Women in (New) Music: Remembering Graciela Agudelo (1945–2018)

by Michael Schell

Composer Graciela Agudelo, who passed away on April 19, was a well-loved figure within the Mexican new music community, but her work is largely unknown in the United States. This is a shame, because surveying her output reveals it to be that of a talented and forward-looking musician whose creativity has seemingly been hidden from us by a line drawn on a map.

Born in Mexico City in 1945, her full name was Graciela Josefina Eugenia Agudelo y Murguía. As a young girl, she displayed proficiency on the piano, and she went on to study the instrument in college, eventually turning to composition in her mid-20s. Despite that relatively late start, she developed quickly, and wrote a number of solo, chamber and orchestral works in an avant-garde style enlivened by an individualistic approach to national identity that avoided folkloristic clichés.

Her percussion quartet, De hadas y aluxes, is a good introduction. It comes from a long line of Latin American percussion works that originated with Amadeo Roldán’s Rítmicas 5 and 6 of 1930 (thought to have edged out Varèse’s Ionization as the first modern compositions for percussion alone) and continued through Chávez’s 1942 Toccata (one of the most popular works by any Mexican composer). Agudelo’s title refers to Mayan mythology: an hada is a fairy and an alux is a counterpart to the Celtic leprechaun. The piece rumbles through a zigzagging array of different moods, with textures built from sustained rolls and soft tamtam strokes abutting more active passages featuring mallet instruments. The first steady beat appears at 6:52 in the above track, a soft four-note march in the timpani:

It soon speeds up, other drums joining in at their own tempo, eventually turning into a cacophonous spritely dance. A vibraphone cadenza ushers in a slower, quieter section (the sprites need a breather), then at 11:10, a sudden bass drum stroke sets off a vigorous bacchanal. When this winds down, the coda emerges, based on a pentatonic theme—the only real melody in the piece—which refers back to the earlier march riff:

This piece is so obscure that it has no performance history in the United States, but think it holds its own against many newer, better-known percussion works.

Even when Agudelo’s models are obvious, she still displays invention and craft. Her Arabesco (1990) is inspired by Berio’s Sequenzas, a series of solo pieces written for new virtuosi proficient in both traditional and extended techniques. But whereas Berio wrote for modern instruments, Agudelo applied this zeal for finding new sounds to the recorder, one of the oldest, most hackneyed instruments imaginable. At various points the performer is called upon to sing, perform glissandos and multiphonics, and even play two recorders simultaneously (one with each hand).

Like Arabesco, Agudelo’s suite Meditaciones sobre Abya Yala for solo flute explores a variety of standard and modern techniques, this time in service of an anguished nostalgia. Abya Yala is an indigenous name for all the Americas, and the movements include such suggestive titles as Curare, Guanacos, and Tacuabé (the name of the last surviving Charrúa tribesman of Urugray, captured in 1833 and taken to France where he was displayed as a museum piece). The last movement is entitled Tambor (drum), and befittingly explores a range of percussive and noise effects. In one notable passage, flutist Alejandro Escuer is heard whistling and playing simultaneously.

A highlight of Agudelo’s oeuvre is the 1993 orchestral piece Parajes de la Memoria: La Selva (Places of Memory: The Jungle). It proceeds in moment form, a succession of recollected mental snapshots inhabiting a timbre-centric world that anticipates several recent (and admired) compositions from the US and Europe (compare her bird flock at 3:02 with Georg Frederich Haas’ In Vain). Latin American rattles and drums add a touch of local color, and the music even breaks out into the briefest of bossa novas at the end, but Agudelo constructs her personal rainforest without sentimentality and without backing into full-fledged Villa-Lobos style folklorism.

Besides being a pianist and composer, Agudelo was also one of Mexico’s most important music pedagogues. She considered communal music-making to be an important socialization tool (“music-making is harmonious, not only in an intrinsic sense but also in a social sense”), and fought for musical education in primary schools. She wrote instructional books and music for students, and lobbied for the protection of Mexican traditional and art music against the onslaught of mass media. Her talents even ranged into literature: she wrote numerous short stories, recently gathered into the collection En Los Claros del Tiempo (In the Clearings of Time).

For much of the 20th century, Western art music in Mexico was dominated by the figure of Carlos Chávez (1899–1978), whose style of neoclassicism spiced with indigenous Mesoamerican elements established the first post-Revolutionary paradigm for Mexican composers. But his influence and personality was so towering that little else thrived in its shadows. By the time composers of Agudelo’s generation came of age in the 1960s, it was clear that a new and more contemporary movement was needed, one based on post-WW2 musical techniques meaningfully informed by a Latin American sensibility. It is this legacy that Agudelo—along with her contemporaries Mario Lavista and Julio Estrada—has bequeathed not only to a fresh cadre of 21st century Mexican composers, but also to all of us who enjoy and cherish new music.

