Centennial

Essay by Katheryn Lawson

 

The 100-year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment feels like some kind of cause for celebration. But here, in this space, with these words and the sounds you’ll hear, we are not celebrating. This is a time to reflect on the false promises of the past and the present. And to fight for better. The 1920 amendment to the U.S. Constitution proclaimed that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” White women enjoyed these rights long before women of color. The so-called rights of Black suffrage provided by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments (1868 and 1869) were regularly undercut by state and local practices like poll taxes, literary tests, and the grandfather clause. After 1924, when the U.S. severely limited migration through the quota system (the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act), citizenship was filtered through whiteness. In the historic case Ozawa v. United States (1922), Japanese were legally categorized as non-white, as other. Queer bodies were stopped at the nation’s many borders and outposts for fear of these persons “likely” becoming a “public charge.” Poll taxes and other forms of suppression were outlawed in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Indigenous tribes and nations continue to experience the ebb and flow of federal recognition, itself a contentious form of legitimacy. No. This is not a time for celebration.

 

I list these dates, yes, as a history lesson, but also to force us to see, hear, and feel the ways that these histories endure in the present. The bell of inequality, of the U.S.’s settler colonialism, was rung long ago. And it has yet to go silent. This project came to fruition in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. This historical and epidemiological moment revealed the harsh truths that many already knew. Asians and Pacific Islanders (American and not) faced new (but unoriginal) waves of racism, as China shouldered the blame for the virus. Disease supposedly doesn’t discriminate, but the health system does. Deaths among African Americans, Indigenous nations, Latinos, and migrants soar above white deaths. As Shay-Akil McLean—a Black transman and PhD candidate in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology—so aptly articulated in 2017, “settler colonialism is the pre-existing condition.” White men wield assault rifles in their own stilted “civil rights” protest because they expect so-called expendable populations to deliver their God-given right to haircuts. No. This is not a time for celebration.

 

Shelley Washington

Big Talk

BIG Talk opens this audio experience from a place of exasperation and power. Washington, who grew up in Kansas City MO and holds degrees from Truman State University and NYU Steinhardt, approaches her music and her life with a zeal for “shaking the cages, raging against the machine, and supporting others.” The current Princeton Ph.D. student and co-founder of the composer collective Kinds of Kings, wrote this piece “as a personal response to the repulsive prevalence of rape culture that can be observed in catcalling and sexual harassment that women and femmes experience and endure on a daily basis.” This is a piece that speaks to the wide variety of abuses that all women and female-presenting persons face. What Washington terms an “unrelenting, churning duo” urges listeners to “stop perpetuating rape culture by any and every means necessary.”

 

This baritone saxophone duet opens with an awakening, the two players exchanging trills like birds, perhaps, in the dawn chorus. The piece quickly escalates to a series of driving, contrapuntal figures, the two saxophones occasionally syncing up and then separating. BIG Talk is characterized by these constant, dissonant motives, forcing the music forward with techniques like triple and flutter tonguing. Unexpected silences splice these duetting/dueling moments apart, the breaks more jarring than comforting. At 2:25, the piece slows to a more contemplative pace, the two exchanging long tones. With a few trills, the piece returns (3:55) to its constant churning. In the middle and toward the end of the piece (5:04 and 9:26), a single saxophone plays a repeated pitch, like an echo falling away into silence. To me, it sounds like a call amid the chaos. When the piece fades and ends, after the awakening, the churning, the contemplation, the shuddering silences, and the single call for attention, I am transported into the headspace of “any and every means necessary.”

 

Gemma Peacocke

Skin

This country was built and is constantly remade from the illogics of skin tone—of difference, of the meaning of particular skin tones, of how those who “pass” for other groups become unreadable and illegible. U.S. land was made from the genocide and theft of Indigenous nations and lands. It was designed to service white land-owning and people-owning elite. Anxieties about “mixing,” about the ways sexuality plays out between people, between races, between and among genders, are endemic to this system. Born and raised in New Zealand and currently residing in Brooklyn, composer Gemma Peacocke arrived in the U.S. curious about its racial logics “and the relationship between violence and sexuality.” The co-founder (with Washington) of Kinds of Kings and Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University merges past and present bodies and ideas “wending between the intricate layers of privilege, power, and shame associated with race and sex, down into the dark roots of the country’s history.” And yet, skin is also a point of connection, “a place of weathering, of impact, of touch.”

