Women in (New) Music: Happy 75th Birthday, Meredith Monk!

by Maggie Molloy

Meredith Monk has secured a place in history as one of the most singular and significant voices of the 20th and 21st centuries. For nearly six decades, she has redefined and revolutionized contemporary vocal music and performance, seamlessly weaving in elements of theatre and dance to create visceral musical experiences that transcend the confines of the classical tradition.

Monk’s compositional range is as wide as her vocal one—but her inimitable creations are united in their merging of ancient and modern musical ideas. In her music, abstract vocalizations, primal rhythms, hypnotic dances, and ritualistic soundscapes come together in an intimate embrace of the human experience.

In honor of Monk’s 75th birthday today, we take a look back at three of our favorite Monk masterpieces:

Education of the Girlchild (1972):

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.


Turtle Dreams (1983):  

Sprawling vocal textures, hypnotic organ loops, and unconventional choreography are spliced together with black and white turtle footage in this surreal 30-minute film exploring themes of time and space.


On Behalf of Nature (2016):

Extended vocal techniques pirouette above a whimsical instrumental accompaniment in this wordless exploration of the space where humans coexist with the natural and spiritual world.

Women in (New) Music: Reflections on wilderness

“The animal instinct of the world is to destroy others thinking it may build for itself out of the ruins, but the divine instinct knows that the only true structure is in building up together.

Will you be counted among those who seek to destroy, or will you seek to rise to the heights, the dizzy heights where the air is so rarefied that only the strong can stay long enough to be dissolved in an ecstasy of oblivion?

– Mary Crovatt Hambidge, Apprentice of Creation


Photo by Arthur Allen.

by Kaley Eaton
W
ritten while in residence at the Hambidge Center, Oct, 2017

Today I woke and walked out to my porch to learn that I had been instrumental in the death of a large beetle. Beetle had been attempting to cohabit my cabin at Hambidge for the last few weeks, and I had been careful in routinely transporting him to the outdoors, assuring him we would both be more comfortable with such an arrangement.

Last night, he had taken refuge in my curtains around midnight, but given the slow swagger I had observed over the past few weeks, I was comfortable he would stay put through the night. I couldn’t find him during my bedtime sweep, so I assumed he was tucked and comfy. Around 2am I was awoken by a large buzz to find him near my head, on the window. At the point, I’m certain Beetle knew this was a violation of our terms and I gently placed him in his cup and returned him to the forest.

But in the cold fog of morning, there he was, paralyzed, upturned, and slightly discolored at the bottom of the cup. A part of my evening phone conversation with Rian last night addressed the topic of insect extinction, which furthered my resolve to coexist with Beetle. And yet my discomfort with a loud buzz seems to have clouded this resolve, and now, Beetle is dead.

His death is timely and heartbreaking, as my time at Hambidge has been dedicated to the pursuit of dissolving my human ego in service of something better, something with which Beetle is likely more acquainted than I. As such, I dedicate the work I’ve done here, wilderness, to Beetle.

wilderness has lived several lives in the past few months and currently exists in two incarnations: an interactive installation for nine loudspeakers, and a companion work for headphones. The work explores my complicated geographical relationship with the United States. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, you become a person who takes volcanic mega mountains, temperate rainforests, pods of cosmically intelligent swimming superbeings, and massive, tranquil salty bays full of salmon and mussels and elegant kelp for granted. When such a person moves east to join the rat race (which has unfortunately found its way west), the resonance of this landscape is a manic buzz in the heart. A deep, bottomless, spiritual hole grows with each minute one is away from this place, until the eventual homesick Google image search for “Pacific Northwest” elicits a cascade of loneliness. This was the experience I sought to sonify in wilderness: the experience of moving far, far away from a place where wilderness still dominates humanity, and hearing it sing in the distance while enveloped by the low rumble of the sprawling urbanity of the Eastern U.S.

While I have an obviously subjective relationship to the distribution of wilderness in the contiguous U.S. as a Washingtonian and Montanan, I believe there exists, on a global scale, a longing for wilderness, a palpable guilt for what we’ve destroyed, and a deep anxiety that every choice we make is destructive. These are the ideas that propelled me to design this work and the ideas that have obsessed me here at Hambidge, where these themes are ever-present in the landscape, the geographical situation, and the spiritual residue of Mary Crovatt Hambidge’s life.

