It is however recorded that even as an abbess, Kassia still opposed the emperor. He oversaw the second period of destruction of religious icons in the Byzantine Empire which she was deeply against, saying: ‘I hate silence when it is time to speak’.
And we know that she was a composer and poet, with more than fifty of her vocal works surviving, many still part of the Orthodox liturgy sung daily around the world.
The Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene - women have often been symbols, empty vessels used by mostly male artists to represent the sorrows of Easter and the joy of Carnival, sacred and secular, purity and corruption, wisdom and folly. Summer and winter. Absolute good and absolute evil.
Meanwhile, actual flesh and blood women are and have always been something else entirely - human beings. No human being is all good or all bad. Humans are creative, and this concert explores the creativity of female composers, who often had to pursue their creativity and curiosity against tough odds.
Chiquinha Gonzaga’s husband forbade her to compose and play music. Surely Gonzaga, a mixed-race woman and young mother in 19th-century Brazil, would have had no choice but to do so? Like Kassia, she answered back.
‘I cannot imagine a life without harmony’, she’s said to have told him. She left, and her father and husband declared her ‘dead and of unpronounceable name’.
Gonzaga lived a long life and had a prolific career - she wrote choro music, Rio’s pop music of the day, which combined elements of the music of the enslaved people who had been taken from different parts of Africa with that of immigrants from various regions of Europe. There was great shock at the Presidential Palace when Gonzaga and a friend played a new tune on piano and guitar - how could they have brought this street riff-raff music into such refined surroundings?
‘For boys, and even more so for girls, in music school there was a sense of ‘What are you doing, writing? Who do you think you are, Beethoven?’ It was really not a good attitude. ‘All the good music has been written’ was basically it. And I was the only female in class, with six guys, all grad students. I was an undergrad, and I just sat there, and they never bothered to look at my work, and that’s the way it was.’
This experience didn’t crush Hoover’s curiosity and desire to create. She was fascinated by Native American art, literature and music. The flute and flute players have an important role in many Native American cultures, and Hoover, a flute player herself, has written beautiful, unique music for the flute which explores these ideas and images. Playing them is like being in a shimmering kaleidoscope of light and colour.
Sometimes people ask ‘Why have a women composers concert?’, and I have sympathy for women artists, tired of being put in a box and wanting to be recognised for their work first and foremost, who correctly complain that ‘female isn’t a genre’. The music by the female composers in this concert doesn’t all sound the same.
Most of the classical music that I have learned and performed has been by men, and the simple reason for that is that there have been and are numerically more male composers. But that’s not the end of curiosity - why is that? And how can it be that millions and millions of people have heard the music of women every year for decades, centuries, millennia, without even knowing it? Why did de la Guerre achieve huge success in her lifetime only for her work to slide into obscurity for centuries?
Women composers had to tramp out more difficult, uphill paths while they were alive and working. Emperors, husbands, pregnancy, children, rivals, kings and God could all come between a woman and her music while she was alive, and after she was dead those same factors and a male-led ‘posterity’ meant the path she’d stamped out could easily become overgrown and disappear.
When the silent symbol decides that she has her own ideas to express, it can be very disruptive.
Simply, without performers and programmers making the effort to open the way, the music of women won’t be played or acknowledged as much, and there’s no pretending otherwise. Illuminate founder Angela Slater has made a huge contribution to this work, not only with Illuminate but with her earlier analysis of the ABRSM music exam syllabuses, which found that only 4.4% of listed works were by women. This has already begun to change - I’ve noticed a massive increase in works by women in their most recent flute syllabus. They are great pieces; the broader repertoire will enrich the learning of young players.
This concert is a celebration of women from different times and places who were told ‘you can’t do that’ and did it anyway. Women who took themselves seriously when nobody else did. Perhaps that extra pressure is what gives their work its diamond shine.
If you’d like to read more about Elizabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre and seven other female classical composers, I highly recommend Anna Beer’s brilliant book Sounds and Sweet Airs.
Timbre, Titles, and Inexplicit Influences: Blair Boyd on Composing Dim shapes grow clearer for alto saxophone and piano
As part of my previous contributions to the Illuminate Women’s Music blog, I have discussed my compositional practice more generally within the context of several pieces. However, for this third article, I would like to focus on aspects of a single piece, Dim shapes grow clearer for alto saxophone and piano, which is programmed as part of Illuminate’s 2021 concert series.
One of the features of Dim shapes grow clearer is the exploration of sustained pitches through alterations of dynamics and timbre. Particularly at the beginning of the piece, long notes which are held by the saxophone come alive through the use of extended playing techniques which alter the tone colour of a note. Flutter-tonguing, a playing technique in which the performer uses a rolling movement of the tongue to manipulate a note, is introduced near the beginning of the piece.
