All-female vocal quartet, Quince Ensemble, will be giving the world premiere of “Songs of One’s Own,” which features women writers’ texts, including Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Akiko Yosano. They will also premiere Evan Williams’ “Dust Bowl,” and perform works by Courtney Bryan, Carrie Henneman Shaw, Eliza Brown, and Michael Miller.
It started when I stumbled on the article in the Guardian by Brigid Delaney where the author wondered what her female ancestors may have excelled at. “Writing or singing, sewing or poetry; did they draw, or did they paint?” She continues, “I have to guess because they left nothing behind but their bloodline. There are no books or songs or poems or works of art in their name; their culture and their contribution to it – their voice – is a big blank.” This article resonated with me, and I thought about my own Japanese female ancestors. I imagined the lives of those women who I had never met – even pictures of most of them don’t exist – and their creative voices I have no way to trace. As Delaney guessed, “there wasn’t a lot of room back then to create beautiful things of your own. Imagination – that hinterland where ideas are born – needs acres of time, not just snatched minutes between cooking and cleaning.” I wondered, too, if maybe my female ancestors didn’t even know their creative voices themselves. Perhaps they didn’t have time to think about their own creativity or even the possibility to be creative? And this thought eventually led me to wonder what it was like to be a female artist in their generation. So I looked for clues for my question in the work of women writers. In 2020-21, I wrote music to the texts of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Mary Shelley, Sappho, and Akiko Yosano, who left behind their strong voices despite the professional obstacles that they might have had by being women artists in their generation. Each text I humbly set music to touched my heart somewhere deep. I feel related to these writings because of my own experience as a woman and because I admired their bravery and because their beauty simply moved me.
When someone asked why I put music to their words, the question made me reflect on my motivations. Perhaps I tried to understand their writings on a deeper level and express my feelings in the form of music. I wanted to create the story of those women from my own perspective. Maybe I wanted to do what Woolf said at the end of her book Room of One’s Own. She imagines Shakespeare had a sister who was as talented a poet as he was. However, his sister did not have the same chances as Shakespeare because she was a woman. Woolf expresses that she believes his sister lives “in you and me, and in many other women,” and she would come back if we worked hard for her because “they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.” Then I thought about my female ancestors again, whose faces I don’t know, whose genes I inherited. Maybe they live in me, as Woolf said about Shakespeare’s sister. I wonder if I work hard for them, they will come back, at least as inspiration. Somehow the idea is comforting to me that my ancestors join me in my creative journey.
This project was made possible by the Minnesota State Arts Board Grant.
Quince has been featured on many festivals and series, such as KODY Festival in Lublin, Poland in collaboration with David Lang and Beth Morrison Projects; the Outpost Concert Series; the Philip Glass: Music with Friends concert at Issue Project Room; University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium; and the SONiC Festival in New York, to name a few. During the 2021-22 season, they can be seen with The Chicago Symphony Orchestra/MUSICNOW, University of Chicago Presents, University of Florida, University of Miami, Frost School, and more!