Published Oct 30, 2018Jessica Moss has established herself as a vital player in some of North America's most adored independent music, including Thee Silver Mt. Zion and Black Ox Orkestar, building up a catalogue of session work on seminal albums by Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene, as well as contributions to recordings by the likes of Carla Bozulich and Fugazi's Guy Picciotto.
She's been a familiar name for years, but with last year's Pools of Light, Moss delivered her first solo full-length, pairing methodically live-layered violin compositions with voice, and arriving on the scene with a pair of galvanizing performances assessing the refugee crisis and the climate change disaster.
Arriving just 17 months later, a followup offers another attempt to engage with the collective spirit, this time using the wide-angle lens Moss previously directed at the world around her to plumb her own private drama — another pair of extended visions comprising two sides of vinyl on Entanglement.
One of those experiments finds unlikely inspiration in the world of quantum physics — specifically, quantum entanglement, a label applied to observations of pairs or groups of particles that are created or influence each other (spatially, behaviourally, or otherwise) in tandem, regardless of independent influence.
First learning about the phenomenon through a podcast, Moss says entanglement became a lens through which to look at the relationships we experience on a human level.
"It just started this process of magical thinking about how we can be entangled with each other, but then how we can also sort of move through this world feeling attached and entangled with things that aren't clear and don't make sense," Moss tells Exclaim! from her home in Montreal. "It made me believe in this magical truth about connection to each other, and to our communities and to our groups, but also to elements of the world."
Coming to her attention at the same time that she was beginning to develop new material for live performances, she says the concept reconfigured the way she approached playing music in live contexts, and how she thought about meeting new groups every night, ultimately manifesting in a piece called "Particles," an extended composition that fluctuates between moments of sweeping dramatic intensity and languid drones.
Structured to accommodate improvisatory transitions, in live settings it swells and shifts as if the arrangement is breathing in concert with each room and audience Moss happens to be playing it for.
"Sometimes it'll be as simple as I'll be in the middle of singing and I'll look up and I'll see someone looking at me and that'll sort of inform when I add the next word or this kind of thing," Moss says. "It's just a really open experience."
Around 13 minutes into the recorded version of the track, a valley opens up and Moss's voice starts to come through, at first in short reverb-soaked pieces of the complete lyric, and then longer strands of the whole. In its entirety, the concrete lyric is "Sounds of violence fill the sky, darkening clouds are passing by," but as fragments echo and layer through the hypnotic swirl of Moss's pedal board, new phrases are generated in the mix.
"Somehow the word 'dancing' gets made and I really love that. So in a way, dancing is how I think of that part."
It's moments like that, Moss says, that helped her make peace with the precarious nature of being.
"Even though entanglement, or these relationships, can end up proving incredibly painful, we're still so much richer and luckier to have them and go through them and to open ourselves up to them and why it is that we can feel closer to some people than we do to our families and then something can cross us and change our lives forever."
Side two is another exercise in making sense of a world thrust into confusion. Titled "Fractals (Truth)," it's a four-part suite exploring a central "muse melody" Moss found herself returning to naturally whenever she picked up her violin at the time. While this original melody was ultimately left on the cutting room floor, Moss assembled the pieces from the expressions she originally built around it, so it's here, only reflected and refracted in fragmented shards.
"I would work really hard and start falling in love with the things I was writing around it, but then I couldn't really bring this melody back into that surrounding that I was creating. I would work really hard and make the surrounding perfect, and then I couldn't bring the melody back in," Moss explains. "I had to leave behind this idea of perfectly expressing the clear simple idea that I started calling 'Truth.'"
She thinks that's something everyone can relate to. "I don't know how ridiculous this sounds, but I think of it almost as a metaphor for searching for truth, in some way," Moss says. "I feel like it's increasingly difficult in our bombarded lives to be sure of anything in a way.
"And it can feel extremely difficult to know how… a friend [Sheila Heti] wrote a book called How Should a Person Be? And I have that sentence in my head a lot of the time. 'How should a Jessica be?'" she continues. "How should I… of all the paths that I can take, which one is best that I take, and how can I best care for all the elements of my life and the people that are around me, and then by extension the greater communities around me and then the world around me?
"I just feel like it's a constant quest," she concludes. "How can I take all this information and choose a way to live? How can I know that climate change is the biggest disaster and choose to live, and how do I live? How can I know that our governments are turning righter and righter, and how do I choose to live, knowing that? And how do I spend my time and how do I care for the person next to me and how do I care for the people I work with and how do I care for myself and how do I choose? You know? I think that's our collective experience at the moment."
Entanglement is out now on Constellation.