The static opening of the piece is interrupted by a 4-note descending figure in the saxophone. The stepwise motif, simply a descending natural minor scale, is well known from John Dowland’s lute song Flow my Tears and symbolized grief in Elizabethan music. Performed and recorded by early music specialists and pop stars alike, Dowland’s song has served as inspiration for artists for centuries and can be heard via the link below:
While the ‘falling tears’ motif contributed to the initial development of Dim shapes grow clearer, its inspiration is not obvious in the final composition. This is something that is very interesting to me as a composer: how initial impetuses evolve or how several unrelated influences can combine in a musical work to form something unique. Sometimes to even mention such inexplicit influences in a piece would be distracting to a listener, as one would try to pick them out while listening; I mention them here as an interesting topic for the purposes of this blog. While further statements of the ‘falling tears’ motif are quickly abandoned in my saxophone and piano duo, the sombre tone remains, yet somehow more resigned.
To continue the piece, sustained pitches are ornamented in the saxophone while chords sound, striking like clock chimes, at the bottom of the piano's register where pitches are less distinct and blur together. It is this repetitive feature of the piece from which its title comes — with each repetition not only does the material become more familiar, but it also delineates the passage of time. Sometimes choosing the title of a piece is easy, for instance in a vocal piece with a preexisting text; however, I often find deciding titles very difficult as a composer. A title is very important for the reception of a piece, and it can be very difficult to overcome a disconnect between a title and how a musical work sounds. True to form, much contemplation was given to the title of my saxophone and piano duet, and I hope it contributes positively to the impact of the work.
As an alumna of Cardiff University, I am incredibly excited to close our 2021 season with a performance of Dim shapes grow clearer given by saxophonist Naomi Sullivan and pianist Kumi Matsuo on Tuesday, December 14th at Cardiff University Concert Hall.
To read more about my music check out my previous contributions to the Illuminate Women’s Music blog here: https://www.illuminatewomensmusic.co.uk/illuminate-blog/blair- boyd-my-recent-compositional-obsessions
And here: https://www.illuminatewomensmusic.co.uk/illuminate-blog/march-11th-2019 To hear my music check out my Soundcloud page: https://soundcloud.com/blair-boyd-4
I am a composer, researcher and, eventually, vocal, objects and electronics performer. During the past ten years, I have lived in four countries, and this ‘nomadic’ experience has made me resignify my identity. Being immerse in different cultures, geographies, and languages has taught me that we are not fixed beings, predetermined by labels of gender, race or nationality. Identity is a very personal discovery and construction at the same time; it is a process of understanding of our bodies, needs, feelings, curiosity and desire for learning through a particular (and very complex) social, political and economic environment. We are in continuous transformation, we change our minds, sometimes we adapt, and sometimes we escape.
Moreover, I truly believe that in this process we can find each other and recognise common dreams or ideas to work on together. This is what Illuminate Women’s Music means to me. An unexpected and magnificent coincidence, an opportunity to know talented colleagues and their music, which I would probably not have listened to in other scenarios. It is also a space to contribute to building a society that actually represents and respects how diverse we are.
In some way, the responsibility of knowing and expressing myself has led me to develop very particular perspectives to approach (and appropriate) notions and concepts from which to compose my music. In fact, I have been obsessed with timbre for a long time, and I have felt committed to researching on it to try to define it and use it as a main compositional resource. Consequently, suelo seco (Spanish for dry soil) is based on the exploration of texture as one of the semantic dimensions of timbre, from which I develop the experience of dryness as an opportunity to study the timbral fragility. This piece, commissioned by Illuminate Women’s Music, pushed the boundaries of my own tendencies towards aesthetic delight. Having a skin condition of high sensitivity, dryness can even become painful; nonetheless, what I pursue in this timbral exploration is an attention to extremely subtle details of touch: the levels of roughness of the interacting surfaces, the noise of friction between materials. As a result, my compositional approach to texture responds to a more explicit tactile experience, an intimate relation of contact with the sound sources, which also includes working with everyday objects found at home.
In the exploration of different kinds of friction, I work on unconventional instrumental techniques, thus cello and piano are approached as resonant boxes for the strings, and mirrored sources of sound, that is, both instruments respond to each other as mutual extensions of their timbral conditions. Three specific textures of the dry soilinspired me to structure this composition: first, the perception of dryness in the surface, granular but almost homogeneous, it is soft, condensed but not static; second, the cracked soil, broken and separated, hostile and crumbly at the same time; finally dust, the remains, multiple particles that drift in the wind and fall down to the soil again forming fragile layers ready to scatter at any impulse. Therefore, performers are invited to approach their instruments as dry soil territories and move on them to discover new textural identities.
Each section presents a timbral experience composed from the action of friction with particular objects: a paper sheet, a toothbrush, a piece of polystyrene, bow hair. These elements are used to rub the strings at a determined speed, direction, and distance for the displacement with the intention of generating a specific quality of dryness (see figure 1). As a consequence, the transition through the three sections of the piece is developed from the physical interaction between the instruments and the properties and conditions of the objects that ‘touch’ them, the pressure imposed, the resistance experienced, the impact of the contact itself (see figure 2).
Furthermore, the experience of dry soil is explored in timbre from the perception of inharmonicity and noise as dynamic entities. This association allows the exploration of timbral consequences like the hisscreated by the gentle friction of two surfaces, or the roughnessgenerated by the resistance in the displacement when there is a high level of grip between them. However, in more spectral terms roughness is mostly attributed to the presence of the higher partials (especially after the 17th partial), which are closely spaced and interact by ‘beating’ against each other. Thus, overtones are generated by ‘touching’ the strings at specific points, especially when rubbing or bowing, contributing to the perception of different levels of this harmonic dissonance.
