Chamber Music Northwest reviews: defying limits

Concerts and conversations offer insights into contemporary music by female composers

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

In 1985, Pennsylvanian cartoonist Alison Bechdel inadvertently invented the trope that bears her name: The Bechdel-Wallace Test. (You can look at the original comic here.) Not that the test is a perfect indicator of either gender equality or cinematic worth: your average slasher flick passes, and your average Coen Brothers movie does not. Star Wars: Rogue One passes, but just barely. Gravity famously failed it, for rather specific reasons having nothing to do with gender. But as a way of calling attention to the nature of (and reasons for) gender inequality, The Bechdel-Wallace test still serves a useful, perspective-broadening diagnostic purpose.

One thing the Bechdel-Wallace tends to demonstrate: including only one woman in a movie (or a conversation, or a chamber music concert, etc.) inevitably puts all the weight of female representation onto that one character. Tokenism collapses representation into a single vector, a phenomenon best understood as The Smurfette Principle (first noted in 1991 by Katha Pollitt.) The other smurfs, all male, get to be The Nerdy One, The Funny One, The Fat One, The Jock, and so on; the girl smurf is just The Girl. Smurfette doesn’t get to do anything or have any of her own interests and pursuits. She has to be The Girl.

Composer Gabriella Smith discussed ‘Carrot Revolution,’ performed by Tomas Cotik, Becky Anderson and Nokuthula Ngwenyama at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

None of the composers on Chamber Music Northwest’s July 15 program at Reed College had to be The Woman Composer. After a lovely afternoon exploring the trails around Reed’s campus, I was treated to a concert of not only all women composers, but almost all Pulitzer winners and finalists: Tower’s Violin Concerto was a finalist in 1993, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich won in 1983 for her Symphony No. 1 (Three Movements for Orchestra), and Caroline Shaw won in 2013 for her Partita for 8 Voices. After spending the week with Gabriella Smith and her wonderful music, I’d say she’s in good company.

Smith’s Carrot Revolution opened the concert, performed by an ad hoc string quartet made up of violist-composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama, PSU violin professor Tomas Cotik, Fear No Music / Oregon Symphony cellist Nancy Ives, and Smith’s fellow Curtis Institute of Music alum and erstwhile Oregonian Rebecca Anderson. I’d had the chance to observe this quartet in rehearsal a few days earlier, and I was impressed not only with how much they improved but with how well they handled Smith’s peculiar, energetic, post-modern idiom.


The piece opens with scratchy unpitched 16th-note hockets and complex rhythmic patterns drummed out on the cello’s resonant body; eventually the first violin gets into some bluesy slides before the whole thing kicks into slidey hoedown fifths, mournful quarter-tone siren wails, an Akiho-esque pizzicato cello riff and a sideways quote from “Baba O’Riley.” The sudden entrance of complicated canons in rapidly changing meters made me think of Pérotin’s influence on Steve Reich and the famous “difficult, difficult” canon in The Desert Music. Long passages of deeply troubling glissandi and weird techniques that have barely been invented yet (Smith invented them) would give way suddenly to passages of breathtaking lyricism before returning to more hockets and drumming. Smith later told me the entire piece was made up of transitions, which made me think of what Miksch told us about jazz solos.

In other words, the music aptly expressed the vivid, contradictory nature of its title. The whole thing was based on a bizarre (and, it turns out, misattributed) Cezanne quote: “The day will come when a single, freshly observed carrot will start a revolution.” I had bits of it stuck in my head the whole weekend. I can’t wait to hear what she does next.

Coordinated Passion

Next up came the Calidore Quartet, students of Emerson Quartet and Protege Project Artists in their first season with CMNW, performing Shaw’s Entr’acte and Tower’s White Water (String Quartet No. 5.) Let’s get this out of the way: Calidore Quartet at Chamber Music Northwest 2017 gave the greatest string quartet performances I have ever heard in person. I can’t claim to be as much of an experienced classical expert as my fellow Oregon ArtsWatch writers, but I heard a ton of string quartet music this last year and the only group that got me nearly this excited was Pavel Haas. Maybe it’s just my Angeleno heart warming to the L.A. quartet’s brisk, powerful, precocious, coolly virtuosic playing. Maybe it’s because they were, at least in the case of Tower, playing for the composer (she looked awfully pleased.) Or shit, maybe they’re just that damn good. They’ve certainly got the trophy shelf to prove it. I’d love to hear them record Joan Tower’s complete string quartets.

Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte, written in 2011 and already performed by Calidore back in 2015, took me completely off guard. A recurring chord pattern, sweet and sentimental and mysterious and perfect in every way, suffuses the work. I generally hold to the traditional notion that string quartet writing Gets Good when it breaks away from Mere Homophony and bursts into Well Crafted Polyphony. It makes sense, especially in the context of the string quartet’s development. It took something like thirty years for the stable and infinitely malleable format we now take for granted to really take shape. Haydn and Mozart built their careers on the development of the idiom, like that famous Augustan boast about Rome and Marble: they found a truncated orchestral string section and left it The String Quartet.

The Calidore String Quartet played Caroline Shaw’s ‘Entr’acte’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

One of the central themes of their development was in the Independence of Lines. The oldest string quartet writing mostly shows off the brilliant first violin while the rest of the ensemble plays second fiddle, filling in the inner voices that a continuo would normally provide. The cello might be expected to do something a little more interesting since it’s carrying the chord-defining Basso part, but usually that meant it was tied down to the role, not liberated by it. Aside from the gauntlets Mozart threw down at King Friedrich’s haughty feet, it was a century before anyone really wrote cello parts in treble clef. So, over time, we ended up with a situation in string quartet writing where the most sophisticated compositions are those with real parity between the instruments. It’s not easy, and it’s the reason Beethoven’s late quartets still sound so fresh, and why Bartók’s and Shostakovich’s became the cornerstones of the 20th Century String Quartet.

This history of homophony vs. polyphony means that composers rarely attempt a homophonic string quartet where the four players have to work very tightly together, breathing as one instrument, or the piece will fall apart. It’s an exercise in total control for both composer and ensemble. It works when it’s a group like the Kronos Quartet playing something like Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 5, written especially for them. This is part of why Calidore Quartet impressed me so much. Each soloist took a moment to shine, especially cellist Estelle Choi on the strummed coda and first violinist Jeffrey Myers’s absurdly sweet upper register, but the deepest, warmest, most thrilling moments were those heterophonic passages where the four players bowed together, moved together, grooved together, tuned together.

The Calidore String Quartet take a bow with Joan Tower after performing her ‘White Water’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

This same calm coordinated passion made the Tower quartet shine all the brighter. There are polyphonic passages in White Water (and a handful of expressive, athletic solos), but as with much of Tower’s chamber music the excitement really comes from the way she handles dense, complex, rapid unison and octave passages. Rooted in the rhythmically convoluted world of integral serialism, Tower’s sense of rhythm is highly sophisticated—triplets against quintuplets, rapid-fire metric modulations, all the usual post-1950 tricks—but where she really departs from Babbitt and Boulez and company is that her rhythms actually groove. According to the composer, she picked up the groove in Bolivia, where she spent much of her childhood; this feature of her music is especially notable in another water-based composition, 1977’s Amazon (written for her Pierrot ensemble, the Da Capo Players.) Whatever the source, the mathy dance flow sure worked when Calidore did it.

This flowing aspect comes, at least partly, from the piece’s inspiration: Bill Viola’s video installation Going Forth By Day (a part of the commissioning project), specifically Viola’s use of water “as an encompassing image.” Before the concert, Tower explained to us that “Water is a very powerful part of our nature, the action of a line, the texture and weight of that line. Water is a perfect metaphor.” As in Amazon, the music reflects many unexpected aspects of water: the very slow, wide, expansive sections of deep, wide water; the rapidly changing rates of flow in the music’s contrapuntal layers; the ebbing and flowing metric modulations; the eponymous rushes of violent, rushing rapids.


‘Going Forth by Day’ Montage from Tobin Kirk on Vimeo.

Tower explained that the whole piece is based on a scale, which for my curious fellow music nerds is a modulating octatonic collection colored with chromatic inflections (your local library has the score.) Here we have, again, the permeable boundaries of programmatic and absolute music. “The scale has a memory, like the chords in Caroline’s piece. I can’t always keep going up, so there are some heavy moments.” Tower has called herself a “choreographer of sound,” putting primacy on shapes and movements and relationships across psychological time and acoustic space. The programmatic idea of water stimulates an exercise in motivic manipulation based on a synthetic scale–an exercise in music theory, essentially–and a work of great intellectual and emotional depth is born.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s 2008 Septet , which closed the concert, is wonderfully human, full of savory paradoxes and fun little compositional games and jokes for the players alongside profound, meaningful conversations about the meaning of life. It was like a long short story or a novella, one of those striking “under one breath” mesocosmic creations just expansive enough to express a multi-faceted truth and just compressed enough to be absorbed in one sitting. Think “Bloodchild,” “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “Harrison Bergeron,” “The River,” “The Lottery,” “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” I’d guess most of you read at least one of those in high school or college or on the bus or the beach. Stuck with you, right? That’s what Zwilich’s Septet is like.

