The great fe­male com­posers of our time

Women who de­fine the recorded music era

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ANNE MIDGETTE

NPR’s re­cent list of the 150 great­est al­bums by women was in­spir­ing — but where were the com­posers? In the wake of much dis­cus­sion about the chronic un­der­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of fe­male com­posers on Amer­i­can con­cert pro­grams, I came up with my own list.

Since I was re­spond­ing to a list of record­ings, I con­fined my­self to artists ac­tive in the recorded music era, the 20th and 21st cen­turies — leav­ing out Hilde­gard von Bin­gen, Fanny Men­delssohn, Clara Wieck Schu­mann, Barbara Strozzi, Mar­i­anne Martinez and many oth­ers. My se­lec­tions are based on a com­bi­na­tion of per­sonal pref­er­ence and some idea of what con­sti­tutes “im­por­tance,” and it was hard to win­now it down. My top 10 picks are printed here, and the list con­tin­ues on­male­com­posers, where you can weigh in with your own opin­ions.

Mered­ith Monk: One of the mu­si­cal pi­o­neers of our time, Mered­ith Monk has been carv­ing out her own chan­nels through the artis­tic land­scape since the 1960s, de­fy­ing cat­e­go­riza­tion with work that used to be char­ac­ter­ized as “dance” but now is clearly “com­po­si­tion.” Monk’s trade­mark is ex­tended vo­cal tech­nique, min­ing the voice for ex­pres­sive pos­si­bil­i­ties not con­tained within the estab­lished con­ven­tions of West­ern no­ta­tion. With evoca­tive ti­tles such as “Tur­tle Dreams” or “Dol­men Music,” her work has the feel­ing of a myth you’ve al­ways known, rooted in our col­lec­tive his­tor­i­cal un­con­scious, of­fer­ing a sense of deja vu in pieces that take the form of dream­like nar­ra­tives or “op­eras” (“Book of Days”), or of de­vo­tion­als (“Songs of As­cen­sion”). Now 74, she is work­ing in an in­creas­ingly rich, in­stru­ment­based id­iom but has lost none of what she has called her “sense of won­der.”

Caro­line Shaw: When she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, Shaw, 35, a vi­o­lin­ist and singer, didn’t even con­sider her­self a com­poser per se. But her “Par­tita for 8 Voices,” com­posed for the vo­cal group Room­ful of Teeth (of which she is a mem­ber), a se­quence of riffs on Baroque dance forms with a wide range of un­usual vo­cal ef­fects, got the at­ten­tion of the Pulitzer jury. Shaw’s dis­tinc­tive, lyri­cal vo­cal writ­ing also got no­tice from the rap­per Kanye West, who has both per­formed and re­leased tracks with Shaw (in­clud­ing a remixof the song “Say You Will”). Recog­ni­tion hasn’t changed Shaw’s hon­est, se­ri­ous ap­proach as she ex-

plores new mu­si­cal id­ioms and forms — such as her first-ever piece for orches­tra (with solo vi­o­lin), “Lo,” pre­miered by the North Carolina Sym­phony at the Shift fes­ti­val in Wash­ing­ton in March. “It is a strik­ingly orig­i­nal and mov­ing work that re­thinks what or­ches­tral writ­ing can be,”Si­mon Chin wrote in The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Joan Tower: A doyenne of Amer­i­can or­ches­tral com­posers, Tower, 78, is known to many for her six “Fan­fares for the Un­com­mon Woman,” a pen­dant to Aaron Co­p­land’s mu­si­cal pre­lude. How­ever, these are rel­a­tively small works in a cat­a­logue that has moved from early se­ri­al­ism to music that is im­pres­sion­is­tic, col­or­ful and di­rect, such as “Se­quoia” (1981). Another sig­na­ture piece, “Made in Amer­ica” (2006), was per­formed in all 50 states be­fore tak­ing a Grammy award for best classical com­po­si­tion in 2008. Tower has taught com­po­si­tion at Bard Col­lege in Up­state New York for 41/2 decades and co-founded the Da Capo Cham­ber Play­ers in 1969 as a fo­rum for her own and other con­tem­po­rary works. (She left the ensem­ble in 1984.) In music, she told an in­ter­viewer in 2015, “the gen­der is­sue is nonex­is­tent . . . . Now, out­side the music, there’s all sorts of prob­lems!”

