Mozart never had to worry about morning sickness. In 2008, around drinks and celebrating a recent premier of my work by the Millikin University Percussion Ensemble, Choral Music Director Michael Engelhardt and I brainstormed musical ideas around choir and electronics and percussion. That impromptu brainstorm led to a commission for the Creation Oratorio, a multilingual intermedia work for chorus, percussion, keyboard, tape and computer animation.
The musical sketches, birthed from the creation myth and other sacred texts, combined Afro-Cuban rhythms with my characteristic (and sometimes creepy) electronic tracks and full women’s choir. I envisioned a work a full hour or more in length, accompanied by complex computer animation and surreal imagery.
CREATION ORATORIO HIGHLIGHTS
Fate has a twisted sense of humor.
Shortly after I began working on the oratorio I became pregnant with my first child. I was ecstatic! A daughter! However, what I didn’t know was that, like my mother and my Abuela, I suffer from extreme hyperemesis gravidarum. What this meant was that I found myself much more often than not, in fact up to ten times a day, vomiting. The time in between spent sipping Ginger Ale and munching on crackers and vitamin drinks to keep baby and I alive. And if that sounds horrible and a little gross, it is much worse than you can picture.
At the time I was an adjunct music professor. I spent time between classes trying to keep food down. I lived only five minutes from campus but even that was too far, and I often spent hours a day inert in bed watching mindless TV shows to keep my mind off nausea and pain.
But I had an oratorio to write.
The bulk of my musical process takes place in my mind. When writing a new work I often immerse myself in music and thought for months at a time. I write film scores, too, and will find like minded artists to listen to for inspiration. I let the notes I hear inform the notes I create. Experimentation and improvisation play a key role. I jot down chicken scratch sketches on paper, using graphic notation indicating melodies, timbres, sound synthesis, and vocalizations.
TED TALK ON OPERA AND TECHNOLOGY
I often worked for hours on the oratorio, transferring my musical ideas into Finale. I would improvise on a Malletkat I got from Pauline Oliveros, from when I interned at the Deep Listening Gallery. My cat would wrap around my legs as I played, sometimes jumping on the keys and scratching at them mercilessly trying to catch the flying mallets. My cat didn’t like the Malletkat much.
The child forming inside of me began informing the music I wrote. I saw parallels between the formation of life from a void in the mysteries happening within my own body. What did she look like? What was she doing? It was mysterious to me, and in some ways, a miracle. My younger self never thought I would be in a place in life where bringing a child into the world would be welcomed. Yet here I was, a living vessel for a miracle. In the same way, Creation stared so small as a speck of an idea and morphed into a massive musical masterpiece.
As a Latina and a concert percussionist I often think in terms of the rhythm and timbre of my youth. The complex polyrhythms I heard growing up in South Florida have left indelible impressions on my musical psyche. Decades of drumming and technology give me a musical ear that parses out sound in terms of timbre and syncopation and dissonance, married to sound synthesis and electroacoustic experimentation and embracing the broad global diaspora. Creationincorporated African drumming ensembles and complex polyrhythms echoing the sounds of Cuba and West Africa, familiar rhythms from the ancient past.
The computer animation I created morphed fetal images from the womb with nature and the female form. I created a kind of sacred ballet with almost alien like silhouettes moving to the music in a sea of surreal space. An experimental video artist and filmmaker, my visual works often seem like out-of-this-world “moving paintings”, with even my narrative works having a distinct look and feel to them reminiscent of a life obsessed with early works in science fiction, suspense, and horror cinema.
By the time I was finishing the final notes of the oratorio, I had given birth to my beautiful girl Eva Rose. Eva meaning “Eve” or “first woman” in Spanish and in Danish, the languages of my spouse’s and my predecessors. I sampled my child’s young cries and added them to the first Movement, tiny newborn strains echoing in the animated firmament.
In the end the Creation Oratorio premiered to a packed hall, performed by the Millikin University Women’s choir and Millikin University Percussion Ensemble. The work later won the New Genre Prize from the International Alliance for Women in Music, with excerpts from the larger composition remaining some of my more popularly performed compositions like Light, an homage that in some ways is a cosmic love song.
The journey of a composition often begins much like life – a tiny invisible formless thought that evolves into a beautiful creation.
Since the Creation Oratorio I have had the opportunity to explore music and animation in extraordinary ways, from my animation science fiction virtual opera Libertaria to the Malletkat Fantasy Destiny: Eondwyr, to dozens of film scores and video projects. It has been an incredible journey. My art delves into a world of science fiction, technology, and rhythm – combining them into often epic sonic explorations.
During the pandemic year I admit that trying to simply survive has taken precedence over musical creation. Yet, as performers, composers, artists, and filmmakers emerge from the shadows again, ready to create, I look forward to a Renaissance of new music and art as humanity learns how to live again.
Download the score for Light: https://www.sheetmusicplus.com/title/light-for-soprano-and-piano-digital-sheet-music/21704395
Award-winning Latina composer best known for her futuristic animated opera Libertariaand decades of women’s arts advocacy. An international leader in internet collaboration and media technology, Peña Young gave a TEDx Talk on the importance of crowdsourcing, virtual spaces, and media arts in Buffalo, New York. Her works have been featured on NPR, Art Basil Miami, Opera America NYC, and countless venues on six continents. Recipient of the prestigious Cintas Foundation Brandon Fradd Composer Fellowship and the Lois Weber Filmmaker Award and author of the educational workbook Composer Boot Camp. Peña Young has worked in social justice with houseless populations and taught nontraditional and students at-risk for two decades before moving into digital marketing and media. A busy mom and first generation American, Peña Young has a passion for equitable education for all, regardless of zip code. Peña Young continues to create new music and works in progressive politics while pandemic schooling her young children.
