Women in (New) Music: Women, Creativity, and the Classroom

by Kaley Lane Eaton

Well, here we are. It is 2016, and 14 of the top US orchestras have programmed zero works by female composers in the 2016-2017 season. The U.S. presidential election has exposed various unsettling realities that women experience on a daily basis, much of which is particularly relatable for women in leadership positions in male-dominated fields.

As a female composer working towards my DMA in composition, after spending years entrenched in feminist liberal arts colleges and female-dominated opera programs, it is easy to get discouraged about the state of women; indeed, recent studies have shown that gender imbalance in favor of men can actually contribute to health problems for women in those fields. But the imbalance in our field need not be permanent.

In 2013, as part of my Master’s thesis, I conducted a study titled “Women, Creativity, and the Classroom” with the goal of highlighting how women versus men are conditioned to experience their creativity in the music classroom. As my study found (and additional research supports), gender imbalance in creative leadership roles is rooted in K-12 classrooms across America.

The lack of women in our music education paradigm is rooted in the lack of presence of women in the actual world of music. The popular new music blog NewMusicBox conducted an informal study of progressive chamber ensembles that focus on performing the work of recent and living composers, calculating the percentages of their season repertoire composed by women:

Both interpretations of these pie charts are troubling: that women have written only an average of 16% of all existing new music, or that these ensembles are deliberately selecting such a small percentage of actual existing repertoire.

These numbers reflect the kind of education that girls and women receive in school and higher education: A History of Western Music by Grout and Palisca, the standard music history text used in most institutions, includes only eight mentions of women as composers in its 1136 pages. Consistently, only 15.8% of doctorates awarded in music composition and theory go to women.

Despite the wealth of research that points to a universal (although with variation) aptitude for creativity among children, there is a gap in research that examines how each gender navigates creativity in differing social circumstances. Carol Gilligan’s groundbreaking work illuminates the fact that pubescent girls deal with dissociation, a psychological phenomenon where one questions the validity of experience and hesitates to express experiences authentically.

Gilligan notes, “If [girls] speak freely and reveal what they see and hear and know through experience, they are in danger of losing their relationships.” If we assume this truth, then young girls feel their relationships are at risk when they express their authentic selves, which distances them from the desire to pursue creative and expressive work. This was the concept I attempted to unearth in my research, and my findings prove dissociation is well at work within the minds of our young girls.


Methods Phase I: Surveys

I undertook a variety of methods to collect data from two 6th grade drumming classes and two 9th and 10th grade (combined) choir classes: during the initial phase, I administered a detailed survey in which I asked students to rank their feelings towards, enjoyment of, and beliefs about their creative activity. Students had the opportunity to justify their numerical rankings with written responses, which most chose to do – these responses heavily impacted my conclusions. On the same survey, I also asked these students to list their musical role models.

Below is a selection of questions and their results, visualized into a graph. A “5” on the answering scale indicates strong agreement, and a “1” indicates strong disagreement.

To read the full study, which featured a series of six questions, please click here.

Survey Question: I feel comfortable taking risks in improvisation and composition activities.

6th Grade Responses
6th-grade-first-question

9th/10tGrade Responses
9th-grade-first-question

Findings:

  • All girls who answered with 2 or 3 indicated a fear of making a mistake, being laughed at, or cited their lack of experience with music. Their responses showed high social awareness: “my peers will think,” “they will laugh,” etc.
  • High school girls indicated that mistakes were a major component of the activity: those that answered 4 and 5 had justifications like “I might mess up but I know it’s ok,” and those that answered low cited reasons such as “I make too many mistakes.” As our improvisation activity had no possible “mistakes,” the girls were allowing a fabricated idea of the “mistake” to inform their comfort level.
  • Many girls of all scoring levels indicated they were low in self-esteem and therefore did not feel comfortable taking risks.
  • By contrast, 6th grade boys answered with only 4s and 5s – showing strong confidence in risk-taking. These boys explained that improvising and risk-taking were enjoyable regardless of circumstance, and not a single boy used any vocabulary relating to the opinion of their peers.
  • High school boys indicated confidence was related to skill – “It’s fun because I am good at it.”
  • Not a single survey from a high school boy used the word “mistake” or any of its synonyms. One survey did say rather poignantly, “No risk and no consequence to improvisation.”

Questions in the survey phrased using “I believe” were designed to assess students’ levels of self-esteem and self-confidence in their creative ability. Self-esteem and self-confidence are not accurate predictors of actual talent and creativity in either men or women from childhood to adulthood, with men typically showing inflated confidence and women showing low self-esteem. My findings support that; these questions showed great gender and age disparity.

Survey Question: I believe I have leadership skills in music.

6th Grade Responses
question-2-6th-grade

9th/10th Grade Responses
9th-grade-second-questionFindings:

  • This question showed not only the greatest gender disparity in both ages, but also the greatest change from 6th grade to high school. Genders answered in nearly opposite percentages in all grades.
  • Comments that students left on surveys display the same trends that the other questions indicate – where boys viewed leadership as an expression of individual power, girls viewed leadership as a construction primarily in place to help others. Girls were careful not to justify their high scores with self-praise but rather with acknowledgement of group needs.
  • Girls that cited strong or neutral attitudes towards leadership skills in both 6th grade and high school were unanimous in their view of leadership as a role that is in place to help others, rationalizing their scores with statements such as “I work well with groups,” “Students tend to ask me for help,” “I want to encourage others,” and  “I’m not the best but I want to help others.” Responses such as these reflect the tendency for girls of all ages to divert positive attention away from themselves and attribute it to outside forces.
  • Boys showed waning confidence with age in their responses to this question as well, but also illuminated their conception of leadership as fundamentally different from the girls’ conception: leadership was a mark of success, of individual power and talent – not a role primarily concerned with helping others.
  • Boys in all grades cited achievement, confidence and skill (or lack thereof) as a means of justifying their leadership scores. Those that answered low said they were “not a leader”, “not comfortable”,  “just started with music” or “didn’t play an instrument” and those that answered highly said “I play in a band”, “I’m great at music”, “I love music,” “music is my strength,” and “I’ve led musical groups before.”
  • This is important to contrast with the high school girls’ answers – boys felt that their passion and their strength was enough to qualify them as a leader, whereas girls unanimously cited nomination from their peers as the primary reason for pursuing leadership.

