<p>Welcome to Canon in She, a column about female composers of Western classical music, and a few major trailblazers in electronic music as well. Today, I present three brilliant women from the 20th century.</p>
Content warnings: racism, lynching, classism, transphobia, lots of sexism
Welcome to Canon in She, a column about female composers of Western classical music, and a few major trailblazers in electronic music as well. Today, I present three brilliant women from the 20th century.
Florence Price (1887-1953)
Florence Price was the first African American woman to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra. She wrote over three hundred pieces across many different styles including symphonies, art songs (usually for voice and piano, set to poetry) and music for organ.
Florence was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. She was a literal genius; she played her first piano recital at the age of four, graduated high school valedictorian at fourteen and graduated with a Bachelor of Music in organ and piano performance at sixteen. At her mother’s advice, she pretended to be Mexican instead of African American while at university.
Florence moved back to Little Rock after her degree but had trouble finding work, as the Jim Crow era, a time of open, blatant and violent racism was at its peak. When racial tensions boiled over into a lynching in 1927, she and her husband moved with their two daughters to Chicago where she studied composition and orchestration. She joined the Chicago Music Association, a group intended to support African American musicians who were denied opportunities, and met other African American musicians including the young composer Margaret Bonds, who would go on to become her student. Florence divorced her husband in 1928. Around this time, major publishing companies started publishing her work.
Florence made history when she won the 1932 Wanamaker Competition for her Symphony No. 1 in E Minor. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered the work the following year.
Florence’s music began to appear in churches and various social and cultural clubs within the African American community. There was even a Florence B. Price A Cappella Chorus, which is pretty darn neat. She struck up a friendship with the singer Marian Anderson, who performed some of her vocal music, including her arrangement of the African American spiritual “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord”, which Marian regularly performed at her concerts.
Florence was an extremely impressive woman. To have a musical career as an African American person of any gender during a period of literal lynchings is utterly remarkable, let alone as a woman in a patriarchal society. Florence’s compositional talents were incredibly broad, and deeply rooted in her heritage. Her settings of African American spirituals are a testament to this. These spirituals were a merging of African culture with Christian faith and were sung by slaves, both as they worked and during social gatherings that were often forbidden by slave masters. Florence took that history, her history, and wove herself inextricably into its tapestry. The diversity of her work also means that chances are, whatever your taste, she has written something that you will love.
A Listening List:
Due to Florence’s broad body of work, her list will be longer than the others.
- Symphony No. 1 in E Minor: This symphony was apparently inspired by Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, but the clear influence of African American melodies and rhythms make it a fascinating work to analyse. There are moments that remind me of the spirituals I studied in first year during a world music elective. Heck, the third movement is called Juba Dance. This album also includes her Symphony No. 4. I’ve linked the first movement here but recommend listening to the entire symphony if you can, as Spotify provides access to the whole thing.
- My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord: An arrangement of a traditional African American spiritual that was made famous by the African American contralto Marian Anderson. I was lucky enough to find a recording of Marian herself.
- Night: This one uses the poetry of Louise C. Wallace to weave a gorgeous image of night as a woman dressed in “scented blue”.
- The Moon Bridge: This is a choral piece for sopranos and altos, with lyrics by Mary Rolofson Gamble. It is consistently cited as one of Florence’s most popular pieces, but it’s difficult to find information about it.
- Fantasie Negre: The theme is based on another African American spiritual, “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass”. Florence dedicated this piece to Margaret Bonds and it was actually premiered as a ballet, where Margaret played the music.
- Deserted Garden: This piece really does evoke the image of an empty garden, in all its lonely beauty. It also has deep melodic roots in African American musical traditions, including spirituals, blues and jazz. Here’s an extra bit of interest for the music nerds: it was composed in Dorian mode and uses the pentatonic scale.
- Suite No. 1 for Organ: You might remember I mentioned Florence earned her Bachelor of Music for both piano and Florence also worked as a silent film organist for a time to make ends meet after her divorce, so she knew the instrument well. Unfortunately, I’ve had little luck finding information about this piece, so I’ll let it speak for itself.
Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001)
Do you like Doctor Who? You’ll want to read this one.
Delia Derbyshire was a working-class English composer of electronic music who worked with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. She was a massive nerd for both music and mathematics. She was fond of composers like Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, but her heart lay with electronic music, which wasn’t really on any music curricula at the time. Delia was rejected by Decca records in 1959; they did not employ women in their recording studios! Well, the joke’s on them, because Delia became an incredible pioneer of electronic music. She joined the BBC in 1960 as a trainee studio manager and requested a transfer to the Radiophonic Workshop. Only “temporarily attached”, she absolutely thrived and even deputised for the head of the workshop.
And then… Doctor Who enters the story. Australian composer Ron Grainer wrote the theme, but Delia brought it to life in 1963. This was before synthesizers were really a thing, so she had to physically create the sounds she wanted and record them on a tape recorder. Delia has not been properly credited for this work, because she was the first person to work there without any tertiary music qualifications and was technically not supposed to be making music. A lot of her early work remained anonymous and was simply credited to the workshop. Her work on Doctor Who helped foster an appreciation for electronic music among the British public, which shows the profound influence she had on British music despite her lack of acknowledgement as a working-class woman.
After Doctor Who, Delia collaborated with dramatist Barry Bermange on four pieces that formed Inventions for Radio merged electronic soundscapes with interviews with members of the public on profound philosophical subjects. At this time, British working-class people were not considered worthy of attention, especially when it came to intellectual topics. The BBC received complaints about these pieces, calling the interviewees’ accents “harsh” or “uneducated” and questioning their worthiness to talk about heavy topics on such a heightened platform as radio. Well, when people complain that loudly, you know you’re doing something right.
