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.

ALBUM REVIEW: You Us We All by Shara Nova & Andrew Ondrejcak

by Maggie Molloy

“Dear Beyoncé,” Shara Nova sings dotingly above the excited clattering of an antique typewriter. “Do you ever think that you’re like everybody else? Just another human, fartin’ around this damned earth?”

Queen Bey makes no reply.
600x600Regal, royal, and ridiculously talented, Beyoncé is just one of several modern pop gods called upon in Nova’s contemporary Baroque chamber opera, You Us We All. The album-length opera is a mixed-up, mashed-up court masque about five allegorical characters searching for meaning in the modern age, filled with corny fan letters and cornetto solos, broken hearts and Baroque instruments.

It’s a work of 21st-century musical theater written for 17th-century instruments—an ornate, Baroque-style pageant of life and death with music by Nova, libretto by Andrew Ondrejcak, costumes by Zane Pihlstrom, and choreography by Seth Stewart Williams.

Shara Nova (previously known as Shara Worden) is one of those musicians who is notoriously impossible to pin down. She’s an artist in every sense of the word—a composer, a singer-songwriter, a mezzo-soprano extraordinaire, and a musical chameleon.

Perhaps best known as the frontwoman her own avant-garde rock band, My Brightest Diamond, she has also collaborated with composers and artists as diverse as the Decemberists, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Sufjan Stevens, Colin Stetson, David Byrne, and many more. For Nova, writing and starring in her own Baroque chamber opera was simply the next logical step in a career of beautifully unusual musical endeavors.

You Us We All began with a commission from the Belgian ensemble Baroque Orchestration X (B.O.X.), a collective that is committed to creating new music on old instruments. Inspired by their wide range of rare period instruments, Nova began working with writer, director, and production designer Andrew Ondrejcak to craft a new theatrical work that would combine the lavish nobility and grace of the Baroque era with the boldness and artistic experimentation of the 21st century.

The opera premiered last year with performances in Belgium, Germany, Amsterdam, and New York. And though no performances made it over to the West Coast (yet!), we can still live vicariously through the original cast recording, starring Nova herself with her hand-picked skeleton cast of curious characters.

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The opera takes its structural form from the Baroque masque—a form of festive courtly entertainment which flourished in 16th and 17th-century Europe and involved extravagant music, costumes, sets, and dances. Masques typically featured a series of tableaus in lieu of a standard plot, and opted for allegorical characters to represent abstract virtues such as Beauty, Strength, or Justice.

At its core, You Us We All adheres to this basic structure of pomp and circumstance—but what begins as lighthearted courtly entertainment quickly turns into something much darker: a radical look inward at how we define our culture and, perhaps more importantly, ourselves.

Nova’s warm, lustrous vocals sparkle in the role of Hope, along with acclaimed New York-vocalist Helga Davis as Virtue, baritone Martin Gerke as Love, performance artist Carlos Soto as Time, and countertenor Bernhard Landauer as Death. The 10-piece B.O.X. collective provides a backdrop of clean, courtly, polite, and precise accompaniment reminiscent of a Baroque dance suite—but with some more contemporary percussion thrown in for a 21st-century edge.

The opera tells a tale of Love, Virtue, Hope, and Death—four dreadfully superficial characters who define themselves solely through their fabulous costumes, ornamented melodies, and material possessions. Surrounded by the glitter and glamour of riches and wealth, they begin to reflect on the meaning of their lives in the modern world only as Time strips away their carefully-crafted layers of pomp and artifice.

The opera unfolds through a number of modern-day arias and recitatives: Death falls for Love, Virtue and Hope head out to a strip club, Time drinks away his sorrows—you know, the usual operatic drama.

But it’s all tied together will introspective little letters Hope writes to the pop divinities, almost like philosophical prayers to the gods above. In her own little 21st-century way, Hope’s fan letters harken back to the Baroque tradition, when philosophers sought to reconcile the existence of life and God through their writings.

