Lara Downes Celebrates Women Composers on Her New Album

Lou Fancher on April 12, 2019
Lara Downes

Pianist Lara Downes leaves no room for doubt. Given the choice as a professional musician to rant about male composers’ dominance in music history, the repertoire of orchestras, chamber ensembles and soloists, and jazz, pop, funk, R&B, folk, and other playlists, or to rave about brilliant, overlooked women composers, Downes chooses the latter.

Sacramento-based Downes’s new album released in early March, Holes in the Sky, celebrates a multigenerational, cross-genre collection of female composers and musicians. Among the 22 tracks are works written or performed by 20th century composer Florence Price, songwriter Judy Collins, violinist Rachel Barton Pine, instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens, cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing, composers/performers Meredith Monk, Clarice Assad, Lil Hardin Armstrong, and more. A world premiere by Jennifer Higdon, Notes of Gratitude, extends the sonic range in a six-minute work featuring unconventional harmonies, percussive plucking inside the instrument, and lush, “proper” piano passages.

“You can write a lot of notes,” Downes says, “but what makes great writing is transforming the instrument. To create color takes a gift. Jennifer is prolific, with a range as a composer that’s vast. She sent me this piece and it felt like it had a home here, in terms of rounding out the sound world. It’s a fascinating piece that lets me do things with the piano that’s outside of the rest of the record.”

Downes spoke to us about the new CD, balance she finds in her busy personal and professional lives, and the purpose that today — more than ever before — compels her musicianship.

You wrote in an email that Holes in the Sky is “honestly the favorite project I’ve ever done.” Will you share your thoughts on why?

I’ve had collaborations before, but have never before enjoyed the generosity, trust and flexibility I’ve had on this one. I underestimated the excitement these women would have to share. It’s been sustaining and nourishing. At the heart of it, being a solo musician is lonely. I draw from audiences and listeners and I’m fortunate to have that. But to actually create this thing with a group of people invested in making something beautiful; I don’t want to fall into clichés, but it’s like a sisterhood, a collective. Can you imagine being in a studio with Judy Collins and forgetting she’s Judy Collins? It’s been that kind of thing: we’re all just making something new and digging deep for it.

What was your research process and were there discoveries that surprised you or might surprise listeners to the CD?

There were a lot of stories that I knew, like the one behind the song, “Just for a Thrill.” Any person you talk to about that song will say, “Oh, the Ray Charles song.” But actually, it was written by Lil Hardin Armstrong. All the stories of her ... well, she was married to Louis Armstrong. That is quite an act to follow. Yet she wrote this incredible song — and then it becomes associated with another male giant in the music world. I knew that story and was intrigued. There have been many women composers in the [Great] American Songbook who’ve been overlooked.

People reading that answer might assume this album was motivated by an aim to rectifying that oversight. Is that accurate?

It’s not. It’s never been about righting a wrong or a feminist statement. But there are all these fascinating stories that resonate with me. I wanted to represent the ladies. It’s not that I’ve ever felt disadvantaged or held back by being female. It’s just that it has felt from the very beginning that the world of classical music has been a male world. I’m drawn to the women’s stories because it feels like me. Everyone wants to see themselves in a field they aspire to work in.

The track, Aghavni (Doves), by Mary Kouyoumdjian: Will you speak about how you came to select it?

It’s haunting. Immediately haunting. Mary’s composition drew me because she’s writing about her people. It’s actually just one section of a three-movement work about the Armenian genocide. You hear folk melodies all through it. It’s personal to her and I hear that. I’m instinctively drawn to authenticity.

Lara Downes | Credit: Shervin Lainez

And A Tide of Living Water by Clarice Assad?

There’s honestly not too much of a story behind that track. She wrote it for guitar and I asked her to translate it. She does well writing music that’s lovely, romantic, evocative, and never superficial. The scarcity and simplicity: It’s not easy to write for piano in that elegant and meaningful way.

“Arrorro Mi Niña,” with vocalist Magos Herrera. Why was this important to include?

Magos was someone I heard on a recording. Her voice is spectacular and special. We didn’t know each other at all, I might have messaged her on Facebook, I can’t recall. We talked about the project. There were awful things happening at that time, about immigrants who speak Spanish and the place they have in this country, so it was important that I had a song in Spanish on the recording. It’s a lullaby and when I suggested it to her, she said, “Eww ...” because it’s a very, very popular lullaby. It’s kind of like asking for “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” But I did a jazz version and we recorded it, finishing the tape in just a few takes. When we were done, there was absolute silence in the studio: no feedback from the booth. We turned and saw these two male engineers just standing shell-shocked. It was her stunning voice, singing this jazz ballad/Spanish lullaby that just cast a spell.

Will you tell us about working with cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing and the urban youth vocal ensemble Musicality?

