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“Not yet accepted as singing”: Ruth Crawford’s Chants for Women’s Chorus

with Professor Ellie Hisama (Professor of Music, Columbia University)
April 23, 2021 - 4:00pm

Virtual Event, link to be announced

Ellie Hisama (Professor of Music, Columbia University) will present a talk on the music of Ruth Crawford as part of the Ethnomusicology/Musicology/Theory Colloquium Series in the School of Music. 

Inspired by Eastern monastic chanting, Ruth Crawford’s Chants for Women’s Chorus (1930) displays her commitment to manifesting in music a “spiritual ideal” informed by her study of Theosophy and Eastern thought and writings.  Composed in Berlin where she held a Guggenheim Fellowship, Crawford’s Chants—her only work for chorus—were among her first compositions produced after months of intense studies with Charles Seeger in New York.  Chant no. 1 (“To an Unkind God”) establishes a non-teleological stream of vocal strands sung to syllables invented by the composer, while Chant no. 2 (“To an Angel”) presents an ethereal hummed floating sound-world; Chant no. 3 (“To a Kind God”) closes the set with a passionately declaimed cluster of chromatic pitches, resulting in what she called “mass-pitch.” Together the three chants reveal the imprint of her teacher’s interest in aspects of dissonant counterpoint while they also establish her own increasingly independent compositional sensibility. 


This talk explores the “complex dissonant veil of sound” of the Chants as Charles Seeger characterized them. Drawing upon unpublished correspondence about the Chants between Crawford and Seeger in 1930 and 1931 and Crawford’s letters to conductor Gerald Reynolds, who commissioned the work, Hisama explores the influence by Seeger on these works and Crawford’s own compositional decisions that reflect her growing confidence as a composer in forging her own voice. Hisama further argues that the Chants present structural and aesthetic alliances with Crawford’s brilliantly experimental String Quartet 1931, composed the following year, and critically reflects upon her representation of “Oriental” sacred music through a vocabulary crafted from English and German syllables and the language of ultra-modernism.

Free and open to the public.