

JW: The piece is steeped in different aspects of time. The score allows time to be free; it allows an individual, subjective sense of time. TIME TIME TIME has flexible elements; it will never be exactly the same length from one night to the next. I’m mapping real-time occurrences as well. For instance, I am working on Max-patches that will take the tide tables and the weather tables from wherever the piece is performed and map those onto the vocal effects. What is happening to my voice in the piece is mapped to real-time rhythms of the earth. I’ve also been trying to model neuronal population clocks in sound. We’re going to have heat-sensitive cameras that will give us an idea of the level of entropy in the room, and we will work with that information because the perception of how time passes differs depending on how hot or cold you are. Physicists talk about how in many ways the notion of ‘time’s arrow’ has no meaning, except for when it comes to the second law of thermodynamics, which says that entropy can only ever increase. 

As someone who has spent almost 20 years as a free improviser, to me improvisation is a completely profound practice that allows people to work together in time, building not only community and sound but also different concepts of time. Amazing improvisers will perform the piece. For improvisers, you don’t make the same kind of score as for classically trained musicians. If you did, you would shut down all the remarkable things they can do. 

When people talk about time and sound, they mostly talk about how sound suspends time, stretches time, or fills time. Theoretically, all music fills time, suspends time, stretches or compresses time, but what happens in your brain? Neurologically, the feeling of time being suspended or of time not mattering is completely rooted in the present moment. I’m trying to use sound to put people in the present. It blows my mind that we live in an expanding block universe and that this present moment is at the absolute crest of the wave of the expanding block universe. 

AA: What is Timothy Morton’s contribution to the piece?

JW: First of all, he has been the spirit animal helping me to shepherd this project into being. He has also written a lot of text. It is a different model to writing a regular libretto for an opera. Tim comes up with text. He’s happy if I edit it, slice it up, add things to it, and annotate it. For me, it feels like a very normal process. He’s not saying, ‘here’s my libretto, set it’. He says ‘here’s a bunch of texts to use’. He produces strange texts that are fun to read and play around with. I sing the text and speak it and try different things with it, I demo things. The process of collaboration is made so much easier across the Atlantic because of Skype and Dropbox. The text is very flexible. It’s still something fluid, it will only be finalised when we rehearse with the whole group, and then it’s up to M.C. Schmidt and me to do the text together.

AA: How will you use the voice?

JW: Improvisers always have their own set-up. It is very important for them to stake out a territory that they will use over the course of a piece. The territory I have been staking out is that of different ways of manipulating the voice, looking at different ways to mould the voice. For the piece, I am building Max-patches that record my voice live and play it back so I can have different layers.

AA: I understood that the players in the group all represent different layers of time or different approaches of time.

JW: There are four main players in the group, Lee Patterson, Áine O’Dwyer, M.C. Schmidt, and myself. Lee Patterson, with whom I’ve played quite a bit, is deep geological time. He shows you details you never noticed, he is considerate, precise, and interested in processes that unfold over long periods of time. Áine O’Dwyer’s work is almost ethereal and presents a quasi-spiritual time and space. M.C. Schmidt and I, well, we’re in the present moment: we’re digital, fast, trashy time. You can think of that as time, as different energetic qualities, or as different frequencies that people operate on. As an improviser, it is essential to be aware of those different energies. I picked these players because I think they form a really interesting mix and because I love their playing. I’m happy to have Lee in the group because of the way he can ground something, whereas M.C. Schmidt’s playing allows a frenetic opening up of a trashy space. Each of us relates to the audience in different ways.

AA: Looking at your previous scores, I was struck by how precisely your compositions are notated, whereas the sounds you use are very much rooted in improvised music.

JW: My background is as a classically trained trumpet player. I won awards. I played all the legit classical stuff in the Irish Youth Orchestra and the European Youth Wind Ensemble. But I played in bands on the side, and I was more interested in creating my own music. When I finally switched to composition, part of me didn’t want to touch the trumpet ever again. I took classes in experimental music, and I started improvising at the beginning of 2000. I had no idea what I was doing. I was living in Chicago, which has a strong apprenticeship tradition. At the time, older musicians would let the younger ones open for them, and at the end of the show, everyone would play one little set together. It felt very welcoming. If you wanted to get better, you had good, friendly role models. I spent a very long time developing a vocabulary of notation that would allow me to notate all the sounds that would come naturally to me as an improviser. 

Now, I think: why would I spend my life trying to write all of that down? I can give people very clear instructions instead, like give them a frequency range. For the piece, I analysed recordings by scientists who are trying to model how dinosaurs sounded. They think the sound closest to that of a dinosaur is elephants – particularly when they do rumbles – and cassowaries, these Australian birds. I can provide recordings of elephants and cassowaries, and the frequency range, to improvisers and say: let’s do a weird abstracted version of this. We can rehearse that, shape it, and build it together. They will know exactly what to do, and they will do amazing things with the material. If I tried to notate it, it would be ridiculous. All the vibrancy and liveliness would be gone. The sound would start to die – like the dinosaurs. 

AA: Your music seems very rooted in the present moment. It’s in the middle of the great mess of contemporary reality. To me, that makes it feel really relevant.

JW: My work forces me to be aware and present, to pay very close attention to the things around me. I enjoy that. It was brilliant seeing those atomic clocks at the National Physical Laboratory, to think about the phone in my hand connected to GPS satellites that inhabit a different space-time to me. 

