Women Composers


Read on for a transcript of my interview with Sakari Dixon (now Sakari Dixon Vanderveer), which appeared as episode 7 of my podcast Sound Meets Sound:

MW: Welcome Sakari Dixon to the Sound Meets Sound Podcast thank you very much for joining me and can you just give me a short description of who you are and what it is you do?

SD: Yeah, my name is Sakari Dixon and I am a violist and composer out in Redlands California. Like many musicians I have my time split between teaching, performing and composing. I do a lot of each throughout the week. I am currently working on a couple pieces, one for viola and piano and another for orchestra. I’m performing in different orchestras around here such as the Redlands Community Orchestra and the Redlands Symphony as well. And then I also teach independently and out in San Jacinto with an El Sistema group, so, it’s pretty fun.

MW: That’s cool, that sounds like every musician I’ve talked to on this podcast. They’re doing a million things. So, it’s just the life of the musician. I was reading online your bio and it says you started composing in middle school, is that right?

SD: That is correct. I think the very first time I was introduced into composition was in fifth grade — you know just a little assignment — put a whole note here a half note there, really random. But when it really started to take off was in middle school, we had this project where we would team up with the visual art students and we got into little groups of I think three or four. What we did was we came up with a theme of some sort and then we worked on a painting together and wrote a piece to go with it. After realizing that there was music software in our library at school, I started continuing to play around with it in an after school program when I had free time. And so I was writing duets for friends and things like that.

MW: Oh cool, do you remember what the software was?

SD: It was Finale Allegro.

MW: Alright. So that’s really cool. Is your process a lot different — obviously it probably is — than when you were in middle school. I’m just trying to get to the question of what is your compositional process? How does it start? Do you work directly into a program or do you make notes first?

SD: Interestingly enough I do still attach my composition either to an image in my mind or at least to a vague narrative. I wouldn’t say a lot of my music is programmatic in the sense that oh, this happens here or there but I do tend to have somewhat of a picture in my mind. Which is funny because I haven’t really done much drawing or painting since I was little. I would be embarrassed to draw anything now. A lot of it does kind of have something visual attached to it or a feeling or things like that. I normally start writing on paper actually. I find that it’s less distracting and I also tend to do a lot of scribbling and here’s a little bit of this section and a little bit of that. So it’s actually a real nuisance to start putting things in right away. I also find that especially working on a laptop you also have this small screen, it does kind of skew your perceptions of phrase length and things like that so I try to stay away from it early on. I also tend to do a little bit of improvising, maybe find a melody, put this in somewhere and work off of that. I guess what I think is pretty odd — I don’t know, maybe it’s really normal — A lot of times I’ll come up with a melody, a little idea, and then especially if that piece isn’t for a deadline it just kind of sits there. And then I’ll get distracted with something else, and then when I actually need it, it’s like oh year I wrote this one violin melody a while back maybe let’s see, I’ll go dig it up and then work from there. I guess it’s a little less daunting than dealing with a purely blank page.

MW: Right, it’s like little gifts you’re giving to your future self.

SD: That’s a good way to put it yeah.

MW: Blank page or the blank score is really intimidating and sometimes all you have in a moment is that little germ, you know that little melody or seed or whatever. Sometimes you don’t want to force it into anything, you want to let it sit for a while. So then, once you have the ideas that you’re doing and you’ve sort of done a sketch, how do you go about really flushing that out into a final piece? What are you thinking about in terms of structure? Cause for me I write little electronic pieces and the hardest part for me is structuring it. Is it something that happens organically or do you really think about, okay this will happen here and this will happen here?

SD: I would say it’s about fifty-fifty, I definitely struggle with structure as well. If you see a lot of my paper sketches, this is going to go somewhere in the middle of the piece and that maybe towards the end. I often don’t have an idea until things start to get filled out a little bit more. Then it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, oh, this makes more sense here. It’s funny I was working on something the other day — my viola and piano piece — and I thought it would be closer to the beginning and once I started developing it out, no this, it’s not really developing, it’s more calmed down, it needs to go towards the end. It’s definitely all over the place.

MW: How is it that you think about development? Is it that one line happens and then the way the next instrument or line layers with that determines the next thing or is it more all at once? A texture at once? — Is that making any sense?

