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Women Composers and Performers: Expanding a Repertoire, Part II

While Melba Liston’s influence was in the field of jazz, today women are really pushing the boundaries in contemporary and avant-garde music.  Women in these fields tend to champion one another’s music, which has created a truly connected world of female composers and performers. This is true especially in the trombone world.  Abbie Conant and Monique Buzzarté are both trombonists, advocates of new music, and activists for women in music. Alice Shields and Pauline Oliveros are both composers who have written for Conant and Buzzarté and have expanded the trombone repertoire. Together, these women have strengthened one another’s careers and have produced meaningful music.

Abbie Conant studied trombone at Temple University, Yale, and Julliard.  She has had a long career as an orchestral musician, serving as principal trombonist / soloist at the Royal Opera of Turin as well as the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. She currently serves as Trombone Professor at the Staatliche Hochshule für Musik in Trossingen, Germany. Conant is widely known for the egregious sexism she experienced while playing in the Munich Philharmonic.  After winning a blind audition for the solo trombone position, the orchestra director Celibadache demoted her and reduced her pay. Conant took legal action and fought for thirteen years before winning the court case. After experiencing such awful treatment and overt sexism in Munich, Conant and her husband William Osborne sought to “transcend” the current state of music. Osborne, a highly regarded composer, wrote a series of feminist chamber music theatre works for Conant. Conant has performed works such as Winnie, Street Scene for the Last Mad Soprano, Miriam, Cybeline, and Music for the End of Time in over 155 cities around the world.

While these chamber music theatre works have certainly expanded the trombone repertoire, they have not been performed by anyone other than Conant and are not published for this reason. In efforts to expand the trombone’s literature for students and professionals alike, Conant started a project called The Wired Goddess.  Conant describes her project and the state of trombone literature:

The purpose of The Wired Goddess and Her Trombone project is to explore the theme of the goddess and further a repertoire for solo trombone and electronics that can be performed by college-age trombonists.  The spirit is one of practicality, similar to Hindemith’s Gebrauchsmusik…The trombone has so much bad literature, so much B-music, music that I simply cannot identify with…I wanted to find a new music, to work with composers both known and unknown…I wanted a completely original approach and a completely different feeling that I simply hadn’t yet found in this world. (Conant, http://www.osborne-conant.com)

Conant’s noble endeavor has yielded many new pieces of music to the trombone literature.  She is still in the midst of this project, but she has already received over twenty new compositions for trombone and electronics.  Some composers that have contributed to her project include Pauline Oliveros, Chris Brown, and Maggi Payne.  Conant plans to record each work and assist the composer in getting the work published.

Monique Buzzarté is a trombonist, composer, and activist living in New York City.  As an advocate of new music, Buzzarté has commissioned new works for trombone alone, trombone with electronics, and trombone with chamber ensembles.  A composer herself, Buzzarté’s seeks to “explore expansive musical situations, especially those that attempt to alter inner and outer perceptions of time and space” (Buzzarté).  She also composes solo, electronic, and chamber music. Like Conant, Buzzarté began her own project to expand the repertoire of the trombone.  1983, Buzzarté began New Music From Women: Trombone Project.  She has received over twenty compositions from female composers in various genres.  Composers that have contributed to her project include Pauline Oliveros, Alice Shields, Sorrel Hays, and Anne LeBaron.

Buzzarté is both an author and educator. She has edited the Anthology of Essays on Deep Listening (Deep Listening Publications, 2012); and researched and compiled the repertoire listings of brass compositions of women composers published in The Musical Woman: An International Perspective, Bol. III (Greenwood Press, 1991).  Buzzarté is also certified to teach Deep Listening, which is a meditative improvisation practice developed by Pauline Oliveros. As an activist, Buzzarté has joined efforts with Abbie Conant and William Osborne that successfully led to women being granted admission to the Vienna Philharmonic.  These efforts began in 1997 and are ongoing. Buzzarté has also served as the Vice President for the International Alliance of Women in Music.

Composer Alice Shields has contributed trombone works to Buzzarté’s New Music From Women: Trombone Project.  Alice Shields was one of the first women to receive a D.M.A. in composition from Columbia University.  In her long musical career, she has been a professional opera singer and a composer of electronic and computer works, operas, pieces for dance and chamber music.  With regard to her views on the challenges of being a female composer and getting one’s music programmed, Shields states:

In my view, only excellence should be accepted in music, but one has to always be aware in life that every one of us has prejudices.  So when looking for pieces to perform, organizations should consider whether they have looked at women’s work. I think it’s a matter of conscious raising. (Molly Sheridan, “New York City Opera: Women’s Work” Playbill Arts, 2008)

Shields’ works for trombone and tape include The River of Memory (2008) and Mioritza: Requiem for Rachel Corrie (2004).  Shields was commissioned by Monique Buzzarté to write The River of Memory through the Meet the Composer grant.  The New York Times described Shields’ work as “a lush, ambient electronic work in which major and minor chords melt into one another, and chimes, bird song and insect sounds periodically peek through” (Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 2008).  Mioritza: Requiem for Rachel Corrie was composed in memory of a 23 year old woman who was crushed to death in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer as she stood before it trying to prevent the destruction of a Palestinian home.

Pauline Oliveros (b. 1932) is a prolific composer and a senior figure in American contemporary music.  2012 she was awarded the John Cage award from the Foundation of Contemporary Arts. In fact, with regard to Oliveros’ Deep Listening program, John Cage said, “…I finally know what harmony is…It’s about the pleasure of making music “ (Oliveros).  Oliveros’ compositional style features improvisation, meditation, electronics, and myth and ritual.  She has composed five works for trombone and has contributed to both Abbie Conant’s and Monique Buzzarté’s trombone literature projects. Her works for trombone include: The Heart of Tones, mixed realities version for trombones/voices and avatars (2008); The Gender of Now: There But Not There, for trombone and piano (2005); Big Room, for solo trombone, oscillators and noise (2000); and The Heart of Tones, for solo trombone and electronics (1999).

Each of these remarkable women made their musical careers by exploring the unexplored.  The trombone’s repertoire was severely lacking, and these women have made conscious efforts to expand and enrich the literature. Not only have they expanded the trombone repertoire by composing and performing, but they have also been educators, mentors, and activists to women musicians around the world.  They were/are respected by their peers and have all received honors in their respective fields.  Most importantly, these women have banded together and championed one another’s music.

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