Some Notes about ‘Women of Note’ (book by Rosalind Appleby, Fremantle Press, 2012)

“Darkness, where I find my sight,” intones the soprano, hardly daring to move from her opening note. So begins Margaret Sutherland’s Six Songs to the poems of Judith Wright. This apparent ‘paradox of opposites’ is a recurrent image for Wright and her problematic if profound landscapes are expertly inhabited by Sutherland’s music. As the poem returns to meditate on this opening line, “Darkness where I find my sight,” with new context and insight, Sutherland returns to the opening musical material in her song, now calmed by its new significance. The piano – restless, searching, throughout – finally begins to repeat its figuration and eventually resolve the otherwise terse harmonies.  The female voice is no longer shackled by doubling in the piano, but singing on its own.

There is a tragic irony that within a few years of bringing these words to life, Sutherland herself would suffer a stroke, losing her sight and plunging her into darkness. Another formidable artist in Appleby’s book, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, also suffered the loss of her sight at the end of her life, while Judith Wright would end her days completely deaf. Human frailty is apparent, too, in Six Songs, where the eye and hand are ‘spun of water, air and sand.’ For Peggy and Margaret, the loss of sight was the end of their creative lives, and yet sight is not a musician’s primary sense.

A few years earlier in another hemisphere British Composer Frederick Delius’ eyesight and other faculties failed him. For various reasons his darkness did not, however, mean silence, as his long-suffering assistant Fenby diligently took down the cantankerous composer’s musical dictation. Though his idiosyncratic music tends to put him outside the musical mainstream, historically, his status as a composer is hardly deniable and his cultural currency is significant.

Let’s now return to Sutherland and Glanville-Hicks. There are many ways to answer the question why their blindness wrought silence – while Delius, years before, was able to continue his work. One suggestion is that they were Australian. Another is that ‘our composers, incidentally, were women,’ to paraphrase the all too often paraphrased musicologist Susan McClary who, incidentally, is a feminist. There is certainly a case that their comparative silence and anonymity represents an ‘aural blind-spot’ in dominant histories of Australian Music. Appleby’s book could begin to make inroads into this case. At its heart, however, Women of Note is a much-needed celebration of artists who, incidentally, are Australian and, incidentally, women.

Were one to release a book today explicitly focusing on the contribution of male composers called ‘Men of Note’ it would be an inexplicable move, in any country. Putting aside that such a book would simply be almost every book written before the 1980s on the topic of classical music – embarrassingly infamous as the world according to ‘dead white guys’ – there is simply no need for such a book. It is an alarming but not unexpected fact that there is a profound need for books like Women of Note. As such, the last thing this book must do is gather dust quietly on a shelf. We can argue about it; we should argue about it. Silence is as destructive to the book as it is to the artists addressed within. Self-reflection has not historically been a strength of Australian Cultural practice, and critical discourse is treated even more severely. If, however, we are to learn nothing else from this book, it is that apathy has already cost us a great deal.

The highest praise I have for the book is that it inspired me to return to the music of the artists discussed, as well as offering artists and works, new to me, for consideration. The acknowledgements of the book begin with the now apocryphal cliché that words about music are like dance about architecture. As an aside, music critic Peter MacCallum once pointed out how interesting and informative dancing about architecture could be, though I guess he has a vested interest. In any case, I don’t buy it. Words need music as much as music needs words, and if for that reason only Women of Note is worthy of note.

***

I first heard Sutherland’s Six Songs at a concert in the captivating acoustic of St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, given by the inimitable Jenny Duck-Chong (voice) and Sally Whitwell (piano). My favourite song is the fourth, from the eponymous poem Women’s Song.

In it, the piano maintains what is called a ‘moto perpetuo’ accompaniment. Like much ossified classical musical jargon, this is a simple idea poorly disguised by its language, simply meaning that there is a constantly moving rhythm (‘perpetual motion’). The textbook case of word painting – where musical material is constructed to mimic or illustrate literary content – is Schubert’s song Gretchen am Spinnrade (‘Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel’). This song is also a textbook example of a ‘moto perpetuo’ accompaniment.

Sutherland would have known all this. As a respected pedagogue throughout her life, she would have rigorously considered, if not taught, these techniques, and employs them expertly here to make the most of the song’s text. Gretchen, in Schubert’s Song, is obsessive and obsessed. Wright and Sutherland craft a very different ideal with the same technical resources.

Sutherland’s ‘moto’ is controlled while Schubert’s is frenetic. Sutherland’s gently, if relentlessly, caresses the rise and fall of harmony. Sutherland’s ‘woman’ is in control. She has depth and is the source, soul and Substance of Creation. Schubert’s ‘woman’ is the 19th century ideal of female pliancy and dependency.

Making this comparison takes for granted some knowledge of classical music, but, as if to give us an encouraging wink, Sutherland conjures one more ‘ moment,’ in this brief song. As the singer utters a knowing line to her unborn child ‘yet there’s a death and a maiden who wait for you alone’, the motion stops for the first and only time in the piece as if the thought should take away our breath, and it does. Schubert’s own song Death and the Maiden, uses this same device at the moment Death begins to speak.  ‘The Maiden,’ speaking to and for Death, and Gretchen, obsessed by Faust, create a powerful historical counterpoint to Sutherland’s Woman’s Song.

There is, of course, no doubting the solemnity of Sutherland’s song, but there is also an ‘inside joke’ here, in the form of Schubert’s ghost, if we listen and think carefully.

Sutherland’s music is, simply, first rate. Though one could suggest it is stylistically inconsistent, a complaint often easily levelled at the much more renowned Australian composer and general eccentric, Percy Grainger, it has not dampened his profile even when his alarming ideas about race, at least, maybe should have done. Conductor of The Song Company, Roland Peelman, says of Six Songs it is “imaginative and revealing… neither conservative or revolutionary” . To her unending credit, for Sutherland there is no stylistic agenda, just a personal addressing of the words.

