October 10, 2011
Sunlight streams in through the tall windows of the dark wood practice room in a spacious, immaculate South Orange home.
Inside, a sheet of manuscript paper sits on a music stand, the words “For Jody Redhage" printed across the top.
The piece is one of 25 that the 32-year-old musician has commissioned for singing cellist — an unusual job description that has made Redhage a hot commodity across a wide variety of music scenes.
“Orchestra music is great, but I’m much more attracted to the edge — the creative, not the re-creative side," says Redhage, who has glossy light brown hair and an exuberant, near-constant smile. She speaks with the bright-voiced enthusiasm and musical cadence of a Disney princess.
“That’s something I want to explore more" is the phrase that comes up most often during an interview at her house, where she lives with her husband, jazz trombonist Alan Ferber. The two met on a gig and joined forces in Redhage’s band Fire in July, a combination of a clarinet, a bass clarinet, trombone, vibraphone, piano, drums and cello.
With Fire in July, Redhage wrote the songs for “Ancient Star," a recording released in 2009 bringing together sounds of medieval song, jazz, cabaret, and at one point, Caribbean rhythms.
She recently released “Of Minutiae and Memory," a CD of intricate, dreamlike electro-acoustic music. She’s currently on tour with jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding.
She’s also played at Carnegie Hall and at Lollapalooza — and with Jay-Z.
Redhage is far from alone in her generation of classically trained musicians, many of whom dabble in diverse music scenes simultaneously. And there are others in chamber ensembles like Alarm Will Sound, who play, write and sing.
But few cover as much ground as Redhage does, and her curiosity and tenacity stand out. So far, she has devoted eight years to honing her singing-playing coordination. She says that when certain intervals “lock in," it can be a spine-tingling experience.
“To have the vibrations of this huge resonating box leaning on your chest and then you’ve got your voice here too — to deal with those sound sources and the resulting overtones is actually a really intense practice," she says.
“I have a constant desire to develop that and keep finding more and more possibilities."
GROWING UP ECLECTIC
On Saturday mornings in the Redhage house in Raleigh, N.C., where Jody grew up, a series of eclectic wakeup calls blared from her father’s giant speakers. One week it might be Iron Butterfly, the next, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Every time, it was something new.
“My father is a person with possibly the widest musical taste in the world," she says. “Sometimes, to my consternation."
Music filled the house constantly. Jody’s mother taught piano and ran the local church choir, so classical pieces had a regular presence. Redhage began cello lessons when she was 10.
“I loved that the range of the cello was deeper than the female voice was ever going to go," she says.
“And I liked how it was bigger than me. Of course, I never thought about the fact that I would be carrying it around on my back for the rest of my life!"
By the time she reached high school, she played professionally in touring Broadway shows and as a substitute with the North Carolina Symphony.
At the same time, inspired by cello rock pioneer Melora Creager, who led the band Rasputina and appeared with Nirvana, she and her friends began a group called Squeeze Toy that earned national recognition.
When she was 16, she wavered between pursuing science and cello. She still loves to read about physics and biology but couldn’t deny her inner stage animal.
“There was a sense of connection when I was making music for people," she says. “I had somehow been imbued with an ability to connect and there was a duty in that."
As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, Redhage stormed into the office of one Richard Taruskin, of the world’s preeminent music history experts, to complain about the way he was teaching Stravinsky.
“All this reading about motivic development (the way music progresses) — I’m tired of it," she said forcefully.
“Why can’t we talk about sounds themselves? Why can’t we talk about instrument combinations?" she asked him.
Taruskin, now 66, chuckled.
“Well, you’re learning something about yourself now, aren’t you Jody?" he mused.
Redhage discovered that her musical interests are driven by a fascination with different qualities of sound even before she knew she was a composer. At Berkeley, she had set her heart on a life of chamber music. When her string quartet broke up, she was devastated.
THE SOUNDS OF NON-EXISTENT INSTRUMENTS
That’s when she started hearing music in her head.
“I was really depressed and the way that my psyche was dealing with that was that I was just hearing melodies and timbres and colors and instruments that don’t exist," she says with a laugh.
The combination of cello and voice has provided plenty of room to translate what she imagined — especially with the addition of electronics on her most recent project. In that context especially, experimental pop queen Björk ranks near the top of her list of inspirations.
“She has done such a good job of integrating sophisticated composition with the attraction to beat-driven music that people inherently have," Redhage says.
“That’s something I strive for. I would like to explore that more. ‘Of Minutiae’ (does that) but not in the same pulse- or dance-driven way. I think mine is much more atmospheric, but it’s sort of similar in vibe."
As her upbringing might suggest, Redhage’s influences are diverse. As a child, she listened to Jacqueline du Pré’s recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto every night for about three months. The Czech violinist, composer and singer Eva Bitová, whose battery of vocal fireworks includes birdcalls also ranks near the top of the list.
Spalding too, has had a huge impact.
“What she is rhythmically doing — her independence between her instrument and her voice, I get how freakishly genius it is," Redhage says.
“People play piano and guitar and sing but a fretless instrument like bass or cello? The difficulties that brings into the realm of intonation are enormous."
On tour, she has developed her improvisational chops — that too, is something she wants to explore further. Closing out her catalog of projects is a new band, Inner Imaginarium. It’s an all-female group and its current project focuses on poetry about gardens.
“Right now, the music I’ve been hearing in my head sort of is exploring this idea of the yang," she says.
That kind of feminine energy is largely absent from traditional concert halls, where 18th- and 19th-century male composers reign. But aside from the current project, she doesn’t see herself as needing to break boundaries for women. They’ve already been broken, she says.
“Three of the eight pieces on ‘Of Minutiae and Memory’ are by women composers," she says. “And let me tell you, I did not commission them because they were women. I commissioned them because they were badasses."
Hear Jody Redhage with: Esperanza Spalding Chamber Music Society
When, where and how much: Tonight at 8 p.m., Count Basie Theatre, 99 Monmouth St., Redbank. $20-$55, call (732) 842-9000 or visit countbasietheatre.org. Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Wilkins Theatre, Kean University, 1000 Morris Ave., Union. $35, $20 for students, seniors and children. Call (908) 737-SHOW or visit keanstage.com.
Where: Branded Saloon, 603 Vanderbilt Ave., Brooklyn.
When: Oct. 24 at 9 p.m.
How much: $10 suggested donation. Call (917) 279-5412 or visit mondaynightramble.com