The basic structure is simple enough: a piano trio (piano, violin, cello) and a string quartet (two violins, viola, cello.) The three violins and two cellos occasionally join forces, but for the most part it’s the two Great Chamber Music Formats in one of those terse novellas, about, say, a family barbeque. The four movements bear suggestive titles, laying out a very rough narrative arc. The first movement’s “Introductions” have the two ensembles getting to know one another, supporting each other and passing the conversation stick around the table, so to speak. The basic themes (mostly octatonic, because after all Zwilich is a Modern Composer) are all introduced and played with for a while. Chopping the vegetables, warming up the grill, passing drinks around, catching up, chilling out. End chapter one.

The Claremont Trio and Calidore String Quartet performed Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s ‘Septet’ at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The second movement, “Quasi una passacaglia,” is where the guests all sit down and start their long conversation. Perhaps another bottle of wine is opened. Chocolate cake and coffee will likely be served. Someone lights up a smokable something. The clouds part and the moon shines down on the gathering. Mysterious beauty fills the air, warmth and companionship and the thrill of doing something difficult together. I’m reminded of Spider Robinson’s dictum “Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased.”

“Games,” the playful and jazzy third movement, rolls out the shared joy. Syncopated swing grooves pop into bluesy raised ninths and flatted fifths like Bley channeling Bartók, inverted seventh chords hopping over from the second movement of Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste, super-hummable melodic cells turning around back on themselves like the lovely foxtrot that closes The Chairman Dances. Keeping with our bbq theme, this is the point where our party guests whip out the cards and the whiskey and become Hilarious.

Finally, at the end of the party, it’s time to say goodbye. The fourth movement, carefully titled “Au Revoir” (offering, in the words of Zwilich’s program notes, “both reminiscence and farewell—not ‘good-bye’ but ‘until we meet again’”), is some of the most satisfying music I’ve ever heard. Zwilich brings back various themes from earlier movements, squeezing out every last bit of sentiment and stimulation. An exquisite little theme from the second movement recurs throughout the fourth, all sweetness and shadow and overflowing with sehnsucht and gemütlichkeit and other fancy Brahmsische sentiments.

It’s hard not to hear these four movements as the Four Seasons, metaphysically speaking. We Spring forth into the world, joyful and vigorous and full of curiosity; we spend the Summer making hay while the sun shines; come Autumn we harvest the fruits of our labors; when Winter arrives we light our fires and settle down for the Long Dark Night.

Resisting Categories, Creating New Structures

No one at the Women Composers Panel earlier that afternoon had to be The Woman Composer either. No fewer than six composers sat and talked about composition and new music and, yes, the issue of gender equality and representation. Continuing my long weekend of women composers, I checked into Kaul Auditorium on a sunny afternoon to hear the four composers from the previous day’s New@Noon concert and “coffee with the composer” discussion at Portland State (Kati Agócs, Hannah Lash, Bonnie Miksch, and Nokuthula Ngwenyama) in conversation with Gabriella Smith and Joan Tower, respectively the youngest and third-oldest living composers on the festival.

I couldn’t help being awed by Tower, not only a highly revered modern composer but one of the mighty advance guard musical heroes who broke all the rules and changed the game for everyone who came after. Her importance can be heard even in the simple act of breaking, in the mid-1970s, with her friends and mentors Babbitt, Wuorinen, and the rest of the Uptown Crowd to compose her own post-serial music, helping establish a vital modern classical idiom in contrast to both academic hypercomplexity and the minimalism which was then first becoming fashionable. In the schismatic world of 20th-century classical music, she had the audacity to love Beethoven and write music “gutsy and simple” as Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and Crumb’s Vox Balaenae. This courage, which first burst forth in her percussion-saturated 1976 chamber work Black Topaz—”a real, honest-to-God, raw attempt at being myself”—is one of those liberating winds, the spirit that blows open closed doors and leaves them open for others to walk through.

All-Classical radio host Christa Wessel joined composers Bonnie Miksch, Gabriella Smith, Joan Tower, Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Kati Agócs, and Hannah Lash for Chamber Music Northwest’s composer panel. Photo: Judy Blankenship.

