Archive for the “Women composers” Category

Composer, violinist, and performance/video artist Laurie Anderson has never been one to rest on her laurels. But Homeland, her latest project for Nonesuch takes her farther afield than she’s previously been.

Rather than staying at home to record, Anderson developed the album’s songs over a two year period of touring. And, for the first time, she’s involved her partner Lou Reed in a collaborative recording process (he receives a co-producer credit). The results sound recognizable as songs by Laurie Anderson; but the sonic formula has been tweaked – indeed, refreshed – by the risks taken and departures made during the recording process.

A recurring character is Fenway Bergamot, Anderson’s “male alter-ego,” who graces the album cover and performs on the recording.

Below are a couple of “making of” videos Nonesuch has posted to YouTube.

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Outside the Eldorado Ballroom, Houston, TX (Photo by Chris Becker)

…(Houston is) one of the epicenters of noise bands and experimental music. Nobody even knows that, you know?Dan Workman of Houston’s Sugarhill Studios.

Here’s an excerpt of a recording I made of a Houston thunderstorm using a Zoom H4 recorder positioned just behind the front screen door to our house. You might want to turn down the volume about half way through if you listen to this headphones:

Houston rain and thunder

Part One

New York City – the city where I lived for twelve years before relocating to Houston, Texas – is LOUD. In my mind’s ear, I can STILL hear the car horns, the jackhammers, the fire truck sirens (we lived one block away from a fire station), the garbage trucks flipping over dumpsters filled with glass and concrete (BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!) and…the subways. Oh Lord, the SUBWAYS! Two musician friends of mine wore earplugs every time they traveled underground. My wife ALWAYS covered her ears when the trains screeched to a halt at the platforms. Loudspeakers in the stations and on the trains intermittently blared out jaunty yet nearly incomprehensible warnings about rerouted trains and “suspicious packages.” (Remember…if you SEE something, SAY something!) And microphone feedback? The MTA’s gotcha covered.

Quick! Without thinking, imitate a New Yorker! You started YELLING, right?

So being a sensitive composer with sensitive ears, the first thing I noticed about Houston once we’d moved down here is how much quieter it is compared to New York City. And what tweaked my ears my first few weeks on the ground wasn’t the omnipresent hum of the Interstate 610 loop. It was the unpredictable antiphonal chatter of Houston’s bird population. The screeches and cooing were so intriguing to me, I spent the first couple months in our new city composing a piece of “musique concrete” utilizing several recordings I’d made of the birds in our front and back yards. There is a truly rural almost wild (as in wilderness) vibe to the city outside of downtown and the aforementioned beltways.

How did a city that to my ears is so much quieter than NYC come to be known as an “epicenter of noise”? Make no mistake, some of the Houston noise artists I’ve checked out make Nine Inch Nails sound like Sting. But one thing the Houston musicians I’ve reached out to regarding the “noise” scene agree on is that one person’s “noise” is another’s poetry. The hierarchal notion that a note from a clarinet somehow contains more emotional profundity than the sound of a hammer hitting a nail doesn’t really exist in the minds of (most) 21st century musicians (One of my “non-noise” composer friends pointed out that noise just like “music” can “evoke a wide range of sentiment”). But my research yielded so MANY Texas musicians either explicitly flying the “noise” flag (Concrete Violin, Spike The Percussionist, Richard Ramirez) or so loosely attached to however one might define “noise” (the grime meets speed metal music of B L A C K I E is one such example) that I wondered who or what exactly I could write about in this dispatch.

It occurs to me that one of my favorite recordings, “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground,” was created by a Texan (Blind Willie Johnson in case you didn’t know). The timbre Johnson’s vocal lies somewhere between a whisper and a scream while his phrasing conveys a feeling of both defiance and resignation. Consider the title Johnson gave to this recording. Has the uniquely Southwestern connection to the earth – the dirt that we all will return to one day – disappeared in the years since the 1920’s when Johnson tracked his performance? I don’t think so. And in the noise of that recording (the slide on the guitar strings…the rumble of the grooves of the record itself…) is there some precedent for the Dadist freak outs of Houston ’s Red Krayola? Or the electric jug playing of the 13th Floor Elevators? Or the stinging strings of Lightning Hopkins, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, or Little Joe Washington?

Perhaps “noise” – that succinct descriptive noun – is actually in practice a portal to a sensory experience that isn’t so easy to describe but one we immediately feel and understand. To quote Morton Feldman: “…these moments when one loses control…and with a thrust there is no sound, no tone…nothing left but the significance of our first breath.”

Like rain and thunder. Or “cicadas making noise…” Or the crazy Houston doves that carry on their pygmy like conversations from the trees around my house from sun up to sun down.

