Women in (New) Music: Remembering Ana-Maria Avram (1961–2017)

by Michael Schell

The new music community was stunned to hear of Ana-Maria Avram’s sudden passing on August 1. Born in Bucharest in 1961, she studied in both Romania and France, acquiring from the latter an admiration for spectralism, a way of composing that focuses on tone color as a primary musical parameter and places an emphasis on forms built from continuous processes rather than delineated sections. Throughout a prolific career she remained aligned with this philosophy, becoming one of her country’s best known living composers and a leader in what has become known as Romanian spectralism.

Together with her husband and collaborator Iancu Dumitrescu, Avram co-directed the Hyperion Ensemble, performing extensively in Romania, France, and the UK, and releasing dozens of recordings on the Edition Modern label. In the above video, you can see her conducting Hyperion in her piece Orbit of Eternal Grace (II). Scored for chamber orchestra, computer sounds and two “dueling” clarinet soloists (one on bass clarinet the other on basset horn), it shows the influence not only of spectralists like the Frenchman Grisey and Avram’s compatriot Rădulescu, but also sonorist composers like Xenakis, Ligeti and Penderecki.

Also evident is the influence of American free jazz, and indeed Avram’s most recognizable trait may be the way she dances along the border between formal, composed music and free improv. Her frequent collaborators included the veteran English improvisers Chris Cutler and Ian Hodgkinson (both alumni of the avant-rock band Henry Cow), and in the video Hodgkinson is the soloist to Avram’s right. Orbit of Eternal Grace reminds me of some of the ensemble works of Anthony Braxton, himself a musician readily at home in both improvised and composed music worlds.

Avram grew up under the Ceaușescu dictatorship, where embracing the musical avant-garde was itself a kind of tacet challenge to the prevailing authoritarianism. Her music always seems to convey a certain transgressive thrill—as though reveling in the liberty to work directly with the raw materials of sound, to play instruments the “wrong” way, to build a personal musical language without any hummable melodies or government-approved chord progressions.

But not all of her music is as aggressive as Orbit of Eternal Grace. Her Zodiaque (III) is slow and soothing, built from a synthesized drone on low E-flat and its natural harmonics. Peeking through the texture are various sharp gestures on two prepared pianos, often played directly on the strings. It sounds like Éliane Radigue jamming with George Crumb. In the video (which misidentifies the title) she is heard performing the piece with Dumitrescu.

Zodiaque reveals Avram as an accomplished electronic musician, and she could often be seen in performance conducting an ensemble while coaxing computer-generated sounds from her laptop. That’s on display in her Four Orphic Sketches for female voice, ensemble and live electronics. Its sound world, including the eschewal of a text in favor of nonsense syllables, is close to that of Ligeti’s Aventures. The video below includes some shots of the score, which uses graphic notation, reflecting Avram’s view of a musical text as “a base from which to fly away.”

All told, Avram wrote over 100 compositions, ranging from fixed media works and solo instrumental pieces to works for full orchestra. She also co-organized music festivals in Romania, and volunteered for several new music advocacy organizations. As if that weren’t enough, she was also a capable pianist, as evinced in her performance of some arrangements of Romanian folksongs collected by Bartók. There’s much more from her available on YouTube and SoundCloud.

It’s tough to lose someone as talented as Avram, especially at the premature age of 55. But we can at least be grateful that she left as much behind as she did—a testament to her passion for sound and her devotion to musical freedom.

Women in (New) Music: Women’s Day Marathon Reprise

by Maggie Molloy

Back by popular demand! To those who missed our 24-hour marathon of women composers on International Women’s Day: you’re in luck. Today we’re bringing back another 24-hours of music by women composers from around the globe. Tune in all day to hear works by 220 women who have helped shape, inspire, and expand the world of classical music.

Maggie Molloy, photo by Nicole Schlaeppi.

Plus, in Seattle tonight our Women in (New) Music Founder and Director Maggie Molloy presents a lecture on the history of women composers at the Seattle Opera SOWING Circle’s signature Wine Music Chocolate event.

The SOWING Circle (Seattle Opera Women’s Initiative Group) is a group of women dedicated to embracing and expanding the opera and classical music community in Seattle. As curator and host of this year’s Wine Music Chocolate event, Maggie will share five musical selections by women composers from across history, each paired with a wine by a woman vintner.

