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Five questions with Sonya Lifschitz: telling women’s stories through music

Five questions with Sonya Lifschitz: telling women’s stories through music

Known for her fiercely imaginative collaborations across dance, screen-based and performance art, and spoken word, pianist Sonya Lifschitz is a true trailblazer in contemporary performance practices.

Her latest work, Creative Women: So Much Myself, saw Sonya collaborate with composer Robert Davidson to create an audio-visual journey that celebrates the voices of female artists, scientists, and politicians, bringing to life the stories of the women who have shaped our world. 

As part of a special International Women’s Day 2023 celebration, Melbourne Recital Centre hosted the world premiere of the Creative Women: So Much Myself – a work that is a testament to Sonya’s commitment to pushing boundaries of musical expression and interdisciplinary artistic practice.

In this interview, we dive into Sonya’s world as she shares the inspiration behind Creative Women: So Much Myself, the challenges she faced in bringing the project to life, and the importance of celebrating the contributions of women in history. 

Can you reflect on music as a medium for telling women’s stories? In your opinion, what are some of the benefits of music when compared to other art forms for storytelling?

I think music is a very powerful tool for storytelling – it is the most evocative of artistic languages because it is temporal and, in essence, ephemeral, carrying our imaginations, hearts, and minds through moments of transcendent beauty, deepest sorrow, tremendous joy, and everything in between. As Robert, the composer of Creative Women: So Much Myself, often says: we all make music when we speak. Each of us has a unique spoken intonation, pitch, contour, and rhythm of the voice, which we modulate depending on what is being spoken, our mood, our emotional state, who we are speaking to, and what we want to express. So, in essence, we are all composers through the act of speaking.

Creating compositions that derive their musical material from the spoken cadence/intonation — or what Robert calls ‘speech melody’ or ‘voice portraiture’ — heightens the voice, intensifying and amplifying the meaning behind the words, and giving us a deeper insight into the speaker’s inner world. And then, just like a face portrait is lovingly placed into a frame, a ‘voice portrait’ is framed by the piano and the music I play.

What inspired your unique approach to weaving together the narratives and music in Creative Women: So Much Myself?

Robert and I wanted to showcase the incredible women across history who have challenged stereotypes and the status quo, had stood up to the prejudices of convention, and had envisaged and fought for a more just, inclusive, and humane world. We both share a love of dreaming up and creating large-scale tapestries of histories and meaning through music and other media. In approaching this work in a non-traditional, theatrical format through use of music, narrative, video, speech, and even acting alongside my piano playing, we hoped to augment the audience’s perception of the stories told, bringing them to life in a three-dimensional, vivid, and dynamic way.

 Immersive, multimedia performance-making is something I find immensely exciting. As an artist, I’m increasingly drawn to placing art music and piano performance at the intersection of cutting-edge contemporary performance practices, imagining new, expanded presentation formats and processes of making. What’s particularly exciting for me in this work is the juxtaposition between archival material and stories from the past, and an innovative, unorthodox performance approach, where narrative and music are interwoven and inextricable from one another.

 I think music, like all creative disciplines, is a living, evolving ecology which reflects and responds to the world within which it is created, and so working in a multimedia, multi-disciplinary space feels like a natural extension of this artform. 

Can you tell us about a particular woman whose story featured in Creative Women: So Much Myself that resonated with you personally?

There are so many inspiring and deeply moving stories in this work that resonate very powerfully with me. From Nellie Melba’s rousing farewell speech recounting her extraordinary musical career, to Patti Smith’s defiant rejection of “rules and regulations”, to Julia Gillard’s epoch-making misogyny speech, to Rachel Carson’s and Greta Thunberg’s fierce plea to caretake our fragile, beautiful, and threatened planet, to Nina Simone’s raw search for authenticity in performance and Clara Schumann’s students’ accounts of their piano lessons and their encounters with Brahms, these stories empower, energise and uplift me, calling me into the fullest expression of what I can be and bring into the world. 

But perhaps the most personal of the stories told, is the story of my beloved Ukrainian grandmother and her younger sister escaping Kyiv in 1941 as Nazi bombs fell, shattering my grandmother’s dream of becoming a concert pianist. As a Ukrainian-Australian artist, born in Kyiv, this was a particularly important story to tell while my birth country is being devastated by an incomprehensibly cruel and unjust war.

Sonya Lifschitz

What do you hope audiences took away from experiencing Creative Women: So Much Myself?

I was so deeply humbled by the astonishing audience reception of Creative Women: So Much Myself at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall – the best world premiere experience I could have hoped for! The laughter, the tears, the cheers, and the standing ovation at the end was a testament to the power of the stories told and the emotion music can express. It is a show that speaks to people from many different walks of life, people interested in art, in music, in history, in politics, in science, and in the way these fields of human endeavour overlap and coalesce to shape our world and society. It connects us in intimate ways to the iconic figures of the past, through their own words made musical. It also speaks deeply to issues that are urgent today – climate emergency, gender equality, war, and the need for beauty, refuge and art to heal and to build a more sustainable, just world. 

People expressed being empowered, mobilised to act and to rally for change, inspired to use their voice, uplifted and moved by the daring courage, defiance, humour and tenderness of the women featured in the work, and ultimately engaged and drawn in by the extraordinary tales of discovery spanning a millennium. 

Can you tell us what’s next for you creatively this year? What are you interested in exploring moving forward?

After the world premiere of Creative Women: So Much Myself at the Melbourne Recital Centre, I headed to the Adelaide Festival to perform the work there at the Adelaide Town Hall, where it was received with tremendous enthusiasm. I have just recently returned from the Four Winds Festival in Bermagui where I performed a beautiful project featuring music of the visionary American composer George Crumb in collaboration with a dear colleague, the extraordinary performance artist Christine Johnston.

We have performed this project at the Melbourne Recital Centre last year, which was one of the absolute highlights of my 2022 season. That performance now lives online: 

Next stop is Canberra International Music Festival where I’ll be performing Creative Women: So Much Myself at the National Gallery of Australia. There are many projects currently in the works which will breathe their life later this year, including a tour with Ensemble Offspring, a piano festival hosted by the Sydney International Piano Competition, a Musica Viva regional tour, and more.

What I am particularly excited exploring moving forward is the boundaries of musical practice and searching for ways in which to create and facilitate performance experiences where audiences are able to encounter music and music-making in unique and immersive environments, offering new perspectives, meanings and ways of connecting with one another and with the world around us.

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