Moderator Christa Wessel of All Classical radio fame dug right in with the question on everyone’s mind: “The term ‘woman composer’—does it bother you?” Miksch was positive right out of the gate: “It’s a wonderful thing! We should pair them until it’s normal.”

Smith had a different take: “I never knew I was a woman composer until people started arguing about it…it marks us as niche…we just want to be commissioned.” She added, a bit cynically perhaps, that the term is sometimes used by “organizations who want to pat themselves on the back for doing something which always should have been done.”

Tower said she agreed with both, adding that “we are not at a place where we are comfortably equal.” Ngwenyama was not only not bothered, but embraced the term: “composition is a force of creation, a very womanly act…men are lucky they get to do it.” Agócs described herself as “genderless in the studio…but I don’t object.” Lash agreed with Smith (perhaps not coincidentally, they were the two youngest composers there), stating outright that the term does bother her, for exactly the reasons we discussed yesterday.

Wessel’s next question, about femaleness and femininity in music, got the discussion into gear. Tower pointed to the performative aspect of gender, separate from biological sex. “Chopin and Debussy were very ‘feminine’…a few years ago with NEA we did an anonymous listening test and failed it.” Certainly Debussy’s Clair de Lune sounds more delicate and elegant and stereotypically feminine than, say, Tower’s assertively bombastic Fifth Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.

Miksch discussed the identification of stereotypically feminine with emotional intelligence, noting that “we’re coming out of an age of hyper-rationalism… people want emotional music, and hope for that from women composers.” This is the form of sexism of which I and probably most other male aficionados of woman-created music are guilty.

Lash returned to the problematic notion of women composers as mavericks, presumably able to move outside traditions in the way that some gay composers (such as Harrison and Partch) are said to have done. There’s an element of truth to this, naturally, but I have to agree with Lash’s point. “What I find quite disturbing is the implication that we don’t have the same RIGHT to that tradition as our male counterparts.” Agócs, on the other hand, joked “I always try to dude it up” (a tactic Harrison sometimes employed too.)

Composers Joan Tower and Nokuthula Ngwenyama at Chamber Music Northwest’s Composer Panel. Photo: Judy Blankenship.

Tower said that although she was encouraged and never experienced bias, when she started sitting on panels and grant boards she noticed a marked lack of women composers. Miksch described similar experiences, including the invitation she received in 2008 to join the newly formed—and all-male—board of Cascadia Composers (I sit on the board now myself, and although it’s still mostly men the balance has edged a little closer to equal.)

The harder limits are social and biological: Agócs described childcare and family support as “the big challenge,” and Miksch noted that, for the many composers who earn a living in higher education, “the tenure clock and the family clock are on the same timeline.”

The conversation really picked up when they could stop speaking as women and simply speak as composers. Tower talked about being “a bad student…I didn’t like being told what to do!” and how she learned from Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky.

Agócs said that “being a mentor is like being a shrink.” Her first teacher was Milton Babbitt, who refused to teach her his notorious integral serialism because “it would be like leading my granddaughter astray” (she learned it from his scores instead.)

Lash studied with Augusta Read Thomas and “never thought of her as gendered because she’s awesome.” Ngwenyama praised the social side of composing, in contrast to the classic image of the hermit in a cave with a pencil and a stack of manuscript paper: “creatives find their way in the world—we give to each other and feed each other.”

Smith concluded with the power mantra of the day: “if you write something you love, someone will love it. If you write what you think someone else will like, everyone will go ‘bleh’.”

I don’t know if Miksch is right about audiences looking for a deeper emotionality from women composers, but these six composers—spanning fifty years of experience—sure as hell put on a good bunch of concerts. When Wessel asked about the role of competition in the creative world and whether it has value, Miksch responded that “it’s how we get commissions.” However, she took care to explain that the Cascadia-associated Crazy Jane Composers has an open submission policy to encourage women composers to submit their works. “These are hierarchical structures, and there are better ways of doing things,” the Portland State music professor explained. “The structures that were erected were done so by men. It’s time to erect some of our own.”

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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3 Responses.

  1. Jack Frymire says:

    Matthews combines virtuoso writing with virtuoso hearing. I feel the same way he does about Calidore–primus inter pares!–and the iconic Tower, but never dreamed that mere words could shine such a clarifying light on their music.

  2. Jack Frymire says:

    Sorry–Andrews, not Matthews!

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