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’40 Ways of Being (a Woman)’

’40 Ways of Being (a Woman)’ is an electro-acoustic piece for soprano, cello, organ, and electronic soundscape, composed by myself (Wilma Pistorius) and Andrea Guterres in 2021-2022.

We will perform it again on Tuesday 15 august 16:00 in Oosterkerk, Amsterdam as part of the Grachtenfestival.

Is is performed by Viola Blache (soprano), Lisi Hubmann (organ), and Wilma Pistorius (cello).

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The instrumentation of the piece (organ, cello, soprano, electronic soundscape) combines the historical colours of the organ with the modern sounds of electronics. The cello forms a link between old and new, and connects the more spacious sounds of organ and electronics to the soprano.

Musically, the piece is written in a layered way, with melodies weaving through a background soundscape. The large form of the piece is based on a succession of different moods, each connected to the storyline: contemplative/vulnerable, ritualistic/dark, raw/powerful, uncertain, depressed, afraid but brave, playful/flirtatious, sassy, magical/wondrous, joyful/sophisticated. In non-musical terms, I would describe the piece as atmospheric, dark, and playful.

’40 Ways of Being (a Woman)’ is a piece about real-life things, based on personal experience: the vulnerability and curiosity of exploring your identity, being powerful and owning your space, the pain and anger of being pathologised for being free, threats of sexual violence and wanting to not be afraid of those, the joy of having a body, the fun of being sexual, the excitement of expanding one’s sexual orientation, and finally, being unapologetic and uncomproposingly authentic, and embracing your personal power.

I chose to use text from Sandra Cisneros’ book ‘The House on Mango Street’, and poem ‘Loose Woman’. Her work is very authentic, about very real people, real experiences of being a girl/woman: like getting hips, enjoying beautiful things but also being tired of being beautiful, being afraid of men looking at you, but also enjoying being looked at, about the wonder of having a body, the challenges and the fun of being a woman. It’s very diverse.

This matches the image I wanted to sketch: something authentic and real, and touching on the richness of human experience. I want to create something honest that people can relate to, and that gives them the message that how we really are as women is not only normal, but also something to be proud of.

Cisneros’ poem ‘Loose Woman’ is powerful and unapologetic. It’s about liberating yourself from taboos by embracing them. If people call you a bitch or beast because you don’t conform to their ideas of what you should be like: so what? I like the unselfconscious confidence of it.

Structurally, ‘The House on Mango Street’ is made up out of many small stories about different people. You can open the book anywhere and read one page, and that works as a story in itself. But if you read the book as a whole, it works as a total narrative as well.
We did something similar in 40 Ways: using many different stories and different characters that together form a whole.

’40 Ways’ is a piece about identity: discovering and inventing myself as a woman, reconnecting with important aspects of myself that were lost because of negative experiences.

I wanted to make something that reflects what a woman is really like, as opposed to the unrealistic images sketched by our culture. In representations of women, there are mostly two types: the suffering woman who is beautiful and gets in trouble because of it; who isn’t sexual of herself but has sexuality inflicted on her. And there is the woman who is independent and powerful, maybe even sexual, and depicted as unnatural, unfeminine, and monstrous. This is not a realistic representation. The human experience is so much more varied! I wanted to show what being a woman is really like, from my own experience, in the hope of offering a voice of sanity and woman-positivity.

As such, ’40 Ways’ definitely as an activist undertone to it. It feels a bit subversive in that it contradicts the cultural message of what being a woman is about, and offers something more personal and authentic. I think it is very important to do this. We need to show people what being a woman is really like, so that others can have the freedom to simply be themselves.

Female empowerment is important to me in the work I make. It is of central importance to me in my life, and this is reflected in my work. But I don’t always have the opportunity of expressing this in a piece: sometimes I just have to make a piece about something else. I enjoy that too. But the works that really feel close to the bone, that I enjoy making most, always contain some aspect of feminism.

I hope that this piece will give audiences some positivity, and the idea that being a woman is something joyful, something to celebrate, instead of something oppressive or burdensome (as we are often led to believe). I would also like to invite my audiece to reflect on their ideas about gender and what those are based on, and perhaps arrive at a fresh perspective. The title has a tongue-in-the-cheek irony to it: there is not one way of being a woman, and many more than 40!

‘Play/Space’

‘Play/Space’ is a new piece (ca 30′) for recorders and panflutes, performed by Juho Myllylä and Mariana Preda. It combines composed material with improvisations, and involves the audience in an interactive performance.

For me, writing music is a way of sharing positivity and inspiration with others, of communicating something from one human being to another. I would describe my music as “serious, but with a wink”. Serious, because it comes from a personal and authentic place and reflects larger philosophical questions. At the same time, I want to present these things in a playful way, and invite the audience to relate to my music in a personal way, hence the “wink”.

With ‘Play/Space’, I want to create space for creativity and spontaneity. I want to create a situation in which the musicians can interact with my (composed) material. This meant including free parts and improvisation. I also want to involve the audience by giving them a more active role in the performance. I’ve noticed that audiences don’t always know how to listen to contemporary music, and sometimes experience it as impenetrable. By making the concert interactive and literally enabling them to influence the music (or watch others do so), I want to give my audience a more concrete and hands-on experience of contemporary music, and make it something they can relate to. As a cello teacher, I enjoy taking a didactic approach to musical challenges, and involving the audience in ‘Play/Space’ is exactly this: a way of showing people how they can listen to new music.

In order to get a better idea of how I could incorporate improvisation into a composed piece, I had a closer look at some of Frank Zappa’s work. Zappa said that his solos were all about making a composition in “real-time”, where the structure is determined in advance, so he could let himself be surprised by his inspiration in the moment of performance. He would record improvised solos during live performances, and use these on composed studio albums. By analysing some of the transcriptions of Zappa’s solos (made by Steve Vai in ‘The Frank Zappa Guitar Book’), I got an idea of how Zappa built up his solos, and how he combined composed and improvised material.

