March is Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate women’s achievements—and also a time to think critically about what all of us can do to create a more equitable world.
On this Saturday’s episode of Second Inversion, we’re celebrating women’s voices. We’ll hear music from women who have helped shape, inspire, and expand the world of classical music. From the modal musings of Hildegard von Bingen to the ear-expanding experiments of Pauline OIiveros and the vibrant, cross-cultural folk songs of Nathalie Joachim, we’ll hear music from women who have made a mark on classical music history. Plus, we’ll talk about why women composers have been historically underrepresented in classical music—and what you can do to help.
While cooking, walking, tending the garden, or washing clothes, the women of Haiti sing songs. For Nathalie Joachim, a Haitian-American singer, flutist, and composer, her image of Haiti is one of love, beauty, tradition, family, and, perhaps above all, music: it pervades the house after church on Sundays and communicates the stories and traditions of past generations.
On her new album Fanm d’Ayiti, Joachim taps into Haiti’s long musical history through original songs and arrangements of classics by some of Haiti’s legendary women musicians. The resulting compositions engage her Haitian heritage and continue these women’s messages of resilience, love, and hope.
On Fanm d’Ayiti, which is Haitian Creole for “Women of Haiti,” traditional songs are treated in a radically new way, with original arrangements featuring voice, flute, and electronics by Joachim and strings performed by the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet. Woven into the mix are recordings of a Haitian girls’ choir from Joachim’s family home, interviews with some of Haiti’s best-known female voices, and the voice of Joachim’s own grandmother. These elements come together to form something that feels both old and new—a musical language of tuneful songs, folk-style strings, stuttering electronics, and vibrant energy.
The album is set into motion with an arrangement of the song “Papa Loko,” which features fluttering string harmonics, skipping electronic percussion, and a bouncy arpeggiated bassline. This song segues into a recording of the Haitian singer Emerante de Pradines, who speaks about her feeling of unity with all female Haitian artists and leads us into the three-part “Suite pou Dantan,” a heartfelt dedication to the farming village that Joachim’s family calls home. Here, Joachim sings along with the girls’ choir over chaotically exuberant percussion, pairs field recording samples with steady drum tracks, and weaves winding flute melodies through the strings of the Spektral Quartet.
An arrangement of “Lamizè pa dous,” a song of African origin translating to “Poverty is Not Sweet,” gives way to the interlude “Couldn’t Tell Her What To Do,” in which we hear the moving story of the Haitian singer and justice-seeker Toto Bissainthe, as told by her daughter Milena Sandler over swelling string harmonies.
Side B of the album begins with an elegy-like arrangement of the traditional Haitian song “Manman m voye m peze kafe,” which feels almost like a theme and variations or a passacaglia with its continuous bassline, circling strings, and arpeggiating, marimba-like electronics. Two further arrangements of traditional songs follow: the grooving yet plaintive “Legba na konsole” and “Madan Bellegarde,” which features a contrapuntal duet between Joachim and the viola, a contemplative chorale of strings and flute, the voice of Joachim’s grandmother, and scattered blips of electric harmony.
This leads us finally into the interlude “The Ones I Listened To,” in which the voices of Haitian musicians Carole Demesmin, Emerante de Pradines, and Milena Sandler encourage both Nathalie and the listener to pursue their dreams despite hardships, and the title track “Fanm d’Ayiti,” a festive original song celebrating Haiti and its strong women, ending the album on a hopeful note.
It is important to remember that for Joachim and the people of Haiti, many of these songs are an integral part of their culture, traditions, and everyday lives. Joachim has said that songs like “Lamizè pa dous” are not only songs to sing while working, but were used by slaves to communicate with each other in ways that their oppressors couldn’t understand, much like the Negro spirituals of the United States.
In a certain sense, these songs continue to serve that purpose. Many of the Haitian Creole songs on this album were sung by women during the worst periods of intellectual repression and dictatorship in Haiti’s history as a way of maintaining their language and traditions—and it is these subtle acts of subversion that Joachim celebrates in her arrangements. On Fanm d’Ayiti, Nathalie Joachim continues the lineage of Haitian women who bring together communities, pass on their culture, and fight for justice through their music.
