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Jessica Pavone

Reverse Bloom (LP)

Label: Astral Spirits

Format: LP

Genre: Compositional



On the evening of July 13th, 2023, I trekked up to Arnold Hall for a very special performance at The Stone. I sat in the front row and took out my notebook then turned to my right and looked around the space. The dimly lit room buzzed with quiet activity and conversation. After a few more minutes, the lights went even lower and out walked three shadowy figures. Each clicked on a small bulb that lit their individual music stands. This was my third time seeing the Jessica Pavone String Ensemble. The first two occasions took place in the Spring of 2022 during our cow: Music/Astral Spirits showcases in Montreal and Kingston, New York. Those first two performances left quite an impression on both audiences. They’d focused on material from the recently released second album on Astral Spirits, ... of Late. This evening's performance was the first time the group had made an appearance together since that tour.

The trio is composed of Jessica Pavone (leader/ composer/ viola), Abby Swidler (violin/ viola), and Aimée Niemann (violin). After a brief acknowledgment, they struck their positions and began playing pieces from their previous album and 2020’s outstanding Lost and Found (their first for Astral Spirits and last quartet record before switching to a quantized format). They worked through these pieces beautifully for about a half hour, pulling up memories of the last time I’d seen them. Like most musically responsive groups, there was a high level of eye contact, pausing, and visual communication while moving through the delicate and sensitive passages.

After the first half was finished, our leader spoke for a few minutes. She explained that the group was about to world premier pieces from the album you now hold in your hands.

“This is like hangin’ out with strangers”, Pavone said with a chuckle. As they moved through the material, I started to understand what she meant. The mood of the room changed a bit. It's like we were all listening harder, trying to catch every detail of this freshness. Yet, for me, at least, the pieces felt somewhat skeletal. The beauty of the intention was fully present, yet the execution felt unsure. After the performance, I mentioned this, and our leader felt the same. She decided to spend some time enhancing parts of the music, and after the passing of a few months, I received the text that the album was ready to preview.

The naming, combined with the timing, of Reverse Bloom is perfect for this moment in time. As the album title suggests, the updated material is starker yet so much more focused. It retains thematic aspects of Pavone’s work from recent years. Lull, When No One Around You Is There but Nowhere to be Found, Images of One, and Clamor all bear the fingerprint of her special composition style. But the somber-ness of Reverse Bloom feels more like a personal call to action than a musical trajectory. It makes an argument for it being ok to just wanna fucking hide in a beautiful place until it is safe to come out.

The record opens with the title track. The slow-moving chords will not be unfamiliar to the educated listener of this trio. Notes circle each other, gradually picking up pace before switching to a gentler swaying theme. As the players progress, themes intensify, piercing the threshold of the listener. About halfway through, the sounds become tender and mournful. It feels as though this composition was designed to represent a certain fear or acceptance of a painful fate.

“Three Trees” continues with an eerie mist, pinching with suspense. The incredible linework of our players has them overlapping notes for a minute or so, then suddenly stopping, keeping the listener on the edge of their seat. At the 2:47 mark, the music hits a cascading high mark lasting for a few minutes before fading into a subtle breath and stop motion before revisiting the shriek and closing the shortest piece on the album.

It is a sudden surprise to have “Obstructed Current” as it does. The jolting strings dash back and forth as if to stirrup motions created for the closing of a ballet or a do-si-do. Quickly, the tune settles back into the pulsing territory of the previous compositions yet still manages to leap with more movement and physicality. Jabbing and pulling, the group finds common ground in 5 minutes and waves to and fro. This pattern is accelerating and lasts for the duration of the piece.
“Embers Slumber” is the closing number of the journey. Pizzicato introduces a tearful pathway, making way for a beautiful transition to arco movements. What is most memorable is seeing this piece played live and how important breathwork is to this work. I first noticed it seeing Pavone play with bassist/ composer Tristan Kasten-Krause. The pivoting cycles of this work conjure up such deep emotions as the pulsing goes back and forth… until the music stops.

Any listener can, and should, interpret the meaning being Reverse Bloom for themselves. For me, it is not only a hark back to hearing the great violist Karen Phillips for the first time as a teenager, but also connects the dots for me in regards to music being composed for the living and breathing times, as opposed to the rigidity of recital of ancient Europeanism. The times, as bleak as they are, have set the stage for many of us to do more inward searching. And it is my belief that this album can help with that process, as the title suggests.

- Gabriel Jermaine Vanlandingham-Dunn, 2023  

Cat. number: n/a
Year: 2022
Recorded by Marc Urselli at EastSide Sound in Manhattan, NY on December 4, 2021