PRESS FOR “GLASS HEART (BELLS AND SONGS FOR SYLVIA PLATH)”
“As curator of the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Elaine Mehalakes dreamed of commissioning a piece of music to complement a visual installation. And because her museum is on a college campus, Mehalakes knew just the composer who could make this happen: Jenny Olivia Johnson, an assistant professor of music composition and theory at Wellesley.
Johnson brought an unusual asset to the project. Not only is she an acclaimed composer and percussionist, she also has a neurological condition called synesthesia, which she describes as “experiencing sound as a color or a touch or another sensory modality.” So the challenge of creating what she calls a “sound picture” for the museum was irresistible.
Knowing of Johnson’s auditory connection to color, Mehalakes suggested they begin by studying Sol LeWitt’s 1991 series of etchings, “All Combinations of Red, Yellow, and Blue, with Scribbles.” The series gave Johnson just the visual inspiration she needed to start thinking about the sound composition to go with it.
“And then I decided to take it a step further and actually build an instrument,” Johnson said. “As a composer, I wanted to create an interactive sound experience that would change based on how someone interacted with the materials. I thought about a lot of different approaches, and then came up with the idea of using glass jars for a bell-like sound.”
The instrument Johnson eventually created consists of seven glass bell jars fitted with contact microphones and colored LED lights that resemble the veins and arteries intersecting in the human heart.
In the exhibition, a viewer can touch the instrument to trigger a sound and also to cause the lights of the glass hearts to dance. The sounds vary depending on how many jars are touched, how soft or hard the touches are, and how much composite sound is generated in the space.
And because the bell jars evoked for Johnson a favorite poet, the late Sylvia Plath, the composer decided to make the work a tribute to the onetime Wellesley resident.
Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Plath’s death, the installation, “Glass Heart (bells for Sylvia Plath),” opened Wednesday and will remain on exhibit through June 9.
A concert of Johnson’s original multimedia presentation, called “Glass Heart and Other Stories,” takes place on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. in Wellesley College’s Houghton Chapel, also on the campus at 106 Central St. in Wellesley.”
- Nancy Shohet West, THE BOSTON GLOBE
METROWEST DAILY NEWS:
“[Jenny Olivia] Johnson worked with friends and musicians and artists Eliko Akahori and Jenny Tang (piano/synthesizer) Andrew Delclos (bassoon), Lucy McVeigh (soprano), Laura Moran (video art and lighting), David Russell (cello), Aaron Sheehan (tenor) to present this brilliant experience in both musical and visual art…Shortly before the performance, snow softly began to fall outside the chapel, the solemn grace of which proved to be a perfect setting for a highly emotional experience. The gray light shone through the stained glass windows creating a stunning array of colors, as if it had intended to be part of the show all along….At times the space resembled more the laboratory of a mad scientist than a makeshift concert hall. Colored wires crisscrossed the floor, glass bell jars covered LED lights, projector screens rolled two separate clips at once, and computers controlled it all. In this den of artistic experimentation, Johnson played both the role of humble servant and determined creator to a beautiful, though distressing, foray into human trauma and response to stimuli. And as the musicians put their fingers to their instruments and their voices to the air, they created sounds that seemed to mimic the sentiments of Plath’s poem “I Thought I Could Not Be Hurt.”
Johnson’s compositions rely heavily on the intelligent use of dissonance to create feelings of fear, sadness and other tension, while still managing to never forsake the beauty of each individual instrument or voice. Instruments at times took on a vocal quality that seemed to confuse the stubborn preconceptions in just the way Johnson planned. Every sound and sight reflected the emotional intensity of soprano Lucy McVeigh, singing Plath’s words, “How frail the human heart must be, that it can either sing, or weep.” Sure enough, as the final moments of the concert were coming to a close, the sound of half-suppressed weeping filled the chapel.
It was as if, as Johnson put it, Plath’s ghost had returned to tell the audience of her tragedy.”
-Taylor Markarian, MetroWest Daily News
PRESS FOR “CUTTER,” “DOLLAR BEERS,” “AN AFTER SCHOOL VESPERS,” and “STARLING”
“But the surprise triumph of the evening was Jenny Olivia Johnson’s deeply moving and beautiful meditations on the trials of young adult-hood. Her After School Vespers combines four songs, each focusing on topics such as cutting, binge drinking, and molestation….more often than not, Johnson’s treatments are effective, particularly Cutting with its jarring use of a driving industrial sample, and Dollar Beers (Redondo Beach ’96) with its languorous descending chord progression. The latter two pieces, while also lovely and haunting, exposed a stylistic similarity in the cycle that made one yearn for more variety. The structure for each song seemed repetitive, a soprano intones individual notes in a haze of reverb as the ensemble builds diatonic clusters. Intensity builds slowly, eventually reaching a climax that finds the soprano sustaining fortissimo notes at the upper end of her register, a device that is perhaps best used only once in a song cycle. Still, when the concert was finished, I found myself disappointed that there was no recording of the piece for me to buy at the merch table. These are pieces I am looking forward to hearing again.” -Brian M. Rosen, musicvstheater.com
PRESS FOR “DOLLAR BEERS (REDONDO BEACH ‘96)”
“In Jenny Olivia Johnson’s “Dollar Beers (Redondo Beach ’96),’’ six players hypnotically circled a slow, catchy pop-ballad progression, while soprano Lucy McVeigh intoned casually enigmatic lyrics. Johnson, who has studied music’s role as a trigger for traumatic memories, conjured such echoes, acoustically and electronically layering the sound into a gorgeous and ominous haze….Johnson’s post-minimal atmospherics…subverted the framework, Johnson eschewing oppositional form for linear single-mindedness.” -Matthew Guerrieri, Boston Globe
“Although the “program” of the piece is quite maudlin — having to do with teenage fears, real and imagined — the work itself is stunning in its simplicity and power. Its shape is one long crescendo, based on long, slow chiming dissonances to create the ominous horror of the extra-musical program, followed by a short decrescendo, ending in a quiet piccolo solo. Ms. Johnson has a real ear for instrumental color and timbre, and this was a good introduction to her music.” -Mary Wallace Davidson, The Boston Musical Intelligencer
“Jenny Olivia Johnson, resident composer at Wellesley, was represented by Dollar Beers (Redondo Beach ’96), composed 2006, for soprano, flute, violin, cello, piano, percussion and electronics, with text by the composer. It featured attractive repeating harmonies on an irregularly descending B-flat, A-flat, G-flat ostinato bass, rising to a loud climax and fading back slowly to a quiet ending. This was the most luminous and least noisy work on the program.” -Mark DeVoto, The Boston Musical Intelligencer
PRESS FOR “THE ENDINGS”
“iridescent…shimmering…evocative…a composer with a genuine flair for musical drama.” -Steve Smith, Time Out New York
“sustained sonorities, drones, instrumental colorings (including the exotic sounds of Tibetan bowls)…lacy, abstract.” - Anthony Tommasini, New York Times
PRESS FOR “LEAVING SANTA MONICA”
“Leaving Santa Monica, by the American Jenny Olivia Johnson…[was] an attractive mini-opera with minimalist whirls.” -Jochem Valkenburg, NRC, Netherlands