Overall, these responses illuminate the central problems that divide our genders from childhood throughout adulthood: society places more pressure on women to be a certain “way,” whatever that “way” may be. In 6th grade, girls begin to display awareness of society’s pressures: that in order to succeed, they must fit someone else’s definition of who they are. Because creativity and identity are intricately intertwined, this inhibits the development of their creative life. Boys, however, respond to different pressures and display less fear of failure. The pressures of masculinity that so shape their adolescent life predispose them to risk-taking in order to be accepted by male peers. Creativity is simply another form of risk-taking, and the likelihood that boys will face societal rejection upon taking creative risks is much smaller.  


Methods Phase II: Expressing their experiences

During the second phase, I designed an improvisation activity for 6th grade students and asked them to write, draw, or somehow represent on paper their experience during the improvisation activity. Following the written activity, each student had the opportunity to share his or her experience with the class. I created two poems, one using the girls’ responses and one using the boys’, of which each line is a student-written response.

Girls
My mind was all over the place.
They might think I’m crazy.
I felt like my mind was an unknown puzzle trying to find the right pieces, the pieces were my peers, community.
What would work with the other person?
I was thinking about sounds that would sound really good or bad.
What I did sounded bad.
I felt like we were a community.
I was nervous that if I messed up maybe some people would laugh at me.
We are a community.
With each beat came harmony.
The rhythm didn’t come as planned, so I thought of something else.
I had nothing to be afraid of.
I stare at the window as I drum my new idea and try to tune in.
I am listening with the beats on my hand, their beats on my ears, and the drum in my heart.

Boys
My mind was blank.
In my own world with my own beat yet fully aware of the beats around me.
At first I didn’t know what to do but then I got into rhythm, it was really easy for me. I think I am nervous because it’s out of my comfort zone and I don’t really do music.
When I put my hand on a drum I can feel it lingering through my fingers.
I felt very musical and a little offbeat.
When we started the first improv I didn’t have a clue what to do. When we did the second I had a better idea.
A certain rush comes through me that I can’t explain, it feels like I could do anything I put my mind to.


Who will I be?: Musical Role Models

When I researched this same group of students’ musical role models, the results were harrowing:

  • Of the 27 artists mentioned by both 6th grade girls and boys, zero were female.
  • 50% of the 6th grade girls and 13% of 6th grade boys indicated they had no musical role models. 26.6% of high school girls and 17.6% of high school boys had no musical role models.
  • Comparing this data to the survey data, in which 6th grade girls answered with lower scores for each question across the board, there seems to be a correlation at this age between available role models and creative confidence.
  • 30 high school girls mentioned 46 artists, 20 of which were female. High school girls represented the most diverse stylistic tastes of all samples, with role models ranging from classical, pop, and classic rock to musical theatre.
  • Interestingly, this sample was the only group to mention family members as role models, with 4 of the 30 girls citing relatives as major musical influences. Four high school girls also mentioned their classroom music teacher – who is a woman – as a musical role model.
  • In stark contrast, the 18 high school boys surveyed mentioned 40 artists, only one of which was female. Only one high school boy mentioned family as an influence and only one mentioned the classroom music teacher.

The numbers are clear: young women and men do not have enough female musical role models. Perhaps most troubling is the fact that, of all the samples, only the high schools girls mentioned female artists as role models, and even then, at a lower rate than they mentioned male artists. In order for us to claim true equality in the way we educate our young musicians, both boys and girls should ideally be claiming comparable numbers of male and female role models.


What Can We Do?

The classical music world – especially the portion that contains new music, in which living composers are the vital presence – is a relatively small portion of society. There are few opportunities to have conversations about gender representation because the majority of white, male composers and conductors in leadership positions have rarely had to battle institutional barriers; thus the conversation of institutional barriers rarely makes the top of the agenda.

Further, in speaking with some of my composing colleagues and collecting survey data from adult, professional female composers and conductors, many women noted hostility between women in our field. Often, this is reported as conflict between women who celebrate their gender as an important factor of their art and women who refrain from explicitly speaking about it. Thus the gender conversation, in gender imbalanced situations, can range from inspiring, to awkward, to, unfortunately, silencing or even harassing, as reported in several surveys. The unpredictability of this kind of conversation based on past experiences, according to these same reports, often prevents women (and men) from bringing it up.

The best way we can improve the situation is to address the problem, and to think critically about the music that we consume, study, perform, and share. Music teachers must work tirelessly to develop their own curriculums that include equal representations of female and male composers and creative role models and refrain from using old textbooks that do not provide accurate representations of women and people of color. This is no easy task, as even the most dedicated of progressive teachers often fail to provide their students with fair numbers. It is, however, feasible. There is enough available published music for school music ensembles to be able to provide close to equal representation of female composers at school concerts.

Where possible, educators can incorporate composition into school curriculum to allow for student compositions to be presented in concert as well. Educators may also opt for an active role in the pursuit of equality by asking students to write letters to publishing companies and arts organizations that fail to provide decent representation of women.


Conclusions

Our music industry, in all its facets – from underground indie rock to classical music to corporate pop – reflects our societal attitude towards women: we are not creative agents, but targets of male visions. This mentality has permeated our school system, where the same dichotomy is enforced in the way that we allow our students to relate to one another socially and in the way that we, as teachers, encourage and reprimand them.

Behaviorally, we expect girls – from kindergarten to high school – to follow rules rather than question them. Every day, the patterns that our girls experience in school are reinforced by the patterns they see in women in the media. As girls age and become more aware of social roles and dynamics, they consequently begin to pigeonhole themselves as appeasers, as helpers, as bystanders. We heap the responsibility of perfect social order in the classroom on our girls rather than expecting equal contribution AND deviation from both genders. Girls of all ages should feel just as comfortable as boys to mess up, to break rules, to be punished – this is how we develop confidence, and this is how we break creative boundaries.

kaley-lane-eaton-with-studentsIn my data, it became clear that over time, girls associate creativity with deviation from the group, and boys associate creativity with individual success. What seems like a difference in vocabulary is representative of our society’s depressingly imbalanced attitude towards the role of women. What results from this imbalance is exactly what we have now: consistently misunderstood female public figures, and very few women in creative leadership roles. This, in turn, reinforces the vicious cycle: in this world, there are few creative female role models and, most importantly, new, relevant art is not being created to its full capacity.