Generally, the textural experience of dryness in this piece requires attentive listening in order to discover the almost unperceivable, minimal expression of timbre produced by friction. Loudness is thus explored principally at its lowest levels, as a direct consequence of the materials selected and the kind of interaction developed for each technique. Consequently, amplification in this piece works as a microscope: rather than intensifying the sound, it is conceived as a magnifier of the inside of timbre, its movement, its structure, and its behaviour. It is a resource by which to appreciate the inner nature of dryness and its transformation through the physical interaction.
More about my work: https://micheleabondano.com/
Some of my pieces: https://soundcloud.com/michele-abondano
More about my obsession with timbre: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5Z4MUQAxKM
In my practice, I often work with storytelling and look at how concepts or life stories can be seen from different perspectives. Fitting to the ethos of Illuminate Women Music, the stories I have been drawn to in recent years are those of women composers. When exploring these stories, I like to see how music can hold the space for contradictions and ambiguity. This can be seen in my choral work Clara,written on Making Music’s Adopt A Composer 2018/19 in partnership with choir Ex Urbe, in which I drew on the composer-pianist Clara Schumann’s diaries. I was particularly struck by her own description of the composition process in which ‘one wins hours of forgetfulness’, that was a stark contrast to her internalised misogyny which believed ‘A woman must not desire to compose’. I was intrigued by this unresolved ambivalence Clara expressed, which led to the composition of the first movement: ‘Composing gives me great pleasure’. Using a double choir to demonstrate Clara’s internal conflict regarding her own identity as a composer, the work gives an insight into what it may have been like for Clara to navigate the C19th gendered ideologies surrounding female creativity. Below is a recording by the choir Ex Urbe and harpist Angelina Egerton, conducted by Benjamin Hamilton:
For more information about the project, please see the interview to hear reflections from members of Ex Urbe and myself:
Following this project, I began to think about how and why the stories and works of women composers are not acknowledged in mainstream classical music. Often the assumption remains that there were very few active women composers in the history of classical music, despite there being a vast array of evidence to the contrary. As part of a Jerwood Arts Bursary in 2019, I was able to work with Elizabeth de Brito from the Daffodil Perspective to identify three C19th women composers all active in the Parisian music scene – Augusta Holmès, Marie Jaëll and Clémence de Grandval. The research period allowed an understanding of the key obstacles each of the selected women composers had faced – self doubt, pseudonyms, emphasis on beauty - and an insight into how this may have impacted how their compositional output was considered beyond their lifetimes (see more here: https://www.chloeknibbs.com/projects/ruinsi). Using the metaphors of ruins and erosion, I considered these obstacles to each be ‘erosion factors’ that eroded the narratives and works of the three selected women composers. This led to the composition of the electroacoustic work, Ruins, in which ‘erosion factors’ were placed in juxtaposition with recorded extracts of the composers’ works:
Due to the nature of Ruins, I wanted to see if the work could exist in another form and how a visual element could enhance the experience of the work. Earlier this year I was able to undertake a mentoring period with sound artist and lecturer Linda O’Keefe, which allowed me to learn a range of techniques including granular synthesis. These techniques allowed me to return to the first iteration of Ruinsand develop the way sonic disintegration was used, and how this could develop the concept of a ‘sonic ruin’ of the works and life stories of Augusta Holmès, Marie Jaëll and Clémence de Grandval. Alongside this process, I collaborated with designer Denitsa Toneva to explore how C19th aesthetics could be paired with the audio elements of the work, leading to the creation of an online audio-visual installation. A fitting example of these pairings can be seen in how the sketch of the glove is paired with a recording of pseudonyms, looking at the connection between shame and societal expectations. The Ruinsinstallation can be explored below:
With Ravelled, written for Illuminate Women Music’s Season II,I decided to explore my own experience of grief. The work considers the definition of the word ‘ravelled’ (to tangle; to disentangle; to tease out; to fray) and the contradictions of seeking emotional resolution but becoming further entangled by oneself. This manifests in the work through lyrical and vulnerable cello melodies accompanied by shifting harmonies, arpeggiation and extended pedal sustain, portraying a sense of dissociation and lack of resolution.
It has been a real pleasure to work with our performers Ivana Peranic and Rachel Fryer for this series of concerts, and to get to know work by Amy Beach and Rebecca Clarke along the way. Please see details of all upcoming concerts of Season I and II here: https://www.illuminatewomensmusic.co.uk/whats-on-2021-season-i-and-ii.html
After such a long hiatus it feels astonishing to be finally returning to live Illuminate Women’s Music concerts and, with the return of the season, to be writing a new blog about my compositional work generally and the commissioned work I have written for the Illuminate series of concerts.
