Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival Portland Oregon

Weekly preview: Slowly turning the tide

Harp-and-bassoon duo Hats & Heels perform women composers at Beall Concert Hall.

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Though some great strides have been made to correct this long-standing issue, the sad truth remains that women and nonbinary composers are sorely underrepresented in the world of classical music. A survey of 22 major American orchestras, undertaken by the Baltimore Symphony in 2016, revealed that “women composers accounted for only 1.8 percent of the total pieces performed in the 2014-2015 concert season.” Damning numbers that haven’t gotten much better since.

Helping to slowly turn the tide are the efforts of chamber groups and smaller ensembles that can afford to look beyond the established canon written by white men to celebrate existing work, and commission new pieces, by composers from marginalized communities. 

That is the mindset of Hats & Heels, a chamber music duo composed of harpist Dr. Rosanna Moore and bassoonist Dr. Blaire Koerner and named for their predilection for fabulous shoes and accessories. The pair first joined forces in 2019 when they were both employed by the Eastman Community Music School in Rochester, New York. For a faculty recital, they put together a program of work by French composers to pay homage to the Notre-Dame Cathedral, which had been damaged by a fire. From the jump, they realized a deep musical chemistry to go along with their already blossoming friendship. 

“We had a blast,” Koerner remembers, “and someone afterwards said, ‘You know, this pairing is really good. You two should become a duo.’” 

“And that person was your mother,” Moore interjects.

Hats & Heels performing Esther Swift's ‘Alice in Wonderland Suite’ in 2022. From the video recorded by Marc Webster at Blue on Blue Recording.
Hats & Heels performing Esther Swift’s ‘Alice in Wonderland Suite’ in 2022. From the video recorded by Marc Webster at Blue on Blue Recording.

With a slim repertoire for this instrumental pairing, and a mutual desire to celebrate diverse voices in the classical world, Hats & Heels soon began commissioning new pieces — all of them from women and nonbinary composers — and presenting them at a pair of concerts in 2020 and 2021 called Women Are….

Many of those works serve as the backbone of the duo’s performance this Saturday at Beall Concert Hall at the University of Oregon, where Moore works as a harp instructor. Excited as they are to revisit pieces like the playful Alice In Wonderland Suite from Scottish artist Esther Swift and the flowing, nature-inspired Maunawili from Kalia Vandever, both women are thrilled to be offering up the premiere of They’ve Been Appearing Overnight, written for the duo by New York-based composer Anna Heflin

The collaboration is an ideal fit for all involved. Both the composer and the musicians are attracted to interdisciplinary work that involves some combination of sound, movement, visual art, and language. Hats & Heels’ performance of Maunawili last year included a video of a dancer contorting her body and reacting to the music’s swaying melodies. And some of Heflin’s most affecting work, like her recent album The Redundancy of the Angelic: An Interluding Play, features spoken word or pre-recorded sounds that the other musicians must respond to.

Overnight presented all manner of exciting challenges for everyone involved. For Heflin, it was the opportunity to write for the harp for the first time. 

“It’s an instrument that I’ve always wanted to write for,” Heflin says. “In some ways it’s out of my wheelhouse because of the mechanics of it. But in others, it’s strings and the acoustics of that are similar to a viola. The microtonality is a big unexpected part of that that I find really fun.” 

Composer Anna Heflin. Photo courtesy of the composer.
Composer Anna Heflin. Photo courtesy of the composer.

Heflin leaned into the microtonality by creating a new system for the harp that requires Moore to, at the start of the work, detune the instrument so the various octaves are in completely different keys. The effect of both the sound and watching Moore mess with the tuning is destabilizing and, says Moore, will likely make some folks in attendance overreact a bit. 

“I’m sure some of my fellow teachers will be turning their heads going, ‘What are you doing to your instrument?!’” she says, laughing. “But it’s fine. It’s not hurting anything.” 

The piece only becomes more dense and multi-faceted from there. 

“There’s technological things involved where we have to record things ahead of time and layer tracks together and play with electronics,” says Koerner. “There’s speaking parts for both of us. I had to translate words into morse code rhythms and play that. It’s unique in its delivery but it is virtuosic and challenging to us as artists.” 

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As demanding as it all sounds, Heflin knew that Hats & Heels were up to the task no matter how many unusual ideas she threw at them during the course of writing Overnight

“Every time I asked a question, they were so open,” Heflin says. “With Rosie, I would send these different tunings, and with Blaire–I mean, Blaire learned morse code. They really are extraordinary. They were just game for wherever it went.” 

Hats & Heels perform Women Are… on Saturday, March 12 at 7:30 pm at University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall (961 E 18th Ave, Eugene OR). Admission is free. 

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Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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