“You are the sky,” says the Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. “Everything else is just the weather.” Chödrön offers this as a guide for dealing with strong emotions—a more tangible variation on “this too shall pass.” Emotions arise and, while they feel like they may fully inhabit every pore of our body, they rarely leave any physical trace. Much like the weather, they eventually fade. We’re wise to notice them, perhaps to pack some sort of psychological umbrella if it’s raining, but we’re also wise to remember that they are temporary. Focus on the sky through the clouds as a constant.
I have to think that Clarice Jensen has at least come across this quote in the process of making “Esthesis.” She doesn’t quote Chödrön in the notes for this new album, but the Simone de Beauvoir letter she excerpts flows in the same river. It touches on both de Beauvoir’s emotional states (“You see, it has never been very easy for me to live, though I am always very happy—maybe because I want so much to be happy”) and the weather (“The whole day had been so hot, you really wanted to die, love or work or happiness did not mean anything more”). At times it covers both in the same breath: “The storm had gone on my nerves, and I drank much, and, dearest, when I drink much I am no longer sensible at all.”
De Beauvoir’s letter—sent to writer and lover Nelson Algren—is the basis for “Anger,” one of seven emotions Jensen “sets” in this mesmeric and meditative work. Originally conceived as an evening-length program—the development of which was dashed due to COVID—she reimagined the full concert experience as an album, though that’s a limp word for its overall effect. Beginning with drones that resemble fingers being run around the rims of wine glasses, a party activity you could picture in de Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s backyard on a post-storm summer evening, “Anger” slow-burns into a tempest. Layers of looped sound sit on top of one another, humid and clammy, obscuring echoes of de Beauvoir’s words to Algren. The heat becomes untenable, taking over and obliterating any other feeling until a glimmer of release. The relief is short-lived, however, as the storm gets on the listener’s nerves just as much as it did for de Beauvoir. It fades into near-nothingness, except for the singe of a pitch, like static electricity clinging to the air.
But the sky isn’t permanently altered. “Anger” is the third movement of “Esthesis,” and Jensen moves both fluidly and completely from one atmosphere into the next, cycling through the seven principal emotions as defined in Confucius’s Book of Rites and connecting feeling tones with overtones by centering each movement around one single pitch, moving in a circle of fifths.
It’s an ambitious project, but one that Jensen pulls off with depth and dimension. “Sadness,” which weaves itself around “Dido’s Lament,” is Purcell filtered through a Laurie Andersonian gaze, akin to the latter’s manipulation of Massenet in “O Superman.” Jensen’s compositions have often reflected her instrument, the cello, layering and treating it to explore its full sonic spectrum. It’s rarely discernible here, however. In reconceiving “Esthesis” as an album in the time of social distancing, Jensen opted for a more multimedia approach to sound, enhancing the feelings of both isolation and containment, locating them in the vastness of sonic space. The limitless breadth of her sounds reflects the different twists and turns each of the seven emotions can take. The theme of isolation laid over these emotions enhances the experience, as if our sole task is to be alone—no distractions—with each emotion.
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I was equally moved by “I, A.M.,” a project carried on a similar current of meaning and significance. Having started a family in 2016, violinist Olivia De Prato found herself confronted by the realities of being both a performing musician and mother living in New York—a logistically-prohibitive environment for child-rearing unless you have an outpouring of resources. It’s a topic that can be isolating, and an issue that’s not bound to Gotham. In an interview with VAN last year, Berlin-based pianist Tamara Stefanovich said: “I would like to have a bit more of a sense of community among mothers and, in the music industry, a greater awareness of how a mother can also be a performer.”
Stefanovich added that there are “no simple answers, no guidelines” for such a complex topic, “but you [still] have to talk about it.” Along with the six composers she commissioned for this album—Natacha Diels, Katherine Young, Ha-Yang Kim, Pamelia Stickney, Jen Baker, and Zosha Di Castri—De Prato is talking about it. “How did this life-changing experience influence our artistic vision and creativity?” she asks in her liner notes. “How do we fit into a society that still believes women must choose between family and art?” (Screams in Clara Schumann.)
What’s striking about “I, A.M.” is how the specifics of motherhood—the grand unifying line between each of the artists represented here—are treated. Pretend for a moment that I didn’t mention the specific composers involved. Ignore De Prato’s predilection for the thorny pleasures of Pierre Boulez, Chaya Czernowin, Peter Eötvös, Julia Wolfe, and Helmut Lachenmann. Instead, focus on the elevator pitch for this album: “Six works by mothers that explore the intersection of motherhood and art.” You’d be forgiven if lullabies and children’s music came to mind. The notion of being both a mother and an artist has been shoehorned into a spectrum of pastel, Easter egg hues or the more utilitarian palette of sad beige. (Simone de Beauvoir would have a lot to unpack with momfluencers and mommy bloggers.)
But De Prato and her comrades wholeheartedly refute and subvert the concept. “Motherhood takes the vessel of your being and dips it underwater, revealing where all the cracks may leak,” writes A. Martinez in her essay for the album. “It has the potential to bring the essential you, the good and the bad, to the forefront, from which you cannot hide.” The six works presented here are what leak through the cracks. Natacha Diels’s “automatic writing mumbles of the late hour” is a constellation of circuit sparks and cricket chirps; a collage formed between De Prato’s violin and electronics, recorded, cut up, and reconstructed. Diels sees her work as a composition “regularly interrupted by strained attempts at creating a solid form, regularly petering out to nothing before returning with renewed energy, culminating in a gradual move towards absurd funk.” An apt metaphor for the divided attentions of motherhood.
Perpendicular to Diels’s shimmering tapestry of interruptions is its follow-up, Katherine Young’s “Mycorrhiza I,” named for the biological network that allows trees to communicate with one another through their roots. Taking their precious downtime during the early days of the pandemic, Young and De Prato recorded themselves. You hear footsteps shuffle, bodies shift—in other words, the noise that comes from being at rest. Layered over this, De Prato moves from mirroring the sounds of nothing into sharp, frenetic bowing that highlights the hidden systems that are still working overtime when we feel like we’re doing nothing. The sky may seem still and passive behind the weather, but it’s very much alive. ¶
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