Punch echo for saxophone and piano
(Illuminate Women’s Music commission)
This autumn my piece Punch, echofor saxophone and piano that will be premiered and given repeat performances by Naomi Sullivan and Kumi Matsuo across the Illuminate series of concerts across the UK. This work is actually the last piece I finished before the pandemic hit and our lives as we knew it stopped in it tracks. I decided not to edit the piece any further after this – this decision was not really a conscious one – but I think it is good that the piece remains a snapshot of an energetic optimism I had for the year ahead. I feel the piece perhaps has an innocence about it as I was completely unaware of what path lay ahead for us all in reality.
I have always been fascinated in the dialogues between science, visual arts, dance and politics in my music. I have endless curiosity for gestures, shapes, sounds and their relation to the world, and how these relate to other artforms. My works are often inspired by the natural world, visual arts – particularly colour theory – and dance where I have engaged with Laban’s Eight efforts dance theory. Punch echo is an example of a piece that engages with these movement concepts.
Punch: to strike with the fist. Echo: a sound or sounds caused by the reflection of sound waves from a surface back to the listener.
This work draws on the meaning of the words ‘punch’ and ‘echo’, representing these through the lens of Laban’s Eight Efforts. Laban Movement Analysis is a method and nomenclature for describing, interpreting and documenting human movement. I feel a deep connection between the gestural language of movement and music. Laban categorises movement into eight efforts, descriptively named Float, Punch (Thrust), Glide, Slash, Dab, Wring, Flick, and Press. In this work I explore the effort of ‘punch’ on both macro and micro levels, exploring the musical impact of a ‘punch’ and its subsequent aftermath, the echo effect.
Though I haven’t edited this work since the start of the pandemic, for one of Illuminate’s digital concerts last year I created a postcard version of this piece, switching the words around to become Echo (punch) [a piece for unusual times]. This work essentially reimagined the material from my original piece by flipping the effort punch in reverse. The original Punch echo explores how music can convey the effort of ‘punch’ and its aftershock, which is essentially the echo. However, the echo here comes first followed by the action that caused it. In turning the idea on its head – taking material from my original composition – I was able to reimagine and explore the musical echoes in detail. These musical moments are the equivalent of zooming in and experiencing the aftershock of something in numbing slow motion with sudden bursts of movement that surges forward.
Spinning Colours | Faded Time for piano quartet
(written for Trio Northumbria and Alison Gill)
Another of my recent works that explores Laban’s eight efforts is a piano quartet called Spinning Colours | Faded Time.
Spinning Colours | Faded Timewas written for the Trio Northumbria for the 2021 Royal Musical Association Conference held at Newcastle University. The piece explores the ways that musical expressions of colour interact with musical renderings of Laban's eight efforts. Each gesture and colour has an associated weight, energy, and speed, creating interesting relationships between the instruments and their respective sonorities. The first half of the piece explores the slow Laban efforts: float, glide, wring, and press. The second half engages with the gestural efforts: flick, slash, dab, and punch, before the material disintegrates into pure harmonics, seemingly ever longer each time.
Woven half dreams for solo cello
(written as part of Connected skies project and programmed in Illuminate Autumn concerts)
In this autumn’s concerts, which feature our Illuminate performers in residence Ivana Peranic (cello) and Rachel Fryer (piano), my solo cello piece called Woven half dreams is being performed across some of the concerts.
This work, composed during the first series of lockdowns, is an emotional reaction to the pandemic. The work was written for Sarah Gait as part of the Arts Council England funded projected Connected skies: solo series challenge. In this project, I set out to write six new works for double bass, cello, flute, accordion, percussion and mezzo soprano between October 2020-May 2021. Each of these works received a digital premiere with monthly digital events from January 2021-June 2021. These events can still be watched on my YouTube channel.
Woven half dreams was the second piece in the Connected skies collection of solo pieces. All the pieces draw upon a poem I wrote, connecting the individual compositions into a song cycle of sorts. Woven half dreams explores unfurling threads and lines that are interrupted by burst of aggressive energetic passages. These aggressive bursts become ever more prominent throughout the piece, until they push the weaving lines completely away through the centre of the piece. The piece then returns to the weaving lines through delicate harmonic threads to the end of the piece.
When the sky enclosed around me
Shrinking ever smaller
I found woven half dreams
fractured in spaces inbetween
which ache and scream
I tried to shut the noise out
but it echoed right back at me
Please consider supporting Illuminate Women's Music future projects in both live and digital concerts:
Music has a role in ‘cultural and subcultural identity,’ (Cook, 1998: 5) a big part of which is communicating things that are important to an audience. I often think carefully about my work before I start writing and ask myself ‘what am I trying to communicate to an audience?’ and ‘how might this message reveal itself through the music that I write?’. Furthermore, I am drawn to extra-musical starting points, often ones that provide a duality of perspective such as a historical primary source which also comments upon something in the present, or something mundane from the everyday which can be elevated through the lens of performance and is perhaps widely experienced by listeners and performers alike.
