ComposHER: Celebrating women media composers

We talk about it a lot, but it’s not only concert music that has a problem with gender equality. Of the 250 top-grossing films in the US last year, 94% of them were scored by men according to a study by Martha M. Lauzen. A recent New York Times story drew further attention to the problem. Organisations like FreeTheBid and, in the UK, the Female Composers’ Forum, have been working to support and highlight the work of women composers in the media, but there is clearly much work still to be done.

Next month, on 12 June, the London Contemporary Orchestra will present the work of many of these composers at the EartH Theatre in Hackney.  Among the featured composers are Jocelyn Pook, Imogen Heap, Nainita Desai and Kate Simko, and many works will be introduced by the composers themselves. The diversity of the British media landscape will be represented, with music for film, TV, video games and theatre. As well as showcasing some of the underrepresented composers who are working in British media, the concert also hopes to tackle gender inequality and inspire the next generation of composers. It promises to be quite an evening.

For more information about the concert, visit the EartH Theatre website. Tickets are £22 and the show starts at 7.30. To whet your appetite, here’s Desai’s 2015 soundtrack to The Confessions of Thomas Quick:

Music after the Fall: Spotify playlists

A couple of days ago I discovered – via Twitter, where else? – that people have been making Spotify playlists out of Music after the Fall. Among those people is Andrew Tholl (@andrewtholl), violinist, drummer, composer and co-founder of the excellent populist records, who has made chapter-by-chapter lists for use in classes at UC Santa Barbara. After making my own (enormous) playlist summary of the whole book, I’ve meant for a long time to put together more detailed chapter-length lists. I was therefore delighted when Andrew made his lists public and allowed me to share them here. You can find them all at the following links:


Necessarily, lists like these are partial – not everything in the book is available on Spotify, for a start. And some of it is too long to make much sense in a playlist. So there’s a process of curation that goes on, choosing movements, or maybe a similar work by the same composer. What about order? And what about works that are mentioned only in passing versus those that get more detailed attention? There’s more going on here than just typing things into a search bar.

At the risk of adding even more self-indulgence to this short post, I want to end by noting how touched I am that people are doing this sort of thing in response to my work; it feels like a very special kind of reading, so thank you.

If any of my readers have made playlists of their own, or are aware of others out there, I would love to hear about them – please leave links in the comments.

Short review: Jane Antonia Cornish: Constellations (innova/Bandcamp)

Although I don’t write CD reviews here as much as I once did, I do still get sent things from time to time. Leafing through the pile this evening I came upon this CD of Constellations, a suite of pieces for piano, strings and electronics by the English-born, New York resident composer Jane Antonia Cornish. Not many discs recently have quite held my attention like this one. Cornish’s music is sparse, with combining plangent string melodies, chiming piano chords and hazy electronic drones. It would appeal to fans of Sigúr Ros, I’m sure, and there’s not a little shared with the Icelandic band’s brand of winter gloaming nostalgi-choly. Yet Cornish’s album is more stripped back than that. Its heart is not on its sleeve; more like in a bag still left at home. This quality of withdrawal I found deeply compelling – courageous, even, when all the pieces were in place for the music to go over the top. The whole album – whose five tracks flow seamlessly into one another – has the combination of hesitancy and confidence that you find in a child learning to walk. As the London sun sets at the end of a working week, it is proving a perfect accompaniment, and an utterly captivating surprise.

LCMF 2018: A Sound Map of the Hudson River

I wasn’t prepared, when I walked in to the installation of Annea Lockwood’s A Sound Map of the Hudson River (1982) at LCMF, for how familiar it would be. After all, this is a giant field recording of the most ambient, neutral of all sounds, running water; as ordinary and as ignorable as traffic noise. Yet as I stepped into the vast concrete cavern that is Ambika P3, I had a visceral hit of familiarity, of knowing, of orientation. This was, I realised, a real object, with a weight and form and identity of its own.


A Sound Map of the Hudson River is the first of three such portraits (others are of the Danube and the Housatonic), and is related to Lockwood’s larger River Archive project, begun in the 1960s. To create the work Lockwood recorded the river in stages, moving downstream. She took recordings from the bank, at points that she deemed sonically interesting and that fit an overall sequence of contrasts and movements. The piece was thus recorded compositionally, with a final sound and structure in mind, rather than objectively; Lockwood rejected locations, for example, if they were too close to roads or presented too little of sonic interest. Once the recordings were completed, Lockwood compiled them into a montage sequence, stitched together with slow fade-ins and fade-outs. The completed work is presented with a map of the river annotated with the location, date, and time of each recording and at what point in the work they can be heard. A set of headsets also play interviews with people who live and work on the river: a fisherman, a judge, a park ranger, a farmer, an activist and a river pilot.

Its materials are so slight, so neutral, so ambient and unadorned, as to be almost not there at all. In this sense, it is a masterpiece of presence: it is so utterly present as a work in spite of that neutrality. And that goes even more as what is here and what is there is folded over and over the longer one listens. The Hudson is here; we are here on the Hudson; we are there on the map (in time now, measured by a clock on the wall; a slice of time then, Lockwood in 1982 standing by the  water’s edge); we are here in this tiny locale, the river zoomed in to a few inches around a single microphone, projected around us across a 40-foot circle of speakers.


Almost until the end, the recordings are taken from the water’s edge: border spaces, the ribbon between this and that. The work’s focus is on touching and close sensation, not the generalised power of the river. Intimate. More interesting sonically as a result. But also more unexpected.

