Violin and cello duo GAIA is on a mission to amplify women’s voices in the world of classical music ”¦ and they’re starting by unearthing lost music from Scotland’s forgotten female composers, as Linda Robertson discovers.
When Katrina Lee and Alice Allen started researching compositions written by women in the 18th-century, they found names literally scored from the nation’s musical history.
The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduates, and Chamber Music Scotland’s current ensemble in residence, believe that a substantial amount of music from the last few hundred years has been either lost, buried or published under a male alias.
And they want to make sure that these women’s voices are heard.
“Classical music is so heavily male dominated,” says violinist Katrina. “Think of the classics and they’ve all been written by men.
“We were talking about playing more music by female composers after doing our first residency with Chamber Music Scotland, where we spent a week in Hospitalfield House with an all-female group of performers and composers.
“We started to look into compositions by women in Scotland with Aaron McGregor, a violinist and researcher, who also studied at RCS.
“We were trawling through all this music from the National Library of Scotland that hadn’t been played or heard in hundreds of years.”
Cellist Alice continues: “You grow up playing Beethoven, Mozart and Strauss and it got to a point where I realised that I wasn’t playing music by any female composers from the past. They were all written out of music history.
“We found a handful of brilliant tune books written by women as well as a sonata by a composer called Catherine White. It’s a proper composition that never got played simply because she was a woman. In some of the books we found, if the work had been written by a woman, the name was scored out. It was considered unladylike to write music and have it performed.
GAIA aspires to lift the anonymity of the women writing around the 18th-century in Scotland by performing and programming their compositions.
“There is so much old music but potentially new music, which feels really exciting,” says Katrina.
“We’re looking to record an album and release a tune book with the music we’ve managed to compile. All this music has been written and it has never had the chance to be aired and experienced. It’s something we can bring to new audiences.”
Katrina and Alice have transcribed and arranged Catherine’s sonata: “As well as unearthing these works, part of the joy is being able to play them,” says Katrina.
“Cello and violin were the dance band of choice in 17th-century Scotland, so it’s a old combination that goes back a long way in this country. The sonata is for German flute and harpsichord, which we’ve arranged to suit our instruments. It feels like a project we can take ownership of and stay honest to the composer.
“Catherine White’s composition is the only piece that we have who we know who the composer was. Most of the names are scored out with ”˜female amateur’ or ”˜anonymous’ in their place instead.
“It’s sad ”” just by being female they didn’t get a chance to have their music played or have any privileges that a male composer would have had. We’ll hopefully uncover a few more names and insights into their lives. Knowing the person behind the music makes it so much more human.”
Katrina and Alice met at RCS in 2013 after a performance class and quickly forged a friendship.
“I did my undergraduate degree at the Royal Northern College of Music then moved to Glasgow where I didn’t know anyone,” says Alice.
“I was in a performance class with Katrina and we snuck up to each other afterwards in the Stevenson Hall to say how much we liked each other’s playing. It was the first time we ever spoke and we just clicked.
“We both loved chamber music and wanted to do more so it felt really organic to take the musical relationship forward when we’re so close. It’s amazing to have such a good friend in someone who is an incredible musician and to respect them fully on both fronts.”
Katrina adds: “From that meeting in the Stevenson Hall, we ended up on the freelance scene together with the BBC SSO and we started the Brodick Quartet. It’s definitely a blessing to have such a good friend and colleague. I still feel very lucky that we get to work with each other, it’s lovely.”
Katrina, from Yorkshire, graduated with first class honours in 2014 and a masters of music in 2016, studying under renowned violinist Andrea Gajic.
She holds the principal second violin position with the orchestra of Scottish Ballet and works regularly with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and has performed with orchestras all around the UK including the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, BBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. She’s a founding member of the Brodick Quartet and is part of the Escocia violin and classical guitar duo.
Alice, who grew up in Banchory, Aberdeenshire, graduated in Master in Performance with distinction from RCS.
