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Stirrings Still

Music for International Women's Day, March 2015

Inspired by BBC Radio 3's dedication of a whole day's broadcasting to music by female composers on Sunday 8 March 2015, I decided that I too would listen only to music by women for 24 hours. Several days later I found I was still only listening to female composers, and I had made a few rediscoveries. Here's a selection of excerpts from some of the music I listened to.


Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
Rituals for five percussionists and orchestra (2003)
Nexus; IRIS Chamber Orchestra; Michael Stern (conductor)

Florida-born Zwilich usually comes at the end of lists of composers, so I thought I'd let her come first for once. She has the distinction of being the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music.


Franghiz Ali-Zade
Music for Piano (1997)
Franghiz Ali-Zade (piano)

Franghiz Ali-Zade is probably the best known composer from Azerbaijan, male or female, at least in the West. This piece is simply called Music for Piano, but she has clearly made some modifications to her piano.


Anna Meredith
Axeman (2004)
John Orford (bassoon)

Talking of modifying instruments, Anna Meredith, born in Edinburgh, admits that it was "after a few drinks" that she had the idea of putting a solo bassoon through a distortion pedal.


Meredith Monk
The Tale from Education of the Girlchild (1973)
Meredith Monk (voice); Steve Lockwood (piano); Collin Walcott (violin & percussion)

Meredith Monk has a distinctive vocal style all her own, though I first heard The Tale in a performance by the singing pianist Anthony de Mare. Here is Monk's own version.


Odaline de la Martinez
Litanies (1981)
Lontano; Odaline de la Martinez (conductor)

Odaline de la Martinez, born in Cuba, educated in the States and long resident in Britain, is best known as a conductor, but she has also written some very powerful music. Litanies, for a small instrumental ensemble, makes much of the dark and sinister side of the harp's character.


Arianna Savall
Anima Nostra (2007)
Arianna Savall (voice & Tibetan bowl)

Harps seem to be a recurring theme in this sequence, though in this piece Swiss-Catalan singer and harp specialist Arianna Savall casts aside her harps in favour of a Tibetan singing bowl.


Elizabeth Maconchy
String Quartet No. 4 (1943)
Hanson String Quartet

I've always considered Elizabeth Maconchy to be a highly under-rated composer. Her thirteen string quartets are rarely heard and deserve to be much better known.


Girija Devi
Raga Pilu (1992)
Girija Devi (voice); Ramesh Misra (sarangi); Subhen Chatterjee (tabla); Sudha Datta (tanpura)

A side-step into Indian classical music now, where the distinction between composer and performer is less clear than in Western music as the performer improvises within strict and complex structures defined by tradition. Singer Girija Devi, from Varanasi, here performs Raga Pilu in the style known as thumri, which is sometimes described as "semi-classical", meaning it is less rigorous than some other styles, and is open to folk influences.


Germaine Tailleferre
Images (1918)
Instrumental Ensemble; Nicole A. Paiement (conductor)

Germaine Tailleferre is remembered as the only female member of Les Six, the group of composers in Paris associated with Cocteau in the 1920s, but her music is rarely played these days, apart perhaps from her Harp Sonata. The piece I've include here, Images, calls for a small instrumental group including celesta, and pre-dates her involvement with Les Six.


Evelyn Glennie
Sorbet No. 3: Udu Trail (1994)
Evelyn Glennie (percussion)

Evelyn Glennie performs a piece of her own, featuring the udu, a clay pot with a hole in the side.


Karin Rehnqvist
Sun Song (1994)
Lena Willemark (soprano); Nina Persson (speaker); Maria Garelöv-Thorsell (speaker); Sundsvall Chamber Orchestra; Niklas Willén (conductor)

Between 1998 and 2003, Karin Rehnqvist and Sally Beamish jointly held the post of composers in residence with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The idea was that new commissions from both composers would be heard in both countries, but since the end of the project Rehnqvist seems to have been largely forgotten in Scotland. Her music can be a challenging listen: Sun Song is based on a mediaeval Icelandic poem about the power of the sun over life, death, and life after death, interpolating Swedish hymns, scientific texts and nursery rhymes about the sun, and makes much use of the folk-derived techniques of singer Lena Willemark.


Şirin Pancaroğlu
Nikriz Saz Semâi (2009)
Şirin Pancaroğlu (çeng); Meriç Dönük (lever harp)

Harps again now: Şirin Pancaroğlu has made a speciality of reviving the obsolete Turkish angular harp known as the çeng, and here she plays a piece written in memory of her close friend and fellow harpist Ceren Necipoğlu, who died in a plane crash in 2009.


Melinda Maxwell
Pibroch (1981)
Melinda Maxwell (oboe); Jane Salmon (cello)

Another composer better known as a performer, Melinda Maxwell performs her own piece Pibroch, for solo oboe with accompanying drone, here provided on the cello.


Gloria Coates
String Quartet No. 3 (1975)
Kreutzer Quartet

Gloria Coates is often claimed to have written more symphonies than any other woman: fifteen to date. Her nine string quartets are perhaps the core of her output, though, all of them tough and gripping in different ways. My favourite is No. 6, but it really needs to be heard complete, so instead I've chosen the final movement of No. 3.


Ruth Crawford Seeger
Piano Study in Mixed Accents (1930)
Cheryl Seltzer (piano)

One of a group of American composers known as the "ultramoderns" until her husband persuaded her to concentrate on folk music, Ruth Crawford Seeger produced a small body of very distinctive music, the best known being a String Quartet, the song Chinaman, Laundryman, and this short piano study. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Peggy Seeger is her daughter; Pete Seeger was her stepson.


Kaija Saariaho
Stilleben (1988)
Kaija Saariaho (tape)

Kaija Saariaho has been a pioneer in combining live instruments with electronics, but she has also produced a few pieces, such as this one, that only exist on tape.


Rebecca Saunders
Stirrings Still (2007)

To finish with, a composer who can produce the most astonishing sounds using only conventional instruments and no electronics. Rebecca Saunders was born in London, educated in Edinburgh, but has made her professional life based in Berlin. In Stirrings Still, for three wind instruments, piano and percussion, the eerie sound world owes much to the percussionist playing crotales with a bow.

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