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25 September 2019

Composing for 'Composeher'

Jane Stanley Image: Jane Stanley  
© Joyce Martin

Jane Stanley writes about her current commission as part of the 'Composeher' project by the Glasgow School of Art Choir and the Glasgow Women's Library. One of the project's aims is to stimulate discussion around the issue of gender inequality in the commissioning of classical music - her commission being one of seven new works that will be championed as a result of 'Composeher'.

I have been commissioned to write a new work for the Glasgow School of Art Choir. Funded by Creative Scotland, the commissioning project entitled 'Composeher' is an innovative collaboration between the choir and Glasgow Women's Library. Seven women have received commissions, the other six being Sarah Rimkus, Rebecca Rowe, Ailie Robertson, Pippa Murphy, Dee Isaacs and Cecilia McDowall. The new pieces will be premiered in May 2021.

A key aim of Composeher is to stimulate discussion around the issue of gender inequality in the commissioning of classical music. To facilitate this, there will be a series of public discussions featuring the composers in the period leading up to the premiere. These events will be hosted by Glasgow Women's Library which is a unique museum/library devoted to issues and histories relating to women's lives. Topics to be covered range from our creative processes through to female representation within the classical music industry. The pieces will also be recorded for CD release, and an associated education kit will be produced.

According to Jamie Sansbury, the choir's musical director, the intention behind curating the commissions into a single project, as opposed to performing them individually over a period of time in different concerts, is to maximise the public's attention on repertoire composed by women, as well as to foster discussion around issues relating to female participation in contemporary composition. A launch event will be held soon in Glasgow to further publicise the project, social media accounts dedicated to Composerher have been created (see: Facebook; Twitter; Instagram) and a project website has been launched which will document progress of the pieces and the project as a whole.

Founded in 2012, the GSA choir is a non-auditioned ensemble consisting of 100+ singers. The majority of members are past and present students and staff of the institution. They are passionate about commissioning new work, and to date have commissioned seven choral pieces.

I have composed, on a number of occasions, for individual voice(s) set within instrumental ensembles, but this will be my first work for large a cappella choir. Key to my working method for writing this piece will be research and repertoire study, as well as workshopping ideas as they emerge, and consultation with the musical director. In the course of listening to and analysing as much (particularly contemporary) repertoire for a cappella choir as possible, I plan to explore pieces that the GSA choir has performed in the past, as well as looking further afield. Examples are the numerous choral works by James MacMillan, Eric Whitacre, and a stunning piece I rediscovered recently: Anne Boyd's As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams. I feel especially drawn to the harmonic language of this piece as well as its quietly intense character.

Critical to the success of the piece I produce will be my response to the challenges entailed in writing a work for amateur chorus. I will be striving to compose something that projects my compositional 'fingerprints', exploits the medium in resourceful ways, whilst being sensitive and sympathetic to it, and hopefully is satisfying (even if challenging or difficult to some extent) to perform.

I am particularly looking forward to the process of writing this new piece. I savour the prospect of workshopping ideas-in-progress with the choir - an opportunity that isn't always available for new commissions, and I have already been corresponding with Jamie Sansbury, about ideas. I've had some clear ones already for the piece's soundworld - I feel drawn to the idea of using 'building block' elements (e.g. fragments of diatonic stepwise patterns, cluster harmonic collections, and possibly incorporating elements of indeterminate notation) but applied in ways to produce more complex and subtle harmonic and textural results.

One of my first steps has been to search for a text to set. I have cast a wide net by exploring poems by local and international writers, drawn from contemporary and ancient periods, although I haven't discounted the possibility of writing my own text. In the most recent of my pieces to incorporate text - a trio for mezzo soprano, piano and percussion entitled D-re-A-mi-N-gl-Y, I set three poems by e.e. cummings. I was drawn to his poetry for its highly abstract nature and minimal content, as these qualities seemed to invite me to focus very much on the sound of words and phonemes, as opposed to narrative meaning. I anticipate being drawn to something along these lines in this new work too, but one way to take abstraction further might be to combine poems by a few different authors.

Further links

Jane Stanley - AMC profile

Composeher - project page (https://gsachoir.com/composeher/)


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