Real Bands, Real Bonds: In Memory of Jennifer Fitzgerald

name
Jennifer Fitzgerald (1975-2007)

Jennifer Fitzgerald was the only female graduate student in the composition department at Duke University when I visited in the spring of 2000. That weekend, she took me to lunch, drove me to a friend’s house after a concert, and even gave me her email address in case I had any questions over the summer. We were the same age, we had both gone to college in Boston, we both liked poetry, and we both wore black plastic glasses. Jennifer gave a presentation on Galina Ustvolskaya in the seminar I visited. She used the word “discursive.” I liked her immediately.

I had jaf16@duke.edu written in my journal along with a list of questions I had made before coming: performance opportunities? community of students? how many years?

In Jen’s first year as a graduate student at Duke, she and marc faris, another composer in the department, decided to form a new music ensemble not connected to the university. They named the group CSMG. More people joined. A year later, I did. We programmed Vexations, In C, and other classics of the new music repertoire. And then, in 2003, with marc and Jen in charge, six of us became pulsoptional, a composers collective and new music ensemble. We put on concerts in galleries, rock clubs, outside. We wrote our own music.

Jen and I were in a girl band once. We thought it would be fun to have a garage band. (This was before GarageBand came with every Mac.) So we formed one, sort of. She had a friend with a drumset in his garage, and I must have borrowed a guitar. One mild Saturday we headed over to the garage and tried to make music. This is laughable when you think of two composers, a classically trained pianist and a classically trained violinist, trying to get through Led Zeppelin songs on the drums and the guitar, since those were the only songs anyone had taught me to play on the guitar in high school. We might have tried a Dave Matthews song, too. I think we had the idea that others would join our band. We had a name, too: Rocktopussy, which we always agreed was a great name for a girl band.

But the truth is I am no guitarist and Jen was not a drummer. Like many Saturday afternoon attempts at rock in the garage, the afternoon ended inside making plans for the evening and we never had band practice again.

Meanwhile, pulsoptional continued to put on concerts in North Carolina, went on tour, formed a publishing arm, designed a logo, and maintained a website.

I knew Jen in Durham, but our lives intersected far and wide. When I was living in The Hague, she went to Germany for a family event. She and her partner, Charles, and her father and stepmother met me in Holland. We saw Vermeer paintings and ate Indonesian food. When I was in South Carolina for spring break one year, we met up in Savannah, where her father lived. Another time, we met up in Beaufort, South Carolina, for lunch and a stroll through tree-lined neighborhoods draped in Spanish moss.

After getting her Ph.D. from Duke, Jennifer moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, where she had a postdoctoral fellowship at Lawrence University. She visited Durham when we were recording for the pulsoptional album, and she stayed in my house. It was the week of my doctoral defense. We met for drinks after the orals and referred to each other as Dr. Fitzgerald and Dr. Mallonée with the promise that this would be the only day we would call each other that.

We talked on the phone for a long time after she left. We hadn’t ever done that before. We joked about a Rocktopussy reunion tour, picturing fuchsia T-shirts with black silhouette figures lounging like Bond girls. We had been closer than we knew. A month later she emailed that she had breast cancer and was having a mastectomy. She had the surgery in May 2006.

A year ago, three composers from Duke applied to the same program in New York called Composers and the Voice, run by American Opera Projects. They each had a recommendation written by the same professor at Duke. Miraculously, all three were selected to participate in the workshop series. I considered this such a gift. I got to see Jen almost once a month. We’d meet before the workshops—usually at a tiny Mexican place in Brooklyn—and catch up. Each month, her appearance would change drastically. First, her hair was gone. She’d shaved her head before her first round of chemo, and named her haircut “the pulse,” after the hairstyle chosen by most of the male members of pulsoptional. A month later, it came back, gray. She got really skinny. Once, her arm was wrapped in bandages; she said she couldn’t play the piano. She didn’t complain—everything was matter-of-fact, a sort of marvel. She didn’t complain if I was late, either (and I often was). She’d be waiting, rise to hug me and say cheerfully, “I ordered chips and guacamole.” We talked about her teaching, about my job search. We swapped artist colony stories, we talked about the future. The opening scenes of her first opera, Mr. Hawthorne’s Engagement, were performed in October.

Jen was a very talented composer and pianist. She wrote solo pieces, chamber music, orchestral music, and songs. Prone to angular harmonies and rapid gestures, her music has an incisive energy, even when it is occasionally sweet. pulsoptional‘s first album was released last summer. Jen’s piece How Terrible Orange is the fourth track on the album. A recipe of simultaneous contrasting textures and homorhythmic sections creates a powerful and engaging piece.

I miss Jen. I think of how she scrunched up her nose when she laughed, how she’d push her glasses up her nose when she thought something was nerdy, how she had the slightest hint of a New York accent when she said my name. I think of how dedicated she was to pulsoptional and its mission as “a band of living composers.” As the other members of the group—Sidney Boquiren, marc faris, Todd Hershberger, Thom Limbert, John Mayrose, Carrie Shull, and myself—plan a memorial concert for Jennifer, it feels strange: our focus shifts. But it is still new music, it is good music, and we are lucky to have it. We are lucky to have known Jen, to have worked with her, to have loved her. We have her music and ways to share it.