Can our world progress in equality, in empathy, in opportunity for all, if this is the dominant paradigm? My answer is yes: it is in the hands of artists and educators, who are thankfully and wonderfully radical in what they do, to chip away at this paradigm.

Every initiative made by major arts organizations to combat social problems, be they issues of race, social class, gender, or other imbalances in the arts community, serves to help women and girls rise up. Every resilient and brave woman that applies for professorships, fellowships, and grants inspires a friend, student, or colleague. Every mother that shares what her day at work was like with her daughter creates an inspired young leader. Every woman that makes a record inspires a girl to write her first song. And every vote made towards candidates, initiatives, and policies that address equity helps to create a society where women and men both lead and take creative risks. For these reasons, I am optimistic.

Please click here for a full list of references.

NEW VIDEO: Movement for String Quartet and Piano by Andrius Žlabys

On May 24, 2016, Town Hall Seattle concert-goers and Second Inversion listeners were fortunate to hear the world premiere of Movement for String Quartet and Piano by Andrius Žlabys. If you missed it, we’re pleased to present this video production on the Town Hall stage!

Joshua Roman sat down to chat with Andrius about the piece and his composition background.

Joshua Roman: When was the first time you thought about writing your own music?

Andrius Žlabys: Well, actually from childhood. I started by improvising, before I began formal piano studies, to the horror of my piano teacher, because my whole setup was fairly developed in an amateur way. So I had learned, on my own, the Bach Toccata and Fugue for organ, but my fingers were all over the place, so it was a kind of promising disaster.

JR: What style did you improvise in?

Improvisation

AŽ: I started to come to the keyboard (we have a grand piano where I grew up) – and I would begin just tinkering with the piano, finding any sonorities I could. I don’t know what style that was. Kid style. But I think I might have made some sense, because my parents thought “it’s not just regular banging on the piano”, and I would spend a lot of time on it. So they decided maybe it’s a good idea to try lessons. And so I kept improvising, and the style was kind of baroque for a while, and then some contemporary elements were added as I was exposed to more contemporary music. And at some point I did try to write it down, fragments, but I didn’t have any formal composition studies until I came to the U.S. to Interlochen, where I studied composition.

JR: Did you ever write anything that was performed at Interlochen?

AŽ: Yeah! I wrote a piano sonata, a piece for violin and piano, and actually a suite for cello and piano. When I auditioned for schools, I got into Peabody as a double major; composition and piano, but I chose to go to Curtis as a piano major. So for a while, I didn’t compose, and then started up again later. But I kept improvising.

JR: Who are some of your influences as a composer?

AŽ: I have composers that I love and play all the time like Bach, and obviously Mozart. Looking at more current composers, I love Messiaen, and I love Shostakovich, Schnittke, and Arvo Pärt. But I was also influenced by many of my close friends who are composers. For example, Dmitri Levkovich, and Yevgeniy Sharlat, who was a tremendous influence. He wrote a piano quartet for me; through that and other pieces that I observed him writing I got to see the process, the struggle, and moments of joy when it comes through.

Somehow I was so in a piano mode that I never developed the ability to write lengthy things. Because the actual technique of writing is to be able to capture the ideas before they float away. So once I became able to capture longer ideas, there was more possibility. The ideas were always there, I just never had the capacity to capture them until I took up composing in a more focused way.

JR: Do think that composing affects your piano playing at all?

EXRE-MI00125-5

AŽ: Absolutely. Yes, they’re so interconnected. In interesting and sometimes strange ways. For example, when I compose – as a piano teacher, I change a lot. Because I start to see all kinds of motivic connections that I would never see otherwise. I remember once I was teaching Mozart Fantasia in C minor, and at the time I was actively writing a piece, and I saw all kinds of things in the Mozart that were totally out of my vision when I was practicing the piece myself. So yes, it affects my interpretation. First of all, you get to see how the thought is developed. So I get to see what is the core idea, which influences the piece mostly on a subconscious level. I get to see how everything revolves around that idea, which is usually just a couple of notes. And to see the whole, not just the parts – that musical cognitive process, a kind of inner logic.

Since I started composing more, Beethoven has become a total mystery. In his case, there are so many rather simple harmonic progressions; we have tonic-dominant, dominant-tonic; fairly straightforward. And then you get ornamentation in the form of the melody, which is also often just very simple arpeggios. And the real genius is somewhere in between those two things. Because by themselves, harmonic progressions are just harmonic progressions, right? And without them, those ornamentations would not make sense. So something happens in this very thin area, a kind of boundary layer. So I began to see more of those things when I started really composing.

As a performer of my own music, I always hear “how it should really sound”. It makes me much more demanding of what my sound should be. On the other hand, I realize that how the piece should sound is not defined by, you know, precise dynamics. When I analyze the great works I now see how masterfully the composers placed those dynamics. They are precise enough, but leave just enough room for freedom, and every composer does it differently. It’s such an important element, and when I compose myself, I can imagine the music being interpreted in different ways, as long as the underlying thought is somehow expressed.

JR: How do you feel playing the piano affects your composition? This is kind of the opposite question.

piano-1024x682

AŽ: Playing the piano of course gives me access to polyphony. For me, voice leading in composition is probably the most important thing. The lines follow a certain kind of logic – almost like physical laws. And then, when they try to break the boundaries of those laws, those have to be intentional moments, not accidental. Voice leading, polyphony, the importance of independent yet strongly interacting lines, are the most important values for me, no matter what style. I think that if you look at any music that we consider great music, the voice leading is almost always impeccable, unless intentionally not so. Then, of course, it’s breaking those rules quite purposefully.

