Applying Modern Prism, CD Shifts Perspectives On Women Composers

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The percussion ensemble Trio SR9 performs with Canadian singer-composer Kyrie Kristmanson.

Venus Rising. Trio SR9 and Kyrie Kristmanson. Evidence Classics (EVCD111). Total time: 46:22

DIGITAL REVIEW — One way to bring attention to something is to paint it a different color. That’s just what the percussion ensemble Trio SR9 and Canadian singer-composer Kyrie Kristmanson have done, musically speaking, on their album Venus Rising. Their goal is to bring more attention to centuries of music composed by women through innovative arrangements that simultaneously re-interpret the originals and highlight the shared plight of under-representation suffered by these composers.

Trio SR9 comprises percussionists Alexandre Esperet, Nicolas Cousin, and Paul Changariner, who have a long history of creating avant-garde arrangements of older music (their first album was Bach on marimba). The trio has also worked with Kristmanson before, performing works by Fauré, but this is their first recording together. It is clearly an ideal meeting of minds and sounds.

Grégoire Letouvet crafted the arrangements of compositions spanning every era, from Hildegard von Bingen (c. 1098-1179) to Kristmanson herself. Unbendable purists should stay away, but those who value the potential of personal interpretation — who think of a written musical work as merely a starting point — will find a lot to appreciate. Crucially, as altered as these works are, their essence remains intact. This is far from a collection of abstract experiments in rhythmic noise. The term “percussion” encompasses piano, marimba, and other pitched instruments, which blend pleasingly with Kristmanson’s shivery soprano voice.

Like the pieces themselves, the historical timeline is deconstructed: The oldest work, Hildegard’s “O quam mirabilis,” is the sixth of 12 tracks. Sung by Kristmanson against what sounds like a drone of tuned glass played with soft mallets, Hildegard’s chant has an appropriate otherworldly quality. The only other early music is the intense heartache aria “Che si può fare” by Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), supported by plectrum-strummed piano strings, bringing to mind a Weimar-era answer to the harpsichord.

The early Romantic style is represented by Harriet Abrams (1758-1821), who studied with Thomas Arne. “Crazy Jane” is a melody and setting she wrote for a traditional British ballad text. Opening the album, this song starts a cappella, but each successive verse adds successively “crazy” accompaniment: syncopation, dissonance, constantly changing timbre. Yet it remains fascinating and beautiful.

Skipping over well-known 19th-century names like Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, Kristmanson and the trio instead opted for some less-celebrated late-Romantic and early-Modern works. “Haï luli” by Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), the lament of a jilted lover, features undulating marimba and piano that defy the expected harmony and meter; a setting of the “Pie Jesu” by Lili Boulanger (1893-1910) is utterly spooky, as if Lili herself were praying from beyond the grave.

The percussion ensemble Trio SR9 in action

From the mid-20th century, the album offers works by Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983) and Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979). Tailleferre’s  “L’autre jour en m’y promenant” is a setting of a traditional French song glittering with triangle tings while also mired in the muddy bottom of the piano keyboard. Clarke’s “June Twilight” sets an atmospheric poem by John Masefield; the angular melody is well served by the new percussive accompaniment.

One of many vocal highlights is Kristmanson’s dreamy rendition of “In the Warm Room” by Kate Bush (born 1958), which the composer premiered with piano and voice in 1978 on her second album, Lionheart. Even in the highest registers at the lowest volume, Kristmanson has complete control over her voice. She also has a lot of experience writing in the indie rock style for her bands, and she contributed four works. The most compelling are the cabaret-like “Talk” and the bluesy “Song X.”

In some of her past compositions, Kristmanson found great inspiration in Medieval French music, and in 2024 she was awarded France’s Order of Arts and Letters to acknowledge her work in that field. A bonus track is offered via QR code in the Venus Rising booklet, leading the listener to a YouTube video featuring the Trio with Kristmanson (and, briefly, a tiny chihuahua), performing a rousing version of “Estat ai en greu cossirier” by the female troubadour Beatriz De Dia (c. 1140-1212), accompanied by hand-claps and marimba. It turns out that the trio’s men are also hearty singers whose deep voices make a pleasing foil to Kristmanson’s reedy Occitan dialect. Gaining access to that delightful Easter egg is worth getting the album.