Women in (New) Music: Celebrating the Treemonishas in Classical Music

by Maggie Molloy


Education as salvation is the major theme of Scott Joplin’s 1912 opera Treemonisha, the powerful tale of a young African-American woman who protects her community against those who seek to take advantage of their systemic lack of education.

It’s a theme that continues to influence art and music of today, as over a century later we find ourselves still grappling with the far-reaching effects of slavery and the oppression of the African-American race.

This Saturday and Sunday, the North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO) presents RESONANCE: a concert celebrating the voices of African-American composers who have, across history, given a musical voice to the strength, power, and perseverance of their communities.

The concert program features the overture from Joplin’s Treemonisha alongside brand new works by two local artists: composer Hanna Benn and conceptual artist C. Davida Ingram.

Benn’s new work for chamber orchestra, titled Sankofa, is a spiritual reflection on the music and influence of African-American women composers across history. Ingram’s piece is an illuminating lyrical/visual essay about modern day Treemonishas: women of color who are powerful leaders of their communities. Also featured on the program are evocative works by Alvin Singleton and George Walker.


To find out more about what’s in store, we spoke with Hanna Benn and C. Davida Ingram about music, race, today’s Treemonishas, and the importance of education:

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind Sankofa, and what does it sound like?

Hanna Benn: “Sankofa” is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates to “Go back and get it,” as in we must go back and understand our heritage in order to go forward.

This piece is very meditative and reflective. I imagine it sounds like the meditation I’ve been in for the past several months of musing, reflecting, and doing research on black American composers—really finding inspiration from them. It was like subconsciously asking for guidance from my ancestors.

SI: What story does your piece tell? What are the major themes and ideas at work behind the music?

HB: Sometimes for me, it feels like speaking is not my first language, and so when composing music or writing a piece, once I’m finished, I have a hard time articulating what it’s about. It’s almost like being in a trance—I have no memory of it anymore; it’s gone. But this piece came from somewhere—it came from the inspiration, history, and music of these women.

The reason why I actually titled the piece “Sankofa” was that sentiment of asking my ancestors for help so that I might understand more about myself, looking inward. The piece sounds somewhat reflective and introverted in nature. I have six different movements, and there isn’t a narrative to the piece but they are these six poems, almost—six states of being:

Mvt. I: Inward Gazes the Spirit
Mvt. II: May I Come Back to Me
Mvt. III: Divide
Mvt. IV: Walks with an Offering
Mvt. V: Joy Submits and It Repeats
Mvt. VI: My Beloved Speaks

“My beloved” we usually say when we’re speaking of God or a higher being, but with this piece I’m speaking to my higher being. When I say “my beloved,” it’s like a love poem to myself. So Sankofa, you must go back and get it—it’s this love, this loving of the self and truly understanding oneself.

In one of his poems, Rumi says, “You must be as wide as the air to learn a secret,” and it’s this gesture of knowledge and understanding in order to move forward.

SI: How did writing this piece stretch you as an artist and musician?

HB: I have written for orchestra before, however this ensemble is completely different because they do not have a conductor, and so they have this beautiful process of hyper-listening. If there’s no conductor, they have to have more faith in each other, and it asks for more communication all around.

On a larger scale, it is such a crucial time for us to listen and to be present and open. I believe this concert is very special because of that—not only the material we will be performing, but the balance and the lack of hierarchy in this ensemble and the example it sets for others.

SI: In what ways (if any) do you feel that being a woman of color has shaped your experiences as an artist? What advice do you have for other female-identifying artists who face similar prejudices?

HB: One hundred percent, it shapes me. It is important, as a woman, to never forget that beautiful part of you. I am very proud and in love with the vessel that I carry and I think one hundred percent it shapes my experience and my outlook and what I write.

Me being a woman and me being a woman of color is my music, because that is who I am. I would encourage other women to not let go of that, because it is very precious.

SI: What do you find most inspiring about this NOCCO program?

