We explore in detail 6 works by 6 different living composers for a variety of instruments like solo cello, a string quartet, a piano concerto, and more! Visit the show notes page for more information on these composers and resources to find more.

Show Notes


Click on the composers name to learn more about them on their websites:

Caroline Shaw

Barbara Croall

Laura Kaminsky

Nkeiru Okoye

Jessie Montgomery 

Anna Clyne



This website hosts a by no means complete database of composers who happen to be women (click on any underlined name in the database and you'll be brought directly to their website!): www.Kapralova.org

The Boulanger Initiative (local!) advocates for women and all gender marginalized composers, and on March 13 they will be debuting what sounds like a very comprehensive database of women and gender non-conforming composers. We will post a link when it is released, and you can learn more on their website: www.BoulangerInitiative.org








John Banther: I'm John Banther and this is Classical Breakdown.

From WETA Classical in Washington, we're your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classicals Evan Keely, and we're sharing with you six 21st Century works written by six different women. You may already know some of these, but we also hope you'll find a new favorite as well. From music for solo cello, a concerto, a string quartet, and more, there is something here for everyone. And after listening, you'll find more resources on music written by women and a Spotify playlist of all the music on our show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. I've been very much looking forward to this episode, Evan. I think we really have something for everyone, regardless of their favorite style or genre or even time period in music.


Evan Keely: Yeah, I've been looking forward to this too, John. I have to admit though, I bring some anxiety to this episode of Classical Breakdown. I feel like as a podcast co- host, I'm supposed to say something intelligent and interesting and I'm supposed to be well- informed. And in fact, the honest truth is I'm really at the beginnings of learning about the composers that we're going to be talking about today. So what I'm hoping to accomplish is not to pass on some profound wisdom, not that I ever do that anyway. But to just really kindle in our listeners, as this music has kindled in me, a growing interest. And that folks will want to hear more and learn more. They'll go to the show notes page and they'll find out more about these and other composers that we'll be talking about today. So just an incredibly exciting time to be alive and the music we'll be exploring today is really, really thrilling.


John Banther: Absolutely. Very well put, Evan. I'll start with the first piece here. It's by Caroline Shaw, and it's called Three Essays. And Shaw is an American composer that you see a lot of today. She became the youngest Pulitzer Prize winning composer in 2013. She has several Grammy's including multiple appearances on Grammy winners this year. Yale gave her an honorary doctorate as well. And she might be the most performed living composer on our Monday evening program at WETA Classical Front Row Washington. So the work I want to share is her Three Essays for String Quartet, which the Attacca Quartet recorded last year on an album of music all written by Caroline Shaw called Evergreen. Her Three Essays are based on various types of language or communication. The first one is called Nimrod, the second is Echo. Then the last one is called Ruby.

Looking at the first essay, Nimrod, it's based on the biblical figure of the same name, who in some versions of the story is the one who orders the building of the Tower of Babel. Which you can also find in a variety of cultures, I think, to explain the origin of different languages. In the music it feels like there are sections here in this First Essay where different members of the quartet or sections are playing at the same time, but they're maybe talking past each other. With the added context that this is really based on language, these essays. It reminds me sometimes, Evan, you're in a conversation with somebody, you're both agreeing on the same thing, but maybe you're talking past each other. Or just kind of missing the point. Or even worse, you're on the side watching that happen with two people. There's this really interesting interaction between violin and lower strings that shows this aspect and you hear it in other parts as well, miscommunication maybe. And the end, it's really sudden. It's very dramatic.

And it kind of sounds like a tower, for instance, completely collapsing into itself. And it leads right into the next essay called Echo, which is inspired by something we experience today, especially online. What we call echo chambers. This entire work though Evan was composed in 2016, and I want to read the catalyst for the work as described in liner notes I found online. " Shaw was deeply troubled by the national unrest leading to and resulting from that year's presidential election. She saw language being used to spread information about current events, but also, and increasingly, to spread confusion and misinformation." What's even really more interesting, I think, Evan, is that this was written in 2016. She could not have imagined what would come in the next seven years now in 2023. And how I think impactful or kind of important, this is.

