BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE Stephanie Eslake | View Original Article

There’s a level of guilt – of concern – in the many of us who struggle to name a great number of female composers, and violinist Christa Powell has been no stranger to this feeling. Drawing on the “chronic lack of representation” of female composers throughout history, the Muses Trio member pushes for more women to be heard through the release of the group’s debut album The Spirit and the Maiden.

Giving us no dead white male to turn our ears toward, the release features an explosive line-up of female composers including Elena Kats-Chernin, Judith Bingham, Nadia Boulanger, Kate Neal, Vítězslava Kaprálová, Louise Denson, Cécile Elton, Jennifer Higdon and Amy Beach.

We had a chat with Christa ahead of the album’s Sydney launch in September. Christa enlightens us about her mission to bring women in music to the fore, and talks through her experience with fellow Muses, cellist Louise King and pianist Therese Milanovic.

Fantastic to learn about your debut album, and congratulations! Tell us a little about Muses’ background and why, after four seasons of performance, you feel the time is right to share your first release with the world.

Thank you! Louise, Therese and I have known each other for quite some time. We have played together in many various combinations of ensembles. Therese and I are also permanent members of Topology, a Brisbane-based contemporary group. Therese mentioned in a Topology rehearsal one day that a man named Barry Gorman had been sending her CDs of music by female composers. For his own personal reasons, he felt very strongly about celebrating music by women and was pretty persistent. CDs kept arriving. As a classically trained violinist, I had always played mostly male music. And dead white males, at that. The thing that I love about Topology is that the music we play is alive and relevant. But it’s still mostly male. So when Therese mentioned Barry’s idea of female composers, my interest was immediately piqued. We initially just put one program together for International Womens’ Day. It’s shameful to admit now, but at the time I really couldn’t name that many female composers, living or not. So the idea of one program was daunting enough. Once we started, though, it was like opening floodgates. It was soon pretty clear that one program was only just the beginning. People kept asking if there were recordings of the music. Everyone seemed to be connecting with the music and the idea of celebrating these trailblazing women. After three years, it definitely felt like it was time to start recording some of the music.

You’re sending a strong message by crafting an all-women album as your debut. 

The album is a natural progression of everything we have been doing with The Muses so far, so I guess we didn’t consider having anything but female composers represented in the album. Yes, it is a strong message. We didn’t quite realise how strong it was and how fiercely it would connect with the public until we started. We personally feel passionate about what we are doing and have been blown away by the response. And it’s not just the music itself that is connecting with audiences but the stories as well. Women are inherent storytellers and the music is so indicative of this. And it’s also the stories about the composers themselves that are inspiring audiences. Women, especially in centuries past, have defied difficult odds to maintain careers composing and performing music. It’s been incredibly inspiring to get to know the women that created the music. Women, especially in centuries past, have defied difficult odds to maintain careers composing and performing music.

With plenty of incredible talent to choose from, can you tell us a bit about why you included these specific composers – old and new?

Well this album is the first of many. And yes, it was quite difficult to choose the works to go on this debut album from all the repertoire we have accumulated. We included on the album some of the first works we performed together as Muses. I guess because it’s the first place we connected with this amazing journey, so these particular pieces we felt were important to include on the first album. Of course, we ended up recording too much music so one piece had to be dropped from the physical album but remains with the digital version.

The album has a mix of old and new composers and also local and international. It also has a mix of trio works and duos as well. The beauty of the piano trio combination is that the hidden duo combinations are fun as well. Piano/violin, piano/cello, violin/cello; the album also has a mix of these duos. And a gorgeous little piano solo by Kate Neal.

Talk us through the music and its stories.

