By Eduardo Cossio
One of the goals put forward by Anne Summers in The Women’s Manifesto from 2017 is ‘to participate fully and equally in all areas of public life’. Enacting on this demand from their respective fields, musicians Cat Hope and Gabriella Smart established the Summers’ Night Project as a way of addressing the gender imbalance in concert programming, and to foster the participation of female-identifying composers in the music industry.
Three composers, chosen from a pool of national applicants, received mentorship from Cat Hope, Rebecca Erin Smith, Becky Llewellyn and a cast of musicians with expertise in contemporary art music. The project’s launch at the Subiaco Arts Centre featured diverse chamber pieces by Olivia Davies (WA), Rachel Bruerville (SA), Carmen Chan Schoenborn (VIC) as well as works by Cat Hope and Becky Llewellyn.
Olivia Davies’ The Shape of Breath features the full ensemble playing alongside a background of subdued electronics. A foreboding atmosphere is created by noisy textures that emerge and fade and by the alternation of sustained sections with more gestural playing, like when Hope interjects with plosives on alto flute and Tristen Parr bows harshly on the cello’s bridge as if to undermine any sense of stability. Among the shifting textures, audio samples of a female voice muttering and sighing builds up the feverish, cyclical mood of the work. Davies states the samples are meant to bring a ‘humanness’ to the electronics, however, their repetition makes them feel detached, not quiet blending with the nuance of the ensemble. Still, The Shape of Breath is impressive for how the different timbres are developed through the improvisational synergy of the players.
Whereas Olivia Davies is proponent of an ambiguous sound world, Kali’s Laugh by Becky Llewellyn favours clear melodic outlines. Llewellyn’s inclusion in the Summer’s Night Project is significant as she was behind the inaugural Composing Women’s Festival in Adelaide in 1991. Kali’s Laugh has an optimistic feel and is a feature for cellist Tristen Parr, whose robust playing is accompanied by jaunty figures on the flute, saxophone and percussion. Listening to Llewellyn’s music, I am reminded of the work of some composers from the eighties and nineties who pared down their musical language, adding spiritual narratives as well as non-western elements to their music. The work of Peter Sculthorpe, Anne Boyd, and Ross Edwards comes to mind from Australia. Similarly, Kali’s Laugh draws on the Indian concept of ‘renewal and regeneration’ and opens with the sounds of an Indonesian angklung. However, I found it difficult to enter the overly idyllic mood of the piece and thought its exoticism problematic.
Our Current State of Progress by Carmen Chan Schoenborn is a direct response to Anne Summers’ The Women’s Manifesto and sees the composer joining the ensemble on the bass drum. Despite being a trained percussionist, Chan Schoenborn eschews musicality in favour of raw energy; the ritual-like beatings provide a fluctuating pulse that contracts and expands as she leads the ensemble with air of defiance. An atonal, stepwise melody is introduced by Cat Hope on flute and saxophonist Derek Pascoe, and on top of the steady rhythms the voices of two children, a boy and girl, read statistics from the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report. Interspersed among these sections are soloistic features that begin with Tristen Parr plucking, strumming and chocking the cello strings as if wrestling with the instrument. Our Current State of Progress displays stylistic nods to Free-Jazz that go beyond the mere pastiche to channel a palpable sense of anger with the status quo, the same anger felt in the music of the political African-American jazz musicians of the early sixties.
Keeping with the urgency of concept is Cat Hope’s Shadow of Mill, which centres on the White Australia Policy. Its title comes from a paper by Phil Griffith regarding the influence of John Stuart Mill on the Australian government. Performed by Tristen Parr on cello and Stuart James on electronics, Shadow of Mill draws from sound art and performance art to create an environment where the actions of the player are as integral as the sounds themselves. A contemplative atmosphere is evoked by the low frequency tones that pulsate in the room and the up-and-down glissandi that Parr plays on cello. Pages of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 placed next to him are rubbed against the body of the instrument; Parr lets the paper hiss, crumble and then fall with unnerving gestures. Rather than being prescriptive, Shadow of Mill presents audiences with an open-ended reflection on the issue of settlement and racism in Australia.
Whereas Cat Hope uses drone to create a sense of non-development, Rachael Bruerville achieves a similar effect through the criss-cross of melodic figures. Ruby, Shine Bright pays homage to Ruby Davy, who in 1918 became the first woman to obtain a doctorate of music in Australia. The piece is built around recordings of Davy’s music and voice which are used as starting points for further variations in the ensemble; Davy’s ornamented style is pared down, leaving the melodic fragments to criss-cross in leisurely manner. Bruerville is respectful of the source material and manages to make music that is warm yet unsentimental, while also bringing together the different strands of the program, namely, the extra-musical references and the convergence of traditional and contemporary composition.
And while the concert is fascinating for the diversity of compositional approaches, there are moments when the ensemble sounds tentative, as if still trying to grasp the nature of the works. Still, despite the seemingly rushed rehearsal process, there is no doubt of the timeliness of this initiative; The Summers’ Night Project represents a step forward towards a more inclusive and diverse music community.