Curation is one of my favourite facets of artistry. I adore researching diverse composers, exploring compositions across different eras, genres and styles, and pondering the themes of individual works and how they fit into larger structures. For this blog post, I reflect upon my curation process for my upcoming concert with Illuminate Women’s Music on May 19, 2021.
This process began back in August 2020 when Dr. Angela Slater and I reconnected through a virtual concert featuring the premiere of her solo double bass cycle: A door to yesterday. After some conversation, I was delighted when Dr. Slater invited me to perform on Illuminate Women’s Music 2020-2021 virtual concert series! One piece that I knew I definitely wanted to program was Dr. Kamala Sankaram’s “Ololyga” for solo voice and electronics. Dr. Sankaram’s piece was inspired by Anne Carson’s essay The Gender of Sound, which defines an “Ololyga” as “a high pitched piercing cry uttered at certain climactic moments in ritual practice...or at climactic moments in real life...and also a common feature of women’s festivals” (Carson -- 125).
As the months wore on, one of my mentors suggested that I apply for a New York Women Composers, Inc. (NYWC) seed grant in conjunction with this concert. One of the grant requirements was a “presentation of a concert featuring the works of three or more composer-members of New York Women Composers for at least half of the project’s time-length. At least one of the NYWC composers chosen must be new to the performers.” While researching the composers in NYWC before applying, I noticed that several had works for voice and piano, which inspired me to invite my wonderful pianist colleague, Julia Scott Carey, to collaborate on the concert.
After a competitive process, I was one of 4 performers chosen to receive a grant from New York Women Composers, Inc.! Shortly thereafter, NYWC arranged a call for scores for its members to submit pieces for this performance. While analyzing the 48 submissions, the curatory process truly began.
Through the lens of “Ololyga,” I decided that my concert would tie into themes of embracing women’s voices and ritual. However, given this ‘top-down’ approach, I quickly grew frustrated trying to find pieces that were explicitly related to these themes. Upon using a ‘bottom-up approach,’ I felt the program start to curate itself organically. Whenever I considered a piece, I asked myself the following questions:
These questions guided my program through several iterations, as I explored the 48 NYWC submissions and several other compositions by non-NYWC composers. Significantly, this process of critical inquiry took a spiritual turn as I began to view each composition as an entity with a soul. When engaging with a piece, I imagined myself asking it, “What is your story?” “Do you want to be on this program, and if so, where?”
Upon deciding to start the program with Sabrina Peña Young’s gorgeous solo vocal arrangement of “Light” from her Creation Oratorio and end with Beata Moon’s emotionally poignant “Time to Reflect,” the outer edges of the program came into focus, providing a trajectory from the cosmos to the soul.
From there, Anne Phillips’s hauntingly beautiful song cycle, An Alaskan Trilogy, naturally came after “Light” -- given the prevalence of G minor in both works, the cyclical nature of the lyrics (“Light” celebrating daybreak and An Alaskan Trilogy starting with poet, Phoebe Newman’s evocation: “Every evening, the world is reborn”), and the idea of moving from the large-scale cosmos to the smaller-scale Earth.
As the programming process went on, I noticed connections between certain pieces. For instance, while considering Svjetlana Bukvich’s “Tattoo” from her dance commission Interior Designs, I noticed that Dr. Sankaram, the composer of “Ololyga,” gave the world premiere of the piece! I immediately programmed “Tattoo” directly after “Ololyga,” enjoying the striking musical juxtaposition, how the narrative moved from “self” to “self in relation to others,” and the homage to Dr. Sankaram’s multifaceted artistry.
(Link to Interior Designs) - commissioned by Carolyn Dorman Dance. Start at 21:54 to hear Dr. Sankaram’s premiere of “Tattoo.”
Another programmatic connection occurs between Dr. Niloufar Nourbakhsh’s “The Window” and Mason Bynes’s “The House,” both of which address different kinds of love. Dr. Nourbakhsh writes in her program note: “We all have a window within ourselves to surpass time, surpass injustices, and to achieve freedom. And in order to open this window within us, we can do nothing but deliriously love.” In contrast, Ms. Bynes’s “The House” “captures the buzzing anxiousness of a first love, with repetitive tones of endearment and sweet nothings.” Perhaps it’s subjective, but I like to imagine that in Dr. Nourbakhsh’s piece, we are seeing one window in the corner of Ms. Bynes’s house, and between the two pieces, the mind’s eye zooms out to encapsulate the entire house built on a foundation of love.
An important lesson that I learned throughout the process was to allow for change. Initially, there was a song cycle that I really wanted to feature, but no matter where I tried placing it, it didn’t fit well with the rest of the program. Frustrated, I chose not to program the cycle, and instead research some other works. Less than an hour after that decision, I was listening to Margaret Bonds’s unapologetically feminist and deliciously chromatic song cycle, Six Songs on Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and I knew that I had to sing it. By marrying instinct and analysis, I was able to physically feel when my programming was in alignment and justify my choices intellectually and emotionally.
