As the founder of one of New York City’s most versatile and in-demand new-music groups, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), the cellist Clarice Jensen has been an advocate for countless composers. The ensemble initially bridged the so-called uptown and downtown musical worlds, while also pursuing significant byroads into the works of Meredith Monk, Joseph Byrd, Julius Eastman, and others. But for more than a decade Jensen and ACME also have built bridges extending well past the conventional bounds of the concert platform, through collaborations with ambient, drone, and minimalist composers and collaboratives such as Stars of the Lid, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Hauschka, Max Richter, and Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Jensen’s connection to Jóhannsson was especially durable, so it’s fitting that her debut solo album, For this from that will be filled, includes one of the last concert works the widely admired Icelandic composer-performer completed before to his sudden, untimely death in February. Jensen’s album also includes a new piece by Michael Harrison, for layered cellos in just intonation. And the work with which the album shares its title comes from a composer making an auspicious debut: Jensen herself.
Jensen’s album is due on April 6; the following evening, she’ll perform alongside her creative and domestic partner, the video artist Jonathan Turner, in an Ambient Church concert in Bushwick. Headlining that event is the Belgian video artist and composer Christina Vantzou, on whose latest album, No. 4 (also due April 6), Jensen is a featured guest; here, Jensen and her ACME colleagues will play in Vantzou’s ensemble.
Over lunch one recent afternoon at a Brooklyn café, Jensen talked about her work with Jóhannsson and Vantzou, the evolution of ACME, and the development of her solo practice.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: The timing of your album’s arrival, so soon after Jóhann Jóhannsson’s untimely passing, must be kind of a very sensitive coincidence.
CLARICE JENSEN: Yeah, it was. The timing in general was a little eerie. When we got the news, I was in L.A. recording with Dustin [O’Halloran] and Adam [Wiltzie] from A Winged Victory for the Sullen – Dustin has a studio in L.A. The night before we got the news, we all – with his manager and other friends – we went to a Lakers game and had a great time. And then the next morning Adam got a call from Siggi [Finnsson], [Jóhann’s] assistant in Berlin. And we were just talking about Jóhann. So I feel lucky that I managed to get that one.
We did it all in one day, basically… the tracking, anyway. He came to Francesco [Donadello]’s studio in the afternoon and came up with the concept; he had this really crazy concept with the tape loops slowing down, but the pitch staying the same through the loop. And then I kind of had some ideas for the melodic and harmonic material that would fit in with the rest of what we had already tracked. So we just did it in a day, and then Francesco and I edited the next day.
This was a really collaborative piece, then.
Yeah, yeah. It was definitely Jóhann’s concept entirely, and then I kind of came up with the notes – I mean, it’s just a loop and a major scale, a major scale over two octaves, and we kind of came up with that together, like it was just something to go on top of this loop – we didn’t want it to be like a melody, but we wanted it to feel melodic. So I was like, why don’t we just do a scale? And we tried it.
How much of the sound of that piece is post-production, if any?
Francesco just added reverb, and that’s it, really. He didn’t even add reverb to the tape loop, because I wanted the warbling and the sound of the tape to be as noticeable as possible, and any time we started adding reverb to that, it was kind of masking it, kind of glossing over it.
I really like that warbling. It’s a beautiful texture.
Francesco works a lot with tapes, and that sound, too. In fact, when they were doing the Arrival soundtrack together, the original piece that was supposed to be on the soundtrack, before they replaced it with Max [Richter]’s piece, was something [Jóhann] wrote that was basically a really slowed-down tape loop with inside-the-piano noises. I want Francesco and Jóhann to have credit for that concept, because it wasn’t my idea at all.
But now that I’m keen to slowing down tape sounds and making tape loops, I’m really into it, so I’m using it a lot more for future pieces. I just got this machine that this guy who lives in Greenpoint makes – it’s called a Crudman, and it’s a Walkman that can be controlled with a MIDI controller. It has a three-octave range, and it’s scarily accurate. He invented it sort of as a new Mellotron, basically, so you could put any kind of sustained tone on a cassette and play it, and it sounds incredible.
I was looking for something to be able to do Jóhann’s piece live without just having a backing track – I get bored with that, just hitting the space bar and playing along. I wanted to find a way to be able to do it, like a performance cassette, and this is perfect. I just got it and I’ve been experimenting, and I think I have a solution for the show on the 7th.
Does that also add an element of chance, or at least variety? The piece is never 100 percent the same way each time.
It’s never the same, for sure. And also sort of an element of danger, because like a Walkman is made of tiny little screws and springs and stuff [laughs], so I was like, maybe I should buy two, just in case the other one… you know, whatever happens. But I’m just taking my chances that it’ll work out.
You worked for an extended period with Jóhann, didn’t you?
Yeah, our first tour together was in ’09, so almost ten years now. I obviously love his music. He was just such a private guy. I spent a lot of time with him, but I feel like I don’t really know a lot about him.
How did you connect?
Through Adam. We did a tour with Stars of the Lid, and I guess one of those shows was a Wordless show. And then [Wordless Music producer] Ronen [Givony] booked Jóhann for a Wordless show, and Adam decided to turn that into a U.S. tour, so he hired us for that.