Part Two

Alexandra Marculewicz Adshead at Labotanica (Photo by Chris Becker)

Houston’s gallery and performance space Labotanica is currently hosting a monthly concert series called hereherhear that features women in experimental music. The first concert in June included artists from Houston, Baltimore, and New York. Last Friday, I attended July’s hereherhear concert event featuring the collective Pear Prickley Pear, vocalist/ composer Alexandra Marculewicz Adshead, and DJ/Electronic artist Khrystah Gorham. On display at Labotanica was Yet Torres’ mixed media installation EYE-CANDY DELECTABLY which explores objectification and the body via Torres’ own mysterious, grotesque, and at times humorous iconography. Plenty of people turned up for the concert, and I was happy to see that at a little after 7pm the performers would be playing to a full house.

Earlier in July, Alexandra invited members of the Houston community to email her mp3s of samples that she might incorporate into her performance at Labotanica. I responded with my front and back yard bird piece and was delighted when Alexandra contacted me to say that she would indeed use it for her upcoming gig. Samples from Pear Prickley Pear and composer Steve Layton would also become a part of Alexandra’s show.

Alexandra’s recorded works blend composed structures with improvised sometimes heavily processed vocals that at times is character driven or seemingly inspired by the sounds of nature, animals, and even her one-year old daughter. What struck me when I first listened to her music online was the sound of her voice – her tone and the emotive quality it contained. A voice sometimes jumps out at you in that way.

In performance, Alexandra utilized the laptop computer to play back the composed structures of her works while processing her live vocals through a variety of unpredictable effects. In one piece, she told the story of a woman’s descent into madness with a delivery that initially sounded as if she were reading a slightly unnerving bedtime story until flange and delay transformed her spoken words into the sound of the voice you hear when your frontal lobe isn’t functioning. Her closing piece did indeed incorporate my bird (noise?) piece into multidimensional landscape where slowly looping chorale-like vocals rose to several crescendos before morphing dramatically into a texture that included percussive effects and (more) bird song from Layton. The whole set was a thoughtful and engaging blend of techniques and technologies.


I wonder if “noise” as Houston has come to know it is due for yet another wave of creative development. For a movement that is by nature very “underground” – much of Houston’s experimental artists are well documented thanks to the Internet and what I believe is a very Texan impulse to preserve history (and share some good stories) in words both written and sung. Or screamed. Houston is a comfortable and nurturing place for experimental artists. And there are probably many reasons for that fact that I have yet to sort out.

(Special thanks to Joseph Benzola, Douglas Henderson, Mark Kemp, Daniel Salazar, Ryan Supak, John Stone, Yet Torres, and Michael Vincent Waller for their sharing with me their thoughts on noise.)

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Susan McMane

A year ago at this time, Susan McMane, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, had no idea what a hot-button issue immigration would be in June 2010.  For her, the works of immigrant composers formed a compelling programmatic mix for her five-time Grammy-winning ensemble’s concert series, which she’d entitled A New Land, A New Song.

Now, in the midst of nonstop political debate and a deployment of additional National Guard troops to the border, SFGC will celebrate the contributions of immigrant composers to the choral music oeuvre.  Composers come literally from all over the map, from Russia with Igor Stravinksy and his Four Russian Peasant Songs, from Cuba with Tania Léon and her work May the Road Be Free; and Austria with Ernst Krenek’s Three Madrigals.  The Cypress String Quartet, SFGC’s 2010 Artists in Residence, will contribute Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op.96, “American”.  Choral pieces by Kurt Weill, Vernon Duke, and colonial Moravian composers are also on the bill.   

Chen Yi

But the centerpiece of the series will be a world premiere, commissioned by the Chorus from Chinese-born Chen Yi. The new work, Angel Island Passages, commemorates the 100th anniversary of Angel Island Immigration Station, known as “the Ellis Island of the West,” and evokes the experiences of Chinese immigrants.  Artistic Director McMane came up with the idea for the work in 2009, and sent the book “Island, poetry and history of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940” — by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung — to Dr. Chen for her reference as she began work on the commission.   

The piece is written in three movements for treble voices and string quartet. The first movement, entitled “1882,” refers to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 passed by Congress to halt Chinese immigration into the United States. The music is based on a Cantonese folk ensemble piece, “Prancing Horses”, and contains a traditional scale in a sorrowful mode. Dr. Chen expands and develops the melody, and uses it horizontally and vertically throughout the movement. The second movement, “Longing,” continues in a slow, agitated and melancholy mood. The third movement contrasts small groups with the larger ensemble to symbolize the experience of assimilation into American culture. The text of the three movements includes nonsense syllables to convey emotional pain, and the words “We are America” sung in Cantonese, Mandarin and English.