Nathalie Joachim’s Fanm d’Ayiti is out August 30 on New Amsterdam Records. For more information, click here.
In 2015, Amanda Gookin started a commissioning project called Forward Music Project. It premiered in 2017 at National Sawdust with seven pieces focused on issues that affect women and girls. Two years later, Gookin has returned with Forward Music Project 2.0.
True to its name, the project has taken big leaps forward. It now encompasses five new commissioned works that focus on more specific, personal issues for the composers, from body image to political oppression, sex positivity, and gender nonconformity. The performance includes electronics, video art by S Katy Tucker, and physically visceral cello playing from Gookin; the featured composers include Paola Prestini, Niloufar Nourbakhsh, Shelley Washington, Alex Temple, and Kamala Sankaram.
Forward Music Project 2.0 has an educational arm as well (Gookin is also a professor at Mannes and SUNY Purchase). Take a listen to find out more about the cellist’s latest step forward. To learn more about Forward Music Project 1.0, check out this episode of KING FM’s Classical Classroom podcast.
“Hér” is the Icelandic word for here. That idea of being present—of listening, of connecting here and now through music is at the heart of Nordic Affect’s new album He(a)r. Out now on Sono Luminus, the album is a collection of seven world premiere recordings penned by women composers and performed by women musicians.
“He(a)r is an ode to hear, here, hér, and her,” writes Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, the ensemble’s artistic director and violinist. Wide-ranging sound worlds from Stefánsdóttir, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Mirjam Tally, and Hildur Guðnadóttir comprise the album, each offering a distinct perspective on the ways in which we hear and create sound—our individual voices and the ways in which they interact.
“Spirals,” one of two works contributed by María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, circles around these themes and expands outward: dense chords, hazy melodies, and fragmented sounds from an old music box echo and grow into an immersive meditation on time itself.
We are thrilled to premiere a brand new video for Sigfúsdóttir’s composition “Spirals,” performed by Nordic Affect.
Nordic Affect’s He(a)r is out now on Sono Luminus. Click here to listen to the full album.
Clara Schumann, one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century, wrote a piano concerto at the age of fourteen. But by the time she was in her thirties, she had largely given up the idea of composing.
“I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea,” she said. “A woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it.”
Why did Schumann believe this when many talented and prolific women composers—like Hildegard von Bingen, Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Mendelssohn—had come before her? Because music by women was too often ignored and trivialized.
While women composers have made significant gains in the music world in recent years, there is still a disparity between how often and the way in which we talk about male and female musicians. Many writers and audiences still use deeply gendered language to discuss music by women, often subconsciously. Ideas that women’s talents are limited to shorter, simpler forms and emotional, but technically unimpressive works still lingers. The percentage of music by women taught in music classrooms is still staggeringly low. To many young musicians, it still can look as though women don’t really compose.
That’s why changing how we talk about women in music is so important, and why the website Music Theory Examples by Women is organizing an Edit-a-Thon to change the way women in music are represented—starting with Wikipedia.
The national Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 29. The goal is to edit existing entries and create new entries to radically update the way women in music are represented across Wikipedia—and eventually, the broader musical discourse.
Anyone anywhere can participate, but if you’d like to edit with a group, in-person workshops are being offered throughout the country. The first half of the event will focus on discussing biased writing on women in music and learning how to edit Wikipedia. Attendees will have the time to work on editing and adding to Wikipedia entries during the second half. No prior musical knowledge or experience with Wikipedia is needed.
Seattle’s event is hosted by Live Music Project Executive Director Shaya Lyon, and will begin this Saturday, Sept. 29 at 10am. Click here for additional details.
Additional workshops are being held in Boston, MA, East Lansing, MI, Houston, TX, Fredonia, NY, and Rochester, NY. Click here to learn more or register for a workshop.