To learn more about the SOWING Circle and Wine Music Chocolate, click here.

Women in (New) Music: NOCCO Concert Preview and Q&A with Angelique Poteat

by Maggie Molloy

With the Winter Solstice rapidly approaching, the days are shorter and the nights are colder. Daily temperatures hover just around freezing and the sun sets before most people even leave the office.

It’s been a trying year in more ways than one, and as winter winds blow us straight toward the end of 2016, it’s easy to feel that the world is dark and cold—both literally and figuratively.

noccoBut the North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO) is combatting that coldness with music that is warm, radiant, and bursting with light. Their annual Winter Solstice Celebration this weekend offers a sonic respite from the cold and dreary December temperatures with performances Sunday at Magnolia United Church of Christ and Monday at the University Christian Church.

The celebration pairs classics by Stravinsky, Respighi, and Bach with a West Coast premiere of a new work by Seattle composer and clarinetist Angelique Poteat. Titled Floral Interactions, the piece is a garden of swirling melodies composed for eight wind players and two percussionists.

And since this is its very first Seattle performance, we asked Poteat to give us a sneak peek at what’s in store:

Second Inversion: How would you describe your compositional style? What are some of your major influences?

angelique-poteatAngelique Poteat: As a performer of a melodic, or linear instrument (clarinet), my music tends to be fairly melodic and very thematically oriented.  There is a great deal of layering of lines, which in turn influences my use of harmony.

I grew up listening to a plethora of musical styles, from country music and rock ‘n roll to church hymns and jazz.  A lot of this has found its way into my music, aside from classical influences like Bartók and Messiaen.  I feel that my music and style is constantly evolving.

 

SI:  What was the inspiration behind Floral Interactions? What does it sound like, and how did you choose this instrumentation?

AP: I wrote Floral Interactions in 2006 for the 21/21 New Music Ensemble at Rice University.  The instrumentation was requested by the ensemble.  My inspiration for the work came from several friends of mine, who at the time were reassessing their relationships with one another.  I wanted to capture some of the emotions involved with feeling like a friend is drifting away because of the introduction of a significant other.  With the exception of the climax, much of the piece is dynamically understated, with swirling, dense textures that are juxtaposed with moments of awkwardness and solitude. The title is a play on Florid, which describes the writing for each instrumental part.

SI: Women are extremely underrepresented in musical leadership roles, and especially in composing.  How has being a woman shaped your experiences in this role?

AP: In a society that promotes ideas like Affirmative Action, extra effort is being made to assure that female composers are given opportunities to have their music recognized.  As a composer in the “minority,” I have felt extra pressure to create music that is significant not only within my gender, but compared to all contemporary classical music that is being written today.

I don’t want to be categorized as a good “female composer,” or programmed as the “token female composer,” but instead thought of as an “outstanding composer,” period.   It is not so easy to cross that gender line, and maybe that means that my music has to be better than better.  I think all women, to some extent, feel that they have to put forth more effort than they should in order to be taken seriously.

poteat

SI: What advice do you have for other women who are fighting to have their music heard?

AP: Writing music is not easy!  Music has a great potential to affect people differently in very strong ways; someone out there will love what you write, and someone out there will hate it.  With that in mind, write what YOU love.  

If you’re writing music for live musicians, remember that you’re writing for people, and put care into writing each part.  Share your music with as many people as possible, and your excitement about it!  In today’s world, you have to be the greatest advocate for your music, especially in the face of adversity.  Your enthusiasm about your music will be contagious, and others who hear and like your music will also fight to have it heard again.

SI: What are you most looking forward to with the NOCCO Solstice Celebration, and what do you hope audiences will gain from it?

AP: This weekend’s NOCCO performances will be the first time Floral Interactions will be performed without a conductor!  I’m excited to hear the difference that a more “chamber music” approach to performing the piece will have on how the music is interpreted and coordinated.  I made a few small revisions to the work earlier this year, so we could call this the world premiere of the updated version and, at the very least, the West Coast premiere of the piece.

