her kind: sky macklay

Welcome back to her kind; I hope you all had a lovely holiday break (and can manage to hang on for just a couple more weeks before the semester ends)!

This week, I want to dive into another composer I love—one who is still making waves throughout the contemporary scene today: Sky Macklay. Macklay is currently teaching at Peabody, and as a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow, she’s working to release a chamber music album that synthesizes her work as a composer as well as her “raucous, multiphonic-rich oboe practice.”

Macklay’s music is filled with unexpected and conventional textures—one can hear this in her piece ‘White/Waves’ and ‘Chopped,’ as well as her iconic string quartet, ‘Many Many Cadences.’

‘Many Many Cadences’ is one of my favorite string quartets, and one of the first string quartets I discovered by a living composer. The piece re-contextualizes traditional harmonies—repeating a series of cadences in quick succession to form phrases and motives.  The colors and textures Macklay extracts from the strings through developing the material provides an effective contrast to the bright, piercing nature of the initial motive. It’s wonderfully playful, which is something I strive for in my own writing, as well. At the end of the piece, when the initial motive returns, it’s transformed through the most delightful onslaught of slides—the motive is almost indistinguishable, but ultimately it’s just present enough for the ear to catch on.

One of Macklay’s scores, Inner Life of Song, from 2015

Another stunning piece by Macklay is her violin and piano duo, FastLowHighSlow. Immediately, one can hear her playing with textures and registers—which is implied by the title. The piece particularly direct in concept, but it kept my interest the whole way through listening because of Macklay’s unique use of textural combinations.

Aside from her music, Macklay’s outlook on music also resonates with me:

“I love weird contemporary music and sharing it with the next generation,” she explained. “I think a lot of it is sharing my own personal perspective on it—just show how much a particular sound excites me and how beautiful I think it is.  I think that’s sort of contagious, or at least let’s people perceive it as a beautiful thing, or something that some person thinks is a beautiful thing. I also think that exposure, experience, experiential education, and experiential pieces are really a great way to do outreach. … That’s something I think more composers should do: write music that has a participatory role for amateur musicians, or for just audience members.”

Finding ways to connect over the beauty of something—sounds, colors, experiences—is the primary reason I pursue art. If you want to connect over the beauty of Macklay’s music, you can listen here on the her kind playlist, or check out her scores on YouTube!

 

Identity Duality

We get our voices from the ghosts of spirituals 

Our feeling from their deaths 

 

Will they think 

About how our nights were filled with 

Blue eyes 

Blond hair 

Long and silky 

Wind tousled 

How the slight tinge of brown or black was easily 

Passed by

Begged for the chance to be seen but the wish was never answered 

 

I wonder who would honor my wish 

See me in the pictures 

And select me on the screen 

As they try to do in real life 

 

After sanitized hands 

Cleanse mouths from the aftertaste 

Will they come back?

her kind: sofia gubaidulina

“The art of music is capable of touching and approaching mysteries and laws existing in the cosmos and in the world.” —Sofia Gubaidulina

This week, I had the pleasure of researching and listening to the music of Sofia Gubaidulina—a composer whose studies took place in Soviet Russia. Born in 1931, Gubaidulina is considered one of the foremost Russian composers of the second half of the twentieth century.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Piano Concerto Introitus is a one of my favorite pieces of music I’ve listened to recently. The opening unfolds from hollow, plaintive moans in the flutes and rises up in register and orchestration, building momentum to a near unison statement of one of the piece’s primary gestures. I love her choice to use the lowest registers of the flute to open the piece–it creates a beautiful, sacred ambience. Intervals of minor seconds, harmonic and melodic, evoke mysterium and tension.

The piano enters briefly after the fall of the first climactic moment, and Gubaidulina hovers again in the bass register. The strings prolong mysticism and tension with buzzing tremolos and half steps; the woodwinds create a sustained backdrop in contrast to the other textures being used. It’s surprising how little the piano is really used, considering it’s a piano concerto, but I actually love the way Gubaidulina feels no obligation to keep the pianist active for the majority of the first half of the piece. It’s unexpected, and the limited use of the piano draws more attention to it when it is playing.

She makes use of simple ascending and descending scales in layers and layers of canons with the upper voices of woodwinds. The piano’s melody returns, and strings enter in the low register, echoing chords we’d heard earlier in the piano–then echoing the scales we’d just heard in the woodwinds. This time, richer and fuller, the scalar gesture opens up to a brief bassoon/piano duet which evolves into a call-and-response between the piano and the orchestra.

