Women in (New) Music: 10 Feminist Works by Women Composers

by Maggie Molloy

The Womxn’s March made history on January 21, bringing together over 4.9 million activists across all seven continents in an unprecedented show of solidarity, strength, and resistance.

The march was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history—but it extended far beyond U.S. borders. A total of 673 marches took place in 82 countries across the globe, and in Seattle alone an estimated 175,000 people showed up and marched for women’s rights.

January 21 was an uplifting and empowering day: a palpable reminder that we are, quite literally, surrounded by strong, capable, inspiring, and unapologetically forward-thinking womxn and allies.

Photo by Shaya Lyon.

But the work is only just beginning.

As we press forward into a challenging new era, we’re going to need to fight every day for justice, for human rights, for dignity, respect, and peace—and we’re going to need some pretty extraordinary music to keep us inspired.

We can’t have Womxn’s Marches every day, but we can make a conscious effort each day to seek out and support artists, musicians, and activists who engage our hearts, minds, and ears with thought-provoking and empowering art.

Allow us to give you a head start on your 2017 resistance playlist with these 10 feminist anthems by female composers:

1. Ethel Smyth – The March of the Women

Equal parts classical hymn and battle cry, a century ago Ethel Smyth’s March of the Women became the anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union and, more broadly, the women’s suffrage movement in the U.K. and beyond.


2. Ruth Crawford Seeger: String Quartet

Being a woman writing music in the early 20th century was an act of feminism in itself. In the 1920s, a critic at one performances remarked with surprise that Ruth Crawford Seeger could “sling dissonances like a man”—because, you know, what could a woman possibly know about discord?


3. Pauline Oliveros – Bye Bye Butterfly

Pauline Oliveros puts a radically feminist spin on Puccini’s politically problematic Madama Butterfly in this 20th century tape delay reconstruction. The resulting mix bids farewell, as Oliveros wrote, “not only to the music of the 19th century but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex.”


4. Meredith Monk – Education of the Girlchild

Benjamin Button meets feminist deconstruction in this interdisciplinary (and unapologetically avant-garde) one-woman opera which traces the life of a woman in reverse from old age to childhood.


5. Joan Tower – Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman

A cheeky response to Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, Joan Tower’s fanfare is a bolder, brassier celebration of the women who are risk-takers and adventurers—women, for instance, with the courage to create music and fight for change in a male-dominated fields.


6. Laura Kaminsky – As One

Composed for two voices, As One tells the immensely powerful tale of one transgender woman’s journey to self-discovery—celebrating trans and queer voices that are far too often silenced in the classical music sphere.


7. Matana Roberts – Coin Coin

Massive in scope, Matana Roberts’ multi-chapter one-woman masterwork stands the intersection of feminism and African-American identity, exploring the diverse trajectories of the African diaspora through a panoramic sound quilt of wailing saxophones, spoken word, field recordings, loop and effects pedals, and more.


8. My Brightest Diamond – This is My Hand

Chamber pop powerhouse Shara Nova sings an anthem of self-love and bodily autonomy— because hand, heart, mind, and voice: our bodies are our choice.


9. Miya Masaoka – Survival

Written as a reaction against the U.S. internment of her own mother (along with 120,000 other Japanese immigrants) during World War II, second generation Japanese-American composer Miya Masaoka weaves a tale of resistance and resilience through angular strings, furious rhythms, and fearless resolve.


10. Angelique Poteat – Listen to the Girls

In a world where young women are constantly being told how to act, dress, and live, Angelique Poteat had a novel idea: what if we ask the girls what they want? The resulting piece for girlchoir and orchestra offers teenage girls a chance to sing their own words—and reminds us, as audience members, to listen.

Women in (New) Music: NOCCO Concert Preview and Q&A with Angelique Poteat

by Maggie Molloy

With the Winter Solstice rapidly approaching, the days are shorter and the nights are colder. Daily temperatures hover just around freezing and the sun sets before most people even leave the office.

It’s been a trying year in more ways than one, and as winter winds blow us straight toward the end of 2016, it’s easy to feel that the world is dark and cold—both literally and figuratively.

noccoBut the North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO) is combatting that coldness with music that is warm, radiant, and bursting with light. Their annual Winter Solstice Celebration this weekend offers a sonic respite from the cold and dreary December temperatures with performances Sunday at Magnolia United Church of Christ and Monday at the University Christian Church.

The celebration pairs classics by Stravinsky, Respighi, and Bach with a West Coast premiere of a new work by Seattle composer and clarinetist Angelique Poteat. Titled Floral Interactions, the piece is a garden of swirling melodies composed for eight wind players and two percussionists.

And since this is its very first Seattle performance, we asked Poteat to give us a sneak peek at what’s in store:

Second Inversion: How would you describe your compositional style? What are some of your major influences?

angelique-poteatAngelique Poteat: As a performer of a melodic, or linear instrument (clarinet), my music tends to be fairly melodic and very thematically oriented.  There is a great deal of layering of lines, which in turn influences my use of harmony.

I grew up listening to a plethora of musical styles, from country music and rock ‘n roll to church hymns and jazz.  A lot of this has found its way into my music, aside from classical influences like Bartók and Messiaen.  I feel that my music and style is constantly evolving.

 

SI:  What was the inspiration behind Floral Interactions? What does it sound like, and how did you choose this instrumentation?

AP: I wrote Floral Interactions in 2006 for the 21/21 New Music Ensemble at Rice University.  The instrumentation was requested by the ensemble.  My inspiration for the work came from several friends of mine, who at the time were reassessing their relationships with one another.  I wanted to capture some of the emotions involved with feeling like a friend is drifting away because of the introduction of a significant other.  With the exception of the climax, much of the piece is dynamically understated, with swirling, dense textures that are juxtaposed with moments of awkwardness and solitude. The title is a play on Florid, which describes the writing for each instrumental part.

