Tag Archives: Lisa Cheney

A musical reply to violence against women

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.

Metropolis: Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Frescoes of Dionysius

Frescoes of Dionysius
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Melbourne Recital Centre
9 April, 2014

This year Helsinki-born Olli Mustonen conducts the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the Metropolis New Music Festival, bringing with him his extensive knowledge of and experience with Scandinavian music and composers. In particular, his mentor and friend Rodion Shchedrin has been singled out for special attention, with three Australian premieres of Shchedrin pieces programmed in the festival.

Wednesday night’s performance began with Shchedrin’s haunting Frescoes of Dionysius for nonet. A sculptural clarity pervades the smooth lines of the work, which proceeds through a steady pulsing between two notes that are variously transformed through savage Bartok pizzicati in the strings and foggy winds. Occasionally the celesta punctuates the plodding surface, or a violin strikes up a folksy double-stopped line. Dissonant chords rumble underneath. The timeless quality of the pulse is decorated by the instrumental intrusions like the natural and human world around the Ferapontov monastery where the frescoes are painted.

Mustonen’s sonata for violin and orchestra can be heard as an expansion of the Frescoes into a larger form. The rumbling chords appear in the winds as Kristian Winther’s violin line mulls over short sequences of notes in the most beautifully preoccupied way. Winther carried the audience through the piece with presence and conviction in what was not just an execution but a true performance. The pulse appears and builds to a climax in contrary motion in the treble and bass of the orchestra. If this description sounds simplistic, it is because Mustonen’s orchestration of sonata’s original piano part is simple. This simplicity lent an elegance to the first third. However, after the solo violin whips the orchestra into a frenzy with a folk dance tune, the piece dissipates into a sort of Hollywood score of indistinct menace and wonder, with tired filmic harmonies standing exposed and undecorated in the strings.

Cybec finalist Lisa Cheney’s The Pool and the Star is based on Judith Wright’s poem of the same name. The poem tells of a pool watching a star rise in the sky. The star is reflected in the pool all night until, when the star sets, the pool and the star appear to kiss. A short timbral introduction with bowed cymbals quickly gives way to an intensely thematic piece. Keening melodies dance in the woodwind and on the harp before some excellent, bold brass writing tells of the intensity of the pool’s desire.

Shchedrin’s “sotto voce” concerto for cello and orchestra was originally composed for Mstislav Rostropovich, whose reputation as a strong player made him perhaps a novel choice for a concerto exploring the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum. The audience has to wait a while to hear it, though, for the first movement is as intense as that of any late romantic cello concerto. The principal theme is repeated several times over the murky watercolour background of strings and brass, becoming quieter and quieter each time, until the final, truly sotto voce statement. It would definitely have been possible in the magnificently resonant Elisabeth Murdoch Hall for cellist Marko Ylönen to exaggerate these dynamic contrasts. Though the thematic material of the first movement seems a little formulaic for what I would expect from a Metropolis concert, the concerto gets better as it goes along. A magnificent solo bursts forth with a wash of resonance and instrument-sound. The instrument vibrates to its absolute limits as Ylönen scrubs across all four strings. The string section pick up this thick, marshy texture and the principal theme returns. I wonder sometimes which musical effects are only possible with a long build-up, with extensive preparation from the composer and attentive listening from the audience. Perhaps the finale of the “sotto voce” concerto is just such a moment. Alarming in its simplicity, bells and a folk-like chant on tenor recorder (played by Genevieve Lacey) appear out of the romantic dross. The work is wonderfully bipolar from here on. The orchestra rushes in like a bulldozer. When the recorder returns, the tune is imitated high up on the cello. The piece ends with the cello playing a tremolo on a false harmonic glissando to the top of the instrument, with the distant sound of stones knocking together in the distance.

Samuel Wagan Watson: Smoke Encrypted Whispers

Samuel Wagan Watson, photo courtesy of the artist
Samuel Wagan Watson, photo courtesy of the artist

Samuel Wagan Watson
Smoke Encrypted Whispers
Melbourne Recital Centre
24 March, 2014

For the first concert of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Australian Voices series for the year, 23 composers wrote two-minute pieces in response to 23 poems by Samuel Wagan Watson, one of Australia’s most important living poets. The composers were all chosen because they had some connection to Watson’s home town of Brisbane during the Bjelke-Petersen years of Watson’s youth. Watson’s poems follow him beyond his childhood, out amongst the hoons, Satan-worshippers and humming electricity pylons of the outer suburbs; deep into the last outposts of rural Queensland; then overseas to Wellington and the Berlin wall.

The format, alternating readings by Watson with musical performances, reflected its original commission for the Music and Words series at the State Library of Queensland. Watson’s poems combine brooding interiority with colourful exteriority. Reflecting the often contradictory mood being evoked and picture being painted tested the versatility and sensitivity of the composers.

Where the mood and images of the poems were aligned, the piece could serve simply as an evocative counterpart. Many of Watson’s poems recall his childhood in “Tigerland,” the area of Brisbane around Mt. Gravatt in Brisbane where Watson grew up. Paul Dean’s piece based on the poem “Tigerland” used racing rhythms worthy of Stravinsky and lush, Gershwinesque harmonies to paint busy street scenes. Two poems about Watson’s childhood fear of the dark rendered strikingly different results. Richard Mills’ “Scared of the Dark,” where Watson remembers “Bjelke-Petersen policemen at [his] parents’ back door” and the shadows of truck headlights on his bedroom wall, was sung in an eerie Brittenesque soprano line by Judith Dodsworth. Stephen Stanfield’s piece based on “Author’s Notes #1” used more traditional horror movie soundtrack trills and angular wind and piano lines. “Author’s Notes #2” reflects upon the act and experience of writing. Sean O’Boyle’s transparent, major-mode miniature captures the liberating moment of blue-sky optimism that Watson writes about when confronted with a blank page.

More complicated poems yielded mixed results. The threatening undertone and final conflagration of Capalaba house was eschewed by composer William Barton in favour of a whimsical (but extremely beautiful) duet for oboe and piano and then a trio for oboe, bassoon and piano. Barton was, notably, one of the only composers to compose for less than the entire ensemble. Watson tinges “Ghosts of Boundary Street” with menace, despite the poem describing all people made equal by hangovers on New Year’s Day. Despite the contrast and detail of the poem, Lisa Cheney’s piece paints the poem entirely in asphalt-grey. Similarly, Watson’s ambivalent feelings on visiting Wellington are pasted over by Tom Adeney’s saccharine, filmic setting.

I recently commented on the difference between cultural engagement and cultural appropriation in contemporary music, arguing that we needed the former while being careful not to slip over into the latter. Smoke Encrypted Whispers is a model of such  responsible engagement, where an Indigenous perspective is being offered (rather than assumed) and composers are contributing to the project as equals.

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.