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Women's music: different architectures

Zsuzsanna Soboslay: National Festival of Women’s Music


From percussive exploration, to music evocative of Oriental landscapes, to Structuralist excursions into possible ‘feminist’ forms, the National Festival of Women’s Music was a feast of textures, sonorities, explorations of instrumental combinations, and journeys into archives to resurrect startling older works absent from our consciousness and hence from the reputations of some of our most important senior women composers. The archaeological re-interpretations afforded by a festival such as this are of no less pleasure or importance than meeting new works. While a parallel conference looked at issues such as whether or not there is a recognisably feminine aesthetic in the work of women composers (a consensus: there is, but it’s very hard to define), concerts commissioned new works for new instrumental partnerships and coupled a 19th century hymn by our first documented woman composer with a wry contemporary song cycle about political and personal greed. The ‘cover-girl’ image of Elena Kats-Chernin on the posters, brochures and advertising belies the depth, variety and nuggetty purpose of compositions evident across the festival—almost as unhappy a choice as sponsor Qantas’ congratulations for “this happy event” as if it were supplying booties or nappies for a newborn child.
Sound-text performer Amanda Stewart was a happy inclusion: though her instruments are her body and voice (arms swaying, gesturing, self-enveloping, her live stereo-miked voice interacting with pre-programmed loops), the experiential parallels (what defines music? what constructs the listening experience?) provided an important counterpoint and stimulation in their own right. Her concerns lie with layers of word-production (Artaudian collapses under skin; questions about knowledge and meaning), yet there are also sure-footed compositional considerations at work, measures following powerful cohesive rules above the splintering.

Not just ‘futurist’, Stewart’s sound-bites link to old languages, primal Babels, ‘the speech of tongues.’ I think of the linguist de Saussure’s phrase, that it’s not language per se, but our capacity to make it that is innate. So too about our perception and making of music. Something about Stweart’s work is just right for this festival: perhaps because of its exploration of our capacities to make and hold even the most tempestuous of emotions, explorations, and experience within patterns to which our organisms somehow respond.

Her video, coupling a vocal soundtrack reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001 with slowly emerging images of foetal bodies spiralling, exhibits a subliminal architecture echoing Amanda Handel’s piece for flute and guitar, Goarounds and Grounds. Structured on a mandala or aid to ritual contemplation, Handel’s ‘musical translation’ of the visual gesture of a circle within a square (soul within the Cosmos) also elicits another geometry: is the square inside the circle as well? Is it indeed geometry that holds form in place? Both Handel’s and Stewart’s works are contemplative; but the latter’s gasps, expectorations and flaying of flesh from vocal bones also unnerve: a little girl in the audience tries to shelter behind, within, the ribs of her mother.

Percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson explores lip- and mouth-sucking while playing, sliding, clambering over, spilling rice and paperclips onto a bass drum: claustrophobic, an elevator panic, slow snow falling. In a second improvisation she played 2 rubber balloons. These are confident, if not new, explorations. It’s interesting that in this kind of work, questions of ‘carrying it off’ are different from other repertoire, the conviction requiring perhaps an even fuller embodiment, a greater theatricality closer, perhaps, to the commitment, polish, and impersonation of acting while remaining ordered and logical in structure. Jazz saxophonist Sandy Evans elsewhere demonstrated a teasing, stretching, sometimes agonising (agon-ising, contesting) within and against a necessary form. Tomlinson shows verve, but can remain coy.

The festival surprises were not all about exploring non-instruments and extended techniques. Within more conventional technical frames, explosion of myths surrounding a whole generation of composers—works of Dulcie Holland (whose piano Sonata [1953] debunked the sweetness of children’s pieces for which she is largely known), the elegiac and exacting Miriam Hyde, the gutsy, bony and muscular 50s internationalist work of Peggy Glanville-Hicks—paid real homage to their genius and reminded us how narrowly their works have been generally known and categorised.

Other concerts ranged from Medieval and Baroque (exemplary musicology from the bloodhound Carolyn Kidd, Artistic Director of the festival, digging up archives), to nice examples of contemporary work carrying earlier modalities in structural or tonal echo (Andree Greenwell’s exquisite Viewing, a hyper-enriched aural Medieval window; Gillian Whitehead’s The Swan, a classically-sourced allegory of the soul) to new festival commissions and the little-played works of several contemporary composers from Canberra.

Standouts included the concert Guitar Four Girls and the Song Company. The guitar group was exceptional in its textural explorations between instruments and satisfyingly expansive of structure and techniques—highlights: Maria Grenfell’s sparkling Tuscan journey, a lush mosaic and complex, juicy dialogue between marimba and guitar, grape and sun; Caroline Szeto’s tripartite Dawn, Day, Dusk—rising arpeggios, rasping grit-eyed koto combined with dewy-juice fluids of guitar; a strutting stretted business for the central section; darkening, descending sequences of compact arpeggios folding into night. The Song Company’s varied yet cohesive program ranged from the colonial Emmeline Woolley to the biting wit, rich textural sonorities and theatrical playfulness of Jennifer Fowler’s cycle Eat and Be Eaten, and 16-year-old Lisa Crane’s Der Mondfleck, a shrieking, expressionist sprechengesang based on Pierrot verses by Albert Giraud—another ‘splitting’ piece, exploring “man’s doubt about…power over himself” with remarkable maturity and textural bravery.

In this concert, Kats-Chernin’s meat knife waltz for chamber choir (complete with carving knives and sharpening blades) raised a good tittle from the audience. Not quite satirical, her work often exhibits a tendency to humorous deflection with a certain resistance to a grounding-note. “In the late 1970s,” writes Richard Toop, “she emerged with a certain suspicion of ‘heavy works’; in recent years, a sort of ‘light music’ (often sourced from recognisably lighter musical genres—German cabaret and theatre, rags, pop, via appropriation and pastiche) has come to play a prominent role” (notes for Kats-Chernin’s Purple Black and Blues CD, 2000). That said, this festival did showcase a range of textural exploration in this important composer’s work (even an oddly-Phillip Glass-like choral piece); her opening night Sand Waltz for the Canberra Wind Soloists proved the most satisfying, as her jaunty touch proved well-matched to the jittery, disjunct staccato textures of the wind quartet.

Concerts which elided works into single movements, almost ‘demos’ of larger pieces, or blended pot pourris from widely divergent cultures and forms, were less satisfying, odd degustations without enough coherence to tantalise. Although one of the challenges of embracing diversity is resisting homogenising coherence, the relationship of this to structuring and cognition is one of the questions this festival rightly stirs up and challenges. As exemplified in this conference and festival, the differences between prejudice and the cognition of subtly different architectures will and should be teased at for decades to come.


National Festival of Women’s Music, artistic director Carolyn Kidd, Loose Canons Conference, director Ruth Lee Martin, various venues, Canberra, August 29-September 2

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 34

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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