SI: Women are extremely underrepresented in musical leadership roles, and especially in composing.  How has being a woman shaped your experiences in this role?

AP: In a society that promotes ideas like Affirmative Action, extra effort is being made to assure that female composers are given opportunities to have their music recognized.  As a composer in the “minority,” I have felt extra pressure to create music that is significant not only within my gender, but compared to all contemporary classical music that is being written today.

I don’t want to be categorized as a good “female composer,” or programmed as the “token female composer,” but instead thought of as an “outstanding composer,” period.   It is not so easy to cross that gender line, and maybe that means that my music has to be better than better.  I think all women, to some extent, feel that they have to put forth more effort than they should in order to be taken seriously.

poteat

SI: What advice do you have for other women who are fighting to have their music heard?

AP: Writing music is not easy!  Music has a great potential to affect people differently in very strong ways; someone out there will love what you write, and someone out there will hate it.  With that in mind, write what YOU love.  

If you’re writing music for live musicians, remember that you’re writing for people, and put care into writing each part.  Share your music with as many people as possible, and your excitement about it!  In today’s world, you have to be the greatest advocate for your music, especially in the face of adversity.  Your enthusiasm about your music will be contagious, and others who hear and like your music will also fight to have it heard again.

SI: What are you most looking forward to with the NOCCO Solstice Celebration, and what do you hope audiences will gain from it?

AP: This weekend’s NOCCO performances will be the first time Floral Interactions will be performed without a conductor!  I’m excited to hear the difference that a more “chamber music” approach to performing the piece will have on how the music is interpreted and coordinated.  I made a few small revisions to the work earlier this year, so we could call this the world premiere of the updated version and, at the very least, the West Coast premiere of the piece.

I love NOCCO’s idea of creating light during the darkest time of the year by sharing warmth and beautiful music, and this program will certainly feature plenty of that!  I’m grateful to be included in the Celebration, and I hope that audiences will feel inspired and moved by the experience.


Performances of NOCCO’s Winter Solstice Celebration are this Sunday, Dec. 18 at 7:30pm at Magnolia United Church of Christ and Monday, Dec.19 at 7:30 at the University Christian Church in Seattle. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

Women in (New) Music: Two Women and an Opera House

by Elisabeth Blair, with introduction by Maggie Molloy

It’s been a few years since the Metropolitan Opera featured a work by a female composer—113 years, to be exact.

saariaho

That century-long drought ends this month with Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin, running now through Dec. 29 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Dazzling melodies, lush orchestration, shimmering electronics, modern LED set designs, and a heartrending French libretto by Amin Maalouf come together to tell a stylized tale of the 12th century troubadour Jaufré Rudel.

But we can’t all be in New York City to see it—so Classical KING FM 98.1 is bringing you the next best thing: a live broadcast of the matinee performance this Saturday, Dec. 10 at 10 a.m. PST.

love-from-afar

L’Amour de Loin (French for “love from afar”) first premiered at the Salzburg Festival in Austria in 2000, and quickly went on to become one of the most acclaimed operatic works of the 21st century. Scored for just three soloists, chorus, and orchestra, the opera offers an intimate look at the enduring power and purity of true love.

“In the midst of composing it, I understood that it was also my story,” Saariaho said in an interview with the New York Times. “I was at once the troubadour and the lady, these two parts of me that I try to reconcile in my life. To write music, concentration is necessary; an interior hearing. To be a woman, to be a mother, one needs to be always available and busy. It’s difficult to have, at the same time, your feet on the ground and your head in the sky.”

It’s difficult for anyone—but especially for women, who have been systemically and institutionally excluded from composition and other leadership roles throughout history. Saariaho’s Metropolitan Opera premiere is a triumph for women everywhere who are fighting to have their music heard—a triumph made possible by the bold footprints of the women who came before us.

The first and only other woman to break the ranks forcefully enough to see her work performed at the Met was English composer and suffragist Ethel Smyth, with her 1903 opera Der Wald: a richly orchestrated folktale of two young lovers and the witch who comes between them.

And so, with the Met’s century-long spell of male composers finally broken, we wanted to take you back in time 100 years and give you a closer look at just what it took for Smyth to become history’s first female composer on the Metropolitan Opera stage.

ethel-smyth-with-hat

Ethel Smyth’s adulthood began with a well-orchestrated protest.  When she was 19, her father forbade her to go to Leipzig to study music composition. She responded by refusing church, musical participation at dinner parties, riding, and speaking. Eventually her father, having become so frustrated with her that he kicked her bedroom door until the panel was “all but penetrated,” relented—and gave up disallowing her much of anything ever again.

She continually found creative solutions to the restrictions placed upon women at the time. In 1878, still 19 and now victoriously arrived in Leipzig, she dressed up as an elderly lady in order to attend an evening concert unescorted. The costume included drawn-on wrinkles and a rented wig, and the ruse was a success. She was plainly unafraid of public humiliation—a valuable quality in a woman whose life’s calling forced her to overstep social mores each day.

ethel-smyth-with-dogs-2

A devout dog-lover, Smyth had a total of five dogs in close succession. Eight years before her death she devoted an entire book, Inordinate (?) Affection, to recollections of her animal companions that sometimes offer an unlikely and intimate view of the elite music world at the time.

In her memoirs she tells of a time that she spiritedly took up a dare and wore a French coachman’s hat while riding her bike down Piccadilly, leading her dog as she went. This may seem unremarkable now, but in the first decade of the 20th century, such a gender-bending public display was bold.

In a musical context she was also unafraid. In 1911 she put on a concert of her opera The Wreckers herself, stepping outside the main concert venues and securing a conductor, Thomas Beecham—who promptly forgot about this engagement. When it came time for the performance, he was nowhere to be found—so Smyth simply conducted the performance herself.

