Jenny Olivia Johnson’s Glass Heart (bells for Sylvia Plath) installation at the Davis Museum
Photo: Steve Briggs



September 3-December 15, 2013 February 5-June 8, 2014
The Davis Museum at Wellesley College debuts Glass Heart (bells for
Sylvia Plath), an original interactive sound installation by composer and Assistant Professor of Music Composition and Theory, Jenny Olivia Johnson. The exhibition, on view in the Dorothy Johnston Towne Gallery through June 9, 2013, is free and open to the general public.
Inspired both by Sol LeWitt’s 1991 series of etchings, All Combinations of Red, Yellow, and Blue, with Scribbles and the poetry of famed Wellesley resident Sylvia Plath, Johnson’s commission is a daring foray into the potential of intersecting emotional undertones among distinct pieces of literature, music, and visual art. Linked to synesthetic experiences, in which certain sounds evoke particular colors in the mind, Johnson will create an interactive musical instrument to share the gallery space with LeWitt’s prints.
The instrument consists of seven glass bell jars fitted with contact microphones and colored LED lights that resemble the veins and arteries intersecting in the human heart. A touch triggers a sound sample of a new composition written by Johnson that features Plath’s poetry, and causes the lights of the glass hearts to dance to the sound. Each visit to the gallery will result in an entirely unique version of the music, depending on how many jars are touched, how soft or hard the touches are, and how much composite sound is generated in the space.

Posted 24 September 2013

Share this:

Inspired by the intensity and depth of the color in Sol LeWitt’s prints together with the words of poet Sylvia Plath, Johnson has created a new cycle of songs, one of which provides the basis for this installation.
How frail the human heart must be a mirrored pool of thought so deep and tremulous an instrument of glass that it can either sing, or weep.
-Sylvia Plath, “I Thought I Could Not Be Hurt,” 1947
Working from these suggestive lines, from phrases found in Plath’s journals, and with thoughts of her famous novel, The Bell Jar, (published 50 years ago just a month before Plath committed suicide in February of 1963), Johnson has built an actual “instrument of glass,” a group of seven bell jars that are meant to be touched and played by visitors to the gallery.
“What we hear of Johnson’s composition for Glass Heart is entirely dependent upon our own physical interaction with the installation, whether we actively touch the bell jars or patiently wait to capture the ethereal sounds as they play out, “ says curator Elaine Mehalakes. “The ringing of the glass itself is evidence of our own presence in the room and contribution to the piece. By deftly incorporating fragments of Plath’s poetry, rounded out with phrases from her husband Ted Hughes’ poem “Last Letter,” haunting vocals, and the experience of sound that effects the visitor in unexpected ways, Glass Heart evokes the unpredictability and uncontrollability of memory. Johnson’s “…bell jars, repurposed as a choir of singing glass hearts,” powerfully suggest the potential resonance of human emotion, at its most communal and empathic.”

According to Johnson, “My work often draws from disparate, fragmentary sources, and involves a long process of stitching together seemingly unrelated materials into an emotional narrative. I can only attribute this to my experience of synesthesia: the texture of glass will evoke a Lydian harmony, which in turn will evoke luminous, liquid shades of blue and red, which in turn will remind me of blood flowing through a human heart, which will then circle me back to the exquisite emotional landscape of Sylvia Plath’s poetry. When I discovered Plath’s poem “I Thought I Could Not Be Hurt,” everything was suddenly there: images of glass and of hearts, and in her language, all of the rich colors so vividly displayed in Sol LeWitt’s etchings. My response in turn is an audio-visual network of the sounds and colors I hear in her words, infused with my own imperfect memories and nameless emotions.”
The music for Glass Heart is performed by faculty members Eliko Akahori, synthesizer; David Russell, cello; Jenny Tang, piano; and Jenny Olivia Johnson, percussion/electronics; with guest artist P. Lucy McVeigh, soprano. The piece includes digital audio processing of all instruments with the software applications Ableton Live and Logic Pro, a two-screen video feed, and a sound sculpture of six illuminated, amplified bell jars.
Curated by Elaine Mehalakes, Kemper Curator of Academic Programs, Glass Heart (bells for Sylvia Plath) is generously supported by The Mary Tebbetts Wolfe ’54 Program Fund.

Jenny Olivia Johnson (b. 1978, Santa Monica, CA) is Assistant Professor of Music Composition and Theory at Wellesley College. Her music, which has been hailed as “gorgeous, ominous, and hypnotic” by the Boston Globe, and “iridescent, shimmering, and evocative” by Time Out New York, explores themes of musical synesthesia, acoustic memory, and childhood trauma, and ranges from compressed electronic operas and epic pop songs to lacy, abstract chamber works and multi-media meditations using amplified instruments and video.
She has collaborated with such ensembles as BMOP (Boston Modern Orchestra Project), ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble), the Asko|Schoenberg Ensemble, Bang on a Can, the Arditti Quartet, and New York City Opera, who performed two of her short operas at their VOX Contemporary Opera festivals in 2006 and 2007. This is her first installation and first museum commission. For more information, visit

Wellesley College
106 Central St.
Wellesley, Mass.
+1 (781) 283-2051

One of the oldest and most acclaimed academic fine arts museums in the United States, the Davis Museum is a vital force in the intellectual, pedagogical and social life of Wellesley College. It seeks to create an environment that encourages visual literacy, inspires new ideas, and fosters involvement with the arts both within the College and the larger community.

The Wellesley College arts curriculum and the highly acclaimed Davis Museum and Cultural Center are integral components of the College’s liberal arts education. Departments and programs from across the campus enliven the community with world-class programming– classical and popular music, visual arts, theatre, dance, author readings, symposia, and lectures by some of today’s leading artists and creative thinkers–most of which are free and open to the public.
Located just 12 miles from Boston and accessible by public transit, Wellesley College’s idyllic surroundings provide a nearby retreat for the senses and inspiration that lasts well after a visit.
Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts
education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,400 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 75 countries.

Click here to download the file "WEL_davis_spring_2013GH_r03.pdf".
Copyright © 2013-2019  Glass is more!        Copyright, privacy, disclaimer