Music makes the message come alive

Resonance Ensemble concert features all women singers and composers

The first movement of Melissa Dunphy’s new choral composition LISTEN sets texts from Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, with lines like “I thought he respected my work” and “When I was asked, I had to tell the truth, I could not keep silent.” In February’s Portland performance by Resonance Ensemble, which commissioned it, chants on “he-he-he” and “no-no-no” formed a rhythmic and harmonic canvas across which stretched long, tortured, almost Lutosławski-esque melodies. The second movement took this sound world even further, setting lines from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s 2018 testimony with a thicket of dense dissonant counterpoint, ending on “my responsibility is to tell the truth.”

On the screen above all this were pictures taken at both testimonies. Hill looking over her shoulder. Ford looking straight ahead, hand raised, terrified and determined. At a certain point it felt like a horror movie, and a reminder of the ways in which our actual reality has become a horror movie. I’ll tell you another time all about the gasps and tears in the room, during this piece especially, and about the way we all held each other afterwards and reassured each other that it was okay to feel afraid and angry and helpless and mortified and terrorized.

Resonance Ensemble reprises its popular concert featuring women singing music by women.

It was a cool misty February at Cerimon House in Southeast Portland, the local vocal group Resonance Ensemble was starting its concert Women Singing Women, and up on the screen above the stage was an old black-and-white photo of Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, fists raised. Over the course of the next 90-odd minutes, a few hundred photographs of women would appear on that screen, from Amelia Earhart and Barbara Bush to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Portland’s own Ursula K. Le Guin, ending (spoiler alert!) with a return to Steinem and Pitman-Hughes, 40 years later, fists still up.

The sold-out concert was, as the name suggested, an afternoon of women singers performing music composed and arranged by women (they scheduled an encore, which also sold out). As we’ve previously discussed the Bechdel-Wallace effect in music here, we’ll limit ourselves to quoting Steinem, who wrote (in her 1992 self-esteem book Revolution from Within):

Each of us with hearing and vocal cords can sing, yet many of us have been embarrassed out of this out of this primordial pleasure by self-consciousness and shame at the sounds we make. Our critical, conscious self literally stifles our voice. And, as with any other human capacity, the less we use it, the less we believe it to be worth using.

It’s a theme I often hear from women working in classical music, and especially composers. At the post-concert Q&A, the composers Melissa Dunphy and Portland’s Stacey Philipps both described themselves as latecomers to composing. Philipps talked about the long history of women composers being ignored or married off, and Dunphy said “a lot of women are late-comers to composing.” Resonance Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon added that she was not able to find a female conducting teacher until she was working on her doctorate. It’s not just women who experience this, of course—that Steinem quote perfectly pierced this male heart—but it’s usually women leading the way in doing something about it. We need concerts like this. It’s nice when they sound good too.

The singing at Cerimon House started with Ruth Moody’s “One Voice,” Resonance soloists Brittany Rudoi, Sarah Maines, and Cecily Kiester singing “This is the sound of one voice…This is the sound of voices two…This is the sound of voices three”—a clever bit of musical wordplay in physical space leading to the rest of the choir coming in on “This is sound of all of us,” a beautifully resonant sound in the sonically spacious but physically close and intimate room.

FitzGibbon stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s very important you hear my voice today.” She described the concert’s theme as “exploring the ways women’s words are sometimes silenced, sometimes heard, something needing to be heard.” She also offered what would prove to be very necessary trigger warning about the concert’s content: “these are difficult things to hear, but important to hear.”

Resonance Ensemble conductor and Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon. Composers Melissa Dunphy Stacey Phillipps. At Cerimon House for February 3rd Women Singing Women concert. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.
Melissa Dunphy, Katherine FitzGibbon, Stacey Philipps. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.