Combined with luck, money, and a high social status, these qualities—a refusal to engage with the male-determined status quo in the manner expected, boundlessly creative problem-solving, and bold ambition—helped her break through the ceiling of the classical music world.

But it was no easy task.

ethelSmyth’s memoirs recall a merry-go-round of failure, rejection, dashed hopes, extraordinary social maneuverings, disappointments, delays, cancellations, futile energies spent, promises broken, twists of fate, and every other kind of impediment, particularly in her fight to have her operas staged.

As she notes in one of her memoirs, What Happened Next, so many sudden, untimely deaths, dismissals and retirements occurred during or leading up to performances that she wondered whether her operas were cursed. Long-awaited contracts about to be signed would halt when the person responsible would be “swept off the scene by sudden illness.”

A producer in Germany, one Georg Pierson, had been working on the rehearsal sheets for a hoped-for premiere of Der Wald when he fell ill and soon thereafter died. (She wrote blithely but resignedly to her long-time companion Henry Brewster, “You will not be surprised to hear that I have killed Pierson.”)

derwaldpremiere

These events were generally disastrous for her plans, forcing her to start over, leverage new social capital, and follow what leads she could. She underwent trial after trial in this way, and her American adventure was no exception. Soon after she arrived for her five-week stay in New York City, Maurice Grau—the director of policy of the Metropolitan Opera House and the man who had booked Der Wald after its success at Covent Garden—died, after a brief illness.

By Smyth’s account, Grau’s successor was whiny, manipulative, and oppositional. In New York she also suffered from tonsillitis, a fever, and finally laryngitis, and she was only able to attend the final choral rehearsal. Although she granted that the press reviews were favorable overall, of the Met performance itself she remarked only, “I do not remember much about it except that the scene-painting and the quality of the orchestra were on a higher level than at Covent Garden and everything else far worse.”

The replacement director had also limited Der Wald’s run to just two performances in New York and one in Boston, and she felt she had travelled too far for too little return. She pronounced her consent to the New York City project as “one of the major foolish acts of my life.”

met-newspaper-clipping


“The cards put by kind Fate into [my] hands […] were good health, a fair dose of persistence and fighting instinct, and most important of all, a small independent income which rendered possible a continuous struggle for musical existence such as no woman obliged to earn her livelihood in music could have carried on.”

In her book Female Pipings in Eden, Smyth carefully details with typical clear-headedness how difficult a process it was for anyone, men included, to move a work from conception to performance. It began with writing the manuscript and parts, making costly engravings, and convincing publishers whom she suspected were of the opinion that “all this damned modern stuff ought to be put down by the police.”

If publication could be had, then a conductor was needed, and at the time conductors always worked with a committee of several dozen tradesmen, who avoided new music in favor of older, more crowd-pleasing stuff. Add to this already intimidating process the hassle of being a woman, and the obstacles became, as she points out, almost insurmountable.

“As things are today,” she wrote, “it is absolutely impossible in this country for a woman composer to get and to keep her head above water; to go on from strength to strength, and develop such powers as she may possess.”

Yet Ethel Smyth did the impossible, and even maintained a vibrant optimism while doing it. She delighted in the notion that any day now a “champion” of women in music, someone with all the power, will, and money necessary to make changes, would enter the scene. She suggested presciently that “the wireless, and future developments thereof that we cannot foresee, may help to break down many ancient taboos, this among the number.”

It is difficult to imagine maintaining such an optimism despite everything—and yet she did. But have we, who are swimming now in the internet and in globalism, yet arrived at that taboo-breaking moment?

Smyth was an exceptional human being and she broke exceptional ground in the face of great resistance. Yet it was apparently asking too much of society to invest in the talent, ambition, and vision of any other female opera composer in the past century who dreamed of a Metropolitan Opera debut.

smyth-saariaho

Thus we find ourselves at the end of a 113 year gap—the time between the staging of Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald and the current staging of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin—hoping that enough changes are taking place within the classical music world and society at large that we will not have to wait another century for the next woman composer to grace the stage.

Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin runs through Dec. 29 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. KING FM 98.1 presents a live broadcast of the performance on-air this Saturday, Dec. 10 at 10 a.m. PST. Tune in at 98.1 or online at www.king.org.

Please click here for a full list of references.

Women in (New) Music: Remembering Pauline Oliveros

Tribute event added: Deep Listening: Stuart Dempster on Sunday, December 11 at Henry Art Gallery, 12:30pm-1:3pm

Introduction by Maggie Molloy with subsequent contributions from staff and community members

“Listen to everything all the time and remind yourself when you are not listening,” Pauline Oliveros said in her 1998 keynote address at the ArtSci98 symposium.

pauline-oliveros

Nearly 20 years later, those words have come to encapsulate the astonishing legacy left behind by the late composer, who died on November 24 at the age of 84. An artist, accordionist, and pioneer of experimental and electronic art music, Oliveros is remembered for her revolutionary tape experiments, her poetic and aleatoric musical scores, her groundbreaking musical philosophies, and above all, her unwavering devotion to the exploration of sound.

Oliveros investigated new ways of listening to music, most notably through her philosophies of “deep listening” and “sonic awareness,” ideas which explored the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary, selective nature of listening.

Throughout her career, her music and her teachings promoted experimentation, improvisation, collaboration, and discovery—and her work inspired not only musicians, but also artists, scientists, philosophers, and everyday people to think critically about the way we listen.

pauline-oliveros-tape


To celebrate her lasting legacy, we asked Second Inversion staff and community members to share some of their favorite memories and musical works by the extraordinary Oliveros.


I first met Pauline through my teacher, mentor, and friend: Stuart Dempster. She was visiting Seattle when I was in graduate school at UW, and I had the honor of talking with her about music. That led me down a decades-long rabbit-hole of deep listening and sound awareness.