Finally, one of the loveliest surprises was when my collaborator, Julia Scott Carey, offered to play two solo piano works-- Mari Kotskyy’s “Winter Song” and Sungji Hong’s “Bell Song”-- on this program! From a musical perspective, I am extremely excited about the contrast of instrumentation and for Julia to shine as a soloist. Furthermore, by opening up the curation process to multiple people, I feel that it enriches the program and allows for a greater sense of agency.
To conclude, From the Cosmos to the Soul: A Celebration of Women’s Music, is one of my favourite musical curations to date. I hope that this program allows space for presence, a sense of connection to all life, and a celebration of several amazing women composers in 20th and 21st century music. For a final fun fact, all of the texts on this program are written by women: Sabrina Peña Young, Phoebe Newman, Svjetlana Bukvich, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Forugh Farrokhzad, Gertrude Stein, and Claire Lind.
I am deeply grateful to Dr. Slater for inviting me to perform, Julia for her collaboration, all of the composers for their generosity, time and feedback, New York Women Composers, Inc. for helping to support this concert, Paul Holmes for his engineering, and Eunbi Kim for her continued mentorship throughout this entire process. If you have any questions about my curation process, please feel free to reach out to me at https://www.rosehegele.com/contact-1.
Bukvich, Svjetlana. “Interior Designs.” YouTube, uploaded by svjetlanamusic, 5 October 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMKKj_Ld0ps
Bynes, Mason. The House. Boston: Mason Bynes Publishing Co. 2019. Print.
Carson, Anne. “The Gender of Sound.” Glass, irony, and God. New York: New Directions Book, 1995. Print.
“New view of the Pillars of Creation — infrared Heic1501b.” ESA/Hubble. Licensed under Creative Commons by 4.0.
Newman, Phoebe. Why Faith Abides. Date Unknown. Print.
Nourbakhsh, Niloufar. Program note about “The Window.” 16 May 2021.
Resonant Bodies Festival. “Kamala Sankaram - Ololyga - Resonant Bodies Festival 2017.” Youtube, uploaded by Resonant Bodies Festival. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K58CjQo6Sgk
Van Vechten, Carl. “Margaret Bonds.” 1956. Library of Congress: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c14532 Accessed 17 May 2021.
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I’m a Polish of Vietnamese descent composer and pianist currently pursuing a Ph.D. in composition at the University of Pennsylvania. I will share some of my more recent works and trends that my compositions have tended to gravitate towards since 2018.
Only a few years ago I discovered that I could combine my two passions – music and languages – in my work. It began during the summer of 2018, when I was commissioned to write a song for mezzo soprano, piano and percussion. With an approaching deadline and not being able to find a literary piece that fit my needs and that was on public domain, I decided to try what I had always feared: writing the words myself. I then began playing with the Polish language and sounds by creating a list of homophonic words and similar sounding phonemes of the sound ż/rz [ʐ]. Next, I created a narrative using the words from the list using an unconventional structure. The structure heavily relies on the idea of addition and subtraction: addition is about building up from a single syllable to a whole sentence using homophones, and subtraction about removing the first syllable of every subsequent line. For the last word of the subtracted phrase, I made sure to choose words that would still make sense on their own, even after being deconstructed into fewer syllables. For example, umrzemy (we'll die)àrzemy, not a word, but sounds like że my (that we) àmy (we). Another example would be z tęsknoty (from yearning) àno Ty (well you) àTy (you).
I wrote the song a może...that summer and then two more songs later that year to complete the song cycle Gra dźwięków, gra słów(Soundplay, wordplay): Stół z powyłamywanymi nogami(a table with broken legs) which sets a Polish tongue twister and extensively plays with the syllabic nature of the words, and Płakała zapałka(a crying match) that sets another poem of mine and plays with the ł [w] sound. A year later, the poem a może... also ended up heavily influencing another piece, I yearn, therefore I am for string quartet. Specific pitches and techniques were assigned to specific words and syllables, lengths of sections were either directly or inversely proportional to the lengths of the verses, and the character of the music expressed the emotional meaning of the text. Since writing that first poem, I discovered that I was drawn to writing musicaltexts and exploring the interplay between linguistical sound properties and meanings. To me, the process of composing text and music is almost identical — from careful crafting of individual sounds to designing the large-scale structure of the work. Some like to say that music is a language, but I believe the opposite — that language is music.
Concurrently, another topic that became fascinating to me was time perception in music. This obsession was prompted a few years ago by a series of difficult life events that led me to experience time in a new way: time without motion. I realized that music could manipulate time perception so that the listener would experience time that moves either faster or slower than the time outside of music. My experience of slowing down of time or even losing time perception gave birth to Against Time for solo piano. This piece features a prominent note repetition, which symbolizes two paradoxical ideas of time: time suspension because repetition suggests stability, but also its flow, because on a percussive instrument like the piano, one has to keep pressing the key overtime to make sounds. Towards the end of the piece, with only finite energy that can go into stretching time, this energy eventually becomes depleted, leading to an eruption. Time suddenly runs faster than usual making up for the past.
