The International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) Blog

Encounters with Contemporary Women Composers Part 4

Posted in Theresa_Sauer by iawmblog on July 1, 2010

The World of Linda O’Keefe: Color, Concept, and Composition…

In 2008, Linda, a Dublin born composer, was in Chicago experimenting with building her own instruments, including small synthesizers. She started to compose music for these new instruments. In the past, her works were primarily based on manipulated recorded sounds and vocal performances. She had worked with instrumentalists whose backgrounds were in jazz and the idea of composing in the “traditional” sense was never part of her training.

While in Chicago, she met Guillermo Gregorio and discovered his works of graphic notation. Guillermo uses color in his notation systems, and this piqued Linda’s interest to study the works of Schoenberg and Kandinsky. Now newly inspired, Linda continued her study of how instruments worked and what information she could provide a musician that would enable the interpretation of her ideas, while still allowing room for improvisation in composition. This lead to her writing a composition that was performed by Eric Leonardson and Guillermo Gregorio entitled ‘Anomaly of Memory’.

She says, “It was an enlightening process, as there were issues of control which arose from this type of composition. Guillermo performed on sax and clarinet, while Eric performed on his instrument the Springboard. Linda performed with her computer. There are moments when you are composing with the graphic score that you are looking for a very specific type of sound or emotion expressed. This means exploring in detail how this is written, drawn or notated, and understanding that each performer will interpret it differently. The interpretation is the area where the composer gives up a measure of control. In the performance of the piece, there was a definite tension, a search for meaning within the score, and a time for improvising. The improvisation helped make the experience both terrifying and very exciting.

‘Anomaly of Memory’ is about the idea of repetition, endings and beginnings. The design was based on images from moments of memory, miniature drawings that she had done of parts of places and pieces of things…tiny parts of a bigger whole. The images were there for improvisational purposes, and the notation was there as a guide to startle the memory and then to find a sound that each performer wished to repeat. Linda explained, “Each performer starts to listen to each other and repeat what each performer is doing even sub-consciously, which happens in a number of sections. Tension happens when dissonance occurs and each performer is somewhere else in the interpretation of the image.” She used color in this work to see if it had any effect on the performance. “Apparently it did,” she said, but she can’t explain how just yet.

What is Linda up to now? She has been working on two projects, one of which is a graphic score composition exploring Marxist-Capitalist ideas. She wants to research industrialization in the modern period and its influence on music and sound.  This is a very large project and she has been working on it for two years. She wishes create this composition for singers, sound artists and acoustic instrumentalists while at the same time designing a graphic score that is both interpretive and guiding and as she says, “a balancing act.”

Her second project is expected to be on CD this August 2010 by Farpoint recordings. It is a digital composition about sound and Christian Evangelicism. The concept explores sexuality and religion, and the use of the voice as a tool in street preaching. She started the piece as a soundscape of American street evangelism and then continued on with the examination of sexuality within Christianity. She says, “The link between the ecstasy of preaching and sexuality and the dichotomy this has in the church fascinates me.”

For more information about Linda O’Keefe, PhD Fellow N.U.I.M

Theresa Sauer is the author/editor of Notations 21, an anthology of innovative visual notation from around the world. She is the Director of the Notations 21 Project. She lectures, curates exhibits, produces concerts, and also composes music using innovative music notation. She is in the process of developing a documentary about Notations 21.

For more information visit: website: and blog:


Encounters with Contemporary Women Composers 3

Posted in Theresa_Sauer by iawmblog on May 9, 2010

In Rushworth, Australia with a population of 1000, there’s a woman who is doing incredible research concerning musical scores and composition.

Carmen Chan recently had an exhibition at the Shepparton Art Gallery entitled, ‘Do You See What I Hear? Exploring Cross-sensory Experiences in Visual and Musical Arts by a Variety of Interpreters of Graphic Scores.’ At this exhibit were five scores, an audio-visual production of Benjamin Boretz’s ‘Talk’, and some junk instruments she had collected. Two of the scores were exhibited with music, where viewers could listen through headphones, and there was also a performance where visitors played all five scores.

Carmen’s research project is centered at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia where she is doing post-graduate studies.  She is mainly interested in how unconventional notation acts as a guide to improvisation. This originated from her experience as a performer in percussion, which eventually led to score making and, in a broader sense, composition. By inviting the public to interpret music from visual materials, she is essentially promoting experimental music making activity. Carmen says, “I was influenced by reading about Cornelius Cardew and his Scratch Orchestra, and I’m trying to explore avenues that allow experimental music activities to happen within a broader community.

I wanted to know more details about her background. She received training in percussion performance at the University of Melbourne under Tim Hook.  Next she went to Musikhögskolan i Piteå in Northern Sweden with the intention of practicing ‘standard’ repertoire in isolation.  There, she met Gary Verkade, a Professor in Organ, and studied improvisation, interpretation, graphic notation, history, analysis and as Carmen says, ‘everything music’. She began to make her own scores when she was studying Cardew’s ‘Treatise’ with Verkade.

