Ten Thousand Screens
News you can use; a fresh video from the new-music trio Bearthoven; and a timely interview with cellist, composer, and ensemble leader Clarice Jensen…
News of the World
Michael Clayville (left) and Michael Harley of Alarm Will Sound performing Ten Thousand Screens
Screenshot: Steve Smith
Last night, on the Facebook series Living Music: Pirate Radio Edition with Nadia Sirota, the new-music group Alarm Will Sound participated in a world premiere unusual even measured by present standards. Isolated together in their Brooklyn home, Alarm Will Sound conductor Alan Pierson and his partner, software engineer and solution architect Paul Melnikow, presented a version of the John Luther Adams composition Ten Thousand Birds, played by AWS members via notebook computers, smartphones, and other gadgets scattered around the couple’s apartment. Renamed Ten Thousand Screens, the performance can be streamed on Facebook, and a more polished video is due next week on YouTube.
Tonight at 7pm, when you head to your windows for the nightly tribute to New York City’s essential workers in applause, cheers, bells, and whistles, you might notice something different: a musical composition, For Our Courageous Workers, organized by trumpeter, bandleader, and composer Frank London with Hajnal Pivnick and Dorian Wallace of the new-music group Tenth Intervention. The composition, circulated in recent days via social media, is 10 minutes long, and comprises four movements: Cheering, Reflecting, Catharsis, and Gratitude. Listen closely – or learn how to participate, quickly – here.
On Thursday night (April 30 at 8pm EDT), the astonishing vocal improviser and performance artist Shelley Hirsch presents a new piece created for the Isolated Field Recordings Series curated by Issue Project Room. Generating Text in Quarantine in Several Parts is said to involve improvised vocals, spontaneous writing, recordings of pieces by Morton Feldman, and video captured in Hirsch’s Greenpoint apartment. Read more details and learn where to view the performance here.
On May 1, Bandcamp will waive its share of revenues on all purchases, an effort meant to support countless artists and record labels who sell their music on the popular online music-sales platform, and whose livelihoods have been disrupted by COVID-19. According to a statement on the Bandcamp site, more than 150 artists and labels have announced plans to offer special releases and exclusive merchandise; in addition, some larger labels will be waiving their own cut of sales, meaning that even more money reaches artists. This gesture, the latest in a long line of socially responsible initiatives, will repeat monthly throughout the summer, with additional sales planned for June 5 and July 3.
Among the highlights of Bandcamp’s May Day sale are the launches of two new artist-led labels. Trumpeter and composer Nate Wooley – who already keeps busy with two ongoing media initiatives, Sound American and Pleasure of the Text – will introduce Tisser Tissu Editions, specializing in small-run print-and-digital releases with copious documentation; pre-orders will be available here. And veteran saxophonist Tim Berne, who already has operated two previous labels, Empire and the still-extant Screwgun, initiates a third operation, 9donkeys, with a new solo album—more information, including details of a virtual press conference on Zoom tomorrow (Thursday, April 30) at 5pm EDT, is here.
Also on May 1, Opera Philadelphia will kick off a new streaming series, Digital Festival O, with the online premiere of Denis & Katya, a provocative chamber opera by composer Philip Venables and librettist Ted Huffman, staged by the company during its Festival O19 last September. Further offerings include productions of We Shall Not Be Moved, by Daniel Bernard Roumain and Marc Bamuthi Joseph (May 10); Sky on Swings, by Lembit Beecher and Hannah Moscovitch (May 22); and Breaking the Waves, by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek (May 29). There’s also a production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (May 15), if you happen to dig the old stuff. You’ll find complete details on the company’s website.
Speaking of Royce Vavrek: Angel’s Bone, the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera he created with composer Du Yun, is the enviable focus of a bicoastal streaming initiative. Starting tomorrow night (April 30) on the Beth Morrison Projects website, you can watch a production staged for the 2018 New Vision Arts Festival in Hong Kong. The next evening, L.A. Opera – which was to have mounted the opera live in May – will stream the video from its Facebook page.
