A phosphene is “the phenomenon of seeing light without light entering the eye.” The title of the resolute, heart-rending new album by composer/violinist Jessica Moss could not be better chosen. Moss is by now a seasoned practitioner of immersive isolation music; across three previously acclaimed solo records of minimal and maximal post-classicism, her acoustic, amplified, looped, distorted and electronically-shifted violin is the raw material for deeply expressive, palpably haunting, wholly committed longform compositions. But Phosphenes is the most incisive and inexorable music Moss has made to date, inscribing halos of refracted light out of deep solitude and hermitic darkness with especially solemn determination and intensity. These compositions channel themselves like slow-moving water in a dark cave, catching glints of luminescence from within.
Signal processing is kept to a minimum in the three-movement “Contemplation” suite on Side One, as Moss exquisitely navigates consonance and dissonance, patiently building from single notes to harmonic clusters and melodic voicings. Violin amplification is deployed to activate overtones, pitch-shifts, live overdubbing and layered depth-of-field. Based on a four-note sequence that sets whole tones against one another, “Contemplation” is a bona fide requiem the finds Moss at her most instrumentally naturalistic, measured, and modern. With its musical focus squarely on the notes and intervals, shaped by her through-composed stylistic playing and performance, this is Moss’s most formally accomplished post-classical work—and an irrefutably powerful lament.
Side Two unfolds in a more portentous vein: “Let Down” is marked by cavernous octave-dropped arco and pizzicato, providing a gothically-inflected substratum upon which plangent wordless vocal invocations and cumulative gyres of violin melody unfurl. “Distortion Harbour” grinds with noisier grit, tracing a tremendous arc of darkwave crescendo, also shot through with vocal calls, and intensified by strobing power electronics: Moss at her harrowing maximalist best. Both songs highlight Moss’s ambient-metal, ethereal-noise sensibility and her distinctive palette of industrial-inflected signal-bending—a reminder of why she’s also been a go-to player for the likes of Big Brave, Oiseaux-Tempête and Zu in recent years. Album closer “Memorizing & Forgetting” is inarguably the most tender and overtly touching song in Jessica’s oeuvre: a keening lullabye of sorts, on which she plays piano, violin and guitar, joined by Julius Lewy in a lustrous ambient vocal duet.
Everyone has been trying to find a way through and out of pandemic, lockdown, social isolation and often darkened hope—and for many musicians, the absence of touring, live performance, live sound, live audiences, and a living. For Moss, it’s also been “like when you press your fists hard against your eyes and eventually there is fireworks.” The light gets in where it can, even or maybe especially as imaginative, projective sensory simulacra (if/when we shut down our screens and are left to our own devices). Recorded alone at home and in her rehearsal space, reconstituted with best friend and long-standing co-producer Radwan Ghazi Moumneh at Montréal’s Hotel2Tango studio when restrictions loosened in summer 2021, mastered by James Plotkin; Phosphenes is a stoic, acutely sensitive, superlative musical statement from Moss. Thanks for listening.