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Karen Tanaka at the Academy Awards

Karen Tanaka's hauntingly beautiful score sets a reflective and playful tone for the short animation Sister, which was recently nominated for the 92nd Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Tanaka's score, which combines the simplicity of solo piano with electronics, is one of several scores by female composers to be recognized by the Academy in the 2020 season; as Variety notes, this is a new record for the Oscars. 

Tanaka has also recently composed a new commission for the Left Coast Chamber EnsembleWind Wisperer, which was premeired in October, 2019. Written for the same instrumental ensemble as Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, which also appeared on the program, Tanaka's Wind Wisperer echoes Debussy's harmonic innovations while expanding its own exploration of time and timelessness. Tanaka draws inspiration from the Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi, whose work inspired her to create an "out-of-time" experience while listening to the piece, suspended in harmonic animation by the harp; the melodic figurations of the flute produce almost improvisational gestures, playing within suspended harmonic fields. 

Tanaka's choral work Sleep Deeply—available in arrangements for mezzo-soprano/two tenors/baritone, SATB, and TTBB chorus—was also recently performed by the Irish vocal ensemble ANÚNA in Belgium. This work, commissioned in 2018 by the Louth Contemporary Music Society in Ireland, sets lyrics by ANÚNA's Artistic Director Michael McGlynn, based on medieval Irish Poetry. 

Joan La Barbara Premieres New Work for NY Philharmonic's "Project 19"

On February 10th, the New York Philharmonic premiered Joan La Barbara's Ears of an Eagle; Eyes of a Hawk: In the Vortex, which was commissioned by the orchestra for their Project 19 commissioning initiative: "a multi-season initiative to commission and premiere 19 new works by 19 women composers," commemorating the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution. That amendment granted suffrage to over twenty-six million women in the United States, enfranchising them with the right to vote, which marked a pivotal moment in American history.

In Ears of an Eagle; Eyes of a Hawk: In the Vortex, La Barbara meditates on the political legacies of the 19th Amendment: at the same time as it enfranchised millions of white women, it also left millions of women without the right to vote, including African American, Native American, Hispanic American, and Asian American women—many of whom had been enslaved or had been subjects of violent American colonial expansion. La Barbara built her composition around the names of twenty-one women of color, in addition to one man—Frederick Douglass, the only African American who attended the Seneca Falls Convention—who, to La Barbara, "are only now being recognized for the enormous contributions they made to the suffrage movement as well as abolitionist efforts."

In addition to the cello, piano, percussion, and vocalist on stage, two antiphonal brass instruments call out from either side of the audience, which is also encircled by loudspeakers. La Barbara creates a vortex of sound, beginning with the breath—"a swirling continuum embodying a force that once begun could not be stopped." The whirlwind of breath is joined by sounds of cascading sand, denoting the passage of time, and the tearing of paper, denoting the erasure of women of color from the history of the suffrage movement, as well as fragments of the phrase "shall not be denied"—language from the 19th amendment. La Barbara uses the human voice as an instrument, adding color to her instrumental ensemble, and meditating on the role of the individual in the group. This creates what La Barbara calls "a rising line of power that denies resolution," reflecting the ongoing struggle for women's freedom and equality. 

Spotlight on Mary Kouyoumdjian

Over the past decade, Mary Kouyoumdjian has explored music's power to respond to both historical and contemporary social and political realities both by evoking complex emotions through her unique musical aesthetic and also incorporating the sounds from history itself into that aesthetic: a kind of documentary music-making that bravely confronts conflict. 2015's Silent Cranes, for example, addresses the Armenian genocide that displaced her own family one hundred years earlier, by incorporating testimony by genocide survivors, as well as contemporaneous field recordings of Armenian folk songs.

Kouyoumdjian continues to explore the emotional, political, and cathartic possibilities of music's reaction to history with a set of ongoing collaborative projects that invent new ways for music to harness its communicative power. Adoration, an opera in development with Beth Morrison Projects, is an adaptation of the Atom Egoyan film of the same name. It tells the story of Simon, an orphaned high school student who, for a high school English assignment, appropriates the details of a terrorist attack as an explanation for his parents' death. When Simon's narrative goes viral online, he uses the fervor to highlight racism and bigotry within his own community and on the internet. Simon's late parents, a violin maker and a concert violinist, serve as a bridge between the libretto, written by Royce Vavrek, and the music—a string quartet. Kouyoumdjian's writing for string quartet will incorporate electronics, sampled field recordings, and documentary audio footage, enveloping the audience in a multi-sensory environment. 

Kouyoumdjian's interest in multi-media narrative will also be explored in Paper Pianos, an ongoing project in collaboration with Alarm Will Sound. This evening-length work has grown out of interviews conducted by Kouyoumdjian with director Nigel Meister with four refugees and resettlement workers: the Afghan pianist Milad Yousufi, Getachew Bashir (Ethiopia), Hani Ali (Somalia), and Akil Aljaysh (Iraq). Kouyoumdjian's music incorporates audio from these interviews, and is also accompanied by live animation by Syrian artist Kevork Mourad. The piece takes its title from Milad Yousufi's story of creating a silent "paper piano" while in Afghanistan to avoid deadly punishment from the Taliban, and is a meditation on the power of music, community, and communication to respond to the inhumanity of war, displacement, and violence. 

Kouyoumdjian is also in residence this year at Buffalo String Works, which since 2014 has been offering musical education to refugee populations in the greater Buffalo area. Kouyoumdjian will compose a new work for over 85 students, bringing the emotive power of her music to young performers to experience as performers, as well as their families as audience members. 

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