In the past several years, initiatives to promote the creation of music by women and non-binary composers have sprung up in an attempt to encourage a more diverse and inclusive new-music scene. Programs like Luna Composition Lab, the League of American Orchestras’ Women Composers Readings and Commissions program, Young Women Composers Camp, and the Hildegard Competition are thriving. These initiatives all contain one important commonality: the inclusion of mentorship as a core component of the program.
Commissioning and performing the work of underrepresented emerging composers is one thing, but providing support, resources, and a safe space creates a community of allies and advocates who can work together to transform the space. Following an immensely successful inaugural year, the Hildegard Competition continues to uplift the voices of emerging female and non-binary composers through mentorship, commissioning, performance, and recording.
Nourbakhsh kicked off the program with the world premiere of Aid for Sex, which was inspired by a U.N. Population Fund report titled “Voices from Syria 2018.” Intending to depict the traumatic experience of a Syrian woman who survives the sexual exploitation of U.N. aid distributors, the work begins with a violent snare drum eruption that ushers in a chaotic soundscape, fraught with harsh extended techniques, atonal figures, and harmonic tension.
After several minutes in this unstable world of extreme sounds, a more tonal harmony emerges—yet it is impossible to hear this without associating it with what came before. In this way, Nourbakhsh adeptly sheds light on the inability to completely disassociate from the past in the aftermath of sexual trauma.
Yaz Lancaster’s Firn, for violin, cello, and marimba, sets up a stark landscape where the strings pass a whispery unvoiced idea back and forth until the marimba interrupts with a new rhythmic figure. This starkness evokes one definition for the title word, that of partially compacted névé that has become a substance between snow and glacial ice. As the motif is repeated and developed, moving through outbursts and effects, rare moments of tonal harmony stand out, particularly the radiantly rolled chords in the cello. These juxtapositions of frenzy and calm seem to draw upon an alternate definition of firn: the idea that repressed memories have been unconsciously blocked out due to their association with a high level of stress or trauma.
Nina Shekar’s ice ‘n’ spice involves a similar juxtaposition of agitation and tranquility: the opening shimmery clusters contrasted with an escalation of fiery harmony. The use of fast trills as an expressive gesture is particularly effective, as well as the violin and cello increasing both bow speed and pressure to create an overlapping texture of glassy long tones.
inti figgis-vizueta presented the world premiere of three short pieces. Openwork, knotted object introduces quietly focused interlocking rhythmic patterns that weave in and out of each other as they breathe together. The enveloping world evokes a sense of translucence, which slowly rotates until all facets of the space are visible. Conducting the module-based piece, Lidiya Yankovskya allowed the instrumentalists to dictate when things moved forward, sometimes slowly rotating her hands but remaining largely in the background.
The second short piece, Trellis in bloom, evokes the contrast between wood structure and floral growth; the last, lightning ache, described as a “collage of gestures, sounds, and transformations,” continued in this modular fashion, yet without any pause between the three, it became hard to decipher where we were. As indicated in their interview with Nico Muhly, inti fashions musical scores that seem to be works of art themselves. I couldn’t help but wonder what the immersive experience would have been like, had the scores been projected for us to view in real time as the pieces unfolded.
Suspended in a pleasantly tonal space, Angela Slater’s piano trio Shades of Rain feathers in sounds evoking two types of rain. Cloudburst, an extreme amount of precipitation, uses rhythmic energy to propel itself forward. Petrichor, the aroma after rain has fallen for the first time, creates more of a static harmonic structure. The work is quite effective on the whole, but suffers a bit from lacking a coherent sense of thematic development.
Meara O’Reilly’s Harmoniset creates a whimsical playground that is at times both distant and intensely energetic. The work toys with voiced and unvoiced sounds in an attempt to illuminate “various sources of spectral analysis,” including “harmonic spectra of pure waveforms [and] inharmonic spectra of glass bells,” resulting in fragmented melodic gestures that overlap in hocketlike rhythmic patterns and icy layers. The National Sawdust Ensemble alternately displayed graceful control and focused intensity as they navigated these complex intersecting figures.
Red and purple light took over the room as Bahar Royaee’s Leylie drifted in with an electroacoustic backdrop, underscoring hushed repeated words. As Leylie, of the classic folk story Leylie and Majnun (attributed to Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi), tries to tell her story the fragile environment evokes longing and despair. After a recorded track introduces melodic fragments amidst wind and whistles the singer picks up the line, continuing to effuse the melody with sighs, hums, and whispered words. The combination of prepared piano, electronics, and vocal effects made for a wonderfully elaborate and highly effective soundscape.
Sugar Vendil’s Antonym Winter / Now, Then, and then layers violin, flute, and piano amidst field records of New York City to build an environment where natural and constructed objects seem to coexist harmoniously. The work slowly becomes more impassioned, gaining motion and depth through percussive prepared piano gestures and expanded electronics. Particular textures create a sense of nature enveloping concrete until it settles back into a delicate haze with ascending flourishes, perhaps indicating their ideal symbiotic relationship.
Before the program came to a close, Paola Prestini and Angélica Negrón (two of the program’s mentors and judges) interviewed the three finalists, covering topics from mentorship to inspiration. Hearing from each of the finalists not only added context to the performance of their work, but also provided insight into each of them as individual musicians and learners. While I wished these interviews had been interspersed throughout the program, they succeeded in uncovering how the Hildegard Competition continues to strive towards holistic support for emerging artists.
Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir’s Tail, Lathed rounded out the program, incorporating visual elements through a handful of vintage light bulbs surrounding the ensemble. As the overhead lights in the room went out, a blustery soundscape set in, becoming increasingly rumbly without entirely eclipsing solo instruments that slowly emerged in time with the flickering of an individual light bulb. The resulting bleak expanse was penetrated with outbursts of arresting light and sound, until the work came to an abrupt ending.
As Amanda Cook identified in her review of the Hildegard Competition’s inaugural performance, the most important element of the initiative is the sustainability of the experience. The uniquely expressive voices of the three winners and six finalists this year was undoubtedly apparent. Yet perhaps more importantly, this ever-expanding network of mentors and advocates and the community of support for these emerging voices means we will be able to hear a lot more from them in the years to come.
Alyssa Kayser-Hirsh is a writer, educator, musician, and arts administrator based in NYC. Her writing has appeared in I Care if You Listen, National Sawdust Log, and the Carnegie Hall online blog. She currently works in Digital Content & Engagement at Carnegie Hall, manages the summer camp Sing This Summer, and facilitates Luna Composition Lab at the Kaufman Music Center. Originally from Amherst, MA, Alyssa is a graduate of Wellesley College, where she received degrees in Music and American Studies.