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.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, January 6 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!

Sarah Kirkland Snider: Unremembered: VIII. The Witch (New Amsterdam)

unremembered_cover-300x300“The Witch” is the 8th vignette in a 13-piece song cycle titled Unremembered from fabulous composer Sarah Kirkland Snider. Aggressive strings and a militant orchestration set the scene for a spooky narrative that takes us into shadowy woods full of subtle horrors. Shara Nova’s growling vocals capture both the beauty and foreboding of this imagistic and vivid score. Snider’s “The Witch” is layered, grisly and intense from start to finish. Highly recommended for listeners of all ages, just maybe not before bedtime. – Rachele Hales

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


Aphex Twin: Mt. Saint Michel performed by Alarm Will Sound (Cantaloupe Music)

acoustica_300dpi_cmykStarting the new year swamped with work and already behind from the previous year is not ideal, but it is the situation many of us find ourselves in this January. Alarm Will Sound’s version of Aphex Twin’s Mt. Saint Michael is the perfect music for this situation. Perhaps embracing the chaos along with pursuit of self-care

is the way forward. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 3pm hour today to hear this piece.


Conlon Nancarrow (arr. Evan Ziporyn): Four Player Piano Studies performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars (Cantaloupe Music)

55805527bd9c35da77388ee16ee84cb456d8fd53You could say the 20th century experimental composer and expatriate Conlon Nancarrow was a bit of an introvert. He lived most of his life in isolation, and for decades composed only for player pianos—working alone, by hand, to produce and perfect a massive library of swingin’ blues and boogie-woogie piano rolls, his famous 49 Studies for Player Piano among them.

Well, composer Evan Ziporyn decided to take a few of those piano roll etudes and put them into human hands—the hands of the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Ziporyn created a mixed ensemble arrangement that retains the visceral intensity and mechanical energy of Nancarrow’s original rolls, but reimagines them through the Technicolor timbral palette of Bang on a Can. It’s snazzy, jazzy, and full of color—proof that although player pianos have become largely obsolete, Nancarrow’s music is still very much alive. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear this piece.


Lisa Bielawa: Synopsis No. 12 “What I Did Over Summer Vacation” Michael Norsworthy, clarinet (BMOP/Sound)

bmop1017sI have to confess that I was super biased to love this piece even before I heard it; as a clarinetist, I am a huge fan of the unaccompanied clarinet repertoire, and as a musician, I am huge fan of Lisa Bielawa. Incredible, bizarre, enigmatic works have been written for clarinet alone by composers like Igor Stravinsky, William Bolcom, and Shulamit Ran. As they require one single voice to command the listener’s attention, they are tremendously difficult to compose and perform. Luckily, the clarinet’s huge range provides ample opportunity to create a wide variety of colors and characters, and a bit of extended techniques can help as well. Bielawa’s work presents the performer with a number of different fragments and gives them free reign to decide the order in which they are played, and how many times they are used. The idea behind “What I Did Over Summer Vacation” and the other 14 Synopses (all with six-word titles) is tied to Hemingway’s six-word short story “For sale, baby shoes: never used.” Apparently, Bielawa’s musical fragments each represent a different vacation activity. BMOP’s clarinetist Michael Norsworthy does a lot of trilling and running around the register of the instrument – sounds like he had a busy summer vacation.

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece.

ALBUM REVIEW: The Colorado

by Maggie Molloy

The Colorado River is a national treasure.download (31)

For the past 5 million years, the Colorado River has carved some of the most magnificent landscapes on Earth.

More than 33 million people across Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Mexico depend on the Colorado River for their water supply. The river supports a quarter million jobs and produces $26 billion in economic output each year from recreational activities alone.

But if the numbers alone don’t convince you, maybe the stories behind the river will.

VisionIntoArt teamed up with New Amsterdam Records to create The Colorado: a multimedia, music-based documentary that explores the Colorado River Basin from social and ecological perspectives across history. The project is conceived as equal parts eco-documentary film, live performance, and an educational tool for classrooms.

 

And just wait until you meet the team behind the music. For this one-of-a-kind album, the Grammy Award-winning contemporary vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth breathes life into compositions by Shara Nova, Paola Prestini, Glenn Kotche, William Brittelle, and John Luther Adams.

