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jenny olivia johnson

selected press //


“In her installation DIVE (Lucy’s Last Dance), Jenny Olivia Johnson, associate professor of music, has recreated a typical 1990s “dive bar” she remembers from her college days in New York. It features stools and rickety tables, framed posters, flashing lights, and a dart board. A screen hanging from the ceiling in a corner shows a video of a dancer performing on a stage. The After Time, an opera Johnson composed over a 19-year period, plays on the jukebox. Central to this exhibit is the character Lucy, to whom the opera is dedicated.

A piece of the exhibit, a replication of a dive bar complete with tables, neon signs and a darts boardLucy is a young dancer at a women’s college who dies mysteriously, Johnson said. Two women who knew her come together after her death to search for answers.

“I developed this exhibit from my experiences in New York City,” said Johnson. “Lucy was modeled on my friend who was an incredibly talented artist who harbored a number of secret emotional struggles. The last place Lucy was seen by friends was a dive bar like this.”

Q20, which also includes work by faculty members Claudia Joskowicz, Phyllis McGibbon, Kelsey Miller, Elizabeth Mooney, Andrew Mowbray, Daniela Rivera, Katherine Ruffin, and William Van Beckum, will be on view through June 7.”
Wellesley College Daily Shot, February 14, 2020



“The concert was billed as a walk down memory lane, with pieces originally composed for the two now-merged groups and a premiere by Kwong-Brown. It was anchored by Jenny Olivia Johnson’s Reflect Reflect Respond Respond (Echo and Narcissus in Reverse), a 20-minute cantata sung here by experienced new-music sopranos Amy Foote and Ann Moss, with the ensemble boosted by Evan Kahn (cello) and Kevin Rogers (violin).

Johnson, who presently teaches at Wellesley College, is obviously a natively dramatic composer: Reflect Reflect begins with a forceful, full-ensemble outcry that includes repeated bass drum hits, trombone pedal notes, and a flurry of highly charged melodic gestures. The doubled voice of Echo enters with anguished cries, but many of these gestures recur in more subdued form as the piece moves into a kind of litany of grief. Of course, Johnson includes digital delay effects to create the voice of Echo, but the two sopranos were an even more powerful representation of inconsolable sorrow mixed with occasional remembrances of Narcissus’s yearning for his own reflection (as echoed by the nymph). In the last section, the composer adds the chorale “Jesu, meine Freude,” which overlaps in ripples with some of the previous music. It’s beautiful, even calming, as the voices fade away. Reflect Reflect is the kind of score that you hope you’ll experience when you sit down at a concert of music you don’t know. Nathaniel Berman, current artistic director of Ninth Planet, conducted a fluid, emotive performance.”
Michael Zwiebach, San Francisco Classical Voice


“The result is a work of considerable artistic and creative depth that highlights the anxiety and torment of the soul of the great poet [Sylvia Plath], through a now hypnotic music, now celestial, permeated by pain and anxiety, but also by moments of sublime quietness. The use of voices is dreamlike, and the ethereal music of the synthesizers, the cello, the piano gives the whole atmosphere an elegiac and contemplative, liquefied in enveloping sounds that tell dreams, feelings and deep feelings. Really a beautiful CD to listen carefully.”
Luciano Feliciani,

“This album produced and composed by Jenny Olivia Johnson was inspired by quotations by Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The musicians P. Lucy McVeigh/voc, Lavena Johanson-David Russell/cel, Jenny Tang-Isabelle O’Connell/p, Eliko Akahori-Nicholas Knouf-Jenny Olivia Johnson/synth-elec and Lisa Liu/eg create a mix of ethereal ambiance to reflect the prose. Celestial harmonies with electric percussion dominate material such as the “Glass Heart: Interlude 1” while sounds of wind chimes are created on the “Interlude 3” and moods of a dark fairy tale form icy shadows on “Devonsire.” The longest pieces, an 11 minute “Wellesley” could well be inspired for a Part Two of the movie Frozen, with chilling sonic wonders and sounds of Northern Lights.”
George W. Harris, JazzWeekly



“[In ‘Dollar Beers (Redondo Beach ’96),’] over a gently pulsating harmonic pattern floats a fragile, shadowy vocal line; the words, which Johnson based on a Young Adult novel, build ominously to a climax whose dark outcome is alluded to, but never stated clearly. … [T]he album feels like a mixtape, simultaneously a record of how Johnson achieved her own style and a series of song-stories that share an elusive yet unmistakable core of tragedy.”
David Weininger, Boston Globe

