Women Composers, Part 2 | Music Matters

In my previous column (LJ 9/1/16, p. 73), we began a three-part series exploring female composers, beginning with the Medieval through early Romantic period. Here, we’ll look at artists of the 20th ­century.

lili_boulangerLiving in Paris at the turn of the century, Lili Boulanger (1893–1918) was a child prodigy who, in spite of chronic illness, studied composition with noted composer Gabriel Fauré at the age of nine. At 19, she became the first woman to win the coveted Prix de Rome for her composition Faust et Hélène. Listening to that work, followed by Pie Jesu, is as striking an introduction to 20th-century music as is Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The CD Clearings in the Sky: Songs by Lili Boulanger & Her Compatriots (Cedile Records, 2001) is the perfect place to begin. Faust et ­Hélène (Chandos, 1999), performed with the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, includes some of her larger-scale works.

Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979), though less daring than her younger sister, exerted an outsized influence on the course of early 20th-century music. In addition to her compositions, many heavily impacted by her friend Stravinsky, she was a preeminent teacher of composition; among her students were Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, Roy Harris, and Philip Glass. Legacy of Nadia Boulanger (Naxos, 2011) compiles works by her students along with several of her own. In Memoriam: Lili Boulanger (Marco Polo, 1993) includes works by both sisters.

“Difficult” music

Abandonment of concerns such as tonality and melody—“difficult” music, in other words—is a hallmark of mid-20th-century music. Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901–53) was an early devotee of the “ultra­modern” school. The second of her Three Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg, “Prayers of Steel” (1932), features several instruments playing simultaneously but completely independently. Check out Ruth Crawford Seeger: Violin Sonata; Piano Pieces; Two Ricercari; Sandburg Songs (Naxos, 2005).

Serialism, in which composers used mathematical rules to determine what notes to play, for how long, at what volume, etc., was a popular technique in the middle of the century. British composer Elisabeth Lutyens (1906–83) used such techniques so frequently that she was nicknamed “Twelve-Note Lizzie,” after her enthusiasm for the 12-tone technique. Lutyens: Chamber & ­Choral Works (NMC Records, 2006) is a perfect introduction.

Jazz influences

Any survey of 20th-century classical music would be woefully incomplete without mentioning jazz. Mary Lou Williams (1899–1981) was among the foremost jazz composers. As a teenager, she traveled with a vaudeville group and regularly sat in with prominent jazz bands, including Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians. In her twenties, she helped define the bebop sound alongside Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and others. Her masterpiece Black Christ of the Andes (Folkways, 1964) is a haunting amalgam of jazz, gospel, and sacred choral music.

Picking up where Williams left off, Carla Bley (b. 1938) is among the most influential and boundary-melting composers of the last 50 years. Her works range from relatively straightforward duo and trio jazz to guffawing whimsy. Try Carla Bley: Selected Recordings (ECM, 2004), and be sure to visit her delightfully eccentric website (www.wattxtrawatt.com).

Listen up

In addition to disrupting musical structures, the latter half of the 20th century saw musicians exploring what constitutes the act of listening to music. In John Cage’s 4’33” a pianist sits quietly for four minutes and 33 seconds, during which time the audience is confronted by the ambient sounds of the hall. Pauline ­Oliveros (b. 1932) took this disruption to the next level with what she calls “deep listening,” which uses sound and ritual to guide listeners toward mindful awareness of their auditory environment. If you have the budget, I recommend the 12-disc box set Reverberations: Tape & Electronic Music 1961–1970 (Important Records, 2012) as well as Roots of the Moment (hat ART, 1988).

The human voice may be the oldest instrument, but Meredith Monk (b. 1942) is still finding new ways to use it. Her interdisciplinary approach blends music, dance, theater, and performance art, making use of nonverbal utterances ranging from primal to ethereal. Do You Be (ECM New Series, 1987) brought her art to a wider listening public, and the liner notes of her forthcoming On Behalf of ­Nature (ECM New Series, 2016) describe it as a heartrending “meditation on our intimate connection to nature.” Monk’s extended voice techniques have affected composers and musicians alike, most notably in the vocal artistry of Icelandic pop star Björk.

The emergence of new technologies such as magnetic tape, the electronic synthesizer, and personal computers provided access to previously unimagined possibilities of sound-making. Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) explores the union of electronic and traditional instruments, often in the form of slow, beautiful transitions between tonal sound and noise. The four-disc set Kaija Saariaho: Works for Orchestra (Ondine, 2012) and the Wolpe Trio’s Kaija Saariaho: Chamber Music (Kairos, 2004) are highly recommended.

Steve Kemple is a Music Reference Librarian at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

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