Writing for piano, it helps to know how to write for my own hands. Sometimes it makes me write kind of demanding stuff for the piano, and then of course I have to deal with it.

JR: Aside from knowing the idiom of the piano, do you think being someone who interprets other people’s music and performs it for audiences affects your compositions at all?

03 23 andrius zlabys 2015-01-17 4 photo-d.matvejavas©

Photo Credit: D. Matvejavas

AŽ: Oh yes, absolutely. It’s been kind of a tradition throughout classical music; every composer was a performer and every performer a composer, up to a certain historical period when they began to separate. Ideally you should be able to play every instrument that you’re writing for. I can only play piano, but I try to strongly envision how it would be on the other instruments, so I can write in a way that would be comfortable. Or if uncomfortable, there would be a good reason for that.

For me, I want to write as few notes as possible to convey the feeling. I try to avoid unnecessary complexity. It’s like words; I like to be laconic if possible. Get to the point.

JR: Let’s talk about your piece, A Movement for Piano Quintet.

AŽ: Movement for String Quartet and Piano. Actually, somehow I prefer — “quintet” for me is not as noble sounding as “quartet”, because for me it implies a kind of mesh. I think the string quartet is such a complete sonority. The piano is like a guest, that gets to join for a little while.

JR: Fair point. What was the inspiration for your piece, Movement for String Quartet and Piano?

AŽ: The initial sketches for the piece, and the original motive – a rising three note line – came from a feeling I had during the events in Ukraine in 2014. In fact, the piece is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the war in Ukraine. So the whole piece comes from that feeling or thought. It’s definitely not a very happy piece. There’s a sense of things going wrong, and kind of a protest against that.

This was very close to home – Lithuania. I felt solidarity with Ukraine, and we felt that this could happen to Lithuania as well. To this day, there’s a lot of uncertainty about that.

JR: How does the feeling affect your compositional process?

AŽ: Well, there’s nothing explicit on purpose. There’s an intention, and I think that intention directs the whole process. The obsessive rhythm, and the images that might be seen, come from that intention. It’s not a peaceful piece, even though it has peaceful moments, maybe. There’s kind of an underlying feeling of foreboding.

JR: Is that the ostinato?

AŽ: Yes, the ostinato, with its obsessive quality.

8333_450

There’s another place with strong images – after the big climax there’s a solo quartet section, which is kind of like a Sarabande. And then the piano eventually comes on top, and that feeling was of disjointed, parallel realities, that kind of coexist, but not necessarily coincide. That creates a hallucinatory feeling; it’s not quite a cadenza, but elaborate passagework that comes on top of quite a nice harmony and destroys it.

Then there’s a pizzicato canon, which feels like a person who’s locked into a room of a certain number of dimensions, and cannot get out of it. It’s just perpetually repeating. And again, the piano comes in with little scales which are really a rearticulation of the theme from the beginning.

One of the reasons I couldn’t write for a while when I was – back at Curtis was that I felt I wasn’t allowed to write tonal music. So when I would write, the stuff that would come out would be tonal, and I would dismiss it because it’s just not contemporary. And at some point I said “OK, if that’s what’s coming out then that’s what I have”. That’s my natural language. So, of course, everybody looks for their own style, but my idea is that if I have something that sounds a certain way in my head, and it sounds enough that I want to write it down, then that takes precedence over style. For me, if I can express a certain idea to the best of my ability, or state of mind, then the style will take care of itself.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Town Music Season Finale: Q&A with Andrius Žlabys

by Joshua Roman

On Tuesday, I’ll be joined on my chamber music series Town Music by Johnny Gandelsman, Arnaud Sussman, Kyle Armbrust, and Andrius Žlabys for a program of 20th and 21st Century works. We’ll present the world premiere of “Movement for String Quartet and Piano”, written by Andrius and commissioned by Town Hall Seattle. Andrius is a fantastic musician and a regular collaborator of mine, so I jumped at the chance to interview him over the phone about composing, performing, and his new piece.

download (2)By the way, you can hear this performance LIVE on Second Inversion – tune into the 24/7 stream on Tuesday, May 24 at 7:30pm PST!

Joshua Roman: When was the first time you thought about writing your own music?

Andrius Žlabys: Well, actually from childhood. I started by improvising, before I began formal piano studies, to the horror of my piano teacher, because my whole setup was fairly developed in an amateur way. So I had learned, on my own, the Bach Toccata and Fugue for organ, but my fingers were all over the place, so it was a kind of promising disaster.

JR: What style did you improvise in?

Improvisation

AŽ: I started to come to the keyboard (we have a grand piano where I grew up) – and I would begin just tinkering with the piano, finding any sonorities I could. I don’t know what style that was. Kid style. But I think I might have made some sense, because my parents thought “it’s not just regular banging on the piano”, and I would spend a lot of time on it. So they decided maybe it’s a good idea to try lessons. And so I kept improvising, and the style was kind of baroque for a while, and then some contemporary elements were added as I was exposed to more contemporary music. And at some point I did try to write it down, fragments, but I didn’t have any formal composition studies until I came to the U.S. to Interlochen, where I studied composition.

JR: Did you ever write anything that was performed at Interlochen?

AŽ: Yeah! I wrote a piano sonata, a piece for violin and piano, and actually a suite for cello and piano. When I auditioned for schools, I got into Peabody as a double major; composition and piano, but I chose to go to Curtis as a piano major. So for a while, I didn’t compose, and then started up again later. But I kept improvising.

JR: Who are some of your influences as a composer?

AŽ: I have composers that I love and play all the time like Bach, and obviously Mozart. Looking at more current composers, I love Messiaen, and I love Shostakovich, Schnittke, and Arvo Pärt. But I was also influenced by many of my close friends who are composers. For example, Dmitri Levkovich, and Yevgeniy Sharlat, who was a tremendous influence. He wrote a piano quartet for me; through that and other pieces that I observed him writing I got to see the process, the struggle, and moments of joy when it comes through.

Somehow I was so in a piano mode that I never developed the ability to write lengthy things. Because the actual technique of writing is to be able to capture the ideas before they float away. So once I became able to capture longer ideas, there was more possibility. The ideas were always there, I just never had the capacity to capture them until I took up composing in a more focused way.

