Women in (New) Music: Celebrating the Treemonishas in Classical Music

by Maggie Molloy

Education as salvation is the major theme of Scott Joplin’s 1912 opera Treemonisha, the powerful tale of a young African-American woman who protects her community against those who seek to take advantage of their systemic lack of education.

It’s a theme that continues to influence art and music of today, as over a century later we find ourselves still grappling with the far-reaching effects of slavery and the oppression of the African-American race.

This Saturday and Sunday, the North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO) presents RESONANCE: a concert celebrating the voices of African-American composers who have, across history, given a musical voice to the strength, power, and perseverance of their communities.

The concert program features the overture from Joplin’s Treemonisha alongside brand new works by two local artists: composer Hanna Benn and conceptual artist C. Davida Ingram.

Benn’s new work for chamber orchestra, titled Sankofa, is a spiritual reflection on the music and influence of African-American women composers across history. Ingram’s piece is an illuminating lyrical/visual essay about modern day Treemonishas: women of color who are powerful leaders of their communities. Also featured on the program are evocative works by Alvin Singleton and George Walker.

To find out more about what’s in store, we spoke with Hanna Benn and C. Davida Ingram about music, race, today’s Treemonishas, and the importance of education:

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind Sankofa, and what does it sound like?

Hanna Benn: “Sankofa” is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates to “Go back and get it,” as in we must go back and understand our heritage in order to go forward.

This piece is very meditative and reflective. I imagine it sounds like the meditation I’ve been in for the past several months of musing, reflecting, and doing research on black American composers—really finding inspiration from them. It was like subconsciously asking for guidance from my ancestors.

SI: What story does your piece tell? What are the major themes and ideas at work behind the music?

HB: Sometimes for me, it feels like speaking is not my first language, and so when composing music or writing a piece, once I’m finished, I have a hard time articulating what it’s about. It’s almost like being in a trance—I have no memory of it anymore; it’s gone. But this piece came from somewhere—it came from the inspiration, history, and music of these women.

The reason why I actually titled the piece “Sankofa” was that sentiment of asking my ancestors for help so that I might understand more about myself, looking inward. The piece sounds somewhat reflective and introverted in nature. I have six different movements, and there isn’t a narrative to the piece but they are these six poems, almost—six states of being:

Mvt. I: Inward Gazes the Spirit
Mvt. II: May I Come Back to Me
Mvt. III: Divide
Mvt. IV: Walks with an Offering
Mvt. V: Joy Submits and It Repeats
Mvt. VI: My Beloved Speaks

“My beloved” we usually say when we’re speaking of God or a higher being, but with this piece I’m speaking to my higher being. When I say “my beloved,” it’s like a love poem to myself. So Sankofa, you must go back and get it—it’s this love, this loving of the self and truly understanding oneself.

In one of his poems, Rumi says, “You must be as wide as the air to learn a secret,” and it’s this gesture of knowledge and understanding in order to move forward.

SI: How did writing this piece stretch you as an artist and musician?

HB: I have written for orchestra before, however this ensemble is completely different because they do not have a conductor, and so they have this beautiful process of hyper-listening. If there’s no conductor, they have to have more faith in each other, and it asks for more communication all around.

On a larger scale, it is such a crucial time for us to listen and to be present and open. I believe this concert is very special because of that—not only the material we will be performing, but the balance and the lack of hierarchy in this ensemble and the example it sets for others.

SI: In what ways (if any) do you feel that being a woman of color has shaped your experiences as an artist? What advice do you have for other female-identifying artists who face similar prejudices?

HB: One hundred percent, it shapes me. It is important, as a woman, to never forget that beautiful part of you. I am very proud and in love with the vessel that I carry and I think one hundred percent it shapes my experience and my outlook and what I write.

Me being a woman and me being a woman of color is my music, because that is who I am. I would encourage other women to not let go of that, because it is very precious.

SI: What do you find most inspiring about this NOCCO program?

C. Davida Ingram: The artists who I found most inspirational in RESONANCE were Hanna Benn and Scott Joplin. Their music speaks to me in different ways: Hanna because of her virtuosity and polyrhythmic cadence—she sort of feels like if you could listen to all of the those ways Our Lady of Theresa was having jouissance because of her ecstatic love affair with the divine—and Joplin because he gave me the gift of an intersectional feminist story that is set in the first Redemption as we go through the second Redemption that is delight to the ear. 

I wrote that his overture in Treemonisha “explains why black joy matters. This opening melody sounds like rushing in of something that has the feel of dancing in sunshine with a blazingly open heart.”

