All the ingredients except an audience
Women composers are no longer scarce or unaccepted. The glass ceilings in concert halls and opera houses are lined with cracks. Kaija Saariaho’s latest opera premieres at the Paris Opera later this month. Augusta Read Thomas has been composer in residence of the Chicago Symphony for nearly a decade. The Cleveland Orchestra recently played a piece by Chen Yi in Carnegie Hall.
The list goes on. Avant-garde women make edgy electronic music; ambitious women serve up banal crowd-pleasers for orchestral audiences in Atlanta or Philadelphia. Just like men.
So who now needs the Women in New Music Festival, which Cal State Fullerton presents each year?
“Voices on the Edge,” this year’s festival, featured Pamela Z -- the extraordinary Bay Area composer and performer -- in an inexplicably rare Southern California solo appearance Friday night. Ethel, the string quartet that sometimes thinks it’s a rock band, played an exciting concert Saturday night.
The concerts took place in the campus’ shiny new 800-seat Meng Recital Hall, which opened in January and still is, or at least should be, an attraction in its own right. But attendance in Meng was minuscule. A panel of eight women composers Saturday afternoon in the music building’s concert hall attracted an audience of eight.
Is it the women themselves who are scary? Their music? Pamela Z sports dreadlocks, has a gracious manner, a rich, alluring voice, a dry sense of humor and a style of performance that is sometimes compared to Laurie Anderson (more about that later -- she hates it). Ethel is cool, casual, loudly amplified and maybe even too audience-friendly.
Ironically, this annual festival, created five years ago by Pamela Madsen, a composer on Fullerton’s faculty, strives for inclusion. The attitude, and one rehashed in the panel, is that no one can really say what women’s music is. Some women address gender issues, some don’t.
You can hardly miss that Pamela Z, who performs much of her own music, is female. But she was also the first to complain about ghetto-izing by gender or race. Ethel likes to break the rules and it included pieces by men on its program, and nothing in any of the music gave away the composer’s sex.
This festival, furthermore, has a track record of inviting important composers. Last year Pauline Oliveros was in residence, as was the new-music group Eighth Blackbird. This year, along with Pamela Z, Chen Yi was on hand; her music was heard in the opening and closing concerts Thursday and Sunday.
So if a new concert hall and hip, cutting-edge and leading artists aren’t an attraction, what is?
Women, the panelists acknowledged, are part of the scene and they are not. Promote them as women, and they become too exoticized. Don’t promote them, and they might not get noticed. Prejudice doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore, but something isn’t quite right, and no one knows exactly what.
At her performance, Pamela Z made one wonder all over why she is not better known to a broader audience. She is a mainstay on the new-music circuit; she arrived Friday having just finished touring Europe. Her performances use her sonorous voice and electronics.
She creates repetitive loops with her computer. She works at high- and low-tech simultaneously, such as in “Bone Music,” in which she uses a 5-gallon plastic water bottle as a drum that her computer then turns into looping, accompanying drum tracks. She includes video and speaks texts, some of them “geekspeak” -- hence the Laurie Anderson comparisons she railed against on Saturday’s panel.
Still, there are obvious similarities between her and Anderson as well as important differences. Pamela Z is a more sophisticated and questing composer than Anderson but less sophisticated visually and less connected to commercial culture. She has but one solo CD, and it is on a small label (Starkland).
Friday’s grab bag proved an OK introduction to Pamela Z, despite many technical problems (this was the first time electronics had been used in the hall, and the composer had had her two computers stolen earlier in the week). But the scale always felt too small for so large a talent. She does create and participate in theatrical events, but even they tend to be modest. She’s long been ready for the big time.
Ethel, on the other hand, makes everything as big as it possibly can. Its program Saturday was all over the map, but everywhere it went, the quartet went in for hard driving. Sometimes that was downright spectacular, as in Julia Wolfe’s riveting all-tremolo, all-the-time “Early That Summer.” Madsen’s “O Mary” proved a gripping essay of powerfully thrusting, thickly scored micro-tones. Ken Walicki, who also teaches at Fullerton, held the attention in “nada Brahma” through all kinds of curious textural slipping and sliding.
Pamela Z’s “Ethel Dreams of Temporal Disturbances” for string quartet and electronics was here more John Zorn than Laurie Anderson, with its bits of Beethoven, television tunes and Ethel Merman, all amusing. Again, one wanted more.
Two members of the quartet, violinist Mary Rowell and cellist Dorothy Lawson, contributed pleasantly popsy pieces. Cornelius Dufallo, formerly of the Flux Quartet, is the group’s new violinist, Ralph Farris the laid-back violist.
Next year, the festival has invited Meredith Monk, but the school’s vocal department, the panel announced, doesn’t want her giving workshops, lest she confuse the students. But it seems to me those few enthusiastic students who attended Pamela Z and Ethel weren’t confused at all. They knew a very good thing when they heard it.