JR: Do think that composing affects your piano playing at all?

EXRE-MI00125-5

AŽ: Absolutely. Yes, they’re so interconnected. In interesting and sometimes strange ways. For example, when I compose – as a piano teacher, I change a lot. Because I start to see all kinds of motivic connections that I would never see otherwise. I remember once I was teaching Mozart Fantasia in C minor, and at the time I was actively writing a piece, and I saw all kinds of things in the Mozart that were totally out of my vision when I was practicing the piece myself. So yes, it affects my interpretation. First of all, you get to see how the thought is developed. So I get to see what is the core idea, which influences the piece mostly on a subconscious level. I get to see how everything revolves around that idea, which is usually just a couple of notes. And to see the whole, not just the parts – that musical cognitive process, a kind of inner logic.

Since I started composing more, Beethoven has become a total mystery. In his case, there are so many rather simple harmonic progressions; we have tonic-dominant, dominant-tonic; fairly straightforward. And then you get ornamentation in the form of the melody, which is also often just very simple arpeggios. And the real genius is somewhere in between those two things. Because by themselves, harmonic progressions are just harmonic progressions, right? And without them, those ornamentations would not make sense. So something happens in this very thin area, a kind of boundary layer. So I began to see more of those things when I started really composing.

As a performer of my own music, I always hear “how it should really sound”. It makes me much more demanding of what my sound should be. On the other hand, I realize that how the piece should sound is not defined by, you know, precise dynamics. When I analyze the great works I now see how masterfully the composers placed those dynamics. They are precise enough, but leave just enough room for freedom, and every composer does it differently. It’s such an important element, and when I compose myself, I can imagine the music being interpreted in different ways, as long as the underlying thought is somehow expressed.

JR: How do you feel playing the piano affects your composition? This is kind of the opposite question.

piano-1024x682

AŽ: Playing the piano of course gives me access to polyphony. For me, voice leading in composition is probably the most important thing. The lines follow a certain kind of logic – almost like physical laws. And then, when they try to break the boundaries of those laws, those have to be intentional moments, not accidental. Voice leading, polyphony, the importance of independent yet strongly interacting lines, are the most important values for me, no matter what style. I think that if you look at any music that we consider great music, the voice leading is almost always impeccable, unless intentionally not so. Then, of course, it’s breaking those rules quite purposefully.

Writing for piano, it helps to know how to write for my own hands. Sometimes it makes me write kind of demanding stuff for the piano, and then of course I have to deal with it.

JR: Aside from knowing the idiom of the piano, do you think being someone who interprets other people’s music and performs it for audiences affects your compositions at all?

03 23 andrius zlabys 2015-01-17 4 photo-d.matvejavas©

Photo Credit: D. Matvejavas

AŽ: Oh yes, absolutely. It’s been kind of a tradition throughout classical music; every composer was a performer and every performer a composer, up to a certain historical period when they began to separate. Ideally you should be able to play every instrument that you’re writing for. I can only play piano, but I try to strongly envision how it would be on the other instruments, so I can write in a way that would be comfortable. Or if uncomfortable, there would be a good reason for that.

For me, I want to write as few notes as possible to convey the feeling. I try to avoid unnecessary complexity. It’s like words; I like to be laconic if possible. Get to the point.

JR: Let’s talk about your piece, A Movement for Piano Quintet.

AŽ: Movement for String Quartet and Piano. Actually, somehow I prefer — “quintet” for me is not as noble sounding as “quartet”, because for me it implies a kind of mesh. I think the string quartet is such a complete sonority. The piano is like a guest, that gets to join for a little while.

JR: Fair point. What was the inspiration for your piece, Movement for String Quartet and Piano?

AŽ: The initial sketches for the piece, and the original motive – a rising three note line – came from a feeling I had during the events in Ukraine in 2014. In fact, the piece is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the war in Ukraine. So the whole piece comes from that feeling or thought. It’s definitely not a very happy piece. There’s a sense of things going wrong, and kind of a protest against that.

This was very close to home – Lithuania. I felt solidarity with Ukraine, and we felt that this could happen to Lithuania as well. To this day, there’s a lot of uncertainty about that.

JR: How does the feeling affect your compositional process?

AŽ: Well, there’s nothing explicit on purpose. There’s an intention, and I think that intention directs the whole process. The obsessive rhythm, and the images that might be seen, come from that intention. It’s not a peaceful piece, even though it has peaceful moments, maybe. There’s kind of an underlying feeling of foreboding.

JR: Is that the ostinato?

AŽ: Yes, the ostinato, with its obsessive quality.

8333_450

There’s another place with strong images – after the big climax there’s a solo quartet section, which is kind of like a Sarabande. And then the piano eventually comes on top, and that feeling was of disjointed, parallel realities, that kind of coexist, but not necessarily coincide. That creates a hallucinatory feeling; it’s not quite a cadenza, but elaborate passagework that comes on top of quite a nice harmony and destroys it.

Then there’s a pizzicato canon, which feels like a person who’s locked into a room of a certain number of dimensions, and cannot get out of it. It’s just perpetually repeating. And again, the piano comes in with little scales which are really a rearticulation of the theme from the beginning.

One of the reasons I couldn’t write for a while when I was – back at Curtis was that I felt I wasn’t allowed to write tonal music. So when I would write, the stuff that would come out would be tonal, and I would dismiss it because it’s just not contemporary. And at some point I said “OK, if that’s what’s coming out then that’s what I have”. That’s my natural language. So, of course, everybody looks for their own style, but my idea is that if I have something that sounds a certain way in my head, and it sounds enough that I want to write it down, then that takes precedence over style. For me, if I can express a certain idea to the best of my ability, or state of mind, then the style will take care of itself.

I hope you’ll be able to join us at Town Hall for the Town Music season finale on Tuesday, May 24, 7:30pm. If you’re not in Seattle, you can listen worldwide on the webstream here at Second Inversion!

