women composers
Tomoko Mukaiyama, piano

There are two comments that I want to make in preface to all of this.

First, the CD cover alone is intriguing enough, consisting of a tantalizing photo of the pianist (I’m assuming it’s her) in a state of undress. Of course, that begs these questions: does the album need sex to sell it? Doesn’t this depersonalize women, which seems antithetical to the idea of an album of “women composers?”

Second, isn’t there something wrong when we seem to find albums dedicated to women composers, gay and lesbian composers, Jewish composers, composers born in months without the letter “a,” etc.? Women composers aren’t novelties; they make up a significant proportion of the population of active composers.

All of this said, this album isn’t a novelty. It’s actually a very nice compilation of expertly-performed music by a good selection of female composers. On this album, we find music by the well known (Meredith Monk, Sofia Gubaidulina) and the less well known (Vanessa Lann, Adriana Holsky, Galina Ustvolskaya). Three of the five women are from Eastern Europe/Russia, and two studied with Shostakovich, one of my favorite composers. All of the works are different in style, making this a varied CD that is a pleasure to listen to.

The included works are:

  • Horfenster fur Franz Lizst (Holsky)
  • Inner Piece (Lann)
  • Piano Sonata VI (Ustvolskaya)
  • Piano Sonata (Gubaidulina)
  • Double Fiesta (Monk)

Not surprisingly, I was most enamored with Double Fiesta. This is a piece for voice and piano (I’m assuming Mukaiyama is singing along with the piano, but it sounds remarkably like Meredith Monk herself, which is a complement, of course) that is nicely repetitive, modal and engaging.

The Holszky piece is in two parts and involves some extended keyboard techniques that are mainly percussive in nature but also involve some vocal work by the pianist. At times, the work reminded me of some of the piano works of Cowell. Much of the piece is percussive, and overlays new ideas on top of some fragments from Lizst’s music. The music also includes an “out-of-tune piano” for good measure. Overall, an intriguing piece.

Inner Piece (great title, if nothing else) is a very pleasant, mellow work that at times sounds minimalist but also evokes jazz piano writing. I liked this music a lot, and found it to be fairly distinctive.

The Ustvolskaya work is angry. Really angry. I thought it reminded me of some of the more avant-garde and percussive sections of Shostakovich’s first piano sonata, which is a great, under-appreciated work in its own right, as well as some of the early piano works of Wolpe. I liked the Ustvolskaya very much and would like to hear more of her music. Interestingly, the last part of the sonata is a retrograde version of the first part.

Gubaidulina’s Piano Sonata uses many different techniques, including what sounded to me like piano preparation. It dates from 1965 and is largely tonal, but sounds very modernistic just the same.

The performances are first rate, and while I don’t have the benefit of scores to look at, none of these pieces are easy, with several requiring what I would consider a great deal of virtuosity. So in total, we have a very thoughtful collection of works by female composers expertly performed. That in itself would sell this album, making the provocative cover seem like a bit of overkill.    

9 Responses to “Piano Music by Women Composers”
  1. Vanessa Lann says:

    Hi David, thank you so much for reviewing this cd. Tomoko Mukaiyama is an incredible pianist, and I was so pleased that she asked me to contribute a work for this project (“Inner Piece” / track 3). I was really excited about the result, and I’m grateful to you and to Sequenza 21 for bringing this cd to more people’s attention. As far as the cover is concerned, you make a very good point about the misleading message it could be sending out. The fact is that the late husband of Tomoko Mukaiyama, Philip Mechanicus, was a well-known, wonderful photographer in The Netherlands (where I also live). This photo is actually one of many nudes he made over the years. I think that the use of the photo on the cd cover was basically intended to show Tomoko in an artistic, beautiful, somewhat vulnerable, yet also powerful, manner. But, of course, there are so many layers of meaning in such an image, it makes sense that every viewer will respond to it in his or her own way. Especially when the cd features works which have in common the fact that all the composers are female! In any case, thanks for the positive things you said about all of the pieces, about the playing, and about the collection in general!

  2. Provocative cover art attracts attention. Christina Fong’s recording of Cage’s solo violin Number Pieces featured the below cover art.

    http://www.tcfgraphics.com/LargerImagePages/GraphicArtPages/1on1.htm

    Beautiful women need not hide themselves (unless they live in fundamentalist states such as Texas or Saudi Arabia). It is one tool they can and should use to help them deal with such a sexist and stupid classical music industry.

  3. david toub says:

    Vanessa, thanks for the kind words!

    Glenn, I don’t disagree at all with what you say. It’s just that in our society, I find that women are depicted sans clothes far more often than men. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a CD cover with a photo of Nigel Kennedy without a shirt or pants, nor one of Simon Rattle or any other male performer or conductor. I personally found the photo to be very artistic, and in that context it’s great. I just wondered why it’s necessary to depict a naked woman on the cover of a CD of music by women composers when there never seems to be a similar tendency when male or female performers perform music by male composers.

    And even in more right wing states like Texas, I can assure you women do not hide themselves. Having lived briefly in Houston when I was at MD Anderson, I’m not sure I’d characterize it as fundamentalist. They did elect Ann Richards, for example (which was unfortunately followed by a certain moron who really is a New England blue blood, but I digress). But I would certainly characterize a good part of this country as fundamentalist, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim. And that’s unfortunate, since fundamentalist views are what have caused more than enough violence and death throughout history.

  4. If you fancy topless males, take a look at Steve Martland’s CDs on the old Catalyst label. :) I’ve always enjoyed and purchased Martland’s music, but prefer images of beautiful women on CD covers. However, I’ve always purchased CDs for the music, not the cover. But, it seems many classical music listeners do otherwise, based on what sells and the stupid choices all those arts management firms (based in NYC) make on a daily basis.

  5. Wow. Clearly I have been putting the wrong things on my CD covers– my grandmother’s crazy quilt, a meadow from our farm in Kentucky, a hillside from that same farm, art by a woman artist…

  6. Beth, there must a nude photo of you laying around somewhere … :) However, all those other covers will help you to obtain grants from conservative corporate/academic circles. If I were you, I would stick with the money.

  7. david toub says:

    Glenn, had you placed a nude photo of Feldman on your latest DVD, I’m sure it would fly off the shelves….

  8. Vanessa Lann says:

    Check out this article from “The New York Times” about a school teacher in Texas and her museum “class trip”:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/30/education/30teacher.html?ex=1159848000&en=0adf54fecf9b630b&ei=5087

    How aptly it pertains to the above discussion…

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