Jennifer Bernard Merkowitz is a composer, pianist, and violist whose diverse inspirations have included liturgical chant, basketball games, the growth patterns of plants, and frog calls. Her piece on Ravello Records’ MIND & MACHINE VOL. 2, Les Crapauds de la Fontaine, reflects Jenny’s ability to find inspiration for compositions from any experience – even that of a group of frogs raising a ruckus on a summer night. Jenny’s music has been performed in national and international venues such as the Society of Composers, Inc. National Conference, the National Flute Association Convention, the International Computer Music Conference, and the Percussive Arts Society International Convention. Recent commissions include And The Dish Ran Away with the Spoon for percussionist Joseph Van Hassel, which has been released on Soundset Recordings; Brothers and Sisters for Otterbein University’s Concert Choir; and The Best of Both Worlds for the Ohio Music Teachers Association.
Jenny is Associate Professor of Music at Otterbein University in Westerville OH, where she has taught composition, theory, and electronic music since 2008. She received her MM and DMA in Composition from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and she holds a BA in Music and a BS in Computer Science from the University of Richmond. A native of the Niagara Falls NY area, she has also served on the music faculty at the College of William and Mary in Virginia and Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan, and had residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is a member of BMI, SCI, SEAMUS, CMS, and Women in Music-Columbus. She lives in Westerville with her husband, David, and two sons, Isaac and Dominic.
Today, Jenny is our featured artist in “The Inside Story,” a blog series exploring the inner workings and personalities of our artists. Read on to learn about Jenny’s first compositions in third grade, and their creative titles…
Who were your first favorite artists growing up?
My favorite artists were singer-songwriters who played the piano: Elton John, Billy Joel, Carole King, Tori Amos, and Ben Folds. They could do it all, and I was in awe of their talents and aspired to be like them. I also loved movie soundtracks. I would listen to instrumentals by John Williams, Alan Menken, and Hans Zimmer on repeat. I sang the themes and marveled over the way the music could both support the drama and have a life of its own.
When did you realize that you wanted to be an artist?
I started taking piano lessons in third grade, and by the end of the year I had started writing my own little pieces. Those pieces had some great titles, like “The Call of the Unicorns” and “The Penguin Squabble.” The next year, I started playing viola in the string orchestra at school. From that point on, I don’t think there was ever any doubt that music would be a part of my life. It took me until about halfway through college, though, to rediscover my passion for composing. I embraced the composition projects assigned in music theory class with gusto. They were so fun, and I was proud of the final products. I started to think about composition as my path forward in music.
If you could make a living at any job in the world, what would that job be?
I think my current job is pretty sweet. As a professor, I spend a lot of time teaching and being surrounded by music, and I get to write pieces for some amazing musicians. Sometimes, I think I’d like to be a freelance composer with more time for my own projects and for my family. But I think I would miss the feeling of community and connection with people that comes with being part of a university. The road not taken in my life would be that of my other major, computer science. I won’t ever know what would have happened if I had decided to go into software engineering. I might have more money, I guess. As it happened, though, my two interests helped me forge my way in the field of electronic music, so I probably would have found my way there no matter what.
If you could instantly have expertise performing one instrument, what instrument would that be?
I recently saw two outstanding performances by harpists. It would be so cool to sit down and be able to play that instrument. Every now and then you’d get to do one of those full sweep glissandi, which look so fun! My other answer would be an extension of an instrument I already play, but in a genre that feels like a whole new world: jazz piano. I was classically trained, so I feel at home with a piece of sheet music, but I’d love to be able to take a lead sheet and improvise a performance with a combo. Maybe I’ll have time to acquire that skill set when I retire.
What does this album mean to you personally?
I’m really proud of this piece. I recorded the sounds of raucous frogs and toads back in 2008, and it took me until 2015 to finally make a piece out of them. I’m honored that the work was noticed and that I get to share an album with some stellar colleagues. This track is particularly special to me because it would not have been possible without the work of two of my awesome former students: Andrew Kovaleski, who is playing the bass clarinet and who helped me figure out how to make toad-like sounds on the instrument, and Amy Gadd, who produced the recording. It is particularly rewarding to see students develop into collaborators and artists in their own right.
Is there a specific feeling that you would like communicated to audiences in this work?
I hope that this piece will make people smile and maybe even laugh. Electro-acoustic music can be very serious, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes frogs and toads have a dance party and it’s silly. My kids and I had “frog dance parties” when I was testing out the different loops and figuring out how they would all fit together. I’d like to invite listeners to let loose and enjoy themselves. Maybe the next time they are outside with some noisy creatures, they’ll be inspired to listen to the music.
Les Crapauds de la Fontaine is now available on MIND & MACHINE VOL. 2 through Ravello Records for streaming or purchase. Click here to explore this new album.