There are 4 songs within the cycle – all very contrasting, but all connected with ‘women’ in some way. The first song is a setting of She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron. Byron was educated at the nearby Harrow School from 1801-1805, so his connection with the area made his poetry an obvious choice for the group, and this beautiful lyrical poem centers on the extraordinary beauty of a young lady.
The second song is called The Song of the Knitters and uses text from a war-time poem about the women at home in Britain, knitting for the war effort. The choir use knitting needles to build up a percussive rhythm, against which are sung various folk-like motifs.
The third song, The Female of the Species looks at ‘dangerous’ or controversial women through history – Helen of Troy, Delilah, Eve etc. It uses anti-suffragette propaganda in the lyrics, and warns men of the dangers of educated woman. Lots of extended techniques are used in this piece, making it a challenging sing for the group.
The fourth and final song is a setting of Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman. This had been a strong favourite poem with the choir when I gave them some suggestions, and I felt it reflected the strong, positive, feisty nature of the group! They love to sing happy, positive songs, and a lot of their repertoire is show songs and more jazzy numbers, so this piece has an ‘Andrews Sisters’ style vibe to it.
There have been several challenges along the way with settling on the final songs – obtaining permission for texts from publishers has been a big test, and has resulted in some ideas having to be totally abandoned along the way, and new lyrics written. Also, as a composer who primarily writes instrumental music, it has been tricky to get used to having such a limited pitch range, especially with an all-female choir. I have had to be more creative about chord voicings etc and explore other textures to get the effects I wanted. I think the pieces are quite a challenge for the choir – I often split them into 6 or even 8 parts which can feel a little intimidating at first, but they are coping extremely well, and it is all sounding great.
I look forward to returning in a few weeks time for some final comments before the big premiere on June 27!