C. Davida Ingram: The artists who I found most inspirational in RESONANCE were Hanna Benn and Scott Joplin. Their music speaks to me in different ways: Hanna because of her virtuosity and polyrhythmic cadence—she sort of feels like if you could listen to all of the those ways Our Lady of Theresa was having jouissance because of her ecstatic love affair with the divine—and Joplin because he gave me the gift of an intersectional feminist story that is set in the first Redemption as we go through the second Redemption that is delight to the ear. 

I wrote that his overture in Treemonisha “explains why black joy matters. This opening melody sounds like rushing in of something that has the feel of dancing in sunshine with a blazingly open heart.”

SI: Can you tell us a bit about the lyrical/visual essay you are sharing? What was the inspiration behind it?

CDI: I fell in love with Treemonisha after I learned about Joplin’s piece for the NOCCO show. Heather Bentley sent me a book with discs of the music and I sort of went into the Matrix—complete with a very vivid dream of an ancestor who looks a lot like Scott Joplin walking me down a pink stair.

Because of the spiritual way that Joplin’s piece moved me, the central figure of Treemonisha became in a way a muse for me, and also a way of giving a meditation on the black song book. James Baldwin’s fictional gospel singer Arthur Montana cries: Look what you done to my song. I follow that directive.

Personally I took this project as an opportunity to reflect on how indebted I feel to black educators on one hand—that particular subject is close to my heart. My mother is an incredible teacher and finished her PhD on how black students and their families think about the opportunity gap they face.

And on the other I am considering what white people do not know about whiteness. I feel very historical, at this moment, when I think about race in America—not as something that must always define the present but as something that is simply good to know about human behavior, and as an aftereffect.

For example, did you know in Antebellum Virginia there was a law that white human traffickers could give 20 lashes of the whip to kidnapped Africans that they enslaved if the latter were found reading or writing? Think about that. It’s the sort of thing that gives Treemonisha a resplendent repose and riposte. Black master teachers make maps to freedom—always have, always will.

So my mind’s eye went looking for the “Treemonishas” in my life—the community-building educators, those who believe in restorative justice, the feminists who believe women of color can lead (these are all part of the story of Joplin’s Treemonisha).

I was lucky to have a gifted educator as a mom. Sometimes I cringe when people call me ‘articulate’ after I speak. However, I also know a portion of what they are seeing is a partial blueprint of survival in white America—mastery of words and ideas that white people can recognize as their own. My mother loved me and the rest of my four siblings, so she taught as though our lives (and hers) depended on it; because in many respects it did. Both of my parents gave me that.

In terms of music, I think of blackness as an essential primer for understanding the American song book because all of our original American music comes directly from black culture—e.g. blues, jazz, hip hop, house music. America is very African, in that way. At the same time, I engage whiteness when I do my work here because it gets a bit tiresome if the expectation is that I am supposed to always be explaining blackness to assuage white curiosity. Our world has gotten mighty peculiar of late, and I think it is in large part due to not talking about whiteness.

SI: In what ways (if any) do you feel that being a woman of color has shaped your experiences as an artist? What advice do you have for other female-identifying artists who face similar prejudices?

CDI: In my lyrical essay for the piece (which still needs a title), I write:

Because of the constant context of white supremacy in all American art forms, I see this program as a meditation on black brilliance—underscore brilliance.

When I soften the emphasis on blackness it is not because I want to avoid footnoting the brutishness of white supremacy and institutional racism. If we did, it would still remain the elephant in the room. However, when we see that a group of predominantly white musicians can acknowledge how racism seeks to impoverish them, how it cuts off the air in the room in terms of what versions of excellence take space in the canon, then the light that shines brightest here is black brilliance and what also extrudes are the ways that whiteness is benighted, at times, because of the construction of racism and white supremacy.

And if I take things a step beyond that—it is not blackness that we are looking at but rather brilliance, which is to say that kaleidoscopic light that humans cast out and its incredible, inexorable beauty.


Performances of RESONANCE are this Saturday, Feb. 18 at 2pm at New Holly Gathering Hall and Sunday, Feb. 19 at 7:30pm at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. For tickets and information, click here.

New Composed Music: February 2017 Seattle * Eastside * Tacoma

SI_button2Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between! 

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Keep an eye out for our this flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list, submit your event to the Live Music Project at least 6 weeks prior to the event and be sure to tag it with “new music.”


