Women's work is made to be shown: Present Music performs Alex Temple
In this series, OnMilwaukee checks in with female composers from around the globe who are participating in a rare, women-composed concert put on by Present Music called "In The New Chamber."
It's no secret that female composers are often overlooked and underemployed. For the first time in it 145-year history, The Met recently commissioned a woman to write an opera. And of the 1,445 classical concerts that will be performed around the world by the end of the year, 95 percent won't include a single piece composed by a woman.
Present Music – Milwaukee's internationally acclaimed new music ensemble that commissions, performs, records and tours the work of living composers – significantly surpasses this lack of recognition year after year. In 2018 alone, 50 percent of the pieces performed were female-composed.
The ensemble kicks off 2019 with, once again, extremely modern chamber music that's rarely performed elsewhere. "In The New Chamber" features music entirely from women and non-binary composers living in places from Iceland to Australia.
The concert, curated by Present Music's Eric Segnitz, takes place Feb. 21-22 in the Jan Serr Studio, 2155 N. Prospect Ave. (6th floor). The shows start at 7:30 p.m.
The Thursday night performance is fancier and includes an intimate reception along with the concert, and the Friday night show is more casual.
OnMilwaukee recently chatted with composer Alex Temple, an American composer with a degree from Yale University. Her piece "Willingly" will be performed during "In the New Chamber."
OnMilwaukee: What or who inspired you to become a composer?
Alex Temple: When I was growing up, my family traveled by doing home exchanges. When I was 11, we spent a few weeks at a ridiculously opulent house in Padua that happened to have a pretty extensive classical CD collection. I'd been taking piano lessons for about a year, but that summer something clicked, and I started listening constantly. I still remember some of the albums – the Chopin "Preludes," Brahms' "Variations" and "Fugue on a Theme" by Handel, the soundtrack to "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould" – and how I went through them over and over until I started hearing the relationships between different sections.
I'd written a couple of brief piano pieces before, but all of a sudden I was spending half my time sitting at this Italian family's little electric keyboard, writing things in the style of the "Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach." After that I just ... kept going. Actually, I was seriously considering going into linguistics for a while – a topic that's still of great interest to me – but that's a story for another time.
Who are some of your favorite composers?
I'm bad at picking favorites! But some that have been especially influential on my own work: Robert Ashley, Laurie Anderson, Mike Patton, Kurt Weill, Tom Lehrer, Stephen Sondheim, Rebecca Sugar, John Oswald, Matt Marks, Suzanne Ciani, Eric Siday, Julia Holter and Angelo Badalamenti. I could go on ...
Why haven't more women composers' work been recognized/performed?
I can best answer that by quoting something I wrote on Twitter a few years ago: "the test of time, AKA the test of time, luck, taste, privilege, ideology, historical revisionism, and the fact that canons are self-perpetuating."
What do you love about composing?
I often get very excited about the beginning and the end of the process – that is, coming up with ideas and refining material that I've already got more or less down. The stuff in between is often pretty frustrating. But it's all worth it in the end for two reasons: the satisfaction of getting something out of my head and into the world, and – if I'm lucky – the beauty of being able to connect with other people through art.
What would you say about your music to someone who loves music, but listens primarily to mainstream music on the radio or classic rock, etc.? In other words, what might you say about your music that is appealing to *all* music lovers?
I don't think there is such a thing as music that's appealing to everyone. But when people who don't have specialist knowledge of the contemporary classical world ask me about my music, I usually respond by talking about concepts and narratives.
That could be something as simple as "it's a tribute to and critique of Frank Zappa" or something as absurdly formalist as "it's one note from each of the 128 General MIDI instruments" or something as cryptic as "it's an apocalyptic nightmare comedy routine, complete with laugh track" or something as plot-driven as "it's about a historian who goes back in time to kill the great-grandmother of an academic rival who stole her research."
Regardless, there's always something I can talk about that doesn't rely on prior familiarity with our weird niche genre.
For tickets to "In The New Chamber" go here.
Find out more about Alex Temple here.
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