Portrait of the American Woman
for solo viola
Creation and Commentary
“Portrait of the American Woman” (2020) for solo viola was written for Maggie Snyder’s VIOLA2020 project and was selected as runner-up. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 it was never premiered. Amanda Hamilton, my viola consultant while I composed this piece, will be premiering “Portrait of the American Woman” in the MEIT with two performances during my thesis event. The performance will include lighting cues that follow the mood and music of the movements: Seneca, Resistance, Ratification, and Resurgence. The performance will also include a still projection of the Women’s March of 1970 banner reading: Women of the World Unite overlaid in the title, “Portrait of the American Woman,” projected immersively in the MEIT.
Out of silence comes courage. This piece tells the story of the brave American women who shaped history with their courage and commitment to women’s rights. It begins with the suffragettes who organized for the first time in Seneca Falls, 1848. Upon their foundation, a movement was built. This movement was met with resistance from political and anti-feminist organizations that inflicted obstacles and even violence upon the path towards women’s suffrage. But the American woman is resilient. By her strength, seven decades later, the 19th Amendment was ratified by Congress in 1919. It was a moment to rejoice, to celebrate the courage and progress of generations of civil activists. But the fight was not over. 20th-century America continued to oppress women’s participation in society. Tired of this confinement to gender roles in the workplace, politics, and home, the feminist movement gained resurgence in the 1960s. Their momentum led to the powerful Women’s Strike of August 26, 1970—both a celebration of the 50-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment and a call to action to continue the progress of their mothers and grandmothers. Tens of thousands of feminist women and allies marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City with the banner seen around the world: “Women of the World Unite.” I felt the power and the history of this united call when I walked alongside millions of people around the world in the Women’s March of 2017. I felt the resilience of the American woman. 2020 marks the 50-year anniversary of the Women of the World Unite march. With this Portrait for solo viola, I raise a new call to action—to both celebrate the centennial of our progress and continue the work of the courageous American woman.
To begin the piece, the performer is invited to recognize ten seconds of silence, from which the quiet courage emerges, painting the scene for the first movement, “Seneca.”
Textural techniques including col legno battuto, ricochet, and sul ponticello, all within a very quiet dynamic range, aim to suggest a musical sense of trepidation leading up to a knock in measure 15. This knocking on the body of the viola is intended as a musical onomatopoeia of the knock on the doors of the Wesleyan Chapel in the town of Seneca Falls, New York—the location of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.
Next, the piece explores the resistance faced by women’s rights activists during the 19th century. “Artists created political cartoons that mocked suffragists. Religious leaders spoke out against women’s political activism from the pulpit. Articles attacked women who took part in public life.” “Opponents of women’s entry into institutions of higher learning argued that education was too great a burden on women. In Sex in Education: or, a Fair Chance for the Girls (1873), Harvard professor Edward Clarke predicted that if women went to college, their brains would grow bigger and heavier, and their wombs would atrophy.” This ideology was perpetuated by anti-suffrage organizations that formed in the late 19th century and into the 20th century, including the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women (MAOFESW) formed in 1895. Other states followed suit, including Iowa, California, Illinois, New York, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, and Ohio. By 1911, the anti-suffrage movement became nationally recognized with the institution of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NAOWS).
But women’s rights activists pushed forward with fortitude, as I encouraged the violist to play in movement two, “Resistance.”
In this movement, the repeated melody swells in both volume and complexity, representing the self-assurance despite the resistance. But the resistance the suffragettes faced was not only political or social; it was also violent. Some suffragettes were imprisoned for their militant protests. While in prison, some underwent hunger strikes to continue the fight even behind bars. In solidarity with the activists who faced violence and imprisonment inflicted by the resistance of women’s suffrage, the melody takes a harsh turn towards overpressure bow technique and quadruple stops.
I chose to represent the overpressure bow technique with boxes and arrows, with the white box representing normal bow pressure, the half-filled box representing slight overpressure, and the filled box representing complete overpressure and slow, scratch-like bowing. The arrows between boxes indicate gradual change between the levels of overpressure technique.
This overpressure technique and multi-stop trajectory leads to an intense moment of virtuosity featuring a guitar-inspired technique of using the open string as an alternating note for an added subdivision between the sixteenth note line, creating a 32nd-note passage that remains idiomatic for the instrument. The open string is indicated by a “0” above the note.
After a gradual descent in both range and dynamic, the solo returns to a melodic section followed by a return of the “violent” material. A dramatic acceleration and crescendo leads to a triumphant quadruple-stop to begin the third movement, “Ratification.”
This movement, as the title and tempo description suggest, is a triumphant celebration of the ratification of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote, by stating, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
The final movement, “Resurgence,” is a twofold celebration and call to action. First, it is an applaud of the Women’s Strike of 1970—50 years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment—wherein tens of thousands of women’s rights activists marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City in a resurgence of the movement after decades of insufficient progress towards gender equality. Second, it celebrates the 50-year anniversary of that resurgence, and calls to action another resurgence, for the insufficient progress towards gender equality since then. The fight continues.
The movement features a combination of many of the techniques heard in the previous movements, joining together to create a propulsion towards the triumphant ending.