Ifetayo is a kid I know through the Sphinx organization. I wanted to feature young women and shine the spotlight. She’s based in Chicago and I asked around for a local vocal group. Musicality was recommended. We did a few takes and I loved their ethereal, young voices. That descant line of upper harmony we threw in above the melody is there because one girl had such a wonderful, high voice. You know, usually there’s time, money, and perfectionism causing tension during recording sessions. With this project, there hasn’t been any of that. Every session was just musicians trying things and experimenting with confidence because we knew what we were doing.

Judy Collins said in her conversation with you that is included in the liner notes that you “found your way” with your version of her song, “Albatross.” Will you explain the ways your adaptation is different than the original?

Lara Downes and Judy Collins

For one thing, that’s extremely generous for Judy to say. If you listen to her earlier recordings, she’s already traveled to new versions from a song originally rooted in her folk traditions. I think this version takes her back to her classical-piano roots. It’s constructed to give support to the vocal line. Honestly, you can try something new, but when you have the lady in the room — for me it was a leap of faith to go in and hope she’d be generous, open to trying a brand-new thing ... It’s funny, I had the preconception that there was one way with this song, but she didn’t. Judy is an eternal grower and evolver: It’s how she’s lived her life in music. She’s always looked for what’s new. There’s a lesson in there.

This quote from Georgia O'Keeffe gave title to and was your inspiration for the album: “I want real things - live people to take hold of - to see - and talk to - music that makes holes in the sky - I want to love as hard as I can.” What holes in the sky, especially as it relates to women composers, do you believe this music makes?

When I read those words, about big dreams and breaking open the sky and allowing your destiny to be, felt possible. I felt fortunate I’ve been able to create projects that speak to my imagination or the time we live in, or are stories I feel should be told and heard, with connections between people and their histories. I couldn’t have expected this in my musical life. I’m not undoing wrongs: it’s a celebration of the potential that people have. Black women writing music in the 1930s — it wasn’t easy, but still they did it. That creative, powerful urge, that’s the most inspiring thing about being human. In this project, it’s women who just stepped out of their constraints and did something because they needed to do it.

What holes in the sky do you hope it will inspire?

I spend a lot of my time out on the road and at home working with young people and marginalized groups that might not have access to classical music. What has struck me when I listen to young people are their messages of diversity, courage, and creative power. We all have something to say, to express, to give. Lasting, meaningful, moving music comes out of struggle. Whatever our gifts, stories, and messages are, they matter and can contribute importance and beauty to the world. I’ve come to realize that music, art, and literature are less about genius than they are about humanity.

In what ways might having produce this CD change or influence your work?

I’m not going backwards. I’m deeply committed to putting music out in the world that has a bigger meaning than just the music. One of the favorite things I heard while traveling around with Bernstein’s music last year came from conductor Marin Alsop. She said, “For him, it was never about the music. It was about driving out into the world and pulling people in.” I’m not comparing myself to Bernstein, OK? It’s just that it’s stories of courage, survival, and love, that I’m telling.

What’s the latest on your Promise projects and other work involving young people. What are you learning from younger generations?

They just want to be heard. I came off a residency in Washington, D.C., where we were asking students what they learned. They said, no one every asks us who we are. They always ask us who we want to be when we grow up. We just make up things to answer them. They never ask, “Who are you now? What do you want to contribute now? Who are you becoming?” But this project did. Those questions are important for kids to answer too, not just adults.

What scares you about contemporary times?

At times we make improvements in how we treat and respect each other, then we cycle back. Now, there’s discord and lack of compassion. I don’t know if it’s reassuring or terrifying to realize it’s a cycle. It’s hard as a parent, a citizen, to realize we’re in a bad place. At the same time, we’re all trying to work our way out of it. Maybe I should just say I’m scared of spiders? But the truth is, the reason I spend time and effort working with young people, is they remind me you can’t be too scared. They look at the mess we’re making and shrug — and they have a vision for the future and are happy to tell you how they’re going to fix the world.

The obvious balance question: Do you say “Ugh, there is no such thing,” or do you find ways to balance your personal and professional lives?

I think it’s a work in progress. I love the people around me and give all of myself to them, and then I get on a plane. It takes patience and understanding, but this is the air I breathe. I have to do this. The people who love me get that. I’m really happy, and that makes me a fortunate human. This is the first time I’m directly reaching out of the sphere of the arts to nonprofits helping families and women and children. [The album supports nonprofits PLAN International Because I Am A Girl; Women’s Empowerment; and Lower East Side Girls Club.] It’s real. Helping people with homelessness issues means I’m supporting something tangible and urgent and that makes me happy.

What next project are you working on?

Soon I’ll start on a CD of works by Florence Price. We’ve discovered new music. She had tremendous opportunities that came at a price. The music she created is staggering. She was working with the tradition of spirituals and incorporating them into concert music; writing virtuoso, post-Romantic pieces that have spirituals as the source material. Price is effective in both her orchestral and the piano works. She had wonderful flexibility: From little pieces to large fantasies, she was very good at her craft.