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Clarice Jensen, "The Experience of Repetition as Death"

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cover imageI was legitimately blindsided by Clarice Jensen's wonderful 2018 debut (For This From That Will Be Filled), but it left me with absolutely no idea what to expect from her in the future, as it was an unusual collection consisting of a collaboration, an ambitious solo composition, and a piece composed by Michael Harrison.  As such, it was hard to tell if Jensen was a brilliant cellist with great taste, an extremely promising composer, or both.  With the spellbinding The Experience of Repetition as Death, Jensen definitively confirms that she is indeed both, as she ingeniously employs loops and effects to craft a beguiling, varied, and richly textured five-song suite inspired by personal tragedy, Freud, and Adrienne Rich.  Though death is a definite and deliberate theme, Jensen transforms it into something sublime, transcendent, and achingly beautiful.  Moreover, the album's mesmerizing centerpiece ("Holy Mother") completely decimates any preexisting conceptions I had regarding what one person can achieve with a cello.

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The title of this album is lovingly borrowed from Adrienne Rich's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," as Jensen has a deep admiration for Rich and her work and that particular poem holds deep personal meaning for her.  However, it was actually Freud's writings about the death drive that indirectly led to the unusual conceptual framework of this album, as Jensen was fascinated by his thoughts about the "compulsion to repeat self-destructive behaviors or re-live traumatic events."  Unsurprisingly, that got Jensen thinking a lot about how to break out of the repetitive nature of our existence.  Needless to say, it is not hard to see how such thoughts might have immediate practical applications for an artist whose work is largely loop-based by necessity.  In essence, Jensen set out to disrupt and transcend familiar patterns in order to subvert a creative death drive (or, at least, a creative stagnation drive).  The most immediately graspable and overt evidence of Jensen's clever escape from the prison of repetition lies in the album's gorgeous bookends: "Daily" and "Final."  In the opening "Daily," a warmly melodic cello theme languorously unfolds over a bed of drones, gradually blossoming into a more complex crescendo of overlapping loops.  It all feels quite seamless and sensuous, yet the theme is actually "fragmented into three different tape loops and never expressed fully in order."  On the closing "Final," those same loops are revisited in degraded and disrupted form until they are finally allowed to converge into a rapturous finale in which four separate loops unite in achingly lovely harmony. 

While both of those pieces are absolutely gorgeous, the three pieces that lie between them offer a more varied array of pleasures.  Notably, the first of the trio ("Day Tonight") is yet another variation on the same loops used in "Daily" and "Final," albeit an unrecognizably extreme one.  According to Jensen, the theme is presented in an "unfamiliar key," but it also seems like it has been time-stretched until it is essentially a drone piece (it is twice as long as the other two pieces made from the same material).  Eventually, however, it builds to a half-fluttering/half-stammering crescendo of sorts that calls to mind classic minimalism à la Steve Reich.  The following "Metastable" is yet another drone-based piece, but it coheres into a bass-heavy and queasily see-sawing pulse of organ-like chords that were inspired by the omnipresent rhythmic beeping of hospital wards.  It is interesting both rhythmically and texturally, but it does not have enough of a melodic or harmonic component to leave a deep impression.  That is not true of "Holy Mother," however, which resembles nothing less than a roiling, endlessly shifting, and downright apocalyptic organ mass.  While intermittent surges of rumbling low-end admittedly imbue the piece with a seismic intensity, Jensen nevertheless pulls off a nimble balancing act between light and darkness, as the organ-like tones dance and flicker like sunlight through a stained glass window.  Aside from being a visceral tour de force, "Holy Mother" is quite striking in how dramatically Jensen is able to alter the sound of her cello, as she employs an array of effects to alternately transform her bowed strings into a glimmering nimbus of overtones and a mass chorus of deep voices.  She also pulls off a neat trick at the end where the attack disappears to leave only the spectral reverberations (which then disappear as well to leave behind a wake of shivering feedback or overtones).

I suppose the only thing preventing me from declaring that The Experience of Repetition in Death is a start-to-finish masterpiece is the fact that the more experimental pieces ("Day to Night" and "Metastable") feel like a bit of an extended lull compared to the more melodic and emotionally resonant pieces that come before and after.  It seems crazy to lament the fact that the album is not an uninterrupted parade of career-defining triumphs though, as three brilliant pieces out of five is more than enough to make me fall completely in love with this album: the high points are extremely high indeed.  Unsurprisingly, it was the intensity and bold vision of the epic "Holy Mother" that first grabbed (and held) my attention, but after listening to the album on headphones a few times, I became convinced that "Daily" and "Final" are Jensen's most towering achievements to date.  Both pieces are an absolute master class in both composition and performance, as each is warm, poignant, and beautifully melodic on their face and both make masterful use of looping.  With closer listening, however, they reveal themselves to be significantly more than they first appear, as the elegant interplay of the loops and the shimmering accumulation of quivering overtones in their wake reach a level of sublime brilliance that I rarely, if ever, encounter (despite some very diligent searching on my part).  With those two pieces, Jensen masks the complex within the simple and makes it all seem effortless and perfectly natural.  To my ears, those thirteen minutes alone are more than enough to ensure that The Experience of Repetition in Death will be one of the albums that leaves the deepest and most long-lasting impact on me this year.  Clarice Jensen is one seriously formidable artist.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 21 April 2020 12:36  


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