Posted by the new-music trio Bearthoven – pianist Karl Larson, bassist Pat Swoboda, and percussionist Matt Evans – this efficiently plainspoken video captures the New York City premiere of Spectral Malsconcities, a hypnotic recent composition by Sarah Hennies. The performance was taped on April 9, 2019, during a concert at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Interview: Clarice Jensen
The cellist Clarice Jensen has been a mainstay in the New York City new-music scene for more than 15 years, principally for her work leading the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), which she co-founded with her sister, the arts professional Christina Jensen, and the conductor Donato Cabrera in 2004. Jensen also has fostered a high profile nationally and globally through her work on records and onstage with artists like Björk, Max Richter, Stars of the Lid, and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, among numerous others.
Recently, though, Jensen has been breaking new ground as a composer, using effects pedals and looping to fashion unaccompanied works that can feel immense and immersive. Her debut solo album, For This From That Will Be Filled, released by the Miasmah label in 2018, took its title from Jensen’s work of the same name—her first recorded composition. Drone Studies, an EP released on cassette by Geographic North, followed in 2019.
Then in April of this year, Jensen released her second full-length album, The experience of repetition as death, on 130701, the contemporary-classical imprint of influential English indie label FatCat Records. The album is an extraordinary leap forward in Jensen’s compositional abilities and ambitions, and I said as much in a brief review for the Goings On About Town section of The New Yorker a few weeks ago, from which I’ll quote this excerpt:
Jensen deploys loops and layers to evoke the experience of attending to her terminally ill mother in her final weeks, adopting concepts from Freud and the feminist poet Adrienne Rich as structural ideas. Simple repetitions in “Daily” call to mind a caretaker’s elementary chores—their toll is implied as the music’s edges gradually soften and blur. Jensen’s electronically enhanced vocabulary can astonish: a guttural drone in “Day Tonight” resembles Tibetan chant, and, in “Metastable,” the incessant beep of hospital monitors morphs into a stately pipe-organ étude. “Holy Mother,” a mountainous, windswept threnody, and “Final,” where nostalgic crackles preface a plainspoken, hymnlike chorale, complete this album of near-supernatural potency.
Jensen was supposed to be touring right now with the stately ambient-music duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen, sharing the music from her new record—but then those plans were cancelled because of the present health crisis. Instead, Jensen’s compositions, along with a set of five unique videos created by multimedia art group Testu Collective to accompany them, will be showcased by The Kitchen as part of a new online initiative, Video Viewing Room. The music and videos will be available to stream on the Kitchen website for one week, starting on Friday, May 1.
Speaking by phone from her home in Brooklyn earlier this week, Jensen talked about the album, the videos, and the online exhibition. (The text was edited for length and clarity.)
Photograph: Yoko Maeda
STEVE SMITH: People are responding to this current situation in all kinds of ways. Some are hyper-productive, while others are overwhelmed and can't work at all. So I’d like to start simply by asking: how are you doing? How are you coping? How are you responding to the way we live right now?
CLARICE JENSEN: It's kind of all over the place. I'm having trouble focusing on one thing for very long. I just rewatched all of Twin Peaks, because that's familiar and comforting. I'm reading Dune….
And I bought the Adobe Premiere Pro video editor, and I'm getting into learning how to use that program. A friend of mine drove up Manhattan a while ago, after quarantine, and made a cool cell-phone video going all the way up the island. I'm trying to make something out of that, just for something to do that is creative but that doesn't feel like work.
I've been doing a few demos. I've been writing some music, but nothing of any consequence. But I have some stuff to write. Do you know Longform Editions?
I'm supposed to be writing a piece for them, and I wanted to be collecting sounds from the road, because I'm supposed to be on tour with Winged Victory for the Sullen. I was going to play with them, and I was also opening, in support of the record—but of course, that all got canceled. It was my idea to write while I was on the road, but I'll obviously have to rethink the whole concept.
I'm really not there yet, in terms of wanting to write anything. And it's frustrating, because when I'm busy and working and doing all kinds of different things, the weird spectrum of gigs that everybody does in New York, I'm always like, I'd love it if I could just stay home and write and make a new album, and not have to do anything except hang out with my cats. And somehow, this being imposed is not the same thing.
No, no. It's not especially satisfying.
And it doesn't help, being aware of so many sick people and suffering, people are dying. I feel a little bit selfish in general, or self-indulgent, writing my own music and that kind of thing. So for me right now, that feels a little bit amplified.