Kaija Saari­aho: The Fin­nish com­poser, 64, had a new wave of pub­lic­ity when the Metropolitan Opera per­formed her “L’Amour de Loin” last sea­son, but she came to international at­ten­tion when the piece was first pre­miered at the Salzburg Fes­ti­val in 2000. Saari­aho’s music is char­ac­ter­ized by surg­ing, lu­mi­nous tones and tex­tures, large masses of sound that move and change, more static med­i­ta­tions than dra­matic journeys. Saari­aho got her international start work­ing in Paris at IRCAM, the com­puter and elec­tronic music cen­ter founded by Pierre Boulez, and the re­sult­ing an­a­lytic sen­si­bil­ity and abil­ity to con­sider music as sound and sound as music has left its traces on her acous­tic scores. But her work is any­thing but ab­stract, tied into a range of other hu­man ex­pe­ri­ences and per­cep­tions: sight and space, love and moth­er­hood. “Long af­ter the cur­tain goes down, you feel that you are still swim­ming along in her sound,” the mu­si­col­o­gist Su­san McClary told the New Yorker in 2016.

Pauline Oliv­eros: Oliv­eros, who died in 2016 at the age of 84, was a pioneer of tape music, cre­at­ing works such as the poignant “Bye Bye But­ter­fly,” which puts a record­ing of Puc­cini’s opera “Madame But­ter­fly” through a se­quence of elec­tronic fil­ters, or “Crone Music,” which re­fracts and mul­ti­plies the sound of her own ac­cor­dion. She is best re­mem­bered, though, for the work that she de­vel­oped un­der the rubric “Deep Lis­ten­ing,” the name for both a trio of per­form­ers and a pro­gram based on the con­cepts of ac­tive lis­ten­ing and re­spond­ing to other mu­si­cians. “Deep Lis­ten­ing” also un­der­lined the au­ton­omy of the in­di­vid­ual in de­cid­ing how to cre­ate and ex­pe­ri­ence music, lib­er­at­ing music’s prac­tice from the re­stric­tions of the West­ern canon — par­tic­u­larly with re­gard to fe­male com­posers. “They are not nec­es­sar­ily in­tended to be con­cert pieces,” she told New Music Box in 2000, speak­ing of her sem­i­nal “Sonic Med­i­ta­tions.” “I turned the par­a­digm around by say­ing, ‘Okay, you make the music.’ ”

Ju­lia Wolfe: In 1987, three young com­posers, David Lang, Michael Gor­don and Ju­lia Wolfe, re­sponded to their frus­tra­tions with the aca­demic new-music scene by host­ing a marathon per­for­mance fea­tur­ing music of ev­ery style and stripe — and Bang on a Can was born. The or­ga­ni­za­tion has spawned an ensem­ble, a record la­bel and a sum­mer fes­ti­val, as well as the an­nual marathon, and all three com­posers have be­come el­der states­men of what’s been termed alt-classical music. Wolfe, 58, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for “An­thracite Fields,” an or­a­to­rio about life in the Penn­syl­va­nia coal mines; she is also a re­cent MacArthur Fel­low. Like her fel­low Bang on a Can com­posers (she is mar­ried to Gor­don), she has been mov­ing from shorter, in­tense ki­netic works, such as “Lick” (2009), to longer nar­ra­tive ones: a piece about women in Amer­i­can la­bor will be pre­miered by the New York Phil­har­monic in 2018-19.

Sofia Gubaidulina: Like her col­league Arvo Part, Gubaidulina, 85, found refuge in music the re­stric­tions of life un­der the Soviet regime, see­ing music as a link to the di­vine in the face of pro­scrip­tion and black­list­ing that kept her work un­per­formed for many years. A dif­fer­ence is that Gubaidulina’s music is more con­ven­tion­ally dra­matic, like the dark out­bursts and suf­fo­cated solo-line out­cries of the vi­o­lin con­certo “Of­fer­to­rium,” which Gi­don Kre­mer helped cham­pion in the West. Another cham­pion was Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom she wrote “Can­ti­cle of the Sun,” a cello con­certo with cho­rus. Draw­ing on mu­si­cal tra­di­tions from both East and West, Gubaidulina has ex­plored folk music and in­stru­ments such as the bayan, a Rus­sian ac­cor­dion. In 1992, she moved to Ger­many, where she has been able to en­joy her tremen­dous international renown.