The loudspeaker version of this work is intended for a large room and indeterminate length. Nine loudspeakers are arranged on a theoretical, room-sized map of the United States as follows:

Each speaker emits a synthesized sound generated from data sourced from the University of Montana Wilderness Center. As you can guess from the image, the sound each speaker makes is representative of the relative acreage of protected wilderness in the immediate radius of the speaker. Speakers in areas with higher acreage of wilderness emit louder, higher-pitched, and more rapidly pulsating sounds. Speakers in areas with low acreage of wilderness emit quieter, lower-pitched, and more slowly pulsating sounds. All sounds were calculated meticulously to ensure a spatially accurate, relative experience of how much wilderness we have preserved and destroyed.

In doing this, my goal was to illuminate how much life exists where human life does not; we often associate sound with humanity, and I wanted to illustrate an experience where human sprawl was as silent as the death it causes. The result was a staggering realization that, while the Eastern U.S. has many alluring qualities, it is utterly drained of wild places. The resulting sound, to me, felt like the sad buzz I felt when leaving my volcanoes and rainforests.

While walking through the installation, listeners are invited to this experience. There are also thrown into a less romantic experience: with each speaker, I place a microphone that picks up the sounds the listeners make as they walk through the work. If you make a sound above a certain threshold it triggers an explosion of speaking voices and loud noises. This is intended to simulate the anxiety we feel that every move we make is, in some way, pollution.

Artistically, it bothers me that one can only experience works for loudspeaker arrays in venues lucky enough to have more than two (decent) loudspeakers. So, in pondering the eternal question of accessibility, I decided to develop a 3D version of this work for headphones that curates a walk through the installation using ambisonic panning and HRTF decoding for headphones.

Naturally, as this version allows me to take you on my own subjective experience of driving through the contiguous U.S., the piece is time- AND space-based, which adds another layer of anxiety and direction. As one walks through the West, loud mountain ranges of sound pass on either side; once one has left the West, the sounds become increasingly war-like, human-related and noisy (please see the content warning). These sounds come from news reports about animal culling, recordings from the Elephant Listening Project, and field recordings I sourced from my porch at Hambidge.

Throughout the work, a buzz that seems to come from inside the head resonates and later intensifies into a folk-inspired melody setting the above words from Mary Hambidge. After enduring the war, we drift backwards back into the wilderness, into the “ecstasy of oblivion” she theorizes.

I’m currently obsessed with the idea that my generation experiences the world through headphones. How can artists disrupt this experience? How can we create a fantastical, three-dimensional sonic reality that makes us appreciate and long for the reality that has existed before and will exist after the headphones disappear? Given the current fixation on visual virtual reality experiences, what role does sound have in the question of the future?

With all of that said, and with the memory of Beetle in my heart, I would like to invite you into my new work and also to please consider the question posed by Mary Hambidge above: will you be counted among those who seek to destroy?

As of press time, Beetle seems to have been resurrected.

KLE


wilderness for headphones is available below. Please use …. headphones! Preferably high-quality headphones. The 3D sound elements, essential to the work, will not read through external speakers.

CONTENT WARNING – gunshot sounds

This work contains sounds that may cause physical and/or emotional discomfort to those who are survivors of war and/or gun violence, or are sensitive to sounds related to violence. These sounds begin at around 4:25. Please practice self-care if choosing to listen to this work. These sounds are NOT present in the live installation version of this work; we hope you will have an opportunity to join us in the live experience with Kin of the Moon.


wilderness for nine loudspeakers will premiere Saturday, Nov. 18 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space with the new concert series Kin of the Moon. For more information, please click here.

Women in (New) Music: The Pure Cold Light in the Sky

Kin of the Moon is an improvisation-centric chamber series featuring three cutting-edge and iconoclastic women performers. Violist and composer Heather Bentley reflects on the music and meaning behind their debut concert, The Pure Cold Light in the Sky this Saturday, Nov. 18 at 8pm at the Good Shepherd Chapel.


by Heather Bentley

Kin of the Moon violist, improviser, and composer Heather Bentley.

It’s Armistice Day today, also known as Veteran’s Day, also acknowledged in astrology to be a particularly high vibrational day for the planetary deity Venus, who supports us to think with our hearts, and not just with our heads. It’s a good moment for reflection on this past year of seismic cultural upheaval that is continuing without abatement as I write.