With color, charisma, tight harmonies, and striking shots of the river and its wildlife, the documentary presents the Colorado in all its majestic splendor—but it also tells a much bigger story.

Today, with a booming agricultural industry to support and nearly 40 million people dependent on its waters, the Colorado is overused, over-promised, and unable even to reach its delta. Add to that the impact of climate change on the region, and you begin to see why these are stories that truly need to be heard.

The Colorado explores vast terrain, both in terms of music and lyrical content. Lyrics by William Debuys navigate from the prehistoric settlements of the region to the current plight of the river’s delta, from the period of European exploration to the dam-building era and its legacy, from industrial agriculture and immigration to the inescapable impact of climate change.

As an additional educational component to the album and documentary, the team behind The Colorado is also in the midst of creating a full-length textbook, corresponding section by section to the film, which will allow students and audiences to explore these topics in greater depth. The goal is to create connections between art, ecology, and regional history while also educating audiences toward a better stewardship of resources.

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The album begins—well, at the “Beginnings.” Composed by rock drummer Glenn Kotche (of Wilco), “Beginnings” sets the sonic scene of the prehistoric Colorado River through sparse instrumentation, evocative rhythms, and layered, wordless vocals. Almost ritualistic in nature, Roomful of Teeth’s voices evoke a deep spiritual connection to the river and its surroundings.

It’s followed by cross-cultural composer Paola Prestini’s “A Padre, A Horse, A Telescope.” Prestini, who is one of the co-founders of VisionIntoArt, takes a more Baroque-inspired choral approach. Setting Jesuit sources as the text for the piece (including a Hail Mary in Cochimí, an extinct Native American language), Prestini creates haunting counterpoint through echoing, intricately layered voices which speak to the religious symbolism of the river—both for Europeans and indigenous peoples.

The river’s relentless pulse comes alive in “An Unknown Distance Yet to Run,” written by composer, singer-songwriter, and mezzo-soprano extraordinaire Shara Nova (of My Brightest Diamond). Through steady rhythms, restless strings, and chant-style vocals, she tells a gripping tale of exploration and adventure.

Composer William Brittelle folds elements of electro-pop into his two contributions on the album. “Shimmering Desert” features breathy, wordless vocals in a kaleidoscopic collage of electronics, radio clips, and strings, while “The Colossus” recalls the drama and dangerous working conditions of the Colorado River dams.

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and environmentalist John Luther Adams’ contribution to the album requires a bit more patience. Unfolding slowly across layered, softly cascading vocal lines, he creates a vision of a vast, organic river landscape populated by nothing but the soft sounds of nature—in this case embodied ever so delicately by human voices.

Prestini’s narrative-driven “El Corrido de Joe R.” tells a more concrete story of love and sacrifice along the river. Roomful of Teeth sings above trickling water and birds chirping as they tell one family’s story—an anecdote of the interpersonal relationships between people and the land they live on.

It’s followed by another Nova piece, “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” a ghostly illustration of modern man’s massive (and dangerous) impact on the planet as we continue to abuse our resources and damage our world.

And yet, the album ends on a decidedly hopeful note: Kotche’s “Palette of a New Creation.” Roomful of Teeth paints an image of optimism through vividly colored harmonies and beautifully textured polyphony—a reminder of the meaningful change we can create when we lift our voices together.

Because together, through education, environmental activism, and effective stewardship of land and water, we can keep the Colorado flowing for generations to come. After all, there is 5 million years’ worth of music coursing through the Colorado River—for those who are willing 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: “The Fiction Issue” by Gabriel Kahane

by Maggie Molloy

Editor’s Note: Classical KING FM and Second Inversion present Gabriel Kahane and Brooklyn Rider at Seattle’s Tractor Tavern Monday, Feb. 1 at 8 p.m. For tickets and more information, click here.
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Singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane’s got a new set of strings—an entire string quartet, actually. He recently joined forces with ever-eclectic string quartet Brooklyn Rider to record a new album titled “The Fiction Issue.”

Over the course of the past decade, Kahane has crafted quite a resume. He’s toured, performed, and collaborated with some of the biggest names in contemporary classical. He’s served academic and artistic residencies around the country, received commissions from the likes of Carnegie Hall, composed for chamber ensemble, orchestra, musical theatre—heck, the man once made music out of Craigslist ads, for heaven’s sake.