And yet, your new album has a direct relationship to a time of personal trauma, crisis, and difficulty. Before we venture into specifics, I have to say that to me it feels like only yesterday that you and I sat down to talk about your first solo album and your initial foray into being a composing performer, or a performing composer, whichever you prefer. I see that it's been two years, but it feels very recent. What truly strikes me most about your new album is how far you've come in a very short matter of time, in terms of the breadth and complexity of your conception, construction, and voice on the new album. So I'd like to start by talking about your compositional process in making this record—what was your starting point, and how did it evolve from there?
Well, the first album, when I started out, I was just going to commission four people. And then I had been playing with the pedals more and finding sounds I liked. I didn't consider that that could turn into writing, but then it quickly did. Since then, I got some more pedals [laughs], so that's helped a lot. That kind of opened up the possibilities. The first album, I felt like it fit together as a record. But I wanted the next one, the next full-length, to be a true sort of… I hate to say "concept album," but you know what I mean: it makes sense from the beginning, as a straight listen.
Before, I was sort of overwhelmed by the thought of having to come up with so much material for an entire record, 45 minutes of music. I think it started with my first record, but even playing Max Richter's music and things like that, I have really become drawn to an economy of material—not having to draw from too many different sources or too many varying colors or palates. After realizing that that's what I admire, I was less overwhelmed, and I thought: I know exactly what I want to make.
So part of it was more pedals [laughs], and part of it was just using more of a regular cello sound, too, like in the first and last tracks. I wanted that sound to be first and last. And especially ending it with just a pure cello, just using that as an element of the entire piece: it's pretty simple, and people do that all the time. I wasn't really aiming very high; I just was doing what felt like it made sense, in terms of what I was trying to write about.
Photograph courtesy of the artist
One of the things that impressed me most about the new album is that you could listen to each of the five pieces as a discrete listening experience, and appreciate the textural elements and the range of techniques in each one of them, but there's not just contrast between the five pieces; there's also a continuity among them Did you plot out explicitly in advance what these five pieces were going to be, and how they were going to be interconnected? Or was that a more intuitive response that developed as you worked with your materials?
I plotted it out, yeah. It's definitely not complicated, but I wanted to tie it to this concept of repetition, in a larger scale and a smaller scale. Just speaking like a layman, in many pieces of art and pieces of music, there's a larger structure that's related to smaller a one. So I just wanted to do that, as a unifying thing.
There's a thing at the very end, the second part of the scrambled loop thing that's in the first part, right? That whole melody is in the second track as well, but it's really slow. So the motion of the notes starts to feel familiar, and then by the time you hear it at the end, it's not a processed cello sound anymore, and it's not mixed up in its order anymore. You hear it repeated over and over at the end, just with natural cello sound, and that is meant to make you feel something emotional—like you had been looking for that the whole time.
When you finally reach that recognition, there's a cathartic feeling of resolution to it. It brings a sense of the completion of a journey. And that led me to wonder if this project had come to you while you were attending to the tasks and chores, and enduring the emotional trials, of dealing with your mother's final illness or was that a coincidental overlay? I don't mean to ask if this is a concept album about death in some literal manner, but is the music related directly to what you experienced?
Yeah, they're definitely related directly. I sketched some of the ideas while this was happening: taking care of my mom, going to the hospital so much, doing the cooking, a lot of cleaning. She was very immunocompromised, so we just had to do a lot of work—a lot of the same work, very mundane things, you know?
It wasn't like at the same time I came home and wrote; it was just sort of this concept of repetition really presenting itself then. Like in the track "Metastable," the sound of beeping machines in a hospital really got stuck stuck in my head. That is probably the only thing I thought back to as a sound, and what happens when you hear all these other machines from other rooms, and it sort of becomes a weird counterpoint. And I liked that—which is weird to say, obviously. It kind of became finding… not order, but sort of a satisfying beauty in what was not a beautiful situation.
I wasn't playing with these sounds at the time – I didn't really write everything until later – but I was thinking about these things a lot. And before any of this, I knew the poem that the title comes from.
The Adrienne Rich poem [A Valediction Forbidding Mourning].
I'd always been fascinated by it. I didn't quite know what it meant, but I always knew that that line from the poem meant something to me. Then throughout all of that, towards the end of my mom's life, I realized: that's the next record I'm going make. Suddenly, that that line from the poem made more sense. But also, relating it to the Freudian death drive—I think that that came up as a sort of aside. I thought it was interesting that he would write about, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the compulsion for humans to get out of this organic state and return to the inorganic. That definitely was not related to what was going on with my mom, but does overlap with this compulsion to repeat. That's how they both came together.
