Centrala, Birmingham: Illuminate Women’s Music

In Birmingham last Saturday i caught the latest concert in the current season by Illuminate Women’s Music, touring six UK towns between September and November. As the name implies, the purpose of Illuminate Women’s Music is to shine a light on women composers and performers, featuring a mixture of new repertoire and neglected works from the past. It’s an important, much-needed initiative, and it was heartening to see Birmingham’s Centrala struggling to contain the size of the audience. For Illuminate’s second season the focus is on music for soprano and/or strings, performed by an eponymous bespoke quartet alongside Canadian soloist Patricia Auchterlonie.

One general observation: while i know some strangely prefer their concerts historically homogeneous – i.e. preferring to keep ancient and modern separate – it worked well in this concert combining contemporary music with pieces from previous centuries. New music is arguably more diverse than it’s ever been, so stylistic gear-shifting has long been de rigueur for anyone attending contemporary music concerts. But in any case, a significant part of the point of Illuminate’s concerts is to help flesh out and expand the all-too-easily accepted narrative of music history, in which a great many significant people and compositions have ended up sidelined, forgotten or erased.

Just how significant could be heard in the first piece on the programme, an arrangement for soprano and quartet of Lagrime mie, composed over three-and-a-half centuries ago by Barbara Strozzi. As a way to start a concert, it was one of the most telling emotional sledgehammer blows i’ve experienced in a very long time. While its Baroque musical language was obviously familiar, Strozzi avoids turning the lament into merely a sad song, instead fashioning it as an intense, intimate soliloquy of pain. It was the first of many occasions during the concert when Auchterlonie’s performance was devastatingly effective, her impassioned delivery proving to be deeply moving, particularly the close of the piece that she convincingly expressed as musical sobbing.

By contrast, while they were of passing interest from a historical perspective, i think i could very happily not listen again to the Three Irish Country Songs by 20th century British composer Rebecca Clarke. The title tells you everything you need to know; indeed, they were so sufficiently steeped in their folk idiom that it was hard to know what exactly Clarke’s own contribution amounted to. More of a quaint curiosity than a compelling bit of repertoire, and the same could be said for Clarke’s Daybreak, with which the concert ended: quite pretty, but meh. That being said, both Clarke’s songs and Angela Elizabeth Slater’s reworking of the Strozzi were welcome examples of arrangement, something that seems to have fallen by the wayside in the world of new music. This was supplemented further in a short reconfiguring of the traditional ballad Scarborough Fair by Cecilia Bignall. Its language ultimately came to sound a bit too staunchly diatonic for its own good – not so much natural as an imposition – but its interesting dance-like interludes (more interesting than the verses) plus the way the music drifted in and out of a kind of ambient folk soundworld worked well.

For the contemporary works in their concerts, Illuminate have rather boldly opted to avoid established figures in favour of a younger generation of composers. GRADIENT, a work for soprano and quartet by Joanna Ward, featured a text made up of short fragments and music comprising notated and graphic elements. Though varied, it felt limited, even trapped, within its compositional ecosystem, though there was a very nice liminal balance in its demeanour, by turns emotive and impassive. A different kind of balance was projected by Sarah Westwood‘s Things you don’t yet know you feel, also for soprano and quartet. Setting a short text by poet Georgie Lorimer, and taking inspiration from the amusingly dubious veracity of mood rings, the balance here was actually more of a paradox: clearly seeking to be articulate while its music seemed strange and impenetrable. This was in part caused by a collage-like quality, as if the piece had been composed in sections that had then been stuck together, though without a strong enough adhesive. It would have been good to have heard Westwood’s and Ward’s pieces a second time; though they proved difficult on first contact, both were sufficiently interest-piquing that i’m sure further listenings would prove more rewarding. This doesn’t apply to Ultraviolet by Caroline Bordignon, though; yet another example of a contemporary work deriving its title and – ostensibly – its content from a scientific concept or principle, yet which, when heard, bears precisely no meaningful relation to it whatsoever. There were times when the musical texture could be said to have glistened, but i’m not sure that’s adequate to achieve the composer’s aim of reflecting the concept of ultraviolet light. As for the rest of the piece, it was dull and increasingly monotonous, its title making it seem all the more pretentious.

Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Illuminate’s founder Angela Elizabeth Slater tapped into something that i’ve long thought about haiku poetry. It seems to me that in many haikus there’s an implied tension, even a volatility – that beneath its placid, formal, seemingly detached surface is locked away a considerable amount of emotional power and energy. Using a selection of haikus by Wallace Stevens, it felt in Slater’s setting as if all of that implied power was being unleashed in a huge, concentrated burst. On the one hand, there were times when the sheer force of the vocal line came across as not merely melodramatic, but even a touch pantomimic. Yet it was undoubtedly more, a lot more, than just that. Slater’s music wasn’t well served by the relatively small confines and boxy acoustic of Centrala, which often caused Patricia Auchterlonie’s astonishing performance to attain ear-splitting levels of loudness. Listening through the rapidly-encroaching tinnitus, there was something mesmerising about its fiery, supercharged nature, as if Ways of Looking at a Blackbird were an unstoppable force of nature that simply couldn’t be contained. Maybe haikus are like atoms – you split them open at your peril.

The most powerful works in the programme were less flamboyantly dramatic. Yfat Soul Zisso‘s short work for quartet Together, alone came after the Strozzi at the start of the concert, and in some ways initially sounded like an extension of it. Only gradually did its slow, apparently stable chord progressions become revealed as fundamentally precarious. At first, i confess i wondered whether there was some weird problem with intonation manifesting in the quartet, but soon the microtones were everywhere, transforming the work’s cool calmness into a morass of discomfort. The ending still haunts me: a series of pained accented chords, numbly repeated in a way that was heartrending. Here was music that very obviously, and very deeply, hurt.

But nothing brought the world to a halt more than the Lament of Isis on the Death of Osiris by one of England’s most ridiculously undervalued and underperformed composers of last century, Elisabeth Lutyens. Performed by Patricia Auchterlonie alone, where she had earlier articulated a distressed, fragile lament, now she went to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, articulating some of the most blistering grief i’ve ever heard. As in the Zisso, there wasn’t a moment of Lutyens’ music that wasn’t racked with pain, here rendered angry, unfathomable and infinite. A mesmerising, literally stunning performance, that quite rightly received by far the longest and loudest applause.

There are further opportunities to hear this fascinating programme in Illuminate’s next few concerts in early November, taking place in Oxford, Huddersfield and Cambridge; full details on the Illuminate website.

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts
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One Response to Centrala, Birmingham: Illuminate Women’s Music

  1. Chris L

    …to help flesh out and expand the all-too-easily accepted narrative of music history…

    The words I’ve italicised are important, and I’m glad you’ve used them: “flesh out” and “expand”, but not change. Too many articles I’ve read about the injustices suffered by female composers over the centuries, while undoubtedly and laudably well-intentioned, seemingly fail to make that distinction. Musical history is largely a process of composers being influenced by other composers, but then taking those earlier ideas and reworking them in some way. If a piece isn’t listened to, not only shortly after being written, but in later years, it can’t influence, and too much music written by women has met this fate. That’s obviously musical history’s very great loss, but our urge to right this wrong retrospectively shouldn’t blind us to, or tempt us to ignore, this reality.

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