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Vocalizing Women’s Fight for Equality in America


Composer Julia Wolfe

Vocal ensemble  Lorelei Ensemble, celebrated for inventive programs that champion the virtuosity of the human voice, will give the Northeast premiere of Julia Wolfe’s Her Story with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a subscription-series concert led by Giancarlo Guerrero on Thursday, March 16, 2023 at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, March 17, 2023 at 1:30 p.m.; and Saturday, March 18, 2023 at 8:00 p.m. at Symphony Hall that also includes Góreki’s Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. The New York Times described Her Story as having “a ferocity that is literally written into the score, but also an absence of resolution as it looks back to suffrage with one wary eye toward the future steps this country still needs to take for something resembling true equality.”

Written for Lorelei Ensemble and co-commissioned by the BSO, Her Story invokes the words of historical figures and the spirit of pivotal moments to pay tribute to the centuries of ongoing struggle for equal rights for women in America. The 30-minute piece for orchestra and women’s vocal ensemble incorporates text from throughout the history of women’s fight for equality, ranging from a letter written by Abigail Adams, to words attributed to Sojourner Truth, to public attacks directed at women protesting for the right to vote, to political satire, and is the latest in a series of Wolfe’s compositions highlighting monumental and turbulent moments in American history and culture, and the people—both real and imagined, celebrated and forgotten—that defined them. A siren for our times, Lorelei’s Artisic Director Beth Willer answered a few questions for BMInt.

FLE: How did Lorelei put together the commissioning group of the Boston, Chicago, and Nashville symphonies for Julia Wolfe’s Her Story ? Apparently you know the composer and had proposed the concept of commemorating the 19th amendment.

BW: I worked with Julia and the Bang on a Can All-Stars in 2017 on a performance of Anthracite Fields with students from Bucknell University and Lycoming College. I was drawn to her work and her unique way of telling stories and started a conversation with her shortly after about a piece for Lorelei. We had a relationship with the Boston Symphony at that time, so I pitched the idea here first. From there, Lorelei and Bang on A Can sought additional co-commissioning orchestras for the expected premiere season in 2020—for the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment. With the delay due to the pandemic, the piece was able to continue to evolve over the course of the last several years and has evolved to something that goes far beyond a commemorative work. That said, Julie always intended for it to be about more than suffrage and that anniversary.

Is it a secular cantata, an oratorio, or some other form? Wolfe refers to it as 40-minute theatrical experience. That apparently suggests some stagecraft. Tell us more.

It’s the latest in a series of her works I might call “documentary-oratorio:” compositions highlighting monumental and turbulent moments in American history and culture, and the people—both real and imagined, celebrated and forgotten—that defined them. But they go further than simply representing history. Steel Hammer, Anthracite Fields, Fire in My Mouth—in each case she is taking historical material—words, images, voices—and making them powerfully relevant to a contemporary audience. She deconstructs and reconstructs the words in a way that causes them to evolve in meaning; they begin to feel immediate and contemporary.

Did you give Wolfe carte blanche to pick quotes from Abigail Adams on through the suffrage movement? It’s hard to imagine how a musical work can incorporate writing styles so diverse as Adams and Sojourner Truth. Does the musical style change according to whose words it is depicting?

The piece and the text are 100% Julia’s choices. Her compositional style is such that the “style” of those words is less evident than the meaning. In the context of the piece the voices of Adams and Truth are distinct in that they are the bookends of the piece, not adjacent. But there is also a bit to travel through between them, which makes the connection clear. They are both demanding representation, and consideration as members of society. The first movement is entirely drawn from a 1776 letter Abigail Adams wrote to John Adams just months before he would help draft the Declaration of Independence. The strength and directness of her words were surprising to me, coming from an 18th-century woman. And her words are penned—not to be mistaken—they are a stark reminder that women have been asking for equality and autonomy well before any organized movement. The second movement opens with a list of derogatory adjectives culled from the propaganda of anti-suffragists—a vocabulary used to describe women demanding representation then, and now. These are words that have been hurled at women for centuries. This is a moment in the piece that should make us all squirm in our chairs a bit. The text from Truth is taken from two accounts of her extemporaneous 1851 “Ain’t I a woman?” speech, both edited by white allies. The two accounts themselves vary significantly in style and content, and so Julie’s choice to take words and phrases from both to create an amalgamation of the speech preserves her words as an abstract representation, not a quote. For me, the two phrases that connect to Adams’ letter of nearly a century earlier are “Look at me” and “Look at my arm. I am strong.” Truth, like so many women across our globe, tirelessly worked the fields and did the physical labor that sustain communities. She was asking to be seen, recognized, for her contributions.

The Sirens  (Beth Willer at center) at Chestnut Hill Pumping Station (David Middleton photo)

Wolfe told a Chicago writer Emily McClanathan:

 I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

Rather than setting it to music linearly, Wolfe dissects Adams’ text, lingering on certain phrases and breaking up others. “There are so many meanings to all of these words once you separate them out.”

Is it difficult to set unmetrical texts into singable music? Do the words gain force from the way Wolfe fractalates them? Can you point us to some examples from the score or some YouTube links?

The best example of this is “I desire you would remember the ladies.” These words evolve in meaning as she builds the phrase, but also reveal our assumptions about women. The cells are “I…” (hesitating); “I desire…” (wanting, but not having); “I desire you” (dependence, sexual desire). As the phrase unfolds, the character of the women is more and more clearly defined, and the emotions underneath Adams’ carefully chosen words is apparent—in the orchestration, in the dynamics and text-setting, in the staging. There is a transformation of her words that is both honest to the history, and revealing of the present.

Will there be supertitles? Any amplification?

There are not supertitles, but the words are visible in other ways, as part of the staging and set. The singers are each individually amplified, yes.

Does the music stand on its own without the power of the words?

I’m not sure it’s worth considering any music with words without the words, or the people on stage singing those words. That’s the unique power of vocal music. Certainly there are works that have compelling concepts or words, and the music fails to amplify those words in a compelling or meaningful way. But if the music stands alone without the words, then it isn’t connected to the words—why does it have words? This is a piece that is so texturally and sonically complex—it is certainly compelling and magnetic from the standpoint of someone who couldn’t understand the words; but that orchestration and the melodic/harmonic/rhythmic elements are dependent on the voices and their words, just as the voices are dependent on the orchestra and their delivery. I could appreciate the music of a Puccini opera without understanding it, but it is heightened so meaningfully by the words and the story, why would I consider it without them?

How come you have never sung Liszt’s “Lorelei”?

In fact, we did at a private event! But in truth, I founded Lorelei to change the repertoire. So much music for women’s voices puts women’s voices in a very limited box – both in terms of subject matter and aesthetic. We are less interested in singing music that perpetuates historical ideas about women, and far more interested in what new ideas we can cultivate and inspire. Let’s just say we are here to re-define what it means to be a siren.

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