Jessica Buford has forged her own path into the world of music, starting at a young age with her father’s influence and guidance. She is an accomplished composer, writer, and scholar, with works ranging from novels and poetry, to choral works and chamber pieces. She is in her final semester of her master’s studies in musicology at the University of Illinois and took a few minutes out of her schedule to chat with VWCM.
You’re finishing up studies at the University of Illinois. How’s it going?
It’s going okay, I think. This May, I’ll be finishing up my final paper. It’s going to be on the coverage of Gospel music by the Academy, what that looks like in Academia and ethnomusicological journals, and how it’s kind of disappeared from there a little bit and what may be stepping into its place.
Could you tell us a little bit about your path from being a little girl on your dad’s lap playing with his saxophone keys to where you are now as a composer, writer, and musicologist?
My dad’s a musician. He’s been playing saxophone for at least as long as I can remember and many decades before then. When I was a little girl, I would sit and listen to him play in church, and sometimes he would put me on his lap and let me click his saxophone keys. It wouldn’t be too long after that I would have a horn of my own. At 9, I took my first general music class where you learn “every good boy does fine,” “good boys do fine always,” and five lines and four spaces. I started playing clarinet at 10. I played with marching and concert bands all through high school and college, and I still play clarinet in church to this day.
I always wrote songs and stories, even when I was a young kid, and that continued through high school and college. I started in political science, switched to English with an emphasis in creative nonfiction writing, worked for a while, then went back to do a master’s in Teaching English as a Second Language and Applied Linguistics at Winston-Salem State. I took a year off, and wrote a novel during that time, but decided that music was really the thing I wanted to do, and I wanted to make that primary. I hadn’t been able to do that because of the “you can’t make money doing music” narrative, which a lot of us are all too familiar with. I decided to put that aside, and at 29 started all over again at UNCSA, and finally made music that primary focus. I went to the University of Illinois after that, and I’m still finishing that up.
What prompted you to start over?
I love them both intensely — both music and language — but I realized I had been ignoring it for so long, this idea of it being the primary thing. For decades it had been just vocation — the thing I did to the side while there was one central thing that I was supposed to concentrate on that was supposed to take the majority of my attention. Music was just kind of the other thing that I did. I finally decided to stop ignoring the fact that I wanted music to be above whatever else I was doing. I don’t know if there was ever an exact moment that prompted that shift. I think it was just a culmination of years “I'm tired of putting this in the background.”
What surprised you most about the shift from language to music?
How well the beauty of working outside your main pursuit blends in. I think in Western music, we do a lot of separating. Art and the spiritual aspects of it a lot of the times blend maybe more than we give them credit for, so I think it’s really important to — whatever it is you’re doing — make sure that you do things outside of it, too, because it really feeds you.
As a composer from Appalachia, do you find that any of the many styles of music found in the region find their way into your work?
Appalachia has such a rich and vibrant musical culture. I listen to a lot of different genres, and cutting my teeth in a public conservatory has also influenced my music, but growing up in West Virginia and going to a Black church — that’s definitely led me to access that gospel, rhythmically active, syncopated side of me. There's a piece I wrote for chorus that set lines from Psalm 83, and you get those kinds of influences. You get some close-position three-part harmonies that evoke some of those gospel sounds. Sometimes it's intentional, but it’s probably been unintentional way more.
You often write texts for your vocal works. How do you know when something is meant to be a piece of music, or meant to be a poem or story? Is it fluid? Do things sometimes mix?
A lot of the time the purpose will dictate whether something is initially going to be lyrics or if it’s going to be a poem. Or sometimes a poem I’ve written or a text that I’ve written will turn into something that I set later. One of the songs I wrote earlier in my time at UNCSA was “Golden and Empty.” It was a vocal work. The text started out as kind of a translation of a song that a character was supposed to be singing in the novel I’d written. I decided to adapt that translation into text that I set, so it is kind of fluid.
Do you find that you approach writing instrumental pieces differently from vocal pieces, or is your process similar for both?
I find instrumental works a little more difficult, maybe because the context feels a little more abstract and maybe a little less accessible in a way because of communication. I always want to send the clearest message I can, no matter what that message might be. While the more pragmatic elements still exist for me in vocal composition, that spoken or sung message and the musical message kind of collaborate to entice the listener, so having both of them is easier for me to draw from.