Her playing has taken her to the BBC Proms, the Wigmore Hall, Europe and India and she has worked with many of the country’s leading performing groups including Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Ensemble, Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and is also an original member of the Brodick Quartet. She also teaches Scottish traditional cello at RCS.
While it’s still early days for GAIA, which they formed a year ago, they have big plans for the future, supported by Chamber Music Scotland, which commissions and creates new works and projects with artists.
As the CMS ensemble in residence, 2019-21, GAIA will receive specialist coaching, commissions, developmental support and the opportunity to create and deliver their own learning project. As well as their work to discover and celebrate female composers from history, they champion female contemporaries through cross-genre collaboration and performance and are working with CMS artist in residence, composer and sound artist Kim Moore.
“We’re so lucky to have Chamber Music Scotland, they’ve been a brilliant support with everything from logistics to always being there to bounce ideas around and bring them to fruition,” says Alice.
“The first big thing we did together was a tour of communities around Scotland where we played in care homes, in a children’s hospice and in an incredible bothy on a cliff.
“We both feel very strongly about that grassroots side of classical music ”” we don’t want it to be a barrier to anyone. It’s taking the concert hall away and playing music in different settings.”
GAIA was due to perform works by RCS composers at this year’s PLUG in May, the annual festival of new music. When their Fridays at One concert was cancelled due to lockdown, they decided to create a recording of the scores instead.
“We had a workshop day when the RCS composers came to the CMS office and we read through their music and tried stuff out,” says Alice.
“We really enjoyed talking to them about their processes and playing their music felt like a real privilege.
“We had a whole week of rehearsals planned with them and the Fridays at One performance at the end of it. So, instead, we’ve been recording little snippets of the pieces that are possible to do virtually. Katrina sends her parts to me and I add mine, it has been really interesting.
“As well as PLUG, we had lots of things lined up, including a ten-day tour with CMS and the Wye Valley Chamber Music Festival, so we’ve been talking about how we can still be productive and move forward. Doing the PLUG recording is exciting and shows that there’s a way to record together remotely, so we might be able to start on an album.”
They’re also using this time to connect with fellow musicians and are leading on an online forum and support network created by CMS.
“It’s a space where musicians can talk together and have some company,” says Alice. “When you’re attached to a big organisation, the infrastructure is there to support you. As a freelance, that doesn’t exist in a formalised way. We both want to create a positive industry and standards to bring people together. It’s important to look out for each other in the industry.”
She says the sessions, held on Fridays, are nourishing and uplifting: “We always come away feeling really excited and positive. You get to meet people you would never normally meet ”” technology like Zoom is allowing people to move out of their normal bubbles. That’s the really cool thing about it ”” geography isn’t an issue any more. You can collaborate and create with anyone.”
Katrina and Alice’s lockdown advice for musicians
Katrina: “In terms of being home and doing my own thing, it’s really wonderful and I’m happy to have this time for sure, to practice, to continue teaching and learning. But it’s sad looking at my diary and all the things I would have been doing, that’s less encouraging, especially because I’m not quite sure when things will start back again for the music sector.
“It’s good to take the time to process what you want to do moving forward. It sometimes feels a bit scary having this time and reflection but you can ask if you’re happy with where you’re going and what you might like to do when we come out of this. How will it change you as an artist?
“A good question to ask is ”˜why do you make music? What is it you’d like to bring to your audiences, how do you want to connect with them, and what is it about it that makes you thrive?”
Alice: “For me, it’s about finding what fuels you other than music and really looking for the other things that make you tick, inspire you and make you feel good. I’ve enjoyed being outside with my dog and having time for myself, I feel healthier than I ever have. There’s no rushing around or late nights so being able to lie low has been grounding. When you find yourself there, all the creative, lovely stuff will probably just come out.
“It’s important not to be hard on yourself though. Nobody should feel that they have to come out the other side any different. It’s taking stock on where you are, rather than having to go do something or be something by the time it’s finished. It is a totally weird, distressing and daunting time, so make sure there’s no added pressure on yourself.”
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All photographs © Louise Mather