It’s not just the music that tells a story, it’s also the women themselves that have inspired us. There are personal connections to some of the women and also personal resonances in the story of their own journeys. The title track Spirit and the Maiden is by one of our favourite locals, Elena Kats Chernin. Claimed by Aussies and originally from Uzbekistan, Elena is one of the busiest and most prolific Australian composers. Her piece Spirit and the Maiden tells a gorgeous and haunting story of a young maiden lured into the embrace of a young man who had lived for a thousand years in the well she visited every day to collect water. There are three other Australian women featured on the album: Kate Neal and her divine Song for Comb Man, which is the soundtrack to a short animated film; Louise Denson and her Cuban-inspired works Two Boleros; and Cecile Elton’s Tango for a Sleepless City.

The international composers add to the varied collection on the album. Louise King has a personal connection with Judith Bingham (UK) and her piece Chapman’s Pool with gorgeous evocative landscapes. Louise actually commissioned this work during her time with the Gould Trio in the UK. Jennifer Higdon is rapidly making quite a name for herself in the US and abroad. Her piece on this album is both stunning and edgy, very exciting to play. Amy Beach (US), Vitezslava Kapralova (Czechoslovokia) and Nadia Boulanger (France) are amazing women who we admire as trailblazers of their time carving out impressive careers and producing beautiful works in what must have been nothing less than impossible circumstances. Amy was forbidden by her new husband to perform in public after their wedding, yet she managed to accumulate a vast repertoire of swoon-worthy music. Nadia Boulanger was most well known as a composition teacher and had an impressive list of students, mostly male and significantly more famous. Her cello and piano works are truly divine. Vitezslava Kapralova had an impressive volume of work and had she lived beyond 25 she would have undoubtedly been one of the most influential composers of her time. In 1948 she was awarded membership in memoriam to the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Arts – one of only 10 women of the 648 members.

Your group has said it feels the education system doesn’t give much acknowledgement to music by women. Why do you think this is? Is it that there is a lack of repertoire by women composers – or is the imbalance purely made by what we choose to continue studying and listening to?

Yes we strongly believe that there is a chronic lack of representation for female composers on so many levels – in exam repertoire, in music education, on radio, in orchestral programming and in classical programming in general. The reasons I think are varied and complex and each perpetuate the void. Throughout history, and really up until our current generation, it has been difficult for women to defy social obligations and expectations to pursue careers in the arts. One of my favourite pieces on the album is by Amy Beach, who managed to create a vast repertoire of gorgeous works despite her own social constraints. An active and prolific composer and performer in her early years, Amy was forbidden to write or perform publicly after her marriage. This was not a unique situation to Amy and it’s still not uncommon today, to a certain extent. Although not always explicit, it is inherently difficult to ‘have it all’ as a woman.

Another reason women’s music remains in the background is that according to Sheryl Sandberg, activist and advocate for women in the workplace and CEO of Facebook, women are terrible at promoting themselves. Fifty-three per cent of men will negotiate their salaries when taking on a new job compared to seven per cent of women. The same can be said of women promoting their artform and negotiating a male-dominated environment to have their music played. Hopefully in some small way, this album can tip the scales in the right direction. Although not always explicit, it is inherently difficult to ‘have it all’ as a woman.

Have you ever suffered from gender discrimination in your own musical career?

I have been lucky and haven’t personally suffered overtly from gender discrimination, except to be deprived of the wealth of music (and I am sure other art) by women. When I was a student, I was acutely aware there were still many orchestras in Europe that didn’t allow women. Although the idea of this disturbed me greatly, I still accepted it as the status quo. The more music and stories of trailblazing women I uncover, the more determined I am to change this imbalance. What started as merely addressing the imbalance of female representation in music has very quickly evolved into a social movement for us, with the focus of connecting and supporting creative women and highlighting stories of powerful women and gender inequality. And it goes beyond composers, as well. In live performances, we include readings and stories from our favourite women like Chilean author, feminist and social activist Isabel Allende; and Clarissa Pinkola Estes who describes the inner-wild woman as an endangered species in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves. Audience members tell us that these stories and readings are as important and inspiring as the music.

Parting words?

In the words of Isabel Allende, ‘Sisters: talk to each other, be connected and informed, form women’s circles, share your stories, work together, and take risks. Together we are invincible. There is nothing to be afraid of’.