Saturday 24 July 2021

The piece conveys the idea that women should be listened to: composer Gráinne Mulvey & soprano Elizabeth Hilliard chat about their latest collaboration Great Women

Elizabeth Hilliard performing Gráinne Mulvey's Great Women in St Patrick's Hall, Dublin Castle for the Dublin International Chamber Music Festival
Elizabeth Hilliard performing Gráinne Mulvey's Great Women in St Patrick's Hall, Dublin Castle for the Dublin International Chamber Music Festival

Great Women
for voice and electronics is a new work by Irish composer Gráinne Mulvey recently released on Divine Art's metier label performed by soprano Elizabeth Hilliard. The work was commissioned by the Dublin International Chamber Music Festival (formerly Great Music in Irish Houses) to mark its 50th anniversary and the work's first performance was given in June this year at Dublin Castle (filmed without an audience). Great Women is the ninth of Gráinne Mulvey's works that Elizabeth Hilliard has performed (five of which are for voice and electronics). Its subject is a celebration of strong, remarkable Irish women who helped shape the political landscape in the 20th century, and I recently caught up with both Gráinne and Elizabeth to find out more.

Gráinne Mulvey
Gráinne Mulvey
The commission came just after the centenary of women's suffrage and Gráinne wanted to both celebrate women activists and to celebrate Ireland's two female presidents (Mary Robinson, inaugurated in 1990 and Mary McAleese, inaugurated in 1997). She started by looking at texts by two leading activists Countess Markievicz (1868-1927) and Rosie Hackett (1893-1976), intending to bookend the piece with extracts from the two presidential inauguration speeches as well, the idea being that the earlier activists and the two female presidents would be calling to one another.

Countess Markievicz made many speeches, but one quote of hers has become well known 'We have got to get rid of the last vestige of the harem.' For the first part of the piece, Gráinne uses a lot of sibilants and phonetics to break up the text, suggesting Markievicz's struggle and bubbling of ideas until things finally come together, and then she introduces other texts. Gráinne has tried to reflect the different aspects of Markievicz's life, the bleak dreariness of her time in prison after the 1916 Easter Rising when she questioned the political meaning of it all or the more angry moments. Rosie Hackett is represented by her simple witness statement, 'I was alone in the shop the day it was raided', as she was minding the shop just before the Easter Rising.Gráinne has not added much to the texts, after all, there was so much that was difficult in the era, and sometimes she has subverted the texts. Using the presidential inauguration speeches at the end was intended to bring a feeling of bright lights after all the difficulties, a sense of hope. But the piece is somewhat open-ended, with thay sense of hope but also the work that needs to continue towards equality.

Many of the women of the time were involved in all kinds of compassionate activism so that Countess Markievicz set up a soup kitchen during the 1913 lockout, which is how she came to prominence. She was the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons in 1918 (in line with Sinn Féin abstentionist policy, she did not take her seat in the House of Commons) and she was elected to the Dáil (the Irish parliament) in 1921. Gráinne comments that it is remarkable there wasn't much more activism for several decades.

The piece uses Elizabeth's voice live against a pre-recorded tape which contains a mixture of Elizabeth's voice, subject to various processes, with other found sounds. Elizabeth and Gráinne spent much of last Summer (2020) doing the recording. Elizabeth comments that when her family heard the work, they thought that some of the spoken passages didn't sound like her. When performing the work, Elizabeth coordinates live and pre-recorded by using a stop-watch, she has a series of time cues, the longest being two minutes. As this is the fifth work by Gráinne for voice and electronics that Elizabeth has performed, she is now familiar with the procedure.

Countess Markievicz on the cover of Great Women from Divine Art
Countess Markievicz on the cover of Great Women
The texts are intended to give a sense of narrative to the piece. Gráinne and Elizabeth want the listener to realise how much struggle women have gone through, and to put over that sense of anger. And Gráinne comments that there are a lot of more recent things to continue to be angry about such as the Magdalene Laundry scandal. These are not explicit in the work, but Gráinne hopes the piece conveys the idea that women should be listened to and that there is a broader message that equality is for all genders and all orientations.

