Pussy Riot Returns (On the Album of an All-Woman Vocal Quartet)

Lyrics and trial transcriptions join forces in a powerful oratorio.

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Pussy Riot
Quince Ensemble and composer Jennifer Jolley recording "Motherland." Photo: Dan Nichols.

With a title like Motherland, you know an album means business. And the latest release from the Quince Ensemble certainly does. Dropped earlier this month on New Focus Recordings, the vocal quartet’s third studio set explores four vibrant contemporary works. It takes critical aim through its anchoring piece, the a capella oratorio “Prisoner of Conscience” by Jennifer Jolley, with texts by Kendall A. It draws from protest art collective Pussy Riot’s trial and imprisonment for demonstrating against Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral in 2012. Square at the intersection of power, people and sexual violence — as well as three women’s courage in the face of it all — the content suits Quince quite well. (Full disclosure: I serve on the company’s board of directors.)

Founded in 2010 and based in Chicago (though members hail from across the country), I support Quince because I find them nearly peerless as an all-woman professional vocal chamber ensemble committed to contemporary music. The concept of “Prisoner of Conscience” is “totally up our alley aesthetically,” Kayleigh Butcher, a mezzo-soprano and Quince’s executive director, explains. “More than anything, we identify as a feminist group [and] it’s important to us to make the music we perform reflect the world we live in — to tell the stories of other people living during this time.” Quince commissions most of its repertoire, including almost all of Motherland.

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Quince Ensemble. Photo: Karjaka Studios.

“Prisoner of Conscience” was composed in 2015, three years past the zenith of the publicity moment for Pussy Riot; three members had already been found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and served time in Russian penal colonies. While Jolley, in a program note, admits that she “did not think this piece would be relevant,” global developments make it so: “In an era where there are rumors of Russia meddling with a presidential election and the White House doling Fake News Awards, I know now that protection of free speech is always relevant.”

To honor the chief aim of “Punk Prayer” — how Pussy Riot protested Putin’s growing ties to the church — Jolley’s music appropriates various chants and motets to illustrate resistance and dissent. Other movements, like “Oh bondage, up yours!,” borrow their energy from punk and “rriot girl” anthems. Quince embraces it all with great conviction, heightening the composer’s myriad nuances.

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Kendall A’s libretto alternates between the lyrics of Pussy Riot and transcriptions of their trial proceedings, a rhythm that both riles and sobers the listener. In an email, Kendall A told me that she wanted a text of “angry, femme-fronted punk rock.” She notes that 2015 was the “summer/fall of Ferguson and the flashpoint for a larger and still ongoing national protest for Black liberation, and that was definitely informing [my] decisions.”

It turns out that she also drew on something more personal: her own experience with sexual abuse. “The figure of Putin, throughout the piece, became directly representative of my own rapist,” she told me, “but also generally of state-upheld patriarchal oppression.” One section called “Virgin Mary Put Putin Down” was “an expression of this feeling of powerlessness to bring actual change or justice, to lift myself up from my own traumas.”

The trial transcriptions, of course, clearly articulate Pussy Riot’s well-formed agenda. I am particularly stirred by the closing statement of Maria Alyokhina, who inverts the prosecution’s labeling of the group’s work as “so-called art”:

But for me this trial is a ‘so-called’ trial. And I am not afraid of you. I am not afraid of falsehood and fictitiousness, of sloppily disguised deception, in the verdict of the ‘so-called’ court. Because all you can deprive me of is ‘so-called’ freedom.

Later, we hear a prosecutor’s question, and the answer of the witness — “Was it art? — It was witchcraft” — is repeated numerous times in a dizzying and Kafkaesque crescendo.

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Separately, the music and the text might be compelling, but their juxtaposition delivers a considerable punch. For example, “Putin will teach you how to love (the Motherland),” is, musically speaking, a gorgeous, languid devotional anthem; the text depicts the prolonged gang rape of an unconscious woman. Quince renders the final phrase softly and sweetly:

…and while she never said it,
Never gave us words from her limp, naked body,
We knew that she must like it.

Image: Amanda DeBoer Bartlett.

The sounds resolve harmonically in a warm major chord that also begins the next movement, “Police and Thieves.” The voices begin bluesy repetitions of “ohhhhhh yeah”s, first sustained, then in an unmistakably suggestive rhythm: “oh” (space); “oh” (space); “oh” (space); “oh” (space), and an equal pattern of “yeah” that follows. It’s completely cool, casual; yet it’s chillingly connected to what came just before. “Police and Thieves,” which describe a desolate police state, develops into enjoyable, but disorienting, gospel.

The balance of Motherland is less charged, but leaves much to recommend it. “Bone Needles” by Gilda Lyons opens the album, immediately drawing the ear with rhythmic dialogue between voices. Arching, looping gestures describe her observation of women mending nets with fish-bone needles on a Nicaraguan beach. I relished the singers’ spare use of vibrato.

Leaping from Central American shores to the farthest reaches of the cosmos, composer Laura Steenberge paints vocal lines in “The Four Winds,” a mystic and elemental portrait of the ancient past, and makes curiously refined use of a harmonica. Biblical and scientific texts set to rich harmonies describe “what will happen to the sun in a few billion years.” That journey contracts back down to the intimate discomforts of being female in “Three Erasures.” Cara Haxo sets pointillist poetry stitched from Teen Vogue articles that portray societal messages about body image into vivid aural tableaux.

The interpretative layers of Motherland, evoking the infinite range of the female experience, reward a deep dive. Quince has delivered art of conviction and fearless engagement with pressing social issues, and I implore them not to stop. They probably won’t because, as Jolley notes, “The fight is still on.”