SD: Yeah, it’s making sense. I do tend to think in a linear or layered fashion. I have a piece feRal for saxophone and string trio and that was definitely a lot of the — when I was writing it a lot of the saxophone came first and then strings were commenting on everything in a way. And then there were some parts where the viola has a melody, it’s taking over, then I wrote the context around that. So it’s more a linear fashion in that sense.

MW: Yeah, that’s what I was noticing when I was relistening through the pieces and especially feRal — and it’s easy because you have a YouTube with the score — so you can see how the lines are going together. I want to ask you about these two pieces you mentioned, for orchestra and viola and piano. So with the viola and piano, viola I can see that’s your primary instrument, and I assume it’s probably relatively natural to write for you — or maybe it’s not, correct me if I’m wrong — but I’m also curious about how you write for piano, as a single line instrumentalist. How do you accomplish writing for piano?

SD: It’s funny that you said that viola would come naturally, cause it does. In my lessons Rina — the lady that I study with — pointed out that I often start writing melodies in alto clef. Which is also interesting because I actually started on violin so it’s not like I can’t read treble or bass it’s just that I often tend to think of melodies from that mid voice range, that kind of speaking voice register. Piano has definitely been more of a challenge for me because I haven’t as much for piano. I’m finding that it’s forcing me to think more texturally, of course you can do melody with piano but that’s not really, you’re missing out on so much if you just approach it from that standpoint.

MW: You kind of answered one of the questions I was going to ask, which was how does being a violist influence the way that you compose? You were saying that the mid voice range, the viola also has to my ear, a very unique timbre. Even separate from the other string instruments, the viola has this very unique timbre that’s kind of like a speaking voice. It’s a little — I can’t think of the—Megan Lavengood just wrote a dissertation on timbre and I really need to read it, I don’t have the words for this. I have it to read but I just haven’t read it yet. It’s kind of a rich but grainy texture to me. You had mentioned texture in the piano so, how do you think about texture? How do you think about it and how do you get it onto the page?

SD: Yeah I definitely, I like to kind of play with — It’s funny because you start talking about timbre and all the words, it’s like you’re describing the thing but you’re not really describing the thing. I actually, what I’ll do sometimes is I’ll just simply — along with the sketches of the piece I’ll have a melody and just some notes I’ll start writing things in like glassy or sparkly and things like that and then find techniques or registers to fit with it. So I guess I work backwards from — I was going to say plain English but that’s not really plain — I’ll find more poetic terms and then find something to communicate that if that makes sense.

MW: It makes total sense. It’s funny, if you say glassy sound you can kind of hear that. It’s enough to say that I want sparkly or glassy or roughy or whatever. So then the orchestra piece, talk about timbre. How are you approaching — again there’s the question of structure — but then the instrumentation are you writing for a full orchestra here or is it more of a chamber orchestra or modified orchestra?

SD: This one’s for a full orchestra, including harp. There’s a lot of that in there, which is fun. It’s another one of those pieces that’s starting out — I think it was originally for violin — I wrote a melody and then just left it in a notebook somewhere and then decided I wanted to work on this piece. That melody is actually — I’m trying to think of one time that it’s played plainly in the violin at this point — because it’s like, I want to move it around to this instrument, or split it up between a bunch of different ones. Working with an orchestra, it’s interesting because there’s so much available in that palette. You can’t just start everything in there. So I’m having to think a little bit more about, not just what’s practical because I want it to be at a level that a good community orchestra could play it. I’m not only thinking about what’s practical but what are the strengths of different instruments, what combinations of instruments playing the same line, can create new colors, it’s been a fun experiment.

MW: Are you pretty good hearing these things in your head or do you use a notation program or a digital workstation to plug these things in and test?

SD: Yeah for the most part I do my best to try to hear it in my head. I find that especially in a piece like this where timbre is so central I have a lot of it in Sibelius right now but when I’m creating material I try to stay away from it because you start to hear squeaky sounding entrances, it skews your perception of what it’s actually going to sound like and so it’s hard to trust it. I find especially because I still perform pretty actively and probably the majority of the performance stuff that I do is in orchestra. I try to do my best even when I’m in rehearsal — if there’s a moment that I like — how is this being put together here? A similar thing even when I just go watch other concerts I try to really lean in and see, they have this going at the same time as that.

