Zen Sounds 041: Clarice Jensen
»Esthesis« is inspired by Chinese philosophy, American minimalism and a letter from Simone de Beauvoir
Heavy storms came up last week, bringing colder temperatures with them. When the sun was out briefly, we worked on fixing our outhouse’s tin roof and piling up firewood.
I’m trying to cure my wanderlust by watching illegal freight train surfers and Japanese ferry rides on Youtube. I’ve also been reading legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s autobiography (he’s a superb storyteller), and in the evenings, we’ve been re-watching some of his greatest documentaries. All of them are beautifully shot and narrated.
A fellow Substack writer, Lorenzo of Outer Signals, educated me about the Dungeon Synth revival of the 2010’s. The genre sits at the crossroads between dark ambient and atmospheric black metal, often with a folky edge. If you’re intrigued now, I am recommending an obscure 2013 tape by Swedish one-man-project Tusen År Under Jord. I’ve been listening to it a lot, but Lorenzo already did a great write-up on his site.
Aside from Swedish Dungeon Synth tapes, the music of New York composer and cellist Clarice Jensen has provided a reliable place of refuge this past week – hiding from the storms, my mind getting swept away by her moonstruck mix of synth, piano and cello drones.
I first heard her music on community radio. One of my favorite selectors is Coby Sey on NTS, and in his January show, he played three of Jensen’s songs. »Liking« and particularly »Love« caught my ear – I found out that both come from the same album, Jensen’s third LP »Esthesis«, released in October.
You know, this is why I trust humans so much more to show me something truly exciting than any habit-tracking algorithm.
Clarice Jensen – »Esthesis«
Turns out Clarice Jensen is hardly a newbie to the music world. Since graduating from Juilliard, the New York based artist played cello on hugely successful albums by Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Björk, Michael Stipe and even Taylor Swift. She has also released a handful of albums and EPs of her own compositions, usually centering around droning, processed cello sounds.
On her third solo album »Esthesis«, things get a little different though. You will definitely hear cello, but many of the compositions focus on synthesizer as the main instrument. The album contains seven songs, each dedicated to one of the principle emotions defined in the Book of Rites, an ancient Chinese text, usually credited to philosopher Confucius.
Jensen extracted these seven songs from a longer composition, originally planned as an audio-visual experience and intended to focus on cycling drones and colour baths. The condition of chromesthesia, or sound-to-color synaesthesia, played an important role in the concept. It makes you experience colours upon hearing sounds, hence the album title and cover.
There seems to be an influence of classic American minimalism – read: Glass, Reich, Riley – shining through the music, which makes sense: As the artistic director of ACME (the American Contemporary Music Ensemble), Jensen has actually been bringing their pieces to the stage for many years.
There’s a few more influences to be heard on »Esthesis«; in her liner notes, the composer explicitly mentions Henry Purcell’s baroque opera »Dido and Aeneas« (she wrote »Sadness« as a setting for the final aria »Dido’s Lament«), and even more interestingly, a 1947 letter from French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir to her lover, the American writer Nelson Algren.
Back then, Beauvoir lived with her partner Jean-Paul Sartre in an open relationship and had met Algren in Chicago earlier that year. In the letter, Beauvoir tells him about an evening with friends who came over for dinner after a heavy storm. (This week’s leitmotif.)
Beauvoir recounts having too much to drink and therefore »becoming a storm« herself. In that state, everything seemed »very tragic and pathetic and terrifying« to her, and long after the friends were gone, she still ranted on about life and death, so that Sartre got »very bored« with her. The next day, she decided not to drink anymore, at least for a while.
In her own words:
»You see, it has never been very easy for me to live, though I am always very happy – maybe because I want so much to be happy. I like so much to live and I hate the idea of dying one day. And then I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life, I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, and to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish… You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger…«
Now this is such an intense and apt description of the negativity that greed and anger bring into our lives. Greed is actually one of the »three poisons« in Buddhist psychology, while anger is considered one of the root causes of human suffering. That’s not to say that greed and anger shouldn’t exist, as they do make up a part of our human experience, but it’s important to learn how to deal with these emotional states – by applying acceptance, mindfulness and (self-)compassion.
In Jensen’s musical version of »Anger«, the manipulated voices of three women (musicians Laura Lutzke, Francesca Federico and Emma Broughton) quote from Beauvoir’s letter over swelling, spiraling synths that dissolve more quickly than they’ve built up, mirroring how anger loses its power when countered in an accepting, mindful and compassionate way.
There’s another side to »Esthesis«, the emotional counterpart to the building and release of tension in »Anger«: Timo Andres’ tender and melancholic piano melodies on »Liking« and »Joy«, for example. Jensen writes that the latter came to her when falling asleep, realizing she was still smiling thinking about someone she loves. Analog piano and digital synths are intertwined here in such a masterful way, and that is definitely not the easiest compositional task.
The succinctly titled »Love« ends the album on a high note. It’s one of the most gorgeous songs I’ve heard in a long time and it just gives me goosebumps everytime I listen to it. It might become one of those tunes that’s just too beautiful to listen to, at least on those days when you easily get emotionally overwhelmed.
Structurally, it makes sense that »Joy« and »Love« are introduced by other, more dark and less comforting compositions, »Disliking« and »Fear«. As a result, I’ve mostly been listening to »Esthesis« from front to back, over and over again, consciously choosing not to strip individual parts of their authorial context. Coby Sey mirrored the album arc in his radio mix as well, starting with »Liking« early in the show and ending it with »Love«.
Clarice Jensen’s main instrument, the cello, is playing but a minor role on her third album, but following this courageous decision, the composer might have created the most capturing work of her career.
One more thing
My first book »Zen Style«, originally published in 2021, is now available as an audiobook, read by the author alias myself. I think it’s the best thing I’ve written so far. Readers and media feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
You can buy it wherever you usually get your audiobooks (links). It’s not available for streaming – download only.
Also, the Kindle version is currently discounted in the big stores.
Please note: Like the original book, the audiobook and the digital book are in German. There are no plans for an English translation at the moment. Sorry, non-German speakers.
Have a great weekend!
© 2023 Stephan Kunze