Women Composers Unbound: Four New Recordings

Allan Kozinn on November 19, 2019

The classical-music world has been making an effort — in some cases a real one, in others little more than a sclerotic attempt to create the appearance of making an effort while actually doing very little — to redress its neglect of female composers over the last eight centuries or so. For the mainstream repertory, this is going to be a tough but by no means impossible job: from Hildegard of Bingen through Barbara Strozzi, Clara Wieck Schumann, Amy Cheney Beach, and Ruth Crawford Seeger, there have always been women who commanded the respect of their male colleagues, and whose work has been preserved, even as most women were actively discouraged from pursuing composition.

Preservation is an issue in this endeavor: works that weren’t valued in their time are often lost, and it’s hard to build an alternative history or repertory if the materials can no longer be found. Works by men whose music was not regarded as top drawer in their day but who, like Mahler, believed that their time would come, are often preserved in libraries, at universities or publishers’ archives, and they stand a chance of being rediscovered and championed.

Lilian Elkington

But consider the case of Lilian Elkington, a British composer born in 1900. A piano prodigy as a child, Elkington studied composition and started on what might have been a promising career, in a different time and place. But when she married, in 1926, she gave up her musical ambitions, apart from playing organ at her local church. After her death, in 1969, her husband remarried, and when he died, her scores were disposed of.

I heard one of them, Out of the Mist — a moving, beautifully-wrought 1921 tone poem that evokes a vision of a flotilla rising from the mists over the English Channel, bearing the body of Britain’s Unknown Soldier — at a concert by the Portland Symphony Orchestra, in Maine, in September. But that was possible only through a series of flukes. The performance materials for the work ended up in a British used book shop, where the musicologist David J. Brown happened upon them in the 1970s. Intrigued by the piece, Brown bought the materials and prepared a performing edition. The conductor Eckart Preu had programmed it with the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra and the Spokane Symphony, and when he became music director in Portland, this year, he included it in his inaugural program.

The rest of Elkington’s output is lost, and Out of the Mist was good enough to make that seem tragic. But there are probably a great many more Elkingtons whose works have not yet been stumbled upon — or were simply discarded — and for anyone trying seriously to present a more expansive and inclusive view musical history, that’s a significant handicap.

The composer Rob Deemer, at the State University of New York, at Fredonia, compiled a database of about 3,000 female composers that demonstrates the hurdles even the most conscientious mainstream organizations face. Of the 3,000, all but about 450 are still alive, and many of the 450 who are no longer with us, died in recent decades. (That said, Deemer seems to have missed Elkington, so the numbers are likely to be fluid as the project, now part of Fredonia’s Institute for Composer Diversity, continues.)

As Deemer’s database makes clear (and even quantifies), in new music, the playing field is considerably more level, at least, in terms of getting works commissioned, performed, recorded, and rewarded with prizes like the Pulitzer or Grawemeyer (although both remain dominated by men). You can argue that change isn’t happening quickly enough, but in new music, women have a more powerful voice, collectively and individually, than in any other corner of the classical music world.

Amy Beach

This era in musical history is also probably the best time ever for women to assert themselves. Until our times, after all, there was a common practice — a musical lingua franca — that virtually all composers adopted. Obviously, there were individual stylistic quirks that made certain composers’ styles instantly identifiable, and there were outliers and experimenters, like Gesualdo, who bent the rules according to their own lights. But for the most part, ideas about harmony, rhythm, and musical syntax were relatively uniform within an era, so individual hallmarks notwithstanding, Barbara Strozzi composed in the same musical language as Monteverdi, just as Amy Beach’s music sounds at home beside the music of Brahms or Dvořák. And although critics and musicologists have turned summersaults trying point to elements that might be identified as male or female compositional traits, those attempts are fanciful at best.

But today, composition is a thoroughly polyglot endeavor in which styles — minimalism (in several varieties), serialism (also in several varieties), neo-classicism, neo-romanticism, even an odd kind of neo-medievalism, not to mention elements of jazz and rock —coexist not only in the new-music world at large, but sometimes within the catalogues of individual composers. If feminine (or feminist) styles are going to emerge, that kind of freedom is a prerequisite.

