by Maggie Molloy
In the world of classical composition, women who write music are far outnumbered by their male peers—and this imbalance is a sensitive issue for composers, musicians, and concert programmers alike.
Fortunately many music organizations are taking steps forward to break down assumptions and stereotypes within the music industry by highlighting the works of contemporary female composers. One such organization is Seattle’s own North Corner Chamber Orchestra (NOCCO).
Known for their dynamic performances and adventurous programming, NOCCO’s 2015-2016 season features works by three different American women composers. The first concert, taking place this weekend, features a performance of Dorothy Chang’s eclectic and expressive Virtuosities.
Second Inversion sat down with Dorothy to ask her five questions about Virtuosities, female composers, and NOCCO’s upcoming season.
Second Inversion: What is the story or emotion behind Virtuosities, and how would you describe this piece?
Dorothy Chang: Virtuosities for string orchestra was commissioned by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra in 2012 in honour of its 40th anniversary season. Given the occasion, I was inspired to write a work that celebrates music history and tradition while also embracing the new and innovative. Virtuosities seeks to draw connections between the music of the past and present, either through points of intersection or through sharply contrasting juxtaposition.
In the first movement, “To dream, perchance to fly,” a lightning-fast tempo and continuous, overlapping rising figures are meant to create a breathless, whirlwind energy, referencing elements of Baroque virtuosity within a contemporary context. Beginning in B minor, the movement quickly becomes tinged with chromaticism, with juxtaposed layers of contrasting material, as if creating one big swirl of musical activity combining the old and the new.
The second movement, “Souvenir,” is intimate and lyrical, inspired by the slow movement of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in A minor. In Vivaldi’s movement, I’m struck by how a simple texture achieves such poignancy and expressivity. Similarly, in my own second movement, I tried to feature the beauty of a simple melody-and-chordal texture, enriched with an expanded sound palette of distinct colours and timbres.
In the final movement, “Mechanica,” an energetic walking bass serves a constant driving pulse over which a hodgepodge of various short musical quotes and other musical references are spliced, layered and woven together.
SI: How is this piece similar to and/or different from your other compositions?
DC: This piece is different from my other compositions in that it uses quotation, and it references Baroque and Classical music in a way that I haven’t done before in my other works. The mixing of tonality and atonality is something I do explore often in my music, though in this work the two languages are presented more as a dichotomy rather than the blended mixture that I might use more typically.
Also, this piece is in three movements; the multi-movement form is typical of most of my compositions. When starting a piece, I usually find I have a number of ideas I’d like to explore, and I’ve found the multi-movement form a good way to incorporate contrasting characters and materials within a single work. I’m also drawn to exploring larger structures that can be built through the succession of multiple movements, and to shape the dramatic arc they form, as if creating a musical or emotional journey.
SI: What composers, artists, or styles of music most influence your work?
DC: I am inspired by and influenced by different types of music that I’ve heard, performed or studied from my childhood to the present. My first exposure to classical music was from learning piano, so the influence of Romantic music, particularly piano repertoire, is strong. Although my music might not sound very much like Brahms, Rachmaninoff or Schumann, there is a strong emphasis on melodic lyricism, sweeping Romantic gestures and rich harmonies.
The influence of popular music and, in certain works, Chinese music is also present. Once I became aware of contemporary music, the composers whose music influenced me most included Debussy, Stravinsky, Lutoslawski, Takemitsu and Ligeti. More recently, the music that inspires me is wide-ranging, and could include anything that happens to catch my ear, be it contemporary, popular, world music, etc. The influences may not be immediately apparent in my music, but I am always consciously aware of their presence in my work.
SI: Three out of the four NOCCO programs this season feature American women composers’ works. Why do you think this is a significant programming decision?
DC: It looks like a great season, and I’m delighted to be in such good company! The issue of women composers and programming continues to be a rather sensitive one (I remember becoming acutely aware of the issue as the only female in my graduate composition program years ago), and I have to say that I look forward to the day when the programming of music by female composers is something that happens spontaneously through the programming of good music, period.
I do think this is happening more and more, though one still comes across contemporary music concerts that include no music at all by women composers. In this day and age, with so many talented women composers writing exciting, engaging, and unique music, it does perplex me how this is even possible.
As for NOCCO’s season: I’m thrilled to see such diverse and innovative programming. I honestly don’t know if the programming was done specifically with the intention of featuring women composers, though I’m certainly excited that important and influential voices such as Laura Schwendinger and Joan Tower are included. If the listener hasn’t had the opportunity to hear the music of these composers, it’s wonderful for NOCCO to bring it to a new audience.
SI: What do you hope audiences will take away from listening to Virtuosities?
DC: Virtuosities was written as a work that would bring together various old and new elements, and each movement reflects on this theme in its own way. My hope is that the audience will connect with the music and the emotion and intention behind it: the breathless energy and excitement of the opening movement, intimate lyricism broadening into lush gestures in the second movement, and the rhythmic drive and quirky turns of phrase in the closing movement. This is a celebratory piece that I hope will engage the audience, and perhaps inspire them to hear both traditional and contemporary elements in a new context.
Performances are Saturday, Oct. 31 at 2 p.m. at University Christian Church in the University District and Sunday, Nov. 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Royal Room in Columbia City. In addition to Dorothy Chang’s Virtuosities, NOCCO musicians will also be performing Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for Piano and Strings (featuring pianist Cristina Valdés), Jacques Ibert’s Three Short Pieces for Wind Quintet, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 29. For additional information and tickets, visit NOCCO.org.