Missy Maz­zoli: Al­ready an estab­lished fix­ture on the Brook­lyn scene with her band, Vic­toire (which played D.C. in 2011), the 36-yearold Maz­zoli came to the at­ten­tion of a wider au­di­ence in 2016 with her sec­ond opera, “Break­from ing the Waves,” which brought the lyri­cism of Ben­jamin Brit­ten through a fil­ter of Louis An­driessen into the 21st cen­tury. “It’s so easy to cre­ate an idea of what my music is based on its la­bels: classical, in­die-classical, post-min­i­mal, con­tem­po­rary, cham­ber-pop, opera, or­ches­tral, etc.,” she said in a 2015 in­ter­view. “None of these words re­ally tells you any­thing about how the music sounds or how you will feel about it.” She’s writ­ten for or­ches­tras such as the Los An­ge­les Phil­har­monic, but her sig­na­ture works re­main vo­cal: from her first, ac­claimed opera, “Song from the Up­roar,” to the pop-song-like “Cathe­dral City.” Her third opera, “Prov­ing Up,” will be pre­miered in Jan­uary as part of the Wash­ing­ton National Opera’s Amer­i­can Opera Ini­tia­tive.

Jen­nifer Hig­don: One of to­day’s most-per­formed liv­ing com­posers, Hig­don, 54, em­bod­ies a com­bi­na­tion par­tic­u­larly ap­peal­ing to Amer­i­can au­di­ences: She’s at once a mav­er­ick and, in a cer­tain way, a con­ser­va­tive. Self-taught un­til col­lege, es­pous­ing no par­tic­u­lar aes­thetic school, she writes smart music that is not ashamed to be tonal, and beau­ti­ful. “Blue Cathe­dral,” one of the most-per­formed of all con­tem­po­rary works, is a lush wash of tonal­i­ties throb­bing through the orches­tra. A teacher at the Cur­tis In­sti­tute, where she got her grad­u­ate de­gree, she has formed re­la­tion­ships with il­lus­tri­ous stu­dents, writ­ing her vivid vi­o­lin con­certo, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, for Hilary Hahn, and her pi­ano con­certo, which the National Sym­phony Orches­tra pre­miered in 2009, for Yuja Wang. In 2015, her first opera, “Cold Moun­tain,” had a suc­cess in its world pre­miere at the Santa Fe Opera. “If my music is not com­mu­ni­cat­ing,” she said in 2012, “I feel it’s not do­ing its job.” Lili Boulanger: Most ros­ters of great fe­male com­posers in­clude Na­dia Boulanger, the com­poser, con­duc­tor and in­flu­en­tial teacher to a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions of com­posers. But Na­dia de­voted con­sid­er­able en­er­gies to keep­ing alive the mem­ory of her sis­ter, Lili, a child prodigy who died in 1918 at 24, hav­ing been the first woman to win the pres­ti­gious Prix de Rome — with a big sym­phonic can­tata, “Faust et Hélène,” that like many Prix de Rome-win­ning pieces is a lit­tle too cum­ber­some and weighty to fully re­veal the strengths of a com­poser whose best work is packed with color and light. Yan­nick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadel­phia Orches­tra gave a fine read­ing of her sun-dap­pled “D’un Matin de Prin­temps” when they last ap­peared here in Jan­uary, though her best-known short work is prob­a­bly the “Pie Jesu” — pos­si­bly the only sur­viv­ing sec­tion of a planned re­quiem she did not live to fin­ish.

“If my music is not com­mu­ni­cat­ing, I feel it’s not do­ing its job.” Jen­nifer Hig­don, 54, one of to­day’s most­per­formed liv­ing com­posers, speak­ing in 2012


ABOVE: Com­poser Missy Maz­zoli, whose next opera will be pre­miered by the Wash­ing­ton National Opera in Jan­uary. FAR LEFT: Ju­lia Wolfe was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for “An­thracite Fields.” NEAR LEFT: Mu­si­cal pioneer Mered­ith Monk has lost none of what she has called her “sense of won­der.” BOT­TOM LEFT: Caro­line Shaw was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for her work “Par­tita for 8 Voices.”




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