I have also combined my musical interests in language and time, which resulted in my piece Tik-Tak commissioned by the TAK ensemble. Due to the name of the ensemble and the fact that in Polish, “tak” means yes, such as, as if, as much, etc., I wanted to use this percussive vocal sound and the various meanings of “tak” in my poem. Tik-Tak(or tick-tock) – the incessant sounds of the ticking clocks – is a commentary on time that moves on mercilessly and irrevocably. Any meaningful moment that one would like to hold on to a little longer... vanishes forever, as if nothing had happened. The song juxtaposes music that is clock-like and rhythmic with music that is timeless and arrhythmic. My next piece that continues the explorations of time and writing text is the chamber opera Through the Doors. Through this large-scale piece, I am writing a libretto in English and the topic of time manipulation is one of the main themes of the plot.
Besides working on this opera and other smaller projects, I am very much looking forward to Tanglewood, which was initially supposed to happen in the summer of 2020. Due to the pandemic, it was held virtually that summer, which is when I got to meet Angela. Although we met virtually, I am so grateful to her and the Illuminate Women’s Music for giving me the opportunity to present and perform a recital of my solo piano works, and for introducing me to Maggie Cox who did a recital of solo double bass music which included my piece Sept Vignettes. Although Tanglewood is now postponed to 2022 for composers, I can’t wait to meet all the composer fellows and hear music live. I’m sure that by the time this prolonging pandemic will be over, time will take on a new meaning for all of us.
Ivy Benson was an English musician and bandleader, who led an all-female swing band. A blue plaque at her home in Holbeck reads: “…Her appointment as the BBC’s Resident Dance Band in 1943 confirmed her significant contribution to women’s equality.”
There are many more women saxophonists shooting from the hip from 1970s onwards.
Part 2 ——--
The majority of my chamber music experience has involved playing music written by male composers and withmale musicians. I’ve enjoyed it hugely. I absolutely love playing chamber music and feel extremely lucky to have worked with some incredible musicians.
And now I’m looking forwards to playing new and old repertoire by women composers with the pianist, Yshani Perinpanayagam. Again, I feel extremely lucky to work with these incredible musicians.
So why do we need to be so gender specific? Music is sound, transportation, communication. Sex comes pretty far down the list, on the whole.
And there are horrific, horrific violent atrocities happening across the world to women - and let’s be honest - the majority of victims will not be white women.
So why? How can this project be relevant?
And here I must introduce the composer Clare Loveday. Full of crystal clear thoughts, quick wit and shrewd first-hand observations of inequality of both gender and race in the beautiful but complicated lands of South Africa.
On a Wednesday afternoon in June, we zoomed from a rainy Crystal Palace to a wintery Johannesburg to catch up. She told me that after the lockdown alcohol ban in Johannesburg was lifted there were 11 reported rapes in just 48 hours. That sexism and racism is so deeply tangled into patriarchal society that be raising awareness is an open invitation to make yourself extremely unpopular.
I remembered a quote Clare shared once by Susie Orchbach, best known for her book Fat is a Feminist Issue. Orbach writes about passivity: "Surely activity is more pleasurable and rewarding than passivity? Not necessarily. For a variety of reasons, passivity has become the psychological result of the internalisation of the messages about self-identity. It happens rather like this: a pattern has become established in which a person's original initiatives were disregarded; this happens to all of us some of the time without being troublesome, but the continual thwarting, misreading and ridiculing of initiative creates a sense inside a person that what they produce, that what emanates from them, is somehow not quite right. They may present themselves and their desires differently and, if they are still not heard or seen, they may get angry, they may withdraw, they may comply and look as though they are not in trouble; they will have absorbed the message that it is better not to show."
Clare Loveday continues to say: “The sexism and violence towards women in this country permeates every aspect of life. The woman in our story has led a relatively contained life but has been a victim of violence. Her friends have been raped, beaten, are almost routinely humiliated. The tiny pockets of immense privilege may protect a few lovely young women for a short while, but the reality of the outside world is beating at the windows. This violence is not only physical; it manifests in a thousand ways. And this little story is just a small sample of a much much bigger picture. We should never fool ourselves into thinking that ignoring a woman shouting to be heard, or ignoring her revulsion at your sexist comment, is not an act of violence on her. For what is the purpose of violence if it is not to silence.”
I admitted I’m lucky. I struggle with ‘white guilt’. I live on a cosy if quite complicated Island. I could complain, but don’t need too. I’m lucky. Clare replied,
“White guilt is, for me, about my extraordinary good fortune at having been born white into a system that powerfully advantaged those with white skins. The effects of this are long, complicated and inescapable.
I feel zip white guilt in the UK. I shouted at beggars in Oxford. I was a monster white person. I'm always astonished by how white the UK is and how I can just blend into the pale background. You (Naomi) don't come from a stinking rich and privileged background. You work harder than anyone I know and any born privilege you've had comes from being born British (like being able to travel without visas, grrrrr) rather than white.
Yes, the UK is cosy, up to a point. It isn't ridden with crime, or desperate poverty, or the vestige of colonialism (it _should_ have a vestige of colonialism but has managed to dodge that one neatly by very British denial). It is rich, really rich. But it's hard too, as you well know - I don't have to detail that for you”.
So I asked her: How can this project, Illuminate, be relevant?