The existential importance of music in my life has been magnified through the lens of all the enormous societal challenges we face. Creating Kin of the Moon is the outgrowth of a powerful desire to combine my private discipline of improvisation with my lifelong experience of presenting and performing concert music. Becoming an improviser in my late 20s was an attempt to liberate my own voice through my instrument. While I have always held composers like Brahms, Bach, and Shostakovich deeply in my heart as my best friends, there are aspects of professional classical music life that challenge my sense of creative agency.

I met Kaley Eaton on stage at the Royal Room, doing an improvised show with Steve Treseler’s Game Symphony. We’ve been close collaborators ever since, working together on her electroacoustic opera Lily, and co-creating our piece Atmokinesis for improvisers and SuperCollider processing. Leanna Keith is simply a spectacular flutist/improviser—we have been playing shows together since this summer and I couldn’t be happier with our Kin of the Moon team!

Here is our statement:

Kin of the Moon is an improvisation-centric chamber music series incubated in Seattle’s rich musical scene. Headed by violist/improviser/composer Heather Bentley, vocalist/composer Kaley Eaton, and flutist/improviser Leanna Keith, the group explores sonic rituals, promotes cross-pollination of genres, emphasizes the communicative power of specific performance locales and celebrates the creativity that multiplies itself through the collaboration of performers and composers. The artists of Kin of the Moon devote their lives to reaching higher vibrational levels through sound creation.

Kin of the Moon flutist and improviser Leanna Keith.

I was asked about the fact that our first concert features all women performers and composers. Actually, we were aiming to create the most compelling program to go with our new piece Atmokinesis and Kaley’s new sound installation wilderness, and it happens that we were very excited by Jessi Harvey’s quantum physics-inspired work The Multiverse and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kate Soper’s Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say for voice and various flutes.

Kin of the Moon vocalist and composer Kaley Lane Eaton.

I am inspired to work with artists who exhibit a spirit of creative inquiry and practice a discipline of collaborative generosity. That many people who hold these qualities dear are women is not surprising. There are also countless men I have worked with who are equally inspiring in this way. And there are non-binary people I have worked with who are inspiring, generous, and boundlessly creative. Our choices about who we present and who we work with have everything to do with these considerations.

Back to Armistice Day. Last Nov. 11, 2016 was very difficult for so many of us. I am fortunate to co-own and operate ELF House, a music space/artist retreat on Whidbey Island, with the magnificent composer, saxophonist, and flutist Jessica Lurie. I went up by myself after the horrific election and had the opportunity to regroup. This is what I wrote, and it feels very much like a statement of purpose about my music:

“I’ve had a moment to recoup from the dreadful election result up at my sanctuary by the water on Whidbey. Here there’s no internet yet and the sunrise pinks up the sky and water birds carry on like nothing has changed—and in this world that is true. I needed space and time to reflect on how to carry on. First of all, I want to acknowledge
my sons Miles, 19, and Aaron, 29, for their response to the debacle of this election.
Representing the two halves of the millennial generation, Aaron reminded me to stay
levelheaded and through his lead, I greatly increased my contribution (now monthly) to
the ACLU, an organization that has stood at the frontline of defending the marginalized
in the US for decades. And Miles took to the streets to protest on Nov 9. Feet on the
ground. I know my sons are aware of their privilege as white, cis, straight men of
comfortable economic status. I am beyond proud that they immediately took steps to
exert what influence they can on behalf of those who stand to lose the most under the
new administration.

For myself, I needed time for darkness. I felt like it wasn’t time for kumbaya or sentiments that we can just unify now that the election is over. Or pretend that a nice concert can heal our divisions. This is what I think today, on Veterans Day: as artists, we are aware of our ability to conjure heaven on earth. The moments come seldom, and they are hard won through the assiduous honing of our craft, but the allure of creating deep, unassailable beauty and terrible and ferocious gorgeousness from a deep vein, is what compels us in the face of economic absurdity to continue. Relentlessly. This is the truth and depth and gift that artists hold and offer. Let our vein flow for the world. Let the truth of our witness and offering stand as a real testament to the fragile and tenacious beauty of existence in this sphere. Let us always, always encourage the outpouring of our colleagues and treasure our audiences and followers.

Let us actively conspire to collaborate. Let our vision extend to radical inclusiveness of those in our midst as well as those out of sight.”

Kin of the Moon takes its name from a W.B. Yeats poem, “The Cat and the Moon.”