Joshua’s May 2016 Playlist

CONCERT PREVIEW: Northwest Symphony Orchestra Premieres Flute Concerto by Sarah Bassingthwaighte

by Maggie Stapleton

“Music has always been the constant in my life,” teenage Sarah Bassingthwaighte realized when it came time to make those big life decisions about college majors.

bassingthwaighte-sarah

Sarah started piano lessons at age 4, composing when she was 5 (she still has these early works, notated in very large script), and flute at age 9. A lingering interest in composition led to formal study at Indiana University (while pursuing a flute degree) with composers like Harvey Sollberger. Hearing some of the new ideas and new sounds that these composers came up with was eye-opening for Sarah – “There’s all this other stuff you can do!” – and she felt like a door had been opened. Little did she know, there would eventually be an entire house of doors.

0702 Siegel-Laufer 5-28-09House of Doors is a concerto for flute and orchestra which will be premiered by Merrie Siegel and the Northwest Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Anthony Spain on Saturday, April 30 at 8pm.
It was composed in the last 6 months, and it’s the first piece she’s written for flute that she is not premiering, which presented some challenges. “I had to see if my notation, my ability to communicate my ideas, worked. When I premiere my own piece, I just play what was in my head in the first place and I’m not even looking at the page. But now I have to see if it works!”

photo credit: Mark Manning

The inspiration for this concerto came from a Buddhist meditation exercise created by Anna Wise of the same name, House of Doors, and it was simultaneously “the most fun” and a “profound experience” for Sarah. Here’s how it works, in a nutshell: You’re in a house that you’ve invented and there’s a hallway with many doors. All the doors look different and you get to go and open any door you want, walk inside the room, look at it in as much detail as you can, walk around, see what’s there, change what you want. Then you leave, close the door, and you can go in another one. The idea is not just to hone your observation and imagination but also to get in touch with your ability to change things in your life.

To hear a sneak peek of House of Doors (the flute and piano reduction) click here!

seoul-door-consruction-screen

In Sarah’s first experience, she visited three rooms.

First, she walked into a room that initially looked like a normal bedroom, but on deeper examination she saw little plants and tendrils and deeper in, a dark jungle that went for miles and miles full of orchids and vines.

The next door was a dark, hot, uncomfortable red cave with an empty chair under a spotlight. It was a very scary place.

Through the last door, there was no floor, no ceiling, just sky. She stepped into the room and moved about how she wished. Flying, free, and fun.

Those images were powerful to Sarah and became the launching points for the piece. It was first notated graphically with just textures and a few descriptive words – it wasn’t until months after she started composing that notes and rhythms came about. “One thing I’ve loved about composing is connecting with the other arts. In this case, a feeling of motion, maybe dance, of visual arts and finding the place where they all meet and eventually ending up in my field, music, and creating the piece. Even within the field of music, Sarah’s had some variety and departures.

After her time at IU, Sarah took a break from classical music to play bass in punk rock bands. That seemingly “left turn” wasn’t totally unrelated to her classical training and she’s been able to find a link between all types of music. The directness and even some of the experimentalism in classical music transferred to the bands she was playing with and she found that a sense of attitude and sense of humor is present in both.

“I went into music and never looked back. I love it and I’ll never get bored of it.”

hdr_home

 

The House of Doors Concerto for Flute and Orchestra will be performed on Saturday, April 30 at 8 p.m. at the Highline Performing Arts Center in Burien. For tickets and additional information, please visit this link.

Finding the Music

by Joshua Roman

Fraud. Faker. Sham artist.

Roman_2 (Joshua Roman. Photo credit: Hayley Young)

These are just some of the things that ran through my head as I tried to push through the internal noise and jot down a few melodic ideas to match the words in front of me. The negative voice in my head can be quite derisive. I’ll avoid, for your sake, typing the more profane things it comes up with to keep me from making progress.

While that voice was not helpful at all, it was not entirely without ground to stand on. I’d never taken someone else’s words and set them as music before. I’d never written for an ensemble of such size, or a piece of such scope. It was yet another creative stretch past my previous efforts and it was, at times, very painful. There were times when I really did feel like I was faking it until I could make it.

But that’s the thing about doing something for the first time, isn’t it? You don’t know what will happen. Not that you can ever truly know, and be 100% sure, of any future. But at least you can have an experience-based sense of what to expect.

So how did I end up in this stress position, reaching for something new? I tend to say “yes” a lot. It’s one of the things that has been a blessing and a curse. Sometimes, both. In this particular case, I’m super glad that I did say “yes”, because those intense, stressful periods were short, and interspersed with real glimpses of inspiration. Were it not for the deadline, I might have had nothing but joy and a synergetic experience. Truth be told, though, without a deadline I might have never finished. And, once the piece was complete, I had the thoroughly moving experience of performing it with committed and powerful musicians. And there’s more to come!

41xrjOsUnvLThis project, my setting of Tracy K. Smith‘s poem “Life on Mars”, from her Pulitzer prize winning book Life on Mars was an outgrowth of an earlier collaborative seed. Scott Reed, at the Music Academy of the West, had approached me about working with Tracy at some point, and as an intro to her work, had given me a copy of Life on Mars as well as another one of her books, Duende. I’d read them multiple times when there suddenly was the need for another composer on one of Town Hall Seattle’s concerts full of premieres. We wanted four new works with our available forces – Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was the big work on the program, scored for Soprano, Violin, Cello, Flute, Clarinet, Piano, and a few doublings – and had run out of contacts with time on their hands. I was convinced to set two of the nine pieces from “Life on Mars” for that concert, and when Music Academy of the West found out I was already in that project, they commissioned me to finish the 9 song cycle.

I chose “Life on Mars” because to me it represented a colorful, modern voice using creative analogies to probe some of the deeper questions about complicity and empathy. Up to that point, the little music I’d written down on paper had been more fanciful in nature; playing with the idea of light traveling through different atmospheres, or exploring the naïve quality of young love. I wanted, this time at least, to look something straight in the face and tell it I was not afraid.

Tracy’s work does this. In “Life on Mars,” we circle around the darkness, toying with theories about what binds us together or pulls us apart. We also take the time to more directly confront episodes of moral error, looking at the horrifying story of a man who kept his daughter in a cage in his basement for years, a girl recounting the rape and destruction wrought on her village, and the actions at Abu Ghraib.

