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British Women Composers Volume 1
Errollyn Wallen

It all depends on you (1989) [16.07]
Lindsay Cooper

The Road is Wider than Long (1991) [15.21]
Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994)
My Dark Heart (1981) [20.49]
Nicola Lefanu (b.1947)
The Old Woman of Beare (1981) [18.08]
Lontano/Odaline de la Martinez
Recorded 1992 at St Silas Church, London NW5, UK
Notes in English.
LORELT LNT 101 [70.54]


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I never had much use for Deconstructionism, so Post-Deconstructionism I welcomed as a breath of fresh air, a return to sanity. But I lament in this Post-Feminist age that there is yet some unfinished work, namely that in general women composers are still not so well known nor so appreciated as they should be. They languish in specialist venues such as this one.

At any rate, the producer of this disk knew exactly what she was doing, as the first piece on the disk is the weakest but the most colourful, and the quality steps up piece by piece. What we have in effect is the venerable Elisabeth Maconchy presenting a work of hers and one by her daughter, with two other works as "warm-ups." All of this music is set to poetry, some very new, some very old, all of it very melancholy.

We might have had pictures of these composers, but some artsy designer has cut up the pictures in pieces and faded them out. We might have had information about them, but instead we get some "smartspeak"…"made an early decision to branch into the freer forms of contemporary music"…. "integrates the lyricism of chamber works into larger forms and textures of orchestral music…" A (woman) friend of mine wrote a hilarious satire of this use of unspecified comparatives, and I wish I could print it here entire.

Errollyn Wallen is a dancer as well as a composer and is successful as an industrial musician, hence there is in her music some of the "sound bite" aesthetic as well as some of the "wallpaper" aesthetic. From listening it would seem she is a great fan of Berg’s opera Wozzeck and has heard a lot of music by Meredith Monk and some by David Del Tredici. But there is also beauty and intelligence here, and I look forward to hearing her music when she is confident enough to essay to keep our attention without feeling the constant need to borrow and to startle. From the text she has chosen we gather that she presently loathes her parents; hopefully this work will be the first step towards the necessary forgiveness and understanding. Or maybe she is just pandering to the Eminem generation. The problem with lack of discipline is that in the end it leads to a sameness and banality that is more tiring than imitation in a traditionalist style. We get to see the top of her head, her left eye and just the corner of her nose and mouth.

Lindsay Cooper is represented by a full ¾ profile on the cover and is also a successful industrial musician. She is not afraid to make use of some of the things she learned in composition class such as dramatic progression, harmonic structure, textural gradation and rhythmic design. Her text is well chosen and presented with great effectiveness. This is not great music, but it is competent, effective music, and great music is thus only a hairbreadth of inspiration away. Keep working at it, Ms. Cooper, you’re almost there.

Now with the warm-up acts over we come to the meat and potatoes of the evening. Elizabeth Maconchy is a revered name in English music. Her "picture" consists of what might be an eye, a lip, and part of a hand, although one can’t be too sure. She saw her 1933 work Quintet for Oboe and Strings recorded on 78 rpm disks, an astonishing accomplishment for those times. That sad but charming work, which has long been a favourite of mine, is still lighter in mood that the sombre lyric work recorded here, My Dark Heart, which is a true masterpiece that takes much listening to appreciate because of its utterly original and completely authentic aesthetic. The prose text is J. M. Synge’s translation of three Petrarch sonnets. The debt to Schoenberg, especially Pierrot Lunaire, is at once obvious, however the debt is not a heavy one, for this work is not an all atonal, although its harmonic language is somewhat astringent. There is no resemblance at all to Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, even though both use an unmetered text sung to an accompaniment, for the Maconchy work has no steady meter, the free rhythm being shaped by the sung line.

Nicola Lefanu is the daughter of Maconchy and her work, while still very dark, is a slight relief from the otherwise unrelieved dreariness of mood on this disk. This is certainly the most dramatic work on the disk, with all due respect to her mother who has nothing to prove in any case.

The poem is the reminiscence of an woman who was once a courtesan and is now an elderly nun on the threshold of death, and in her thoughts of years gone by there are occasional moments of charm and lightness, but mostly the music is either enigmatically percussive, or unrelievedly distraught. The influences of Varèse and Del Tredici are at once evident. The soprano tends to find an uncomfortable note high in her range and sit there. Ms. Lefanu needs to cool off a bit; the audience can’t take quite this much skewering, and nor can we enjoy being slapped so unexpectedly so often. Drama is not just noise, nor is it just surprise, or, as in this case, shock. Drama has to do with our anticipating a change in tension and getting there rapidly but not necessarily abruptly.

There is some very interesting music on this disk, and some moments of very beautiful music as well. Most people will probably buy it or not buy it for political reasons, and that’s a shame because the artists deserve more respect than that. They deserve to be taken seriously and criticised thoughtfully.

I feel I should explain all the question marks in the parentheses above: as proof that we now dwell in Post-Feminism, you note that none of the young ladies will tell us her age. A gentleman, of course, would never ask, but I’m still enough of a Feminist not to be guilty of being a gentleman.

Paul Shoemaker

 



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