THE CAT AND THE MOON
by W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)

The cat went here and there
And the moon spun round like a top,
And the nearest kin of the moon,
The creeping cat, looked up.
Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For, wander and wail as he would,
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.
Minnaloushe runs in the grass
Lifting his delicate feet.
Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance?
When two close kindred meet,
What better than call a dance?
Maybe the moon may learn,
Tired of that courtly fashion,
A new dance turn.
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.
Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils
Will pass from change to change,
And that from round to crescent,
From crescent to round they range?
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
Alone, important and wise,
And lifts to the changing moon
His changing eyes.


Kin of the Moon’s debut concert is this Saturday, Nov. 18 at 8pm at the Good Shepherd Chapel. For more information, click here.

Women In (New) Music: Du Yun’s Opera Angel’s Bone is Writing A New History

by Lauren Freman

Photo by David Adams.

There’s a fun kind of dark—take your Quentins Tarantino, your Samuels Pekinpah—a gleeful brand of hyperrealistic gore that makes you giggle uncomfortably in your seat, where the director gets lauded for “going there,” where a spray of blood is cool, a severed limb is funny.

Angel’s Bone, the 2017 Pulitzer-winning opera by Du Yun, is not that.

When stressed to extremes, our brains deprioritize recording memory accurately, and register emotion in broad strokes: fear, helplessness, pain. For this reason, Angel’s Bone’s heightened, cacophonous abstractions of violence give us a more honest representation of the experience of trauma, more real than an accurate depiction might be. If you think you might be triggered by anything related to sexual assault, drug use, or any kind of abuse, then please take good care of yourself digging into this opera.

Composed by Du Yun with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, Angel’s Bone tells the story of two angels (Boy Angel and Girl Angel, sung by Kyle Bielfield and Jennifer Charles) who have returned to Earth, only to be forced into spiritual and sexual slavery by an ordinary American couple (Mr. and Mrs. X.E, voiced by Kyle Pfortmiller and Abigail Fischer). That’s not a spoiler, that’s the premise: a barely-allegorical indictment of the horrors of human trafficking that doesn’t let you look away.

The staged production premiered in 2016 at the Prototype Festival, an NYC-based festival that showcases new works in “music-theater,” but the studio recording for Angel’s Bone drops September 22 (TOMORROW) on VIA Records. And if you’re near Brooklyn on October 7, you should absolutely attend the album release concert at the National Sawdust Theater (Take me with you? Live tweet it? Please).

This composer is very intentionally changing the landscape of classical music audiences and creators, and I am 100% here for it. In an interview with NPR’s Tom Huizenga this spring, Du Yun expressed a need for the music community to “examine what diversity really means. Diversity also means content, diversity also means styles. Diversity also means, ‘What do we want to say?’ We can’t just say one thing.”

As the music director at Music at the Anthology (MATA), she spearheads projects that amplify underrepresented voices. For example, look forward to “a three-year initiative to focus on the Islamic world, and also a series of solo concerts by female composers, called ‘A Room of One’s Own.’” Her money takes up permanent residence at where her mouth is.

One of my favorite things about Du Yun is that she pledges zero deference to the established conventions of one genre or another. In a Log Journal interview with Steve Smith, she says “We’ll be able to do so many things in so many styles, and if the content calls for that, then let’s just try it.”

While Angel’s Bone is more or less an opera in the traditional sense, each aria (song? track?) is laser-focused toward the style that tells the story best. Mrs. X.E.’s performative piety is represented in allusions to revivalist gospel in “I’ve Been Blessed,” because of course it is. The chorus of angels points to Gregorian Chant, because of course it does. Girl Angel shrieks and croaks recounting her abuse at the hands of “Brick J.” because of course she does.

Photo by Cory Weaver.

I’m prefacing this with a WHOLE LOTTA CAVEATS, but I’ll give it to ya straight: listening to Angel’s Bone was an awful experience. The performances are stunning, Du Yun’s subversion of aural expectations is deeply affecting, and the borderlessness between genres is fascinating. But. Sitting with this opera? Marinating in it for hours, watching otherwise unremarkable suburbanites brutalize extremely vulnerable people? Hurts. So. Bad.

And the question is Why. Why put audiences through that? Why put ourselves through that? Du Yun’s work is too deliberate to be intended as shock for shock’s sake, so why would she bring us so intimately close to the experiences of the victims of trafficking?

So that we would do something.