Finding a musical way to embrace the variety of tones, even among those darker passages, was a unique challenge. The nine poems had a few through lines – a character named Tina (a real-life friend and colleague of Tracy’s) muses about scientific connections to emotion and language while the author’s voice responds in the text – and a rhythm of wild fantasy in contrast with the depths of depravity emerges – but my initial and pervading instinct was to follow the many colors within the poems to their most natural musical styles. Thus, I began to search out the most obvious clues and go from there.

One of the first things that jumped out at me was the sarcasm in the poem about Abu Ghraib (“Strung Up”). As I heard a voice in my head speaking the text, enunciation became stronger and a blues rhythm began to emerge. There was no going back from this, and it became a hardcore blues riff with bass clarinet taking center stage along with the soprano. In “They”, where the girl has been dragged from her village, the italicized text and hauntingly stark descriptions of the event made me feel an incredibly discordant juxtaposition of stillness with bubbling energy underneath. More whispered than spoken, with moments of beautiful reverie that become disturbing for their context.


At other times, it was not a voice that captured my imagination so much as connections to the structure or the words themselves. The first movement references “dark matter” (which I chose as the title of the song), and the rhythm of those words began popping up as a unifying music gesture. In “Back and Forth”, violin and cello exchange false harmonics in an easy dancing rhythm, and the singer alternates between two notes as she sings the line. I used a simple inversion technique in “In Error” as the words “and told in reverse” are sung, and amplified the effect with a sudden stop on the word “hacked.”


As for structure, one of the happy things about writing based on an existing piece of art (or anything, really) is that I am able to come up with a musical structure based on what I perceive as the existing narrative. Rather than coming up with a new abstract form, or imposing my own, I was able to just spend a lot of time with the text and watch as the shape began to emerge, seemingly on its own. Obviously this is my interpretation, and is based on my musical associations with the text, as well as my understanding of the text on its own merit. Other artists might not have gone off so playfully with passages like the one in “A Pair of Them” where words like “spaces”, “nothing”, and “equation” are repeated in the text, and so repeated as flourishing musical gestures in the song. Also, someone else might not have bothered to count that there were 12 statements about “The earth” and decided that a “Passacaglia” was in order, with each phrase starting on a different chromatic tone over the same ground (earth).

I could geek out all day over this, hehe. That’s the fun part. Once you get an idea, it can be absolutely exhilarating. My parents, who hosted me at their farm in Oklahoma for much of the writing of this piece, probably thought I was nuts as I would shout and repeat just-discovered harmonies over and over again on the piano. Especially as I’m not really a trained pianist or vocalist, but have no shyness at home.

But even that might not compare to hearing this sung and played live. I’m very grateful to all the musicians who have performed notes I’ve written – each time it has been a humbling and invigorating experience. And, as someone fairly new to composition, mind-bending as well. With this piece, with my short chamber work “take me all the way,” and again with my cello concerto “Awakening.”

The latest performance of my own work, which you can hear in its entirety, was with Jessica Rivera singing “we do it to one another” at Town Hall Seattle, and all of the musicians brought their best in a performance that left me feeling amazing gratitude. Jessica and the others really got into the characters, and left me with goosebumps from intensity as well as beauty (yes, there are moments of great beauty in this poetry as well). Jessica Rivera is someone who takes the roles she inhabits very seriously. She is not only a singer with a beautiful voice, but one that uses it with a great sense of responsibility and deep preparation.

I was especially grateful for their dedication as a fever had me horizontal for much of the week, and shaky on my feet even during the performance, which I conducted. So, a brief but heartfelt thank you is necessary to:

Jessica Rivera (soprano)
Mae Lin (violin)
Richard Belcher (cello)
Todd Palmer (clarinet, bass clarinet)
Andrew Rehrig (flute)
Conor Hanick (piano)

12819315_10153388473283045_3214873287030969656_o

(February 25, 2016 performance at Town Hall Seattle. Photo Credit: Libby Lewis)

As part of this very special event, Tracy was able to join us and read some of her poetry, including “Life on Mars.” You can hear this, as well as our panel discussion with Rebecca Hoogs, below. Tracy shares some of her insight into the writing process, as well as her feelings about having her work turned into a musical piece after the fact. Spoiler: we feel the same about that – it is a unique situation when compared to either setting poems from an author of the past, or working with a librettist in a real-time collaboration.

Thank you for supporting my artistic journey by reading this blog. Please feel free to comment, and even suggest topics for future posts. There are plenty on the docket, but it’s always nice to know what you are most interested in hearing about, as well. In a process that is not too dissimilar from my composing, that negative voice pops up during the writing of blog posts as well. One thing I’m slowly learning: sometimes that voice just means you’re breaking new ground, and it’s important to keep going as you expand your artistry, and ultimately, your concept of self.

I hope you have a chance to listen to the concert in its entirety. Back to my initial impulse to write this particular piece; I am a fan of music that helps us escape, celebrate, etc. I know I am in part, an entertainer. But sometimes, I think it’s important to explore a little deeper, within the safe place that art can offer. Then we have the opportunity to challenge ourselves to look within, with fearless scrutiny, and face every aspect of our collective nature together.

Goals for 2016

(“In which a Roman quotes a Greek”)

by Joshua Roman

So, after all of the drama of 2015, what’s in store this year?

The number one thing that’s now set and will help in my quest for a focused year is: a place to call home. After almost eight years in NYC (and a few months in Jersey), I’m now living in a small one bedroom in Chelsea. It’s ideal for getting around town, close to all kinds of subway stops, and walking distance from many of my usual hangs. It’s only 20 minutes to visit my sister and her family, and there are great grocery stores about a block away in every direction. Last night I was able to get to Carnegie Hall to see the Philadelphia Orchestra in about 15 minutes.

20160115_133614-3

View out my window… The Metlife clock tower

This is the reason to be in NYC! Especially for someone who’s gone a lot, it’s hard to justify the rent if you’re not taking advantage of the many wonderful goings on. There are so many wonderful people doing exciting things, and this year one of my top priorities will be feeling grounded in the cultural life of this city. Reconnecting with friends I haven’t seen while on the road can be difficult, but I have renewed hope and energy now that I’m in a central location.