During a time that makes it difficult to look forwards, creating new music – with Yshani, Angela, Lara, Nina and Rachel – whilst looking back and learning from the past seems a luxurious lockdown pastime. And whilst I try to untangle loop pedals and pre-amps, it’s comforting to look back and think about ends and beginnings. And realise that never before have I appreciated my musical comrades so much. Here is to seeing you again soon and making some real noise.
Clare Loveday’s City Deep: https://vimeo.com/289882439
Transit of Venushttps://soundcloud.com/naomisullivan/venus-naomi-stereo
As an artist, I have been fortunate enough to explore and create alongside many amazing musicians, all of whom have had an influence on my practice. For me, it is important that my music reflects both my most recent love of contemporary music and electronic music, as well as the film scores and rock bands which first influenced me as a teenager in a small town in the North of England.
While I was studying my undergraduate degree in Music and Popular Music at the University of Liverpool, I dabbled in writing pieces for chamber ensembles, for audio visual media including video games, and I began exploring the creation of pieces using Max MSP for solo instruments and live electronics, such as this piece ‘Summer Storms’ (
I have also worked on more collaborative residencies, the most recent one which was organised by Brighter Sound and Delia Derbyshire Day included 14 young womxn sonic and visual artists coming together to create works inspired by the work of the electronic music pioneer best known as the artist behind the sounds of Dr. Who, Delia Derbyshire.
During my master’s degree at Goldsmiths, I had the opportunity to move away from using traditional Western notation and explore more open scoring methods instead. Through exploration within different workshops, my most recent works have become centred around the concept of touch and how it can be used as a tool to address the problems of authorship, collaboration and hierarchy within music making. By focusing on touch, traditional concepts of virtuosity, hierarchy of performers and composers, gender stereotypes and instruments are challenged. Instead the relationships between ourselves and our instrument become prominent. Below are the three different methods of scoring that I explored; a text based score focused on touch, the body and an instrument, a device designed to send a touch based score to performers and graphic scores created by people with varying levels of musical knowledge using the record player as a compositional tool.
When I was approached by Angela to write a piece for Illuminate Women’s music, I was originally going to create a piece which was in response to feelings I had after a very difficult year for me health wise both physically and mentally. I wanted to create a dark, complex piece with fixed notation for the saxophone piano, something which could be as ugly as how I was feeling, something less academic and more selfish. However, the more I worked on it, the more I realised that for me personally I wasn’t creating a piece I enjoyed or could appreciate and it wasn’t providing any relief or therapy either. I stopped and reflected on why I wanted to create this piece and what I really wanted to explore or question.
I realised one of the most frustrating parts of this difficult time was the unpredictability of it, how I sometimes felt powerless and confused. Upon reflection, although there were some things I could not change, I could shape and change other parts of my life, especially with the help of other people who were close to me. It was this unpredictability that I decided to play with and after making a couple of pieces featuring non-standard notation, this piece became a great opportunity to further explore the ideas that more open scoring methods allow within composition. I wanted to make this unpredictability key to the piece and twist it into a good thing, something the piece needed to have in order to work and how there is beauty in the fact that every performance will be different and reflect different ideas. It was moments of exploring and connection that helped me through uncertainty and I wanted to give this more attention and use this as a focal point rather than trying to create a piece which purely vented my frustrations. By doing this, the piece became more honest and therapeutic, something which I hope is heard during the performance.
The title of my piece, Raidho (also spelt as Rad, or Raido) is the elder futhark runeᚱ, which means to ride, travel and in some pagan circles reflects the idea of journey and change. I liked the idea of this being a symbol which represents both life and the compositional process. When I am working on a piece, the composition is not simply the resulting piece, the dots on the page or the final recording, instead it is a process and journey. Some elements are fixed and clear from the beginning, such as sound worlds or melodies which a composer really wants to use, but other elements take time to carve out and realise and sometimes they turn out to be completely different to what you anticipated. This to me is analogous to life and particularly the last few months, where I have had he change to grow and recover and I have been on a crazy, amazing and difficult journey.
One of the first ideas that I ended up using in Raidho occurred when I was exploring different prepared piano techniques after sneaking back into the Liverpool University music department. I used a glass tumbler as a slide on the strings. The sound itself is unstable, a key element of this piece. As you drag the glass across the strings higher drone like notes ring out as well as the glissando up or down on the strings, creating a delicate and unstable texture when combined with the more unstable multiphonics and other techniques on the saxophone during the opening section. (listen below).
The piece features both elements of more ‘fixed notation’ as well as graphic elements, text instructions and descriptive words to help shape elements of the improvisation in order to create different moments of chaos or beauty or uncertainty. For example, the opening features more fixed gestures for both players, which can be played more freely and openly. The middle section is a graphic score, featuring shapes and a description of the overall mood and texture of the section, with small notated ‘markers’ to help push the piece forwards to the final section, which is two sets of pitches which the performers must improvise around to create a naïve, delicate and childlike sound world. Raidho also features a timeline to help keep the improvisations on track and push the piece forward without rushing sections too much, something which Yshani and Naomi thought could be useful while using a timer in the piece.
I wanted the performers, Yshani and Naomi, to shape the overall piece through their improvisations just as much as the score guides their actions in each time frame. This is something that I enjoy about working with performers; it is not their ability to accurately portray specific ideas that are on paper but what they can personally add to the piece to make it theirs as well as mine. They also have to switch places on stage, with Yshani inside the piano, on the opposite side to the keys, and Naomi sat on the piano stool holding down the sustain pedal with her foot (see pic below)This was decided in order to create a new dynamic between the two performers which is more physically connected and intimate. Raidho relies on improvisation, communication and focuses on the relationship between the players and the composer in a different way to that used in a fixed notated score. We must relent our power and control and hope that it will pay off, which will happen when working with players who are open minded and enjoy this kind of process.
