Jessica Pavone was in high spirits when she answered the phone last Wednesday. Her longtime friend and frequent collaborator, guitarist Mary Halvorson, had just been announced as a 2019 MacArthur Fellow. “I never felt so proud of someone,” said Pavone, an Astoria-based composer and multi-instrumentalist whose signature instrument is viola. “We were emailing each other yesterday, and she was like, ‘we gotta go out for sushi, it’s on me.” I called her and I asked, is that why you were saying sushi’s on you? ‘Yeah, sushi’s on me for five years!’ It was really cute.”
Pavone also has other reasons for cheer. This week sees the release of a new album, Brick and Mortar (Birdwatcher), from the J. Pavone String Ensemble, featuring Pavone and violist Joanna Mattrey, with violinists Erica Dicker and Angela Morris. The album’s five pieces explore the composer’s love for long tones and the use of vibrations as a kind of sonic tonic, as well as deploying a modest degree of indeterminacy—all conjured with her ensemble’s spellbinding chemistry. The project is celebrated in two separate concerts: Oct. 4 at Firehouse 12, in New Haven, where the group also will preview new music to be recorded in the studio, and Oct. 7 at Roulette in downtown Brooklyn, which also will feature the premiere of a new piece for octet.
The well-traveled Pavone, a prolific collaborator who has navigated more than a handful of musical genres among New York’s ever-hybridizing scene, spoke with National Sawdust Log about coming full circle back to her new music, the travails of the road and how her recent studies into modal vibrational phenomena, known as cymatics, has influenced her compositions.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: In the past few years, you moved from working with and writing for ensembles to doing only solo projects – including the albums In the Action, Silent Spills, and Knuckle Under – and now you’re focused on new ensemble recordings and performances. What propelled that journey, and how did it shape your new music?
JESSICA PAVONE: I had got to a point where I burnt out putting groups together. Because of all the self-administrating. I was lucky that I got a Jerome Foundation grant once, and Tzadik [Records] helped me. But a lot of times you’re coming up with the funds yourself; you’re doing everything yourself. I realized, I’m not enjoying this. I’m losing money on these projects and I don’t even know if the people I’m hiring want to be here. I needed to reassess.
At the time, I was a lot younger. It was less like when I was putting together string quartets or chamber groups—those were easier. It was more like when I was trying to put together improv bands. I had a band called Army of Strangers, which was me and a rhythm section. That band was what put it over the top for me. But I also had a lot of physical issues. I had two herniated discs. And I had all these problems. I had to stop playing for awhile. So it was the combination of all that happening at the same time. It literally was 2012 I reached this point where I had burnt out on leading bands.
Mary and I playing together, that started in 2002. That was one of the first bands I was in, and it was just the two of us. Everything was so easy. When I became a bandleader, it just was different. I was bedridden for a good part of a year, and I was thinking a lot about what I wanted to do creatively. It even goes back to when I was in high school and one of the first people I got into was Bob Dylan, and a person having a voice and expressing their voice by themselves. So I started thinking about a kind of folk-singer approach to what I do, where it’s like me and my music and I can play it at any time. I don’t have to send out 16 emails to coordinate a rehearsal or rent a space. It’s not like I hadn’t played a solo show before, so when I came back around to playing – it was late 2012 – I just really started to think about what i like about playing my instrument.
The part I enjoyed was the actual physical playing. In playing mostly solo music for the last six years, I started writing things more with time. Nothing was notated. It was more like working with a sound: I have this sound, and I’m going to play it. I literally have a clock. For 30 seconds, the sound will be like this, and for the next 30 seconds the sound will be like this. Kind of composing in block form. I also would time myself to make sure I didn’t rush through ideas.
When I came back to writing for a group, I thought: what if I would write the way I write for solo, but for other people?
How does that play out on the new album?
I had been writing in block form: OK, there’s a sound, and you’re going to play it for this amount of time, and there are instructions to move through a score, and there’s a clock that we’re following. Not all of the pieces are like that. There are a couple of pieces that are written—like “Hurt and Hurdle,” you just read it the way you read music. But on something like “Sooner or Later,” we’re all given a figure, and you can play it whatever tempo you want. You’re gonna play that figure, say, for a minute-and-a-half until you go into the next block, and then maybe you’ll transpose it down a fifth.
I wrote this figure; it feels good to play. Playing the viola is painful. I like to play long tones, because they feel good and they relax me. I found this figure that fit real nicely on the neck, and you can just go back and forth. It’s not super-fast or super-slow. We’re all playing, but we’re not in sync with each other. I’ll have a cell, and I’ll put a time – say, 4:15 to 4:45 – and that means sometime between 4:15 and 4:45 you’re gonna move to the next cell. We’re not all moving at the same time, so there’s a gradual shift in the sound.
For me to put elements of indeterminacy isn’t totally second nature for me. It was an exercise for me to free it up. With a lot of the pieces, the first half of the piece will start out in block form and there’s a clock conductor, and we’ll get to like minute six and then it’s ‘ignore the clock,’ and now we’re reading music straight through.
Does it change in live performance?