The opening to this one. It's haunting. It's kind of like something I've never really heard before. There's these scraping along these strings before seamlessly flowing into a brief chord and it's very meditative and a little bit haunting. The Attacca Quartet really stretches these out. There's other performances where they're a little bit shorter, but they're really, really digging into the music and makes your hair stand up. There's a frenetic middle section, but then it returns to these simple chords again in the final minute. And again, these long slow scratching glissandos. Very, very haunting.

The third essay is Ruby. Now the title Ruby refers to a programming language developed in Japan in the mid- nineties, but also the pretty gemstone for which the language was named. Reading from other liner notes I found online, " The music is dotted with repeated and insistent D's, which seem almost like a binary code surrounding the melodic fragments. The Third Essay points to the increasing integration of language and technology in our society's future." This also feels to me Evan, like a race, as if our time is limited in successfully accomplishing this peacefully integrating technology and language. And we can't forget, she wrote this in 2016. This has only grown I think in its importance since then. She uses a lot of glissando in the music, in her writing.

Where strings are in the same direction or in various directions, slowly scrape or just play every single note sliding along the fingerboard in some of these transitions. The last thing I'll say about this is, this is on an album of all music written by Shaw. And to be honest, this is not even my favorite one, but it's great to I think, share here for our purposes. I've not listened to an album, " classical music album" this many times in a row in a very long time, so I highly recommend this one. And in fact the whole album if you want to as well. So that's Three Essays, Evan by Caroline Shaw.


Evan Keely: John, the first piece that I want to talk about is called We Come Paddling Here. The composer is Barbara Croall. She was born in 1966. She lives in Canada. She is an Odawa First Nation composer. Her musical and cultural heritage is of the Anishinaabe. And from an early age, she has been immersed in that culture as well as many other influences. She studied the pipigwan, which is a wind instrument of the Anishinaabe and the Dewe'igun, which is a percussion instrument. But she also studied piano from an early age and growing up she then went on to study composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich. And she also got a degree from the University of Toronto. I find there's a kind of storytelling aspect to a lot of her music. You can almost hear a kind of musical speech in a lot of her music.

You really get a sense from listening to what she's had to say in some videos that I found online about how she is invoking these different traditions into which she has formed her identity. And this storytelling aspect includes a kind of use of these, a lot of sliding in the music, a lot of desandi in string instruments and so forth. These kind of microtonal aspects that evoke these Native American kinds of sounds and this sense of telling a story. A sense of a narrative that comes through her music. It also has an Anishinaabe name, which I tried to reach out on a Facebook page where I found a performance of this and ask about the correct pronunciation of this Anishinaabe word, which is, I presume the title We Come Paddling Here, in that language. And not knowing, not having gotten a response I feel a little self- conscious and feel like I'm not going to pronounce it correctly.

So you can see it on the show notes page and find a link to this performance by this ensemble called Ensemble Made in Canada. And it's these four women playing a piano quartet, three stringed instruments and a piano. And the piece is about five minutes long. And it's this wonderful evocation of life on the water in the region of Lake Huron where Barbara Croall grew up and where her ancestry has been located for so many generations. And you hear these different effects in the music which evoke, as I said, some of it sounds a little bit to me, like a kind of a pointillistic tradition like you'd associate with a composer like Anton Webern. And then you hear these other effects which have this whole other dimension to them. And around three minutes into the piece, there's a special effect where the pianist reaches into the string, holds a finger down on a string, and then with the other hand strikes the keys. And there's this... It sounds like a drum.

It kind of sounds out the rhythm of the piece in this drumming- like way. In the final minute of the piece, the strings have this effect where they do what's called a harmonic, where the string player touches the string, rather pressing it down all the way. They just touch it and you draw the bow across the string and there's this very high kind of whistle tone. You hear this a lot in string playing. But what Barbara Croall does in this piece is she has the string players slide their finger along the bridge of the instruments. So you have this glissando effect, and it sounds exactly like birds. It's just this incredible seniority. We hear the evocation of birds in a lot of music. You think of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony and Vivaldi's Four Seasons. That's a wonderful tradition. This is a whole other dimension. And the piece ends with this kind of thrilling, weird, wonderful sound that just brings you out on to the water in a way that's like nothing I've experienced. Really exciting music by Barbara Croall. We Come Paddling Here, is the name of the piece.