Women in (New) Music: What Better Than Call An Interview?

by Lauren Freman

Quick! Imagine a genius. Don’t think about it, just, whatever comes to mind first. What do they look like? Do they wear glasses? How old are they? What color is their hair?

What color is their skin?

What’s their gender?

I’d wager a guess that most of us have a very specific image of the kind of person who counts as a genius. But there are glimmers of hope that the narrow parameters for the moniker are beginning to loosen: Shuri, the teenage tech-whiz character in the box-office record breaking film Black Panther, for example, or, more recently, Kendrick Lamar’s historic Pulitzer Prize win.

The fact is, we carry around our assumptions until they’re confronted. I was lucky enough to experience such a confrontation, when I sat down with new music chamber ensemble Kin of the Moon (comprised of Heather Bentley, Dr. Kaley Lane Eaton, and Leanna Keith), and dancer-choreographer Karin Stevens (of Karin Stevens Dance) to ask a few questions about their collaborative performance this Friday, What Better Than Call a Dance?

From left: Kaley Lane Eaton, Leanna Keith, Heather Bentley, Karin Stevens, Beth Fleenor.

The performance will feature original pieces by Bentley and Eaton, each inspired by dance forms running the gamut from waltz, tango, the Scottish cèilidh—and even EDM. Kin of the Moon’s more-or-less-through-composed music will be interwoven with improvised movement and music by Karin Stevens and clarinetist Beth Fleenor.

I admit I initially felt a certain skepticism around the name Kin of the Moon. This is a highly educated ensemble that plays intellectually complex, heady musicwhy choose a name that evokes a certain nag-champa-laden mysticism? Was that title truly serious enough to describe serious music that is to be taken seriously? I was surprised to find that the line came straight out of a poem from one of the most established figures in the English literary canon, W.B. Yeats. Strike one, assumptions.

What Better Than Call An Interview? with Kin of the Moon and Karin Stevens

We got exclusive access into the brilliant minds behind Kin of the Moon and Karin Stevens Dance. Join us as we discuss everything from W.B. Yeats, the #metoo movement, and of course, their April 20th performance What Better Than Call a Dance?

Posted by Second Inversion on Tuesday, March 27, 2018

 

Kaley Lane Eaton (KLE): I didn’t start composing until my last year of college, and I had never even thought about it until then. It had not even crossed my mind. I had been a concert pianist, I was winning concerto competitions, I was surrounded by classical music composers my entire life, studying opera, and all that. But I went to Whitman College and I took a course by the incredible Dr. Susan Pickett. She teaches a course called Women As Composers…I really had to reckon with the fact that I had never considered women as composerswhich was odd, given that I’m a woman musician, raised by a raging bra-burning feminist, who made sure that everything I consumed as a young child was feminist. And that says something, that even having a mother like that, who puts everything on the line to make sure that her daughter is aware that she can be anything, STILL I didn’t even know.

Karin Stevens (KS): It’s been essential to me to advocate for local new music, and to build this work that I do together with these amazing composers and artists in music in Seattle. Beth [Fleenor] and I go way back, we’ve done a lot of work together through various groups: the Seattle jazz composers ensemble, the Sam Boshnack quintet, she was a player in a work I did… playing music by Wayne Horvitz, Mike Owcharuk, Nate Omdal (just to give all those lovely people a shoutoutthat’s the advocate in me! We’ve gotta be building audiences for each other). For me, I hope that it’s another layer of the people that have come to support my work, to see music from another direction.

Leanna Keith (LK): I think part of it is that we try to focus on certain types of voices that you may not hear anywhere else. We tend to focus on a lot more female composers if we can. This particular show, it is genreless, going from all these different types of dance from the waltz to EDM, so it’s one of those things where, even if you’ve never heard anything like this before, that’s kind of the point.

Heather Bentley (HB): That EDM piece is really quite unique. This is one that Kaley put together.

KLE: Yeah, this is gonna be the final thing that concludes our pieces, but then [Karin and Beth] will come in on the bass drop. I write electroacoustic music, and I love EDM, I love dance, I love trap musicall of this stuff is really movement-based…We’re going to sing this Hildegard chant into this microphone that picks up our signal and takes little granules…and then turns them into a beat. So you’ll hear this kind of driving, four-on-the-floor beat that’s actually made out of our voices, from the Hildegard chant. So our singing will kind of dissolve into this beat that will emerge, and then [Karin and Beth] will join us

KS: —for the Finale.

KLE: It’s Hildegard and EDM, it’s like

LK: —Trap Hildegard!

Strike two, assumptionsthis time about the limits of what Serious Artists™ are allowed to draw inspiration from. To review: The finale of What Better Than Call A Dance? will be a club-music inspired dance piece, using electronics to manipulatein real-timea chant by an 11th century abbess into an EDM mix.

Incidentally, St. Hildegard von Bingen, said 11th century abbess, was a genius. She was a writer, scientist, composer, philosopher, playwright, medical healer, Doctor of the Church—and currently the only woman listed in the Wikipedia entry for “polymath.”