It might be possible to make the case, based on a handful of recent discs devoted mostly to music for strings by Jessica Meyer, Hannah Lash, Jessica Pavone, and Clarice Jensen, that women take a different approach than men to thematic transformation, harmonic fluidity, intonation, and the use of drones, among other characteristics. Personally, I prefer to hear their innovations as matters of their personal compositional styles, rather than a matter of gender, but your mileage may vary, and the bottom line is that each of these composers has taken a fresh, invigorating approach to musical language, and produced something that sounds thoroughly new, yet also part of the extended tradition.

Jessica Meyer | Credit: Ana Pinto

Jessica Meyer is the violist in the new-music collective counter)induction, a New York group that includes a core ensemble for performances, non-playing composers who are on the roster and write for the ensemble, and musicians like Meyer, who both play and compose. Her collection, Ring Out (Bright Shiny Things) is a superb introductory sampler that touches on a variety of Meyer’s compositional concerns.

Elements of her distinctive compositional voice come through immediately on the disc’s opening track. But Not Until (2014) is a viola and cello duet that Meyer plays with Andrew Yee, cellist of the Attacca Quartet. On one hand, it’s not surprising that a violist writes so vividly for strings, but though it’s tempting to call her writing idiomatic, simply because the lines move so easily and naturally, there is something more here: Meyer seems intent on providing something beyond the lush tone and arching lines that string fanciers love.

Her music is assertive, and constantly in flux. Unison figures quickly grow into independent lines, and dynamic shifts are as likely to be sudden as gradual. At times, an uncentered intonation hints at an Asian folk style. But most striking is the smoothly flowing stream of passages in which the contrasts between the viola and cello lines are stark – tremolando against pizzicato, sustained tones against bending pitches, short, sharp pitches against long notes — but always tightly interlocking.

Yee is heard on his own on Released (2014), for solo cello in a scordatura tuning. Inspired by the death of a friend’s mother in a highway accident, the piece is Meyer’s imagined account of an accident victim’s awareness during her final moments. Within the varied cello line, you hear percussive bow sounds over an ominous sustained tone, light pizzicato detailing, eerie artificial harmonics (heard almost as distant echoes, in pauses during a more robust theme), and some aggressive burst of quick bowing, suggesting shifting levels of consciousness and reaction, but the “release” of the title is an acceptance of the inevitable, portrayed in an impassioned, rising figure that becomes a plangent, single-line theme with a repeating, plucked bass note tolling beneath it.

For the three-movement string trio, I Only Speak of the Sun (2018), Meyer is joined by the violinist Miranda Cuckson and the cellist Caleb van der Swaagh, both members of counter)induction, and seemingly attuned to Meyer’s fascination with high-contrast juxtapositions. As in But Not Until, she makes full use of the techniques available to her, so within the trio texture you’re likely to hear a graceful viola melody surrounded by a racing violin figure (sometimes in harmonics) and a cello line that moves briskly between bowed and pizzicato figures, the full texture sometimes punctuated with tactile martellato effects, descending glissandi, or brusque strumming.

This is a lot of activity, and Meyer seems not to think in terms of themes and accompaniments, but rather of morphing textures and a sense of forward-pushing drama (with a healthy measure of instrumental virtuosity in the mix). You “feel” a sense of narrative, and if you have no idea what the narrative is about, it doesn’t matter: the speed at which the music changes, without losing coherence, is a kind of drama in itself. 

Still, a more traditional narrative approach animates Seasons of Basho (2015), a song cycle scored for countertenor (Nicholas Temagna), viola (Meyer), and piano (Adam Marks). The text is drawn from poetry by Matsuo Basho, with groups of Basho’s haiku representing the seasons, which in turn chart the progress of a love affair. Temagna brings a nuanced tone to the partly sung, partly spoken vocal line, but much of the action, so to speak, is in the colorful viola and piano writing, which matches and occasionally exceeds the intensity of the vocal writing.