[Editor’s note: Ronen Givony is now part of the National Sawdust programming team.]
How did you connect with Michael Harrison?
I met Michael through my sister [artist manager and publicist Christina Jensen]. He had written so many pieces for Maya [Beiser] that I liked. I always liked his just intonation pieces, so I wanted a piece like that. I think we were talking at an ACME house concert that we do once a year. He had just written a piece for Mari Kimura, and he’s like, I’ll send you that. So he did, and I really liked it. And Jonathan, my boyfriend, met him at the same party, so it just kind of came together that way.
So then Jon made a short video based on an excerpt of some sine-tone Constellations that Michael was sending. That video was maybe 12 minutes long, but it kind of turned into the material for the whole show, basically. I watched it and I picked out certain things that I liked, that I wanted to be extended or become ambient projections during the show. So basically all the visuals for the show came from this shorter video that Jon made from what Michael sent him, that was a proto-version of the piece that he wrote for me. It was kind of all connected that way.
Again, another collaborative kind of situation, sparked by what the composer did first.
Right. Just a concept, at first. Michael wrote the piece in SuperCollider… I don’t really understand everything that’s going on. [laughs] It’s a lot. But I thought it would fit with what I’m doing, because when you layer that many cellos, it doesn’t sound like a cello anymore. What I’m doing with my pedalboard is making a lot of layers that sonically still fit, even though it was a piece I didn’t write at all. And it’s a piece for multi-tracked cellos that I perform with backing track. It is definitely the classical piece on the record. But to me, I think it fits; I don’t think it sticks out.
They don’t really train you in conservatory to play cello while working pedal boards.
No! [laughs] Not at all.
And everybody’s got pedals now, whether they’re doing effects or just turning the page on their iPad. It’s an amazing skill set for the 21st century.
I had to figure out my own way. I don’t wear shoes, and then I just turn the knobs with my toes. It took a long time to figure out what pedals work with the cello: I knew I wanted to make tones, I knew I wanted a way of looping stuff. So it took a while to figure out what works. I got this Mellotron pedal – I was so excited about it. It’s an ElectroHarmonix pedal, a Mellotron simulator. It just sounds comical by itself, so I had to figure out what order to put things in, and what to put in front of it. But it’s really fun, because you can really expand your instrument so much in it.
I was wanting a way to use pedals that’s like I’m still playing the cello, so that it isn’t like: here’s a layer, and then I’m going to add a layer. A lot of people will make music that way, but my music is more durational, and it’s not really so rhythmic, obviously. [laughs] I was more interested in ways of finding new sounds, and more compelling sounds, as opposed to counterpoint.
Did you train as a composer at all, or did you find your way into composing through the pieces you interpreted?
Well, in school everyone has to take theory and ear training and those things, and I had a lot of composer friends. I hang out with a lot of composers. But not formal training, no. I think I found my way into it by touring with groups like Stars of the Lid and Winged Victory for the Sullen and Jóhann. I was like: I really want to make music, I love this music, I want to make music like this, I have ideas about how this music could go. I’ve wanted to do a solo thing for a long time, but I felt restricted by the sound of the cello by itself, and I don’t feel too excited by having a set-up with a computer. I wanted it to be still somehow connected to how I perform, how I’ve performed since I was three years old. I didn’t want it to be completely removed from that.
You’re looking for something physiological and kinetic, something that’s connected to your actual presence, as opposed to, as you said a minute ago, hitting the space bar and just having it go.
Exactly. I mean, I totally understand; I play music that way, too. But for this project, I wanted it to be a little more interactive and physiological. And it took a while to figure out how do that. My friend Grey McMurray, he’s a master with pedals, and I would play shows with him… I bought a reverb pedal first, and then I got a Line 6 DL4 pedal, and that was the start. And then I figured out some things, but it was kind of a long process.
Grey was great, because he would just force me into situations where I’d have to use them early on. I’d be scared, and then I’d use them, and then it just kind of turned into… I was playing sets by myself and improvising, and then I would record them and find things that I liked and that worked, and then put those together into pieces.
What are the structural ideas in the two parts of the piece?
The first part, I wanted a piece on the record that was shorter, and that was basically a satisfying chord progression that was still drone-based. It starts off where the second part ends, in a way, too, harmonically and with the arpeggiated chords, but with so much delay and the Octaver is really spread. So it’s the same arpeggios and things, but the beginning sounds like a crazy organ, I think, and then at the end it’s just acoustic cello at first, but then it gets layered and bounced around. That’s the general structure, I guess: A and B. Also, I just really hate naming stuff, and those were the two pieces on the record that were totally mine, and so I just kind of felt that they would just be called A and B. [laughs] It’s very vague, and not entirely meaningful.
I’m curious about the evolution of ACME in terms of the kinds of music the group champions. I’ve been tagging along since the very beginning, and I remember the days at the Tenri Cultural Center when it would be, like, Elliott Carter and Nico Muhly sharing a program. But it seems like along the way you identified a direction, and a sound world that you wanted to occupy and linger in. Is that accurate?