MW: I always wish I had learned a string instrument because you’re in the orchestra, you kind of have a leg up as a composer. As a violist in orchestras do you play mostly canon repertoire? Or are the groups you play in playing contemporary music as well?

SD: I do play a lot of repertoire in the canon but one of the reasons that I joined the Redlands Community Orchestra — besides the face that it’s super local and convenient — is the fact that I initially heard that they were having a call for scores. They’ve been doing this every other year or so. They started it even before I joined. They draw from pieces from local composers, so people going to universities or living in the area. So it’s nice to get to meet people who are — composers who are here. There are a good handful of composers who are in the group, which is nice. The conductor is also good about choosing programs that are — yeah there’s something canonical, like Beethoven five or something, everybody knows that. But he’ll also choose something that’s slightly off the beaten path that is probably a great piece for the audience to know and also for the musicians to learn, so it’s great to have that mix as well. I find that it gives a lot of variety.

MW: I didn’t know where Redlands was until I looked it up for this interview.

SD: That’s okay, that’s most people.

MW: I was going to ask about what kind of community you have around you, in Redlands? If you feel like you’re hooked into an artistic scene or community or do you spend a lot of time hooking into other cities’ scenes — like Chicago, New York, Baltimore? I think every podcast I’ve done so far talked a lot about community because it’s really hard to exist alone as a musician.

SD: That is true.

MW: Do you feel like you’re part of a community in Redlands?

SD: I do. It’s a relatively small town. I guess to say compared to San Bernardino and Riverside and other places nearby it’s a town where there’s a lot of tradition and people who have been here for generations so there’s a lot of that small town spirit in a way. Which is interesting because driving through it’s not that small but it feels small. You go to Trader Joe’s and run into three people. I would say the music community here is pretty strong. There’s the Redlands Community Orchestra and a lot of people there are pretty tight knit as friends. There’s also another small chamber orchestra that I perform with called Musica Viva, it’s a small chamber orchestra and actually a chamber choir as well. So we get together and do concerts, there’s also the Spinet Club which I’m part of and — it’s over a hundred years old this organization. Basically, once a month we’ll meet, someone will host maybe at their house or a church or if they have access to some other facility they’ll host these little recitals. It’s nice because there’s this built in audience and we’ll usually have a reception or potluck. I feel that the music community is a little more hidden compared to say, going to LA where you see performances everywhere. It’s there and everyone kind of knows everyone, it’s really fun.

MW: When you finish the viola and piano piece, do you have performers in mind? Is that something that will come later?

SD: So that piece, I’m going to perform it with a pianist in the Spinet Club in January. So It’s coming soon.

MW: It’s always nice when you have a built in performance. In January, oh my gosh that’s so soon. And you’ll perform the viola part. Do you have plans for recording or are you more in the writing phase and you’ll think about recording later?

SD: I’m a little more in the writing phase right now. I definitely want to record it, it’s just nice to have good recordings of everything.

MW: I guess I’m a little curious about your teaching. Is the teaching a big part of your musical life or is that just something you’re doing to — not necessarily just for the money — but something you’re doing because you need to have these other activities going on? Or is teaching something you’re really passionate about, how do you approach that?

SD: It does help that teaching is relatively really consistent financially but I actually really do like teaching. I don’t remember if I mentioned that I teach both viola and violin and I have a handful of individual students and some students in the after school El Sistema program. I find that it’s really enlightening and refreshing to see really young people especially approach learning an instrument with new eyes and ears. It’s almost easy to forget — even though I didn’t start that young I started around nine or so — it’s easy to forget being in that season of your life. Where, why don’t I hold the bow this way, this feels more comfortable?

MW: I’ve always heard and in my experience too, as a teacher you learn from your students. That’s what I was forgetting, I wanted to ask you what is your experience with El Sistema? What is it — I don’t really know what it’s about? Do you mind talking about that?

