Glass Heart (Bells for Sylvia Plath) – Jenny Olivia Johnson (2013) from Jenny Olivia Johnson on Vimeo.

The idea for this piece emerged from a request for me to create a sound installation for the Wellesley College Davis Museum. I immediately thought of building an instrument, one that visitors could touch and interact with, and which could make its own sounds, as well as trigger pre-recorded samples from a pre-existing piece of music. I then had the idea to design the instrument such that, depending on who touched which part of it, how many people touched it, and how hard or soft it was touched, it would respond by playing different fragments of the piece, thus recomprising it in unpredictable ways.

As I began I began composing the actual music, I found Sylvia Plath’s exquisitely emotional verse to be a natural inspiration. The fact that Plath once lived and wrote some of her earliest poems in Wellesley was a further impetus for me to create a very specific musical offering to her in the gallery: bell jars, repurposed as a choir of singing glass hearts. They are a musical and sculptural tribute to her famous first novel, as well as to a poem Plath wrote at age 14: “I Thought I Could Not Be Hurt,” in which she describes the frail human heart as an “instrument of glass” that is “so deep and tremulous” that it “can either sing, or weep.” The poetic connection between hearts and glass in this poem reminded me of the glass of bell jars, and of course the word “bell,” a musical word, furthered my inspiration to create an “instrument of glass” that can sing some of Plath’s haunting phrases.

The resulting song cycle (only parts of which are used in the museum installation) is an emotional gloss on Plath’s short life, oriented around three different cities in which she was known to have spent significant time: New York, where she interned at a magazine in 1953, and became aware of her impending mental illness; Boston, where the heroine of her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar was meant to have grown up; and Wellesley, where Plath herself grew up, and first attempted to take her own life.

London was another important city for Plath—indeed, the city in which she died, at age 30—but in order to maximize my empathic response to Sylvia Plath’s story and poems, I limited my purview to these three cities, which happen to be ones in which I, too, have had significant life events take place.

TEXTS (Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes)

NEW YORK (“The Applicant”)

Naked as paper to start
But in twenty-five years
She’ll be silver
In fifty, gold
A living doll
Everywhere you look
It can sew, she can cook
It can talk, talk, talk
It works.
There is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
It works
There is nothing wrong with it.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
These are the isolate, slow faults
That kill, that kill, that kill.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
My boy
(I don’t know what I was doing in New York.)

I took a deep breath and listened
To the old bray of my heart:
I am, I am, I am.

(“The Bell Jar,” page 167)

I am going for a long walk.

How frail the human heart must be It can either sing, or weep.

(“I Thought I Could Not Be Hurt”/”Last Letter”)

Liquors seep to me In this glass capsule
I thought I could not be hurt
How frail the human heart must be
Enclosed in a wall of glass
What happened that night
Inside your hours
Is as unknown as if it never happened
Never happened…

Premiered February 23, 2013 at Houghton Chapel, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA.
Performers: P. Lucy McVeigh, soprano/bell jar; Jenny Tang, piano; Eliko Akahori, synthesizer; David Russell, cello; Jenny Olivia Johnson, electronics; and Jenny Olivia Johnson and Laura Moran, 2-channel video.*

Exhibition of the interactive bell jars occurred at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College (February 20, 2013-July 21, 2014).

The installation will be featured at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery from June 30, 2017-May 20, 2018, as part of their One Life: Sylvia Plath show, curated by Dorothy Moss.

*Posted recording of the third movement is a live recording session in Jewett Auditorium, December 16, 2012, with the same performers listed above.