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Composing Women 

Joan Tower
  • Joan Tower

“Pick up any program from a classical concert—any orchestra, any chamber group; look at how many women composers there are,” suggests Joan Tower, composer and Bard professor. She estimates that about two percent of the compositions are written by women. “Notable Women: A Celebration of Women Composers,” a chamber festival at Dia:Beacon over the first three weekends in June, attempts to redress that inequity. The St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble will perform music by American women composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Tower, whom the New Yorker described as “one of the most successful women composers of all time,” is composer-in-residence with St. Luke’s.
Three young women composers were commissioned to create works, one at each performance. The first concert includes a piece by Asha Srinivasan, 26, who was chosen through a contest sponsored by the performance-rights organization BMI. “I am a Western classically trained composer, but I did study carnatic music, the South Indian classical music, a little bit when I was a child—and I’ve always listened to Indian music,” Srinivasan says. Not surprisingly, her fellow students have pointed out an Indian influence in her compositions; Srinivasan has recently worked to merge the two musical systems.
In her string quartet “Kalpitha,” the instruments veer toward an Indian intonation, then back into Mozart territory. It’s like watching an actor speak alternate phrases in two different languages. At times the music seems on the verge of splitting in half—the four instruments breaking into two camps—but always, there is a resolution, if only a provisional one. The struggle is sometimes painful, but compelling.
The festival consists of three concerts on three consecutive weekends. The first, “Unsung,” celebrates female pioneers of American composition, including Ruth Crawford Seeger, Pete Seeger’s stepmother, represented by a string quartet written in 1933. The second, “Notable Women: Unbound,” features works by prominent composers such as Tania Léon and Tower herself, whose first string quartet, “Night Field” (1994), will be played. The third concert, “Unleashed,” presents contemporary works such as “Four Movements with Delays” by Pamela Z and Eve Beglarian’s “Cave,” which includes electronics. (As in other styles of music, computers have altered classical composition.) Question-and-answer sessions will follow each performance.
Music in performance is also a visual art. Rarely does one hear a string quartet in a gallery of world-class paintings. (In previous concerts, the players were surrounded by “Shadows,” a series of paintings by Andy Warhol.) The lighting at Dia:Beacon was designed by artist Robert Irwin, so the visual effects are exquisite, and the serrated roof baffles the sound, making for surprisingly gentle acoustics.
“Notable Women: A Celebration of Women Composers” will take place at Dia:Beacon on June 3, 10, and 17, at 3pm. Each concert will be held the day before at the Chelsea Art Museum in Manhattan; preceding the June 2 concert will be a panel discussion. (845) 440-0100;
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