John Michael Cooper
ARE WOMEN PEOPLE?
Updated: Dec 9, 2021
An Important New Album from Composer Lori Laitman “Settles the Question”
I’m not a reviewer – I’m just a musicologist who’s deeply, passionately, and eternally in love with the musical art, one who thrills to see new and significant offerings brought into that musical world, so beautiful and powerful. That’s where Lori Laitman’s new album comes in. Sometimes new music rises and casts such a brilliant light over the musical landscape that even those of us who have no official authority to comment on it feel compelled to do so. Are Women People? is just such an offering.
This album as a whole might be fairly described as a “Laitman sampler,” for in it we catch glimpses of the seemingly infinite malleability and penetrating nuance of this composer’s style. The music is at turns beautiful, bracing, and brave; the poetry at turns delicate, humorous, and provocative; the performances delivered with loving detail and superb technique. The interaction between poem and tone, always one of the great joys of art song and something for which Laitman is justly celebrated, is a musically glorious rabbit-hole here – at times it is difficult to tell when the things one discovers in these works cease being (more-or-less) intentional creations of Laitman’s imagination and become part of the listener’s own creative reading of that intersection between word and tone.
Listen to the album and you’ll understand.
Then there’s this: the annals of literary and musical history (and herstory) are filled to overflowing with poets worried about composer overreach and composers worried about treating their settings of poems as poems rather than songs, thus ducking their responsibilities as tone-poets. There is no danger of that here. Laitman achieves an ideal balance between the expressive acts of the poetic and musical arts. Every single syllable of every word is perfectly stressed, perfectly sensed, perfectly laid out to entice performers and listeners to hear and read it in their own ways. There is great beauty in that. The album acquires a further intimacy through its inclusion of two gems for violin and piano (Lullaby and Distant Lyghts, tracks 12 and 23) as lyrical intermissions among these many songs – a feature that brings to the whole an air redolent of a salon, perhaps, or of a twenty-first-century counterpart to Fanny (Mendelssohn) Hensel’s renowned Sonntagsmusiken (Sunday musicales).
This post could go on far too long, so I need to single out three specific moments:
In the songs of Orange Afternoon Lover, all on poems of Margaret Atwood, the second half of “I Was Reading a Scientific Article”: Laitman’s program note austerely describes this portion of the song as “slower dreamier sections as the narrator contemplates other images of love,” contrasting this with the “scientific” tone of the quick opening section – but this is an understatement. Atwood’s poem lays bare the dehumanizing neutrality of a “scientific article’s” image of the brain to the advantage of a humanistic, and consciously female, perspective on that physiological miracle of human experience – and as the latter gains the upper hand in the poem’s final stanzas Laitman provides some of the most ravishingly beautiful music that I know in the contemporary repertoire. (A similar – but not the same – sort of beauty is found in “Marriage of Many Years,” composed in 2018 on a poem by Dana Gioia as a sixty-fifth birthday gift for Laitman’s husband. It’s a vivid sonorous analog, this song, to the marvelously and delicately sensual beauty of Gioia’s lyric. The recording is made even more personal here because Laitman herself is the pianist.)
Praise of a different sort goes to Days and Nights (1995, rev. 2019), a cycle on poems of Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson, Francis W. Bourdillon, and Christina Rossetti. Here, too, Laitman’s music is full of wonders, and its emotional ambitus in itself is a marvel. But that musical beauty is enhanced by the artistry of Nicole Cabell, whose sumptuous voice puts those intense emotions on full display, negotiating sinuous melodic lines, wide leaps, and pitches form the highest to the lowest ends of the tessitura with ease. (This said, Cabell's performance is not the only magical one here; all the other performers also deserve credit for bringing this album's music to life: Maureen McKay, soprano; Andrew Rosenblum, piano; the Fourth Coast Ensemble (Sara van der Ploeg, soprano; Bridget Skaggs, mezzo-soprano; Ace Gangoso, tenor; and David Govertsen, piano); Maria Sumareva, piano; Tarn Travers, violin; Kyle Knapp, tenor; and Daniel Belcher, baritone.)
Finally, the album’s second set, Are Women People?, is a poetic dialog between influential feminist and suffragist poet Alice Duer Miller (1874-1942) and Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and a major source of this album’s occasionally sardonic wit. Miller’s poems incorporate quotes from and allusions to legal verdicts mocking the suffragist cause into her own lines that expose the misogynist and patently foolish rationalizations of those anti-suffragist voices, while the interspersed songs on Anthony’s words reflect her own unrelenting earnestness in pursuing the (partial) realization of the promise of the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified 1868) that no state “shall... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws" (including the protection of the right to vote). The decision to close this thematic cycle with a setting of the Nineteenth Amendment (1919-20: “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”) was a stroke of genius, as was the decision to score this cycle as an SATB vocal quartet with four-hand piano, often pitting the women’s voices against the men’s.
These songs could not be more timely, for they come at a historical caesura where women’s rights and women’s bodies, unequivocally protected by the law of the land in these and other moments of United States history, are under renewed attack from all directions in the United States – including numerous federal judges and, potentially, a Supreme Court that is now permanent home to persons appointed by the illegitimate, twice-impeached former Resident who lost the 2020 election by seven million votes. As I finish this review (which has been several months in coming), a law that would deny equal protection under the laws to women is under review by that Supreme Court, which includes three justices who were nominated by that illegitimate Resident and confirmed by a Senate committed to perpetuating his illegitimate influence; two of the other justices were nominated by a president whose own ill-gotten presidency was the most disastrously consequential in this country's history until the full-on assault presidential assault on women that (officially) launched in 2017.
And that, almost (but not quite!) as much as Laitman’s music itself, is what most enduringly commends Are Women People? to our time. Art empowers; art gives voice to the unvoiced and otherwise unvoicable; art is where the human imagination goes to root in times of trouble. It is in the arts – including music – that we develop understanding and resolve, in them that our imagination grows the strange new fruit of new world-views that in turn open the way to a brighter future. They are the essential condition, the first responders to crisis, the sphere that offers inspiration for other solutions. They are the embodiment of hope and imagination – and Lori Laitman’s new album, in addressing the dark night of threats to women’s bodies and women’s rights head-on, does not just offer a beautiful and stylistically wide-ranging compilation of songs that relate to (and refute) those threats. It does much more than that: it offers a model for the role of the arts in providing leadership and inspiration where and when women’s fundamental human rights are corralled into the tightest possible space and fired on.
As Laitman points out in the liner notes, “Are Women People?” was the title of an influential column that Alice Duer Miller published in The New York Tribune from 1914 to 1917, and in 1917 Miller published a sequel to these columns in a book titled Women Are People. Question posed and answered: that gesture, the simple and irrefutable setting-aside, in art, of a politically charged question that affects millions of lives, is the essential gesture of Laitman’s album. It’s a gesture that we cannot afford to ignore, and Laitman makes certain we understand this – and celebrate that understanding.
Are Women People? is available through a variety of vendors and on all major streaming platforms.