Rarely, even in the piece’s later stages, is the Hudson recorded as a source of power or mass. Recordings always made at the river’s edge, lapping, bubbling, the elemental mix of earth and water and air. The river is conceived less as a thing in itself than as a space around which things happen: the map is not of the river so much; the map is the river. This perspective is heightened by the addition of interviews with some of those who live and work on the river. I listened to a river pilot describe the challenges of bringing tankers, 100,000 tonnes in weight, onto the piers in New York: yet despite the huge forces involved even this was a tale of precise movements made under almost no engine at all, trusting to the silent pull of the river’s tides and currents.


Chris Mann, 1949–2018


Very sad to learn this morning (via Michael Schell @cribbageforum) of the death of the Australian-American composer, poet and performer Chris Mann.

I first came across Mann’s compositional performance poetry, and his unique voice, through the old NMA tapes, back when they were available via Rainer Linz’s website. (They can now be accessed as free downloads or paid-for CD-Rs via Shame File music.) Those tapes also included music by Amanda Stewart, and both are/were extraordinarily dexterous vocalists – and not singers, but speakers. Mann’s voice in particular had this quality that made you feel as though you had been unwillingly sucked into a conversation with a slightly mad neighbour: amongst the Beckett and the Pinter streams of stuttering consciousness was the gabble of gossip. I loved the soprano swoops he would introduce, for example: injections of an alter ego, an alternative possibility. He was influenced by Fluxus, Cage and, especially, the ‘compositional linguistics’ of Kenneth Gaburo; but it’s hard not to hear him also as one of new music’s few stand-ups – his work was genuinely funny, and utilised comedy’s forms and timing as much as music’s.

There are too few videos of his work to share; searching for Machine for Making Sense, the group he formed with Stewart and others in the 1990s, yields a little more. Here are two I particularly enjoy. Watching them back this morning, I’m struck once again what an extraordinary virtuoso he was, in thought and articulation. RIP.

Another (Musical) Minimalism

In Edinburgh recently to catch my annual dose of the Fringe, I stopped in at the Book Festival bookshop, where I picked up a copy of Another Minimalism: Art after California Light and Space by Melissa E. Feldman. Essentially an extended catalogue essay written to accompany the 2015–16 exhibition of the same name at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery, I found this an intriguing and provocative introduction to a strand of art I was aware of, but didn’t have the language to describe or contextualise.

Intriguing because it pointed to a division between strands of minimalism recognised as quite distinct within the visual arts that are often conflated (and with all sorts of attendant problems of categorisation and taxonomy) in music. Another Minimalism‘s subject is art produced under the influence of the Light and Space, and Finish Fetish movements, both of which originated in California in the 1960s.

Feldman begins her essay thus:

California Light and Space and New York Minimalism emerged at the same time in the mid-1960s under the rubric of minimalism. Yet soon after the appearance of Barbara Rose’s article ‘ABC Art’ in Art in America in 1965, and the exhibition Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1966 – both early attempts to define this radical new art – the East Coast school eclipsed that of the West. Apart from a handful of its constituents who gained international attention, Light and Space came to be understood as a minor regional movement while Minimalists Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Richard Serra and their peers went on to enter the art historical canon, slotted into a lineage bracketed by Russian Constructivism at one end of the century and Conceptual art at the other.

In one corner you have a minimalism that is focused on materials and concrete objects; that is objective (what you see is what you see); and that is self-referential. In the other, is an art that is immaterial, using light and smoke as its media; that is unpredictable and experiential; and whose meaning is based in the individual’s sensory perceptions. Among this latter group are the artists Larry Bell, Mary Corse, Robert Irwin, James Turrell and Doug Wheeler; among recent artists influenced by Light and Space, Feldman names Uta Barth, Olafúr Eliasson, Spencer Finch, Ann Veronica Janssens and James Welling.

You can see where I am going. The Light and Space/Finish Fetish vs Minimalism divide in art echoes the main divide within so-called musical minimalism: that between the East Coast’s pulses and the West Coast’s drones. Reich’s repeating units recall Judd’s boxes; Young’s drones evoke Turrell. Other musical ‘Light and Space-ists’ (Pitch and Volume composers? Ugh, no; we can do better than that) might include, alongside Young, Phill Niblock, Charlemagne Palestine, Catherine Christer Hennix, R.I.P. Hayman, Pauline Oliveros and James Tenney.

Even if we could give this musical phenomenon a name, is it of any use? I suggest yes. It groups together composers for whom a certain type of musical phenomenology – one not found in pulse-driven minimalism, and certainly not in its later, less experimental incarnations – is key. It gets around that tricky problem of description that I referred to. And it may offer insights into how we think of other composers who are sometimes tangentially linked to ‘minimalism’, but only on the basis of intuition, rather than anything concrete in their musical technique or aesthetic. I am thinking here of a range of composers, among them John Luther Adams, Morton Feldman, Henryk Górecki, Peter Ablinger and Ryoji Ikeda. The music of all of these might be constructively considered in relation to a Light and Space-style minimalism of experience and perception, rather than one of objecthood and materiality. And where might that take us?

David Burge: Timeless Relevance

c1bb38_b8ed7a1d6946402685ac88e6e9f567f0_mv2 A little more than two years ago, I drew attentionto a crowd-funding campaign in aid of publication of the collected Keyboard Magazine columns of pianist David Burge. Well, with my own handsome copy now in hand, I am pleased to note that this project – organized by Burge’s widow and granddaughter – has reached its summation.

If you are interested in finding out more about the book, including how to get hold of your own copy, I urge you to visit the book’s dedicated website for more information.