I think that much of the experimental music in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest is deeply influenced by her work and teachings. So many of the artists I work with and play with in Seattle have a connection to her musical thinking. I know that her influence and reach is national and global. But there is something about the work in this part of the country that owes a great debt to her long and dedicated explorations. She will be missed, and we are all fortunate for her body of work. Listen.

Tom Baker, Professor of Composition at Cornish College of the Arts


I never formally studied with Pauline, but I learned a lot from her and consider her a mentor as well as a colleague and friend. She was always supportive and encouraging, always so present. Her generosity and boundless curiosity were inspiring, she never stopped being open to and learning new things.

I love that her main instrument was the accordion, which some consider an anachronism, yet she was consistently on the cutting edge of new technological developments. I would be a very different composer (perhaps not one at all) and possibly even a very different person without her influence and example.

Steve Peters, Seattle-based composer, sound artist, producer, curator, and writer


Dear Pauline

thank you for your guidance
as we struggle
to hear beyond
what we see
and even what we think
as we try to
silence our busy
minds
and find instead
that silence is not
stillness
but sound moving
us and each other

between us
and within us
we are
busy seeking order
and you taught us
that sound moving from one
to the other
is merely truth
and all else flows
just from that
sound
that moves

Heather Bentley, violist and co-founder of North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO)


My first exposure to Pauline’s music was with the tape pieces she made in the 1960s. These often originated as improvisations using simple oscillators processed through filters and elaborate tape delay systems that she designed herself. Pauline was intrigued by the sustained sounds of modern life, things like motors, ventilation systems and electric hum. So rather than simply tune oscillators to static pitches, she created complex electronic drones that simulated the “myriad shifting of a constant tone or noise” in real-life drones.

I love the quivering, trembling sonorities in “Once again / Buchla piece” and the intense crackling sounds in “Big Mother Is Watching You,” which dates from 1966 but resembles a lot of today’s dark ambient music. Pauline was one of the true godparents of ambient, and was also an enormous trailblazer for women in electronic music.

I first met Pauline at a 1984 conference in Ohio where the evening concert billed her, Jerry Hunt, Urban 15 and myself (all Texas natives!). Frank Zappa had just delivered a funny but acerbic keynote speech railing against both the music industry and university composers. Since the latter comprised the bulk of the audience, there was a bit of tension in the hall, but it soon dissipated when Pauline opened with one of her soothing solo accordion and electronics sets. Nevertheless, my heart still belongs to those gritty early tape pieces!

Michael Schell, Seattle-based composer and intermedia artist


I’ve just recently come to Seattle. I remember the feeling that came over me the moment the plane’s wheels left the ground the second time I traveled to this city: I’m going home. When I realized the place where John Cage’s prepared piano was born was a few minutes away by public transit, it was startling and wondrous. Now, when I discover that the immensely echoic cistern that gave name to Pauline Oliveros’s “Deep Listening” is just on the other side of the Sound at Fort Warden in Port Townsend, I am unsurprised.

This place calls for it. It calls for transformative listening, for progressing the world by observing it, getting it. Maybe it’s something in the air that wanted to be filled with 45-second reverberations.

 

Maybe it’s something in the water. Maybe it’s what we call the water:

 

Sound.

 

Jacob Mashak, Seattle-based composer, conductor and variable instrumentalist


In the most basic sense, the heart of every great composer’s talent is a heightened ability to communicate. The psychology of Pauline Oliveros’ creations is one of communication and the bringing-together of souls, and many of her works use a Cage-like aleatoric element to achieve this in a way that is very physical and immediate. I am particularly awed by the power of To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation, which harnesses collective improvisation to reconcile the community and the individual, and to present a sonic memorial to the experiences of Solanas and Monroe. Bringing together a sex symbol and a feminist thinker as the work’s subject matter helps highlight the similarities in their vastly different lives. Solanas wrote SCUM Manifesto, which has been translated into over a dozen languages and is excerpted in several feminist anthologies, and was first read by Oliveros in 1968. Both women suffered at the hands of men, and both lives were marked by violence, as Monroe killed herself and Solanas attempted to kill Andy Warhol. As Oliveros said, “Both women seemed to be desperate and caught in the traps of inequality.” Her composition asks the performers to choose five pitches each and to play very long tones, modulated or unmodulated. In the middle section of the piece the performers are invited to imitate each other‘s pitches and modulations. If any one player becomes dominant, the rest of the group should rise up and absorb that dominance back into the texture, “expressing at the deep structure what the SCUM Manifesto meant.” It’s a fascinating work in its conception, powerful in its execution.

Geoffrey Larson, KING FM and Second Inversion host/contributor and Music Director of Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra


Pauline Oliveros does not allow listeners to cut corners; whenever you sit down for one of her pieces, you’re in for the long haul temporally, intellectually, and emotionally. Although she was not a “minimalist,” her music does have a similar effect (at least on me). By wrenching listeners out of their normal experience of time, she creates experiences that are nearly automatically profound. Sound Geometries for chamber orchestra, expanded instrument system (EIS), and 5.1 surround sound is an excellent way to experience her special use of time. This piece puts familiar instruments through a compositional filter that yields a soundscape only reminiscent of the idiomatic uses of those instruments in the faintest of ways; these sounds do not represent those of a traditionally-structured ensemble. That is one of the reasons why Pauline Oliveros’s music is good for us; it stretches us in a way that we desperately need and reminds us to seek the expressive limits of the tools we already have.

Seth Tompkins, Second Inversion host/contributor


I first encountered the work of Pauline Oliveros through her witty feminist deconstruction of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Her 1965 piece, titled “Bye Bye Butterfly,” is a real-time tape-delay collage work which utilizes a recording of Puccini’s opera—along with two oscillators, two amplifiers in cascade, one turntable with record, and two recorders in a delay setup.

