Jessica Pavone
Photo: Shawn Poynter

Jessica Pavone Interprets Womens’ Work Through the Ages

Eclectic composer Jessica Pavone pays tribute to women-made inventions through powerful musical compositions and performances in her new string ensemble album.

Jessica Pavone
Out Of Your Head
6 October 2023

Jessica Pavone‘s new string ensemble composition, Clamor, began life as Pavone wondered about the origins of the see-saw after writing a swaying, back-and-forth rhythm. This led her to discover that the see-saw was invented by Korean women – who weren’t allowed to leave their homes – to see the world outside. The inventions of women and how they work around societal barriers and norms became the basis for her latest work, Clamor.

Acting primarily as a composer as well as a solo violist on two of the record’s four movements, Pavone is joined, exclusively and likely not coincidentally, by women and nonbinary musicians on Clamor: violinists Aimée Niemann and Charlotte Munn-Wood, violist Abby Swidler, cellist Mariel Roberts, and double bassist Shayna Dulberger. Joining them is bassoonist Katherine Young, who solos on two movements and brings tremendous gravitas to an already powerful ensemble.

The four movements of Clamor are all named after female inventions that were created to overcome barriers and aid in creating a sense of freedom. “Neolttwigi”, the 17th-century see-saw, represents the first movement, which takes the form of swaying and droning, gradually building in power and majesty, at one point executed as blocks of sound, solid and seemingly impenetrable. The piece eventually ends in an all-consuming, mesmerizing wall of noise.

Clamor first premiered in the fall of 2022 and uses a time-based score. Pavone instructs the players to move from phrase to phrase at specific times, using a clock that informs them when to move forward. During these blocks of time, the musicians can express their individuality and musical identity, creating more of a collaborative process than simply Pavone’s lone compositional dictation (time-based scoring has been used by Pavone in the past, particularly in her striking 2020 release, Lost and Found).

Nu Shu, a secret language developed by Chinese women to communicate without going to school, which they were forbidden to do, inspires “Nu Shu (Part 1)” and “Nu Shu (Part 2)” and takes full advantage of Young’s bassoon. The instrument is wielded like some arresting combination of a klaxon and a didgeridoo. The strings follow along boldly, at one point creating long, sustained passages as Young steps into the background before eventually soloing wildly as the strings vamp and simmer behind the woodwind, eventually executing a passage that takes full advantage of the percussive nature of the instrument’s keys.

As “Nu Shu (Part 1)” moves into “Nu Shu (Part 2)”, Young’s bassoon takes on the wild, hollering atonality of free jazz, but with more of an emphasis on sustained notes, all blurred lines and fearless execution. The strings eventually overtake the piece for a while, with reverberated plucking and percussive actions allowing the musicians to use whatever sounds can be wrested from their instruments. The final minutes of the movement are a deafening, primal roar.

The last movement, “Bloom” (named after the bloomers invented by Amelia Bloomer during Victoria dress reform), initially takes on a slightly more conventional form, as the furiously soloing cello and violas result in a mad combination of Bach and Bartok, combined with long passages of droning intensity. The ensemble plays with fierce determination, paying tribute to the trailblazers and freedom seekers that came before them, equally adept at group performance and individual sections.

The inspiration behind Clamor is potent, as it allows Pavone – who also is a member of the experimental art-rock quartet JOBS, who released a new album last month – to compose with a strong sense of purpose and the musicians to express this inspiration with a deep feeling of urgency. Pavone is no stranger to unique compositional forms, and Clamor is another example of her deep commitment to whatever form or historical source inspires her.

RATING 8 / 10