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.

NUMUS Northwest: Saturday, January 28, 2017

We hope to see you at NUMUS Northwest this Saturday, January 28 at Cornish College of the Arts! We shared the full schedule last month and lately the NUMUS Northwest team has been giving you some close-ups and fun facts about the performers and presenters on social media. We’ll recap those below, but first, a few quick and friendly reminders:

When/Where: Saturday, January 28 from 9am-10pm at Cornish College of the Arts (Kerry Hall).

What to expect: Complimentary bagels, coffee, speed dating, workshops, performances, community building, and more throughout the day!

Admission: Students are admitted for free and general registration is $20 in advance and at the door. Please note: CASH ONLY at the door. There is an ATM nearby, if needed.

Meet NUMUS Northwest artist Paul Taub, who will be performing Pēteris Vasks’s Sonata for Solo Flute (Night/Flight/Night) on our evening concert! — Link in bio!

A photo posted by NUMUS Northwest (@numusnw) on

Meet NUMUS Northwest artist @legoldston who will offer an afternoon workshop titled “Defying Boundaries.” Workshop details: “A look at past and present examples of practices that aim at leveraging experimental, improvised and/or composed musics as tools for community-building, social and political subversion and awareness, and collective psychic nourishment. Source materials include live and recorded music, text, and traditional and graphic musical scores.” #seattle #seattlemusic #newmusic #cello

A photo posted by NUMUS Northwest (@numusnw) on

Meet NUMUS Northwest artist Aaron Grad, who will offer a workshop titled “What’s Your Story? Strategies for Publicizing a New Music Event” on Saturday, Jan. 28th! Workshop details: “This workshop explores how to publicize an event by emphasizing a compelling message or story. We will focus on two key skills: identifying a resonant message, and capturing it in a memorable summary. A mix of group discussion and hands-on practice will be led by Aaron Grad, a composer and consultant who writes program notes and marketing materials for the Seattle Symphony, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, New World Symphony, Town Hall Seattle, and other purveyors of new and old music.” #seattlemusic #seattle #newmusic #publicity #workshop #cornishcollege #pnw

A photo posted by NUMUS Northwest (@numusnw) on

Meet NUMUS Northwest artists Jessi Harvey & Lena Console, who will offer a noon workshop titled “9 Things to Facilitate Collaborative Composition” on this coming Sat. Jan. 28th! Workshop details: “Learn more about facilitating a collaborative composition project for groups ranging in size, age, and background using strategies and expectations developed by a duo who has experienced the gamut. Realizing a final composition that represents a collective of diverse members can be daunting; amass your skills under categories including, ‘You are not the most important voice: Letting go of the composer ego,’ ‘Do the (not so) obvious,’ and ‘Reflect, reflect, reflect.’ As a final culmination, attendees will create their own miniature group composition using their newly found tools. Tiny instruments will be provided.” 📷: Sonja Harris #seattlemusic #workshop #cornishcollege #seattle #festival #tinyinstruments #pnw #numus17

A photo posted by NUMUS Northwest (@numusnw) on

Meet NUMUS Northwest artists @jolleyjt & @rosebellini who will offer a 4pm workshop titled "Fundraising & Cultivating the Medicis of Today" on this coming Sat. Jan. 28th! Workshop details: "The relationship between musicians and patrons of the arts has always been a reality of the artist’s life, yet not included or discussed in the music schools of today. Composer and co-Artistic Director of Seattle Modern Orchestra Jeremy Jolley, and cellist and professional fundraiser Rose Bellini will try to demystify the relationship between the creation of the art and the funding of it. After the presentation, Jolley and Bellini will answer questions and guide a conversation around the topic." #fundraising #cornishcollegeofthearts #seattlemusic #seattle #pnw #fundraise #numus17

A photo posted by NUMUS Northwest (@numusnw) on

See you there!

NUMUS Northwest: 2017 Schedule Announced

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NUMUS Northwest, a day-long event dedicated to the creation, performance, and experience of new music in Seattle, has announced their full schedule of sure-to-be inspiring performances, panels, talks, and community building! 

9:00-10:00 Registration

10:00-10:15 Welcome

10:30-11:30 Speed dating

12:00-1:00 Workshops

1:00-2:30 Lunch break

2:30-3:30 Concert: Cole, Cerrone, Cage

4:00-5:00 Workshops, talks, & demos

5:00-6:00 Happy hour

6:00-7:30 Dinner break

8:00-10:00 Concert: Oliveros, Vasks, Arteaga, Nono, Bassingthwaighte, Hagen

Tickets are on sale here! $20 general admissions and students are free with ID at the door.


More about NUMUS Northwest

Where: Cornish College of the Arts, Kerry Hall

When: Saturday, January 28, 2017 from 9am-10pm

Who: You! Students. Friends. Colleagues. Musicians. Artists. Creators. People who don’t know they like this kind of music (yet!)

Leadership:

  • Kerry O’Brien (Nief-Norf)
  • Jim Holt (Seattle Symphony)
  • Kevin Clark (New Music USA)
  • Shaya Lyon (Live Music Project)
  • James Falzone (Cornish College of the Arts)
  • Maggie Stapleton (Second Inversion/Classical KING FM)

Why: Inspired by the New Music Gathering, the leadership team (many of whom have attended at least one NMG) has a strong desire to recreate the community-building, collaborative-natured, and artistically-stunning event with a focus on musicians and artists in the Northwest.

Want to receive updates about NUMUS Northwest? Subscribe here

Women in (New) Music: Remembering Pauline Oliveros

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

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

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

pauline-oliveros

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Dear Pauline

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

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

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


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

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

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

Michael Schell, Seattle-based composer and intermedia artist


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

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

 

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

 

Sound.

 

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


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

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


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

Seth Tompkins, Second Inversion host/contributor


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

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

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

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

Maggie Molloy, Second Inversion host/contributor


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Photo courtesy Steve Peters