SI: Can you tell us a bit about the lyrical/visual essay you are sharing? What was the inspiration behind it?

CDI: I fell in love with Treemonisha after I learned about Joplin’s piece for the NOCCO show. Heather Bentley sent me a book with discs of the music and I sort of went into the Matrix—complete with a very vivid dream of an ancestor who looks a lot like Scott Joplin walking me down a pink stair.

Because of the spiritual way that Joplin’s piece moved me, the central figure of Treemonisha became in a way a muse for me, and also a way of giving a meditation on the black song book. James Baldwin’s fictional gospel singer Arthur Montana cries: Look what you done to my song. I follow that directive.

Personally I took this project as an opportunity to reflect on how indebted I feel to black educators on one hand—that particular subject is close to my heart. My mother is an incredible teacher and finished her PhD on how black students and their families think about the opportunity gap they face.

And on the other I am considering what white people do not know about whiteness. I feel very historical, at this moment, when I think about race in America—not as something that must always define the present but as something that is simply good to know about human behavior, and as an aftereffect.

For example, did you know in Antebellum Virginia there was a law that white human traffickers could give 20 lashes of the whip to kidnapped Africans that they enslaved if the latter were found reading or writing? Think about that. It’s the sort of thing that gives Treemonisha a resplendent repose and riposte. Black master teachers make maps to freedom—always have, always will.

So my mind’s eye went looking for the “Treemonishas” in my life—the community-building educators, those who believe in restorative justice, the feminists who believe women of color can lead (these are all part of the story of Joplin’s Treemonisha).

I was lucky to have a gifted educator as a mom. Sometimes I cringe when people call me ‘articulate’ after I speak. However, I also know a portion of what they are seeing is a partial blueprint of survival in white America—mastery of words and ideas that white people can recognize as their own. My mother loved me and the rest of my four siblings, so she taught as though our lives (and hers) depended on it; because in many respects it did. Both of my parents gave me that.

In terms of music, I think of blackness as an essential primer for understanding the American song book because all of our original American music comes directly from black culture—e.g. blues, jazz, hip hop, house music. America is very African, in that way. At the same time, I engage whiteness when I do my work here because it gets a bit tiresome if the expectation is that I am supposed to always be explaining blackness to assuage white curiosity. Our world has gotten mighty peculiar of late, and I think it is in large part due to not talking about whiteness.

SI: In what ways (if any) do you feel that being a woman of color has shaped your experiences as an artist? What advice do you have for other female-identifying artists who face similar prejudices?

CDI: In my lyrical essay for the piece (which still needs a title), I write:

Because of the constant context of white supremacy in all American art forms, I see this program as a meditation on black brilliance—underscore brilliance.

When I soften the emphasis on blackness it is not because I want to avoid footnoting the brutishness of white supremacy and institutional racism. If we did, it would still remain the elephant in the room. However, when we see that a group of predominantly white musicians can acknowledge how racism seeks to impoverish them, how it cuts off the air in the room in terms of what versions of excellence take space in the canon, then the light that shines brightest here is black brilliance and what also extrudes are the ways that whiteness is benighted, at times, because of the construction of racism and white supremacy.

And if I take things a step beyond that—it is not blackness that we are looking at but rather brilliance, which is to say that kaleidoscopic light that humans cast out and its incredible, inexorable beauty.

Performances of RESONANCE are this Saturday, Feb. 18 at 2pm at New Holly Gathering Hall and Sunday, Feb. 19 at 7:30pm at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. For tickets and information, click here.

From John Cage to Afro-Cuban Jazz: Concerts You Do NOT Want to Miss This Season

by Maggie Molloy

Ahh, fall. The leaves are changing, the rain is sprinkling, the sky is cloudy, and the pumpkin spice marketing is in full swing. Those hot summer days are finally behind us and we’re back to our familiar, cozy, flannel-covered fall in Seattle. After all, October is a time for new beginnings, new adventures, and—most importantly—new music.


Seattle’s 2016-2017 concert season is jam-packed with fresh new music of every shape, style, and structure (or lack thereof). From John Cage to Afro-Cuban jazz,  Astor Piazzolla to Andy Warhol, Benjamin Britten to Brazilian poetry—there is something for everyone. Here are some of our top picks for the season:

On Stage with KING FM: Second Inversion is thrilled to host two concerts this year as part of the second season of On Stage with Classical KING FM! In March, we’ll present the Seattle Marimba Quartet with an eclectic program of classical favorites, modern marimba repertoire, and interactive drumming rhythms drawing from Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, and African musical traditions.