I’m looking forward to seeing and listening to Yshani and Naomi’s interpretation of the different elements of the score and the similarities and differences in the improvised elements during each performance, giving each concert a different angle and spin of the ideas within the piece.
I hope to see you at one of the concerts, check out the other blogs already up by Lara Poe and Nina Danon and keep an eye out for other contributions by Angela, Blair and the team at Illuminate Women’s Music!
On Sperm Whales, Motherhood and Music
My name is Nina, I am a French and Italian composer, pianist and audio-visual artist based in London. I believe that music can be experienced through all our senses, and have been exploring this over the years, collaborating with visual artists, film and theatre directors, perfume makers, wine makers and writers amongst others. Recently, I have been focusing on our tactile perception of music, and The Caress of the Sea, the new composition I am writing for Illuminate 2020 Season I, is my first piece exploring this concept. This blog post is a brief overview of the inspiration and the creative process behind this piece.
I have always been fascinated by whales. They are, in many ways, alien civilisations, species that have evolved in an environment so different from ours and have adapted every aspect of their physiology, their cultures and their lives to it. Their way of thinking is so advanced and foreign to us humans that it is hard for us to grasp. Yet some aspects of these beings are surprisingly similar to us. What if we could use those to create a bridge between our species and theirs? What if we could use music to learn to emotionally connect with these quasi mythical creatures?
In 2017, I read an article describing the way whales ‘use sound to touch each other, emitting very strong sounds which vibrate inside the others like a deep caress’(Hervé Glotin, as quoted in David Cox, ‘The People Who Dive With Whales That Could Eat Them Alive, BBC). This article particularly resonated with me as I was pregnant at the time and constantly singing to my unborn child, the vibrations of my voice embracing him via the amniotic fluid, sound becoming our first way of bonding. Over two years later, I still use songs to soothe and caress him, the way mothers have used the power of their voices to bond with their babies for generations.
To deepen my understanding of this topic, I have been investigating ways we can perceive sound with our entire body, learning sound healing techniques, researching lullabies and cetaceans communication. When Angela asked me to write a piece for saxophone and piano for Illuminate 2020 Season I, I realised it would be the perfect canvas to explore these ideas. The saxophone is at the same time extremely versatile and lyrical, lending itself perfectly to represent both a majestic whale and a singing voice. The piano is, well, everything else, and as a pianist myself, I particularly love writing for this instrument to create intricate soundscapes.
In the first workshop with saxophonist Naomi Sullivan, when discussing my inspiration for this piece she introduced me to a technique that reminded her of that quote : playing the saxophone inside the piano, while the pianist holds down the sustain pedal. The strings of the piano will then vibrate in sympathy with the saxophone - it was hard not to see a connection with my idea of sounds 'vibrating inside each other like a deep caress'!
The rest of the piece was built around this, I wanted this technique to be at its heart: a scene between a mother sperm whale and her calf, between any mother and her child, the saxophone caressing the piano strings through sound and bringing its harmonies to life.
I structured the piece as a story: at first, the deep ocean, rocking back and forth, slow and ineluctable, a hypnotic lullaby. The piano plays an elastic and deep pattern, a call to activate the audience's imagination, inspired by the evocative sound of a monolina.
More movement gradually starts stirring the water, as something approaches, until finally, we see her: the majestic Sperm Whale. I wanted to capture the feeling of seeing one of those animals for the first time, on a whale watching trip by the Azorean island of Faial back in 2017. The stormy sea, the long wait (sperm whales often stay underwater for 45 minutes, if not longer, before shortly resurfacing between dives), the excitement of a sighting, and then that feeling of being in the presence of an old, wise creature from another world, a glimpse of a gigantic being, true beauty.
The saxophone player moves closer to the piano, blowing the start of a melody towards the piano strings. The piano begins responding to it, shily at first, then more clearly, and from this vibrating hum the last, joyful section of the piece comes to life, a playful and cheeky game between the mother whale and her calf.
Finding my own way to evoke the sounds of the ocean through music was an interesting creative challenge. As with many projects, I began by sitting at my piano and writing short sketches: melodic motifs, rhythmic patterns, sonic ideas, most of them no longer than a bar or two. Some were just notes on techniques I wanted to use, chosen to emulate particular sounds, such as slap-tongue to recall the cliks emitted by the sperm whales, or slightly arpeggiated piano chords for a bubbly texture. Others were inspired by recordings of various marine mammals, singing games with my toddler (who loves to ‘sing like a humpback whale, orca or dolphin’), harmonies and timbres picked for a specific salty water or sandy quality. Once I had assembled enough pieces of the puzzle, I began weaving them together to create the various sections of the story, sometimes improvising in my DAW (I use Logic) to get a more spontaneous result, other times composing directly in my notation software, Dorico.
I hope you will enjoy this journey into the deep blue sea once it will be brought to life by the incredible talent of Naomi Sullivan and Yshani Perinpanayagam!
