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Music Notes: variations on a theme of feminism

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When German composer Gerhard Staebler heard Chicago poet Angela Jackson read one of her poems at an artists' retreat two years ago in San Francisco, he was inspired. Dedicated to four black American women writers, "Warriors" addressed the courage of groups fighting for political freedom. Staebler liked its message so much that he composed a choral arrangement around it.

"Their cultures are completely different, so he had to solve certain problems," says Frank Abbinanti, a local composer who knows Staebler. In order to interpret Jackson's poem, Staebler had to become familiar with American culture. "He kept asking me what else he could read," Abbinanti says. "It was a process of discovery."

About the same time, local composer Annie Randall was similarly inspired by Sylvia Plath's poem "The Applicant," a bitter description of marriage as a cold, mechanical business transaction. "I wanted to make a statement about those kinds of institutions that devalue women," she says. Unlike Staebler, though, she was familiar with the poem's context. "I've been thinking about Plath's poetry for a long time."

In different ways, Staebler and Randall both addressed feminist issues in their works. And fittingly, both compositions will be performed as part of the concert "Peace and Protest: Music of the Women's Movement Worldwide," organized by American Women Composers-Midwest and Frank Abbinanti.

Abbinanti has wanted to put together a concert of music with feminist themes for four or five years but hasn't had the money. Last year, he took his idea to American Women Composers, a group that gives concerts and presentations about "serious" music composed by women. "We had been toying with the same idea, so when Frank came to us, we decided to pool our efforts," says Casey Ginther, president of AWC.

For a year Abbinanti, Ginther, and Janice Misurell Mitchell, AWC's vice president, looked for music. "It's hard to find stuff if you're looking for political things," Mitchell says. "A lot of it tends to be set in the folk style."

But they managed to fill half the concert roster with works from Abbinanti's collection of music with a social or political theme. (He estimates that over the past 15 years he's amassed at least 150 pieces.) Four of the eight works to be presented are by men. "Part of the point of this is that men care about women's causes, too," Abbinanti says.

Most of the music they chose is about the historical, not the contemporary, struggles of women for equal rights: "It's music about women who've been involved in political movements," Mitchell says. Among the works' subjects are Harriet Tubman, Rosa Luxemburg, and midwestern activist and intellectual Brenda Ueland.

Seven of the eight pieces were composed since 1978. Identifying with political causes is relatively new in serious music, Abbinanti says. "There have always been political poetry and paintings," he says, but because music is more abstract than those forms, it's often hard to determine when it has been politically inspired. Performer and audience frequently must rely on a work's title or accompanying text.

"There are those who say you don't have to attach a label to music to make it political, but I disagree," Abbinanti says. "I think part of the process is to make your intentions clear." Making political intentions clear started to become popular among serious composers in the late 60s, he says. And, Mitchell says, "Only within the last ten years would composers have been aware of feminism as a subject area."

Still, the three looked for older works. Mitchell and Ginther wrote to the Library of Congress to get a copy of "March of the Women," composed in 1911 by Dame Ethel Smyth, an imprisoned British suffragette leader. Frederic Rzewski's Chains, composed in 1986, draws from texts that "span 4,000 years, going back to the Bible," according to Abbinanti.

Leftist composers use different means to achieve their ends. "Some apply radicalism to the music itself," Mitchell says. More often, they work from a text with a political message, but even then, different people take different approaches.

Randall says she used abrasive sounds to match the abrasive tone of the Plath poem, and that she tried to evoke the poem's surreal mood by juxtaposing unlike melodies. But she always intended the words to be the main attraction. "The text is the most important part of the piece," she says. "The music is just there to heighten it." Staebler, on the other hand, didn't follow the text of Jackson's poem faithfully but used it as a starting point. "He said, 'I'll take this piece and make a new piece out of it,' Mitchell says. "Some of Jackson's words are obscured at times, hard to hear."

But the individual composers' methods aren't as important as "the dialogue that occurs between the pieces," Abbinanti says. "A perfect concert to me is where you listen to the whole concert. This one spans history."

"Peace and Protest: Music of the Women's Movement Worldwide" will be performed tonight, May 13, at 8 PM at Dearborn Station, 47 W. Polk. Tickets are $6-$8; call 248-2404 for details.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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