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
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