My thanks for the writing of this article and of The Caress of the Sea go to my son, Maël, for always inspiring me, my parents for their support and emergency babysitting services, my husband for indulging my whale-obsession and spending a third of our honeymoon on whale watching trips, and Pedro from Azores Experiences who infected me with his love for sperm whales.
Below is an example of some my music -
Although it is very different in style, it does explore some similar concepts, such as our perception of sounds as textures, and finds a lot of its inspiration in nature, from Icelandic volcanoes to NASA's Voyager Space Sounds and the song of humpback whales. It was written for an exhibition at the Museum of Oriental Art of Turin presenting silk and metal carpets from the Qing dynasty made to decorate the palaces of the Forbidden City. This composition, a video installation in five sections by Andreas Nold and myself, and a fragrance created by Diletta Tonatto accompanied and surrounded the audience. Textures, rhythms and movements inspired by the complex symbolism and the history of the exhibited work were used to create correspondences between the various art forms, shaping sonic landscapes and visual harmonies and creating an immersive multi-sensory experience.
My initial background is as a pianist, although composition entered into the picture quite early. Shortly after I started piano lessons, I began to invent little tunes, and at some point I began to write out these little tunes. My piano teacher suggested I take composition lessons, so I did. At this point, I had move over to the junior department at New England Conservatory – as a result, I got to know quite a few musicians my own age, some of whom were also interested in composition. We wrote pieces for each other to perform and played quite a lot of chamber music. This collaborative approach is still a fundamental part of how I work today.
When I started at Boston University, I was in for a bit of a shock: at NEC’s junior department (which they call the preparatory division), I was surrounded by other school-aged composers and performers, and had started to feel quite comfortable as one of the older students in the group. In college, all of the other composers were at least two years older than me, and most of the department was made of graduate students. I did gradually find my own space within this network, and came into contact with a lot of repertoire that has remained essential to my own aesthetic to this day. In London, I have once again found ways to interact with my musical environment. There is a particular kind of attention to detail that many composers here exhibit, which I find quite attractive, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have found a group of very supportive colleagues and mentors.
Overall, my musical landscape is quite broad from many perspectives – my approach to harmony, for instance, initially stems from a solid understanding of common practice voice leading, but I draw from a wide variety of post-tonal approaches, including planing, focusing on particular intervals and pitch-class sets, juxtaposing distorted diatonic structures with other pitch collections such as octatonic, and whole-tone scales. In particular, I use a variety of spectral treatments in my approach to harmony and combine this particular approach with quarter tone voice leading in many instances. I find the interaction of musical elements that are often kept separate to be highly interesting and rewarding.
Apart from my harmonic landscape, my timbral palette is quite broad as well and I have explored different approaches to timbre over the last few years. This is admittedly something I am still exploring and will probably always continue to explore! As I mentioned earlier, I came into contact with lots of very important repertoire in my undergraduate years: composers such as Scelsi, Saariaho, Grisey, Haas, Benjamin, Knussen, and many others. One very clear memory from this time is listening to Haas’ 30-minute long piece for large chamber ensemble and six pianos tuned a 12thtone apart called Limited Approximations: I remember being absolutely mind-blown and feeling quite disoriented, but fascinated.
From this repertoire, I gained insight into how other composers use colour, and would make note when I found particularly pleasing combinations. I tend to listen in a highly analytical way, and tend to be quite good at deconstructing various timbral combinations or figuring out recombinations that sound similar. This deconstructive approach is quite central in my work in general, and certainly is important to how I work with timbre. Something I particularly enjoy is carefully constructing timbral combinations from unexpected doublings, particularly using instruments in slightly odd ranges or subtle use of certain extended techniques.
These harmonic and timbral approaches do make themselves known within the piece I have written for the Illuminate concert series, and I found the instrumental combination an interesting one to work with. I am a pianist, and have written several solo piano pieces and chamber pieces that involve piano in one capacity or another. In one way, I find I am quite good at imagining whether or not things are possible and idiomatic on the instrument, and I can always try things out on my own. On the other hand, I have to always be mindful about falling into habits (and this is something that one must do for composition in general!) as I do have certain predispositions towards particular pianistic motives and patterns that tend to appear in the repertoire.
In contrast to my work with the piano, my experience with the saxophone is far more limited. My initial dealings with saxophone were in the first year of my master’s degree at RCM, when I was asked to write a piece for clarinet, saxophone, trombone, violin, viola, and cello. The result was a piece called Night Train to I don’t know, where I combine swelling chords with a distorted jazz-inspired section and loud rhythmic material.
However, the following year I had the opportunity to work with Jonathan Radford, who is a phenomenal player. He showed me how the instrument works within different registers in great detail, and demonstrated many effects like multiphonics, slap tongue, subtone, growling, and so forth. At one point we went into a practice room and tried every single alto saxophone multiphonic in the Barenreiter saxophone book – I think there’s around 120 of them – and I recorded them all. Then I went home and produced spectrogram analyses for most of them on Audiosculpt, making note of where the overtones would lie.
The harmonic content of the resulting piece, Mirage (flute, saxophone, piano), is largely based on this analysis: there are many sections in the piece where the saxophone holds multiphonics while the flute and piano parts seem to fuse with the multiphonics because of how the overtones of the various instrumental parts interact. Following Mirage, I have also written a short, blistering altissimo piece for soprano saxophone, also for Jonathan Radford called Isthiophorus. Unfortunately I don’t have a recording of Isthiophorus, but here is the concert recording of Mirage:
When I was asked to write a piece for saxophone and piano for the Illuminate concert series, I was excited at the prospect of working with saxophone again. However, I decided to take a more rhythmic approach to the piece than I had in Mirage.