“Wellesley professor Jenny Olivia Johnson … beautiful sounds with stark lyrics. … Conductor Nathaniel Berman leads the ensemble in assured renditions of the material. While plenty of composers are reveling in the electro-acoustic playground, there aren’t too many that have the orchestrator’s ear and sense of pacing possessed by Johnson. Recommended.”
Christian Carey, SEQUENZA 21


“That [Plath’s] work continues to motivate readers is attested to by “Glass Heart (Bells for Sylvia Plath),” composer Jenny Olivia Johnson’s interactive installation. It was inspired by lines from Plath’s “I Thought I Could Not Be Hurt”: “How frail the human heart must be . . . so deep/ and tremulous an instrument/ of glass that it can either sing,/ or weep.” Inside Johnson’s bell jars are lights and sounds that respond to tapping, and potentially make a collective experience of Plath’s chronicle of isolation. Blue, red and green LEDs light up, accompanied by snippets of Johnson’s composition, inspired by both Plath’s and Hughes’s verse. The sound and light show is surrounded by everyday items from an extraordinary life: paper dolls, letters from Plath’s psychiatrist, a slab of elm once used as a desk. Even the writer’s dedicated admirers are likely to be surprised by something. “I hope,” Moss says, “people will leave feeling that they didn’t know her before.”
Mark Jenkins, The Washington Post


“Accompanying the exhibition is an arresting sound and light sculpture by Wellesley composer Jenny Olivia Johnson, titled Glass Heart (Bells for Sylvia Plath) — a haunting homage to Plath, both physical and ethereal, in which visitors tap on glass jars to activate the sound of Wellesley college students singing Plath’s verses. The title of the piece is inspired by the parenthetical last verse of Plath’s first tragic poem:

(How frail the human heart must be —
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing —
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)”
Maria Popova,


“Jenny Olivia Johnson, a composer and an associate professor of music at Wellesley College, created Glass Heart (Bells for Sylvia Plath) as a tribute to Plath’s life and work, and it is included in One Life as an example of Plath’s ongoing artistic relevance and creative inspiration. I first came across the piece at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in 2013 while I was on a research trip for this exhibition. I was struck by what I heard—a slow and expansive sound that filled or, rather, haunted the gallery. The sound, in combination with the work’s sculptural component—flickering firefly-like blue and red lights inside glass bell jars—was unlike anything I had ever experienced before in a museum. And, I was intrigued by the installation’s participatory component: the museum’s visitors were invited to activate the piece through tapping on the glass jars. As an interactive work, Glass Heart offers an aural, visual, and physical encounter that connects the viewer to Plath’s ongoing legacy in a meaningful way. From an aesthetic perspective, I view Glass Heart as an important contemporary element of the One Life exhibition in that it serves as a unifying force for the selected objects while creating a contemplative atmosphere in the gallery.”
Dorothy Moss, curator, National Portrait Gallery



“The program began with Jenny Olivia Johnson’s “The After Time,” which the composer described as a darkly comedic “Law & Order”-style opera. Johnson, who wrote her own libretto and calls her work “A VHS Opera in Three Fragments,” was about not knowing. A beautiful student dancer falls to her death, which her infatuated friend thinks she witnesses but can’t be sure. Beauty is transient, and through a delicate score, triggered by falling line in the piano and sensitively sung by Justine Aronson and Lauren Davis, what TV would treat as a police procedural begins as a meditation on the answerable. I hope it boldly stays that way.”


“Deux autres voix new-yorkaises, féminines cette fois, se font aussi entendre sur ce disque: Paula Matthusen et Jenny Olivia Johnson. Chacun des compositeurs explore à sa façon le média électroacoustique, allant du traitement de signal pur (Miller) aux multiples pistes préenregistrées (Johnson), en passant par toutes les combinaisons possibles de sons fixés et traités en direct. Le disque se termine sur une méditation contemplative de Johnson, dans laquelle la flûte flotte sur une riche polyphonie préenregistrée. Avec ses interprétations et improvisations convaincantes, Terri Hron nous prouve avec brio à quel point la flûte à bec, méconnue de bien des auditeurs et créateurs actuels, est un instrument qui mérite vraiment que l’on s’y attarde. L’interprète est toujours en symbiose avec les extensions électroniques de son instrument qui dévoilent de multiples territoires sonores à explorer.”