Gwyneth (2015) was a work where I felt this idea of capturing real life- past and present- really started to take shape in my practice. The piece attempted to tell the true story of a child refugee (my Great Aunt) being sent to Australia during WW2 being retold at a time when many refugees were seeking safety from war-torn Syria. The importance of this comparison was to draw an analogy between the past the present, and to trigger empathy and understanding against the fear and frustration which was being whipped up in the media; the difference in circumstance was that during WW2 it was British children looking for refuge. In particular, it referenced elements of music which was symbolically poignant to the narrative in the form of Elgarian references in the lyrical writing for violin and cello. This enhances the music’s ability to draw upon the emotional conflicts that the situation presented and worked to ‘overcome some of the inertia’ (Becker 2014: 133) around this contemporary issue in an indirect way. In essence, the music became a programmatic representation of the event(s) it aimed to represent, and which acted as an ‘aesthetic artefact’ (Patti, 2009: 57) or a repository of historical and contemporary lived experience though music and narration. Patti (2009) discusses how ‘autoethnography is an art that “responds to life itself” and struggles meaningfully against the limitation of representing and translating lived experience’ however I feel that this meaningful struggle is essential as it adds a richness to the artefact produced. Music cannot be an exact representation of the identity, moment, or experience, but instead the artist/composer/interpreter/performer has a unique agency in accentuating key aspects in a form of augmented and artistic reality.
This idea of ‘humanness’ and fragility is something I have wanted to explore further in my work. This can be seen most readily in Fragments (2017) for soprano and piano whereby the text is five short poems by American poet Christopher Poindexter who “considers himself more of an observer, trying to make sense of the human condition in all of its grit and glory. Being inspired by both the darkness and the light, he aims to share an ultimate truth in all of his writing” (Poindexter, 2018) The poems are from his first body of work: Naked Human (2015) which, “is an exploration of humanity at its finest and at its worst,” and is a theme which perpetuates through a lot of music, specifically opera.. Poindexter’s short but blunt ‘fragments’ of lived moments, capture quotidian fleeting moments that many of us experience or have heard in our own internal monologues, which elevates the minutiae of the everyday into something more remarkable through performance.
Musically, the vocals switch between freely spoken (unscored) and singing in the mid to upper register of the range. The juxtaposition throws the audience between two listening modes and makes the starkness of the words even more pronounced. In addition, ‘breath’ is scored, making the audience feel uncomfortably close to the performer/persona’s thoughts. Immersing the audience through a textual or multi-sensory listening experience brings the audience closer to the story being told, the persona being represented and hopefully allowing them to ‘make use of it’ (Bourdieu, 1991: 43) emotively.
The questions I ask myself before I start writing became more poignant in March 2020 when communication and connecting with others took on a new meaning. This provided problems for those of us working in the arts and also required creative and innovative solutions to carry on working. One such example of this innovation was a series of live streamed daily concerts by pianist Duncan Honeybourne to raise funds for Help Musicians UK (Honeybourne, 2020). I was fortunate enough to be asked by Duncan to write a short piece for this project that was inspired by Lockdown. My inspiration came from watching BBC Breakfast one morning whereby the news reporter remarked hearing birdsong for the first time on her commute to work due to the reduction in noise pollution from commuters and industry. I went straight out to the garden and decided to record my resident blackbird, who’s song I am particularly fond of as it resembles the melody form ‘I’m a Barbie Girl’. I wanted to capture the contrast between everyday life before and after March 22nd 2020, specifically people’s renewed acknowledgement of their local area, the natural world and the importance of wellbeing. This resulted in a duet for piano and blackbird.; the first movement the blackbird cannot be heard over the cacophony of man-made noise which is juxtaposed by the tranquillity of the second movement.
It was important the blackbird and piano shared a language, so there are certain motifs that have been transcribed from the recording for the piano. The piano has two roles in this, firstly having a conversation with the blackbird in which they take turns most of the time so the bird song can be heard clearly. The piano melody is decidedly bird-like with trills and appoggiatura to ornament the melody, but also adding a more coherent lyrical flavour which is more ‘human’. Secondly, the piano adds emotion, harmony, texture, movement, and structure. Without the harmonic movement at bar 43 (see fig.1) and again at 64 the piece would lack pace and a richer texture. Like the first movement, this tries to use a lot of the piano’s range to give it depth and distinguish between the ‘conversation’ and the background noises of the environment.
I think the validity of taking a much-used practice of ornithology inspiring music is certainly the elevation of the quotidian through my music. It is just unusual that during lockdown the ‘every day’ is in fact rather extraordinary and therefore my piece is much more than just being about the blackbird’s song.
My work for Illuminate Women’s Music continues this investigation of elevating the ‘every day’. Partition (2021) was initially inspired by my reading about the fall of the Persian Empire during lockdown and how Persian rulers allowed the people they conquered to continue their lives and keep their cultures, customs religions, and traditions if they paid their taxes. I found this interesting, as too often these things are lost because of conflict and change of rule; you only have to look at the news and the current changes taking place in Kabul following the cities takeover by the Taliban to see the impact change of rule can have upon a nation. Furthermore, I realised the same could be said about the COVID-19 pandemic and lives being plunged into isolation because of an unseen threat; this, and the subsequent endeavours to keep culture and entertainment alive. Culture, community, family, friends, social activities are so important to our wellbeing and what makes us ‘human’ (Williamson, 2014) that we strove to find ways to keep it going online and stay connected.
Throughout history the world has been full of divisions.
These divisions are often man-made.
Conflict, violence, religion, gender, nature vs. nurture.