SD: Yeah I can talk a little bit. I’m actually fairly new to working at it so I’ll do my best. I started working with the program over the summer. They have a one month summer strings academy that was held in a local arts center in Hemet. At least in this program the kids come to class two or three times a week, depending on their level. Before they can even get their instruments they’ll make cardboard instruments and they learn a little bit about music theory as well, which is nice because I’m really into having that well rounded kind of learning and not just here’s how to put your finger there. There’s a strong communal aspect as well because they involve the parents really early and the parents are volunteering and helping out with things. I think that’s what I find most notable about the program is that strong communal aspect. There’s someone to support them all the way through.

MW: I don’t know if you had this but from ages ten until college I always felt kind of less than — “I didn’t start early enough”, when I got to college I really started to feel like the people around me had been playing when they were in the womb. It seems very daunting. Did you feel like you were behind or was your experience different especially when you got to college?

SD: I would say it’s probably very similar actually. I started learning in public schools and at that point I wasn’t very self conscious of it because everyone I knew that was playing violin or cello was in the same kind of program. It started to occur to me that I was a little behind the pack so to speak when I was doing honor orchestras or other local competitions and realizing that these kids have had private lessons since they were two.

MW: Your degree is in composition or is it in viola?

SD: Yes, it’s in composition.

MW: Did you start college thinking “I’m going to be a composer” or did you start as a violist and then decide to move to composition?

SD: When I auditioned it was for composition. At the University of Redlands they are pretty adamant about having their composers still be performers. Which I wanted to do anyway. I still auditioned on viola and I was still in orchestra and all the other things. I did a recital on viola as well. Originally I wasn’t sure if I was just going to do composition or if I was going to do a double major. I decided that would be too overwhelming because I was also doing a Spanish minor. You can only juggle so much. I did composition and made sure I took lessons and did a lot of the performance stuff along the way.

MW: Did you do a lot of that in college, working with a specific flair and developing a piece with an instrumentalist or have you done much of that?

SD: Probably most of my pieces were like that in college. For example the piece feRal for alto saxophone and string trio, I think I started writing it at the beginning of my senior year. I literally put up a poster in August in the music department hallway, “Who wants a piece and is willing to perform it?”. It was a silly little wanted poster.

MW: I like that.

SD: My friend Kelsey approached me and she wanted a piece. We originally were thinking of doing a saxophone concerto but it wasn’t going to be done in time for the — there was a concerto competition but it was in November. Pretty soon we realized, that’s really really soon so let’s do it for the spring and we can do a chamber ensemble. At that point I realized I still kind of want that saxophone and strings sound so I just reduced it to — it was originally for string quartet and then I decided I didn’t need two violins so I even reduced it from there. So it was fun writing little sketches and taking it to her to see what it would sound like or having her play a melody and growl along with it. I also have another piece for bass, flute and percussion and that one was commissioned by another student — the bassist. He came to me and wanted a chamber piece so I got to work with him on that.

MW: Is that Oak or — I’m trying to remember which one.

SD: Bailando en la sombra de locura — Dancing in the Shadows of Madness.

MW: I know a little Spanish, I know it’s dancing. That’s right, I listened to that piece. It’s interesting you said that about feRal because when I was listening to it — it’s interesting that it started as a concerto because I was like “this is a really good show piece for an alto saxophonist”. It really shows the range of the player, obviously she was really good. It had that concerto vibe and even kind of a mini cadenza. Bailando, I liked the textures in that piece, when you’re writing for bass it’s also kind of writing for classical guitar because they’re not very loud instruments. That sets a lot of — not necessarily in a negative way but — it sets limitations on what you can do if you’re trying to showcase the bass.

SD: It’s not as boomy as people expect and that’s a problem.

MW: Because in an orchestra there’s five, six, seven of them. That’s why they sound that strong. Those are interesting challenges to take on as a composer — from my perspective anyways — writing for alto sax and bass because those aren’t really standard solo instruments.

SD: That’s true — now that I think about it — that is true.

MW: Those are interesting challenges to take on. I forget the details now — you did something about, in reaction to a NewMusicBox article about ageism in the classical world. There was something about writing for composers over forty?

SD: Oh yeah. There was a call for scores for composers over forty. The article, I think it was simply titled “Agism in New Music” and I read it and I — I had kind of heard of the topic before but I hadn’t really thought about it that deeply I guess. So I was kind of, really impulsive and I was like, I’m just going to put up a blog post and say “Hey, let’s do this”.

MW: That’s great!