Only a Beginning (2015), for violin (Cuckson) and viola (Meyer), is a meditation on sacrifice (written after a summer when the composer was reading Gandhi while rehearsing for a production of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites) that begins with a surprisingly conventional, melancholy theme, but soon veers toward a greater chromaticism and structural complexity. And the closing work, Ring Out, Wild Bells (2017), performed by the adventurous vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, brings together chromatic harmonies, the note-bending that is among the signature moves in some of her string writing, and plangent, modal themes that call to mind Eastern European folk music.

Hannah Lash

Hannah Lash uses more traditionally modernist techniques — and a brasher approach to harmony — in the works on Filigree (New Focus), a collection of her music performed by the JACK Quartet. But even so, her works are framed inventively, and in a way that shows a curiosity about the whole of music history, rather than just recent trends. For example, Frayed, the short work that opens the disc, has an antique, vibrato-free sound, at first — almost as if a piece of Medieval music had wandered into the present to tentatively state its case. Lash soon allows the sound to blossom, first allowing a warm tone, with vibrato, then adding a plucked bassline that gives it a fleetingly jazzy feel, and then punctuating the opening chord progression with frenetic, high anxiety bursts of aggressive bowing, full-ensemble pizzicato, sliding notes, and even brief passages that are bowed so hard as to be nearly toneless.

If the opening bars of Filigree hint at neo-Medievalism, Lash’s playful Suite: Remembered and Imagined looks backward more overtly, its six movements named for the dances in a Baroque suite. For the most part, Baroque music fanciers will have to work hard to find the contours of the eras dances within these movements; even the closing “Menuet antique et fragile” has so many displaced beats and unpredictable rhythms that you can’t quite picture the actual dance.

That said, after an Allemande that seems oddly mechanistic at first, but comes to be a spiky riot of stratospheric pitches and low-end pizzicato, the Courante is downright antique, built around ascending and descending scales. Not that this simplicity lasts long. Lash tinkers with speeds and harmony, pushing the dance into a more up-to-date realm before moving to a dark, menacing Sarabande, a brisk, chromatic Gavotte, and a largely tonal Gigue, in which all four instruments play tightly interlocking pizzicato lines.

The hard-driven, rhythmically steady bowing that opens Pulse-space melds a Minimalist impulse to an acerbic harmonic language and a shifting tension level. Even when repetition gives way to sudden (and dramatic) change, the work’s energy level and rugged emotional power never lets up.

JACK Quartet

Lash composed the album’s closing work, Filigree in Textile, for JACK and the harpist Yolanda Kondonassis. But Lash is also a harpist (Kondonassis was one of her teachers), and on the recording, she plays the harp line, which stands out nicely against the quartet texture (and sometimes blends seamlessly with it.) Here, too, there is a hint of medievalism in some of Lash’s string melodies, occasioned, perhaps, by the fact that Lash was inspired by both the illustrative tapestries of the era, and early counterpoint.

The movements, “Gold,” “Silver,” and “Silk,” are bright, energetic, and inviting, but their real attraction is that they are so changeable — stylistically, harmonically and rhythmically — that even after several hearings, they continue to surprise.

Jessica Pavone | Credit: Ryuhei Shindo

Jessica Pavone, like Jessica Meyer, is a violist, although Pavone also performs on the violin and electric bass, and has worked over the last two decades with ensembles of all sorts: a duo with the jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson, experimental art-rock band JOBS (formerly killer BOB), the jazz pianist Anthony Braxton’s Tri-Centric Orchestra, and various new-music ensembles. The Jessica Pavone String Ensemble, with which she recorded her new Brick and Mortar (Birdwatcher Records), was founded in 2017, and includes Pavone and Joanna Mattrey on violas and Erica Dicker and Angela Morris on violins.

Brick and Mortar follows quickly on the heels of In the Action (Relative Pitch Records), a fascinating collection of four works for solo viola, including a couple of works in which the viola’s sound is processed to create a distorted, crackling drone. On the new set, her ensemble’s timbres are unprocessed, but her compositional accent — variations on classic Minimalism (consonant, overall, with repeated tones and short figures morphing over time, both gradually and with occasional sudden pivot points where rhythms, tempos, or even repeating cells suddenly change) — is similar. And though it’s not clear whether the album’s five works are independent, or intended to be heard in sequence, as a set they build in complexity.