Towards the end of the piece, there’s a section filled with trills layered one on top of the other which evolves in to these almost bell-like chords chiming in the piano part over a bed of trills in the string section. The strings fade away, and the piano is left alone to play meditative, scalar figures once again—this time, with harmonic seconds floating on top.

The concerto ends with a haunting trill at the top of the piano’s range that serves in opposition to the concerto’s opening. It seems as if the piece itself serves as an ascent—perhaps to the celestial, or as a metaphor in line with the “Introitus” title, ascending from the secular to the sacred at the beginning of a religious event. This idea of ascent is also apparent in smaller motives throughout the piece; particularly in the sweeping gesture of the strings that serves as a pillar Gubaidulina keeps returning to. There’s a constant rise and fall that drives forward the concerto until we arrive at the end, suspended above.

The interaction and consideration between all the voices and textures in this concerto is stunning. The textures and gestures are reminiscent of Debussy and Messiaen perhaps, but Gubaidulina’s voice is strong. Her music was thought of as troublesome during her studies in Soviet Russia, but she was supported by Shostakovich, who in evaluating her final examination encouraged her to continue down her path despite others calling it “mistaken.” I’m grateful he encouraged her, because this piece is quite lovely. If you’d like to take a listen, you can follow this link to the her kind playlist.

 

her kind: welcome & introduction

Welcome to her kind!

Welcome to her kind—a new column at arts, ink. that takes a closer look at women in the arts: their works, their influence, and their history. This column will feature a different artist each week, and we’ll be covering a wide variety of disciplines, from poetry to visual arts to composition. The title of this column comes from Anne Sexton’s poem of the same name.

My name is Nicole Knorr; I’m a composer/pianist pursuing my Master’s degree here at the University of Michigan. I wanted to start a column on women in the arts for two reasons: I get to research and find wonderful work to feature, and I get to host a platform where women’s art is celebrated and brought to readers’ attention. To go along with the blog, I’ve created a Spotify playlist (here) so you all can listen to the work featured, and those of you who perform might find some repertoire to take on someday.

I’m looking forward to sharing some of my favorite art with you all, and I’m excited to host a space where we can celebrate fantastic art together, so cheers! As artist and professor Joan Semmel put it:

 ‘…if there are no great celebrated women artists, that’s because the powers that be have not been celebrating them, but not because they are not there.’

Germaine Tailleferre

This week, I want to start with one of my favorite composers: Germaine Tailleferre. I discovered Tailleferre a few years ago while looking for piano repertoire for the semester. I chose her Pastorale, and for the first time, I studied a piece that wasn’t written by a guy. Yes—after studying piano for over ten years, I hadn’t played a single piece of music by a woman—so Tailleferre holds a special place in my heart.

Tailleferre lived from 1892-1983 and grew up in fin-de-siecle Paris. She was the only female member of Les Six, a group of French composers who rejected both Wagner’s dramaticism and Debussy’s impressionism. They were interested in composing music for everyday—music the average listener could enjoy—while still maintaining technical rigor and prowess.

Her pre-war period was her most prolific—her catalogue of this era boasts a comic opera, a violin concerto, several songs, and the scores for seven films. When Tailleferre fled to the Pennsylvania during the 1940’s due to WWII, she married artist Ralph Barton, who disapproved of her composing career, so her musical output steeply declined. It wasn’t until she decided to divorce Barton and return to France in 1946 that she began composing again, but once she did, she built up her catalogue significantly.

Still life by Pablo Picasso, one of Tailleferre’s contemporaries.

The piece I’d like to highlight is Tailleferre’s piano concerto. It’s a highly effective piece, and I’m excited to share it with you, so let’s dive in!

The work premiered in December 1924 to a highly positive critical response. Tailleferre was hailed as a progressive; Stravinsky himself said of the concerto, “It is virtuous music!” The piece blends Tailleferre’s French roots with Baroque figurations and perhaps even some American influence. While she does follow Les Six’s ideology of composing “everyday music,” or music for the working class (no more Wagnerian drama or elaborate Debussian orchestrations), no one can deny the pristine clarity and rigor of the work—despite being accessible to the average audience.

The piece opens with a lively first movement—the strings and piano in conversation, then upper winds join, and finally Tailleferre turns our ear to the brass. One can hear the influence of Bach here, the motive is passed seamlessly between voices, and there is hardly a moment of reprieve. I was struck by the cadence capping the first movement; it’s Coplandesque–reminiscent of what one might hear in his Rodeo suite.