It’s become all too easy to do Social Justice Music. Our time (by which I mean this era in which we can communicate and organize with anyone, anywhere, anytime) has come to be defined by a broad range of social issues all stemming from the simple fact that we can discuss and organize around subjects and experiences that were previously invisible to polite society. Some of the big examples would include the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter (started by three women), #metoo (started by one woman, amplified by another, and then by so many others), the rise of international corporatism and global fascism (and their opponents), and other such difficult and important topics.

Clearly all of this is a good thing, terrifying and overwhelming though it all may be at times (we’ll come back to FitzGibbon’s trigger warning), and in many ways our era fits the old sense of the word “apocalypse”—an unveiling. All of this should be talked about, and it should appear in our art. Our music should address it, because our music is our lives and our lives cannot be separated from the great movements of our time.

This being Portland, Social Justice Music concerts have been springing up like wildflowers in May rain, and sadly the majority of these concerts have been boring and lazy, leaning on their social relevance as a crutch for inferior art. And it ends up cutting both ways: if you’re not going to make good music to support your social justice message, you’re going to undercut the message itself.

Fortunately, we do have more than a few true artists making socially relevant music which also has the virtue of being good music. Darrell Grant and 45th Parallel both spring immediately to mind, and we’ve written of how well Fear No Music treads this ground. (Be sure to add your own favorites in the comments, dear reader.)

Resonance Ensemble puts on the best socially relevant classical music programming in Portland. If that’s your bag, you’re already booked for today’s repeat show. They absolutely top the list. Resonance does Social Justice Music justice, and it definitely helps that they are not only a wonderfully skilled vocal ensemble that can sing anything to perfection, but also a robust local arts organization that promotes living and local composers while stretching genre boundaries and challenging the edges of what deserves to be called “classical” music. For this writer, that’s enough to make them important. The Social Justice part of it is just gravy.

Resonance’s stated mission is to perform “powerful concerts promoting meaningful social change.” We’ll come back to the “social change” part of that in our season wrap later this summer. For now, I want to talk to you about the music.

A side benefit of having a social justice theme is that it’s good to have a theme of any kind, because when your concert has that kind of cohesion you can branch out in other ways. Style and genre can shift, guest performers can come and go, and the shows retain their vital narrative drive because they have a spine. I can’t overstate the musical importance of this kind of internal resilience: diverse voices organized around a common principle can make for better art.

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Maines rehearses at Cerimon House for February 3rd Women Singing Women concert. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.
Mezzo-soprano Sarah Maines rehearses. Photo courtesy of Resonance Ensemble.

For instance, about half the concert’s music came from (gasp!) the realm of pop and folk music. That opener, “One Voice,” is better known in the original version sung by the Canadian trio that Moody sings in, Wailin’ Jennys (a pun, of course, on Waylon Jennings). Later in the concert, mezzo-soprano Maines sang “She Used to Be Mine,” from the Sara Bareilles musical Waitress, giving it a good belty Broadway sound that had me thinking of Stephen Marc Beaudoin’s guest spot singing Bernstein on last year’s Bodies concert.

On either side of intermission we had two more poppish numbers. The first half closed with “Wanting Memories,” a beautifully straightforward spiritual composed by bass singer Ysaye Barnwell of the a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock. The second half opened with Suzanne Vega’s “Blood Makes Noise,” in an arrangement by Resonance soloist (and Federale singer) Maria Karlin. Before singing, Karlin related her own history with Vega’s song and what it meant to her as she escaped an abusive relationship. She originally arranged the song for mixed chorus, but rearranged it for sopranos and altos, saying “it has a different meaning for just the women.”

Much as I enjoy the pop and folk stuff and appreciate how lovingly the group sings it, I mainly came for the contemporary classical stuff. That’s the thing Resonance really does well: commissioning and programming music by living (and in many cases local) U.S. composers.

Portland State’s soprano and alto choir Vox Femina (now Thorn Choir) performing Carol Barnett’s Song of Perfect Propriety in 2016. Video by Ravi Ramakrishnan

Minnesota-based Carol Barnett’s Song of Perfect Propriety was a repeat from Bodies, but repeat performances of new music are a good thing and it was wonderful once again hearing the group sing Dorothy Parker’s defiant lyrics and those dark, nasty “ha ha ha” chords. Rachel Hauge sang “Three Words” from Laura Kaminsky’s As One (Resonance’s second Kaminsky of the season), coloring Hannah After’s joyous vocalises with rays of glorious sunshine.