Hurt and Hurdle, the opening piece, begins with stark repetition of a single tone, but moves toward a simple but arresting two-note figure that, over the course of the piece, is heard in several registers and keys. But though that figure catches the ear, the real interest is in the material Pavone weaves around it and the tempo changes that interrupt and distort it.

Lullaby and Goodnight begins even more simply, with a steady, repeated viola tone, but becomes a slow-moving but rich contrapuntal texture. The viola opens the title track as well, this time with a sustained tone that shifts gradually in timbre, before the violins and other viola join with pitches that transform the original tone into an uneasy chord. That chord shimmers as the newly added lines become independently undulating minor thirds. In the end, those lines fall away, leaving a steady, sustained tone and, in a quaintly old-fashioned touch, a single, mezzo-piano final chord.

Sooner or Later is a bit thornier: instead of building the work around an unadorned repeated tone or chord, Pavone has the violins play a brisk figure that sounds like it would be at home in a track by a Celtic band, underpinned by a viola figure built around a major second. After a few moments repetition, this group of lines takes on a bagpipe quality — but then stops suddenly, as if in mid-breath, giving way to an involved viola line that becomes the central pillar of an attractive contrapuntal structure (the counterpoint, however, taking the form of short repeated figures in each of the ensemble’s lines).

The repeating two-chord figure that opens By and Large is more dissonant than anything heard in the first four pieces (although it mirrors some of the music on In the Action, in that regard). But that dissonant cell evaporates as a melancholy theme in sustained tones takes over. That theme is played in unison, at first, but is gradually harmonized before Pavone pushes it toward an oddly Coplandesque episode, then a rich (if brief) patch of Dvorák-like Romanticism and, in the final bars, a return to a dissonant chord that leaves the work dangling without a sense of clear resolution.

Clarice Jensen | Credit: Ryuhei Shindo

The latest from Clarice Jensen, the cellist and composer who is also the artistic director of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), is Drone Studies (Geographic North) — although as the album’s two works demonstrate, Jensen’s approach to drones is unusually colorful and varied, and make the most of the aural illusions that drones almost invariably yield.

The Organ That Made You Bleed, for example, is essentially a suite in which the drone at the heart of each of the connected movements has a distinct character. The first is a densely harmonized single chord, for a choir. But although the chord is sustained for nearly three minutes, its texture fluctuates continuously, perhaps because the singers breathe at different times, or perhaps because the sound is being subtly manipulated, electronically (electrics being part of Jensen’s arsenal in other works). By the two-minute mark, the chord has virtually lost its human quality, not because its timbral characteristics have changed, but because the farther you get from the attack, the less identifiable the sound source is: the chord could just as easily be massed violins, or brasses, or electronic tones.

Similarly, you find yourself wondering whether the next two sections, which present a lower pitched, almost growling chord, and a third chord in the middle range, are actually the original chord slowed down. Not that it really matters, and in any case, the third section has a faint organ underpinning, something you could almost miss because Jensen’s sound source is so deliberately indistinct. It is only in the work’s closing section, where a hazy dissonant shimmer is transformed into a clear, consonant, pulsing organ chord, that you become fully convinced that the organ timbre in the earlier section is not an illusion.

The album’s remaining work, One Bee, for cello and electronics, is not so much a drone, in the conventional sense, as a piece built of slow-moving tones and thematic cells. A single tone blossoms into an electronic chord, which pulses as other tones join and leave the cluster, the cello sounding distant and tentative within the changing electronic sound. Jensen’s cello, playing a steady, repeating, six-note figure, moves more fully into the light, but it is rarely entirely alone: electronic tones join and fade away, as do subsidiary cello lines, holding sustained and sometimes clashing tones.

Ultimately, the piece — both pieces, really — seem to be less about drones, though they are present, or minimalist repetition, though the cello line in One Bee qualifies, than about the shifting relationship between layers of acoustic and electronic timbres.