It would, but not enough that it’s not recognizable, which is the same as my solo music. Maybe Angela plays her figure a little faster at one show than another show, or maybe I’ll move to the next cell at four minutes and then another show I’ll move at four-thirty. So, slightly. It’s not like chance, where it can be a completely different piece depending on who’s playing it, but I find that pretty liberating for me as a composer to just try to open.
For someone that is also an improviser, I can be a little bit rigid in my compositions. I like overall form to be set, but then what comes in the middle, if there’s a little bit of variation, I’m OK with that. I just like knowing where something’s going to start and something’s going to end. I don’t like ambiguity at the beginning or ending of a piece. I’ve written another record since [this one] – actually we’re recording at Firehouse [this weekend] – which, again, I elaborated on the idea of the clock and other things I can do. It’s been a good exercise for me, but it’s also me trying to figure out how to write in a way that is more like my solo music. Those things had to come in an order for me to get where I am.
Was Brick and Mortar recorded at Firehouse, too?
This one was recorded at Issue Project Room. In March 2018 I did a show there, and they let me come in on a Sunday and record there, which I thought would be cool, ’cause it’s marble. The recording is a little crazy. I’m looking forward to going to a recording studio this time, but I did like the idea of the resonance in that space.
That room is so intensely live and echoey. How did it work out?
It was crazy. We’d be playing, and then literally come off of a chord after a piece and stand there, and the sound would be in the room for seven seconds. I trusted the engineer. There were a lot of fade ins and outs. There’s one tiny edit on the entire record. I really wanted to capture the feeling of recording live.
What is your affinity for the viola/violin pairing?
When I first decided to put that group together, I had just come off a tour where I was lugging a lot of gear. It’s partially practical: I wanted a group where there’s nothing plugged in. I want something small, easy; we can just in my car and go whenever we want.
But also I’m continuing with this idea of wanting the group – I’ve been studying a bit of sound healing and vibration and cymatics and these kinds of things – to not have to entirely depend on playing in a venue. So if we wanted to play in a hospital, if we wanted to play in a park, in my head at the time was something easily mobile and we could play anywhere. It wasn’t necessarily for range reasons; I just wanted flexibility. It wasn’t, “‘Oh, I hate the cello.”
It’s interesting how so much of your evolution follows practical mandates.
It’s a concern, being a musician living in New York. Small spaces. I came off this tour, it was hour-and-a-half soundchecks with everything being plugged in. An hour load-in and load out. It was a very extreme reaction to a very extreme situation, at the time. When I was on that tour, which would have been just before I started writing all this music, the radio was on in the van and a violin came on, and I thought, “Oh my God, the violin sounds so good.” I was playing bass in this band, so I was kind of removed from the situation. “The violin is like the greatest, greatest sounding thing ever”—it just kind of hit me. I thought, “You know what, maybe I should start writing for ensemble again.” I wanted to hear strings again. I think I had gotten kind of far away from it. I wrote that record in a month. All I wanted to do was write.
I’m curious about cymatics, which is mentioned in your press release for the new album.
The idea of sound affecting people has always been really interesting, and I was thinking about it a lot when I started writing this music. How come sometimes when you hear a song it pumps you up? Or how come sometimes you hear a song and it makes you sad, or it makes you nostalgic? And also, I have a lot of different energy practices. It’s a way for me to combine the two things. If I’m not making music, I’m probably getting acupuncture, or reiki.
When I wrote this record it was more just instinctual: I want to make music affect people to feel a certain way, without really having much knowledge. And then I started to read Hans Jenny, an East German who did studies on how vibrations affect water, and the pattern that it makes. I spent the summer studying with a sound healer, basically learning about the tradition. For thousands of years, monks were using sound bowls – the vibration – to heal people. Clearly, sound has an effect on our bodies. Our bodies are made of water. So the experiments that Hans Jenny was doing with vibrations on water in bowls, that’s what happens to your body when someone is doing this work on you.
The bowls they use are tuned in fifths. All of your chakras are connected to a note, and it’s in fifths. That’s the same as a string instrument, you know what I mean? There’s different generations of bowls, but traditionally they’re handmade by monks and they’re chanting and they’re meditating. Some are made out of different materials, or different mixtures of iron. It could be the same pitch, but when you play it sounds totally different.
As [the healer was] explaining to me how these are made, I thought, this sounds a lot like a luthier. You go to a luthier, and you’re trying out all these violins that are handmade.
And for you, the connections go even deeper, right?
Every pitch is associated with a planet, and I’m also an astrologer, so everything I’ve ever been interested in is coming together in this one thing. So that’s where my studies went this summer.
I’m also aware that I’m writing music because I want people to enjoy the experience, and for it to sound good. I’m not ignoring the fact that I’m a composer. I’m not going to compromise how I want something to sound based on a principle of healing, but it’s my own personal way of merging those things.
Jessica Pavone releases Brick and Mortar on Birdwatcher Records Oct. 4, and performs a record-release concert at Roulette Oct. 7; roulette.org
Steve Dollar is a freelance journalist and critic for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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