Land partitioned like a commodity. Lives destroyed over its
ownership. Cultures lost.
Even in the current times in which we live, we have been
segregated due to disease and disagreements over race and
Rainforests and the natural world plundered. The atmosphere
slowly being destroyed. Ice-caps melt.
Will there ever be harmony; will we always be partitioned?
Partition (Jenkins, 2020)
Therefore, Partition (2021) is an extraction of some snippets of conversations I had with family and friends during Lockdown, either on the phone or Zoom. The content of these conversations is not necessarily important other than the fact there were strong recurring themes (such as the virus, lockdown, the weather etc) and a lot of uncertainty, anxiety, and frustration at various things in our ‘new normal’. Conversations follow lots of different patterns, rhythms and structures depending upon their subject and how this unravels. Conversation is ultimately an improvisatory process in which an exchange of opinion, ideas and emotions are expressed- much like an exchange of musical ideas. I found that during lockdown these patterns and sentiments were improvisationary but also had strong themes and sometimes a feeling of familiarity as we responded to the news and progression of the global pandemic. The piece has a modal feel but isn’t attributed to a particular mode or mahab as it is a non-conventional nine-note pattern which is particularly chromatic in the middle as this gives a distantly familiar yet unsettled feel. Similarly, to Fragments (2017), this piece is concerned with small units of motif that occur, recur, and are respelled in different ways amongst other changing elements such as timbre, tempo, and form. This all works to give a sense of shifting perspective and uncertainty but also a strong sense of belonging.
In her chapter The Influence of the Extra-Musical Katz (2012) investigates how the extra-musical is mapped over onto musical structures and how different theories might shed some light onto these practices. I certainly believe that my work, to an extent, follows the idea that metaphor is a synthesis agent between two disparate domains (Ortony, 1979) – in this case it is language and music. De Bono (1970) calls this ‘lateral thinking’ or in other words, problem solving with information that is not overtly related to the initial problem or solution. (Katz, 2012: 175) In the main part, my central aim for the piece was to enable the cello and piano to be equal agents in this piece – I was determined to avoid the piano becoming an accompaniment and wanted an equal demonstration of virtuosity for both players. Secondly, I wanted the piece to communicate something quotidian, present and avoid the quixotic. Therefore, as Katz (2012) identifies, I have started a modulatory process as each extra-musical element has a unique character which starts to determine creative choices.
Firstly each ‘conversation’ or musical exchange is categorised by a synonym of the word partition and as such they each take on their own character, some of the musical ‘relationships’ more disparate than others. In a way these try and capture the different perspectives of life during lockdown – some going to work, some furloughed, some in forced isolation, some choosing isolation due to fear or the protection of loved ones – either way these unnatural divisions characterised our lives and therefore our conversations. Work to represent this has been particularly focussed upon the ‘light and shade’ of dynamics and the range of timbres afforded by utilising different techniques such as shimmering harmonics, tremolando and double stopping.
There are times where the cello is clearly being harmonic support for the piano and visa versa other times both parts seem to be working against each other or interjecting each other’s melody (see fig.2). Some conversations are short, others longer or some moving though different moods. These are all examples of how this mon-musical model has dictated form at both a macro (such as structure) and micro level (harmony, timbre, and texture) (Katz, 2012: 177).
I think it is important to note that although the ‘system’ is governed by the extra-musical, it isn’t the sole decider in the creative process. Allowances have to be made for musical logic. For example, the musical equivalent of a conversation if taken literally would mean that the speakers take it in turns but this wouldn’t necessarily make for a successful piece of music and therefore it is essential to take this framework as a starting point or for ‘inspiration’ rather than rigid rules. Therefore, there are many times where both instruments are playing together but it is very clear who is ‘dominating’ the conversation and where there are moments of agreement (see fig.3) which might be cello and piano playing in unison or one leading with a clear melody whilst the other is providing harmonic support. This is essential so the piece feels coherent and complete.
As mentioned, my music cannot be an exact representation of the identity, emotion, or experience of an event, but I do hope it has agency in accentuating key aspects of the ‘everyday’ in a form of augmented and artistic reality.
BBC (2020) The Art of Persia. BBC4, Wednesday 17th June 2020. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000k48g
Becker, H., S (2014) What about Mozart? What about Murder? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bourdieu, P (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity.
Cook, N (1998) Music: A short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
De Bono, E (1970) Lateral Thinking. New York, Harper and Row.
Honeybourne, D (2020) Contemporary Piano Soundbites. Prima Facie.
Jenkins, H (2017) Fragments [WP]. Payee Chen (soprano) Kate Ledger (piano), 04 August 2017. York, Late Music. Available at: https://soundcloud.com/jenkinsonare/fragments
Jenkins, H (2015) Gwyneth [WP]. The Albany Trio, 06 June 2015. York, Late Music. Available at: https://soundcloud.com/jenkinsonare/gwyneth
Jenkins, H (2021) Partition [WP]. Ivana Peranic (cello) & Rachel Fryer (piano), 01 October 2021.Brighton, Illuminate Women’s Music, Series II.