She thought that the most exciting score at the exhibition was the one on the wall and it was completely unplanned, but it worked really well in terms of asking viewers what music they could play ‘from it’, and then inviting them to give it a go.  She also put pianos – one upright, one junk, and one prepared in front of the score so people could read the score as they played.

I asked Carmen about the junk instruments and why they were included in the exhibition. She replied, “The junk instruments worked fantastically, both ‘visually’ and for the ‘exotic’ value for music making. The reason for using non-traditional instruments is to disassociate potential interpreters with the idea of trained professionalism, in order to promote creativity.

Carmen is planning on moving this project from the gallery setting at a University into a more community-minded setting, which does not have values of status and authority associated with it.  She is very hopeful to engage with more people.

And so, I wished to pursue this idea of scores and the concept of composer. What actually makes a composer? Carmen says, “I suppose I’m not entirely sure about being called a ‘composer’, because I don’t compose music as such, I just make scores, and invite people to interpret them.  I’m more of a score-maker, if that’s a word.”

But what do you think about that? Does a score need to have detailed or even minimally guided direction for performance in order for the creator of the score to be considered a composer?

…new territory being explored by an amazing woman in an amazing place.

The recordings of interpretation will be broadcast on Radio Monash soon…for more information on Carmen please visit

Theresa Sauer is the author/editor of Notations 21, an anthology of innovative visual notation from around the world. She is the Director of the Notations 21 Project. She lectures, curates exhibits, produces concerts, and also composes music using innovative music notation. She is in the process of developing a documentary about Notations 21.

For more information visit: website and blog

Encounters with Contemporary Women Composers – part 2

Posted in Theresa_Sauer by iawmblog on April 9, 2010

My ongoing research for the Notations 21 Project goes beyond that of the book. There are so many incredible new ideas about notation and performance that I knew the book was just the starting point for me in many ways. I am still asking questions, discovering new visual scores and realizing that the composers in the book are still creating beyond all that I could imagine.

One of these extraordinary composers from the Notations 21 anthology is Ann Millikan. I was so impressed by her innovative work years ago and even more so now. Because of my interest in why composers choose to develop new notation for their works, I chose to discuss this issue with Ann since she uses new notational techniques in many of her works. She responded by saying that many times there is no other option but to create something new on the score.

“I had an interesting challenge recently with an orchestra composition, Trilhas de Sombra, which I recorded with Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra for my new CD on Innova. The piece has both very loud, brazen sounds, and delicate textures. With the second movement, Snow World, I had in mind a complex sound world containing layers of glass-like high frequencies, clusters, strange murmuring sounds from the natural world, and particular sonic effects. Because this was orchestra, and we would be in a recording situation with no extra rehearsal, it was important for me to make compositional choices that would be easy to understand. I narrowed down the instrument choices so nothing was too obscure, then focused on how to get the sounds I wanted on orchestral instruments, using the most standard extended techniques and notation possible. In this way no explanation was needed and they were able to sight read it perfectly. It was very exciting to extend the notational boundaries for orchestra and have it come together so well.”

But was there another reason to use what may be called “experimental” notation? I continued questioning Ann about her ideas. Creating a level of unpredictability in the performance of her work leads to innovative notational choices as well. She says, “Prior to becoming a classical composer I was a jazz musician, so making the transition to composing aleatoric works for classical players was something I was interested in right away. While most jazz improvisation cycles around the form and harmonic progression of a composition, an aleatoric work can be much more linear and open-ended.

I like my aleatoric scores to be visually stimulating. The structure, palette of sounds, notational key, and performance instructions I develop, are all meant to open a space for the performer to inhabit. I want the score to look like I imagine it sounding. Because they are hand-drawn, these scores have a personal and intimate feel to them that is very satisfying for me to create.”

This led me to pursue the question of performance improvisation. This was always such an important issue when researching graphic scores. Why does a composer opt for improvisation? Having a jazz background, it is natural for her to consider improvisation as a tool when composing. Improvisation works best when she collaborates with her performers. As she states, “If I’m writing a piece for a performer who’s an incredible improviser, then I tend to steer away from standard notation to give them as much room as possible. I’ll meet with them, hear what they like to do on their instrument, and let that inspire the type of vocabulary I use in the piece.”

I didn’t want my conversation with Ann to end without including some discussion of her work that is included in Notations 21. The notation used in the selection from HOUSE OF MIRRORS is visually fascinating and I wondered why she chose to create this very novel notation for this work. The desire to alter the performer’s thoughts and challenge them in new ways was her immediate reply. But I wanted to know more, of course.

HOUSE OF MIRRORS is a set of works she began developing in 2000. The piece focuses on the internal experience of the performer. Thought, kinesthetic awareness, and the inner ear all play an integral part in the development and performance of the piece. The object is to create a realm where the performer is surrounded by sound and stimulus both internally and externally. Various materials are given to stimulate improvisation: the score, resonant surfaces which are excited by using modified speakers, and “sound boxes” that are manipulated with the feet.

