Jessica Pavone‘s music tends to thrive on tension. Whether it’s the sustained, droning notes that make up her most recent string ensemble release, Lost and Found (2020), or the bold, busy arrangements of 2019’s Brick and Mortar, her music has always been both unsettling and oddly mesmerizing. With her latest album, Lull, Pavone has added more musicians to the mix, giving the performances more texture and a sonic outlet for her compositions.
A string octet performs Lull: Pavone and Abby Swidler on viola, Aimée Niemann and Charlotte Munn-Wood on violin, Christopher Hoffman and Meaghan Burke on cello, and Shayna Dulberger and Nicholas Jozwiak double bass. They’re joined by two soloists, Brian Chase on percussion and Nate Wooley on Bb trumpet. Both Chase and Wooley contribute solos to two of the piece’s four movements.
According to the press materials, Pavone – who is also one-fourth of the Brooklyn-based experimental art-rock quartet JOBS – is inspired “by processes that center intuition and instinct, learning from sound healers and alternative healing practices to bolster her philosophical interests in the power of sound to illuminate hidden emotions.” As a result, Pavone’s compositions focus on the way music feels when it’s played and heard instead of what’s “right” and “wrong”. With its long, droning passages that move ever so gradually through different phases, the music seems driven very much by instinct, even though all eight musicians (and two soloists) are all moving as one unit. Using her signature score style, Pavone directs players to move between phrases at specific time points.
The first movement, “Indolent”, begins with dissonant strings performing a sort of call-and-response, as cello and double bass eventually enter the picture, gradually changing the overall makeup of the music that’s somewhat reminiscent of Steve Reich‘s phase-shifting exercises. This soon turns to faster, more punctuated notes, eventually concluding with a segment of long, highly sustained notes. How the octet move through these passages is strikingly elegant and graceful.
Brian Chase – who also plays drums in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs – is a highly effective presence in the next movement, “Holt”, as his tense, clattering percussion begins the segment like water hitting a corrugated roof, followed by a sort of hushed, mysterious dissonance from the strings, led primarily by the double basses. Chase appears throughout the piece, and his percussion becomes highly distorted and manipulated as it begins to move out of the realm of what’s expected from the tools of his trade. Towards the end of the movement, Nate Wooley’s trumpet begins to come out of the woodwork in noisy, stuttering blasts, almost competing with Chase.
But Wooley’s moment to shine is in the third movement, “Ingot”. Here, he takes cues from Pavone’s string arrangements, staying primarily within long, sustained notes. The droning becomes intoxicating and eventually moves in tandem with the strings, which soon move into utter cacophony before Pavone brings everyone down to earth with a calmer, more melodic coda.
Lull concludes with “Midmost”, as an almost guttural lower register sounds an insistent alarm and is soon parrying and thrusting with the higher notes of the violins. The movement glides through swooping ensemble strings and dramatic stop/start shifts that go on for extended periods. Pavone is unconcerned with time constraints, which is an excellent thing in this case – it’s less busy showmanship and more “gently structured spontaneity”, as described on Pavone’s Bandcamp page.
The type of emotion that she pulls out of these deeply considered and highly intense pieces is palpable. Jessica Pavone’s music takes time, and that’s precisely the point. Art isn’t meant to possess boundaries, and Lull is an exercise in composition and performance that requires patience and an open musical mind. The pleasures of this album are both odd and exquisite.