“Two other New York voices, female this time, are also heard on this disc: Paula Matthusen and Jenny Olivia Johnson. Each composer explores the way electroacoustic media, from pure signal processing (Matthusen) to prerecorded sounds with multiple tracks (Johnson), mixes with all possible combinations of fixed and processed live sounds. The disc ends with a contemplative meditation (Johnson), in which the recorder floats over rich pre-recorded polyphony. With its compelling interpretations and improvisations, Terri Hron proves brilliantly how the recorder, unknown to many current listeners and creators, is an instrument that really deserves a closer look.”
-Cléo Palacio-Quintin, CIRCUIT (Musiques Contemporaines)


“One of the more intriguing collaborations on the album is Alex Temple and Jenny Olivia Johnson’s “It’s hard even to say it.” Temple is a Chicago-based composer; Johnson lives in Massachusetts. Each musician recorded their recollection of a shared memory, and layered and processed their own speaking voices. First we hear Temple’s lackadaisical reminiscence atop throbbing beats and crackling electronics, stark and listless. Then we enter into Johnson’s territory, a more spacious and ethereal realm, with haunting voices floating in the distance. The work exposes the fickleness of retention and shared personal archives, recalling Nico Muhly’s “Mothertongue,” another exploration of recollection by a New York contemporary of the Parlour Tapes+ crowd.”
-William L. Robin, THE BANDCAMP BLOG


“Composer Jenny Olivia Johnson, whose music explores synesthesia and memory, presents her first museum commission, a site-specific interactive audiovisual installation in the Davis Museum’s Sight and Sound Gallery. As a synesthete herself (she involuntarily “sees” colors when she hears sounds and vice versa), Johnson lyrically connects the imagery of Sylvia Plath’s poetry and her perceptions of Sol LeWitt’s prints through her composition and installation. The gallery, with its sophisticated speaker system, is an ideal venue for the presentation of her work. Johnson engaged with the 1991 LeWitt print suite, All Combinations of Red, Yellow, and Blue, with Scribbles, which the museum owns, at the suggestion of curator Elaine Mehalakes. The seven prints are composed of an allover scrim of delicately etched black lines against a solid, saturated aquatint background color, a different hue in each print. The prints hang in the gallery and necessitate a low lighting level for their conservation. The other source for the song and installation, and the source of its name, is Sylvia Plath’s poetry, and in particular the poem I Thought I Could Not Be Hurt, which depicts the human heart as an instrument made of glass. The audience “plays” Johnson’s song via an “instrument” of seven glass bell jars wired with LED lights in a range of colors that blink in relation to the music. The jars, which are mounted on poles that are about four feet in height and spaced throughout the gallery, are responsive to a variety of stimuli including the velocity of the audience’s touch and each other. Each person hears different parts of the song, which is performed by a range of instruments including cello, synthesizer, and percussion as well as voice. The variety of stimuli and variability of responses means that the way the piece plays is not predictable. As serious as this piece is, it is also a lot of fun to interact with. It adroitly addresses the subjectivity of experience through its form as it heightens awareness of the body in the space of the gallery. It is fortunate that it will be on display for an extended period, as one can return again and again with the assurance of a fresh experience each time.”
Mary Bucci McCoy, Art New England

“Inspired by these words from a poem that Sylvia Plath wrote in 1947 at the age of fourteen, as well as by the intensity and depth of the colors in Sol LeWitt’s 1991 print suite, All Combinations of Red, Yellow, and Blue, with Scribbles, composer Jenny Olivia Johnson created a new cycle of songs, one of which provides the basis for this installation. By deftly incorporating fragments of poetry, haunting vocals, and the experience of sound that eddies around the visitor in unexpected ways, Glass Heart (bells for Sylvia Plath) evokes the unpredictability and uncontrollability of memory. A daring foray into the potential of intersecting emotional undertones among distinct pieces of literature, music, and visual art, this work’s openness to mutation and moments of cacophony offers an immersive experience in which we may recognize personal connections. Johnson’s “…bell jars, repurposed as a choir of singing glass hearts,” powerfully suggest the potential resonance of human emotion, at its most communal and empathic.”
The Davis Museum at Wellesley College

“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

“[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


“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,


“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


“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



“Leaving Santa Monica, by the American Jenny Olivia Johnson…[was] an attractive mini-opera with minimalist whirls.” -Jochem Valkenburg, NRC, Netherlands

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