 

Racer Sessions
A weekly showcase of original music with a jam session based on the concepts in the opening presentation.
Every Sunday, 8-10pm, Cafe Racer | FREE

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electronic/electroacoustic music, & more.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15
waywardmusic.org (check website for complete listings)

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Ancora presents Wild! With Skyros Quartet
Aimee Mell leads a program of works by Randall Thompson, Ola Gjeilo, Sarah Quartel, Joan Szymko, Dan Forrest, and Jackson Berkey.
Sat, 2/4, 7:30pm, Trinity Lutheran Church | $11-$16

4
Seattle Music Exchange
Pianist Angelo Rondello will perform works by Seattle composers Samuel Jones, Peter V. Stevens, Angelique Poteat, Adam Haws, & Benjamin Salman.
Sat, 2/4, 8pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $20-$42

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Seattle Rock Orchestra performs The Police
SRO shakes out hits like ‘Roxanne,’ ‘Message In A Bottle,’ ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me,’ and ‘Every Breath You Take.’
Sat, 2/4, 8pm, Kirkland Performance Center | $40

10
Solaris Vocal Ensemble with Seattle Modern Orchestra
SMO collaborates with UW’s Solaris Vocal Ensemble in a unique performance of Julia Wolfe’s Thirst and works by Dempster and Erickson.
Fri, 2/10, 7:30pm, Meany Studio Theater | $10-$20

12
Andrew Joslyn & the Passenger String Quartet
Violinist, composer, and arranger Andrew Joslyn presents an afternoon of music with The Passenger String Quartet.
Sun, 2/12, 4pm, Bainbridge Waterfront Community Center | $5-$20

12
Adagio: The Music of Arvo Pärt
An evening of music from Estonian composer Arvo Pärt where the spirit of early music meets ultra-spare modern minimalism in a meditative, intimate setting.
Sun, 2/12, 7pm, On the Boards | $20

17
Cornish Presents: Jesse Myers
Pianist Jesse Myers brings John Cage’s prepared piano music to the stage on which the instrument was born.
Fri, 2/17, 8pm, PONCHO Concert Hall | $10-$20

17
Inverted Space: Composers Concert
Inverted Space presents a concert of new works featuring the music of Adrian Swan, Charles Corey, Anna Stachurska, & Jacob Sundstrom.
Fri, 2/17, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

18
Lake Union Civic Orchestra: Temptation
Baritone Charles Robert Stephens performs music by Seattle composer and pianist Jeffrey Moidel. Works by Milhaud and Shostakovich round out the program.
Sat, 2/18, 7:30pm, Center for Spiritual Living | $15-$20

18
Wayward Music Series: Melanie Voytovich
Percussionist Melanie Voytovich and friends bring you a night of new work featuring Storm Benjamin, Scott Langdon, Maggie Brown, Brad Hawkins, and Ella Maher (dance).
Sat, 2/18, 7:30pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

18-19
NOCCO: Resonance: Celebrating Black American Composers
Hear a newly commissioned work by Hanna Benn & performance artist Davida Ingram and works by Scott Joplin & George Walker.
Sat, 2/18, 2pm, New Holly Gathering Hall | $15-$30 (under 18 FREE)
Sun, 2/19, 7:30pm, Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute | $15-$30 (under 18 FREE)

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Melia Watras: 26 Album Release
UW faculty violist Melia Watras performs selections from 26, her newly released CD on Sono Luminus, with a video presentation and commentary.
Fri, 2/24, 7:30pm, Brechemin Auditorium | FREE

25-26
Seattle Pro Musica: Chichester Psalms
Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms is paired with James MacMillan’s Cantos sagrados, both exploring the desire of humankind to seek social justice and peace.
Sat, 2/25, 8pm, St. James Cathedral | $12-$38

CONCERT SPOTLIGHT: June 11-13

by Maggie Molloy 

This week’s concert calendar spans the musical gamut from viola da gamba to Morton Feldman!

Morton Feldman’s “For John Cage”

Morton Feldman

In true New York fashion, composer Morton Feldman first met John Cage at a New York Philharmonic performance of Anton Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21. Disturbed by the audience’s disrespectful reaction to Webern’s work, the two had each individually stepped out into the lobby, where they began talking.