Dr. Chen has already written for the San Francisco Girls Chorus – her piece, Chinese Poems, received its world premiere as part of the Chorus’ 20th anniversary season in 1998.   Twelve years later, she says, “My experience writing…for the San Francisco Girls Chorus in 1998 convinced me that it is a world-class performing arts organization whose singers can handle any repertoire. I am confident that these young women have what it takes to bring this powerful subject matter to life.”

Angel Island Passages may officially be a piece for treble chorus and string quartet, but a compelling visual accompaniment, commissioned by the Chorus from documentary filmmaker Felicia Lowe, will be integral.  Ms. Lowe’s past films include Carved in Silence, a documentary about the experience of detainees on Angel Island; and Chinatown, a short film about the history of the Chinese in San Francisco.  She shared both films, along with her video production Road to Restoration, with Dr. Chen as Angel Island Passages was being written.

Dr. Chen relates the experience of the Angel Island immigrants to her own personal history. “I was born and raised in China and went through the dark period of Cultural Revolution 40 years ago, during which general education was interrupted and Western music was prohibited for 10 years,” she says.  “My passion and hard work helped me overcome this hardship and to become the first woman to earn a masters degree in music composition in China. I’ve painfully learned about the history of Chinese immigration through Angel Island. Along with SFGC and Cypress String Quartet, I want us to use our music to share the true history, to voice our belief in equal rights, to improve our society, and to look forward to a brighter future.”

Performances of A New Land, A New Song will take place at 8:00 p.m. on June 4th and 5th at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, located at 50 Oak Street, San Francisco. Tickets are priced $18-$32 and are available for purchase by phone from City Box Office, by phone at 415-392-4400 and online at

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Elizabeth and the Catapult

Brooklynite singer/songwriter Elizabeth Ziman is probably best known for her work with the indie pop band Elizabeth and the Catapult. But Ziman, a trained pianist who studied film scoring, was recently involved in composing music for a crossover “art song” project. The commission was premiered last Thursday at New Sounds Live, a concert hosted by John Schaefer at Merkin Hall in New York City. Elizabeth and the Catapult, Gabriel Kahane, and Ed Pastorini all appeared, performing new works that demonstrated their own particular takes on the ‘art song’ concept. After the gig, Elizabeth was kind enough to share some thoughts about creating crossover art songs at the behest of WNYC. 

CC: How did you get involved with the New Sounds Live project? Have you been on the show in the past? 

EZ: I first met John Schaefer when I was commissioned to write a piece for the Young People’s Choir of NYC about 5 years ago, and ever since he’s been really super supportive of all Elizabeth and The Catapult ventures- he’s featured us on Soundcheck a number of times. But this was our first appearance on New Sounds. We were all very excited. 

CC: Tell us about the commissioned work that premiered at the Merkin Hall event

EZ: Around the time John gave me the assignment to write the song cycle, I was reading a book of poems Leonard Cohen wrote while spending time in a Zen monastery in California: “Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing”. The general theme of these poems are not so much about religion/sex/depression/politics as is per usual with him, but more personal- mostly about being human and flawed and trying to succumb to it. He’s constantly searches for peace but when he can’t reach it, he laughs at himself. So there’s a good dark humor to the poems. Something about this really struck a chord with me and ended up writing my own poems mirroring this sentiment.  Musically speaking, it was just the normal setup plus string quartet. 

CCMerkin Hall is generally known as a classical and jazz venue. Has Elizabeth and the Catapult performed in similar halls in the past? 

EZ: We performed at Carnegie Hall two years ago; otherwise the closest thing to Merkin Hall we’ve played is probably a club like Joe’s Pub in the Village. But we welcome all theatre/art spaces- they usually sound the best anyway. 

CC:  The concept for this New Sounds program was showing how ‘art songs’ – songs in the concert music tradition – are being affected by influences of pop, jazz, and other kinds of music. How did you respond to this? 

EZ: I really just tried to do exactly what I do – but because there was some kind of budget I was lucky enough to be able to hire a string quartet for the occasion as well. 


CC: A lot of indie pop artists seem increasingly interested in incorporating classical influences into their work. Conversely, classical artists are blending pop influences into their compositions. Can you comment on this trend and how, if at all, it affects your songwriting and arranging? 

EZ: I went to school for film scoring- so I’ve always been very interested in arranging cinematically, and using a broader scope of instruments- but I feel like bands like Sufjan, The Dirty Projectors, David Byrne, St Vincent and Antony and the Johnsons(to name a few) have been really pushing the envelope with their arrangements in a very hip way. 