And there’s so much we can do, from influencing lawmakers to enact legislation that protects trafficking survivors, to educating ourselves, to volunteering our time or money to a nonprofit we care about—you, a presumed proponent of the arts, might be interested in checking out First Aid Arts, which equips trauma-care providers with arts-based resources.

“Art does not solve problems,” Du Yun warns. “Art, at its best, functions to provoke and suggest.” If Angel’s Bone disturbs you—and it will, and it should—then let it provoke you into action. Let it suggest that you help.

If you can, listen to this album. Have an awful experience. And then do something.


If you or someone you know is a victim of trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline to report a tip or get help.


 

Lauren Freman is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and composer, hell-bent on blurring the boundaries between high and low art. Follow her at www.freman.band, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

 

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: A Life in Waves

by Maggie Molloy

What is it about Coca-Cola commercials that makes the iconic soda look so crisp and refreshing? Sure, some of it is the fizzy carbonation, the cropped camera shots, the heartwarming smiles—but what about the sound of the soda?

The irresistible pop-and-pour sound effect that completes every classic Coke commercial is the work of electroacoustic composer Suzanne Ciani. A pioneer in the field of electronic music and sound design, Ciani was one of extraordinarily few women in the 1970s who were composing music for a living—and one of drastically fewer who were composing music using modular synthesizers and electronics.

Not only is she talented, but she’s also tenacious. In 1974 she created her own commercial production company called Ciani Musica, Inc.—which went on to become the leader in the field of sound design and TV spot scoring. Her production company created award-winning music for a number of high-profile Fortune 500 clients, like Coca-Cola, Merrill Lynch, AT&T, and General Electric, among others.

And although, whether you know it or not, you’ve probably heard a lot of Ciani’s sonic creations—you’ve probably never heard the full story of Suzanne Ciani. This Wednesday the Seattle International Film Festival presents A Life in Waves, a brand new documentary about the New Age icon.

Created by director Brett Whitcomb and writer Bradford Thomason, the film explores Ciani’s life in music, from her earliest days at the piano to her multi-million dollar advertising ventures, to her achievements in the world of New Age music and beyond. Watch the trailer below and catch the film this Wednesday at Ark Lodge Cinemas:


A Life in Waves is playing at Ark Lodge Cinemas on Wednesday, June 7 at 9:15pm. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

Women in (New) Music: Emissary Quartet Video Premiere and Q&A

by Maggie Molloy

For the Emissary Quartet, new music knows no bounds—geographical or otherwise. Comprised of four flutists living in four different cities around the U.S., the group is dedicated to expanding the flute quartet repertoire by commissioning and performing innovative new works.

Though scattered across the country, flutists Weronika Balewski, Meghan Bennett, Colleen McElroy, and Sarah Shin meet for performances and teaching residencies throughout the year, building a diverse catalogue of new works which explore the dynamic and expressive capabilities of their instrument.

We’re thrilled to premiere their latest project on Second Inversion: a brand new music video for composer Annika Socolofsky’s airy and ethereal “One wish, your honey lips,” shot and edited by Kevin Eikenberg for Four/Ten Media.

The video premiere serves as an exciting preview for the quartet’s upcoming Seattle residency, which takes place April 18-22. Centered around the goal of inspiring young artists to get creative with classical music, the five-day residency features performances and workshops throughout the greater Seattle area.

To find out more, we sat down with Socolofsky and the Emissary Quartet to talk about flutes, feminism, and future projects:

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind “One wish, your honey lips”?

Annika Socolofsky: As a vocalist, I have long been obsessed with the nuanced resonance of the human voice, and in particular the timbral variation and inflection inherent to many folk vocal traditions. These highly expressive micro-variations deliver intense pangs of emotion that can be sung in the subtlest of ways. They are distilled, fleeting moments of suffering and joy that fall between the cracks of melody and harmony. This piece is about the music that exists in those cracks between the notes.

SI: What were some of the unique challenges and rewards of writing for this unique instrumentation?

AS: For me, writing for Emissary Quartet was less about the instrumentation, and more about working with four amazing and truly sensitive musicians. I knew I could trust their artistry, so I called for some very demanding and expressive nuance, as well as incessantly delicate shifts in their sound color. That said, the flute quartet repertoire is so heavily based on transcriptions that I wanted to write something that was really, truly for the flute and that explored the instrument’s unique resonance in the same way a singer resides in their own unique voice.