I love NOCCO’s idea of creating light during the darkest time of the year by sharing warmth and beautiful music, and this program will certainly feature plenty of that!  I’m grateful to be included in the Celebration, and I hope that audiences will feel inspired and moved by the experience.


Performances of NOCCO’s Winter Solstice Celebration are this Sunday, Dec. 18 at 7:30pm at Magnolia United Church of Christ and Monday, Dec.19 at 7:30 at the University Christian Church in Seattle. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

Women in (New) Music: Two Women and an Opera House

by Elisabeth Blair, with introduction by Maggie Molloy

It’s been a few years since the Metropolitan Opera featured a work by a female composer—113 years, to be exact.

saariaho

That century-long drought ends this month with Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin, running now through Dec. 29 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Dazzling melodies, lush orchestration, shimmering electronics, modern LED set designs, and a heartrending French libretto by Amin Maalouf come together to tell a stylized tale of the 12th century troubadour Jaufré Rudel.

But we can’t all be in New York City to see it—so Classical KING FM 98.1 is bringing you the next best thing: a live broadcast of the matinee performance this Saturday, Dec. 10 at 10 a.m. PST.

love-from-afar

L’Amour de Loin (French for “love from afar”) first premiered at the Salzburg Festival in Austria in 2000, and quickly went on to become one of the most acclaimed operatic works of the 21st century. Scored for just three soloists, chorus, and orchestra, the opera offers an intimate look at the enduring power and purity of true love.

“In the midst of composing it, I understood that it was also my story,” Saariaho said in an interview with the New York Times. “I was at once the troubadour and the lady, these two parts of me that I try to reconcile in my life. To write music, concentration is necessary; an interior hearing. To be a woman, to be a mother, one needs to be always available and busy. It’s difficult to have, at the same time, your feet on the ground and your head in the sky.”

It’s difficult for anyone—but especially for women, who have been systemically and institutionally excluded from composition and other leadership roles throughout history. Saariaho’s Metropolitan Opera premiere is a triumph for women everywhere who are fighting to have their music heard—a triumph made possible by the bold footprints of the women who came before us.

The first and only other woman to break the ranks forcefully enough to see her work performed at the Met was English composer and suffragist Ethel Smyth, with her 1903 opera Der Wald: a richly orchestrated folktale of two young lovers and the witch who comes between them.

And so, with the Met’s century-long spell of male composers finally broken, we wanted to take you back in time 100 years and give you a closer look at just what it took for Smyth to become history’s first female composer on the Metropolitan Opera stage.

ethel-smyth-with-hat

Ethel Smyth’s adulthood began with a well-orchestrated protest.  When she was 19, her father forbade her to go to Leipzig to study music composition. She responded by refusing church, musical participation at dinner parties, riding, and speaking. Eventually her father, having become so frustrated with her that he kicked her bedroom door until the panel was “all but penetrated,” relented—and gave up disallowing her much of anything ever again.

She continually found creative solutions to the restrictions placed upon women at the time. In 1878, still 19 and now victoriously arrived in Leipzig, she dressed up as an elderly lady in order to attend an evening concert unescorted. The costume included drawn-on wrinkles and a rented wig, and the ruse was a success. She was plainly unafraid of public humiliation—a valuable quality in a woman whose life’s calling forced her to overstep social mores each day.

ethel-smyth-with-dogs-2

A devout dog-lover, Smyth had a total of five dogs in close succession. Eight years before her death she devoted an entire book, Inordinate (?) Affection, to recollections of her animal companions that sometimes offer an unlikely and intimate view of the elite music world at the time.

In her memoirs she tells of a time that she spiritedly took up a dare and wore a French coachman’s hat while riding her bike down Piccadilly, leading her dog as she went. This may seem unremarkable now, but in the first decade of the 20th century, such a gender-bending public display was bold.

In a musical context she was also unafraid. In 1911 she put on a concert of her opera The Wreckers herself, stepping outside the main concert venues and securing a conductor, Thomas Beecham—who promptly forgot about this engagement. When it came time for the performance, he was nowhere to be found—so Smyth simply conducted the performance herself.

Combined with luck, money, and a high social status, these qualities—a refusal to engage with the male-determined status quo in the manner expected, boundlessly creative problem-solving, and bold ambition—helped her break through the ceiling of the classical music world.