Medieval music was another source of information and inspiration for the more freely notated parts of ‘Play/Space’. In Medieval music, playing together is approached in a more horizontal and less precise way than in our music today. Studying some examples of Medieval music notation gave me ideas for how I could structure and notate more aleatoric parts of the piece.

‘Play/Space’ has different kinds of sections: composed, aleatoric, and improvised. The composed parts are written and performed in the traditional way, where the musicians simply play my notes. In other parts the notation is freer, and I give the musicians some material to play around with. The piece climaxes in a large improvised section, where I sketch the outlines and provide minimal material for the musicians to interact with. The piece concludes with composed material, where I tie all the differently coloured strings together and weave them into an ending.

Besides improvisations, the ‘Play/Space’ also has interactive parts where the audience can influence the music. Listeners can affect three different parameters: the character, the tempo, and the instrumentation. By holding up signs, audience members can determine whether the mood is mischievous, sensual, or contemplative. Others can determine who’s playing: only the recorder, only the panflute, or both. A third group can set the tempo on an old-fashioned mechanical metronome. In the beginning of the piece, one kind of influence is active at a time, and later on these are layered on top of each other, creating a climax of surprises. We are also doing a livestream, in which the online audience can influence the music through a chatbox.

Although I have used audience participation in previous pieces, this extensive set-up is new for me. I enjoy working with such adventurous musicians as Juho Myllylä and Mariana Preda, who were eager to experiment with me from an early stage in my creative process. The première was a lot of fun, and I was pleased to notice that there was a more informal atmosphere in the audience, and audience members who were simply watching and listening also seemed to feel more involved in the music. Of course, a free and experimental set-up like this requires tight playing, and Preda and Myllylä do a fantastic job of reacting to the audience, and of playing the virtuoso passages I wrote them.

To contrast with the wild and exciting ride of an interactive performance, I decided to publish a selection of solos from ‘Play/Space’, to give the purely musical material the attention it deserves. These are notated in the traditional way, and require no external input: simply a musician and an instrument. These will appear under the title ‘Spectrum’ as Open Score solos, playable by any instrument.

Throughout the rehearsal period, I’ve been making short video’s about the creative process behind ‘Play/Space’ and my collaboration with the musicians. You can check these out on my Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/wilma_pistorius/?hl=en

Composing for Amateurs Award

My piece ‘ǀKaggen’ (2021) for open score ensemble was awarded the first prize of CoMA Maastricht’s composition competition in Festival Nieuwe Noten! I also got to hear a great performance of my piece by an ensemble of 18 dedicated and fun amateur players. You can listen to it here.

ǀKaggen is a piece about ease and lightness, and also about mischief. It is named after a folk hero and creator god from the cosmology of the ǀXam people of Southern Africa. He is a trickster god who can shape-shift, usually taking the form of a praying mantis. The piece is not a programmatic representation of this folkloristic deity. Rather, it is inspired by what the character represents (for me): the feeling of humour and lightness that sometimes arises when we embrace the unknown, the way this ease and freedom creates space for mischief and playfulness, and an appreciation for the beauty of ordinary things. It is a piece about the fun of playing together, and the beauty of imperfection.

 

Moon Suite / “40 Ways of Being (a Woman)”

At the intersection of spring and (hopefully) post-covid renaissance, I am delighted to be playing for live audience again, in the oldest church of Amsterdam.

Playing in de Oude Kerk is almost like having a conversation with the space around me, blending with my own sound reflected off the oldest walls in town. A gorgeous acoustic is a true pleasure, and this one brings out the fragility and expressiveness of solo cello and the colours of my Moon Suite in such a way that I’m led to believe that this combination was meant to be.

The Moon Suite (solo cello, 2015) is a special piece for me: the first large work I wrote after graduating, my “coming-of-age” piece as a composer, a piece that linked two of my worlds (as a performer and creator of music). The piece is about many things, but especially about different aspects of being a woman and my experience of it. This is a theme that continues to intrigue and inspire me, and which will also form the core of “40 Ways of Being (a Woman)”.

As the name suggests, the Moon Suite is based on different moon phases – a narrative as cyclical as the reality of everyday feminine existence. In this time when the world is waking up again from a long hibernation, I am delighted to be bringing parts of it to life.

Concert on Friday 4 March 2022 8am, at de Oude Kerk, Amsterdam. https://oudekerk.nl/en/programma/silence-34-40-ways-of-being/

Ugly Pug / Crossroads – CD out now!

CD Digipak edition of Ugly Pug’s debut album #Crossroads (Olive Music/Etcetera Records) is now available to order here! I am delighted with this amazing recording of my work (Crossroads)by these gentlemen.

The extensive booklet includes, next to program notes and introductions of every composer, the ensemble and the musicians, beautiful and comprehensive liner notes by Sara Constant.

You can purchase or listen to it online or get a physical copy here.

Collaboration with Amaranti Ensemble

Amaranti Ensemble is a traverso (Baroque flute) & harpsichord duo based in the States. In the winter they got in touch, and asked me to write them a piece for their project “From Scapegoat to Feminist Icon – Reflections on Guinevere”. I am always delighted to meet musicians who actively promote female composers, and excited for our collaboration!

At first I was unfamiliar with the story of Guinevere (aka “King Arthur’s wife”) but soon learned that her character (in various retellings of the story over the course of a millenium) is a reflection of ideas about women. My Guinevere is a woman with strength and sex-appeal, but still unmistakably woman. I like how my work so often ends up being about what this means to me.

Read more about the project here.