Jesse Jones Composes Five Movements Inspired By Poetic Texts

Jesse Jones Composes Five Movements Inspired By Poetic Texts
Jesse Jones outside his Casa Rustica studio
Jesse Jones Composes Five Movements Inspired By Poetic Texts
Jesse Jones

Jesse Jones is the Elliott Carter Rome Prize Winner in Musical Composition and a DMA candidate in the Department of Music at Cornell University.

What part of the United States did you come from?

I am originally from northwestern New Mexico. I grew up on the banks of the Animus River, just outside the little town of Flora Vista. In 1995 my family moved to Oregon, where I went to high school and college, eventually earning my bachelor and master degrees. More recently, I’ve been living in Ithaca, New York, pursuing a DMA in music composition at Cornell University. After this year in Rome, I’ll be joining the music faculty at the University of South Carolina as assistant professor of composition and theory, and look forward to making the city of Columbia my new home.

Why did you apply for the Rome Prize?

The Rome Prize is the end-all of prizes in my field, especially for younger, emerging composers. It is the great “Someday” prize that we dream about: an all-expenses-paid year in the eternal city, spent in a beautiful personal studio with time to pursue one’s interests without interruption, all in an intellectually and spiritually stimulating environment. What could possibly be more enticing and/or inspiring? I have known about the Rome Prize, somehow, since I first became a composer, and have had it in my sights ever since. I still cannot believe that I get to be here, that my dream has been realized, and that it is better in real life than I ever imagined it to be.

Describe a particularly inspiring moment or location you've experienced in Rome thus far.

Luckily for me, my studio, located in Casa Rustica, is incredibly inspiring. It has an amazing history and the remnant ghosts of its past inhabitants intrigue me and spur me on. I love looking out through the olive and persimmon trees onto the peaceful academy grounds, and have really found the environment to be conducive to creativity and hard work.

Evening walks along the Tiber River have also inspired me. There have recently been swarms of starlings flying in tight, viscous masses along the water, and I love watching the intricate patterns they weave into the skyline. Their homogeneous and fluid movement is fascinating to me, and I find it very musical in nature. I’m sure aspects of their flight patterns will appear in my future work.

Have you had any “eureka!” moments or unanticipated breakthroughs in the course of your work here?

No “eureka!” moments per se, but I have been struck by how many ideas for my future work have been floating to the surface of my consciousness. Usually, in the non-Roman real world, ideas for pieces come hard and slow, but here they come frequently of their own accord, and seem to be of a deeper quality. I can only attribute this to my being in the inspiration-inducing environment of the American Academy.

What aspects of your projects do you most look forward to?

I look forward most of all to the day when a project is either beginning or reaching completion. There is nothing better than beginning work on a new piece, except perhaps putting the finishing touches on it. As much as I love to scheme and dream about my next piece there is always a great deal of suffering involved with bringing it into the world—the actual act of composing is more or less a labor of love, absolutely unromantic and painstaking. I find myself in a constant state of wishing my current project to be finished so I can go on to the next one. In my opinion, hearing one’s work in a great performance and spinning out ideas for a new piece are the two most rewarding aspects of being a composer, but actually composing music—sitting alone day-in-day-out, hunched over a desk, pulling one’s hair out—is nothing but difficult, tedious, unglamorous “work.”

What aspects of your work have been or do you anticipate will be the most challenging?

I am a slower type of composer; I like to think things over for a long time before committing anything to paper. However, the opportunities and commissions that came about this year—things I just couldn’t refuse, such as a twenty-minute piece for the Juilliard String Quartet and a ten-minute cello piece for Jeff Zeigler—necessitate my writing a bit more consistently and quickly than I am accustomed. Managing my time and staying focused and on task will be crucial to my finishing the pieces on time, and will also determine each work’s artistic depth. This scenario scares me a bit. Maintaining a strict work schedule for an extended period of months will be challenging, but I am very excited to see what results from such an intensely focused creative period.

What's surprised you most about living in Rome?

The level of genuine and courteous human interaction between people here surprises me. I feel like an Italian friend is a friend for life, and I really want to emulate that quality in my personal relationships. I also greatly admire the willingness of people to work what in America would be considered an unglamorous job, and to do so happily for decades. I deeply respect people who take pride in their work, whatever that work may be, and I see a lot of that here in Italy.

How do you anticipate your Rome Prize Fellowship will influence future work?

Ever since I arrived in Italy, ideas for possible projects have been presenting themselves, almost of their own volition. I have recorded each of these ideas in my notebook and expect to be plumbing them for several years to come. In this respect, my time here at the Academy will have a huge impact on my immediate future work. But also, and more importantly, living here and experiencing what Rome and the Academy have to offer will undoubtedly shape the way I think as an artist, as an intellectual, even as a craftsman, and propel me into avenues of thought that I would never have dreamed possible. This is already the case, and I’ve only been here three months. There is no telling exactly how my time as a Rome Prize Fellow will affect my future work, but I can predict with certainty that its influence will be immense and long lasting.

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