Listening to Clara Iannotta’s “dead wasps in the jam-jar (ii)”

By · Title Image © Astrid Ackermann · Date 2/8/2018

I’m listening to “dead wasps in the jam-jar (ii),” a string work by Clara Iannotta, and I’m disoriented. Though I play violin in string orchestras, and have for years, I feel like a layperson without any visual information. How do the performers make those frog croaks—bowing overpressure, probably, but with or without the left hand? What are those sustained metallic-sounding tones? The description doesn’t give me any clues. If only I could trust myself.

The strings slide around in harmonics and semi-harmonics; sounds scritch, whoosh, and whiz through the high register, and low rumblings, abstract in pitch, drift sleepily in and out. I have some vocabulary for this world. I think I hear a kind of bow-scrubbing, which makes me think of Sciarrino’s violin caprices; and then Lachenmann’s and Haas’s quartets have some similarly flavored semi-pitched techniques. I’ve heard orchestral works with similar pacing to “dead wasps,” but never with these sounds.

There’s practically no point in listening to “dead wasps” through phone speakers, but still, it’s an unusually enjoyable listening experience in headphones. It immerses me in a way that approaches oblivion—11 minutes pass, and I don’t notice when the next track starts—and I find a visceral pleasure in some of the sounds. Yet liking it doesn’t feel satisfying, without being able to write so much as a private diary entry about why. I enjoy hearing new music, but I don’t play much of it, so I ask my boyfriend, who often commissions and premieres, to give “dead wasps” a listen. He compares it to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “ET” (“but obviously, much more experimental”).

I defer to the title. I can’t not imagine wasps zooming up and hitting the jar-lid, suddenly concentrating in one area and then dispersing with seeming randomness. When do the wasps die, I wonder. The music is too lively for the wasps to already be dead at the outset. At the end, then? Those piercing sounds could represent some prolonged suffering–death by starvation, maybe. Or perhaps “dead wasps” refers to the simple inevitability of death to animals in a closed system. Wasps in a jar will surely die without outside intervention…won’t they?

I admonish myself: I’m being way too literal. The piece has no traditional dramatic arc; this isn’t a third-act mad scene for bugs. New music comes in episodes—suddenly, the foreground sounds change in register or speed—but here, activity is constant in rate and character. In fact, though there is little space between the sounds, the work doesn’t feel frantic or even particularly busy. Much happens, but it’s within the context of a stasis, sameness, that affirms the totality of the system, rather than mining it for complexities.

The total impression a listener forms of a piece is but one incomplete way of processing its constituent parts. Invariably, in the process of finding meaning, bits of information are overlooked, lost; but, at any given moment, these somethings are still there, and in motion.

Iannotta has composed a total of three works, for various instrumentations, in the “dead wasps” series; in the notes to the third piece, she writes, “For a long time my music has been about creating a surface on which things move, blend, but mostly hide what is underneath them. A surface is nothing more than a reflection, and I was constantly veiling the real mirrored image, probably also because I was (and still am) not sure yet of what this image was, even though I knew what its shadow looked like.”

What’s really there? Trying to describe my enjoyment of the piece, I realize that my default mode of responding to music is to compare it to past experiences—listening experiences, certainly, but more than that, playing. With each performance, new details emerge: listening to the famous symphonies in music history classes helped prepare me for future concerts, but still, at my first rehearsals I noticed gaps in my knowledge which I could only fill by doing the score.

And so I’ve never been entirely comfortable critiquing a genre I can’t do at all. It’s not that I imagine myself playing every piece I write about, but it feels more legitimate to write about an unfamiliar work when the techniques involved are familiar. I’m not a singer, for example, but I sing, so opinions about new operas come easily. On the other hand, I’ve always had a hard time writing about electronic music. I’ve simply never come close to making those sounds; I might be missing everything.

But critics have to “know” a huge amount music, more than could be played in a lifetime. To come to some kind of understanding of “dead wasps,” I have to go beyond merely imagining doing it myself. If I concentrate hard, what I know should be said feels almost within reach.

Ianotta mentions the ocean: unseen movement, by the unknowable life forms that inhabit the deepest waters, contributes to the shape of the environment above, the mere surface of which we experience as the thing ocean. I think of how I can enjoy looking at the night sky, hiking through a canyon, watching photons move across the screen of my tablet, all without any real understanding of the processes that shape these final, resultant images. I’m left with the kinds of judgments a child might make: the sky is beautiful, or impossibly huge, or threatens a storm. ¶