But by including the first two female presidents, the work celebrates achievements as well. After all, Mary Robinson's appointment as the Irish Republic's first female president in 1990 came after the dark time of the 1980s with high unemployment and mass emigration. Gráinne had not heard of Mary Robinson before the election, and it seemed astonishing that they could have her as a candidate. And she hopes the piece shows the great strides that could be made as a result of the work of those earlier women activists.

It is clear that Gráinne and Elizabeth have a strong working relationship and enjoy the process. Gráinne comments that she can imagine Elizabeth's voice and the way she makes different parts of her voice sound. Whilst Elizabeth looks at the music (some of it challenging) and seems to enjoy working out how to do it. They have been working together since 2008, and are close friends, but this is the first piece in which they have addressed politics. But they are both political people and feel strongly, so Great Women is their way of making a statement.

Elizabeth's first professional solo performance at an event that she had not organised herself was a piece by Gráinne. It was at a book launch and Gráinne had set one of the poems in the book. There was a good audience, and Elizabeth was struck by how the audience responded to new music. Elizabeth loves lieder and other earlier repertoire, but at college, the comments were all about technique whereas when performing new music Elizabeth felt that she was able to emotionally engage the audience. When performing, she wants to be taken away by the whole piece, not moment to moment.

All the sounds on Great Women are from her voice, including talking, laughing and more (at which point in the conversation Gráinne interrupts saying 'She can do anything'). Of course, there are things she does where she takes care, but even in the challenging parts which are 'in danger of breaking the voice', it is most important to sing with the whole body, to connect the emotions. Gráinne likes working with Elizabeth because she is not precious about her voice and is willing to try things and come up with alternatives. Gráinne says that Elizabeth reminds her of the late Jane Manning who advocated trying things out. And their collaborations involve a lot of dialogue, a lot of back and forth.

Elizabeth Hilliard at Kilmainham Gaol Museum with the score of Gráinne Mulvey's Great Women, for Dublin International Chamber Music Festival
Elizabeth Hilliard at Kilmainham Gaol Museum (where Countess Markievicz was imprisoned in 1916 after the Easter Rising) with the score of Gráinne Mulvey's Great Women, for Dublin International Chamber Music Festival

The premiere of Great Women was due to be at the Dublin International Chamber Music Festival in June 2020 but was delayed a year. In the event, the performance was created as a film in Dublin Castle, and the film-maker was the man who directed the film of Mary Robinson's inauguration. The work was filmed in one day and in just two takes, each time performing the whole piece but with the camera in different places. The venue, St Patrick's Hall, is full of mirrors so the film is full of images of light. The director was Hélène Montague, a Dublin-based opera director. They are hoping to perform the work live with an audience and are planning a tour, including the possibility of coming to London.

Of course, Great Women only touches the surface, there were plenty of other women activists, so many stories but the work's length at 26 minutes seemed right. For a longer work, say lasting an hour, would be a different proposition in terms of structure. It is such a big issue, political and rather scary, that can be tackled on so many different levels, and the Great Woman is just right for its context.

One of the other works that Gráinne and Elizabeth are both involved in at the moment is a new opera, Judith, based on the writings of Virginia Woolf but currently, this is still in exploratory mode, though they have done some workshops. Another operatic project in the works is La Corbiere, based on Anne Hartigan's 1996 play Jersey Lilies. This is about a boat-load of sex workers from Normandy taken to Jersey to entertain the Nazis. Unfortunately, they are rejected as not suitable and sent back, but their boat, La Corbiere, is wrecked and all are drowned. Their bodies were never reclaimed and were simply left floating. For this work, Gráinne thinks that the sparseness of Hartigan's text makes it ideal for opera.

Gráinne admits that she likes strong stories, commenting 'I don't know whether I do comedy well' and she enjoys exploring and trying different techniques.

Gráinne Mulvey: Great Women, a new work for voice and electronics - Elizabeth Hilliard - Divine Art MDS 29007

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