Second Inversion’s 24-Hour Marathon of Women Composers

by Maggie Molloy

In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, we’re featuring a 24-hour marathon of women composers on Second Inversion. Tune in all day long to hear works by over 100 women who have helped shape, inspire, and expand the world of classical music.

Click here to stream the marathon from anywhere in the world, and click on the icons below for more resources on women composers.

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their Women Composers Marathon playlist. Tune in on March 8 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and experimental music from women composers in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music (ECM Records)
Meredith Monk, Julius Eastman, Andrea Goodman, Robert Een, Monica Solem, & Paul Langland, voices

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.

Her 20-minute masterwork Dolmen Music is an iconic example of her uncanny ability to merge ancient and modern musical ideas. In this piece, abstract vocalizations, primal rhythms, hypnotic dances, and ritualistic soundscapes come together in an intimate embrace of the human experience. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 8am hour today to hear this piece.


Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir: Aequora (Sono Luminus)
Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Daníel Bjarnason, conductor

Mallets and string scrapes lend a creaky shanty boat sound to the opening of Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir’s Aequora, which seems appropriate given that her piece is about the moods of the sea throughout the day. The calm sea at sunrise feels like a warm, melodic blessing before the swelling strings and brass undertones breeze forward in a sheen of joy that sails through midday and retreats again at nightfall until a lullaby of soft mallets and harp details fade out to end the work with serenity. For its luminous and congenial atmosphere, Aequora is a musical wave that stands taller than the rest.
 Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 10am hour today to hear this piece.


Amy Brandon: Scavenger (Self-Released)
Amy Brandon, nylon-string guitar

The boldly cross-genre music of Canadian guitarist-composer Amy Brandon fuses elements of jazz, classical, electroacoustic, and improvised music. Scavenger, the title track from her 2016 release, blends the meditative pacing of traditional classical guitar slow movements with repetitive structures and non-traditional harmonies from the 20th and 21st centuries. Fittingly, Brandon is currently pursuing an interdisciplinary PhD at Dalhousie University. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this piece.


Shih-Hui Chen: Fantasia on the Theme of Guanglingsan (Albany)
Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra

Crossings presents a mix of Chinese and American composers writing for a mix of Chinese and Western instruments. It features a Taiwan-based chamber orchestra brought to the U.S. by Shih-Hui Chen, a composer from Taiwan who teaches at Rice University and specializes in the cultural intersections between traditional Chinese music and modern Western art music. Her own contribution to the album is a concerto for zheng (forerunner to the Japanese koto) that’s loosely based on a classic Chinese piece depicting the assassination of a cruel king by a musician whose father had been one of his victims. Compare her martial passage starting at 5:03 to a corresponding section in the original for a taste of the relationship between new and old. – Michael Schell

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 1pm hour today to hear this piece.


Veronique Vaka: “Gaetni (Care)” (Moderna Records)
Veronique Vaka, violin & cello

Before I learned anything about this piece, I knew that I loved it. It grabbed me because it reminds me of so much of pieces of other music that I love: It’s got the warm embrace of early Sigur Ros, the hint of tragedy of some of Angelo Badalamenti’s music for Twin Peaks, a little bit of the watery mystery of Missy Mazzoli’s “Song from the Uproar,” and a shimmering depth that I can only assume is Vaka’s. It’s like a mermaid singing to you. I can’t wait to hear more of this album.
– 
Dacia Clay

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


Julia Wolfe: Big Beautiful Dark and Scary (Cantaloupe Music)
Bang on a Can All-Stars

The raw emotion that defines this work by Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Wolfe really taps in to a characteristic of new music that is so important to me: the idea that this is what real life feels like. Julia’s music always makes powerfully personal connections, but this one really seems as personal as it gets, chronicling her feelings after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, which she witnessed from two blocks away with her young children. An unrelenting wall of sound and steady rhythmic energy drives the piece’s ever-increasing intensity, and though it feels inevitable, the ending leaves the listener more shell-shocked than anything else. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this piece.

 

From Symphonic Premieres to Improvised Festivals: New Music for February

by Maggie Molloy

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Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between! 

thvLYmNB

Keep an eye out for our this flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list, submit your event to the Live Music Project at least 6 weeks prior to the event and tag it with “new music.”

Program Insert - February 2018

 

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. This month: improvised musical games, digital synthesis, site-specific sounds works, and piano pieces with alliterative pretensions.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Spontaneous Combustion New Music Festival: Ashley Bathgate
Cellist Ashley Bathgate is constantly pushing the boundaries of traditional cello repertoire with her performances of contemporary, avant-garde, and experimental works. For this performance she plays music with and without electronics by Steve Reich, Martin Bresnick, Fjola Evans, Emily Cooley, and Alex Weiser.