It just serves as a reminder that although we’re three centuries past Baroque music and philosophical musings, we are still just as lost as ever. But at least we’re not alone—the opera reminds us that you, us, we all still have each other. And Nova’s prominent role reminds us that above all, we still have Hope.

“Dear Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, is it true that you’re split from one single chromosome?” she sings sweetly above the antique typewriter. “Are we not us each all split from one single chromosome, and spend our lives trying to put the pieces back together?”

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts Seth, Geoffrey, and Maggie M. each share a favorite selection from the Friday 4/15/16 playlist! Tune in at the indicated times below to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

Lisa Bielawa: “Hurry” from The Lay of the Love (Innova)

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Lisa Bielawa’s Hurry is a breathless recounting of the composer’s impressions of a Boris Pasternak poem, translated to English from the original Russian. I love how Bielawa seamlessly transitions from the sparse, bare and wide-open chamber music textures of the work’s opening sections to the larger, lyrical, almost orchestral sounds later in the piece. It’s an all-star cast on this recording, featuring some of my favorite powerhouse musicians such as pianist Benjamin Hochmann and clarinetist Anthony McGill. – Geoffrey Larson

Check out the first stanza from Boris Pasternak’s poem:

Hurry, my verses, hurry; never
have I so needed you before.
Round the corner there’s a house
where the days have broken rank.
Comfort there’s none and all work’s stopped
and there they weep, ponder and wait.

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 2pm hour today to hear this recording.


Shara Nova: “A Whistle, A Tune, A Macaroon” from yMusic’s Beautiful Mechanical (New Amsterdam)

homepage_large.cbf92e9bComposer, songwriter, and mezzo-soprano extraordinaire Shara Worden recently changed her name to Shara Nova—and it couldn’t be more appropriate. In Hebrew, Shara means “song”—a pretty serendipitous name for a singer-songwriter—and in Latin, Nova means “new.”

Throughout her career as a full-time contemporary classical chameleon, she has recreated herself and her music again and again, exploring the furthest reaches of the classical genre. She’s created and fronted her own avant-garde rock band, My Brightest Diamond, composed and starred in her own 21st century baroque chamber opera, “You Us We All,” and collaborated with composers and artists as diverse as the Decemberists, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Sufjan Stevens, Colin Stetson, David Byrne, and many, many more.

“A Whistle, A Tune, A Macaroon” showcases a collaboration with another powerful force in contemporary classical: yMusic. Though we don’t get to hear any of Nova’s vocals on this track, her soaring, songlike melodies and keen ear for experimentation are unmistakable in this composition. Exotic flute and clarinet idioms dance above pizzicato basslines to create a new work that is every bit as whimsical as its title. Suffice it to say, it’s a new song you do not want to miss. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 4pm hour today to hear this recording.


Matt McBane: “imagining winter” from Build (New Amsterdam)

build-buildViolinist and composer Matt McBane’s ensemble Build is a favorite of mine. This week, I’m pleased to present you with their track imagining winter, composed by McBane. I’ve been very busy lately, so I’ve been focused on keeping my head down and digging in to make it through to Memorial Day weekend.  That is why I connected with this particular piece this week; this music seems to be the sonic equivalent of my recent state of mind. More generally, with characteristics of minimalism, cinematic music (a la Les Triplettes de Belleville), and subdued jazz elements, this piece is an excellent soundtrack for your solitary urban adventures, whether that means a focused day at the office or a surreptitious exploration of forbidden places. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this recording.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Eighth Blackbird’s “Filament”

by Jill Kimball

Forget J. S. Bach: Philip Glass is the new granddaddy of music…or so sayeth eighth blackbird in its latest album, Filament.

This new release from the Chicago-based contemporary music supergroup cleverly connects the groundbreaking repetitive structures in Glass’s music with American folk tunes, contemporary compositions, and poppy vocals. The album’s name is meant to conjure a mental image of musical threads linking all its performances, new and old.

