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O Blissful Loss of Self: Explorations of Ecstasy in the Music and Poetry of Women is a multifaceted concert project from the flute and voice duo Anima Vox. Tadeu Coelho and Carole Ott Coelho were spurred by the Women's Rights Movement centennial as well as the woeful underperformance of female composers that still persists. Over a year in the making, the project began with a call for female composers to submit their scores, the main requirement to interpret female poets' texts on themes of ecstasy. In October 2020, the winners were announced, and those compositions filled out the program, along with some specially commissioned works and Anima Vox's own improvisation. Thus, the performance at UNCSA marked the world premiere of an entire program, which is rare and wonderful. Another performance of this program is soon to come at UNCG.
The program began with a commissioned work from Adriana Romero, Mexican violinist, violist and composer, whose set of seven short songs, Poemas Eróticos for voice, flute, and percussion, was perhaps the most overtly sensual manifestation of ecstasy on the program. A common musical thread in this song set, and even the entire program, was the persistence of lithe half steps, used in all sorts of melodic motifs. Flute and soprano were quite independent, with brief moments of rhythmic connectivity, but sometimes purposeful dissonance.
It cannot be overstated how much Dylan Reddish, dancer and choreographer, added to the program. Featured with three of the pieces, Reddish's movement created setting, story, and manifestation for the music's emotion. At the beginning of Romero's cycle, Reddish evoked feelings of heavy gravity – writhing, lots of floor work, with tension. With each successive song, the choreography took up more space onstage, getting bolder and creating an additional arc for the performance.
A Cycle of Love Songs, composer Jane K's interpretation of the poetry of Sara Teasdale, gave Ott Coelho plenty of gorgeous soaring melodies to sink into. The second of three songs "Night Song in Amalfi" was a delightful conversation between vocals and flute, with a considerable use of pause that was well communicated between the duo.
Melissa Tosh's Blissful Loss of Self, a four-song cycle based on the poetry of Chinese Buddhist nuns, elicited a similar meandering freeness to Romero's song set. Circular melodies in "This Body Without a Self" fit perfectly with Reddish's circular movements – Reddish also created evocative, organic choreography for "A Single Suchness."
To begin Improvisation on "Legend" by Muna Lee, Anima Vox played the poet's own voice reading her poem, thanks to a 1960 Library of Congress recording. Ott Coelho, to give context to the ensuing improvisation, emphasized her inspiration in not only Lee's words, but also her voice's articulation. Speaking of articulation, Drs. Coelho and Ott Coelho echoed each other's, a feat by itself between voice and flute.
Iranian composer Negin Zomorodi wrote "The Second Birth of a Shadow" for alto flute and soprano, and the rich sound of the alto flute added contrast, along with Coelho's haunting execution of frequent trills and semitones. Closing the program was Elyse Hart's Poems of Mirabai, full of both passionate and lighthearted imagery. Coelho brought visions of nature to life in the song "Clouds" with a joyful, flowing flute melody, and Ott Coelho transported emotion through the recitative-style text in "Mira is Steadfast." To close "A Limb Just Moved," the final section, all three artists stood still as the final text was spoken, "the beauty of this world is causing me to weep".
One of the main takeaways from the program as a whole was the breadth of female poets whose work remains underrepresented in any setting, and the variety of living female composers whose work is still considered by some to be a "niche" or an add-on to a program of otherwise male composers. Clearly, as this program proved, it is more difficult to pare down the many options, even for such a specifically-themed project, than it is to find viable compositions to program. I hope we will see more similar projects from other arts organizations soon.