Both composers went on to become pioneers of indeterminate music—and perhaps more importantly, close friends. The two influenced each other over the course of their careers, and in 1997 Feldman wrote “For John Cage,” a 75-minute piece for violin and piano.

This week the University of Washington’s contemporary music ensemble, Inverted Space, is concluding its Long Piece Fest with a performance of this epic (and lengthy) work. Violinist Luke Fitzpatrick and pianist Brooks Tran will breathe life into this unique piece, which is meant to be performed at a barely audible volume. The piece combines Feldman’s expansive harmonies with Cage’s interest in silence and stasis, thus delicately exploring poetic dissonance in a state of prolonged stillness.

The performance is this Thursday, June 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.

 

Joshua Roman Performs Gregg Kallor’s Chamber Music

joshua-roman-683x455Cellist Joshua Roman is well-known in the Seattle classical music community—after all, he became the youngest principal player in Seattle Symphony history at just 22 years old. But his reputation as a gifted and innovative musician expands far beyond just his Seattle achievements. He has performed as a soloist around the world, and this week we have unique opportunity to hear him perform in one of the major classical music centers of America: New York City.

Miranda Cuckson by Beowulf SheehanRoman will be performing a dazzlingly lyrical piece titled “Undercurrent” by composer and pianist Gregg Kallor, the inaugural composer-in-residence at SubCulture in NYC. The performance also features world premieres of two new pieces written by Kallor, performed by violinist Miranda Cuckson, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, and baritone Matthew Worth.

gregg-kallor2-683x1026Kallor’s works blend classical and jazz traditions with a distinctly New York flavor. But since it’s a long flight to NYC, we thought we’d bring the music to you: Second Inversion is going to record the live performance and broadcast it later on our website for your listening pleasure.

The performance is this Thursday, June 11 at 7:30 p.m. at SubCulture in New York. We’ll keep you updated on the details for our Second Inversion broadcast!

Colleen and Hanna Benn

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Violas da gamba may have been popular instruments during the Baroque period, but for the past several centuries the violin family has dominated the classical music scene—which is why one French musician is giving the age-old viola da gamba a new-age makeover.

Colleen is the alias of Cécile Schott, a French musician who reimagines the possibilities of acoustic instruments by taking them out of their usual contexts and pushing them into new musical territory. Over the course of her five albums, she has created a wide-ranging repertoire of compositions spanning from meditative and mysterious to playful and percussive. This weekend, she’s coming to Seattle to present a performance which merges old and new music traditions: viola da gamba with live electronic processing and singing.

Seattle composer and vocalist Hanna Benn will open the show with a rare solo set.

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The performance is this Saturday, June 13 at 8 p.m. at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.  UPDATE: This concert is sold out! Please refer to Colleen‘s website and Hanna‘s SoundCloud for future performance info.

 

LIVE CONCERT SPOTLIGHT: March 6-9

by Maggie Molloy

This week’s music calendar features a multitude of musical genres and artistic mediums!

Genre Bender 2015

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This weekend Seattle musicians are bending the rules. They’re bending the rules of functional harmony, they’re bending the rules of performance—in fact, they’re bending the very constructs of the music medium itself. City Arts Magazine’s annual Genre Bender event pairs innovative artists working in different media, inviting them to collaborate with one another to create the ultimate genre-defying performance.

This year’s artistic duos include conceptual artist C. Davida Ingram and composer/multi-instrumentalist Hanna Benn, rapper Raz Simone and multimedia artist Justin Roberts, photographer Steven Miller and actress/singer Sarah Rudinoff, vocalist/poet okanomodé and aerialist Lara Paxton, and last but not least, poet Sarah Galvin and musician/filmmaker/philosopher David Nixon.

Genre Bender 2015 is this Friday, March 6 and Saturday, March 7 at the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m. A party in the lobby will follow the performance on Saturday evening.

Seattle Rock Orchestra Performs Beck

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Beck shocked audiences around the world when he beat out Beyoncé for the Album of the Year at the Grammys last month. The lowly singer-songwriter who first made it big in 1994 with a song titled “Loser” (you know the one: “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?”) proved that maybe, just maybe, he’s not such a loser after all.