SD: It was pretty impulsive.

MW: Those impulsive things, you have the impulse for a reason. As a developed musician you have instincts so why not use them? So it was a call for scores for you as a violist to play music for composers over forty. You got a lot of submissions and you chose three of them?

SD: I only opened the call for about three weeks because I actually wanted to take the time to go through what I would get. It was mainly — I also did a short call because I really wanted to perform stuff that people had already written. Some things were written really recently or — I guess some wrote them in that time but — a lot of them were pieces that were completed previously and I got, I think it was over ninety pieces. Which really shocked me and I did listen through them. So I picked three pieces from there and I’m actually still in the process of working to put that on as a recital or something. At the time that I did that call for scores I was working full time in an office job and still teaching lessons and whatnot. Honestly most of my practicing was “okay there’s this orchestra concert coming up”, a lot more short sighted stuff. So my work schedule didn’t change up until around this spring or so. I’m finally starting to get back into composing more and working on side projects and trying to start some chamber music things, that’ll be nice. It’s still on my music stand.

MW: If you’re all listening it’s still there.

SD: I haven’t forgotten.

MW: Yeah that time management thing has come up a lot too in the podcast, about balancing things teaching and the need to pay bills but also really nourishing — giving the time to the things you actually want to do with your life. What are your long term goals — as a musician, composer, violist — what is on the distant horizon or what would you like to be on the distant horizon?

SD: I definitely see myself doing music full time at some point. Whether that’s teaching, performing I’m very comfortable with the idea of it being a mixture of multiple things. It’s actually gotten to the point even if I could find one job that paid all the bills, even if it wasn’t music, just one thing I think I’d get really bored — that’s kind of scary to me.

MW: I know what you mean.

SD: I definitely see myself doing that full time. I really like chamber music and new music and I hope to be able to work with ensembles and collectives to get that going on a more regular basis. It’s kind of my dream at some point to have maybe a teaching program for kids not only learn to perform and learn to read music but also were very active in composition because kids are so open minded. They’re not afraid to make weird sounds. Even some of the kids that I’ve taught in private lessons, sometimes they’ll bring me music for an audition or something — it’s a middle school piece but maybe it has a random five-four bar — I’ve seen adults that say “why is this here?” and the kids are like “how do I play this? Oh that sounds cool.” They’re just so flexible. I think getting really on people to compose is really underestimated. I hope to be able to give that back.

MW: Thank you Sakari Dixon for being on Sound Meets Sound. I’m really looking forward to what comes next with you.

SD: Thank you for having me on the show.

Excerpt from feRal by Sakari Dixon

Transcript by Melissa Goodchild https://goodchildgradyduo.squarespace.com/

I proposed the following paper to the Society for Music Theory’s 2018 national conference but it wasn’t accepted. Because I did do quite a bit of reading and creating/staring at spectrograms for it, I thought I’d share it here for anyone else who’s interested in studying timbre. It’s a very nascent analysis, so feedback and thoughts are welcome!

A formal analysis of Kaija Saariaho’s Du Cristal achieved through the spectral identification of timbral structures

Taking the recorded object as the basis for analysis, I capture and analyze spectrograms from Kaija Saariaho’s Du Cristal in order to characterize its spectral profile, develop a method for functional interpretation based on this profile, and elucidate the piece’s formal structure. This undertaking will provide answers to some of the questions that Saariaho herself poses in her writings about the ability of timbre to carry formal structure. I use Megan Lavengood’s methodology as the basis for my timbral analysis of Du Cristal. Lavengood’s use of contextual oppositions (as opposed to a priori oppositions) to define markedness and unmarkedness particularly suits my purpose.

I pair Lavengood’s methodology with Saariaho’s theory of spectral form, which posits that timbre meets the criteria for “form-bearing elements in music” (ICMC 1985) and that there exists the possibility for directional musical tension along a “sound/noise axis” (CRM 1987). In her writings from the 1980s Saariaho seems concerned with creating a hierarchy of timbre; this is where she and I part ways. My study focuses not on attempting to discern hierarchical classifications of Du Cristal’s timbral structures but rather on oppositions (a concept used by both Lavengood and Saariaho) and interpreting the piece’s unmarked and marked structures within its own sound world.

