Clarice Assad


(2021) O

For Solo Violin & Tape

Commissioned by San Francisco Performances for violinist Johnny Gandelsman


At the beginning of the 2020 covid19 pandemic, violinist Johnny Gandelsman approached several composers to collaborate on a commissioning project. There were no limits imposed to our creative process, though he made a critical remark: “I would like composers to reflect on the moment we are living now.” – It was quite a suffocating moment. And so I fixated my attention on what seemed to be a recurring theme, the crucial character of several dramas that would ensue through the year that ironically left so many breathless: Oxygen.


O, the symbolic representation of one of the most abundant elements in the universe without which we die, is the inspiration for this piece. As we withdrew from the social arena, we watched in horror a newly discovered virus take down thousands of people from acute respiratory failure every day. Some succumbed from complications of the disease, others to a lack of respirators. Preventive measures required the whole of humanity to wear masks, to protect each other from an infection that could spread through the air. Soon after, another tragedy. This time, oxygen would take center stage and be violently obstructed, by force, from entering the lungs in George Flyoy’s body, whose last words, “I can’t breathe,” echoed through the four corners of the world, causing pain, anger, outrage. The air was thick with doubt and fear.


Confined in an apartment without working windows in the middle of the winter, I could not help but feel a sense of entrapment in my body. Bouts of anxiety attacks plagued me constantly, and it was challenging to work or concentrate. But thinking about the miracle of life while not taking the gift of breathing for granted, singing was the way out of despair. For processed vocal overdubs and solo violin, “O” is a recollection of that fragmented time, undoubtedly filled with sentiments of distress. But it, too, portrays a sense of hope.


I was particularly struck by the world premiere of Clarice Assad’s “O,” written on a commission from San Francisco Performances, which sets the violin swooping through generous melodic arcs against a prerecorded backdrop of wordless vocal harmonies. 

– Joshua Kosman. San Francisco Chronicle

Clarice Assad’s O, scored for violin and electronics, stands for oxygen – or lack of it, to be precise. Oxygen that was needed by nearly 400,000 Americans who died in 2020, gasping for breath from the coronavirus, and oxygen George Floyd was deprived of as he pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” Assad herself said, in the booklet notes, that she experienced panic attacks that year, feeling a “sense of entrapment in my own body.”


” “O” by Clarice Assad, Covid’s “suffocating moment” prompting Assad to ponder the nature of oxygen. Pre-recorded vocals are beautifully fused with solo violin, reminding us that “singing is the way of despair”. 

The Arts Desk

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