Katz, S. L. (2012) The Influence of the Extra-Musical. In Eds, Collins, D (2012) The Act of Musical Composition. Surrey, Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Kramer, L (2011) Interpreting Music. London: University of California Press.
MacDonald, R., et al (2005) Musical Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
MacDonald, R., Hargreaves, D., & Miell, D (2017) Handbook of Musical Identities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ortony, A (1979) Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Patti, C., J (2009) Musical Artefacts of My Father’s Death: Autoethnography, Music and Aesthetic Representation (pg 57-72) in Eds: Bartleet, B., & Ellis, C., (2009) Music Autoethnographies: Making Autoethnography Sing/Making Music Personal. Sydney: Australian Academic Press.
Poindexter, C (2015) Naked Human. Monarch Publishing.
TED (2013) Bernie Krause: The voice of the natural world. [online] Available at: https://youtu.be/uTbA-mxo858
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Williamson, V (2014) You Are the Music: How music reveals what it means to be human. London, Icon Books Ltd.
Please consider supporting Illuminate Women's Music future projects in both live and digital concerts:
Timbre is a fundamental element of my compositions and I always find it fascinating to experience how music can grow organically, almost crystal-like, and gradually unfolding between pitches to create a shimmering complex timbre.
My music has always been inspired by nature and I sometimes attempt to recreate the sounds of natural phenomena. For instance, Saṃsārafor large orchestra was inspired by the continuous movement of a river and the journey of the flow which then reaches the ocean. Psithurismfor solo flute was inspired the sound of rustling through leaves.
Here’s the recording of Psithurism:
My recent solo piano piece Unknownwas written for the Riot Ensemble as part of PRS for music composers’ scheme. This piece was written at the start of lockdown last year and was inspired by the fear of uncertainty, where everything we planned for the future is rapidly changing and vanishing. After completing this piece, I felt the urge to explore and experiment further with new ways of achieving the sense of spaciousness in the music.
A video recording of Unknown performed by Claudia Maria Racoviceancan be seen on here:
This new work Ripple, for cello and piano was written for season II of the Illuminate Women’s Music concert series. It was inspired by the subtle movement of the surface on water and I have attempted to portray and express the visual movements in my score. My intention in this piece was to create something delicate and shimmery, yet powerful and expressive. The piece begins with a poised and powerful opening and gradually increases the tension and density with dramatic changes in dynamics until the cello fades in with high delicate harmonics. A sense of movement slowly develops as the piece progress and the continuity of this ripple-like effect has subtly exchanged the role of foreground and background between the piano and cello part. I have edited a few musical notations in the score after having an insightful workshop session with pianist Rachel Fryer and cellist Ivana Peranic.
And last but not least, I would like to say Thank You to Illuminate Women’s Music for commissioning me to write a new piece for Illuminate Season II 2021 concert series and I am looking forward to the premiere in Brighton on 1st October!
Please consider supporting Illuminate Women's Music future projects in both live and digital concerts:
possible triggers - the chaos narrative looks at illness and trauma
As part of a reading group*, I had been researching on the chaos narrative; where real-life stories, often based on illness or trauma, do not necessarily follow a linear trajectory, where the world is un-made. These stories trace the edges of a wound, and each narrative is unique to the individual. Most story tellers are not able to pinpoint where the illness started, or indeed where it will end.
What interested me about this, and what I thought about basing a piece from, were three things:
- The treatment of time - in particular time without sequence;
- The often repetitive nature of a chaos narrative, as the story teller has an inability to gather an understanding of the events occurring; and
- The idea of sharing a personal story which is not healed, which is opposite to the popular restitution(resolved) narrative - where the story has resolved, or the narrator has had time to reflect after the event.
How though, could I express heartache of a chaos narrative through composing; an act by the very nature of creating, writing, and editing, has the ability to reflect and shape a narrative. Arthur Frank (1995) writes that “ill people are wounded not just in body but in voice”. The challenge of listening is to refrain moving the narrator away from the difficulty of telling the story. The challenge is to hear. This made me think it could be possible to use concepts of the chaos narrative for a cello piece. I am conscious of this contrast, so wanted to use the idea of controlled or uncontrolled parameters within the piece.
Afterwards, I reflected on these ideas, and decided to workout a concept for the cello piece. Usually, when I’m at this stage of composing, I hear sounds forming, and ideas which I hope the piece will achieve (although, this may change when writing). It helps me work out where the piece is going.
For this particular piece, I thought about events that shouldn’t quite heal (or phrases left unfinished), as if the cello is attempting to express the chaos narrative. The imagine that came to mind for the piece was a wound that had not quite healed, which led me to term Suture, meaning to stitch together, in particular to hold together the edges of a wound.
Musically speaking, I wanted to look at using parameters of tracing a wound, and imagined playing the highest and lowest strings only, omitting the middle range of the instrument (quite simply, the upper and lower strings were the edges). I also imagined double stopping throughout most of the piece.
For the cellist to play only A + C string together, they would have to place the bow in the gap between the string and body. This technique meant that Ivana Peranic (cellist) would be able to double stop the highest and lowest strings. I was aware that the material she could play would be fairly limiting, as
1) the bow technique is not idiosyncratic to a cellist, 2) large leaps would prove impossible 3) and due to the electronics I later use, she would not be able to play very loud, so dynamics were limiting - unless feedback was a desired result (which isn’t in this piece).
