Sylvia Songs

Sylvia Songs

An offering and an archive, a memorial and a reverie
Jenny Olivia Johnson
P. Lucy McVeigh
Lavena Johanson
David Russell
Isabelle O’Connell
Jenny Tang
Eliko Akahori
Lisa Liu
Nicholas Knouf
Jenny Olivia Johnson
Catalog Number: 
new music

Wellesley, MA

Release Date: 
May 25, 2018
Liner Notes: 
1 CD
One Sheet: 

“Each of these four songs — interspersed with three interludes recorded from my sound installation Glass Heart: Bells for Sylvia Plath — is inspired by a city or town in which Sylvia had a significant life event take place: New York City, Boston, Devonshire, and Wellesley. In this elegiac collection, I attempt to weave my own stories about and relationships to each of these places with those of Sylvia’s, resulting in a kaleidoscopic tapestry of fragmented feelings, images, and fantasies.”

When composer Jenny Olivia Johnson moved to Boston in 2009 to teach at Wellesley College, she had no idea that one of her most idolized poets and authors, Sylvia Plath, had grown up in the small town of Wellesley. Learning this fact, while settling into her new position among the crisp blue skies and ornate, sometimes skeletal tree branches that adorn Wellesley’s landscape, planted the slow-growing seed for this eventual collection of songs:  songs about the short life of Sylvia Plath, and songs about Jenny’s adjacent life experiences in some of the same places in which Plath once lived and worked:  New York, Boston, and Wellesley. 

Indeed, it was Sylvia Plath’s now-famous summer in New York City—the summer that inspired her novel “The Bell Jar”—that would initially lure Jenny into Plath’s archive.  Jenny’s own impactful years in New York City, where she attended college and graduate school, coincided with some of her most profound self-discoveries, several of which felt strangely in concert with the ways in which Plath described Esther Greenwood’s “queer, sultry” New York summer in 1953, and her exhausted return to Boston in the moody steam of August.  Jenny’s analogous move to Boston from New York in August of 2009 provided further inspiration, and in 2012, three years into her time in the Bay State, Jenny became inspired to set these strange feelings of propinquity and emotional closeness to Plath to music.  A set of two commissions—one from soprano and longtime collaborator P. Lucy McVeigh, for a song cycle, and one from the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, for a sound installation—provided the perfect platforms for Jenny’s desire to explore Plath’s work across two genres:  one traditional, and one radically new. 

The resultant pieces—Jenny’s song cycle “Sylvia Songs,” and her sound installation “Glass Heart (Bells for Sylvia Plath),” recently displayed at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery after a two-year run at the Davis Museum—are both represented here, as Jenny’s second solo album project on Innova. The four songs of the cycle are interspersed with three interludes, which are actual recordings of the soundscape that can be created by interactions with Jenny’s sound installation (a group of amplified bell jars that visitors are encouraged to tap and ring to create music and ambient lighting). The fact that both pieces are archived on this album makes it not only a tribute to Sylvia Plath’s life, work, and legacy, but also a concretized record of two otherwise ephemeral projects with which Jenny was thoroughly engaged—often on the campus of Wellesley itself—in the years between 2012 and 2017.  

“Sylvia Songs” is both an offering and an archive, a memorial and a reverie. It is a meditation on the nostalgia of place, and an exploration of the complexities of mental health and loss.



"The result is a work of considerable artistic and creative depth that highlights the anxiety and torment of the soul of the great poet, 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, and deep feelings. Really a beautiful CD to listen carefully." [FULL ARTICLE] - Luciano Feliciani