But the cool thing is, you don’t have to be a 1960s electronic music gearhead to understand and appreciate it. Amplified sounds oscillate through sky-high frequencies amidst haunting excerpts of the Puccini classic, transforming the operatic arias into an eerie, intergalactic sound experiment.

Composed at the San Francisco Tape Music Center (which Oliveros co-founded in 1962 along with a number of other musical giants of the avant-garde), the significance of “Bye Bye Butterfly” is twofold: not only was it a bold departure from the classical traditions of the past, but it was also a pointed commentary on centuries of socially-prescribed gender roles.

Ultimately, Oliveros’ Puccini deconstruction was a critique of Butterfly’s tragic fate—her life defined and ultimately destroyed by a society that insists on male dominance. The piece ushered in a new generation of classical music, bidding farewell, as Oliveros wrote, “not only to the music of the 19th century but also to the system of polite morality of that age and its attendant institutionalized oppression of the female sex.”

Maggie Molloy, Second Inversion host/contributor


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Photo courtesy Steve Peters

 

Women in (New) Music: Q&A with Laura Kaminsky

by Maggie Molloy

For some, classical music is a soothing respite from the tragedy and political turmoil of the 20th century—but for many, it’s a way of addressing the social and political injustices of our world head-on. When we are willing to take time, sit down, and truly listen, classical music can be a catalyst for critical discussion, sociopolitical transformation, and meaningful changelaura-kaminsky.

New York-based composer Laura Kaminsky is a strong proponent of the latter view, and has composed an entire library of musical works addressing the major sociopolitical issues of our time, ranging from sustainability and environmental issues to issues of war, genocide, and basic human rights.

November 11-19, Seattle Opera presents a new production of Kaminsky’s As One: a chamber opera about a trans woman named Hannah’s journey to self-discovery—as told through the voices of two singers.

Composed in 2014 with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, the 90-minute chamber opera traces Hannah’s experiences from her youth in the suburbs to her college years on the West Coast and adulthood far beyond.

as-one

Directed by L. Zane Jones and conducted by John Keene, Seattle Opera’s production casts baritone Jorell Williams and mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven as Hannah—but audience members may be surprised to discover that one part does not end where the other begins. Rather, the two voices are intricately intertwined throughout the opera, illustrating the fullness and complexity of the trans experience—as one.

We sat down with Kaminsky for an inside look at this cutting-edge production:

Second Inversion: What were your major inspirations for composing As One?

laura_kaminskyLaura Kaminsky: I wanted to compose an opera about a transgender individual on the journey to self-acceptance/self-actualization, and decided it needed to be both an extremely intimate piece, but one that, in its intimacy, would be universal and therefore grand.

Two singers—a mezzo soprano and a baritone—share the role of Hannah, As One’s sole protagonist. The two share the singing from beginning to end, as opposed to a less nuanced presentation where the baritone plays Hannah before, the boy, and the mezzo is Hannah after, the girl.

The whole point is that human beings are on a fluid gender spectrum and by having the two voices always on stage and always being Hannah, the audience experiences her fullness as she goes on her journey of self-discovery.

The viola, the middle voice of the string quartet, represents the soul of Hannah, and has several motives that recur and are transformed throughout the work. Also, the opening music of “Paper Route” is transformed in “To Know” and again in “Two Cities,” as these are all arias about self-awareness and the joy of knowing—and being—who one is at their core, and accepting this, even with the difficulties that may be encountered.

The two scenes “Home for the Holidays” and “Dear Son”—about an exchange of letters from Hannah to Mom and then Mom back to Hannah—are poignant depictions of the time when every young adult needs to find space and to begin the separation from parents that will allow for a fully realized and independent life, and the parent knows that the child must do this, but worries. The music for these are related, and they bookend a gentle aria, “A Christmas Story,” about Hannah’s coffee shop encounter with another lonely soul on Christmas Day.

Mark and Kim and I all were very clear from the beginning of our work together on As One that we wanted to tell a specific story about one person’s journey to self-actualization from youth to adulthood. We wanted to make our protagonist fully human and relatable, so that all who encounter As One are able to identify and see that Hannah’s story is both personal and universal, that all of us need to figure out who we are, that there is some pain along the way, but that an honest journey of self-discovery and acceptance can lead to a meaningful life.

We also wanted to increase awareness of the terrible violence against trans people across the globe, and that there is much work to be done, still, to address the ignorance, fear and hatred that continues to this day. The personal is, indeed, political, and Hannah’s victimization at the hands of a menacing bully who attacks her in a dark parking lot, and her subsequent realization that she is not alone, that there are others, and that the world is not safe, is a difficult but important scene—“Out of Nowhere”—but one we all believe needs to be included.

SI: When most people think of opera, they think of 19th century Europe, historic costumes, often-outdated storylines, and 3-hour performances in Italian. What are some of the things that make As One different from (and perhaps more accessible than) your average opera?

LK: In a way, your question is your answer here! As One is under 80 minutes, no intermission; it’s in English—and clear and understandable English. The story is both current and societally relevant, but it is also universal and timeless, so it resonates on many levels. That there are only two singers and a string quartet makes for an intimate theatrical experience and, in most productions (but not this one in Seattle), the use of an original film (by Kim) for the set exemplifies the use of multimedia so exciting to today’s audiences. (Kim, Mark and I are all excited to see what Seattle Opera has decided to do in terms of staging and design given that they are not using the film.) And, again, depending on each director’s interpretation, there are often places where the audience is actively engaged in the performance, bringing it even closer to home.

SI: Many of your scores, including As One, explore sociopolitical topics—what do you feel makes opera a compelling vehicle for exploring these multifaceted issues, and for exploring transgender issues in particular?

