In my ongoing exploration of contemporary female composers - an attempt to widen my admittedly narrow horizons on the subject - I came across the work of Mary Jane Leach, a composer born in 1949 in Vermont that played an important role in the post-avantgarde post-minimalist New York music scene and the most important scholar and archive collector of the music of Julius Eastman. Her album (F)Lute songs, which came out in 2018, contains four pieces written or arranged for flute and vocal ensemble; from her latest work for solo and six taped flutes, Semper Dolens, to one of her most popular choral pieces from the 80s, Bruckstück, Leach’s music presented me with a vibrant essay on the power of layering, phasing and tonal functionality in a soundscape of homogeneity and coherence.
I first became aware of Mary Jane Leach while listening to an episode of “the Soundlab”, a podcast hosted by Paul Steenhuisen where he interviews contemporary music artists. During his interview of Mary Jane Leach, he delved into her exploration and reimagining of pieces of early vocal music such as Dowland’s “I saw my lady weep” or Arianna’s Lament “Lasciatemi morire!” by Monteverdi for instrumental and vocal ensembles. Being the early vocal music enthusiast that I am, I decided to look further into her music; instead, I was taken aback by the ability of this composer to create complexity out of simplicity, delineating musical spaces where inertia and momentum seem to coexist, where tradition and innovation cooperate to give birth to her personal and distinct voice in contemporary music. Memories from 16th and 17th-century consort music meet Bruckner’s 8th Symphony and post-minimalism in works where timbral uniformity and an internalized pulse are the blank canvas for her music’s infinite variations of colour and consonance to shine on. Taking from old and new pieces, this album stands as an account of her matured compositional style, presented through four works: Trio for Duo, Dowland’s Tears, Semper Dolens and Bruckstück. The album lasts for a total of 36 minutes, a time filled with infinite sonorous snapshots you feel the impulse to loop eternally and simply exist in. The choice to arrange her piece Bruckstück, originally written for 8 sopranos, for a flute ensemble is certainly an unusual one; however, the result shines a different light on the piece, which can provide a field of discourse for the arrangement of such music. That and a lot more will be discussed below in an exploration of each of the four pieces.
Trio for Duo (2011)
From the very first track, a piece written for two alto flutes and two voices, Leach’s interest in the interplay of layered sonic structures is evident. The piece, as she describes, was her first attempt at creating a work for instruments she couldn’t play using mainly sustained tones and attempting to achieve a homogeneity of tone between the different instruments. “There are four parts”, she explains, “but only three play at the same time, one part passing off its last note to the next entering part, weaving a tapestry of matching and contrasting timbres. By using glissandos, more ‘extra-notated’ sounds are created than appear on the page.” The piece observes a gradual upwards increase of range and resulting timbral interplay, while a pulsating effect is created by the exchange of lines as she describes vaguely reminiscent of English madrigalists like William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons. The diverging lines resulting from the sliding pitches seem to work with an architectural vision to outline spaces of musical activity within the piece.
Dowland’s Tears (1989)
One of her two explorations of Dowland’s music in this album- and my personal favourite- this piece borrows from his song “I saw my lady weep” to create a gently undulating lamentoso serenade for nine flutes and a taped additional part. There are signs of tonal organization around the key of C minor, however virtually all the possible colorations of the scale are explored. Here is also evident the influence that organ music has had on Leach’s music; in her interview with Steenhuisen, she remembers laying as a child on the floor of the cathedral where her mother worked as an organist and letting the waves of sound coming from the instrument wash over her. The sensation one receives from her pieces is definitely a similar one; exemplified just from the opening gradual build-up of resonance and the striking organ-like quality of the flute timbre, this piece feels like hearing a 17th-century organ improvisation in a state of trance, letting the music envelop you in a shimmering cloak of sound as if coming from far away.
Semper Dolens (2018)
The title of this piece is a quotation from a consort piece Dowland witfully titled “semper Dowland, semper dolens” or “always Dowland, always doleful”. The focus here is on sustained harmonies that create a pulsating effect with the flutes’ consecutive entries. Here the harmonic direction is ever clearer, illustrated by the voice-leading of the parts as they slowly move in steps and the resulting consonances gain functional meaning.
The final piece in this album, Bruckstück, was commissioned to coincide with an exhibition of Jack Ox paintings organised using an analysis of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. As Leach herself points out, the lower and higher parts of the ensemble are meant to represent the movement and behaviour of the string and woodwind section respectively, imitating closely Bruckner’s patterns to establish a tonal centre. Indeed, this piece resembles a distilled vision of the orchestral approach to musical communication, allowing each part to play its own role in the hierarchy dictated by the material. Particularly striking is the middle part of the piece, where the music seems to find a sort of undulating repose in the harmony of the diminished chord, through which the ensemble explores distant and close harmonic worlds but always oscillating back to it. This gives the music a sense of internal drive, a pendulum-like motion that fuels the layering of parts to retain their meaning.
To conclude, I raised in the beginning a point surrounding the choice to arrange this piece for a flute multiple ensemble and, given that I made a promise to bring it up, I shall devote my final words to it. While it is not unheard of to arrange contemporary pieces of music for different ensembles, it is certainly a more cautionary process when we are speaking of pieces exploring the phenomenon of sound from a timbral perspective. In other words, music that is specifically designed for the capabilities and tone colour of a specific instrument or combination of instruments is exceptionally difficult to arrange if one is to maintain a similarity between the desired and the achieved musical result. In music with minimalist or post-minimalist traces, such as this one, texture is one of the main ways of creating variety in a space of limited musical material or significant thematic development. However, as Leach’s ensemble in either cases would have been essentially homogenous in content, be it sopranos or flutes - and the difference is not that big as we saw in "Trio for Duo" - a satisfactory result can be achieved with either. To me, however, it also raises the important point of there being a strong link with consort music and the way it was performed back then; many consort pieces of the seventeenth century did not specify an intended instrumental family to perform them, giving the choice to the performers to decide; while texture was an important parameter to those works, it was achieved by purely musical means and not relying on the combination of specific instrumental colours. With this in mind, Leach’s album succeeds in creating a presence in the current discussion of contemporary music, drawing from older practices and philosophies to determine its future steps. Her voice is ever more distinct in a time where the lack of any traceable aesthetic line seems to be the norm, putting once again on the table the question: “Can new music be written while looking back?” A modern-day Dowland? It certainly sounds like it.
Phoebus Kyriakoudis, October 2020
Boomkat. 2020. Mary Jane Leach - (F)Lute Songs. [online] Available at: <https://boomkat.com/products/f-lute-songs> [Accessed 6 October 2020].
Steenhuisen, P., 2020. Mary Jane LEACH. [podcast] The SOUNDLAB. Available at: <http://www.soundlabnewmusic.com/mary-jane-leach/> [Accessed 6 October 2020].
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