I approach instrumental music maybe a little more systematically. A lot of the times, I’ll use codes or I’ll try to limit myself in terms of pitch selection or form, just anything to try to impose some structure on myself. For example, maybe I’ll take a word and assign differing pitches to it and transpose those around. I’ll start with something more structured and then as the piece comes together, if the strict iteration of what that code would generate doesn’t really work for my ear, then I’ll modify it. Like if it just doesn’t sound quite right to me. So it’s more a way of generating ideas in a structured way and then I can modify it based on what it’s sounding like to me.
Do you often incorporate people’s stories or the essences of who they are into your compositions?
I think people live on in the memories of those who knew them, but extraordinary people deserve even more than that. My grandfather, Bishop Joyce was an exemplary man. He was a strong man of faith, a veteran, a miner, a poet, and so not only did I want to edit and publish him before he passed, but he obviously influenced me, and so his stories led to “They Were Miners.” In terms of life, I think the same goes for my aunt, Minister Clarissa Joyce. She passed four days after my interview for UNCSA. I learned so much from her as a niece and as a young, single Christian woman. Her life and her premature passing — all of that was on my mind and that’s where “Clara’s Theme” came from. Each of those people led incredible lives and they have legacies all their own, and I just want to add that extra layer of remembrance and tribute to who they are.
Did that marriage of storytelling and composition factor into your desire to study film music?
I’m a big fan of Wojciech Kilar and what he did for the Bram Stoker’s Dracula score (1992). It was one of those moments that really showed me that I wanted, or even needed, to be a composer. His score for that was so good you hear it in other projects a lot of the times. One time I was watching a Smithsonian documentary on Joseph Stalin, and right there in the middle of it was Wojciech Kilar’s score. But because of the dark details of his life and the region of the world they were talking about, it still worked. So that storytelling element in film composition is definitely there and it definitely influences my interest in it.
And what Shirley Walker did in Batman the Animated Series. There’s actually a video on YouTube of her describing how she took the elements and leitmotifs and varied and adapted them. It shows you how a character, and theme and scenes — it shows how much music can enhance all of those ideas.
What are you listening to these days?
I get into moods, and I’ll listen, and listen, and listen to a genre for a while, and that’ll be mostly what I listen to and then I’ll move on. Right now it’s like country rock and rockabilly. Lots of Chris Isaak, anything with steel guitar, some Nico Moon, but also Jon Batiste — the musical director for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. He’s got a few unrehearsed recordings he’s done with artists and there’s one he did with Corinne Bailey Ray that was just superb. He’s so talented and seems like he’s just as nice as he is talented.
What are you drawing inspiration from in terms of your work as a composer and musicologist?
What I’m drawing from right now is a sense of cultural responsibility. As a composer and as a musicologist they’re both kind of springing from the same well. I feel a sense, as a cultural bearer, to pay homage artistically or academically or both to people who have paved the way for artists or scholars -- however you see me -- like myself. Composers like Florence Price and Margaret Bonds come to mind, as well as musicologists like Portia Maultsby and Mellonee Burnim. These are sisters who’ve wrestled harder than I could possibly imagine doing and so that’s where I draw inspiration right now.
Would you share about a time when you felt proud of yourself as a multi-faceted artist and scholar?
In the 2020s it seems like there’s so much that a musician has to be. You have to be a performer, an arranger, a composer, a teacher, historian, weekend lawyer, writer, journalist, social media coordinator. Everybody is multi-faceted now or it’s hard to make it work. Maybe when a polished draft comes out. That’s a pretty proud moment. In Western music, it doesn’t exist until it’s in print and so actually being able to hold it in your hands and flip through it. That’s a pretty proud moment.
What’s on the horizon for you?
Finishing my master’s in musicology in spring 2021! I’m composing a vocal work right now, and a solo clarinet piece based on Psalm 46. Hopefully when things kind of settle down with the pandemic, I’ll be able to commemorate the centennial of women’s suffrage. I’ve written a couple pieces for Of Thee I Sing, and when it’s safe to have people at a women’s suffrage program, it’s going to be wonderful.
Update from Audrey Johnson, Of Thee I Sing-
The suffrage program was scheduled to premiere in celebration of the centennial last August at the Sanfilippo Estate in Barrington, IL (just north of Chicago) and was also scheduled for a performance at Wooster College in Ohio shortly thereafter. Of course, COVID caused the cancellation of those live performances, but both are currently scheduled for this fall, pending COVID, of course. In addition, the entire program has been video recorded and reformatted into a hybrid documentary/costumed recital, which will be released in time for Women's History Month this year (2021).
Where can we find you, your music, your poetry, and your novel?
It can all be found on my website - books, music and contacts.