HB: When I was a kid, I always did many, many, many things…So, this is this idea that I’ve been trying on since #metoo. I should get a t-shirt, I want it to say “I’m a Genius Polymath.” As a woman, my first inclination is to be like “Oh, well isn’t that presumptuous?” I don’t know if I am a genius polymath or not, but why not say it anyway? …So that’s something to try on. I was asked to write a piece for the Thalia Symphony, and it’s going to be about the shape of the universe, which means I need to learn some astrophysics. So I said to myself “I can learn that, because I’m a genius polymath.” What if women—and especially younger girls—just had the sense that it was allowed to them, to say that about themselves, or just to have that self-knowledge? That takes a lot of ceilings away from one’s attitude.

KS: I’m fabulously excited about this side of Kin of the Moon, to be surrounded by all these women…The movements and sounds we make together matter—they have power, and have effect. So I’d like to imagine…that there is something beyond the traditional transaction of art consumption or aesthetic gesture—that we’re doing something that is important. We haven’t had a lot of support for our voices, especially in music…I’m just really excited to be a part of this energy that they’re building with their own music. I kinda don’t care if people like it or not.

LK: To be honest, this is very integral to what we do. The whole gender spectrum, and feminine identity, and these kinds of ideas, across age differences. Kaley, and myself and Heather, we span a rather different amount of time, and so have very different perspectives between the three of us…When we sit down and talk and start to make music together, we’re like, “What do we want to talk about in our music, what do we want to get across?” so a lot of this is what you’ll hear.

KLE: I have to add a little addendum to that article I wrote [“Things I Wish I Had Known When I Thought I Couldn’t Be A Composer”], that you have to just do it. You have to just commit, you have to just be like “I’m not gonna care if anyone tells me I can, I’m not gonna wait for funding, I’m not gonna wait. I’m just gonna do it, and I’m gonna advocate for myself, and I’m not gonna sit around being like ‘nobody wants to hear my music.” Who cares? Just, f***ing do it. So that is my number one advice for people, especially young women, who feel like “I don’t know if I can do this,” well, you can. Just do it.

Which is to say: strike three, assumptions.


What Better Than Call A Dance? is Friday, April 20 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center. Tickets can be purchased at the door, on a sliding scale of $5-$15 (cash only). Click here for more information.

For a full transcript of the interview, please click here.


 

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: Women Who Score

by Angela Drăghicescu

About a year ago I was given some music to play by Louise Farrenc. The music was so heavenly it moved me to my very soul. It had the same quality that the music of the most famous composers of the era had, and I wondered as a trained pianist with an extensive repertoire list how it came to pass that I had never heard of this composer or her music.

I looked for more pieces of hers and found an incredible body of work, greater than or equal to the best composers of her era. I read up on her and not only discovered a life and experience of heroic proportions, but a life spent fighting uphill battles simply to get the respect she deserved. Despite ultimately earning the respect and admiration of the finest composers of her era, the musical establishment after her death ignored her work both in performance and in education, and in an insidious fashion erased her from history.

Much of her work sat in libraries collecting dust for over a century until a French graduate student rediscovered her in the 1980s. I quickly began to realize that this was a pattern that spanned centuries and crossed oceans. Scores of talented female composers were treated in this fashion. Measures were taken to prevent them from joining the classical canon of composers, and when their talent was too great to be contained, the music itself was shunned by the establishment, or subjected to specious and clearly bigoted smears in the press. 

It is a universal truth that great music, like great art, is a pure expression of the soul and a thing of deep and abiding beauty. It is priceless, unique, and each piece has a power to stir the soul. To anyone capable of appreciating such things—whatever the gender—the idea of destroying or hiding this music from the world is truly appalling. The fact that so many women’s legacies and achievements, along with their incredible music, were deliberately erased from history by the bigotry of small minds is a profound injustice that cries out to be rectified.

This year Felipe Vera and I co-founded a new concert series in Seattle titled Women Who Score with the goal of showcasing musical works by women whose creative voices were stifled or silenced as a result of religious, racial, cultural, or systemic oppression. This Sunday, March 11 we are proud to present a special preview concert featuring music by a handful of history’s most influential women composers: Louise Farrenc, Clara Schumann, Amy Beach, and Libby Larsen.

But these women are just the beginning. Throughout our inaugural concert season, we plan to commission new works, highlight local living composers, and also pay tribute to historic women composers who paved the way for today’s generation of musicians. This series is about empowerment; about a community uniting in sharing the untold stories. With an open mind and open ears, we can work to diversify the world of classical music and continue to discover the musical voices of women across history.

Warmly,

Angie Drăghicescu
Artistic Director of Women Who Score


The Women Who Score preview concert is Sunday, March 11 at 7pm at Nordstrom Recital Hall. For tickets and 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: 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.