I find Sutherland’s Woman’s Song beautifully melancholic, but if it is tinged with sadness, it is partly because it is exalted by experience.

***

Appleby acknowledges these discussions are always more complicated than just gender. While her suggestion that ‘most people’ wouldn’t be aware of Australia’s “women composers,” doesn’t necessarily distinguish them from their male counterparts, there is little doubt that female artists have had significant, and significantly different problems not affecting their male colleagues, and that by and large they have not received the recognition and consideration that should be expected. In Australia’s supposedly egalitarian society, it seems, even our neglect is not equal.

The idea of Australian Music ‘coming of age’ at the hand of the grand old men of Australian Music is a nice story and a dominant cultural narrative. I have no interest in denigrating the significance of Peter Sculthorpe, Richard Meale, and Nigel Butterley, amongst others, whose music I adore, but it is a story too often repeated for want of another narrative and too simple to ground a serious cultural life. We desperately need new narratives, to move us into serious cultural participation in the present day. Women of Note could be a new, if tentative, step towards re-telling our stories.

In the introduction the book claims to bring together ‘candid interviews’ with ‘compositional analysis,’ but is rather weaker on the latter, offering fairly vague description and easy association more than anything especially analytic.Though this might superficially seem a relief for the general reader, my frustration by the seemingly unqualified evocation of everyone from Stravinsky to Brahms would have to put off the general reader too, though perhaps for different reasons. The specificity in historical and biographical information is less present musically. While I can understand the book wanting a general audience, I think it is a possible weakness for a book in such a specialist area of ideas, and unnecessarily assumes that specialist knowledge precludes more general interest.

Additionally, if the interviews are ‘candid’ they also seem, at times, uncritical.

Sarah Hopkins, in passing, claims to have had “an old Aboriginal woman chanting” inside her. Without making further comment on this assertion, the appropriation of indigenous culture by non-indigenous Australia should be commented upon. It is a problematic area even for Peter Sculthorpe, the venerable Icon of Australian Music, and yet it is largely swept under the carpet, through uncritical reportage.

Liza Lim’s approach to the engaging of indigenous ideas, with her notion of the aesthetics of ‘shimmer,’ seems a more informed and appropriate approach to contact between indigenous and non-indigenous culture, though the two notions are not directly contrasted here.

It is an example of where the decision to treat the material in the book linearly seems to offer less from its content than it could. Tidiness seems to win over the insight of a more complicated interweaving of concerns. I am left wondering what interesting insight could have been achieved by contrasting Anne Boyd’s appropriation of the Japanese Shō and Liza Lim’s imitation of the Chinese Sheng (two different types of mouth organ). As Lim says of her own practice, trying to “make connections across the boundaries, some sort of conversation or merging between them” would have been welcome. Though there is an implied, sometimes stated, causal connection from one generation to the next, connections and contrasts lose out to generational discontinuity and continual Progress (capital ‘P’).

The book suffers for its generalities, and this is where, for all that is great about the book, I am going to be critical.

“Being a mother and a composer remains a challenge for many” could be the condescending words of the abusive husbands, or the various (famous, national and international) male composers and conductors embarrassingly quoted through the book, and yet it is a quote from the author of the book. One of the problems with this, as I see it, is that the evidence simply doesn’t fit the narrative. I don’t think a picture of ‘woman composers’ in the 21st Century should rely on, or conclude with this.

Mary Finsterer, one of my favourite composers, has her music referred to as being the sort “not stereotypically by a woman composer.” The expression makes my skin crawl, even if being used to argue against the notion in this instance. Giving any credence to the notion is giving it too much, and is simply an outdated idea. It has no relevance for intelligent listening. Listening is a learned activity and we should not be entertaining the idea that our music can be heard like this. In the case of Finsterer, whose varied output runs the gamut of human experience and expression it also begs the question what the phrase could possibly ever have meant.

Why would we want common experience in uncommon lives?

Finsterer remembers, later in the book, running into trouble with other composers, noting ‘I never saw myself as a woman composer.’ Nor should she have to. Far from presenting a unified feminine front, placing all the artists in the book side by side does not, in fact, create something permitting easy generalisation. They diverge at least as much as the convergence implied by the subtitle the rise of women composers, perhaps more informatively so. This divergence is apparent in the music too. Compare Anne Boyd with Liza Lim with Mary Finsterer, or even Mary Finsterer with Mary Finsterer.

One of Finsterer’s most significant works of recent years is her orchestral masterpiece In praise of darkness. The title comes from an essay by the poet Borges, as he began to lose his sight. And so, we have come full circle, hopefully with a richer sense of the stakes and depth apparent. In the song I quoted at the start, Sutherland, as if showing but a moment of frustration, unleashes the only accented chord of her song just as the singer observes “still that darkness rages on.”

In her article, connected to the release of the book, Appleby notes that for all the difficulties there is something distinctly positive about being a composer in Australia if you are a woman. Indeed learning classical music in Australia turns artists like Myriam Hyde and Dulcie Holland into household names. They were as familiar to me as a young pianist as Mozart and Beethoven, but unfortunately these artists have often unreasonably failed to transcend the contested ground of pedagogical repertoire. It is hopefully an encouraging thing that in telling a friend about the book I mis-remembered the title as Composers of Note because ultimately we aren’t continuing to discuss these artists because they are women, we are discussing them because they have created extraordinary work, which has the potential to enrich our experience of the world. Do not let the darkness rage on.

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Some Notes about ‘Women of Note’ (book by Rosalind Appleby, Fremantle Press, 2012)

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