Jenny Magnus, described by the Chicago Tribune as "Everything a performance artist should be: subversive, personal, stimulating, a little scary and simply amazing," is a Chicago-based performer, writer, director, producer and teacher.
Songs From Shows is a collection of 23 songs written over quite a few years, but used in performances and plays in the last 8 years or so. All the songs were used in ways that songs do not tend to be used in "musicals", meaning, they didn't necessarily come out of the mouths of the performers; they didn't necessarily forward the action; and they weren't necessarily about the inner state of the characters. Rather, the songs were used as a way of re-creating the idea of music in performance, not as background, or emotional manipulation (the way much music in films in used), but as meta-narratives that co-exist with the narrative texts but don't reiterate them.
Magnus has contributed to cultural life in Chicago for 13 years as a founding member of The Curious Theatre Branch, The Lunar Cabaret and the Curious School, and as a longtime member of Maestro Subgum and the Whole. Magnus produces her original work (most recently Nowhow, The Strange), produces and contributes to the annual Rhino Theater Festival, and tours her work internationally. She has performed recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Chicago Cultural Center and in Jeff Ryner's American Parade at the Lunar Cabaret.
From the liner notes: The style of the songs is consistent in its inconsistency; the non-virtuostic use of available instruments, multi-tracked voices, and narrative sounds like toothbrushes, zippers, and crockery, all utilized in the interests of contingency and immediacy. Going into the studio, wherever it may happen to be, with an engineer, whoever he (for I have only worked with male engineers) may happen to be, and bringing only a song, and things to try out, has been my method for a long time. I go into the studio whenever I can afford it, whenever I can possibly organize it, and I experience the spontaneity of arranging the songs with a kind of ecstatic excitement, never know what is going to happen. Sometimes things donâ€™t work and I leave the session feeling humiliated and frustrated. Most of the time I come out clutching the CD with a feeling of having gotten away with something yet again, having tricked the gods of Achievement and having made something out of nothing.
Usually I start with a click track, looking for a way to provide a steady underpinning- I had to learn this the hard way, I am not and have never been a rock steady drummer. I sing a capella to the click track, creating a scratch vocal that then serves as a basis for the arrangement. Since my theatrical method is often to use backing tracks sans the lead vocal and singing to that live, sometimes the lead on the recording is still the scratch vocal. Then I put in percussion or beats of some kind over the click track, then usually harmonies, then more beats or sounds, then support music like a piano or sung counter-melodies. All of this is like building a scaffolding on which the song can climb and hang, sometimes leaving a lot of space and letting the lyrics stand out starkly against a minimal arrangement, and sometimes building many layers of sounds until the lyric is the least interesting thing happening. There is no set way of doing it, though; I let the song, the session, the feel of the moment, the mood of the engineer, the state of my voice, influence the process. I am so open to the moment, I have let things like something falling in the background or an errant conversation inexplicably recorded be included and made intentional. The fragile balances between craft and expediency, perfectionism and fuckit-ism, and ability and aspiration, are my teetertottering parameters; I just try to work within them.
[ Jenny Magnus ]