That’s very accurate, yes. I guess I got frustrated playing that music. I love that music. I love to study it, and I love to practice it.
When we say it, we’re talking about Elliott Carter et al?
Elliott Carter, Donald Martino… It feels good to really rehearse that music and feel like you’ve gone somewhere. It’s a unique challenge to try to make music out of such dissonant sounds and such unnatural sounds. I enjoy it – but I don’t enjoy performing it. It’s just, you try so hard, and then you look up at the end and don’t know if anyone had a good time.
For the record: I had a good time. But at the same time, you introduced me to Nadia Sirota, you introduced me to Nico Muhly—you even introduced me to Anohni, via Nico. You opened my eyes and ears in a lot of ways, where I was drawn in the door by names I recognized, but then lingered for the ones I didn’t.
Which is great. I mean, that’s how New York works, and I really like that. But yeah, I guess I saw so much… like, the first Stars of the Lid concerts we did, I hadn’t played music like that, and a world opened up for me, in which I had to play really long notes for a long time, or really, really slow melodies. I saw sounds being made by Adam in ways that I didn’t understand, but I really liked these sounds and the open structure. I think that’s when I was really like: why struggle, when you can just make beautiful sounds? [laughs]
I mean. I don’t feel that way every day. But when it comes to me wanting to do my own solo, that kind of language is where I have the most to say. I don’t want to say this like I can’t write hard, complicated music, but my music’s not complicated… I mean, it’s complicated to do, actually. But it’s like: I like the way this sounds, and I’m going to figure out how long I should do it – maybe for five minutes, or eight minutes. So that’s the process for me: finding things where I love the way it sounds, how long should I do it, what can I layer on top of it?
To help with that, I like to do graphic scores. It’ll start out scribbly, just to kind of figure out… I’ll demo things and listen to it, but especially with long pieces, you lose perspective when you listen to it over and over… you’re like, maybe that was too long, maybe this is boring now. It helps visually to see how something is going.
Leaping out from the world of Carter and Martino, from being a product of the academy, where did you first come into contact with the likes of Stars of the Lid and Winged Victory?
The first time, it was through Ronen, actually.
You were the pick-up band for a Wordless gig?
Yeah, [Stars of the Lid] were doing a Wordless concert, and Adam got my name and wrote to me. He was like, are you free? And I was like, yeah, I’m free and I like your music. He’s like, OK, great… do you know how to read notes? [laughs] And I was like, I totally know how to read notes. So we did a little East Coast tour, that was the first tour, and then Jóhann was the next tour with Adam. After that, I met Dustin; he was hanging around backstage after a Hauschka show that we did at LPR. He hired us to record Lumiere, and we played shows with him. It was really through Wordless and LPR.
You’re on the new Christina Vantzou album, No. 4, and you’ll be playing with her on April 7. This is the first time ACME has worked with her on one of her numbered albums, right?
Yeah. It wasn’t really ACME; it was just me, and then she recorded with other players in Belgium. But ACME is playing the show on the 7th. Christina’s also from Kansas City, where I’m from, but we never met in Kansas City. I think we just kind of got along, had the same kind of language. She’s not really from a musical background. She’s more of a visual artist. In The Dead Texan, she didn’t write; she did the visuals, and Adam [Wiltzie] wrote all the music. But she just kind of dove right in and started making her own stuff.
How does that work, on a practical level? Does somebody create scores for the players to read, or is it something that’s more informal, conversational?
It’s more conversations, and some things are written down, like cells of stuff to perform. I’ve only performed with her once, and it was for a Monkey Town… and it was near the end of Monkey Town, so it was like a pop-up Monkey Town.
I didn’t get to go, but I remember that gig, because it was right around the time I was first becoming aware of her work. Her music is so unambiguously beautiful, and so unapologetic about being really, really pretty.
[laughs] It’s true. And I feel jealous of the way she works, because I think I’m so confined in my conservatory mind and my conservatory experience that I don’t want to record anything I can’t do myself, live. And she’ll be like, “Put this here!” Or, “What I need for this track is a gong,” so she’ll get this gong player and record. She’s just wild with her imagination. It’s so decadent!
Decadent is a good word.
And I’m just like, if only I could let myself do that. But I don’t think I can. I think I need parameters, because I already feel so free as it is that I think I need constraints. And she’s just like, whatever!
Is it also a case of preferring hands-on control? Not to paint you as a control freak, but I can see someone who’s used to using their hands to produce their sound might also want to have a more tactile control of what it is they’re producing.
Exactly. That, and also, I have been working collaboratively, playing chamber music, for so long, and I finally am doing something that’s just me. [laughs] I don’t need to negotiate with anybody else. I get to decide everything. And I’m really happy with that to have that as an outlet. But I wouldn’t want it to be my whole career, obviously, at all, because I love working with people, and I love working things out with people and negotiating stuff.
For this from that will be filled is due April 6 in vinyl, CD, and digital formats on Miasmah Records; preorders are available now via Bandcamp. Clarice Jensen performs with video artist Jonathan Turner and with Christina Vantzou’s ensemble in an Ambient Church event at Bushwick Methodist Church on April 7 at 7pm; ambient.church