LK: It’s all about the storytelling and the power of the human voice to touch us deeply and immediately. It is possible to write more abstract instrumental music on a socio-political theme, and I have many such pieces. Vukovar Trio is dedicated to the victims of ethnic cleansing; my percussion concerto, Terra Terribilis, and my sixth string quartet, Rising Tide, confronts issues around environmental sustainability; Transformations II, which was commissioned by the St. Helens Quartet (who are performing in As One), was composed in the aftermath of 9/11, are some of the instrumental works on sociopolitical topics—and any of these could have been operas instead of instrumental music but in conceiving them, I wanted to use instrumental forces. But for As One, it had to be an opera, not an instrumental work. It just had to be sung.

jorell-williams-and-taylor-raven

Baritone Jorell Williams and mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven share the role of Hannah in As One.

SI: What were some of the unique challenges and rewards of composing music for two distinct voices portraying the same person?

LK: The most important thing for Mark, Kim, and me in crafting the story, and then for me to set it musically, was not to have the first half be “the boy” and the second half “the girl.” So structuring the arc of the piece to have both singers always playing Hannah, before, during and after, was a lovely challenge—determining who would sing which aria and convey which piece of the story and which parts of Hannah’s emotional journey. Technically, I had to be sensitive to the few notes that the two voice types have in common and decide how best to use them to create the unity we all wanted—the “as one” aspect.

SI: As One originally premiered in 2014 at the BAM Fisher in New York City, produced by American Opera Projects, and has since been performed around the U.S. and in Europe. In what ways will the Seattle Opera production different from previous performances?

LK: This will be the first production that will be staged without using Kim’s film for the set, so that is something we are all eager to see. Also, this is the first African-American cast, and I think that this will add another layer of complexity and nuance. African American trans women are among the most ostracized and victimized, so casting this with two black singers will be incredibly powerful. I am delighted to say that I’ve known Jorell Williams for over a decade, when he was a student and I was the dean of music at Purchase Conservatory, and so it is a great thrill to be working with him now.

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SI:  Women are extremely underrepresented in musical leadership roles, and especially in composing. How has being a woman shaped your experiences as a composer?

LK: It’s just a piece of the whole. I am a composer. I’m a New Yorker. I’m a married lesbian. I’m a secular humanist Jew. I’m a progressive thinker. Oh, yes, and I am a woman. It’s shaped everything, as have all the other parts of who I am have, and sometimes it’s been a challenge, and sometimes a blessing, but it’s all I know. This isn’t the best answer, obviously, because it really doesn’t answer anything, but I do think that the day will come when the question doesn’t even have to be asked.

However, I can say that this is a good moment for women in opera. I have been the beneficiary of two grants administered by Opera America from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation to support women composers. The first was in support of As One; the second is in support of the new opera that Mark and Kim and I have been commissioned to create for Houston Grand Opera, Some Light Emerges.  And Opera America is taking an advocacy and leadership position with its new initiative, the Women’s Opera Network.

SI: What advice do you have for other women who are fighting to make it onto concert programs?

LK: Write the best music you can. Go to concerts. Meet performers, presenters, and producers in the field. Be a part of the larger community. Be brave!

Seattle Opera’s production of Laura Kaminsky’s As One runs Nov. 11-19 at Washington Hall in Seattle’s Central District. Performances are evenings at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 4 p.m. All performances are ages 21+ with a cash bar. For tickets and additional information, click here.

Women in (New) Music: Q&A with Renée Baker

by Maggie Molloy

reneebakersseatedbatonChicago-based composer Renée Baker knows no creative boundaries—or rather, she just prefers to transcend them. Her music quite literally jumps off the page, often foregoing traditional Western sheet music in favor of graphic scores, improvisation, and even conduction.

As a violinist and composer, Baker has spent the past 25 years creating and conducting musical explorations into classical, jazz, and the furthest reaches of the avant-garde. Over the course of her career, she has founded nearly two dozen new music ensembles with a wide spectrum of musicians ranging from jazz cats to classically-trained orchestral players. Currently the Artistic Director of the Chicago Sinfonietta Chamber Ensemble and Mantra Blue Free Orchestra, Baker has cultivated a singularly expressive and inspiring musical voice.

And that voice is coming to Seattle this Friday, Oct. 28 for a performance with 12 of Seattle’s most outstanding improvising musicians at the Good Shepherd Center’s Chapel Performance Space.

The concert features the world premiere of Baker’s surrealist Cabinet of Wonder suite along with two other well-loved works: RAGE for Chamber Collisions and Altered Consciousness (a spatial conversation between minds).

The titles alone sparked a lot of excited curiosity for us here at Second Inversion. Lucky for us, Baker kindly obliged to answer our questions about her upcoming performance:

Second Inversion: How would you describe your compositional style? What are some of your major influences?

Renee BakerRenée Baker: I can’t ascribe a particular style but can certainly point to ideas and influences which inform my constantly evolving creative world. The process always starts with the question of intent: what do I want this work to say, explain, express, evoke? This is applicable to my composition, film work, sculpture, painting, musings for book works.

The works, whether in traditional or nontraditional notation are distillations of my view of the world. So as a method of communication I think my works transcend the old role of composer and comes closer to being a conduit and channeler of ideas and inspirations as they occur to me, I’m always thinking about what I want a work to say and what the motivation is for starting ANY work of art. So my products are remnants of all music periods, all art periods, past and current architecture, the ever changing palette of fashion, the extremes of the world of cinema, trending food fads—see, all this cycles all the time and everything influences everything.

I’m superbly influenced by Harlan Hubbard, Basho, Anselm Kiefer, Akira Kurosawa, Merce Cunningham, DW Griffith, Anne Truitt, Tasha Tudor, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, Marina Abramovic, Meredith Monk, Leon Schidlowsky. Anthony Braxton, Joseph Beuys, Oscar Micheaux, William Kentridge—this list can go on and on. I’m a voracious sponge of a mind and at some point everything experienced is channeled directly or indirectly into a creative outlet.