But it was no easy task.

ethelSmyth’s memoirs recall a merry-go-round of failure, rejection, dashed hopes, extraordinary social maneuverings, disappointments, delays, cancellations, futile energies spent, promises broken, twists of fate, and every other kind of impediment, particularly in her fight to have her operas staged.

As she notes in one of her memoirs, What Happened Next, so many sudden, untimely deaths, dismissals and retirements occurred during or leading up to performances that she wondered whether her operas were cursed. Long-awaited contracts about to be signed would halt when the person responsible would be “swept off the scene by sudden illness.”

A producer in Germany, one Georg Pierson, had been working on the rehearsal sheets for a hoped-for premiere of Der Wald when he fell ill and soon thereafter died. (She wrote blithely but resignedly to her long-time companion Henry Brewster, “You will not be surprised to hear that I have killed Pierson.”)

derwaldpremiere

These events were generally disastrous for her plans, forcing her to start over, leverage new social capital, and follow what leads she could. She underwent trial after trial in this way, and her American adventure was no exception. Soon after she arrived for her five-week stay in New York City, Maurice Grau—the director of policy of the Metropolitan Opera House and the man who had booked Der Wald after its success at Covent Garden—died, after a brief illness.

By Smyth’s account, Grau’s successor was whiny, manipulative, and oppositional. In New York she also suffered from tonsillitis, a fever, and finally laryngitis, and she was only able to attend the final choral rehearsal. Although she granted that the press reviews were favorable overall, of the Met performance itself she remarked only, “I do not remember much about it except that the scene-painting and the quality of the orchestra were on a higher level than at Covent Garden and everything else far worse.”

The replacement director had also limited Der Wald’s run to just two performances in New York and one in Boston, and she felt she had travelled too far for too little return. She pronounced her consent to the New York City project as “one of the major foolish acts of my life.”

met-newspaper-clipping


“The cards put by kind Fate into [my] hands […] were good health, a fair dose of persistence and fighting instinct, and most important of all, a small independent income which rendered possible a continuous struggle for musical existence such as no woman obliged to earn her livelihood in music could have carried on.”

In her book Female Pipings in Eden, Smyth carefully details with typical clear-headedness how difficult a process it was for anyone, men included, to move a work from conception to performance. It began with writing the manuscript and parts, making costly engravings, and convincing publishers whom she suspected were of the opinion that “all this damned modern stuff ought to be put down by the police.”

If publication could be had, then a conductor was needed, and at the time conductors always worked with a committee of several dozen tradesmen, who avoided new music in favor of older, more crowd-pleasing stuff. Add to this already intimidating process the hassle of being a woman, and the obstacles became, as she points out, almost insurmountable.

“As things are today,” she wrote, “it is absolutely impossible in this country for a woman composer to get and to keep her head above water; to go on from strength to strength, and develop such powers as she may possess.”

Yet Ethel Smyth did the impossible, and even maintained a vibrant optimism while doing it. She delighted in the notion that any day now a “champion” of women in music, someone with all the power, will, and money necessary to make changes, would enter the scene. She suggested presciently that “the wireless, and future developments thereof that we cannot foresee, may help to break down many ancient taboos, this among the number.”

It is difficult to imagine maintaining such an optimism despite everything—and yet she did. But have we, who are swimming now in the internet and in globalism, yet arrived at that taboo-breaking moment?

Smyth was an exceptional human being and she broke exceptional ground in the face of great resistance. Yet it was apparently asking too much of society to invest in the talent, ambition, and vision of any other female opera composer in the past century who dreamed of a Metropolitan Opera debut.

smyth-saariaho

Thus we find ourselves at the end of a 113 year gap—the time between the staging of Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald and the current staging of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin—hoping that enough changes are taking place within the classical music world and society at large that we will not have to wait another century for the next woman composer to grace the stage.

Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin runs through Dec. 29 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. KING FM 98.1 presents a live broadcast of the performance on-air this Saturday, Dec. 10 at 10 a.m. PST. Tune in at 98.1 or online at www.king.org.

Please click here for a full list of references.

