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Electroacoustic Music by Women Composers

University of North Texas, Denton, Texas, USA, March 23 & 25, 1999

In celebration of women's history month, Elainie Lillios curated two concerts of "Electroacoustic Music by Women Composers," presented in coordination with the Women's Studies Program at the University of North Texas, and sponsored by UNT's Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia. Over 150 pieces composed by more than 60 composers from eight countries were submitted for these events, allowing Ms. Lillios to select from a tremendous variety of compositional styles within the electroacoustic medium. Both concerts were representative of the overall strength of the pieces submitted.

The first event (Tuesday, March 23) featured primarily American composers, including Diane Thome, Elizabeth Anderson, Daria Semegen, Elizabeth Hayden Pizer, Kristi McGarity, and a collaborative effort by Anna Rubin and Laurie Hollander. Elsa Justel (France), Sylvie MacCormac (Canada), and Katharine Norman (United Kingdom) were also represented.

Family Stories: Sophie, Sally (1998) by Anna Rubin and Laurie Hollander was my personal favorite on what was generally a strong-but-long program. Using a combination of narrative, ambient sounds and computer-generated music, this documentary-style work tells the story of Sophie Rubin (Anna Rubin's mother), the child of Russian Jewish immigrants in Atlanta, Georgia. Sophie, only seven when her mother died, was subsequently raised by Sally, an African-American woman, in a racist and anti-Semitic culture in early 20th-century Atlanta. The piece provided an excellent balance of the three elements mentioned above, and Ms. Rubin and Ms. Hollander's use of various natural and musical elements (including water textures, wind chimes, and harmonica) quickly took my imagination to a porch in the South, where for me the narrative unfolded on a rainy afternoon.

Other pieces which particularly captured my attention included Elsa Justel's Du Libe Tu? (1997), a brief but effective work which aptly opened the program. Its rhythmically active environment prepared the listener for the longer and more slowly evolving pieces which immediately followed (Diane Thome's Unfold Entwine (1998) and Sylvie MacCormac's Voices of a Place: Hildegard Westerkamp Inside the Soundscape (1998)). Daria Semegen's Arabesque (1992) provided a somewhat retrospective look at electroacoustic music, and her effective use of space (i.e., silence) in combination with the work's distinctly reminiscent timbres provided relief from the overlapping textures found in Ms. Thome's Unfold Entwine and Elizabeth Hayden Pizer's Aquasphere (1990), the latter which literally drowns the ears in a wash of sound from beginning to end. The concert closed with Kristi McGarity's humorous look at the world of Tech Support (1998), where the audience as a group was 'put on hold' for the next available representative.

The second concert in the series (Thursday, March 25) had a much more international flavor. Composers represented included Ines Kargel (Austria), Frances White, Elaine Barkin, Vivian Adelberg Rudow (USA), Mei-Fang Lin, Chin-Chin Chen (Taiwan), Annette Vande Gorne (Belgium), Natasha Barrett (United Kingdom), and Pascale Trudel (Canada).

In terms of the length of the program, this concert surpassed the Tuesday event, but once again the strength and variety of the chosen works kept it from seeming too long. The concert opened with Ines Kargel's ||:KUNST:|| da capo (1997), an 'in-your-face' sort of work with creative use of spatialization. While most if not all of the material was derived from the word "Kunst," the resultant sonic events ranged from grunting pig-like sounds to howling cats. Although Ms. Kargel utilized random operations as part of her creative process, the result was wonderfully controlled. The piece may have suffered slightly from the use of a two-channel version rather than the original four, but the overall effect was maintained.

Ms. Kargel was not the only composer represented who focused on vocal sounds as originating material. Frances White's Valdrada (1998) utilized speech patterns from a reading of an excerpt of Le città invisibili (Invisible cities) to generate a form in three sections, the first focusing on the rhythm of the consonants of the speech patterns. The second section focused on vowel timbres, while the third mixed the two together. Annette Vande Gorne's three-movement Vox Alia (1997-8) also utilized manipulated speech, while Vivian Adelberg Rudow's With Love (1986) included raw samples in a work in which 'electronic woman,' 'electronic mom,' and a live cellist (absent here in favor of a two-channel tape version) are in dialogue throughout the work. With Love won First Prize in the 1986 14th International Electroacoustic Music Competition, Bourges, although this performance would have been more effective with the presence of the live performer.

The two strongest pieces on the program were Mei-Fang Lin's Ascension (1998) and Natasha Barrett's Red Snow (1998). Ascension incorporates what the composer describes as 'spontaneous gestures that turn themselves into a vivid sonic picture.' Because of their distinctive timbral qualities, the gestures seem at first to exist independently in different planes within the sonic environment. However, when these different gestures are eventually combined, the result is a wonderfully crafted contrapuntal environment with the aim of elevating "'s spiritual state of being to a higher level of tranquillity and serenity."

Red Snow closed out the concert, and what a fabulous close it was! Beginning with fleeting gestures, the material soon germinates into larger structures. Spatialization is a key component to this work, and rather than attempt to describe the compositional process and/or intent of the composer, an excerpt from the composer's program notes will suffice:

Red Snow is snow coloured rose to blood red by a growth of algae or diatoms. During seasons when there is little sunlight and temperatures are much lower than the freezing point, the algae are dormant.

Red Snow is the second in a series of works entitled 'microclimates.' Each work is structurally balanced, not in a symmetrical sense, but through the 'life' of one articulation resulting in a subsequent and counterbalancing reaction. Through the process of composition, the beauty and violence of a natural landscape is concentrated into the 'microclimate' of the work - forming a new 'organisational space' yet reflecting, in acoustic form, the natural world and psychological source inspiration.

As the final seconds of the work unfold, one realizes that the atmosphere has become convincingly introspective, and when the bell-like timbres chime repeatedly to indicate the final cadence, one quickly realizes the wonderful journey upon which Ms. Barrett has allowed the listener to partake.

In summary, Ms. Lillios' two concerts of women composers of electroacoustic music were rewarding and well-programmed events which bode well for all composers represented. Although the concerts were perhaps a bit lengthy (approximately two hours for each concert), the variety and strength of the works presented held my interest throughout.

This review was first published in Computer Music Journal 23:4 (Winter > 1999)

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