Guest Lecture, Prof. Ellie Hisama (Columbia University) CANCELLED
“A Complex Dissonant Veil of Sound”: Influence and Independence in Ruth Crawford’s Chants for Women’s Chorus (1930)
Inspired by Eastern monastic chanting, Ruth Crawford’s Chants for Women’s Chorus (1930) display her commitment to manifesting in music a “spiritual ideal” informed by her study of Theosophy and Eastern thought and writings. Composed in Berlin where she held a Guggenheim Fellowship, Crawford’s Chants—her only work for chorus—were among her first compositions produced after months of intense studies with Charles Seeger in New York. Chant no. 1 (“To an Unkind God”) establishes a non-teleological stream of vocal strands sung to syllables invented by the composer, while Chant no. 2 (“To an Angel”) presents an ethereal hummed floating sound-world; Chant no. 3 (“To a Kind God”) closes the set with a passionately declaimed cluster of chromatic pitches, resulting in what she called “mass-pitch.” Together the three chants reveal the imprint of her teacher’s interest in aspects of dissonant counterpoint while they also establish her own increasingly independent compositional sensibility.
This lecture explores the “complex dissonant veil of sound” of the Chants as Charles Seeger characterized them and focuses on aspects of voice leading and timbre. Drawing upon unpublished correspondence about the Chants between Crawford and Seeger in 1930 and 1931 and Crawford’s letters to conductor Gerald Reynolds, who commissioned the work, I explore the influence by Seeger on these works and Crawford’s own compositional decisions that reflect her growing confidence as a composer in forging her own voice. I further argue that the Chants present structural and aesthetic alliances with Crawford’s brilliantly experimental String Quartet 1931, composed the following year, and critically reflects upon her representation of “Oriental” sacred music through a vocabulary crafted from English and German syllables and the language of ultra-modernism.