If I had the same job 20,000 years ago, I would be the shaman who sings songs to the little group of people that I live with. My job would have been to sing to tell people that you can get through a horrible experience. To sing the song to show that even though a person died, you are still going to be alive a week from now. 

You pay attention to the emotions and experiences of the people you live with, you metabolise them, and you try to show, in the performative moment, that you can inhabit those horrible emotions – that pain – and survive. In this way, you try to be of service to the people around you. At the core of time, there is always trauma. There is never enough time. We’re going to be dead someday. The people we love are going to be dead someday. How much time do we have left? One of my oldest friends recently died of cancer. That’s in my head all the time while working this piece. He was only 44. What does it mean when we ask: how much time someone has left? If we want more time, what are we going to do with it? 

Tim and I have been talking a lot about how dinosaurs and crying are really important areas of the piece because TIME TIME TIME is about how difficult it is to deal with time. Dinosaurs become a metaphor for how difficult it is to be present. I travelled to the Isle of Wight because it’s the number one location in the UK for dinosaur fossils. On the beach, there are naturally created stone foot-casts of dinosaurs. I put my foot and my hand on the stone to feel the dimensions of a real dinosaur that actually walked there. But still, you don’t get it, you have to slow down and really think about it for a long time to even make contact with that deep time. Dinosaurs are a metaphor for how difficult it is to be present and make contact with deep time, to realise that we have only been here for a tiny, tiny speck of time in the history of the world. If we cannot be present here for the people that we love, on this planet that we love, that is ultimately the tragedy of our lives. If we can’t see how our actions in the present will survive for much longer timescales than our lives will, that those actions will affect human and non-human beings, and the planet itself, then what are we doing with our lives. 

AA: I read your text ‘Ghosts of the Hidden Layer’, the talk you gave in 2018 at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, and I was wondering if you were planning to use any of your experiments with speech recognition software and AI in TIME TIME TIME because that would introduce again a different dimension of time.

JW: I just premiered the ULTRACHUNK project, which I mention in the article, for the Ferienkurse. I developed it together with the artist and machine learning specialist Memo Akten. The project consisted of me training a neural network that Memo coded – actually, there were six neural networks all working together. The piece consists of a live performance by me, with a video projected behind me. Every single frame of the video and every single audio sample is generated live by the neural network. Nothing is processed, nothing is sampled, everything you hear and see is generated live. It’s crazy, amazing, and weird, but feels natural at the same time. Before we premiered it, Memo asked me how I felt about the fact that I would exist as a pure form of code for the rest of my life. I answered that it made me think about death and my friend who has just died. ULTRACHUNK ties into the idea ‘what do you leave behind after death’. We are both so excited about the project that we are continuing it. Instead of getting paid, we bought a specially dedicated PC to keep training the neural network. I now have a concrete sense of how much work it takes to do AI. It is by no means easy, and it requires shitloads of time.

AA: When you’re training the AI with your voice, you create a voice without a body, and in a sense without time. Is that something that plays a role for you?

JW: It certainly matters to me as a woman. Many of the virtual assistants are gendered as female. It’s always this weird secretary. A lot of money is now put into modelling the voice. It’s crazy. Modelling the voice is considered to be the key to all the money you can imagine because if you can model the voice, you will never have to hire an actor again. You can then use AI for teleprompting, no more call centres. Most of the bots that are being developed have female voices. A lot of the money that’s going into modelling the voice and virtual assistance technology is probably going to end up in sex tech as well. There’s someone who is developing an AI to go into a sex doll. The doll looks like a Las Vegas porn star, and the voice is an app on the iPad. It’s really weird that he picked a Scottish accent. This is going to inform the way in which boys (who will be masturbating to this technology) will be thinking about women. So why wouldn’t I at least try to understand that landscape a little bit?

AA: Are you digging deep into AI-technology because you’d like to intervene in it in some way?

JW: Yes. The videos for ULTRACHUNK were strange to do, but in performance, it becomes something else – it is quite strange, and it works. When you dig down and start to read the academic papers on AI, the really interesting stuff comes up. One of the papers that came out of Google’s Deepmind was about making a neural network that is able to make longer chains of logic connection to reach a deeper level of understanding. They trained the neural network on Disklavier recordings made for the e-piano competition at the University of Minnesota’s School of Music. For this competition, Disklaviers are installed in different cities around the world and contestants play on them. Disklaviers capture everything, also the pedalling. Deepmind used this data to train their neural net because they felt it was an interesting example of how humans extend ideas in time. That’s why it is interesting to engage with AI on an academic level: you find out that the world is way stranger than you thought. And that’s great!


TIME TIME TIME is an opera by Jennifer Walshe, written in collaboration with philosopher Timothy Morton. The opera explores the multiplicity of temporalities at the heart of being human. It is performed by an ensemble featuring Jennifer Walshe, Áine O’Dwyer, M.C. Schmidt, Lee Patterson, Streifenjunko, and Vilde&Inga. TIME TIME TIME is commissioned by Sonic Acts with Borealis – en festival for eksperimentell musikk, MaerzMusik – Festival for Time Issues, Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival, and London Contemporary Music Festival / Serpentine Galleries. It is supported by Arts Council Norway and Arts Council of Ireland, funded by the Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung, and commissioned as part of Re-Imagine Europe, co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union.

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Arie Altena / Sonic Acts