CC: How did your approach the ‘art song’ compared to the other artists > on the show – Gabriel Kahane and Ed Pastorini? Was there any communication about the music you were composing ahead of time? 

EZ: I love Gabe, I actually wrote one of the songs for the cycle on his piano at his house while he was on tour and I was house-sitting! But no, the night was pretty much a happy surprise for all of us. 

CC:  Is this type of project something you’d like to explore further with Elizabeth and the Catapult? 

EZ: Sure, it was an absolute honor to perform in such a beautiful venue for such a great program. I’m always psyched to be involved in new random projects, especially those being sponsored by NPR. 

CC: What’s next for Elizabeth and the Catapult? Are you touring/recording this summer? 

EZ: We’re recording this summer and hopefully touring very, very soon! 

Those interested in hearing the Merkin Hall concert, stay tuned! It will be broadcast as part of a future New Sounds program on WNYC.

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Lisa Bielawa2009 Frederic A. Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Rome Prize winner Lisa Bielawa has returned to her hometown of San Francisco to take part in the 2010 Other Minds festival. Her piece, Kafka Songs, will close the first night of the festival on Thursday, March 4th.  Violinist, vocalist and rock star Carla Kihlstedt, for whom Kafka Songs was written, will perform.  OM 15 takes place at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, and tickets can be purchased online here.

Despite her whirlwind schedule leading up to the festival, Lisa was able to take time out to answer a few of my questions.

S21:  During your student years, did you ever feel pressure to become exclusively a composer, or exclusively a performer?

LB:  Since I received musical training at home as a child (my parents are both musicians as well), in college I decided to major in French literature, not music. I didn’t think of myself as either a performer or a composer really until later, when I was trying to figure out how to make a living.

S21:  What parameters have you set up for yourself for allotting time and energy to composing, versus performing?

LB:  Decisions about which projects to do, whether composing or performing, have to be made very carefully. Above all, I want every musical experience I have, no matter what form my participation takes, to expand my own awareness, make me grow in some way. It is also wonderful if it can provide a focused inquiry for me around some particular musical issue I am fascinated by or grappling with at the moment in my compositional work. I suppose this is the ultimate test for me: if involvement in some project will result in making me better able to accomplish/address the things I want to accomplish/address in my composing (thereby making my work communicate better and clearer), then I will make the time to do this. Many performing experiences have done this for me, so I do not begrudge the time I invest in them, even though in the short term they may “take me away” from composing.

S21:  Having grown up steeped in the San Francisco arts community, did you experience culture shock when you moved to New York in 1990?

LB:  I had 4 years at Yale in between, which were really important ones for me. Although I wasn’t majoring in music, I was involved in vocal music and jazz through various student-run groups, and these experiences were an important transition time for me. Many of the musical friends I made at Yale came to New York as well, so the transition was rather smooth, under the circumstances. Of course there was the shock of being an adult and needing to figure out how to earn money and live a real life.  These things were much more challenging than any cultural differences.

S21:  The Time Out New York review praised your “organic experimentation”.  Can the organic aspect of your work be identified, and how does it manifest?

LB:  I suppose (I hope!) this writer could have been responding to my practice of making work about and on people. I am not so interested in experimentation as an abstract value, as much as I am interested in how one might use “experimental” or creative, unexpected ways to celebrate and heighten awareness of a particular performance experience, involving specific people in a specific place and time. This means that if I am writing for one unique performer who sings and plays the violin at the same time (that’s Carla), I will experiment with ways to celebrate and heighten the awesome strangeness and wonder of this act, whereas if I am writing for a 70-member volunteer orchestra of community music lovers (as I happen to be doing at the moment, for the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra), I will experiment with ways to heighten their experience of music-making in a community with intense musical passion and a broad range of abilities.

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Full of food and drink, playing with those presents, a couple days now to relax… How about capping the holiday huddled around the warm, cozy glow of the old ‘puter?

Because this Sunday the 27th, beginning at 1900 (7pm) EST and running all the way until Monday evening at 1900 (7pm) EST, our new-music radio host-with-the-most Marvin Rosen is having his annual Viva 21st-Century – Women Composers Edition 24-hour broadcast marathon. We’re talking all-women, all-the-time, and all things written only from 2000 ’till today! You’re bound to be enlightened, and possibly even amazed, with much of what you’ll hear. Your geography doesn’t matter either, because wherever you’re at you only need click to WPRB’s live stream and you’re good to go.

So pay a visit; your ears will thank you. And if inclined give a shout to Marvin himself for pushing himself to push this music, and so push you into a greater awareness of all the wonderful stuff being written by women composers in the here and now. (Marvin sez: “Wake up phone calls during this marathon will be welcome“…)

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