 

Skin is composed for alto saxophone and electronics and explores a variety of techniques and textures, as a cognate, to performer José Antonio Zayas Cabán, to “different shades of skin color.” It sounds like an exploration, an aural mapping of this unfamiliar, colored, textured world. The piece opens atmospherically, with static, rhythmic, trilling electronics reminiscent of scratches, as the saxophone joins with long tones. At 1:31, Zayas Cabán plays the piece’s main motive (repeated again at 4:37, 5:01, and 5:21) slowly, but with energy, as if trying it out for the first time against the slower-moving “background” of electronics. Extended techniques like bending pitches by quarter tone abound. At 3:02, the piece slides into the long, low, reedy tones of an electronically-modified saxophone. The saxophone explores new modal territory, playing around the harmonic minor scale. After the electronics play a long, descending pitch, the piece returns (4:25) to the rhythmic percussion and opening motive, faster, more confident. In addition to quarter tone pitch-bending, the saxophone makes use of other extended techniques, like flutter tonguing (5:16). After a long, ascending tone (5:59), an analog to the previous descending tone, the piece ends suddenly, with a quarter-tone pitch bend.

 

Amanda Feery

Gone to Earth

Amanda Feery’s piece responds to the present moment through the lens of a past artistic work, Mary Webb’s 1917 novel Gone to Earth. The book follows Hazel Woodus, a young woman attuned to the nature, seasons, and animals of the Shropshire countryside, who is subjected to the infatuated pursuit of two men. The phrase “gone to earth” refers to the ways foxes in a fox hunt hide from their predators, an apt metaphor for the ways women are said to be “hunted” in romantic relationships in patriarchal societies. The Irish composer, who completed her Ph.D. in music composition at Princeton in 2019, was “stunned that [Gone to Earth] was written in 1917, and angry that the notion of the predatory hunt and desire to control women is still very much a threat to women’s lives today.”

 

Originally composed for piano, violin, and cello, this arrangement for {Trés} features piano, soprano saxophone, and tenor saxophone. Working with the themes from the novel, Gone to Earth is a long, atmospheric build depicting a constant chase that finally leads to a sense of calm and sanctuary. As Zayas Cabán described it, performing the piece was like interacting “with the scenery as it was set in the book.” It opens with what sounds like percussion, but is in fact prepared piano, an extended technique in which the strings of the piano are obstructed by objects—in this case, mounting putty. This is followed by a continuous, propulsive high-pitched piano motive that continues throughout the piece, giving it an atmospheric, almost fairy-like quality, reminiscent of Hazel Woodus’s harmony with the (super)natural world. The saxophones enter with crescendoing long tones, and the piece builds anxiety as the chase continues. Following a long crescendo, with low chords in the piano, the piece slows down and stops. The saxophones enter (3:26), alone, chorale-like. The piano re-enters (3:52), with trills (4:16), building to the final moment of dissonance, before resting.

 

Fanny Mendelssohn

Trio, Op. 11

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel has long been a source of inspiration among musicians and music historians in search of women musicians, and particularly women composers. Music history—and orchestral programs—have long been dominated by the music of male composers. Recent seasons by such ensembles as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra boasted zero women composers. And in an era of #MeToo, musicians are using the power of social media to speak up. Although musicologists have studied and promoted women composers like Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Clara Schumann, Amy Beach, Florence Price, and Ruth Crawford Seeger, the wider world of music performance still lags behind, a trend this album seeks to remedy.

 

Hensel composed this four-movement trio in the last year of her life. She performed it just over a month before her death, on April 11 of 1847, at one of the Sunday musical gatherings she held in her home, the Sonntagsmusiken. As a musical prodigy who struggled against patriarchal expectations, Hensel created these musical gatherings as a socially acceptable way to gather together and perform music. It was published three years after her death by Breitkopf and Härtel, her brother Felix’s publisher.

 

The Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 11 was originally composed for piano, violin, and cello; here it has been transcribed for piano, soprano saxophone, and tenor saxophone. The first movement, Allegro molto vivace, opens with a churning piano beneath a flowing melody in the saxophones. As is common with the chamber music genre, the instruments exchange, share, and hand off themes, as if in conversation. The second theme (1:47) later returns in the final movement, linking the piece together like a bookend. In the second movement, Andante espressivo, the piano begins, hymn-like, before the saxophones enter with a lyrical theme. Throughout the movement, the instruments trade arpeggios and staccato figures, set against lyrical motives. The short, pleasant melodies of the third movement, Lied: Allegretto, draws on Hensel’s virtuosity with German art songs. Lieder (the plural form of the singular Lied) were common German songs for voice and piano, but nineteenth-century composers like Hensel and Franz Schubert elevated the genre. The final movement, Allegretto moderato, commences with a Bach-like prelude, followed by a melody recalling Hungarian music. The second, rhythmic theme is then superseded by the second theme from the Allegro molto vivace (2:53), a triumphant return. The piece ends, crescendoing, with great energy.

 

 

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