Review of Musesnine in the Journal for the International Alliance of Women in Music (IAWM)
by Nanette Kaplan Solomon
About twenty years ago, when I first began my exploration of music composed by women, Imentioned to my then eight-year-old daughter, no stranger to all sorts of music, that I was going
to be performing at a festival featuring music written by women. She looked at me incredulously
and said, “You mean there are women who are composers?” I knew then how important
my subsequent performances and CDs were going to be for future generations. Similarly,
in the preface to her new CD, Becky Billock expresses her own wish to preserve the artistic
achievements of women, not only for her two young daughters, but for her students and new
generations of pianists. She recounts that she recently revisited the beloved LPs of her childhood,
and realized that the anthology title was “The Great Men of Music” (ouch!). The aural feast
of treasures that comprises Muses Nine/Eight American Composers Plus One Pianist is Dr.
Billock’s refreshing and convincing attempt to redress this situation.
The title of the opening work on the CD—Diane Thome’s Spiral Journey—could easily have
served as a title for the entire CD, providing as it does a beautifully woven tapestry of the music
by American women of the last century. The selection of composers ranges from the well-known
Romantic “matriarch,” Amy Beach (born in 1867), to the precocious nineteen-year-old Molly
Joyce (born in 1992). Works by Marion Bauer and Margaret Bonds represent the mid-twentieth
century generation, rounded out with living composers Diane Thome, Emma Lou Diemer, Ellen
Taaffe Zwilich, and Libby Larsen. All of the music is first-rate, enhanced by Dr. Billock’s
masterful (mistressful?) renditions.
I was particularly taken with Spiral Journey (1995) by Diane Thome. In this hauntingly
beautiful work, repeated patterns occur in different contexts, with gradually widening intervals.
Inner melodies pop out of the texture, creating an atmospheric and hypnotic effect. The pianist
captured the coloristic harmonies with finely nuanced sensitivity.
Medium Piano (2010) by Molly Joyce is the first of three preludes based on different speeds
(the others are Fast Piano and Slow Piano) and the pianistic possibilities inherent in each. A
little jazzy, it is reminiscent of Copland’s Four Piano Blues; its delicate filigree and sparse
texture evoke Satie. It is a remarkably well-crafted piece, especially for one written by an
eighteen-year-old. I look forward to hearing more works by this up and coming composer (a
Pittsburgh native now studying at Juilliard with Christopher Rouse).
Emma Lou Diemer’s Toccata for Piano (1979) is a staple of the contemporary literature. It is
a perpetual motion tour-de-force with Bartók-like ostinati and a combination of “on the strings”
and “on the keys” playing. The non-traditional techniques include damping the strings while
playing, strumming the upper register strings in glissandi, and patting the bass strings, turning
the piano into a versatile percussion band. The pianist executed these techniques expertly and
seamlessly, although at times, I felt there could have been more dynamic contrast. All in all,
however, an effective performance.
The centerpieces of the CD are Marion Bauer’s Six Preludes, op. 15 (1922). Rich and
luscious, with exotic scales, impressionistic sonorities, and satisfying climaxes, these pieces
would make a welcome addition to any recital program. The first one, for left hand alone, is very
Scriabinesque in its harmonies and irregular phrase structure, while no. 4 is jazz-influenced, with
a cakewalk-like bass line and quartal harmonies. The most exciting—no. 6 (titled “Exuberantly,
Passionately”)—has the texture and sound of a Rachmaninoff Etude Tableau. Although I felt the
performance of this particular prelude could have used more passion and abandon, Dr. Billock
exhibits terrific tonal and rhythmic control in her commanding performance of the work as a
Lament (1999) is one of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s few works
for piano. Written as a contribution to the Carnegie Hall Millennium Piano Book Project
(spearheaded by Zwilich herself), it is a memorial tribute to Judith Arron, former executive
director of Carnegie Hall. Angular and spatial, the piece has well-shaped phrases that although
abstract in conception, convey poignant lyricism. Again, the performer portrays the mood very
The more familiar Romanticism of the Amy Beach pieces holds up well against the later,
more contemporary works on the disc. The four selections display the diverse sources of her
inspiration: Lisztian sonorities in Dreaming, the fleeting vivacity of a Chopin étude in
Honeysuckle, Scottish snaps and Celtic melodic outline in Scottish Legend, and native American
folklore in From Blackbird Hills (An Omaha Tribal Dance). Dr. Billock brings an understated
elegance to her reading of these lovely works.
Libby Larsen’s Mephisto Rag (2000) is one of my favorite works of the post-modern piano
repertory. Subtitled A Ragtime Fantasy on Mephisto Waltz, it takes themes and motives from
Liszt’s work and juxtaposes them with gestures from ragtime: stride bass, jagged rhythms,
chromatic slides. It is as if Scott Joplin met Franz Liszt, and this was the rather bizarre offspring!
The actual Liszt allusions are rather oblique, except for the famous open-fifth chords of the
introduction and references to the melodic outline of the second theme. The middle section,
which Larsen calls a “game,” fragments the theme and rag elements into a fiendishly difficult
chase with mocking gestures of both genres. The dazzling climax is a send-up of Liszt’s
bombastic final flourishes. While Dr. Billock’s performance is technically and rhythmically
excellent, I would have preferred to hear more flexibility and lyricism in the phrasing, and I
missed the sardonic wit that I believe the composer had in mind. To this listener (perhaps
because I perform this piece), this performance was not as satisfying as others on the CD.
The final work on the CD is a beautiful (and apparently live, as per the included applause)
rendition of Margaret Bond’s Troubled Water (1967), a fantasy on the spiritual Wade in the
Water. The pianist negotiated the various contexts of the melody effortlessly, blending lyricism
and virtuosity with expert pacing to the triumphant finale. A magnificent closing to a wonderful
hour of listening pleasure!
Lest we think that the accomplishments of the past twenty years have rendered another all-
women-composers recording unnecessary, let me close by sharing a few personal examples.
Several years ago, as one of my students completed her performance of Amy Beach’s Scottish
Legend at her end-of-semester piano jury, my (male) colleague slipped me a piece of paper that
said “Beach is no Brahms.” More recently, one of my former students had a pre-audition
interview for a master’s program to discuss audition repertoire with a piano professor (female).
In the interview, my alumna mentioned that she would be playing, in addition to works by Bach
and Haydn, a rag by prominent contemporary composer, Judith Lang Zaimont. Of the latter, the
professor stated, “That’s not real literature; do you have anything by Rachmaninoff or Debussy?”
Apparently, there is still much advocacy work to be done. Kudos to Becky Billock and
Muses Nine for taking a giant step forward for womankind. For additional information, please
Dr. Nanette Kaplan Solomon is Professor of Music at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania,
where she teaches piano, music history, and women in music. She is Immediate Past-President
of the Pennsylvania Music Teachers Association and a former board member of the IAWM. An
active performer, her CD’s of contemporary American women composers “Character Sketches”
(Leonarda 334) and “Sunbursts” (Leonarda 345) have received critical acclaim.