In this case, “old” is a relative term. The nexus of Filament is “Two Pages,” written by Philip Glass in 1968. It’s a classic illustration of Glass’s signature repetition, a mind-bending 16 minutes of subtly changing patterns. The piece famously sounds meditative and nightmarish at the same time. It’s notoriously difficult for performers–the liner notes compare it to walking a tightrope “with no net below”–but the expert musicians here meet the challenge admirably, almost making it sound easy. Performing this piece alongside the sextet are organist Nico Muhly and guitarist Bryce Dessner (of The National), and it’s no coincidence that both of them are also featured composers on Filament.

In fact, the album opens with Dessner’s multi-movement piece Murder Ballades, inspired by folk songs about real and imagined killings that were passed down through many generations. The murder ballad tradition began in Europe, but Dessner’s piece focuses on the maudlin stories that originally come from early settlers in New England and Appalachia. Dessner chose to arrange three real ballads, “Omie Wise,” “Young Emily,” and “Pretty Polly,” all of which tell stories of love affairs turned violent. Imagine if someone took the music from a Ken Burns documentary and gave it a little edge, and you’ll have an idea of what these movements sound like. The other four ballads in the piece are Dessner’s original compositions, still clearly inspired by early Americana but more deconstructed and intense. In these four movements, Philip Glass’s repetitive, meditative influence is clearly felt.

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Composers featured on Filament. Clockwise from top left: Nico Muhly, Philip Glass, Bryce Dessner, and Son Lux.

Nico Muhly’s piece, Doublespeak, is so closely linked with Two Pages that it’s as if Muhly managed to burrow directly into Philip Glass’s midcentury brain. Muhly wrote this piece for the composer’s 75th birthday celebration, so it’s fitting that he chose to salute a decade when “classical music perfected obsessive repetition,” as he puts it. You’ll hear snippets of 1970s staples like In C and Violin Phase flit in and out as the piece alternates between a fast-tempo frenzy and a slow, dreamy state.

As if there weren’t already enough threads connecting these three pieces, eighth blackbird rounds out Filament with a pair of works by Son Lux. The legendary pop-classical electronic composer took sound bites from the album and mixed in Glass-inspired vocals by Shara Worden, aka My Brightest Diamond. The result is a half-ambient, half-catchy five minutes that nicely break up the album’s studied repetition, which can be a little mentally taxing.

It goes without saying that the performance quality on this disc is top-notch, no less fine than any of eighth blackbird’s past albums. You’re luxuriously free to focus solely on the compositions themselves, all of which are worth contemplating at length. In an age when most albums’ connecting filaments are somewhere between ultrathin and nonexistent, it’s a pleasure to listen to a set of pieces with such close ties.

LIVE CONCERT SPOTLIGHT: December 4-7

by Maggie Molloy

These artists are spicing up the December music calendar with everything from comedy to cabaret to neoclassicism and more!

Ahamefule Oluo’s “Now I’m Fine” at On the Boards

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Brighten up one of those dreary Seattle nights with a trip to “Now I’m Fine,” a multidisciplinary music event combining comedy with classical music.

“Now I’m Fine” is an experimental pop opera about holding it together, starring comedian, musician, and storyteller Ahamefule Oluo. The performance draws from his personal stories about illness, sorrow, hope, and other emotions and experiences to which all of us can relate. Unlike the rest of us, though, Oluo tells these personal stories with the help of a 17-piece orchestra and a fantastic cast of performers.

The stories range from tragic to triumphant, travelling through the happy, the sad, and even the awkward. The result is a theatrical production filled with laughter, life lessons, and a lot of beautiful music.

The show runs Dec. 4-7 at On the Boards’ Merrill Wright Mainstage Theater. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 5 p.m. on Sunday.

 

The Esoterics’ Irving Fine Centennial

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Prepare to fall down the rabbit hole next weekend when the Esoterics bring to life poetry from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

The Seattle-based vocal ensemble is performing neoclassical composer Irving Fine’s musical settings of six poems from “Alice in Wonderland” as part of a larger performance commemorating his 100th birthday. But that’s not all—they will also perform essentially all of Fine’s other choral works, including his poignant “Hour Glass,” his witty and virtuosic “Choral New Yorker,” his musical setting of the Yiddish poem “An Old Song,” and much more.