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.

pauline-oliveros-tape


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

 

Women in (New) Music: Q&A with Laura Kaminsky

by Maggie Molloy

For some, classical music is a soothing respite from the tragedy and political turmoil of the 20th century—but for many, it’s a way of addressing the social and political injustices of our world head-on. When we are willing to take time, sit down, and truly listen, classical music can be a catalyst for critical discussion, sociopolitical transformation, and meaningful changelaura-kaminsky.

New York-based composer Laura Kaminsky is a strong proponent of the latter view, and has composed an entire library of musical works addressing the major sociopolitical issues of our time, ranging from sustainability and environmental issues to issues of war, genocide, and basic human rights.

November 11-19, Seattle Opera presents a new production of Kaminsky’s As One: a chamber opera about a trans woman named Hannah’s journey to self-discovery—as told through the voices of two singers.

Composed in 2014 with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, the 90-minute chamber opera traces Hannah’s experiences from her youth in the suburbs to her college years on the West Coast and adulthood far beyond.

as-one

Directed by L. Zane Jones and conducted by John Keene, Seattle Opera’s production casts baritone Jorell Williams and mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven as Hannah—but audience members may be surprised to discover that one part does not end where the other begins. Rather, the two voices are intricately intertwined throughout the opera, illustrating the fullness and complexity of the trans experience—as one.

We sat down with Kaminsky for an inside look at this cutting-edge production:

Second Inversion: What were your major inspirations for composing As One?

laura_kaminskyLaura Kaminsky: I wanted to compose an opera about a transgender individual on the journey to self-acceptance/self-actualization, and decided it needed to be both an extremely intimate piece, but one that, in its intimacy, would be universal and therefore grand.

Two singers—a mezzo soprano and a baritone—share the role of Hannah, As One’s sole protagonist. The two share the singing from beginning to end, as opposed to a less nuanced presentation where the baritone plays Hannah before, the boy, and the mezzo is Hannah after, the girl.

The whole point is that human beings are on a fluid gender spectrum and by having the two voices always on stage and always being Hannah, the audience experiences her fullness as she goes on her journey of self-discovery.

The viola, the middle voice of the string quartet, represents the soul of Hannah, and has several motives that recur and are transformed throughout the work. Also, the opening music of “Paper Route” is transformed in “To Know” and again in “Two Cities,” as these are all arias about self-awareness and the joy of knowing—and being—who one is at their core, and accepting this, even with the difficulties that may be encountered.

The two scenes “Home for the Holidays” and “Dear Son”—about an exchange of letters from Hannah to Mom and then Mom back to Hannah—are poignant depictions of the time when every young adult needs to find space and to begin the separation from parents that will allow for a fully realized and independent life, and the parent knows that the child must do this, but worries. The music for these are related, and they bookend a gentle aria, “A Christmas Story,” about Hannah’s coffee shop encounter with another lonely soul on Christmas Day.

Mark and Kim and I all were very clear from the beginning of our work together on As One that we wanted to tell a specific story about one person’s journey to self-actualization from youth to adulthood. We wanted to make our protagonist fully human and relatable, so that all who encounter As One are able to identify and see that Hannah’s story is both personal and universal, that all of us need to figure out who we are, that there is some pain along the way, but that an honest journey of self-discovery and acceptance can lead to a meaningful life.

We also wanted to increase awareness of the terrible violence against trans people across the globe, and that there is much work to be done, still, to address the ignorance, fear and hatred that continues to this day. The personal is, indeed, political, and Hannah’s victimization at the hands of a menacing bully who attacks her in a dark parking lot, and her subsequent realization that she is not alone, that there are others, and that the world is not safe, is a difficult but important scene—“Out of Nowhere”—but one we all believe needs to be included.

SI: When most people think of opera, they think of 19th century Europe, historic costumes, often-outdated storylines, and 3-hour performances in Italian. What are some of the things that make As One different from (and perhaps more accessible than) your average opera?

LK: In a way, your question is your answer here! As One is under 80 minutes, no intermission; it’s in English—and clear and understandable English. The story is both current and societally relevant, but it is also universal and timeless, so it resonates on many levels. That there are only two singers and a string quartet makes for an intimate theatrical experience and, in most productions (but not this one in Seattle), the use of an original film (by Kim) for the set exemplifies the use of multimedia so exciting to today’s audiences. (Kim, Mark and I are all excited to see what Seattle Opera has decided to do in terms of staging and design given that they are not using the film.) And, again, depending on each director’s interpretation, there are often places where the audience is actively engaged in the performance, bringing it even closer to home.