Then in May, back by popular demand, we present the Seattle Rock Orchestra Quintet with the mesmerizing Tamara Power-Drutis for a program that transforms pop songs into art songs, reimagining both classic and modern tunes as intimate chamber works for the recital hall. Check out our videos from last season for a sneak-peek of what you can expect.


Seattle Symphony: Ditch the conventional concert-going experience of strict seating, fancy attire, and three-hour long performances with Seattle Symphony’s [Untitled] concert series. This season you can catch landmark works by Witold Lutosławski (arguably Poland’s most innovative composer since Chopin), drench yourself in the dramatic soundscapes of Polish composer and singer Agata Zubel, explore the wide-ranging musical styles of Soviet era composers, and even enter into the twisted worlds of two of America’s most confounding cultural icons: pop artist Andy Warhol and jazz pianist Thelonious Monk.

And speaking of jazz: Seattle Symphony will also co-present their annual Sonic Evolution concert with Earshot Jazz this November. Grace Love and the Garfield High School Jazz Band join the symphony for an evening celebrating two extraordinary Seattle musicians: the incomparable composer and record producer Quincy Jones and the legendary blues singer Ernestine Anderson, both of whom attended Garfield High School.

Untitled Concert

Meany Center for the Performing Arts: Formerly known as the UW World Series, Meany Center is still just as committed as ever to bringing music from around the world to their Seattle stage. In November, they’ll feature the Grammy-nominated Imani Winds quintet, known around the globe for their dynamic playing, culturally conscious programming, and adventurous collaborations. Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla, Cuban-born jazz saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, and Palestinian-American oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen are just a few of the composers listed on this program.

In January, the New York-based Jack Quartet presents an evening of composed and improvised music along with visiting artists from the internationally acclaimed Six Tones Ensemble and UW School of Music faculty members Richard Karpen, Juan Pampin, Cuong Vu, and Ted Poor. And if you can’t make it to these concerts, don’t sweat—Second Inversion will be broadcasting them live on our online stream.


John Cage Musicircus: Come one, come all to the John Cage Musicircus this November 19! This multimedia concert “happening” features over over 60 musicians, dancers, performance artists, and poets simultaneously performing pieces from Cage’s expansive body of work, including the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, In a Landscape for (unprepared) piano, Child of Tree for amplified cactus, Third Construction for unorthodox percussion instruments, Cartridge Music for amplified small sounds, 45’ For A Speaker for spoken voice, and much more!

Performers will be stationed all over Town Hall, with audience members encouraged to explore how the sonic and visual experience shifts as they wander freely throughout the building. Plus, Second Inversion’s own Maggie Molloy will present the pre-concert lecture, perform two piano works, and distribute free copies of her John Cage Diary series as a zine for audience members to take home!

john-cage-musicircusNorth Corner Chamber Orchestra: Celebrate those cozy winter nights with NOCCO’s annual Solstice Celebration, this year featuring the music of Stravinsky, Respighi, Bach, and Seattle composer Angelique Poteat. Then in February for Black History Month, NOCCO performs a program featuring a newly commissioned work by local composer Hanna Brenn and performance artist C. Davida Ingram alongside classics by two Pulitzer Prize-winning African American composers: Scott Joplin and George Walker. And in April, their season wraps up with a brand new world premiere by NOCCO’s principal clarinetist and composer, Sean Osborn, along with well-loved works by Rossini and Haydn.

noccoSeattle Modern Orchestra: These guys are starting their season off with a bang: three new premieres by living composers. First, a U.S. premiere by Lithuanian composer Vykintas Baltakas, then a West Coast premiere by German composer Wolfgang Rihm, followed by a world premiere by American composer Andrew Waggoner featuring Grammy-winning guest pianist Gloria Cheng.

The rest of the season features cutting-edge collaborations with University of Washington’s Solaris Vocal Ensemble and the Paris-based clarinetist Carol Robinson, a world premiere by SMO co-artistic director Jérémy Jolley, the 80th birthday of legendary Seattle trombonist Stuart Dempster, the 90th birthday of renowned Seattle clarinetist and composer William O. “Bill” Smith, and the centennial celebration of American composer Robert Erickson.