John Banther: The next piece I want to talk about is by Laura Kaminsky. It's a piano concerto. And I wanted to share this one, because one, well I like it. But two, because it is something familiar in name, people will recognize, " Oh, I know what a piano concerto is." But the sound might be quite different. You also don't see a lot of modern contemporary piano concertos. In part because composers are doing other things, but it's also expensive to produce and to perform. So the instruments used here are of course piano and then single winds, meaning one oboe, one clarinet, one bassoon, etc. For brass, there's one horn, two trumpets, one trombone, and then there's the string sections. And then two percussionist playing a long list of instruments like vibraphone, tam- tam, three gongs, three wood blocks, a bass drum, and four graduated drums. So as you might guess, with all of those different instruments, this work is actually quite colorful.

Now the composer Laura Kaminsky, she's an American composer, and just to read a few quotes here, the New York Times said she has, " An ear for the new and interesting." And American Record Guide said, " Her music is full of fire as well as ice, contrasting dissonance and violence with tonal beauty and meditative reflection."

I think these two quotes are perfect in describing this work as well. Her piano concerto, which she completed in 2011. So what was the inspiration here? Kaminsky said, " Visual images are the source." And reading from her program notes, she says, " In particular, the light on both the Hudson River, which I see from my window in the Bronx and on the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia, where I had been a Russkiy Mir Foundation Cultural Fellow in 2009. The notions of flow and stasis and reflection and absorption, are addressed musically in one extended movement. And the music came out of improvisation. The concerto commences with a piano cadenza that serves as a conceptual basis for the rest of the work." And that's exactly what happens. It starts with this piano cadenza that is kind of angular or blocky. And from there, the music grows with all the other instruments coming in.

Now, this does feel improvisatory. In fact, it reminds me of one of our first episodes ever, which featured Alistair Coleman talking about the process of composing. One practice some use is just sitting down at a instrument, a piano, for example, and just start playing and just see what comes out. Without judgment, just making sound or even noise. Some record themselves, some write it down. Either way, this results in a sound that can be very gestural and suggestive in a composition. Now, I don't know if that's what she does. But I can really imagine as I'm hearing this, sitting at a piano or even standing, looking out the window at the Hudson River in one hand at the piano, and just reacting instinctively, impulsively to the reflected light off of the water. And I think that's one way to demonstrate that New York Times quote of her having an ear for the new and the interesting.

Now, you're not going to walk away from this piece humming a particular tune, at least the first time. And I highly recommend you listen with an open mind all the way through. And then listen to it again in a day or in a week. Set a reminder if you have to. Even if you think, " You know what? This isn't for me." Listen to it again. You're going to come away with something different or a different opinion. So within this, it feels very gestural, very improvisatory. There's lines that come and go, reappearing in different sections or in fragments. And really, there's so much happening. Every single time I hear this concerto, I hear something different every single time. And almost Evan, every single time I also get startled, and I almost don't want to even share this musically with people to kind of spoil it, but there's an instance of a certain instrument that every single time startles me. I know it's coming, but it always catches me off guard. And there's a lot of great interactions between some of the sections.

The end, it's kind of haunting in the sound, and also maybe in the feeling too. There's these high strings with this long sustain. And they actually, when you listen to it more and more, they start much earlier than I think you realize. And I think this is where it comes to the point of where she was describing flow, stasis, reflection, and absorption. Absorption is kind of what I'm hearing. The sun is flecting and then slowly the light is absorbed in the water as the sun goes away or whatever. That's just my overactive imagination. But I really love this one. It's great. She has a lot of other great music you can listen to as well. And it's just one that no matter how many times you listen, you're going to hear something new every time. And we'll get into our next recommendation right after this.

Classical Breakdown. Your guide to classical music is made possible by WETA Classical. Join us for the music and insightful commentary anytime, day or night. You can stream the music online at wetaclassical. org or in the WETA classical app. It's free in the App store.

So Evan, what do we have next? What's another work we can recommend?


