With Shining Light, Elektra Women’s Choir gives voice to female composers

The ensemble illuminates the wealth of women working in choral music both here and abroad

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      Just for fun, let’s crunch some numbers. There are 13 pieces in Shining Light: Celebrating Women Composers, the program that Elektra Women’s Choir will present this weekend. Ten, or 77 percent of them, are by Canadian composers. Five of those, or 38.5 percent of the total, are composers who live in Vancouver. And, as the title suggests, all of the writers, local or not—a whopping 100 percent, by our calculations—are women.

      But it’s not about the math, according to Elektra’s artistic director, Morna Edmundson.

      “It’s a concert,” she stresses, reached at her Surrey home. “It’s programmed to be a concert. It’s not programmed to take care of a statistic, or anything like that.

      “There’s nothing different about the music itself,” Edmundson continues. “You wouldn’t come to the concert and say, ‘I’m listening to music written by women.’ I don’t think you’d notice that if you didn’t open the program and didn’t look at the name of the concert—but 13 women are getting that extra boost, so that’s where this is coming from.”

      Still, the numbers tell a story—and if you follow those numbers all the way through the history of B.C.’s premier women’s choir, they’re perhaps even a little dismaying.

      “The big ‘why’ is that even in our own repertoire, less than 20 percent of it was written by women, over 30 years,” Edmundson explains. “And then you say, ‘Why is that?’ That is because I couldn’t buy it before. I couldn’t find it; nobody was programming it….It was just a vicious circle. So we’re just part of changing that reality in our little way, so that 10 years from now people won’t even think about the gender of the composer.

      “That,” she adds, “is kind of where the subtext of this is going.”

      It’s also entirely possible that, 10 years from now, choral listeners around the world will be checking their programs not for gender equity, but for the presence of Kathleen Allan’s name on the bill. The Newfoundland-born composer and conductor, now a Vancouver resident, is one of the young female artists Edmundson is eager to promote—and, again, not for statistical reasons but for the excellence of her work.

      “She’s steeped in choral music, very curious and imaginative, and also skilled,” she says. “Kathleen has just such a bright future, and I’m just so happy to be part of bringing her some attention.”

      Morna Edmundson, with Elektra Women's Choir.

      Edmundson’s enthusiasm has resulted in Allan having three pieces in Shining Light—that’s 23 percent, if you’re still keeping score. There’s Early Spring, a 2007 work based on a Newfoundland folk song, and one of the scores that first brought Allan to Elektra’s notice. There’s At the heart of our stillness, a 2016 setting of a Joy Kogawa text. And then there’s the brand-new Primary Colours: Three Canticles for Women’s Choir and Piano, a commission from the choir that will probably form the emotional centre of a concert that has as its themes spring, joy, and wonder.

      As Allan relates in a separate telephone interview, Edmundson and Elektra brought more than just commissioning money to the table.

      “The editing process with Morna Edmundson is like no other,” the composer reveals. “We spent probably an hour on the phone, going through every single little detail and marking things so that when the choir first sees it, they will have the best experience possible. She calls it a ‘first date’ between the choir and a new piece, and she wants to give them a really beautiful product—a physical score in their hands that they’re excited about as soon as they first crack the spine. So the editing process is actually quite a lot of fun, and it takes me to a further level than I get to with most pieces.”

      Allan adds that working with Elektra has raised her own standards about what a finished work should involve. But it hasn’t changed her process: Primary Colours began with Allan searching for a text, and after she’d settled on a three-part meditation by the late Miriam Waddington, she began to find a sonic context for those words through careful exploration of their inner music and meaning.

      “Usually, when I come across a poem that I decide to try to set, I play with it a little bit at the piano; I read it out loud in its entirety; and I often record those piano improvisations along with my reading and singing. It’s all very improvisatory,” she says, adding that for Primary Colours she also drew a multicoloured flow chart: different phrases suggested a colour, and those colours suggested the work’s musical form.

      “That’s where the shape and the overall structure comes from,” Allan explains. “And then where melodic content felt appropriate, I tried to sing it. I just improvised into my cellphone recorder and kept track of which parts went well. I do try to stay true to the text in its rhythm and expression and direction, without being a slave to it, or being confined by its rhythm and structure.”

      The composer stops short of calling herself a synesthete, but she certainly has a vivid sense of how the senses interact—one more reason why Edmundson and Elektra are eager to give Primary Colours its world premiere, and statistics be damned.

      Elektra Women’s Choir presents Shining Light: Celebrating Women Composers at Ryerson United Church on Saturday (May 13).