Everything else this year flows from that, the physical settling that I can now begin. I still travel a lot, but another goal is to develop a sense of routine. Of course, my idea of routine might be very different from someone else’s – mine revolves around performance dates, writing deadlines, and flight departures. But it’s still an important concept, especially at a time when there are many balls in the air that need to be managed with careful attention.

Some of the results I hope to achieve:

  • Feeling ahead of the practicing game, enough so that I can do extra projects like Everyday Bach with regularity.

  • Polishing my existing compositions to satisfaction.
  • Getting ahead with the projects I’m working on. Examples: this blog, concerts at Town Hall Seattle, other programming.
  • Engaging more with my communities, especially my music friends and TED friends, so that the relationships I care about most are well tended.
  • Finding ways to integrate the issues I’m most passionate about into what I do when appropriate. Some of this needs to happen regularly, like continuing to expand diversity in my music making, both in terms of performing partners and in the music itself. Some of it is a little trickier to pin down: how does one do anything to promote campaign finance reform? Some of it is related to relationships with organizations like Street Symphony in Los Angeles, and will happen project by project over time.
  • More performance opportunities.

The balance of fresh and routine is always important. Last year was fresh-heavy, but this year it’ll be fun to find ways to develop routines without closing the door to great opportunities. You never know what’s coming your way, on the street, or when you glance at your inbox, or even sometimes on stage! I welcome any tips on time management, especially from those who are juggling similarly diverse projects. By March, I hope to be far enough ahead to watch one movie without feeling guilty.

To close today’s thoughts, I want to talk about the zone. We’ve all felt it, I hope. I get the feeling a lot on stage, but it can happen other places as well. There’s a zone when exercising, there’s one for reading (easy to get into), there’s one for writing, and for cooking, etc. There are also zones that are shared, when there’s a mutual connection in chamber music, for example. Or, if you’re lucky, sex.

I’m a zone junkie, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that SOME kind of routine or trigger, whether conscious or not, is very important in getting into that creative or performative zone. We create the habits we live by – I think it was Aristotle that said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” If you’re interested in digging into the zone, I recommend this book which I read more than a decade ago. It resonated with a lot of what I felt to be true but was unable to articulate at the time: The Inner Game of Tennis.

So, 2016’s broad goals: Openness by way of focus and maintenance.

Methods of achieving this: Routine, buffer time, and management of distractions.

We’ll get into some details of the various manifestations of these practices later. For now, I leave you with a playlist and some encouragement to stake your claim on your time, and go for whatever it is you’ve been holding back on.

The Westerlies: Wish The Children Would Come On Home (SI’s Album Review)
Third Coast Percussion: The Works For Percussion 2
Jeff Buckley: Grace

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Portraits of Contemporary Polish Composers: EWA TRĘBACZ

by Maggie Stapleton

04_img

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outdoor locations in Washington (and all over the Pacific Coast, for some, like Nat Evans) have proven to be inspiring recording venues for new music.  Ancient Lakes and the Dan Harpole Cistern are two such locations that inspired Seattle-based Ewa Trebacz (originally from Kraków, Poland).

Second Inversion’s Album of the Week is a collection of some of Ewa’s finished products which include field recordings from these locations.  What makes this album so fascinating is that while much of it was recorded and produced in Poland, there’s a very special part of Washington state incorporated into some of these pieces (things lost things invisible, Errai and ANC’L’SUNR).

Furthermore, this album is part of a special annual project from The Polish Music Information Centre and Polish Composers’ Union to preserve new works and performances by living composers.  Each year they publish 10 CDs, featuring a different composer In 2013, Ewa Trebacz one of the chosen composers.

Second Inversion was thrilled to talk to Ewa and Josiah Boothby (French horn collaborator on much of this disc) about each work:

The two have a longstanding friendship, which surely made the collaboration fun, but Ewa says, “Horn is AWESOME for processing or editing.  You can almost make any instrument out of the horn sound… you can process it so many ways, create so many timbres, you will never be able to tell it came from the horn.”

On the method of composition, recording, and production, Ewa told us, “our method of work is somewhat like film production.  We basically travel from one place to another and then later I create some basic shape of the piece that’s kind like a labyrinth of spaces.  Later, in the concert performance the electronic part is reproduced by a surround speaker system at the same time the live performers bring the element of ‘here and now.’  Josiah ends up playing with himself from the past and at the same time creating the very direct
interaction of where the performance takes place.”

The Dan Harpole Cistern at Ford Worden is a large underground space with a 45-second reverberation time.  Ewa recorded several musicians in this space to be used later in live performance.  What’s it like to play an instrument in the Cistern?  Josiah says, “It’s other worldly down there!… so often when we’re performing this difficult music by living composers, it’s hard.  As a performer for me in that piece (things lost things invisible), I got to go into a resonant space, make big noises, and I got told, you know, do something a little less this way or a little more this way.. it was a lot of fun!”

Errai was another piece with samples (Josiah on horn and Anna Niedzwiedz, voice) recorded in the Cistern.  Josiah goes on to say, “in a space that’s resonant enough to still sound while I’m playing another note, all of a sudden I can play chords with myself.  Anna and I were not only playing with each other, we were playing with ourselves and there were several of us, simultaneously, and this is before Ewa starts doing anything with the electronics.”

Recordings from ANC’L’SUNR came from multiple locations, including the Cistern and also another Washington location, Ancient Lakes.  What’s with the title?  Ewa explains, “Funny thing, everyone keeps asking me what the language is, or what it means… but really, it’s an abbreviation for places where I made recordings.  So, the word itself doesn’t really mean anything, but I think it’s inspiring.”  This piece was produced with ATK, a software package developed by  Juan Pampin, Joshua Parmenter, and Joseph Anderson at the UW DXARTS which preserves as much spatial relation in sounds as possible.

Ewa holds Masters Degrees in Composition, Computer Science and Econometrics and a PhD from the University of Washington’s Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) , where she currently works as a Research Scientist.