Although the chaos narrative may perhaps lend itself to being ‘chaotic’, there are several limitations in the stories at play too. Below, I’ll try to address how I worked on limitations (control) and chaos (uncontrol).
When first rehearsing over Zoom with Ivana, the techniques I had thought about were very unnatural to a cellist: she is physically pushing the bow away from her instrument, instead of toward it. The space between the strings and body was limiting; producing a smooth bow change was practically impossible. I still wanted to work on this idea, and I knew it would take some time to figure out. For one, the idea of playing at the edges of the instrument appealed, and also the unnatural technique meant that at times Ivana may not be in control of this technique. Fortunately, Ivana was on board and had some wonderful suggestions. During the Zoom call, we had a chat about how the difference of pushing away sounded, and how it affected phrasing and timbre. We looked at really slowing the down the bow, which helped a lot (and created a very fragile sound world that was close to my original ideas). Later, within the electronics, I decided to add a small amount of sustain and reverb to support the unusual bow technique. This not only supported the bow technique, but also blended well with the rest of the electronics.
During our second in-person rehearsal, the end of the bow would occasionally ‘knock’ under the bridge, or even catch the edge of the cello. Ivana asked if this was okay, as if not she would have to figure out how to stop the sporadic ‘battuto’ from happening, but this gave an uncontrolled element to the bowing which is what I was after. What at first sounded like a fairly limited technique, produced an array of textures, timbres, etc., as bow placement, pressure, speed, and motion, were all still possible between the body of the cello and strings.
The material is mapped out in to several sections, and Ivana is welcome to start at which ever section she chooses. Each section is different from the other, however, they some share similar motifs, and (due to the double stopping and other factors), they do sound like they’re cut from the same cloth - nothing drastically changes. I wanted to explore the idea of time, and repetition. Except for a long glissando in one section, there are no large leaps. This is due to the fact that it would be very hard to play smoothly, and also because it feeds into the repetitive nature and suspended sense of time concepts.
During the in-person rehearsal, Ivana commented that she could easily play this for a very long time, however, as this commission is time limited, for the Illuminate concerts, there needed to be some constraints on duration. She could have a timer for herself, but then she would be conscious of the seconds ticking by. We decided for SUTUREthat it would best to avoid this. As I will be performing with Ivana, on electronics, we agreed I would indicate every 1 or 1.5 minutes as a guide. It would still be her decision to play one section for 3 minutes, another for 30 seconds, or all equal measured etc.
The electronics are a series of sine waves which react to whatever Ivana is playing. During the performances, I will decide whether sine waves are played at once (chords) or not (single), if at all, how random or ‘matched’they are to her pitch, and intensity. There are a few other parameters, but these are the main ones. As she will be starting at any part on the score, I will adapt the electronics to that. I do have a rough idea of what I will do with electronics whilst Ivana is playing, however, I wanted to keep an improvised nature about this: I’m not too sure how long each section will be, or if other factors such as the unpredictable bow technique, will change what I play.
After rehearsals to the finished score, what came about was a work that I hope addressed the chaos narrative sensitively.
When we rehearsed SUTURE in Sussex, Ivana was really listening to the electronic sounds being produced (I place the speakers close to her, so the sound of the amplified cello and electronics are as close to the instrument as possible - even for the concerts), and I could hear she was adapting the material I gave her to blend with the electronics. I was also listening to her and adapting the electronics. This communication / listening will happen during the concerts too.
SUTUREalso uses ideas from the meridian lines of a person, in particular the heart protector (Pericardium). As my research, beyond this project investigates somatic practices in composition, I wanted to tie Frank’s (1995) notation of the voiceand bodybeing wounded together in this piece. I’m afraid I may run out of room discussing these ideas further on this blog, however, if you come to a concert this autumn, you're welcome to ask me more about it!
Whilst the score is finished, and I was very pleased with the rehearsal, I am currently viewing the performances as ‘work-in-progress’and the concert as a space in which to share the ideas I presented above. In keeping with the concept that the chaos narrative is an anti-narrative of time without sequence, I’m not sure I would view the work as being ever ‘complete’: or perhaps it is complete in its incompleteness.
I do not have a recording of SUTURE, however you can read about and listen to my piece
Etching Circles (2019), for piano, violin, and cello here
SUTUREwill be performed by Ivana Peranic as part of Illuminate Season II concerts in autumn 2021.
*I would like to mention and thank Simon Fox, a member of the reading group, who introduced me to research on the Chaos Narrative.
Frank, A (1995). The Wounded Storyteller.Chicago. The University of Chicago Press
Vickers, M (2003) Chaos Narratives to Reinstate the Voice of a Survivor of Mental Illness: A (Partial) Life Story. UK.Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Welbanks, V (2016) Foundations of Modern Cello Technique: Creating the Basis for a Pedagogical Method. PhD Thesis, Goldsmiths College, University of London
Woolf, V. (1930) On Being Ill. Reprint. Connecticut. The Paris Press (Wesleyan University Press), 2002.
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.