 

Of the slow movement, pianist Alfred Cortot says “Voilà qui n’est pas moins beau que Bach” (Here’s

Another piece by an artist who influenced Les Six: Matisse’s “goldfish with cat”

something no less beautiful than Bach). Similar to the first, the music presses onward with little space provided for rest. This maintains a steady sense of momentum, in true baroque fashion. The orchestration fills out over time. Tailleferre begins with the stark upper register of the solo piano,sparsely harmonized—the upper winds slowly filter in, then the strings add warmth as the piano’s lower register is introduced. There is an insistent pedal point occurring in the piano part for much of the piece to build tension. The piece unfolds into a densely orchestrated climax and falls away into the same register it began—this time supported by a few more members of the orchestra.

The third movement is a jubilant celebration. The rhythmic motor returns, accompanied by modal mixture, a staple in the Les Six vocabulary. This movement display’s Tailleferre’s affection for contrapuntal rigor—an effective closing for the work.

 

I hope you get a chance to listen and enjoy Tailleferre’s music as much as I do. You can listen to my favorite selections of Tailleferre’s music in this playlist, or you can scan her Spotify barcode below and explore for yourself. In the future, I’ll be adding a bit more of a reactive element in my blog posts—sketches inspired by the art discussed. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll join me next week!

My Name is Minette, Chapter Eighteen: Another World (Final)

They sang along with the old man, raising their arms to the sky and moving their hips to the music. Their movements were free, liquid, completely unrestrained. The music possessed them.

They were free.

Paw swore, nudging Lumpy to move faster. The horse snorted, bothered, but obeyed, moving at a faster clip. With a tight jaw, Paw spit onto the front steps of the building as they passed. The patrons didn’t blink an eye.

Minette couldn’t look away, either, maintaining eye contact with the old man until the building and its music vanished out of sight.

“Paw, what was that place?” Minette asked.

“Droz’s only sin,” Paw growled with a startling vitriol. “That place is for freaks and thieves. Everyone knows that place is dangerous. Our walls are to keep riff-raff out–they don’t belong in here with us. If they can come in, they can get the bees out.”

“Oh. That’s… terrible,” Minette said, trying very hard to sound disgusted.

“You’re damn right,” Paw snapped. “Just keep working, marry a nice woman, give her a good son, and keep your head down, and you won’t end up like any of them.”

Minette didn’t respond. She turned around, trying to catch another glimpse of the mysterious establishment, but it was gone.

***

This signals the end of part one of My Name is Minette, and also my final submission as a blogger for Arts, Ink., as I am graduating in May! I have just completed the novel as my honor’s thesis, and hope to query it to agents and eventually get it published.

I would like to thank Joe and all the lovely folks at Arts, Ink. for all their support and for making a dream come true.

You can find my other works at theopoling.com, and my student org at transgncartsreview.org.

Thank you,

Theo

My Name is Minette, Chapter Seventeen: Something New

She looked to Paw and his clenched jaw. “Where are we? Do you know where we’re going?”

“Of course I do,” Paw grit out. “We’re out in the sticks. It must just be a little bit further.”

Minette shook her head at Paw’s stubbornness. The only thing they stood to lose if they turned back and went another way was Paw’s pride. Minette stared straight ahead, hoping the hills would rise up over the next turn, guiding them safely to the mines. 

Droz didn’t feel like Droz here. Like this place was something unspoken–something not to speak about. And it was true, in a way—Minette had never been taught that Droz was anything other than a merry little community, safe in its walls.

Seeing something that contrasted that so aggressively made a cold feeling sit in her gut. How little did she know about the world beyond her front door?

A new building caught Minette’s attention. This one had a life dissimilar to the shacks and homes around it. It was two-story, brick, with a broad porch that wrapped around the building. All of the windows were open, and music, noise, and voices echoed out from the premises.

On the porch, a couple of old men with sunburned, sagging skin and bright white hair sat nursing their beer bellies in rocking chairs. One of the men had a banjo. He played a song that was like nothing Minette had ever heard before. It was twangy and morose, but oddly upbeat: she felt like she could weep over a dead lover and beat the bees out of a bad guy while listening to it.

The banjo man caught Minette’s eye. Her breath caught in her throat. Instead of glaring at her, or chasing her away like she thought he might, he smiled over at her, gap-toothed, and played even faster, singing along with a raspy croon. His eyes never left Minette’s, even as his fingers flew across the banjo strings.

Some other people came out from inside the building, and Minette couldn’t tell if they were boys or girls. People without shirts on. People with their shapes hidden under cloaks. They were of all heights and weights, skin colors and origins. They dressed like bandits and street workers, bartenders and night-walking women. They smoked and spit into spittoons.

They were something utterly new to Minette.

New, and not terrifying. No, they piqued Minette’s curiosity.