Within the sound world of 1980s pop music Lavengood posits the timbral profile of a clean electric guitar as being unmarked. For Du Cristal’s sound world I define unmarkedness by the overall timbral profile of the piece: “noise” (per Sarraiaho, diffuse and rough) is unmarked and “sound” is marked (pure and smooth). I refine these terms by layering onto them the specificity of Lavengood’s definitions for the noisy/pure sustain opposition, and add into my analysis her soft/percussive attack opposition and rich/sparse pitch opposition. Each of the terms to the left of the slash represent the unmarked sound of Du Cristal.

Example 1 is an annotated spectrogram of 8:25-10:30 of Du Cristal, in which I label the spectral characteristics present. This section, while containing for the most part the unmarked qualities of noisy and rich, is marked by a series of percussive attacks, whose rate of occurrence increases into a period of extreme richness and amplitude. The opening transition is characterized by the amplitude of the frequencies moving downward, while the closing transition is characterized by the reverse.

saariaho_smt2018_ex1.jpg

Example 2 is an annotated spectrogram of 11:30-12:50 of Du Cristal. It is unmarked by its noisy sustain and soft attacks, but contains several marked moments of sparseness. Similar to Example 1, the rate of occurrence of the unmarked quality increases into a loud and rich apex. The opening transition is characterized by relatively pure sustain ending abruptly in relative sparseness, while the closing transition is an extended moment of stasis, characterized by the disappearance of the sparse moments.

saariaho_smt2018_ex2-1-e1551296478653.jpg

I analyze the entire piece in this manner, i.e., by locating patterns in marked timbral events and extrapolating small and large-scale patterns therefrom. This enables me to perform an interpretation of the overall form of Du Cristal.

Works cited

Stephen McAdams and Kaija Saariaho (1985) “Qualities and Functions of Musical Timbre,” Proceedings of the International Computer Music Conference, 367­­-374

Kaija Saariaho (1987) “Timbre and harmony: Interpolations of timbral structures,”

Contemporary Music Review, 2:1, 93-133

Megan Lavengood (2017) A New Approach to the Analysis of Timbre, diss., The City University of New York

 

Music composed for a deep listening that fixes you in the present has fascinated me for well over a decade now. As someone who is constantly thinking of the past or the future, I find it incredibly challenging to stay with the present. When I do manage to rise to the challenge I always find it transformative, and I’ve never risen to that challenge without the help of present-focused music.

We Who Walk Again by Ghost Ensemble—released on May 18th—is full of such music. Indeed, the ensemble “takes as a common touchstone the Deep Listening practice of Pauline Oliveros,” whose work Angels and Demons is featured. Beautifully performed and recorded, these unique pieces get their full due on this album.

60 Degree Mirrors by Sky Macklay (also the oboist on this recording)

After an abrupt full-ensemble pulsation, shards of high, biting clusters cut through sparser moments and the occasional swooping scalar motion, evoking the kaleidoscope implied by the title. Towards the middle of the piece these high clusters take over the texture, the piercing sounds demanding your attention without ever moving you forward in time; that is, keeping you in the present. This section transforms into a texture that incorporates lower sounds and a rhythmic lick that recurs unpredictably. The piece ends again in the high register, with slow-moving clusters.

Angels and Demons by Pauline Oliveros

Dyads and intricate, denser chords float in and out of the air against a backdrop of quiet cymbal scraping. Suddenly a growling contrabass line interjects into the gossamer texture, which then begins to swell in volume, growing into a body-felt sound mass. Skittering blocks and a tumbling rhythm give way to breathy grunting and accented harp chords. The sound mass returns, enveloping, pulsing, and eventually dissipating. A frenetic wind line cuts through a low-resonance foundation just before the piece fades to silence.

Wind People by Ben Richter (also the accordionist on this recording and the ensemble’s founder)

The piece emerges out of a hushed stasis, the contrabass lines repeating two notes in unpredictable rhythmic patterns amid an almost drone-like sustaining texture. Subtle, deep moaning gestures appear after about 4 minutes, effecting an eventual transformation of the drone-like texture into something more unsettled. The descending gestures persist, seemingly pulling ever-deeper even as the volume subtly increases. Winds and accordion pierce through this around minute 8, but the pull into the deep continues. Three minutes later the piercing sounds return, raising the volume considerably. Deeper and more resonant the piece continues, in a multifaceted texture that evokes the primeval. As the end approaches, the entire ensemble focuses in on one note, swelling loud and soft, before diminishing by nano-decibels over several minutes into silence.

