Saturday, April 13, 2019 Lara Downes Celebrates Women Composers on Her New Album

Holes in the Sky
Lara Downes & Friends
Sony Masterworks

By Lou Fancher

April 12, 2019

Pianist Lara Downes leaves no room for doubt. Given the choice as a professional musician to rant about male composers’ dominance in music history, the repertoire of orchestras, chamber ensembles and soloists, and jazz, pop, funk, R&B, folk, and other playlists, or to rave about brilliant, overlooked women composers, Downes chooses the latter.

Sacramento-based Downes’s new album released in early March, Holes in the Sky, celebrates a multigenerational, cross-genre collection of female composers and musicians. Among the 22 tracks are works written or performed by 20th century composer Florence Price, songwriter Judy Collins, violinist Rachel Barton Pine, instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens, cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing, composers/performers Meredith Monk, Clarice Assad, Lil Hardin Armstrong, and more. A world premiere by Jennifer Higdon, Notes of Gratitude, extends the sonic range in a six-minute work featuring unconventional harmonies, percussive plucking inside the instrument, and lush, “proper” piano passages.
“You can write a lot of notes,” Downes says, “but what makes great writing is transforming the instrument. To create color takes a gift. Jennifer is prolific, with a range as a composer that’s vast. She sent me this piece and it felt like it had a home here, in terms of rounding out the sound world. It’s a fascinating piece that lets me do things with the piano that’s outside of the rest of the record.”
Downes spoke to us about the new CD, balance she finds in her busy personal and professional lives, and the purpose that today — more than ever before — compels her musicianship.

You wrote in an email that Holes in the Sky is “honestly the favorite project I’ve ever done.” Will you share your thoughts on why?

I’ve had collaborations before, but have never before enjoyed the generosity, trust and flexibility I’ve had on this one. I underestimated the excitement these women would have to share. It’s been sustaining and nourishing. At the heart of it, being a solo musician is lonely. I draw from audiences and listeners and I’m fortunate to have that. But to actually create this thing with a group of people invested in making something beautiful; I don’t want to fall into clichés, but it’s like a sisterhood, a collective. Can you imagine being in a studio with Judy Collins and forgetting she’s Judy Collins? It’s been that kind of thing: we’re all just making something new and digging deep for it.

What was your research process and were there discoveries that surprised you or might surprise listeners to the CD?

There were a lot of stories that I knew, like the one behind the song, “Just for a Thrill.” Any person you talk to about that song will say, “Oh, the Ray Charles song.” But actually, it was written by Lil Hardin Armstrong. All the stories of her ... well, she was married to Louis Armstrong. That is quite an act to follow. Yet she wrote this incredible song — and then it becomes associated with another male giant in the music world. I knew that story and was intrigued. There have been many women composers in the [Great] American Songbook who’ve been overlooked.


Will you tell us about working with cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing and the urban youth vocal ensemble Musicality?

Ifetayo is a kid I know through the Sphinx organization. I wanted to feature young women and shine the spotlight. She’s based in Chicago and I asked around for a local vocal group. Musicality was recommended. We did a few takes and I loved their ethereal, young voices. That descant line of upper harmony we threw in above the melody is there because one girl had such a wonderful, high voice. You know, usually there’s time, money, and perfectionism causing tension during recording sessions. With this project, there hasn’t been any of that. Every session was just musicians trying things and experimenting with confidence because we knew what we were doing.

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