The performances are Friday, Dec. 5 at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church at 8 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 6 at All Pilgrims Christian Church at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 7 at Holy Rosary Catholic Church at 3 p.m.

 

My Brightest Diamond at the Crocodile

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Not many musicians can shine in both classical and art-rock musical settings—but Shara Worden is a sparkling star no matter what she’s playing. Her avant-garde rock music project, My Brightest Diamond, combines her operatic vocal training and classical composition studies with a theatrical performance art aesthetic.

Next weekend My Brightest Diamond is bringing some glitter and grace to Seattle with a show at the Crocodile. The show is part of a U.S. tour in support of her new album, “This is My Hand,” which was released this past September. The album combines elements of opera, cabaret, chamber music, rock, and even electronic, drawing from Worden’s many multifaceted musical endeavors over the course of her career.

The concert is next Saturday, Dec. 6 at the Crocodile at 8 p.m.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: The Brooklyn Rider Almanac

by Maggie Stapleton

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Since the birth of Second Inversion, Brooklyn Rider‘s versatile recordings of new music for string quartet have been a significant presence on our airwaves.  Eric, Nick, Johnny, and Colin also captured our hearts with a great Vine video musically depicting and celebrating “Second Inversion,” back in February 2014.

To celebrate ten years together as a quartet, they created The Brooklyn Rider Almanac. This is a collection of thirteen new compositions for string quartet mostly by composers rooted in jazz, rock, or folk music. It’s an incredible celebration of Brooklyn Rider’s musical connections in the last decade (the composers are self-proclaimed “musical crushes” and old friends) and for posterity, an expansion of the string quartet repertoire.  Furthermore, the project is “about inspiration, about music being the tip of a bigger iceberg,” according to Colin Jacobsen.

Each composer indicates from which literary, musical, dance, or other artistic source the inspiration is drawn.  You’ll hear music by Vijay Iyer inspired by James Brown (it grooves, hard, and requires the musicians to extend their rhythmic techniques with polyrhythmic stomping while playing); Christina Courtin inspired by Stravinsky (full of neo-classical Pulcinella-esque charm); Aoife O’Donovan inspired by William Faulkner (what I’d give to be in Mississippi, drinking a mint julep while listening to this…)

My personal favorite track on the record is Colin Jacobsen’s “Exit,” featuring the versatile vocalist Shara Worden.  With a light texture of percussive hand claps, plucking pizzicati, and pointed vocal sounds, there’s an undertone of minimalism in this piece in a beautifully “less is more,” simplistic way.  Colin Jacobsen cites three sources of inspiration of this piece.  First is Shara Worden and her dichotomy of not giving any excess in what she sings, yet still diving head first and inhabiting the role of whatever she’s singing.  Second is Kandinsky, who happens to be the lyricist of the song – “Exit” comes from a book poems and woodcut etchings called Sounds, written at a time when he was going toward abstract painting and trying to get away from the literal meaning of words.  Thirdly, Jacobsen draws from David Byrnes’ How Music Works by finding just the groove that is necessary for the piece to happen and not putting anything else there.

In regard to each individual piece and the collection as a whole, it’s best for me to keep it simple and just say this music is GOOD.  The type of “hand it to my friends who have little or no interest in classical music and say, ‘stop what you’re doing and LISTEN TO THIS NOW!'” good.  It rethinks classical music AND the string quartet with a timeless quality, putting a stamp on the fact that music doesn’t need labels or categories or genres.  Put these four (or five, in “Exit”) musicians together who can not only play music well, but express emotion and breathe life into the notes on a page, and the magic is there.

Get your own copy on Amazon or iTunes (it comes with 2 bonus tracks if you purchase on iTunes!) of the Brooklyn Rider Almanac and keep an eye on their tour schedule for a performance near you!