Evan Keely: I want to talk about Dr. Nkeiru Okoye, American composer, born in 1972. Her father is from Nigeria, and so she draws on that heritage as well as other influences in her music. She and I are about the same age, and she also, like me, grew up mostly on Long Island, so I feel a certain connection to her there. She studied music and Africana studies at Oberlin. And then she got graduate degrees from Rutgers. She got a lot of attention in 2002 with an orchestral work entitled Voices Shouting Out, and it's a musical response to 9/ 11. Another thing that's gotten a lot of attention was her opera. Harriet Tubman, When I Crossed that Line to Freedom, came out in 2014. It was commissioned by American Opera Projects, and she also wrote the libretto for that opera. She's written quite a few works for the stage, a lot of orchestral music, some chamber works. Really an interesting composer doing a lot of fascinating things in different media and different genres.

The piece that I wanted to talk about by Nkeiru Okoye is called Euba's Dance. It's written in 2020, and it is named after the Nigerian Ethnomusicologist and composer Dr. Akin Euba. And he died in 2020. I don't know if this piece is a memorial for him, but Dr. Okoye met him and was influenced by him. We were talking earlier about the piano as a percussion instrument, and one of Dr. Juba's themes in his scholarship was how he coined the phrase African pianism. The tendency in his observation of African composers to use the piano in a percussive way. And Dr. Okoye, when she came across this scholarly writing, was really struck by how she had been doing that herself without having heard the phrase. So she is evoking Dr. Euba's scholarship and his music and his compositions in this tribute to him. Euba's Dance. Work for solo cello that is dedicated to the cellist, Matt Haimovitz, who performed it on his album. That's included on our Spotify playlist. The whole piece is about five minutes long. It's not a long piece.

But really a fascinating journey in that short amount of time. And it opens up with this very edgy, sort of ambiguous, rhythmically and tonally it starts off. You don't know what key you're in. You don't know where the beat is. And then into the first minute or so it kind of sways into this dance- like rhythm. And then goes into this lyrical passage, which is very thoughtful and pensive without being sentimental. And as the piece progresses, this lyricism reverts back to the edginess with which the piece begins. And there's this kind of combination of humor and a kind of a fierceness in this music that I find really thrilling. I really recommend a good listen to Euba's Dance by Nkeiru Okoye


John Banther: The last one I have to recommend is by Jessie Montgomery. It's called Starburst. And this is another composer that has been heard quite frequently on front row Washington. Both as a composer, but also as a violinist in the public quartet. She's a recipient of the Leonard Bernstein Award from the ASCAP Foundation, the Sphinx Medal of Excellence, and is currently the composer- in- residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra through 2024.

So the work I want to share from her, Starburst, it's an earlier one. One she wrote 11 years ago now in 2012. And I also thought it was kind of relevant today still as we see some now very major advancements in science. Especially with the James Web Space telescope, which I think has already started to alter our understanding of some aspects of space. But it's a really great work. From the program notes on her website, she describes Starburst. " A brief one movement work for string orchestra, is a play on imagery of rapidly changing musical colors. Exploding gestures are juxtaposed with gentle, fleeting melodies in an attempt to create a multidimensional soundscape. A common definition of a starburst. 'The rapid formation of large numbers of new stars in the galaxy at a rate high enough to alter the structure of the galaxy significantly', lends itself almost literally to the nature of the performing ensemble who premiered the work, the Spinx Virtuosi and I wrote the piece with their dynamic in mind."

Her description is basically all you really need to know about this piece. It really speaks for itself. It's the shortest one I have to recommend. It's less than four minutes, but there's a lot happening. There's all kinds of glimmer and really multidimensional soundscape that she described. She's really pulling it off here. The description says it all. And I think the thing here is, besides it speaks for itself. Is that, a good sign I think for a work, Evan, is when it ends and you're almost upset it's over. " Is that's it, is there's there another movement. Is there more? Is there an updated second part of this?" It really, really leaves you wanting more. And the good news is, it comes from an album entirely of her music. So there's a lot more to enjoy. And I think this is a great one to introduce people to Jessie Montgomery, who don't know her already. Okay, Evan, so what do we have for our final one?