Thurs, 2/1, 8pm, Rainier Arts Center | $20

Karen Bentley Pollick: New York Women Composers
Violinist Karen Bentley Pollick premieres a new original solo violin piece in a program of music by New York women composers. Plus, Seattle violist Heather Bentley joins for the Washington premiere of Victoria Bond’s Woven for violin and viola.
Thurs, 2/1, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Matrio & Resonant Bodies
Taking its name from the Japanese word for “the space between two structural parts,” Matrio is an improvising collective that creates set-long experiences which explore the space between sound, noise, music, and silence. They’re joined by the jazz trumpet and percussion duo Resonant Bodies.
Thurs, 2/1, 8pm, The Royal Room | $8-$12

Byrd Ensemble: Paradise
There is no shortage ​of masterpieces about death and the afterlife. ​From Renaissance works to the early 20th century and the contemporary era, the Byrd Ensemble performs a program of the most hauntingly beautiful motets across the ages.
Sat, 2/3, 8pm, St. James Cathedral | $20-$30

200 Years of Music by Black Composers
Internationally acclaimed countertenor Reginald L. Mobley joins pianist Henry Lebedinsky for a program of music by Black composers from the Classical era to the present, including art songs, spirituals, and gospel. Featured composers include José Mauricio Nuñes Garcia, Florence B. Price, William Grant Still, and Harry Burleigh.
Wed, 2/7, 12pm, Christ Our Hope at the Josephinum | FREE

Seattle Symphony: David Lang World Premiere
David Lang is a pretty big deal in new music world. He’s a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy-winning composer, one of the founders of the Bang on a Can collective, the list goes on and on. This month the Seattle Symphony performs the world premiere of Lang’s symphony without a hero, playfully juxtaposed with a performance of Richard Strauss’s epic tone poem, A Hero’s Life.
Thurs, 2/8, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-$74
Sat, 2/10, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-$74

The Sound Ensemble: A Life Transformed
Seattle’s Sound Ensemble performs an evening of monumental works inspired by transformative experiences in either the life of the composer or the character of the piece. Featured works include Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, John Adams’ Chamber Symphony, and a new work by composer Kevin Clark.
Sat, 2/10, 7pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Seattle Improvised Music Festival
No scores, no plans, no safety net: just a whole bunch of artists from all different musical backgrounds collaborating in an atmosphere of spontaneity, intuition, and discovery. Featured performers include Tomeka Reid, Tom Baker, Evan Flory-Barnes, and many, many more.
Feb. 10-17, Various times and locations | $5-$15

Seattle Symphony: Celebrate Asia
Erhu and sitar soloists perform with the Seattle Symphony in their 10th annual Celebrate Asia concert featuring contemporary (and traditional) music by Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Indian composers. Arrive early and stay late for pre- and post-concert entertainment in the lobby.
Sun, 2/11, 4pm, Benaroya Hall | $29-$67

Opera on Tap
Local singers let their hair down and sing their hearts out, performing famous operatic masterpieces and hidden musical gems alike in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere.
Tues, 2/13, 7:30pm, Solo Bar | $10

Meany Center: Danish String Quartet
The internationally acclaimed Danish String Quartet performs traditional classical music alongside their own contemporary arrangements of Scandinavian folk music. Catch their intimate performance at Cafe Solstice or see them on the Meany Theater mainstage.
Tues, 2/13, 7pm, Cafe Solstice | FREE
Wed, 2/14, 7:30pm, Meany Theater | $40-$48

Emerald City Music: Spiritual Journey
Emerald City Music explores the power of the voice in chamber music through a program of 20th century songs and spirituals by Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and more.
Fri, 2/16, 8pm, 415 Westlake Ave, Seattle | $10-$45
Sat, 2/17, 7:30pm, Minnaert Center, Olympia | $10-$43

NOCCO: Vibrant Hearts – A Romanian Celebration
The North Corner Chamber Orchestra performs 20th century works inspired by Romanian folk music traditions, including compositions by George Enescu and Béla Bartók.
Sat, 2/17, 2pm, University Christian Church | $15-$25
Sun, 2/18, 7:30pm, The Royal Room | $15-$25

Philharmonia Northwest: Viva Americas!
The exhilarating colors and rhythms of Latin American music come alive in this concert featuring music by Astor Piazzolla, Silvestre Revueltas, Arturo Márquez, and a new commission by young Mexican composer Osvaldo Mendoza.
Sun, 2/25, 2:30pm, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church (Seattle) | $15-$20

LIVE VIDEO STREAM: A Far Cry’s “The Blue Hour” on Friday, Nov. 10 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET

by Maggie Molloy

One woman’s story comes to life through the voice of five composers tonight in A Far Cry’s performance of The Blue Hour. Based on Carolyn Forché’s abecedarian poem “On Earth,” the song cycle explores the last hour of one woman’s life, the fleeting memories from A to Z that flash before her eyes—and how her one single story is ultimately many stories: an intimate snapshot of our shared humanity.  