SI: Can you describe a little bit about the three pieces being performed on the October 28 program?

RB: Cabinet of Wonder is a work created to celebrate the worlds of Cornell and Beuys: containers that hold varying compartments of meaning, determined by the viewer/listener in this case. As there works spoke to me, the over-reaching idea that stood out for me is that we are  so similar with the same types of thoughts, fears, idiosyncrasies, doubts and worries running through our minds—so our mind cabinets are quite similar.

I have used traditional notation, colors, forms, gestural conducting to demonstrate the commonality between us. Some of this will be processed organically by every human that interacts with psyche of another person. The three movements of Cabinet of Wonder will not intentionally break, unless there is a need for set change—but they are designed to segue right into each other as a solid representation of the constant state of mind flux. I don’t want to impose boundaries on the work, so we will all meet inside these movements and hopefully touch and relate to each other, right here, right now. 

RAGE for Chamber Collision is my sonic reaction to our human condition. Altered Consciousness is a spatial conversation between the members of the ensemble, myself and the space in which we find ourselves as humans that must relate to each other positively.

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of creating (and conducting!) music that utilizes conduction, graphic scores, and improvisation?

RB: It’s all about making a connection as a creator and transmitting my intent simply so that we can create new sonic landscapes. It’s so gratifying when you can develop a language with musicians with whom you’ve worked for over 25 years, but I get the same thrill, excitement and fulfillment from making a connection with absolute strangers—that we can meet, quickly size each other and get to the task, the love and joy of making the music happen.

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SI: You’ve been at the forefront of creative and avant-garde music for the past 25 years. What inspires you most about this music?

RB: Oh no!! I’m a baby in the world of creative music. Having spent most of my life in the symphony orchestra. This culture came as a welcome addendum to my creative world. As I have listened and accessed the never ending world of creative, intuitive composition, I am constantly surprised by the creativity of fellow humans. I don’t think we can exhaust the ideas—I hope to maintain this openness regarding creation and intuition always. I never stop studying scores, listening to new works, exposing myself to even the most extreme of performance arts because the disciplines are intersecting each other at a rate I’ve never seen before.

SI: Women are extremely underrepresented in musical leadership roles, and especially in composing and conducting. How has being a woman, and especially an African-American woman, shaped your experiences in these roles?

RB: I’ll make this easy: everyone, men and women, are so bent on getting their piece of whatever pie they think they deserve, that the energy needed for truly creating your vision and sharing that with the universe, gets pushed aside. I have certainly faced racism, discrimination, sexism, ageism, classicism, brown eye-ism, straight and nappy hair-isms—it just doesn’t end.

But it’s not new. When you’re smart, front, and present AND a woman, you have to be ready for your Weeble moments. Remember the Weeble commercials? Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down? There you have it. I formed the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project and my chamber orchestra in Berlin, PEK Contemporary Project, because I didn’t want to be bitter about possibly not being given opportunities to have my music heard. I’ve been wonderfully lucky and terribly unlucky in many circumstances.

The biggest elephants in the room are racism and sexism—okay, got it! So what do you do about? If you feel your voice MUST be added to the chorus of creativity and made tangible for the world to taste, then make it happen. I’ve started over 20 new music ensembles, each fitting a different music demographic, and have had a marvelous time doing it. Not to sound like the happy Pollyanna, but if the wall keeps appearing, be sure that your work can stand up, and you climb on it and go over the wall. As a woman you will have some luck, but you have to provide your own working world sometimes. Be prepared, say yes, show up!!!

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SI: What advice do you have for other women who are fighting to make it onto concert programs and conductor podiums?

RB: CREATE YOUR PLACE!! Puuuuush!!! Be confident that you deserve an opportunity and go after it. Be sure that you’re going after YOUR idea of success—we’re not all going to have Beyoncé-like careers, but diversify your talents and keep your practice fresh and relevant. Podiums are opening but there are still criteria that some of us will never fit—go ’round it!!

 


SI: What are you most looking forward to with the October 28 performance, and what do you hope audience members will gain from it?

RB: I want to experience new, creative minds and ideas from artists who have had special journeys of their own. I hope we can add to each other’s experiences and for the audience, I want them to meet and experience the authentic creative mind of Renée Baker. My way of seeing the world through music is an open door.

Renée Baker’s Seattle performance is this Friday, Oct. 28 at 8 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For information and tickets, please click here.

Women in (New) Music: Global Concertos Q&A with Samantha Boshnack

by Maggie Molloy

The concerto may traditionally be a Western musical form, but composer and trumpeter Samantha Boshnack likes to take a more global approach.

Photo by Daniel Sheehan.

Photo by Daniel Sheehan.

Her international opus, aptly titled Global Concertos, is a collection of five distinct pieces written for world-class soloists from, well, all over the world. Accompanied by the B’snorkestra (an alternative chamber ensemble Boshnack founded in 2011), the five concertos feature the soloistic talents of Thione Diop on West African talking drum, Christos Govetas on Greek clarinet, Srivani Jade on North Indian vocals, Julio Lauregui on Latin American piano, and Thomas Marriott on American jazz trumpet.

Drawing from classical, jazz, rock, avant-garde, salsa, and world music traditions, the concertos combine written and improvisational elements to craft an entirely new sound that is truly global in its scope.

Sam Boshnack Still 15

Photo by Ian Lucero.

Though the tour de force originally premiered in May of 2015, the gang is back for another evening of international jams as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival, co-presented with Cornish at PONCHO Concert Hall this coming Monday, Oct. 24 at 8pm.

We sat down with Boshnack to talk about concertos, community, and the rest of the world.

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind Global Concertos?

boshnack-3_photo-by-daniel-sheehan

Photo by Daniel Sheehan.