Bermange was kind of a jerk and didn’t properly acknowledge her, but he did admire her work. Shame he couldn’t be nicer about sharing.
Delia eventually left the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1973 because she felt the increasingly commercial environment was incompatible with her artistic freedom. She still worked on freelance projects through the 1980s, but her public work slowed down over time. By the time of her death in 2001, she was collaborating on new music again. She had been working with an artist who calls himself Sonic Boom, and it seems technology was finally catching up to her thinking, which had always seemed a little bit ahead of her time.
Delia’s personal archive is housed at the University of Manchester.
A Listening List
- Doctor Who Theme: Delia was responsible for the arrangements of the theme for seasons 1 through 17, but this is the first one. Here is another version, but I can’t be certain of its exact position in the timeline.
- Time on Our Hands: This was a theme song created for a 1963 BBC documentary of the same name, which was set in 1988 in an automated futuristic world (well, futuristic for the time).
- The Dreams: The first Inventions for Radio produced alongside Barry Bermange. The sounds are intended to recreate the sensations of dreaming while the interviewees talk about them.
- Know Your Car (Get Out and Get Under): This is a version of a 1930s piece by Maurice Abrahams, Get Out and Get Under, where Delia used car sounds to replicate the music. It was created for a light-hearted DIY car maintenance program, but was never used. I thought this piece was especially interesting and unique.
Wendy Carlos (1939-present)
Wendy Carlos is an American composer of electronic and orchestral music, who is notable for not only her music, but also as a trans woman who publicly came out in the late 1970s. She has released several albums of electro-classical music, including the Bach-inspired Switched-On Bach and The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, and has worked on several films including Tron, The Shining, and A Clockwork Orange.
As synthesizers became increasingly important for electronic composers in the 1960s, Wendy helped develop the Moog synthesizer into an instrument, not just a noise-maker, insisting on a touch-sensitive keyboard and a more accessible interface. Her input on the synthesizer led to her later Bach albums: the harpsichords and organs of the Baroque period were extremely limited instruments without touch sensitivity, and Bach’s music was highly mathematical. Wendy was interested in creating technology to make music that was pleasant to listen to, rather than strictly experimental and “ugly” in her opinion. Many creators of electronic music were interested in dissonance (sounds that clash to the Western ear, especially if that ear is classically trained). Wendy wanted to return consonance to music, along with regular rhythm and melody and had a hard time being taken seriously in electronic music academia. Joke’s on them. She became pretty darn successful in the commercial world.
Wendy’s electro-Bach album Switched-On Bach won three Grammys in 1969 and went platinum by 1986. This helped synthesizers become more mainstream. In addition, she was extremely inventive in her own right. She created a music studio in her own apartment and even built her own eight-track tape recorder during a time when the Beatles were still using a four-track machine. If she needed a piece of technology that didn’t exist, she would either make it or find someone to help her make it. Many of her other albums were also based on classical works, including more Bach, but she also had an original creative outlet with her movie soundtracks.
From there, Wendy took another creative leap with her album Sonic Seasonings, which is widely regarded as the first New Age music album. It has a soothing, atmospheric style, featuring samples nature field recordings such as wind, birdsong, and insects.
Wendy began transitioning in secret around 1968 and, from around 1971, she disappeared from public life for seven years after her gender-affirming surgery. Between 1978-79, she was interviewed by journalist Arthur Bell for the May 1979 edition of Playboy. This was her coming out to the entire world. She had a frank discussion about the way her life and career had been affected by her need to keep her transition a secret, stating that she “lost a decade as an artist” because she couldn’t perform publicly. She also discussed her gender dysphoria and the way people behaved around her, especially when they were not sure of her gender.
In 1980, Wendy upgraded her equipment once again. She began using digital technology to replicate orchestral sounds, painstakingly programming a digital synthesizer over several months. Her 1984 album, Digital Moonscapes, was completed using an entirely digital orchestra that may have been the first of its kind.
Wendy’s work as an electronic and orchestral composer saw the development of synthesizers and a broadening range of what electronic music can be. Her electro-classical albums raised the profile of electronic music and synthesizers among the public and within the industry. She demonstrated a different type of creativity to artists such as Delia Derbyshire by aiming for music that suits the Western musical ear, rather than actively challenging it.
Note: if doing your own research, please be aware that many resources include Wendy’s deadname.
A Listening List
Wendy’s music is brutally difficult to find, but I have included what I can.
- Theme from Tron: this is the first Wendy Carlos piece I heard as a child, before I knew a woman had written it. Think: a computer geek gets shrunk down and transported into a computer system. The entire album is also available on Spotify.
- Main Title Theme from The Shining: We can hear the blending of Wendy’s classical and electronic music styles here. T It’s super creepy, which is great for a horror movie.
- Title music from A Clockwork Orange: There are plenty of cover versions of this album, but I can’t find a full, free and legal version of the original. Here is a decent-sounding cover version, but it’s just not the same. Regardless, Wendy was a master of writing for Stanley Kubrick’s terrifying films. The title music is inspired by Henry Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary.
- Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major – First Movement: This is a sample from Switched On Bach and gives an idea of Wendy’s realisation of Bach’s work
- Sonic Seasonings: Samples of Wendy’s atmospheric music merged with nature sounds.