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Listening Guide: The Future is Female

// Nov 8,2019

The Future is Female: Sarah Cahill, piano will be performed on Saturday, Nov. 16 at the Studio at CURRENT. For more information and tickets, click here.

Written by Dan Ruccia

“Like most people who play classical music,” Sarah Cahill says, “I grew up with the classical canon, which is all white male composers. But when you get past Bach and Mozart and Beethoven, even the minor composers and the minor-minor composers are men.” Her project The Future is Female, which she calls a “ritual installation and communal feminist immersive listening experience,” attempts to fill in some of those missing women. For the project, Cahill collected roughly sixty relatively short pieces by women, both famous and obscure, spanning over 300 years of musical history.

To get a feel for the breadth of music in The Future is Female, I’ve selected eleven representative pieces which may or may not be part of Cahill’s five-hour marathon performance on November 16 at CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio. While the list includes giants like Clara Schumann, Fanny Hensel, Yoko Ono, and Kaija Saariaho, I’ve generally leaned towards lesser-known composers, with a few exceptions. Cahill’s list only barely scratches the surface of what’s out there. Which says that women have been making fantastic music just as long as men have. We just haven’t chosen to pay attention until recently.

Anna Bon Sonata No. 6 in C Major (1757)

“Altezza Serenissima!” (the most serene heights) Thus the 18-year-old Anna Bon began the dedication of her six harpsichord sonatas to Princess Ernestina Augusta Sophia of Weimar. This, the final sonata of the set, is dutifully serene, its tenor unflappable through three short movements that seem to draw on Telemann’s stateliest airs. The second movement’s use of space is especially delightful.

Teresa Carreño Un rêve en mer (1868)

Teresa Carreño’s dream by the sea is anything but serene. This nocturne thrashes about violently, with minor-key waves crashing from the depths of the piano. Even the sighing, major-key middle section is wracked with the nervous energy of a constantly rushing pulse. Whether the mood is autobiographical or just a burst of imagination is unclear. However, even at 15, this prodigy had had plenty of experience with the sea: emigrating to the U.S. from her native Venezuela in 1862, touring twice in Cuba, and traveling to Europe where she toured extensively beginning in 1866.

Johanna Beyer Dissonant Counterpoint V & VII (1930s)

After emigrating to the U.S. in 1924, Johanna Beyer fell in with some of the most progressive musical thinkers in New York City at the time: Ruth Crawford, Henry Cowell, Dane Rudhyar, and Charles Seeger. “Dissonant counterpoint” was a concept of Seeger’s, an attempt to invert the rules of traditional, tonal counterpoint differently from Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone music. All the composers in this circle used dissonant counterpoint to varying degrees throughout the 1930s, but this is the only piece that takes the method as its title. In Beyer’s hands, dissonant counterpoint is fluid, spectral, and playful. “V” is a kind of canon, but one where the relationship between the two voices is constantly in flux. And in “VII,” the two hands of the piano sometimes feel entirely disconnected, like watching two cats meandering in parallel, completely oblivious to what the other is doing.

Germaine Tailleferre Partita (1957)

Growing up, Germaine Taillefesse’s father didn’t support her musical aspirations, once equating the study of music with prostitution. Nevertheless, she persisted. She would go on to be the only female member of Les Six, a grouping of modernist Parisian composers including Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, and Francis Poulenc which came together shortly after World War I. Written for her daughter, François, Partita feels like a rainstorm, sometimes splashing in puddles, sometimes floating in the clouds just as the water begins to form into droplets, and sometimes falling in deluges. Occasionally the sun shows up, setting all the droplets ablaze with a thousand different colors at once.

