S.E.M. Ensemble performs Many Many Women by Petr Kotik

S.E.M. Ensemble: Kamala Sankaram & Sadie Dawkins Rosales (soprano), Patrick Fennig (countertenor), Daniel Neer (tenor), Kelvin Chan (baritone), Steven Hrycelak (bass), Petr Kotik & Martha Cargo (flutes), Thomas Verchot (trumpet), William Lang & James Rogers (trombones)

Many Many Women (1975-78) marks the culmination of a series of extended-duration works, composed by Kotik from 1971-’83, which may be performed in whole or in part and have no distinct beginning or ending. Many of these pieces included parts for voices, at first with texts by Gertrude Stein and later by R. Buckminster Fuller.

Like other artists at that time – among them Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, La Monte Young, John Cage, and later Morton Feldman – Kotik created works that required many hours of uninterrupted performance. Despite Kotik’s contributions throughout the 1970s, his music remains largely unknown to wide audiences. Gann writes that it is the result of Kotik being “an expatriate with the usual disadvantages of that position…his music being so vastly original that very few people ‘get it’…[while the] music of the 1980s veered off on a very different (and less adventurous) tangent,” making Kotik’s music of the 1970s sound “unstylish.”

Kotik’s inspiration to start writing for voice was his close collaboration (1971-1975) with the composer and singer Julius Eastman. It was during the long working sessions with Eastman that Kotik conceived the idea of using parallel perfect intervals (octaves, fifths, and fourths) – a trace that became characteristic of Kotik’s music during that time.

Depending on the tempo, