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/
Composed in 2018 for wind quintet, Angela Slater’s The Sun Catcher takes inspiration from the folklore-laden popular garden showpiece. Creating a spectrum of colours, textures and brightness, sun catchers are known for their stories of capturing pieces of the sun and bring the lightness down to earth, leaving only darkness above. A truly intriguing theme for a piece which sees Slater take two novel approaches to The Sun Catcher. In her programme notes she mentions that:
“Sun Catcher explores two different musical ideas happening simultaneously in parts of the piece. The first is serene and expressive exploring shimmering light and colour. The second is fast, underlying and increasingly agitated music. This gradually infiltrates each instrument’s line and captures the serene music from before, holding it hostage on a manic rampage and race to the end of the piece.”
As part of Iluminate Women’s Music’s 2020 concert season, The Sun Catcher will be performed at the Royal College of Music. I caught up with the Founder and Artistic Director, Angela Slater, to find out more about this intriguing work…
Where did the inspiration come from for this work?In my works I like to take inspiration from extra-musical materials and most often from the natural world. My piece Sun Catcher draws on both the imagery of a metal Sun Catcher and folklore around the sun catcher myths. A Sun Catcher is a metal object that spins in the wind capturing the sunlight and creating colourful patterns. There are also many myths and folklore tales about how the sun was once captured, and either fixed in its proper sphere or else made to stand still in the sky.
Other tales explore the idea of capturing the sun and bringing it down so darkness could prevail. So in my piece Sun Catcher I explore both themes, therefore essentially having two competing musical ideas occurring simultaneously in parts of the piece.
The first is serene and expressive exploring shimmering light and colour. The second is a fast, undulating and increasingly agitated music as though the music itself is trying to capture the sun and drag it from the sky. This agitated music gradually infiltrates each instrument’s line and captures the serene music from before, holding it hostage on a manic rampage and race to the end of the piece.
Why use a wind quintet for this particular work?
This work was originally commissioned by York Late music concert series back in 2018 and the commission was to write for the Atea wind quintet, so the instrumentation came before the idea of the piece. I thought about the potential of colour, range, texture such an ensemble can create and this led me onto the idea of Sun Catcher.
How have you managed to make the colours from the sun catcher translate into music? Were there any particular techniques that helped with this?In this piece I am not trying to evoke any particular colour but trying to express varying shades of colour and the shimmering of light you would see visually on a sun catcher. These subtleties in fluctuations of shades and colour are created through techniques such as same note tremolos in the horn part, and timbral trills at various points for the flute, clarinet and oboe.
I also make use of practice mutes for the horn, giving the horn this fantastically beautiful subtle colour. Also the clarinet’s undulating material at first evokes this shimmering light of the sun catcher before it becomes increasingly agitated as this material is passed around the ensemble gradually shifting as though trying to capture the sun and drag it from the sky.
Can you tell me a bit about the festival that this work will be performed at?Each year Royal College of Music put on a Chamber music festival to showcase the talent of its students and past students. Putting on concerts contributed the variety of music taught and programmed at the college. Last year I was delighted for the first time to be invited to curate an Illuminate concert for RCM.
The concert was a great success and the students at the college took a deep interest in the repertoire. Some of the ensembles took the repertoire into their regular concert repertoire. I was particularly proud to see this happening as it is only if young performers take on the music by women from the past and present that it will get heard by audiences. I was so delighted to be invited back and to hear how popular the concert has been amongst students. I am certainly looking forward to 15th February to hear how the students have got on with the repertoire I selected.
Can we look forward to hearing some new music from you soon?Yes indeed! I have a busy year ahead regarding composing and performances. I am currently working on a new work for saxophone and piano which will be featured in Illuminate’s next season touring around the UK over the next few months. I am also writing a piece for string quartet and piano with percussion which will be performed at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in May.
In the summer I will be off to the US music festival Tanglewood as a composition fellow. I will be having my work Shades of Rain performed whilst I am there and will be working on a number of new works with musicians while I am there also. I am also writing a piano concerto for pianist Laura Farré Rozada which will be performed in December this year in Birmingham.
Ⓒ Alex Burns 2020
Royal College of Music Chamber Music Festival
Born in Helsinki in 1952, Kaija Saariaho has become one of Finland’s most progressive and pioneering composers. Studying at the prestigious Sibelius Academy, Darmstadt Academy and at the IRCAM research institute in Paris, Saariaho has had some incredible musical training.
Saariaho’s work within the development of computer-assisted compositions has proven to be one of her most valuable assets. Her knowledge of working with live electronics and tapes is considered one of her trademarks. Her work in this sector has shaped her attitudes and approaches to orchestral composition. Her use of dense sounds and collaboration with live tapes has made works such as Verblendungen some of her most popular compositions.
Saairaho has composed music for all sorts of genres, from opera to electronic, her talents are truly endless. Many of her works have been recorded, with some even being programmed in commercial concert halls. Works such as Laterna Magica have been performed at the BBC Proms. An award-winning composer in her own right, Saariaho’s music is unique to her ever-progressing stylet.
Composed in 1997, Mirrorsis scored for flute and cello. As the title suggests, Mirrors is based on symmetry and mirror images of music. Saariaho states in her score notes for this work that there should always be a mirror between the musicians in one or more of the following musical dimensions: rhythm, pitch, instrumental gesture or timbre. These symmetrical nuances can either be vertical or horizontal on the score.
Mirrors was composed in the height of the CD-Rom era, and its purpose was to engage the user so that they could create their own mirrors too. Saariaho supplied the fragments of music on the CD, which are built to be able to change into different forms dependent on the construction.
In live performance, the flautist and cellist have room to make artistic decisions in which mirrors they want to create and how they will go about making those effects. The original score sees Saariaho’s own mirror images, which she showcases through rhythms, pitch and gestures. As long as artists take her ideas of creating mirror images, the piece should work and be a really exciting listen for the audience, as well as an artistic endeavour for the performers.
Ⓒ Alex Burns 2020
Support our upcoming 2020 concerts:
Illuminate composer Angela Elizabeth Slater discusses her new work 'Ways of Looking at a Blackbird' for soprano and string quartet whilst at our Snape Maltings in August (2019). To hear this piece live please join us for our upcoming concerts:
4th November at St Michael's Near Northgate Oxford at 1.00pm
7th November at University Huddersfield at 1.00pm
8th November at University College Oxford at 7.30pm
9th November at Emmanuel College Cambridge at 7.30pm
Illuminate composer Blair Boyd discusses her new work 'Juncture'' for string quartet whilst at our Snape Maltings in August (2019). To hear this piece live please join us for our upcoming concerts:
4th November at St Michael's Near Northgate Oxford at 1.00pm
7th November at University Huddersfield at 1.00pm
8th November at University College Oxford at 7.30pm
9th November at Emmanuel College Cambridge at 7.30pm
For the past few years, I’ve felt an increasing uneasiness around how any kind of true feminism can fit within the ‘traditional’ model of composing. The existence of Illuminate, and other similar initiatives for the programming of music exclusively written by women, only serves to add further urgency to these questions; how can genuine feminist practice exist within a world which, generally speaking, relies on patriarchal (and capitalist) hierarchies? A traditional model of ‘composing’ — writing music, giving it to performers, having it played, with the attached notion of the ‘genius’, isolation and intellect of the composer — remains largely unchallenged within the academy today. (And, significantly, the legitimacy of composers is often verified by the academy, in the conferring of postgraduate degrees or faculty positions. I can’t think of many conventionally ‘successful’ composers in this country who have not gone through university or conservatoire education, many to PhD level.) Thinking outside of this traditional model is challenging — and has led me to deeper questions about what I’m writing, and why.
These traditional ideas about what composing is are built on patriarchal Western philosophies of creativity and of gender, so much so that it is difficult to even recognise: it is just the normal mode of thinking. Moreover, within traditional pedagogical models for composing, it is difficult to escape from the studying of ‘master works’ which exemplify different ways to intellectually construct a composition, largely within the parameters of a conventional score, or if not, at least a score which exists within a straightforward semiotic system which conveys the composer’s precise intentions to a performer. The locus of ‘creativity’, the generation of ideas, lies with the composer. Moreover, the way we think about composing suggests that the generation of ideas — thinking, logic, reasoning — is central to composition, and that ties it into very fundamental ideas about gender in the West. I summarised this in the opening paragraph of my undergraduate dissertation:
“Ever since the birth of the concept of ‘the composer’ in the Renaissance Christian Church, Western constructions of gender have had an impact on who has been allowed to compose. Genevieve Lloyd suggests that “from the beginnings of philosophical thought, femaleness was symbolically associated with what Reason left behind.” The concepts of reason and objectivity are gendered male: masculinity produces culture, whilst femininity is bound to nature. The Cartesian mind-body dualism of the seventeenth century further constructed mental capacity as a masculine trait, and femininity is therefore attached, in oppositional definition, to the body, and ‘feeling’. Western composition also, at this time, moved away from the home and into the public sphere, which reinforced ideological oppositions to women’s participation.”
Researching barriers to women being composers for this dissertation led me to much more profound questioning of my own compositional practice than I had expected. There are many societal factors which prevent women from accessing composing as a career; obvious and ubiquitous factors such as childcare, or the socialisation of women to be less confident or ‘pushy’, as well as deeper ideas about what being creative means and who can be creative.
However, the most challenging, nuanced and profound avenue of research was around the very definition of ‘composing’, and the radical change many thinkers have suggested is necessary to allow anyone (not just educated white men) to find a place in the world of‘composing’. One example of such thinking can be found in Sally Macarthur’s book Towards a 21st Century Feminist Politics of Music, which examines composing using an intellectual framework provided by Deleuze, a French poststructuralist. The irony of the esotericism inherent in her framework for exploring how to democratise composing is not lost on me. However, the actual practical ideas — focussing on collaboration, improvisation, pedagogical reform, removing the focal point of compositional practice from the academy, challenging conventional value judgements about structure and time in music, considering radical new contexts of reception for new musics — ultimately, how to compose in a genuinely ‘experimental’ way — seem tangible, achievable, and straightforwardly aligned with more broad feminist (as well as decolonial, and anti-capitalist) epistemologies. These ideas have helped form my compositional ideology, rooted in a self-definition as ‘experimental’. This label is not interested in genre definitions, focussing on a conceptual and methodological framework to define my practice, rather than an aesthetic end result, or any retrospectively analysable, intellectual ‘merit’. Thinking about composing in this way has become integral to how I understand my identity as a composer.
Other influential ways of thinking about musical contexts along similar lines include Pauline Oliveros’ notion of ‘deep listening’, re-imagining notions of directionality and structure which are so valued by conventional definitions of ‘composition’, as well as Suzanne Cusick’s pioneering thinking around queering conceptions of music, moving away from a patriarchal, gendered understanding of power in music, into a world where there is no force of pre-conceived ‘normality’. This kind of thinking relates all the way back to Sally Macarthur’s Deleuzian framework, in which it is reassuring to remember that a key idea in poststructuralist feminism is that we cannot know or control how the future will look.
During my studies I have also engaged with postcolonial writers, which definitely has come to influence how I feel about my own compositional practice, and the urgency and unavodability which I feel around constantly questioning and renewing my approach to creativity. Audre Lorde’s powerful, iconic essay The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle The Master’s House is ever-present in my mind, serving as a reminder that resistance to systems of oppression (i.e. patriarchy, and coloniality) cannot be achieved using those systems’ language. In the context of composing, this clearly aligns with the above suggestion that traditional aesthetics and processes cannot be used in a project of radical democratisation. This kind of thinking also allows my practice across being a creative musician — a performer, improviser, composer, and writer — to flow freely, allowing cross-pollination of ideas and breaking down boundaries about what I ‘should’ do for certain commissions or in specific situations.
Being a performer as well as a composer is integral to my artistic practice. Performing as well as composing, and seeing the two as a fluid overall creative practice, helps redefine ‘composition’ away from an intellectualised exercise with defined, score-based parameters of doing and of results. Performing using my voice also carries special feminist meaning to me. The fundamentally embodied nature of the voice, especially when harnessed towards experimental performance (which can often be visceral and unpredictable), helps counteract the intellectualisation of music which places composition in the masculine domain of the ‘mind’. Ultimately, the embodied nature of vocal performance links my practice to contemporary discourses rooted in the body, such as Judith Butler’s transformative ideas about performativity, and Sara Ahmed’s phenomenological explorations of the idea of ‘orientations’ — engaging my work with queering the definitions of ‘composition’ and ‘performance’.
I often look to other female composer-performers for a significant source of inspiration. Much as I obviously love and am interested in lots of the music made by non-female composers and peers too, I firmly believe that it’s really important be able to see yourself in those who inspire you. (One of the many reasons Illuminate is such an important project — demonstrably platforming female composers for the next generation of young women to see.) Women who have significantly shaped my current practice include Jennifer Walshe, Meredith Monk, Errollyn Wallen, Anna Meredith, and Claudia Molitor. These women all practice in different ways, making ideologically experimental music within a variety of aesthetics. I love to engage with the work of these composers primarily through performing and improvising with their work, and imagining my own methods and contexts to perform it, such as interactive performances, self-accompaniment, and layering and fragmenting their pieces.
Another important strand of influence for me is popular music. Popular music has provided radical contexts for creativity, political engagement, and expression for women; it is also standard practice for women to perform their own music, as classical music’s hierarchical divide between creator and performer does not exist. Popular music’s short-form nature, as well as its existence within the cultural mainstream, also means that it is heard by a wide audience, providing potential for everyday political engagement. These strands of the fabric of popular music are clearly really engaging, and influential, especially when trying to create a practice which moves away from the esotericism and gender-, race- and class-based exclusions which operate in the ‘classical music’ world. And lastly, I have already mentioned Pauline Oliveros and Meredith Monk; it is clear that the fundamental anti-teleological ideology of minimal music is an interesting thread with the creation of a new anti-conventional compositional practice. Beyond (or within?) the aesthetics of minimal music, I’ve been fascinated by reading explorations of how minimal music can be understood as anti-patriarchal, circular, and self-renewing, in a way which links to Cusick’s notions of queering power in music.
My piece for this Illuminate project, GRADIENT, draws on lots of these ideas. I have thought about breaking down structure and directionality, creating materials which are short, repetitive, cyclical, and can be re-ordered as the performers see fit. I have also used a small fragment of text over and over again, invoking the seemingly simple aesthetics of popular musics which belie a more nuanced conceptual basis, and removing the possibility of surface-level analysis of or links between text and music and instead making space for a flexible relationship between all of the performers. The score features faded, simple pastel-ish colours; this is heavily influenced by the work of Claudia Molitor. Her beautiful graphic scores are rich in colour, often in a ‘visually consonant’ way, and I have become fascinated by the potential of including colour in my own scores, whilst still using some conventional notation. Colour is not a conventional element of a traditional score, and not something which can be interpreted in any specific or direct way; the hope is that including colour adds a sense of playfulness and subjectivity, welcoming the performers to have a more fluid and interpretive relationship with the score. The voice is considered in the same way I do as a performer (as something which is textural and embodied), and tried to translate that into a score by using some non-conventional notations to encourage the singer to make the piece something which they can feel comfortable and empowered experimenting with. Ultimately, the piece is delicate, reflective, and small, constantly looping back on itself; I’m looking forward to hearing how the performance shifts and changes throughout the upcoming concerts, as the performers’ relationship with the score and each other shifts and changes too.
Sources, and possibly interesting ideas for further reading:
Ahmed, Sara. Queer phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others. Duke University Press. 2006.
Barthes, Roland. Image-music-text. Macmillan. 1977.
Bikini Kill: The Riot Grrrl Manifesto, 1991. (https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/riotgrrrlmanifesto.html)
Cusick, Suzanne. “On a Lesbian Relationship with Music: A Serious Effort Not to Think Straight,” in Biddle, Ian D. Music and Identity Politics. Library of Essays on Music, Politics and Society. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012.
Dell'Antonio, Andrew. Beyond Structural Listening?: Postmodern Modes of Hearing. Berkeley; London: U of California, 2004.
Fink, Robert. Repeating ourselves: American minimal music as cultural practice.Univ of California Press, 2005.
Green, Lucy. Music, gender, education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Hanoch-Roe, Galia. “Musical Space and Architectural Time: Open Scoring versus Linear Processes.” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, vol. 34, no. 2 (2003): 145-160.
Lim, Liza. Luck, Grief, Hospitality – re-routing power relationships in music. Keynote for ‘Women in the Creative Arts’ conference, ANU, 11th August, 2017. (https://lizalimcomposer.files.wordpress.com/2017/08/1-final_lim_rerouting-power-anu-keynote.pdf)
Lloyd, Genevieve.The Man of Reason: 'male' and 'female' in Western Philosophy. London: Methuen, 1986.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press Feminist Series. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984.
Macarthur, Sally. "The woman composer, new music and neoliberalism." Musicology Australia 36, no. 1, (2014): 36-52.
__________. Towards a twenty-first-century feminist politics of music. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.
Scharff, Christina. Gender, subjectivity, and cultural work: The classical music profession. Routledge, 2017.
__________. “Blowing your own Trumpet: Exploring the Gendered Dynamics of Self-Promotion in the Classical Music Profession.” The Sociological Review, 63 (2015): 97-112.
Among the composers featured in Illuminate’s second concert series in 2019 will be Ailsa Dixon (1932-2017), whose Variations on Love Divine for string quartet will be played in Oxford on 8th November.
The performance history of Ailsa Dixon’s work offers a striking example of how women composers sidelined in musical history are now being rediscovered. A handful of performances during her most fertile period of composition in the 1980s and ’90s (notably by Ian Partridge, Lynne Dawson, and the Brindisi Quartet), were followed by several decades of almost complete neglect. Then in 2017 a work written thirty years earlier was chosen for premiere as part of the London Oriana Choir’s Five15 project highlighting the work of women composers. These things shall be received its first performance in the spectacular glass-roofed concert hall surrounding the keel of the Cutty Sark, just five weeks before she died.
With further performances at memorial events and in festivals and concerts around the UK, it is now showing signs of entering the choral repertoire. With its vision of a future when ‘New arts shall bloom’, it seems especially apt that this work came to light in the context of the enterprise to give due prominence to the work of women composers, and has stimulated a revival of interest in her music.
Ailsa Dixon’s compositions include an opera, chamber and instrumental music, a sonata for piano duet and many vocal works, but the string quartet was central to her writing from the outset. Her first serious work, completed while reading music at University in Durham in the 1950s, was a single movement for string quartet (now lost). When she returned to composition in the 1980s, embarking on her opera Letter to Philemon (performed in 1984), a string quartet was at the core of the instrumentation. In the years that followed, she wrote several further works for quartet.
Two years after Letter to Philemon, Dixon’s Nocturnal Scherzo was premiered in 1986 at the Little Missenden Festival by the Brindisi Quartet.
It was paired in performance with Shining Cold, a haunting vocalise exploring the different sonorities of the high soprano voice, strings (viola and cello) and the ondes Martenot (an early electronic instrument, best known for its role in Messiaen’s Turangalila symphony).
A note accompanying the two scores in her archive sheds light on her compositional method:
'It seems to me that no music is truly abstract. Pieces which have no words or ‘programme’ must be a condensation either of past experience or of processes going on in the psyche. When I write music which intends to be abstract, an exposition of the main themes materialises before I feel any need to question what I am writing. Then I find it difficult to continue until I have asked myself what the themes seem to signify. Dream-like images emerge in my mind, and from that part of the process develop the ideas of how to use the themes.'
The note goes on to explain the dream sequence underlying the Nocturnal Scherzo and its symbolic significance, representing the contest and reconciliation of two halves of the psyche:
‘From a ‘sleep’ theme a slow rising motif suddenly erupts into action. Out of a jack-in-the-box bursts Pierrot, with his white face, his funny gait and his sad little song. He is swept off stage by the macho man whose theme in the cello verges on the bombastic. Pierrot climbs the stage curtains and swings up there, mocking the macho man. Eventually he responds to the macho’s angry call, not to assume unfair advantage, but to come down. They try on each other’s themes, like hats. Scarcely has a harmonious contrapuntal synthesis of their themes developed before the ‘sleep’ theme calls and the lid of the box slowly and gently closes down on them.’
This vignette, combining an apparently trivial piece of commedia dell’arte with a deeper psychological meaning, gives an insight into the emotional significance she attached to the contrapuntal interplay and resolution of musical themes.
The Nocturnal Scherzo was performed again in 1992 by the all-female De Beauvoir Quartet, alongside the premiere of Dixon’s next work for quartet, Sohrab and Rustum, written in 1987-8. This was a more ambitious undertaking: a substantial through-composed single movement, inspired by Matthew Arnold’s poem about the tragic encounter between an estranged father and son on opposite sides of a battle between the Tartar and Persian armies. The music is a vivid response to the poem’s human drama and atmosphere. Listeners will not easily forget the opening sequence evoking the river Oxus rising in the starlit mountains. A long, searing high E in the first violin over a deep chord from the lower strings gives way to an eerie chromatic oscillating motif between the two violins, like the scintillation of light on water. Through a gradual crescendo it turns into a fast falling motif as the river gathers momentum, tumbling towards the plain where the drama will take place. A leaping phrase ending with a trill, marked ‘brillante’ and passed between the players, brings the action to life, and gradually the story unfolds as the warriors come face to face. At the close of the piece, its human tragedy played out, the armies light their evening fires and the river pours out into a calm sea under the stars.
Ailsa Dixon’s final work for string quartet, the Variations on Love Divine written in 1991-2, represents an unusual foray into religious chamber music. A possible source of inspiration may have been Haydn’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, suggested in the penultimate variation’s echo of the final tremolando earthquake. In a thought-provoking essay on the use of hymn tunes in classical music, Simon Brackenborough placed the Variations in a long tradition of composers’ engagement with hymns, and likened the work to Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on the Old 104th Psalm Tune, albeit on a smaller instrumental scale.
Woven around Stainer’s familiar melody, the Variations offer a musical exploration of the meanings of divine love in a series of scenes from the incarnation to the ascension and a culminating vision of heavenly joy. The work has yet to be performed in concert, but a recording was made by the Rasumovsky Quartet in the mid-1990s.
On the recording, the titles or short texts which precede each variation are spoken (by the viola player Christopher Wellington), allowing the meaning to be followed by the listener in a kind of musical meditation. This spiritual journey takes us through a sound-world that is by turns mysterious, lyrical, dramatic, poignant, and finally exultant in ‘The Song of Praise and the Dance of Joy’.
Simon Brackenborough comments on the paradox of the work’s scope, at once conceptually expansive and minutely concentrated on a single melody:
'There is something quietly thought-provoking about Dixon’s insistence on using this modest, contented-sounding tune to cover such large theological ground… [suggesting] that a whole world of religious meaning can be revealed through even the smallest means.'
He observes the change in her treatment of the theme at the incarnation, when the hymn tune, hitherto buried or splintered into hesitant half-phrases, is heard distinctly for the first time. Elsewhere it is subject to fragmentation, dissonance, and various techniques in the string writing, from pizzicato for the trotting donkey on the journey to Bethlehem, jabbing and martelé attack for the hammering of the nails at the crucifixion, and knocking on the wood for the disciples’ house-to-house calling. Harmonic effects lend much to the work’s emotional impact: the sagging and distorted chords pulling the melody out of tune evoke the wrenching sadness of the disciples watching as Jesus is led away. Reflecting the strong impulse towards redemption underlying the work’s theological scheme, there is elsewhere a yearning for tonal resolution that draws the music from dissonance into a harmonic sweetness at significant moments, such as the centurion’s revelation that ‘truly this was the son of God’.
Much of Ailsa Dixon’s music went unheard in her lifetime. Research in her archive has uncovered new works for performance, including a sonata for piano duet, Airs of the Seasons, premiered posthumously in 2018. A set of three songs for soprano and string quartet, The Spirit of Love, dating from 1987-88, will be premiered on 20th February 2020 at St George’s Bristol, by Lucinda Cox and the Villiers Quartet.
Most of her scores remain in manuscript, but are now being digitised as part of a project in Finland to rescue the works of neglected women composers. Plans are underway for a recording of her complete works for string quartet by the Villiers Quartet. Meanwhile, the original performances made available on her YouTube channel offer a fascinating insight into her compositional language, hailed in a recent review as ‘most definitely’ that of ‘a British composer with an original musical vision’.
To subscribe to The Friends of Ailsa Dixon for occasional newsletters featuring recent and upcoming performances and news on the availability of scores, please click here