Throwback Thursday to electronic composer Glynis Jones. Here’s her haunting “Veils and Mirrors”:

I’m listening to: composer Rosephanye Powell. Here’s her “Non nobis, Domine”:

Throwback Thursday to composer Elinor Remick Warren. Here’s her “Crystal Lake”:

I’m listening to: film composer Tamar-kali. Here’s a gorgeous track from her score for the movie Mudbound:

Throwback Thursday to composer Ruth Gipps. Here’s her Symphony No. 2:

When I first began to focus my blogging more specifically on composers who are women I knew a handful of earlier works (i.e., not-contemporary) and quite a lot of contemporary works; I counted several women composers among my friends and acquaintances, after all. I was expecting to find a lot more contemporary composers, and maybe a couple dozen (at most) women in the past who were composers. What I was not expecting was for my conception of music’s past to be completely reworked, nor was I expecting how angry this endeavor would make me.

Women have been writing music all along, and not just one composer writing a few pieces here and there throughout history; as I walk backward in time I can find several women writing prolifically in any giving historical “moment.” I had never heard of them in my nearly three decades of studying music because even those who were successful during their lifetimes were studiously written out of history (and, later, concert programs) after their passing. Many of them wrote dozens (sometimes hundreds) of pieces that were stored away and are only now being performed and recorded. That past (and current) historians and programmers have deprived us of such an enormous wealth of art makes my blood boil. That there are wonderful performers/groups and record labels righting this wrong prevents me from completely Hulk-ing out.

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed a recent release from Wave Theory Records, pianist Samantha Ege’s Four Women, which contains a mix of composers who gained at minimum some notoriety during their lifetimes and whose music is occasionally programmed and recorded (Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Vítězslava Kaprálová) and one composer—Ethel Bilsland—whose music is almost impossible to find in published form and therefore to perform and record; it is indeed through Ege’s efforts that we now have access to one of Bilsland’s pieces.

Today I’m reviewing Navona Record’s release Piano Works by Sara Feigin, performed by Benjamin Goodman, which consists almost entire of previously unperformed and unrecorded works. Produced by the composer’s daughter Carmela O’Flaherty, the album contains a full 22 tracks (5 multi-movement pieces), providing a comprehensive record of Feigin’s highly developed and coherent compositional style. Feigin, born in Latvia and known both as an educator and as a composer, wrote dozens of pieces throughout her adult life, and her music was frequently performed on the radio in her chosen home of Israel.

Here are some of my favorite tracks from the album:

“Storm” from Two Pieces: One of the many showpieces on this album, “Storm” is a captivating piece of programmatic music with is perpetual motion accompaniment and dramatic melodic gestures.

Toccata: As pianist Benjamin Goodman states in the liners notes, Feigin’s pieces often require a virtuosic level of playing, not only in terms of technical difficulty but also in its wide emotional range. Toccata traverses several textural landscapes, each with its own frenetic gesture, and Goodman navigates them with seeming ease.

“Memories” from Four Scenes: Featuring a gorgeously angular recurring melody in a dancelike setting, Goodman stretches and compresses the time to maximize the yearning affect of this short piece.

Variation III from Variations: One of the few gentle pieces on the album, this variation has folklike, pastoral feeling.

Movement III from Sonata: Inspired by Joseph Kuzkovsky’s painting, “Led to the Slaughter –  Babi Yar” and dedicated to the victims of Urkaine’s Babi Yar concentration camp, this movement begins and ends with a ponderous ground bass that rises gradually before a steep octave drop. Though one might expect such a piece to feature a lament bass line, the rising bass with its final drop is much more unsettling. The ground bass is interrupted by a visceral and violent middle section with spiky textures that climaxes with high, accented repeated chords. The ground bass then returns and the music slowly dies away. Goodman portrays deeply the emotional force of this harrowing journey.

I’m listening to: composer Eve O’Donnell. Here’s a wonderfully crunchy choir piece of hers:

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