Archive for the “Women Composers” Category

beiser.JPGAlmost Human. BEGLARIAN: I am writing to you from a far-off country; TALBOT: Motion Detector; Falling. Maya Beiser, cello, narration; Alexandra Montano, vocals. KOCH 7686. 54 minutes.

I’ve written before in praise of Eve Beglarian. Her music is pop-inflected and immediately accessible without being cloying. Maya Beiser’s recording of Ms. Beglarian’s I am writing to you from a far-off country cements that impression and shows a deepening of the composer’s art. I am writing to you from a far-off country is an eight movement piece for cello, narrator, vocalist and electronics based on letters by Henri Michaux.

According to program notes by percussionist Steven Schick, the piece grew out of a collaboration between the composer and the cellist, using Michaux’ letter (about the differences and similarities between his own country and one that, on the surface, should be exotic and unknown) as a basis for exploring their own musical personalities. The melodies of the piece come from Ms. Beglarian’s Armenian background, and their development and performance is a playing out of the balance between what Mr. Schick calls “what we know and what we sense”.

The soundworld of this piece is rich and it insinuates itself into your ears, head, and heart. The cello sound is distorted at times and at others it is pure. It is often difficult to distinguish between the cello and Alexandra Montano’s wordless vocals. The electronic “accompaniment” is rich and serene at the same time, and the few fast sections really stand out. The combination of familiarity and exoticism in I am writing to you from a far-off country creates a sonic dreamscape that will stay with you long after the piece is over.

The two compositions by Joby Talbot are good companions to the Beglarian work. They are both slow and insinuatingly expressive. Motion Detector is something of a high concept piece, with a constantly rising (and intensifying) glissando defining the gestural language, which partakes of post-minimalism far more than Ms. Beglarian’s piece.

Falling is an insistent response to the experience of loss, a fall. It’s long, arching lines define a more capacious musical space than we hear in Motion Detector. It is an expressive, haunting work.

Maya Beiser is an exceptionally gifted cellist. Her musicality, technique, and commitment show in every note she plays on this fine disc.

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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.    

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