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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.