He’s a pianist, a composer, a singer-songwriter, a poet—the list goes on and on. But one thing Kahane had not done yet was compose a full-length album of chamber music—that is, until now.

“The Fiction Issue” is Kahane’s first chamber album, but it’s not your standard collection of string quartets and piano trios. Featuring the inimitable talents of Brooklyn Rider and vocalist/composer/songstress-extraordinaire Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond), the album is something of a mashup between classical chamber music, creative musings, pop music, and poetry.

How it all came about is a bit of a long story—or rather, it’s really more of a series of short stories. The album features two modern-day song cycles and a single-movement string quartet.

(full album is released on Friday, February 5)

“I’ve often thought of a three minute song as a close relative of the short story, as far as narrative economy is concerned,” Kahane said. “In both cases, the writer has to be judicious about what details to include or exclude, because there simply isn’t enough real estate to include everything.”

Kahane explores this challenge in the album’s title track, which was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for his recital debut there in 2012. Written in six parts, the 25-minute piece features both Kahane and Worden singing above Brooklyn Rider’s gorgeously textured string backdrop. Piano, electric guitar, and reed organ (naturally) add both timbral and narrative interest.

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“While the title is a bit of a cheeky nod to The New Yorker’s annual collection of short stories,” Kahane said, “It’s more earnestly a reference to the challenges of narrativity in music: the issue of fiction.”

The piece is equal parts nostalgia, whimsy, word painting, and poetry—with just a dash of humor and satire for good measure. Worden’s crystalline vocals dance effortlessly through the work’s pop, folk, hymnal, and operatic threads, with Kahane’s warm, velvety vocals adding a bit of an art-rock aesthetic. Together the two very different vocalists craft a fascinating and, at times, dissonant dreamscape, each one drifting through their own abstracted story. And while the musical and poetic lines between the two often blur, mysteriously enough the two characters never directly interact.

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“Because the narrative of ‘The Fiction Issue’ is perhaps willfully ambiguous, the music itself does more of the heavy lifting in creating architectural rigor for the piece, as opposed to say, a clearly etched plot,” Kahane said. “For the most part, the entire piece is derived in one way or another from the first three notes that Shara [Worden] sings—a leitmotif that is continually transformed over the course of the work. I hope that this formal discipline, whether or not it’s perceived by the listener, creates license for the more stream-of-consciousness approach to the text.”

The work is followed by a chamber deconstruction of Kahane’s brooding, cinematic pop song “Bradbury (304 Broadway)” off his 2014 album, “The Ambassador.” In his new string quartet adaptation, aptly titled “Bradbury Studies,” Kahane uses shards of motivic and melodic material from the original song to craft an entirely new sound world. Brooklyn Rider brings Kahane’s vision to life with palpable energy and skilled execution of extended string techniques and textural interplay—each player completely in control amidst the chaotic soundscape.

The final piece on the album is Kahane’s three-part song cycle, “Come on All You Ghosts,” which he composed on texts by poet Matthew Zapruder. Animated strings weave in and out of Kahane’s tender yet poised vocals in this short collection of modern art songs. Drawing from a wide palette of textural and timbral colors in the strings, Kahane crafts a sound world somewhere between the realms of contemporary classical, pop, musical theatre, and art rock with a tinge of fringe.

After all, it is in these margins between musical genres that we often find the strongest sense of collaboration and community—and each piece on “The Fiction Issue” harnesses a warmth and intimacy reflective of that bond.

“We often call albums ‘records’ in the sense that they are documents,” Kahane said. “This album is not only a document of the time and place in which it was recorded, but also a document of a series of relationships that have deepened and evolved over the last half dozen years; it’s a great honor and privilege to call Shara Worden, and the members of Brooklyn Rider some of my dearest musical friends, and to be able to share this album with the world as evidence of those friendships.”

GIVEAWAY: Gabriel Kahane and Brooklyn Rider Tickets + Signed CD

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Enter to win a pair of tickets to see Gabriel Kahane and Brooklyn Rider at The Tractor Tavern on Monday, February 1 at 8pm AND a signed copy of The Fiction Issue!

How?

  1. Leave a comment below. Fill in the blank: New Music is ___________.
  2. Like/Comment/Share our Facebook post
  3. Retweet this (and follow us, while you’re at it!)

Each action counts as a separate entry. Deadline is Friday, 1/29, 5pm PT.