This weekend, Seattle Rock Orchestra is paying tribute to this musical underdog with a retrospective of Beck’s lengthy career. With his 12 studio releases, they definitely have a lot to draw from. From the lo-fi folk releases of “One Foot in the Grave” to the funky party music of “Midnite Vultures” to the pensive ballads of “Sea Change,” Beck has never written the same album twice.

The performance is this Saturday, March 7 at the Moore Theatre. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m.

Seattle Composers Alliance’s 2015 Spring Fling

As the winter months melt away and the beautiful blossoms of spring begin to bloom, it’s always nice to get out of the house and go celebrate the new season. And what better way to do it than with an evening of new music?

Next week Seattle Composers Alliance is presenting its 2015 Spring Fling, featuring live music by a wide range of local musicians. From the jazzy jams of Industrial Revolution Trio and the Tim Carey Quartet to the folksongs of Alchymeia and Aslan Rife, this concert has it all! The evening also includes a silent auction and generous door prizes.

The performance is this Monday, March 9 at the Royal Room at 7 p.m.

LIVE CONCERT SPOTLIGHT: November 13 & 15

by Maggie Molloy

This week’s multihued, multidisciplinary music events blur the line between music and other artistic mediums.

The Frank Agency and Nonsequitur Present “People. Make. Awesome.”

©Tim SummersNWNW 2013Paris Hurley

[Paris Hurley]

Music and movement are mixing this Thursday at a multidisciplinary performance experience. The Frank Agency and Nonsequitur have teamed up to present a new interdisciplinary art project titled “People. Make. Awesome.”—a three-part series of artistic pairings exploring different aspects of sound.

This week’s event explores the space between sound and movement, pairing local composers with local dancers and performance artists. The featured artists are multidisciplinary dance artist Ezra Dickinson, multi-instrumentalist and composer Chris Credit, dance artist Karin Stevens, composer and pianist Michael Owcharuk, performance artist Paris Hurley, and composer and vocalist Hanna Benn.

With so many different types of artists and artistic mediums, the performance possibilities are endless—but one thing’s for certain: it will be awesome.

“People. Make. Awesome.” will take place this Thursday, Nov. 13 at 8 p.m. in the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.

 

Anthony de Mare Presents “Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano”

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For decades Stephen Sondheim has dominated the theatre stage with his music and lyrics in classics like “Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods,” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” However, his works have never graced the concert hall—until now.

“Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano” is a commissioning and concert project which celebrates and reimagines Sondheim’s music through unique contemporary music performances of his works. Conceived by renowned concert pianist Anthony de Mare, the project features Sondheim’s music reimagined by influential contemporary composers Steve Reich, Nico Muhly, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Adam Guettel, Mason Bates, Ethan Iverson, and countless others.

De Mare, who specializes in contemporary music, has performed these works throughout the U.S. This week, he is bringing the best of Sondheim to Seattle.

The performance will take place at the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center this Thursday, Nov. 13 at 8 p.m.

 

Seattle Modern Orchestra Presents “Electro-Colors”

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Seattle Modern Orchestra is putting pigment into pitches this weekend at their 2014-2015 season opener titled “Electro-Colors.” The performance features a colorful program with a broad spectrum of compositions.

The concert is the U.S. premiere of American composer Huck Hodge’s “Alêtheia” for large ensemble, a vibrant and dramatic composition which won the International Society for Contemporary Music’s League of Composers Competition earlier this year. The event will also feature Hodge’s “Zeremonie.”

The multihued program also features a composition by Pierre Boulez, one of the most influential avant-garde composers of the 20th century. Boulez’s “Dérive 1” radiates with rich colors and melodies, creating a vivid rainbow of textures and timbres.

Seattle Modern Orchestra musicians will also perform a work by French spectralist composer Tristan Murail. The piece, titled “Treize couleurs du soleil couchant” (“Thirteen Colors of Sundown”), transports its listeners into a fascinating exploration of sound and color.

The performance will take place this Saturday, Nov. 15 in the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. There will be a pre-concert presentation at 7:30 p.m. and the concert begins at 8 p.m.