Women composers to visit Lawrence

Nate Smith

Beginning Sunday, May 20th, Lawrence will be deluged by an entire week of concerts, lectures, luncheons, and other activities as part of the Festival of Women’s Music. The brainchild of Piano professor Catherine Kautsky and jazz director Ken Schaphorst, the festival will feature four prominent female composers-classical composers Joan Tower and Chen Yi, jazz composer/arranger Maria Schneider, and the un-classifyable Kitty Brazelton-as well as several presentations by Susan Cook, a musicologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The first concert of the festival will begin with a talk by Cook, entitled What Does it Mean to be Thinking About Women in Music? Next, chamber groups consisting of conservatory students and faculty will perform five works by Kitty Brazelton. Brazelton, who teaches at Columbia University and holds a D.M.A. from the same, embodies ecclecticism. Equally at home writing a full-length opera for American Opera Projects as she is crooning her way through a love song, Brazelton talks of dispensing with age-old divisions between musical genres.

“We don’t segregate our increasingly multilingual music-listening,” she observed in one interview, “and we can’t primly parse out our music-making, either.” Brazelton is known for her odd instrumentation: two of her pieces on Sunday’s concert will feature rock music performed by a brass quintet with vibraphone and drums. Her group, Dadadah, which included Lawrence faculty members Dane Richseon and Matt Turner, implemented electric cello, harp, and french horn alongside the traditional jazz rhythm section. “It’s ecclectic music,” says Schaphorst of Brazelton’s work, “ecclectic without pretense. Like Maria [Schneider], she’s very sincere about her music.”

The next event, on Monday the 21st, will feature the music of Joan Tower. Tower, “one of the most successful woman composers of all time”, according to the New Yorker, has received the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition (1990), and has been inducted into the Americian Academy of Arts and Letters (1998). Currently, she teaches at Bard College and serves as composer-in-residence with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York City. Conservatory chamber groups will perform seven of Tower’s compositions, and the composer herself will offer commentary.

Chen Yi’s music, which attendees to her Wednesday, May 23rd concert will get to experience firsthand, combines Chinese folk influences and European classical traditions. Chen has studied violin and piano since age three, displaying a prodigal talent at the former by age 17, when she became concert master of the Beijing Opera Orchestra. Chen went on to receive a master’s degree in composition from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, the first woman in China to do so. She is currently a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory. [insert pertinent Kautsky info/quotes here] Students may be familiar with Chen Yi’s piece, Sparkle, performed by the now defunct Lawrence Conservatory Contemporary Music Ensemble in 1999. More recently, one student chamber group performed Qi at a recital this spring. Chen’s pieces are fiery juxtapositions of motion and stasis, density and sparsity.

Hailing from Windom, Minnesota, Maria Schneider had the uncommon opportunity to work with both Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans. Schneider will be the featured composer of the last concert, Friday night (May 25th) in the Chapel. The Jazz Ensemble and director Schaphorst will perform five of her original pieces, and one arrangement. “Maria has one of the most unique voices of any contemporary jazz composers,” says Schaphorst. “Her language encompasses an enormous range of emotion.”

Even so, every tune the audience will hear Friday night, from the soothing, ethereal Sea of Tranquility to the driving, dissonant Dance You Monster to My Soft Song, embodies the same sense of composure. With a eye toward simplicity and development attributable to composer/arranger Brookmeyer and an affinity for weaving soundscapes reminiscent of Evans’ best work, Schneider approaches composition with an unabashed appreciation of beauty. Says Schaphorst, of Schneider’s sincerity and directness, “ I think that’s a real gift.”

Schaphorst and Kautsky, by combining resources, have amassed an almost impossibly diverse array of musical delights for us to digest over the next week. Kautsky says that in addition to raising questions about gender and music, the festival was put together with the “ idea of crossing the street in as many ways as possible,” including the “hope that we get people who don’t normally come to concerts in the conservatory.” Why the focus on women in music?

“I think there have been strides made in encouraging women to compose and perform,” says Schaphorst, but observes that even today there are hardly any female jazz musicians, a fact he finds, “shocking.”

“I think [the festival is] a rare opportunity to hear some new, exciting music, regardless of gender,” he concludes.