Ideally the performer forms a relationship with the score over a long period of time, but because the piece is tech intensive, so far that has been difficult to achieve. She is currently in the process of developing the HOUSE OF MIRRORS Pilot Project. It will include a HOUSE OF MIRRORS installation at Zeitgeist’s Studio Z, working with musicians and non-musicians for a week to a month, and documenting the process on video. She is interested to discover how the performers’ relationship with the piece deepens over time. From there she wants to develop a sustainable mobile installation format that she can take to festivals worldwide.

For more information about Ann Millikan:
check out her new CD:


Theresa Sauer is the author/editor of Notations 21, an anthology of innovative visual notation from around the world. She is the Director of the Notations 21 Project. She lectures, curates exhibits, produces concerts, and also composes music using innovative music notation. She is in the process of developing a documentary about Notations 21.

For more information visit: website: and blog:

Encounters with Contemporary Women Composers part 1

Posted in Theresa_Sauer by iawmblog on March 19, 2010

Last November, I was down in Denton, Texas on invitation from Dr. Lynn Job. Lynn happens to be one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. She is also a dedicated and talented woman composer. Lynn kindly accepted my sincere request that she contribute to the Notations 21 anthology. She arranged lectures for me at the University of North Texas and showed me around town and campus. We ate at the best places, had lunches with the UNT faculty and listened to jazz at Sweetwater’s. Local book events at the ice cream shop and the Art Six coffeehouse left me with so many wonderful memories. Along the way, I met many incredible people. Thank you Lynn!

One very special person that I met from my visit to Denton was Da Jeong Choi. She is a Teaching Fellow, in the Division of Composition Studies and in the Division of Music History, Theory, and Ethnomusicology. She is President of the Composers Forum at UNT as well. She was introduced to me after my first lecture about Notations 21 and graphic score notation. I asked her about her work, and the more we spoke, the more I realized she had fascinating things to share with me about being a contemporary composer.

When I returned home after that whirlwind trip, we were able to find out more about each other through email, and I found that Da Jeong’s work was so inspiring and intriguing. ‘Reflection in the Glass’ for Vibraphone and Interactive Electronics (2008) was the first of her works that I explored.

pg.1 of Reflection in the Glass by Da Jeong Choi.

I recommend that you have more of “a look and listen” here.

Reflection in the Glass’ has been selected for the 2010 International Computer Music Conference, and will be performed at NYU and Stony Brook University, June 1-5, 2010. I am hoping to meet with Da Jeong this June in New York to share a lunch or dinner and maybe discover more about her ideas on new notation.

Da Jeong recently told me about her composition series, entitled Cantus Curatio (‘Healing Melody’ in Latin) for solo instrument, which is similar to the solo composition series by Luciano Berio and Vincent Persichetti.  Each piece is dedicated to victims who are diagnosed with a different disease. The inspiration for this series originated from a meeting with a dancer, Debra Keller (Keller is on the Dance faculty at Rutgers, New Jersey State University) with whom she was working for in a dance class in 2003. Da Jeong recalled “One day in 2006, she asked me whether she could use one of my works, ‘Healing Melody’ for Violin and Marimba (2003) for her dance project ‘to Mother’ in Princeton, New Jersey, because this particular piece reminded her of her mother who died of breast cancer. After the performance, I ran into several people who have suffered from breast cancer, which inspired me to write the first Cantus Curatio series piece, ‘Cantus Curatio I’ (2008) for Alto Saxophone and Piano dedicated to breast cancer patients.”

So far, Da Jeong has written six of them. ‘Cantus Curatio VI’ for Cello Solo was just premiered on March 1, 2010 at UNT. She says, “I would like to have a new piece of the Cantus Curatio series that consists of musical and theatrical elements with non-traditional notation in the future, and to talk about how graphic or abstract notation speaks to the new generation of composers, who are strongly engaged to (visual) intermedia.”

In addition, she is working on a Piano Concerto, ‘Dream of A Thousand Keys’ for Piano and Orchestra.  As she has been thinking about notation for theatrical space, she describes her thoughts on how to notate the pianist’s gestures, motion and touch level on the keyboard in this new piece.

Da Jeong says, “In a couple of sections throughout the work, the pianist’s hand gestures, motion and touch level on the keyboard will be unambiguously notated on the score and will be choreographed by the composer (me).  The space between soloist and piano will be designed as if gestures of prayer are delivered. This recalls Stockhausen’s thorough guideline for dance as in ‘Lecture on Hu,’ as an introduction to the composition ‘Inori’ (1974), for one or two soloists and orchestra. The piano soloist can be interpreted as a dancer and the black and white keyboard can be treated as a two and three-dimensional black and white floor.”

I know that I am looking forward to seeing your major work when it is completed, Da Jeong.

For more information on Da Jeong Choi’s work, and her upcoming performances, please visit: and

My book has given me the opportunity to make new friends and to find out more about women with extraordinary gifts that I hope to advocate with another project. The Notations 21 Project is ongoing global research discovering new notational systems and musical communication methods. It has been the beginning of the most exciting journey of my life.


Theresa Sauer is the author/editor of Notations 21, an anthology of innovative visual notation from around the world. She is the Director of the Notations 21 Project. She lectures, curates exhibits, produces concerts, and also composes music using innovative music notation. She is in the process of developing a documentary about Notations 21.

For more information visit: website and blog