Women in (New Music): What Better Than Call an Interview?

This article was originally published for Second Inversion.
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Quick! Imagine a genius. Don’t think about it, just, whatever comes to mind first. What do they look like? Do they wear glasses? How old are they? What color is their hair?

What color is their skin?

What’s their gender?

I’d wager a guess that most of us have a very specific image of the kind of person who counts as a genius. But there are glimmers of hope that the narrow parameters for the moniker are beginning to loosen: Shuri, the teenage tech-whiz character in the box-office record breaking film Black Panther, for example, or, more recently, Kendrick Lamar’s historic Pulitzer Prize win.

The fact is, we carry around our assumptions until they’re confronted. I was lucky enough to experience such a confrontation, when I sat down with new music chamber ensemble Kin of the Moon (comprised of Heather Bentley, Dr. Kaley Lane Eaton, and Leanna Keith), and dancer-choreographer Karin Stevens (of Karin Stevens Dance) to ask a few questions about their collaborative performance this Friday, What Better Than Call a Dance?

 From left: Kaley Lane Eaton, Leanna Keith, Heather Bentley, Karin Stevens, and Beth Fleenor

From left: Kaley Lane Eaton, Leanna Keith, Heather Bentley, Karin Stevens, and Beth Fleenor

The performance will feature original pieces by Bentley and Eaton, each inspired by dance forms running the gamut from waltz, tango, the Scottish cèilidh—and even EDM.Kin of the Moon’s more-or-less-through-composed music will be interwoven with improvised movement and music by Karin Stevens and clarinetist Beth Fleenor.

I admit I initially felt a certain skepticism around the name Kin of the Moon. This is a highly educated ensemble that plays intellectually complex, heady music—why choose a name that evokes a certain nag-champa-laden mysticism? Was that title truly serious enough to describe serious music that is to be taken seriously? I was surprised to find that the line came straight out of a poem from one of the most established figures in the English literary canon, W.B. Yeats. Strike one, assumptions.

Kaley Lane Eaton (KLE): I didn’t start composing until my last year of college, and I had never even thought about it until then. It had not even crossed my mind. I had been a concert pianist, I was winning concerto competitions, I was surrounded by classical music composers my entire life, studying opera, and all that. But I went to Whitman College and I took a course by the incredible Dr. Susan Pickett. She teaches a course called Women As Composers…I really had to reckon with the fact that I had never considered women as composers—which was odd, given that I’m a woman musician, raised by a raging bra-burning feminist, who made sure that everything I consumed as a young child was feminist. And that says something, that even having a mother like that, who puts everything on the line to make sure that her daughter is aware that she can be anything, STILL I didn’t even know.

Karin Stevens (KS): It’s been essential to me to advocate for local new music, and to build this work that I do together with these amazing composers and artists in music in Seattle. Beth [Fleenor] and I go way back, we’ve done a lot of work together through various groups: the Seattle jazz composers ensemble, the Sam Boshnack quintet, she was a player in a work I did… playing music by Wayne Horvitz, Mike Owcharuk, Nate Omdal (just to give all those lovely people a shoutout—that’s the advocate in me! We’ve gotta be building audiences for each other). For me, I hope that it’s another layer of the people that have come to support my work, to see music from another direction.

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Leanna Keith (LK): I think part of it is that we try to focus on certain types of voices that you may not hear anywhere else. We tend to focus on a lot more female composers if we can. This particular show, it is genreless, going from all these different types of dance from the waltz to EDM, so it’s one of those things where, even if you’ve never heard anything like this before, that’s kind of the point.

Heather Bentley (HB): That EDM piece is really quite unique. This is one that Kaley put together.

KLE: Yeah, this is gonna be the final thing that concludes our pieces, but then [Karin and Beth] will come in on the bass drop. I write electroacoustic music, and I love EDM, I love dance, I love trap music—all of this stuff is really movement-based…We’re going to sing this Hildegard chant into this microphone that picks up our signal and takes little granules…and then turns them into a beat. So you’ll hear this kind of driving, four-on-the-floor beat that’s actually made out of our voices, from the Hildegard chant. So our singing will kind of dissolve into this beat that will emerge, and then [Karin and Beth] will join us—

KS: —for the Finale.

KLE: It’s Hildegard and EDM, it’s like—

LK: —Trap Hildegard!

Strike two, assumptions—this time about the limits of what Serious Artists™ are allowed to draw inspiration from. To review: The finale of What Better Than Call A Dance? will be a club-music inspired dance piece, using electronics to manipulate—in real-time—a chant by an 11th century abbess into an EDM mix.

Incidentally, St. Hildegard von Bingen, said 11th century abbess, was a genius. She was a writer, scientist, composer, philosopher, playwright, medical healer, Doctor of the Church—and currently the only woman listed in the Wikipedia entry for “polymath.”

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HB: When I was a kid, I always did many, many, many things…So, this is this idea that I’ve been trying on since #metoo. I should get a t-shirt, I want it to say “I’m a Genius Polymath.” As a woman, my first inclination is to be like “Oh, well isn’t that presumptuous?” I don’t know if I am a genius polymath or not, but why not say it anyway? …So that’s something to try on. I was asked to write a piece for the Thalia Symphony, and it’s going to be about the shape of the universe, which means I need to learn some astrophysics. So I said to myself “I can learn that, because I’m a genius polymath.” What if women—and especially younger girls—just had the sense that it was allowed to them, to say that about themselves, or just to have that self-knowledge? That takes a lot of ceilings away from one’s attitude.

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KS: I’m fabulously excited about this side of Kin of the Moon, to be surrounded by all these women…The movements and sounds we make together matter—they have power, and have effect. So I’d like to imagine…that there is something beyond the traditional transaction of art consumption or aesthetic gesture—that we’re doing something that is important. We haven’t had a lot of support for our voices, especially in music…I’m just really excited to be a part of this energy that they’re building with their own music. I kinda don’t care if people like it or not.

LK: To be honest, this is very integral to what we do. The whole gender spectrum, and feminine identity, and these kinds of ideas, across age differences. Kaley, and myself and Heather, we span a rather different amount of time, and so have very different perspectives between the three of us…When we sit down and talk and start to make music together, we’re like, “What do we want to talk about in our music, what do we want to get across?” so a lot of this is what you’ll hear.

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KLE: I have to add a little addendum to that article I wrote [“Things I Wish I Had Known When I Thought I Couldn’t Be A Composer”], that you have to just do it. You have to just commit, you have to just be like “I’m not gonna care if anyone tells me I can, I’m not gonna wait for funding, I’m not gonna wait. I’m just gonna do it, and I’m gonna advocate for myself, and I’m not gonna sit around being like ‘nobody wants to hear my music.” Who cares? Just, f***ing do it. So that is my number one advice for people, especially young women, who feel like “I don’t know if I can do this,” well, you can. Just do it.

Which is to say: strike three, assumptions.

What Better Than Call A Dance? is Friday, April 20 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center. Tickets can be purchased at the door, on a sliding scale of $5-$15 (cash only). Click here for more information.

For a full transcript of the interview, please click here