Grammy-winning jazz singer Luciana Souza joins the chamber orchestra in this song cycle written by a collaborative of five leading composers: Rachel Grimes, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Shara Nova, Angélica Negrón, and Caroline Shaw.

And although the concert itself is in Boston, you can still hear every minute of this musical tour de force right here on Second Inversion during our live video stream of the performance this Friday, November 10 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET. Visit the video link below to tune in to tonight’s live stream, or click here to stream directly from Facebook.

In anticipation of tonight’s performance, we asked each of the five composers one question about the poetry, music, and meaning behind The Blue Hour:

Second Inversion: What is this poem about, and how did it inspire the music?

Rachel Grimes: Carolyn Forché’s remarkable poem “On Earth” is a profoundly beautiful and devastating exploration of the last moments before death from the perspective of a woman recollecting her life in shards of crystalline memories. Through the lens of these visceral personal moments are glimpses into different points in time in human history, recalling childhood, the fallout of war, a sense of home, intimacy, loss, nostalgia, the mundane, and the epic. 

In a phone conversation with all of the composers, the poet welcomed us to excerpt the poem in order to better serve the music and the new work as a whole. We were overwhelmed at this generous invitation, and vowed to honor the poem and to be true to the feeling of the whole work. We set about to excerpt it, choosing passages that felt ripe for music-making, while maintaining her original abecedary form. We consulted with Joseph Cermatori to sculpt a unified libretto, and to follow that original intent of the form. The poem was endlessly inspiring: so many images, particular and visual, and so many emotions and opportunities to investigate the human experience on a very intimate scale. Especially inspiring was the chance to explore, through this perspective of this one life coming to an end, the experience of facing death and the treasury of life’s myriad experiences that are in so many ways universal to all.

SI: What makes Luciana Souza the perfect singer for this song cycle’s premiere?

Shara Nova: When we composers first got together, we knew we wanted to find a singer who was able to read what we anticipated to be a challenging score, who had a wide vocal range and also had a sound closer to folk or jazz. Luciana Souza (pronounced like Loo-See-Ah-Nah Soh-za) has a dynamism and a warm, natural voice that really excited us.

Once I knew that she was going to be the singer, I started writing some of the movements on guitar, influenced by the great Brazilian songwriters like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and then once I had that foundation, I expanded the arrangements for A Far Cry and removed the guitar parts. I wanted the music to be very tuneful and song oriented, as well as take the opportunity to really show off and explore the color and vibrancy of this extraordinary ensemble.  

SI: What was the composition process like?

Sarah Kirkland Snider: We got together one weekend and spent a lot of time reading through the text together, talking about it, brainstorming ideas. We each highlighted the bits of text that we felt the strongest connection to and then divided it up along those lines, with the idea that we’d interweave our voices in movements of varying length, texture, style, and emotion.

We decided there would be moments of spoken text, moments in which the ensemble sang and spoke, and a canonic refrain that happened three times, written by Caroline. Shara was the first one to start writing, and she sent us some computer mock-ups of her drafts. Some of my assigned bits of text followed hers, so in those movements I used a motive of hers as an ostinato or jumping-off point, or made harmonic and rhythmic decisions based upon hers, depending on whether I wanted contrast or continuity.

We all worked in this fashion, brick by brick, sharing our drafts with each other and responding to them musically, striving to maximize cohesion between the movements and forward momentum in the overall form. It was great fun getting inside the compositional mind of some of my favorite fellow composers. What I love about this piece is that, to my ear, it hangs together as a single journey, but you can hear our different voices emerge at different moments. This lends the music the same sense of collective consciousness that is innate to the poem itself. 

SI: How does the process of collaborative composition serve to illustrate or enhance the meaning behind this poem?

Angélica Negrón: There’s moments of deep sorrow, empathy, mystery, despair, warmth, confusion, intimacy and so many other layers and nuances in between. By bringing together five different composers each with a unique perspective and a distinctive sound, we’re able to explore more profoundly these layers of meaning and capture the complexity of this person’s life. Each composer opens up a new world of possibilities of the text and by allowing ourselves to being vulnerable and receptive of other’s interpretations, we find new connections and make new discoveries.

I feel this piece weaves together not only each composers’ individual interpretation of the text but also the common ground among us that we found along the way.  I’ve never been a part of such a deeply meaningful and truly collaborative project in which everyone’s voices are highly complementary to each other yet add a unique and essential ingredient to the whole. There’s a shared sensibility and an unusual connection between the composers that’s hard to describe, and this poem is at the center of it all. 

SI: What does this piece sound like?

Caroline Shaw: I’d say it sounds like micro and macro visions of the earth—precious sonic details emerging from and receding into a mysterious whole.


Visit our website on Friday, November 10 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET to watch a LIVE video stream of A Far Cry’s The Blue Hour with Luciana Souza. To learn more about our live-streaming video broadcasts of A Far Cry, click here.

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.”)

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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.”

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“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.

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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.

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