Kristin Kuster, one of my teachers from my days at the University of Michigan, is a huge proponent of the concept of “restrained virtuosity,” a variety of virtuosity that is about detailed and sophisticated artistry, rather than dazzling showmanship. EQ truly understands this sort of musicianship, which made working with them one of the most rewarding experiences of my career thus far.

SI: In what ways (if any) do you feel that being a woman has shaped your experiences as an artist? What advice do you have for other female-identifying artists who are aspiring to creative leadership roles?

AS: I’ve grappled with this question for some time, in large part because I’ve spent my entire life battling with gender norms and expectations. However, that exact fight with gender and sexuality has undeniably shaped my art more than anything else. There are infinite components to an artist’s identity and voice, and every one of them is essential to the process of creation. This is why it’s so important to advocate for oppressed voices in the arts—the more perspectives and stories and voices we can hear from, the better we can understand one another and grow together.

My advice to female-identifying artists who aspire to have a career in the arts is quite simply: you do you. There’s no “right way” to do this stuff, whatever your teachers might say, whoever your textbooks might celebrate. There is only one thing you can do better than anyone else in this world, and that is to be beautifully, unapologetically you.

SI: What do you find most inspiring about this particular piece, and what do you think makes the flute quartet such a compelling genre to explore?

Colleen McElroy (Seattle, WA): This piece feels so natural in many ways, that playing it evokes breathing for me. The beginning comes from nothing, and the combination of multiphonics and soft high notes allow the four of us to blend seamlessly into a single sound. Annika uses so many different flute sounds—traditional tone, harmonics, multiphonics, air sounds— in such an organic way that the flute quartet becomes more like a group of voices expressing a wordless melody rather than four independent instruments.

The flute as a solo instrument has been exploited by countless composers throughout music history. There is substantial literature for the flute in nearly every genre. Solo flute offers vast possibilities in timbre, articulation, dynamics, and many other parameters—and flute quartet offers the same times four! I’d love to see more composers exploring this uncharted territory. There is so much left to discover.

Weronika Balewski (Boston, MA): The complexity of this music manifests itself in subtle tone colors, micro-gestures, and tiny melodic shifts, all in imitation of the human voice. It’s challenging from a technical standpoint, but not in a flashy way. Rather, every note and gesture has nuance and dimension. I also love the simple unison melody, the way we each play it with our own nuances, and how beautiful harmonies and counterpoint emerge as the melody gets repeated and extended.

For most of the flute quartet’s history, people have thought of it as four melodic instruments, or as an ensemble with a very high bass voice. We have a standing invitation to composers to send us radically new ideas about how four flutes could sound together. We have not even begun to exhaust the possibilities. Annika’s piece is a stunning example of one composer’s reimagination of the ensemble—she took a look at the possible sounds we know how to make and put them together in a way that pushed us to the extremes of our playing, creating a new type of sound for the flute quartet.

Meghan Bennett (Austin, TX): I find the intricacy between the parts most unique about this piece. The voices interact in such a way that sometimes it’s hard to pick one voice from another—just when you think one voice is the “melody,” another emerges. 

There is such great diversity in solo flute music, but this diverse range is not often seen in flute quartet repertoire. I think what makes the flute so appealing is that there are so many colors, articulations and extended techniques that serve to really capture audiences’ imaginations. These characteristics haven’t been explored fully in flute quartet music and I think that is what makes it such a compelling genre—there is still so much to discover.

Sarah Shin (New Brunswick, NJ): What I found unique about this piece is how Annika was able to create a homogeneous timbre with the group with the extended techniques. Usually when composers write with extended techniques, it’s for a special effect, but Annika really wrote these techniques in a way that treated them as if they’re normal notes played on the flute. This inspired me to open my mind and think outside of the box with the colors I produce on my instrument.

I think what makes flute quartet so compelling is the textures of sound four flutes can create. Yes, each flutist has their own tone, and flutes can create big and small sounds, but what makes flutes so different is the range of extended techniques they can do. Along with that, when one combines four flute sounds together and they blend well together, it’s a beautiful sound! There’s a richness and shimmer to the flute tone that I believe other woodwinds cannot create, and there is a lush sound to four flutes that is very beautiful.


The Emissary Quartet’s Seattle residency takes place April 18-22 and features collaborations with Seattle Music Partners, the University of Washington Chamber Music Lab and Flute Studios, and more. Click here for a full list of Seattle performances, workshops, and events.