In "Holy Mother," the fourth track, I was at the same time fascinated by Mount Everest, and how everyone who has a lot of money has got this desire… in general, people have a desire to overcome nature and do some great feat that will defy their normal, natural abilities and climb up a big mountain like Mount Everest. And there are these bodies there that you pass by—they had to stay there. But yet now, there's so many people that you've got to line up at the summit, basically, because so many people are doing it. So even that is becoming kind of routine.
There's such a richness to the intersection of all of these ideas. There's also a set of five videos, one for each piece, which strikes me as an unusual undertaking, though perhaps it's actually not so much, anymore. But it's serendipitous, at the very least, because with touring and local performances being out of the question, the celebratory event tied to your album release now is a multimedia gallery presentation on the website of The Kitchen. So how did the videos come about?
I just came across Dan [Tesene] and Serena [Stucke]… they have a group called Testu Collective, and I found their work on Instagram. I saw a video of a live performance: they were projecting onto a surface, and there were some dancers, some choreography behind the screen. So they were making the screen dimensional, in conjunction with the projection on it. It was a simple concept, but really, really effective, and I was like, who are these people?
I looked at their websites, and on Dan's site he had a piece called In Search of Acetone Oceans. Basically, they film chemical reactions with this giant lens, up close, and I think they're able to manipulate the speed, too. It looks an ocean on an alien planet—when it's really zoomed in, you lose track of the scale.
I had done some work with video before, and that was all stuff that was built in a game engine and artificially rendered—they were fake architectures that were constructed virtually. For this project, I really wanted forms that were organic, and the fact that they were these naturally occurring chemical reactions really drew me to that. As far as the imagery, I just wanted more of an experience. I didn't want the visual to be very programmatic; I didn't want direct associations.
That's really what I want with the music, too. In a way, I feel reluctant to talk about the program behind the music, because I don't want people to come to this and have an association already. You know, it is about dying and death, but it's supposed to be beautiful, too. For the videos, I really just wanted an experience that was open and immersive. They made these videos so quickly, and then they did more. Originally they were just making a set for my set, when I was going to open for Winged Victory.
These were meant for live performance then?
Yeah. We were all set to take it on on the road, and I was ready to figure out how to do those, live. Then they just made some more material and did the whole album. Looking at the whole thing now, it was actually kind of hard for me to watch all of them, because by the time they finished them and they were sending them to me, everything was shutting down. They made such beautiful work, and I just felt bad.
I'm really glad that more people can see it, even though we're not on the road. One of these days, I want to make a more involved show, like I did at The Kitchen three years ago, and maybe incorporate some of their ideas for alternative projecting surfaces. They were really, really lovely people. And they fabricate set pieces and things for architecture, they do 3-D printing and things, and so he's been making medical face shields, and both of them have been delivering them to hospitals. They're really super cool.
You rolled out these videos already, one by one, on Facebook as the album's release date was approaching. And now, all five videos are being put together in what amounts to a kind of virtual online gallery show that The Kitchen is going to launch on May 1. How did that come about?
Rayna Holmes at The Kitchen sent out an email to people who had played there before—ACME has played there, and then I did a solo show there. She sent an email saying, if you have any new work, we want to promote it on our socials. So I said, I have new work that has videos, too, so if you want to put it on your Instagram… and then she came up with this idea. They have done another virtual screening now, for Rhys Chatham. So she suggested it for that and we were all really excited.
Clarice Jensen’s new album, The experience of repetition as death, is out now on the FatCat Records imprint 130701; visit claricejensen.bandcamp.com. Five videos made by Testu Collective to accompany the album’s tracks will be viewable for one week in the Video Viewing Room on The Kitchen’s website, starting on Friday, May 1; thekitchen.org.
Coming up next…
Bang on a Can founders (L-R) David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe
Photograph: Peter Serling
Composers Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe talk about this year’s groundbreaking iteration of the celebrated Bang on a Can Marathon—this time, an appropriately distanced online affair, packing 26 performers and four commissioned premieres into a six-hour span streaming live on Sunday, May 3.