Music Faculty Widen the Musical Canon by Commissioning New Works

Projects bring female voices, ideas and compositions to audiences

Libby Hearn, UM assistant professor of choral music education, conducts a performance of the University Choirs in the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Christian Johnson/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Commissioning a new work of music is one of the most optimistic, creative things a musician can do. She enters into a relationship with the composer as the piece is created and works from a more deeply personal place when communicating the finished music to audiences in performance.

Two projects in the University of Mississippi Department of Music celebrate the creative act of commissioning new music – and since they’re commissioned by women, from women composers, for women artists, they are also strong celebrations of women in music and of music’s capacity to reflect ideas and histories important to women.

Libby Hearn, assistant professor of choral music education, is part of a commissioning collective working with composer Andrea Ramsey to create a choral work for female voices celebrating the anniversary of women’s suffrage in America. 

“Suffrage Cantata” is a multimovement work for treble voices, string quartet and percussion, which also features soloists and narration. Ramsey’s work examines important moments in the long fight for women’s suffrage and celebrates the accomplishments of a wide range of women.

“As a woman, and as a conductor of a women’s choir, I am always looking to perform choral works by women for women,” Hearn said. “Dr. Andrea Ramsey has emerged as a leader in this field of composition. Women composers bring a perspective and knowledge of the female voice to their compositions that is hard to replicate.

Andrea Ramsey is composer of ‘Suffrage Cantata’ for a commissioning collective that includes professional choral ensembles and top-tier college and university choirs, including UM. Submitted photo

“Experiencing this history through music, where the singers are not only singing text from important moments in this struggle but are also using their voices to describe the emotion of those moments – that’s a meaningful learning experience for a singer, and for the audience.”

It is an honor to participate in a consortium with other reputable collegiate and professional women’s choirs, including Michigan State, Florida State and Louisiana State universities, St. Olaf College, Mirabai and Vox Femina, she said.

The “Suffrage Cantata” will be relevant to Mississippi audiences for many reasons, Hearn said.

“I have seen the score,” she explained. “The complexity of the multifaceted performance and Ramsey’s juxtaposition of historical texts with a more contemporary composition style results in a compelling tribute to many of the women who were a part of the suffrage movement. I was thrilled to see that Holly Springs native Ida B. Wells was featured in the third movement entitled ‘A Woman’s Place.’ 

“In my personal study of the suffrage movement, I was immediately captivated by her relentless, often defiant passion and drive to be seen and heard despite the many challenges she faced. Using historical sourced text, Dr. Ramsey brilliantly set Mrs. Wells’ words, and the words of her contemporaries throughout all five movements, to music that captures the essence of the individuals and the tone of their sentiments.”

Ramsey intentionally told the suffrage story through diverse perspectives, Hearn noted, sharing the following from the composer’s score notes: “Planning for this work began in May of 2019. In less than a year, our own history was shifting dramatically with the arrival of a global pandemic, sustained protest and racial upheaval. We are influenced by our environments and I know this work is different, and likely stronger, as a result of composing in this season of self-examination. I have tried to craft a work that is honest about the heroism of these figures while also acknowledging their flaws.”

COVID interfered in the timeline for the project, which was originally scheduled to premiere at Ole Miss during the actual centennial celebration of the ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 2020.

“As a multimedia and multifaceted work, both the music and the students deserve a live audience and the flexibility – currently impeded by COVID restrictions – needed to bring this work to life,” Hearn said.

Adrienne Park, UM instructor of piano, prepares for a recent performance of ‘Lily of the Valley,’ a piano prelude she commissioned from composer Stephanie Ann Boyd. Photo by Logan Kirkland/ Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

“The unexpected extra time has allowed us to brainstorm additional ways to collaborate and celebrate women, and we have some exciting plans in the works. I am hoping to present this work, along with other supplemental ‘HERstory’ events, in April of 2022.”

In another commissioning project, Adrienne Park, instructor of piano, recently performed the world premiere of “Lily of the Valley,” a piano prelude she commissioned from composer Stephanie Ann Boyd. The piece is part of “Flower Catalog a larger collection of preludes based on flowers that Boyd wrote for women pianists from around the country.

The opportunity to participate in this commissioning project was exciting for Park; not only for the chance to be part of creating new work, but also because it presented an occasion to honor her grandparents in a way that was deeply meaningful.

“I chose Lily of the Valley because it is one of the flowers that my grandfather secretly planted for my grandmother so that she would be surprised and delighted when they came up in the spring,” she said. “For me, the piece reflects on my grandparents and their long love affair and the life that they created for their family.”

“After years of being away, I find myself back in Oxford, living in the home where I grew up, which was also my grandparents’ home, so my family is able to enjoy currently the flowers that they planted so long ago.”

Park met Boyd through ICEBERG New Music, a collective of composers that was featured at a 2018 festival in Memphis, in which Park performed “Imogen,” by Boyd.

“I loved the experience of being able to work directly with the composer about performance choices,” Park said. “It’s a wonderful experience to be able to ask questions and test ideas.”

Composer Stephanie Ann Boyd records comments for Adrienne Park’s recent performance of three works by Boyd, including ‘Lily of the Valley.’

Later, when Boyd invited her to take part in the commissioning collective for “Flower Catalog,” Park said she jumped at the chance. “Stephanie has a relationship with each pianist, and that informed the commissions,” she explained.

“Lily of the Valley” was among three pieces by Boyd that Park performed at a recent Sonic Explorations concert in Nutt Auditorium. The concert included fellow Ole Miss music faculty members Christine Kralik playing cello, and Nave Graham, flute.

“It was incredible to have all women on the stage, playing works by this young vibrant composer who is now having her work played by soloists and orchestras all over,” Park said. “And I loved working with my colleagues and the women on staff at the department.”

Nancy Maria Balach, chair of the UM music department, has been dedicated to researching, commissioning and performing new repertoire since 2006.

“I believe universities and faculty members have a responsibility to introduce new music that widens the standard musical canon, especially in classical music,” Balach said. “Through these special projects, our faculty build relationships with musicians at other institutions, and our students share in the benefit.”

Hearn said this is definitely the case with the “Suffrage Cantata” commission.

“To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a consortium of this magnitude that involves so many reputable collegiate and professional women’s choirs and conductors,” she said. “I am honored and humbled to amplify the work and voices of women in this way with our women’s choirs at Ole Miss.”

The uptick in commissioning projects in the music department is “an exciting development,” one that aligns with a growing number of women commissioners and composers nationally in recent years, said musicologist Thomas Peattie, associate professor of music.

Adrienne Park (left), on piano, and Nave Graham, on flute, perform works by composer Stephanie Ann Boyd during a concert at Nutt Auditorium. Photo by Logan Kirkland/ Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

“Of particular note in the American context is the role of women in commissioning and supporting new music during the 20th century, including Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953) who commissioned works by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok and Copland, among others, and more recently, Betty Freeman (1921-2009), who commissioned works by John Cage and Philip Glass, including Glass’s celebrated opera ‘Einstein on the Beach,'” Peattie said.

Carrying on this work, Park and Hearn are happy to participate in the growing body of new work commissioned and created by women in the 21st century.

Boyd hopes to gather all the pianists together for a performance of all 12 preludes in “Flower Catalog,” Park said.

“They’re all incredible performers and incredible women, and I hope it can happen; it would be amazing,” she said.