Portland composer Philipps gave the concert one of its two darkest moments, with her Witch Trial setting texts from a 1692 trial to fittingly somber music. The text includes lines like “Whereas I am condemned to die, that the evidence giv’n against me were untrue, I humbly beg that my life may not be taken away” and “Execute her!” The music was drone-heavy in a way that reminded me of Cappella Romana’s Eastern chants, a very creepy bit of sound painting in this context. Tight harmonies over the drones gave the music a dense, modernistic sound somewhere between Oliveros and Ligeti. Yeah, this is definitely the stuff we came here for.

Later, Pacific Northwest composer Joan Szymko’s “Water Women” provided a much-needed breather between “Blood Makes Noise” and the concert’s big commissioned show-stopper, its other darkest moment, Dunphy’s LISTEN. Introducing the 39-year-old Australian American composer, FitzGibbon said, “those of you who consider yourselves Resonance groupies already know her work—we’re all Dunphy groupies now.” Dunphy’s works are always among the emotional and musical high points of Resonance’s concerts, and this two-movement composition was one of the triggers FitzGibbon warned us about. Now a Philadelphia resident, Dunphy talked about her reactions to the Kavanaugh hearings last year, watching Dr. Ford’s testimony, “stomping around the house” and asking herself, “what can I do?” The composer finally concluded, “I can do what I do.”

Resonance Ensemble performed Dunphy’s American DREAMers last year. Video by Alan Niven.

Where Dunphy’s compositional voice sounds very alive and very modern is in how melody intertwines with rhythm to project meaning and create a sound world with real substance. It’s a layered approach typical of Shostakovich and Bartok, and the better mid-to-late-20th-century composers like Corigliano and Zwilich and Pärt, and in our time Andy Akiho, Caroline Shaw, Gabriella Smith, Julia Wolfe. Song of Perfect Propriety and Witch Trial both live in this same sound world.

So too, in a different way, did Missy Mazzoli’s Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos, performed in February’s Resonance concert by pianist Kira Whiting, and the closing number “Starting Now” by Jocelyn Hagen. It also speaks to a certain richness in Resonance’s tastes and intents as performers of modern music, and it makes this writer feel especially privileged as an enthusiast of music written by local composers, living composers, and women composers.

At the post-show Q&A, Dunphy turned to Philipps and said, in her slightly Americanized Australian accent, “I loved your piece and I wish I had written it!” The music’s message is important, but it’s the music that makes the message come alive. If Women Singing Women had been nothing but a lecture, or if the performances had been lousy, or if the music had been—sin of sins!—boring and bad, then why go to a concert at all? Why not stay home and just read Steinem instead? But no: with Resonance, we got the message and the music, and it was necessary, and difficult, and good.

Whatever they’re doing, it must be working—today’s show sold out while we were having our chat about music and meaning. After today, Resonance Ensemble groupies and audients interested in well-performed and socially relevant contemporary classical music still have one more concert as their season ends. Intensive Care (Cerimon House, 4 p.m. on June 9) addresses another invisible concern, and is devoted to “all whose early days of parenthood are different than envisioned—with babies born early, babies sick, babies lost.” The concert features the West Coast premiere of Stephen Caldwell’s Pre-existing Condition, and doubles as the release of Resonance’s debut album, LISTEN, featuring Dunphy’s work and Renée Favand-See’s Only In Falling.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito 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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One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    Hey Matt!

    Thanx for your thoughtful article.

    I particularly second your comment;

    “It’s become all too easy to do Social Justice Music.”

    I truly appreciate you underlining this abundant truth & hope that those of us in Global Village PDX will remember that the musical substance of a given concert is really & truly “Job One.”

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