Evan Keely: I wanted to talk about Anna Clyne, who's another composer who's been very successful. She was born in 1980 in London. She has a Bachelor of Music from the University of Edinburgh, and then she got a master's from the Manhattan School of Music. And she's been living for the last couple of years in upstate New York. Very successful composer, a lot of attention, a lot of performances of her music around the world. She's currently composer- in- residence with the Philharmonia Orchestra, as well as the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra, where Han- Na Chang has been the music director for the last half dozen years or so. And in the past, some of her residencies include, but are not limited to the composer- in- residence with the Baltimore Symphony and the Chicago Symphony.

I want to talk about this one piece by Anna Clyne, Masquerade, which was written for the 2013 Last Night of The Proms. The Proms, of course, the big summer music festival in London. The BBC's been running it for many years. Worldwide, a big event in the summer music scene. And Last Night of The Proms is this kind of this big finale. So 2013 Anna Clyne wrote this piece, Masquerade, and it's evoking the tradition of The Proms and what that whole kind of thing represents. This going back to the 18th century and people coming to these English pleasure gardens to hear music and to see acrobats and theatrical performances and so forth. And in this piece, Anna Clyne is evoking that tradition and all the many dimensions of it from the very elegant and sophisticated and respectable, to things that are maybe a little bit more edgy, maybe a little bit more naughty and exciting.

As she puts it, " The entertainment that ranged from the sedate to the salacious." In terms of her program notes for this piece. And she's evoking that tradition. There's a sense of this chorus at the beginning of the piece, welcoming the revelers, the masqueraders to this festival of music and art and celebration of life. And you hear this melody, which is fragmentary for the first minute or so of the piece, and then it bursts forth after about a minute in the full orchestra, this marvelous color that kind of sweeps you along with this sense of welcome and celebration. And that's one of the two themes that are prominent in this piece. And the other one is actually an evocation of a very old English melody, which first appeared in John Playford's English Dancing Master.

Which is a collection of dance instructions and musical pieces that were published in numerous editions starting in 1695. So there's this evocation of the past. It's in many ways an English past. But it also transcends the boundaries of any one genre or one particular place or tradition. And combining that sense of, as I said, the very sophisticated and respectable kinds of entertainments with things which are maybe a little bit more racy. And combining all that together in this wonderful feeling of celebration. And the piece is actually dedicated to the Prommers. The people that go to The Proms. And there's this jaggedness to this piece I find quite arresting. It does have this celebratory and elegant style, but there's also constant changes that are happening. You were mentioning this, John, with some of the things that are surprising in music.

And even though you've heard the piece many times, you were saying it surprises you every time. I've had that same kind of experience listening to this piece by Anna Clyne. Kind of sweeps you along, keeps lulling you into a sense of feeling like you should know what's coming next, and then something weird happens that immediately seems surprising and startling. And yet also seems like it's the only thing that could have happened. And I remember Leonard Bernstein to make a comment along those lines. He's talking in a lecture many years ago about Beethoven's Eroica symphony. This idea that surprises seem, in the hands of a really gifted composer, a musical surprise seems both startling and also like, " Well, of course, what else could have happened?" Anna Clyne's music gives me that feeling.

Certainly feel that in this piece. Her music is accessible, but it doesn't pander. It's very sophisticated. There's a lot of complexity to it, but you don't feel sort of intellectually browbeaten by it. It is very sophisticated, very intellectual music, but it doesn't have a coldness about it. And she has this wonderful sense of seniority. The orchestration is very rich and beautiful and just sweeps you along. I really recommend this and other music by Anna Clyne.


John Banther: Beautiful, sweeps you along. That's definitely a description I would use for that work as well. Well, those are just a few other recommendations we have. We will have more resources on music written by women and a Spotify playlist of the music we just talked about and more on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. Well, thank you so much, Evan, for joining me and talking about this well, music written by living composers. It's always exciting to share this kind of stuff.


Evan Keely: And as I said earlier, John, I'm really still at the very beginnings of learning about this and so many other living composers around the world. And just really hoping that I can continue to engage and learn and discover more. And that our listeners will feel inspired to do likewise.


John Banther: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. For more information on this episode, visit the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. You can send me comments and episode ideas to Classical Breakdown at weta. org. And if you enjoyed this episode, leave a review in your podcast app. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.