Samantha Boshnack: Global Concertos arose from my desire to celebrate individual expression and virtuosity of musicians outside of Western classical music. I also felt inspired by the concept of a concerto—a large group working together to elevate and support an individual. All of the soloists featured are artists I deeply admire. 

Traditionally in concertos, the virtuosity of the soloist is mostly displayed by their performance of the composer’s written material, although a concerto may contain improvised cadenzas. Global Concertos expands on this idea—in addition to my written material, there is also space for each individually virtuosic soloist to showcase their particular style of improvisation, aural tradition, rhythm/groove and ornamentation. While B’shnorkestra provides the accompaniment, its members are top musicians from jazz, rock, avant-garde, salsa, world, classical and more—providing the flexibility needed for works spanning the globe in their reach.

I created the B’shnorkestra in 2011 and have written a number of pieces for the group (we released our debut record Go to Orange in 2013). This felt like an exciting next step for us. I could still write ideas for the “orchestra” like I had before, but then I could also leave space for the soloist to showcase their brilliant musicality—and together we could create something different than anything either of us individually could.  

For my concerto for vocalist Srivani Jade, I used a Rabindranath Tagore poem entitled Prarthona. Tagore wrote this before India gained its independence. He is describing his dream of how the new, awakened India should be. I chose this poem for lyrics because of its inspiring message extolling the power of unity and the strength of diversity. My goal in this project was to create a musical world that has “not been broken up into fragments.”

B'shnorkestra

Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom.

SI: The concertos feature a wide range of soloists playing instruments from all over the world. Can you describe a bit about what the concertos sound like?

SB: My goal when choosing soloists was to represent five different continents and also five different families of instruments. So I wrote for vocal, brass, woodwind, drum, and piano; and Asia, North America, Europe, Africa and South America are represented. I felt like I hit the jackpot, because I managed to accomplish those goals while also working with amazing soloists who are leaders in their musical communities. I was really inspired by each of them. As I was writing this work, I delved deep into each of their recording catalogues and tried to really hear how their voice would fit in each piece. In addition, I was trying to maintain my individual voice as a composer. I think they and I were both pushed outside of our musical comfort zone, making this a truly experimental work. It was maybe a bit scary.  

Prarthona features Indian classical vocalist Srivani Jade.  I wrote Srivani a melody with Tagore’s lyrics, which she learned by ear. Then we worked together to create sections for her to improvise over. The Concerto for Julio, written for pianist Julio Jáuregui, draws on Latin American roots and exploits the piano as a percussion instrument. In the Concerto for Christos, Macedonian multi-instrumentalist Christos Govetas, here on clarinet, brings a distinctly Balkan flavor to the proceedings.

Sam Boshnack Still 17

Photo by Ian Lucero.

While rhythm has always been a key component for me, the Concerto for Talking Drum takes that dynamic to a whole new level, as Senegalese percussionist Thione Diop brings his organic mastery of the West African talking drum to bear on this combination of African and Western motifs. Last is the Concerto for Jazz Trumpet, written for Seattle-native Thomas Marriott. As the most overtly jazz-oriented of the concertos, it is emblematic for its spontaneity.  Each of these pieces has many sections in it, allowing me to explore different moods and styles within each culture.

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of studying, composing, and performing this music?

SB: This project (by design) created an opportunity to collaborate and experiment with some musicians that I would not normally get to work with. This was so rewarding for me. My compositional language expanded by adapting to the musical worlds of these diverse, top-notch soloists. The challenge was that I had to use different strategies and methods than usual in order to write for each soloist, because many did not read Western notation. I learned from and worked with each soloist individually to discover ways to successfully display their incredible talent within my compositions. The beauty is that music is universal, and the soloists could rely on their ear. 

B'snorkestra

Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom.

SI: What do you find most inspiring about collaborating with these soloists from around the globe?

SB: Having such a diverse group of soloists allowed me to explore so many musical palettes. Each tradition is so rich and deep. It was an honor to work with these soloists to create compositions for them to shine on.  

SI: Women are extremely underrepresented in musical leadership roles, and especially in composing and band leading. How has being a woman shaped your experiences in these roles?

SB: It is certainly a great challenge.  I think all women in leadership roles in all fields face the same challenges.  We have to fight harder to have our ideas heard.  My work mostly falls in the jazz realm of music (although I would say this project veered away from that), and jazz is so male-dominated.

I think you go through many stages of dealing with sexism—when you are younger you face different challenges then when you’re a bit older. Or sometimes you have an encounter in music that is so discriminatory that it knocks you down and you feel very defeated. But ultimately you love what you do, and you get back up again. I work with a lot of great men who understand the struggle and are supportive, but unfortunately not all are like this. I would say I find a lot of strength in my relationships with other women. They do understand the struggle and we can support each other in the hard times.

SI: What advice do you have for other women who are fighting to have their music heard?

SB: You’re not wrong in feeling that it’s hard, but I think it’s really important that we keep fighting.  

SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance, and what do you hope audiences will gain from it?

SB: It’s been interesting diving back into this music again for this performance. We premiered these pieces in May 2015. Like I said, for me—it was all a little scary then. This was the biggest show I had ever undertaken. Nineteen musicians—some I hadn’t worked with before, all new music—it was a lot. But we rehearsed hard and frequently, and pulled it off. Actually, I got a really fabulous live recording of the show which I am releasing on CD. This recording will be available for sale at the show, and online (pre-order on Bandcamp, release date November 18). So this time around, that feeling of “will it work?” is not in my brain. This time around we get to relax a little more into the work, I’m really looking forward to that. Because the soloists are all such great improvisers, the pieces are different this time and it’s so fun to hear what changes.

I hope the audience will gain a deeper knowledge and appreciation for all of the incredible and diverse talent we have here in our city.  

globalconbandcamp

The Global Concertos performance is Monday, Oct. 24 at 8pm at PONCHO Concert Hall. For additional information, please click here.