The piece initially grew out of two contrasting fragments, one of which was a rhythmic slap-tongue line:
The other fragment is far more lyrical and flowing:
Note that these fragments are at C (in sounding pitch).
At this point, I started to try and make some sense of these fragments: I thought about how they could relate to each other, and see if either of them suggested any related material. Through these explorations I began to gradually see a shape for the piece, and came up with additional related material. The opening of the piece relates strongly to the first fragment with its rhythmic intensity that mirrors the ending of this fragment.
As I started to notate the piece, it became clear that there needed to be a driving rhythmic force underpinning the entire structure, even through the lyrical sections (albeit in a more subtle way). The piece has a mechanical aspect to it, and it feels to me as though the energy has been tightly wound up somehow, as if it waiting to break loose. From this aspect I came up with the title, Mainspring: a mainspring is a wound up coil that propels a mechanical toy or clock.
Most of the writing process was fairly smooth, and I was able to work things out as I had originally imagined them. However, when I got to the last section, I reached a climactic point where I felt as if I had broken or fractured the energy, and continuing with a continuous rhythmic pulse did not feel convincing to me at all. I felt I needed to come up with a different solution altogether, and ended up with the fractured, disjointed coda that now ends the piece.
This is a really exciting project to be a part of, and it’s amazing to have so many performances of Mainspring lined up. It will be really interesting to hear how Naomi and Yshani’s interpretation evolves over the course of the series, and this is something I’m really looking forward to seeing. Meanwhile, I have several other projects lined up: I am currently working on a large orchestral piece for the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, and will have a string quartet premiering in the Santa Fe Chamber Music festival this summer.
For more info, concerts, and work, here is a link to my website: www.larapoe.com
Looking forward to seeing you all at various concerts!
Written early Feb 2020
Contemplating a blog for Illuminate in the days after the UK has left the European Union, I feel especially alert to the challenges faced by women past, present and future to be heard. Not only musically, as composers and sound artists, but generally so in a society that feels increasingly insular and backwards-looking, with rising levels of hostility towards anyone deemed ‘other’.
Even in circles that like to think of themselves as cultured and holding ‘liberal’ values,it too-often still needs pointing out that gender imbalance - let alone that of race, class and disability - is a problem across music as it is elsewhere in society. And - the basic, obvious point - that it’s a problem not just for women but for everyone, since denying access to any group of people ultimately limits the potential of the whole.
It is striking how slow promoters, programmers, funders, performers and audiences have been to wake up to the problem. I am glad that some, at least, have done so and are encouraging others to do the same, and that increasing numbers of women composers are finding their voice. Initiatives like Illuminate; like the recentVenusUnwrapped at London’s King’s Place; like Keychange, co-led by the PRS Foundation; like the work that Vick Bain and others are doing to highlight the issue; these and many more are vital if we are to redress what is, ultimately, a matter of social justice which should concern anyone who cares about equal representation and democracy.
I am aghast - though sadly not surprised - at the pathological lengths some people and politicians have been prepared to go to sabotage relations with our continental kin, and the complicity of so many around them. Can music itself help to redress the sociocultural ills that led to this - and will likely lead to worse? Perhaps not directly, as notes sounding in the air. But those notes do not exist in a vacuum: music has always been a product of the society in which it is created. Just observe women composers of yore - and of the present day - who have been rendered mute by social, ideological or financial obstacles.
If nothing else, simply by existing - or by being prevented from existing - music offers some kind of testament to the times of its creation, and opens a window onto them for good or ill. We need to be prepared to hear what women have to say in music, even - or especially - if that means having to recalibrate our notions about music history, society, and about what music is or does.
At any rate, a few words about my own piece, Inner Sanctum, to be performed by Jelena Makarova for Illuminate in Nottingham on February 29: It was commissioned by the Lower Machen Festival in 2003 for pianist Llŷr Williams, at a time when I was re-orientating after a turbulent period in my life. Jelena will perform the middle movement alone, which is how it was designed if wished. The kernel of the longer work, the music is slow and calm but ambivalent in feel, with disturbance beneath the surface. Rarely, I find, is a sense of rest or peace unequivocal. But I’d hoped nonetheless to impart a sense of that as I was discovering it for myself - and I hope now that we can all find that sense somewhere through the challenges to come.
Steph is a composer living in mid Wales. Recent commissions include pieces for Uproar, the Marsyas Trio and Astrid the Dutch Street Organ, and this summer sees the premiere at the Fishguard and West Wales International Festival of a piece for the current Official Harpist to HRH the Prince of Wales, Alis Huws. Chair of TŷCerdd, Music Centre Wales, Steph also writes on music for a range of publications including BBC Music Magazine, The Stage and The Independent. She is a contributor to The Music of Simon Holt (Boydell, 2017, ed. David Charlton) and the Cambridge Companion to Women in Music since 1900 (CUP, forthcoming, ed. Laura Hamer).
some pieces: https://soundcloud.com/stephpower
some older writings on music: http://philosovariant.blogspot.com/