gloria-chengUniversal Language Project: ULP is back for another season of interdisciplinary and out-of-the-box collaborations between 21st century musicians and artists of all disciplines. In October: a multi-media work by Marcus Oldham about racial reconciliation (featuring Second Inversion regulars the Skyros Quartet). In January, composer Chris Stover showcases his works for chamber jazz ensemble featuring spoken word, found sounds, and dance inspired by Brazilian poets. Then in March, the season wraps up with a surreal, outer space-inspired performance featuring artist Erin Jorgensen with local musicians, the overtones of her 5-octave marimba merging with intimate whispering and beautifully minimal music in a small stab towards enlightenment.

erin-jorgensenEmerald City Music: Now in its inaugural season, Emerald City Music is on a mission to make classical chamber music accessible to broader audiences in Seattle and Olympia. And they’re not wasting any time: their inaugural season features 45 renowned guest artists from around the world. Each of the concerts offers a uniquely thematic glimpse into the chamber music repertory, featuring classical masterworks and newly composed music alike. Bookended by concerts featuring familiar works by Bach and Beethoven, this year you can also expand your classical music palette with cutting-edge performances of works by the likes of Henri Dutilleux, Thomas Adès, Benjamin Britten, Bohuslav Martinů, Percy Grainger, David Schiff, Per Nørgård, Ryan Francis, Thomas Koppel, and more.

dover-quartetTown Music Series: Curated by Second Inversion Artistic Advisor Joshua Roman, the Town Music Series programs cutting-edge and virtuosic chamber works which bring together the best of old and new classical traditions. Their 2016-2017 season kicks off with cellist Joshua Roman joined by violinist Caroline Goulding for an evening of dynamic duets by Halvorsen, Kodály, and Ravel. Stay tuned for details on the rest of the season!

joshua-romanWayward Music Series: If you’ve got wayward or otherwise unconventional music taste, the Wayward Music Series will keep you satiated all year long. Check their online calendar or subscribe to their newsletter for specifics on upcoming events, which span the new music gamut from contemporary classical to the outer limits of jazz, electroacoustic experiments to explorations of the avant-garde, eccentric instruments to unorthodox sound art, multimedia collaborations and much more.

wayward-music-seriesThese are just a handful of the new music happenings we’re most looking forward to this season—for more up-to-the-minute details on experimental, avant-garde, and otherwise unconventional music events around the Northwest, check out Second Inversion’s full event calendar!


by Maggie Molloy

This week’s music calendar features a multitude of musical genres and artistic mediums!

Genre Bender 2015

GB collage 600

This weekend Seattle musicians are bending the rules. They’re bending the rules of functional harmony, they’re bending the rules of performance—in fact, they’re bending the very constructs of the music medium itself. City Arts Magazine’s annual Genre Bender event pairs innovative artists working in different media, inviting them to collaborate with one another to create the ultimate genre-defying performance.

This year’s artistic duos include conceptual artist C. Davida Ingram and composer/multi-instrumentalist Hanna Benn, rapper Raz Simone and multimedia artist Justin Roberts, photographer Steven Miller and actress/singer Sarah Rudinoff, vocalist/poet okanomodé and aerialist Lara Paxton, and last but not least, poet Sarah Galvin and musician/filmmaker/philosopher David Nixon.

Genre Bender 2015 is this Friday, March 6 and Saturday, March 7 at the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m. A party in the lobby will follow the performance on Saturday evening.

Seattle Rock Orchestra Performs Beck


Beck shocked audiences around the world when he beat out Beyoncé for the Album of the Year at the Grammys last month. The lowly singer-songwriter who first made it big in 1994 with a song titled “Loser” (you know the one: “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?”) proved that maybe, just maybe, he’s not such a loser after all.

This weekend, Seattle Rock Orchestra is paying tribute to this musical underdog with a retrospective of Beck’s lengthy career. With his 12 studio releases, they definitely have a lot to draw from. From the lo-fi folk releases of “One Foot in the Grave” to the funky party music of “Midnite Vultures” to the pensive ballads of “Sea Change,” Beck has never written the same album twice.

The performance is this Saturday, March 7 at the Moore Theatre. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m.

Seattle Composers Alliance’s 2015 Spring Fling

As the winter months melt away and the beautiful blossoms of spring begin to bloom, it’s always nice to get out of the house and go celebrate the new season. And what better way to do it than with an evening of new music?

Next week Seattle Composers Alliance is presenting its 2015 Spring Fling, featuring live music by a wide range of local musicians. From the jazzy jams of Industrial Revolution Trio and the Tim Carey Quartet to the folksongs of Alchymeia and Aslan Rife, this concert has it all! The evening also includes a silent auction and generous door prizes.

The performance is this Monday, March 9 at the Royal Room at 7 p.m.