A musical reply to violence against women

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Gemma Tomlinson performs alongside the voice of Kaija Saariaho in Lisa Cheney’s When we Speak.

This year’s International Women’s Day saw institutions and individuals around Australia actively intervene in the contemporary music scene in the interests of gender equality. Today (just as a couple of years ago when gender equality was addressed on this blog) around a quarter of the composers studying, represented in concerts, and represented by the Australian Music Centre are women. As Delia Bartle wrote for Limelight Magazine, The Sydney Conservatorium’s new National Women Composers’ Development Program seeks to boost this number by providing emerging composers with two years of intensive mentorship followed by a prestigious commission. Lisa Cheney and Peggy Polias from Making Waves curated a special playlist featuring women composers including Clare Johnston, Maria Grenfell, Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh, among many others.

In Melbourne, the composer Samantha Wolf produced a concert fundraiser for the Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre. Entitled This Will Be Our Reply, the concert featured five thoughtful responses to the theme of International Women’s Day and violence against women in particular. Each of the five composers eschewed clichés to present an original musical response to these themes.

“Shrill, pretty, abrasive.” In Hystericus—and other (mostly) women’s words, Alice Humphries uses the language of contemporary music—its squawking, gritty vocabulary—to make the audience think about words often associated with women. In doing so, Humphries has created one of the most conflicting situations for the listener since Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. A listener sympathetic to grating and buzzing extended techniques may draw comparisons between criticisms of contemporary music and misogynist language. “Too loud and complex!” “But you are choosing to focus on only particular, difficult pieces of music,” the audience member might counter. Or they might offer my favourite response (misremembered but courtesy of Adorno) “maybe you understand contemporary music too well, because it is speaking about real problems.”

A misogynist audience member (keeping in mind that misogyny and a taste for contemporary music are not at all mutually exclusive) might instead bring up the Lacanian dynamic of the Master and the hysteric often associated with the relationship of the critic and the artist. No matter what explanation or interpretation the psychoanalyst gives to the hysteric’s words, they will always counter “that’s not it.” “Exactly!” The misogynist new music skeptic might respond, “It is in the nature of both contemporary music and women to be unreasonable, repetitive, and exhausting!” In her program note Humphries doesn’t offer an interpretation of her own but lets all of these subject-positions linger in the air. Whatever your interpretation the compositional experiment was extremely satisfying to the ears, with two thirds of Rubiks Collective (Tamara Kohler and Gemma Tomlinson) teaming up with the rich tone of Kyla Matsuura-Miller’s violin and Aaron Klein’s bass clarinet to run a gauntlet of musical textures and moods.

After playing on stereotypes of women’s voices, Lisa Cheney brought us the voice of a woman, indeed, one of the greatest living woman composers. Cheney’s When We Speak combines live and prerecorded cello with a manipulated recording of an interview with Kaija Saariaho. While Saariaho’s voice is usually manipulated for its sonic value, moments of Saariaho’s reflections on gender politics in the music industry are clear. Cheney’s resonant electronics part is an atmosphere of unfathomable spaciousness. Clouds of voice fragments swirl around the space along with clouds of her solo cello composition Sept Papillons. In the middle of this environment the cellist Gemma Tomlinson struggles to be heard, playing strings of extended techniques with her characteristic commitment and control. At times the live cello becomes one with the prerecorded track or has a fleeting solo moment. This piece could be heard as a solo woman struggling to be heard in the male-dominated music scene, except all of the samples are of women and the piece is composed by a woman. It could also be heard as a woman engaging or even struggling with the history of women composers and the weight of Saariaho’s legacy. The piece ends with one solution, in Saariaho’s voice: “Create something personal because that’s the only thing that counts.”

Kyla Matsuura-Miller returned to the stage to perform Jessica Wells’ Sati and Satya, a two-movement piece for piano and violin inspired by Buddhist notions of “mindfulness” and “truth” respectively. The piece relates in a very concrete way to the concert’s theme, the first movement being composed for HSC students and requiring a certain tonal restraint. The “truth” movement expands on these restrained ideas in a more personally meaningful way for the composer. The composer likens this process to the way she finds herself moderating her behaviour to suit social norms and the difference between one’s “inner” and “outer” selves.

May Lyon’s On the Inside begins with a similar duality before expanding on this theme in multiple directions. The piano trio for flute, clarinet, cello, and piano is a journey of developing harmonic and rhythmic nuance. From simple thematic beginnings the piece gathers colour, variety, and character. Beneath this fine instrumental writing is a sophisticated critique of notions of beauty and gender roles. The piece’s title, On the Inside, suggests a binary between inner and outward  beauty, but the composer is quick to point out that many conventionally “beautiful” moments in the piece have been retained because “perceived beauty is not something to be ashamed of or feared.” Instead of simply busting the binary of inner and outer beauty, the piece explores “a woman’s life, from growth to complexity (as opposed to innocence to uselessness).” Lyon also contrasts the view of a developing, rich inner life to other supposedly emancipated, developmental views of a woman’s changing social value as maiden, mother, and crone.

Samantha Wolf’s The More I Think About It, the Bigger It Gets closed the evening with an affecting theatrical gesture. Footsteps resound through the speakers while Kohler, Tomlinson, and Matsuura-Miller attack their instruments with darting gestures. Audio samples from news reports and talk-back radio describe acts of violence against women, placing the blame on women’s shoulders. The program note described the footsteps and musical gestures as representing a woman walking home at night and the fears and received rhetoric that swirl around her mind. The tension was palpable, showing yet another way in which the techniques of contemporary music can be used as critical tools for interrogating issues of gender and violence.

This Will Be Our Reply
A Fundraiser for the Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre
Melba Hall7 March

Alice Humphries, Hystericus—and other (mostly) women’s words; Jessica Wells, Sati and Satya; Lisa Cheney, When We Speak; May Lyon, On The Inside; Samantha Wolf, The More I Think About It, the Bigger It Gets.

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