dream.risk.sing – the journey of telling women’s stories in song
POSTED 28 SEPTEMBER, 2023
Late in 2019 I had my first meeting with pianist Lana Bode to see if she was interested in creating a programme of women’s stories not traditionally told in classical song. In its creation, I also wanted to encourage further projects which could share and extend the first aim. The seed for this idea had been planted shortly after the birth of my first daughter, driving a desire to give voice to a more expansive narrative of women’s experiences, primarily through a women’s own words and music. From this, dream.risk.sing: elevating women’s voices was born.
The concert programme, and subsequent album, due for release on 29th September 2023 with Delphian Records, is designed to explore experiences of adolescence, bodies, motherhood, love, work and legacy. I also sought to weave these themes together in a way that reminded listeners of the constraints on freedom that still exist in women’s lives. I wanted to create a love letter to women.
After researching possible song repertoire for women’s experiences at work, Lana and I realised there are almost no classical songs about this subject. It was a privilege for us to commission composer Charlotte Bray and writer Nicki Jackowska to create the song cycle Crossing Faultlines. The brief being to create three songs that speak about mentorship, sexual harassment, and ambition in the workplace. We were fortunate to work with Musicologist and Writer, Dr. Lucy Walker, who interviewed us for the Britten Pears Arts podcast, From The Red House, and wrote the CD booklet essay for our album. She writes,
"work. At the time of writing, according to the TUC, the gender pay gap in the UK is as high as 31.4% in some industries (notably finance). By comparison to men, in other words, women work 114 days per year for free. Many of the issues they face in the workplace, moreover, are not widely discussed… In Crossing Faultlines, [there] are a beguiling mix of mythical imagery and feet-on-the-ground realities: particularly in the final song, where the working woman’s uniform (surgical scrubs, or a suit and heels) is worn like armour in the battleground of the workplace. In the Margins’ portrays a mentor–mentee relationship, the older composer (it is assumed) teasing an artistic voice from the ‘undergrowth’ of the younger woman’s consciousness. The clue is in the aspirational, soaring birds at the centre of the song. After this, in Bray’s setting of the text’s closing lines, the singer–composer’s voice must ‘go down, go down’ (literally, to a bottom G) to find the roots of her creativity, before rising back up through two octaves to take flight (a musical metaphor also found in the final song). More alarming echoes of The Rite of Spring – its plot, if not its music – can be heard in ‘Like a Drum’, with circling males zeroing in on the ‘fresh meat’ in the office in a horrifyingly detached depiction of how assault can be normalised at work. The vocal line veers from breathless monotone to high-pitched terror. ‘And Now Her Song’ envisions a world of opportunity and ambition, as if the protagonist of the first song has taken her mentor’s advice and stridden forth. Yet the cycle does not follow a straightforward trajectory into triumph. The clashing major sevenths and other dissonances that punctuate all three songs suggest that the issues raised are far from having been resolved."
Lana and I gave the world premiere of Crossing Faultlines in October 2021 at the Oxford International Song Festival and also gave a preview performance, together with Charlotte Bray being interviewed, on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour.
Alongside the thrill of commissioning new music, Lana and I were able to work with Judith Weir on two new arrangements of songs ‘Breasts,’ and ‘Edge,’ from her ground-breaking cycle woman.life.song. These songs are a celebration and exploration of girls changing bodies in puberty and delights of first sexual experiences. We also considered the songs we wanted to include that speak about painful areas associated with being a woman. We chose songs from Libby Larsen’s The Birth Project and Helen Grimes’ Bright Travellers with stories touching on struggles with breastfeeding, infertility, and miscarriage. With several friends going through these experiences, I would often have to take a prolonged pause to gather myself, and wipe my tears during concert performances, before beginning the next song. Not ideal mid-performance, but an honest reflection of the weight of the songs. We sought to balance these stories with the peaceful intimacy of Rebecca Clarke’s Infant Joy, and women celebrating their bodies after giving birth. I particularly resonated with the line ‘I was a superhero!’ as my youngest daughter had recently been born when we were choosing repertoire.
One of our aims in creating a programme outside of the traditional recital format was to encourage others to do likewise and explore less familiar subject matter in song. In working closely with many of the composers we decided to create a video series of ‘Composer Insights,’ discussing the process of picking texts and the composition of their songs, hoping it is a useful resource for similar projects. These interviews are available to view here.I am delighted that dream.risk.sing contains five premiere recordings, including The Heart of a Woman by Florence Price, My Daughters by Michele Brourman and the previously mentioned songs by Weir and Larsen.
Legacy is an important part of women’s lives we wanted to display in the album. Particularly to include songs that have intergenerational voices of daughters, mothers and granddaughters speaking about their own experiences. Possibly, none more clearly than in My Daughters. A song about legacy, what we wish to pass on to those who share our spirit, in the next generation, not limited to our own biological children. When I sing this song, I cannot but help think about the legacy I will pass to my own daughters and the younger women I know who will carry the baton forward. Also, I am filled with immense gratitude to the older women who have nurtured, championed, and guided me over the years. It is a song of hope for those who wish to pass on wisdom and light as they ‘fight the fires of hell…and then ignite the righteous light of truth’s eternal flame.’ The album video of My Daughters can be viewed here.
‘Bella’ and ‘Justice’, named at the beginning, are nods to feminist campaigner Bella Abzug and the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as to an ideal of beauty and truth. The musical setting was conceived with particular care by Brourman, and is in a frictionless major key, sincere in its optimism. As such, it is a song of hope. In order to take the risk, women need to dream – and sing – of a better world.’ - Dr. Lucy Walker
Each song was chosen with care on dream.risk.sing, and while I haven’t outlined every song in the album above, a full listing can be found on Delphian Records and most streaming platforms. I highly recommend reading Dr. Lucy Walker’s full essay and the texts of these songs which are printed in the CD booklet. The digital global release is on 29th September 2023. I hope you find a story that resonates with you and the incredible women you know.
Dream.risk.sing: elevating women’s voices is available to buy here. Samantha Crawford, September 2023.