Sofia Gubaidulina Chaconne (1962)

One of the earliest pieces in Sofia Gubaidulina’s catalog, Chaconne was written while she was still a graduate student at the Moscow Conservatory. It marks the beginning of her long obsession with Baroque music, though you’d barely know from listening to the opening gesture. Those huge, granite-like chords cycling through odd harmonies at eight-bar intervals would seem to have next to nothing to do with Bach. But slowly, Bach begins to seep through the cracks: a flash of figuration here, a gesture there, a walking bassline (that could just as easily be from a Shostakovich march) somewhere else. And before you know it, a chromatic line resolves itself (for the briefest of seconds) into a two-part invention in C major before quickly dissolving into something much more complicated (though no less rigorous).

Margaret Bonds Troubled Water (1967)

A student of the great Florence Price (whose spectacular Piano Sonata is also part of The Future is Female), Margaret Bonds remains one of the best known African American women composers, a list that is still painfully short. She was the first African American woman to play with the Chicago Symphony in 1933, the same year the group performed Price’s First Symphony. This piece, written when Bonds was 54, is a rhapsodic adaptation of the Spiritual “Wade in the Water.” She seamlessly blends jazz harmonies and rhythms with more classical structures and techniques to make a work that brims with energy.

Tania León Rituál (1987)

Rituál begins in languid meditation, with notes floating up lazily from a few heavy bass notes. After a few minutes of quiet reverie, León falls again to the bottom of the piano, to begin the ritual for real. Piece by piece, she constructs a rhythmic machine, a Yoruba translation of Stravinsky’s “Danse Sacrale” from the Rite of Spring, with irregular accents, staccato attacks everywhere on the piano, and an abiding sense of building towards some unknown climax. In dedicating the work to Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook from the Dance Theater of Harlem, León says the work is about “the fire that kindles the spirit of those who inspire others, for these others see something they themselves do not perceive: the fire of initiation.”

Linda Catlin Smith A Nocturne (1995)

This is another bit of musical ritual. But whereas Rituál is full of ecstatic density, A Nocturne is about ecstatic space. Smith allows every gesture to ring and decay before moving on to the next, allowing silence to overwhelm the listener. But it is the process of arriving at that silence, the way different notes vibrate, clash, and evaporate that gives the piece shape. “As I was writing this piece,” Smith writes, “the material seemed more and more to be disappearing.”

Meredith Monk St. Petersburg Waltz (1997)

When you think of Meredith Monk, piano is not the instrument that comes to mind, but she has played piano since childhood and written occasional works for piano since 1972. This song feels like her ecstatic vocal music made into mallets and strings, a billowing waltz that loops and twirls through the darkness with moody grace. All that’s missing are her signature contorting ululations, of which the piano can only create the merest simulacra. Left unanswered is what we’re doing in St. Petersburg.

Kui Dong Earth, Water, Wood, Metal, Fire (2001)

This is one of nearly a dozen pieces in The Future is Female commissioned by Sarah Cahill. Over five movements, Dong reshapes various piano improvisations into representations of the five elements that are believed to make up the world in traditional Chinese philosophy. The final element, “Fire,” is by far the most complicated of the set, blazing through ideas at an alarming clip. Just as one texture gets established, it floats off, replaced by a new, equally intriguing flurry of notes.

Theresa Wong She Dances Naked Under Palm Trees (2019)

Nina Simone, North Carolina’s favorite musical daughter, haunts this, one of the newest pieces in The Future is Female. It’s not just the fragments of her song “Images” (itself an a cappella setting of the Harlem Renaissance poem “No Images” by William Waring Cuney) which Wong embeds within the sweeping glissandi which open the piece. It’s also Simone’s mystical invocations of the power of womanhood, embodied by the lopsided 13/8 groove that underlies the second half of the piece. “After I began to first compose with this meter,” Wong writes, “I learned how the now ‘unlucky’ number originated in many ancient cultures as a symbol of the divine feminine. For example, there are 13 cycles of the moon and menstrual cycles a year, and Friday (from the Norse goddess Freya or in Neo-latin languages, Venerdi from Venus) the 13th represented the day of the Goddess—a day to celebrate the cycles of creation, death and rebirth.”