SI: Many of your scores, including As One, explore sociopolitical topics—what do you feel makes opera a compelling vehicle for exploring these multifaceted issues, and for exploring transgender issues in particular?

LK: It’s all about the storytelling and the power of the human voice to touch us deeply and immediately. It is possible to write more abstract instrumental music on a socio-political theme, and I have many such pieces. Vukovar Trio is dedicated to the victims of ethnic cleansing; my percussion concerto, Terra Terribilis, and my sixth string quartet, Rising Tide, confronts issues around environmental sustainability; Transformations II, which was commissioned by the St. Helens Quartet (who are performing in As One), was composed in the aftermath of 9/11, are some of the instrumental works on sociopolitical topics—and any of these could have been operas instead of instrumental music but in conceiving them, I wanted to use instrumental forces. But for As One, it had to be an opera, not an instrumental work. It just had to be sung.

jorell-williams-and-taylor-raven

Baritone Jorell Williams and mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven share the role of Hannah in As One.

SI: What were some of the unique challenges and rewards of composing music for two distinct voices portraying the same person?

LK: The most important thing for Mark, Kim, and me in crafting the story, and then for me to set it musically, was not to have the first half be “the boy” and the second half “the girl.” So structuring the arc of the piece to have both singers always playing Hannah, before, during and after, was a lovely challenge—determining who would sing which aria and convey which piece of the story and which parts of Hannah’s emotional journey. Technically, I had to be sensitive to the few notes that the two voice types have in common and decide how best to use them to create the unity we all wanted—the “as one” aspect.

SI: As One originally premiered in 2014 at the BAM Fisher in New York City, produced by American Opera Projects, and has since been performed around the U.S. and in Europe. In what ways will the Seattle Opera production different from previous performances?

LK: This will be the first production that will be staged without using Kim’s film for the set, so that is something we are all eager to see. Also, this is the first African-American cast, and I think that this will add another layer of complexity and nuance. African American trans women are among the most ostracized and victimized, so casting this with two black singers will be incredibly powerful. I am delighted to say that I’ve known Jorell Williams for over a decade, when he was a student and I was the dean of music at Purchase Conservatory, and so it is a great thrill to be working with him now.

as-one-rehearsal

SI:  Women are extremely underrepresented in musical leadership roles, and especially in composing. How has being a woman shaped your experiences as a composer?

LK: It’s just a piece of the whole. I am a composer. I’m a New Yorker. I’m a married lesbian. I’m a secular humanist Jew. I’m a progressive thinker. Oh, yes, and I am a woman. It’s shaped everything, as have all the other parts of who I am have, and sometimes it’s been a challenge, and sometimes a blessing, but it’s all I know. This isn’t the best answer, obviously, because it really doesn’t answer anything, but I do think that the day will come when the question doesn’t even have to be asked.

However, I can say that this is a good moment for women in opera. I have been the beneficiary of two grants administered by Opera America from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation to support women composers. The first was in support of As One; the second is in support of the new opera that Mark and Kim and I have been commissioned to create for Houston Grand Opera, Some Light Emerges.  And Opera America is taking an advocacy and leadership position with its new initiative, the Women’s Opera Network.

SI: What advice do you have for other women who are fighting to make it onto concert programs?

LK: Write the best music you can. Go to concerts. Meet performers, presenters, and producers in the field. Be a part of the larger community. Be brave!

Seattle Opera’s production of Laura Kaminsky’s As One runs Nov. 11-19 at Washington Hall in Seattle’s Central District. Performances are evenings at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 4 p.m. All performances are ages 21+ with a cash bar. For tickets and additional information, click here.

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

by Kaley Lane Eaton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Methods Phase I: Surveys

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

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

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

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

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

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

Findings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Methods Phase II: Expressing their experiences

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

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

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


Who will I be?: Musical Role Models

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

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

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


What Can We Do?

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

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

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

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


Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

Please click here for a full list of references.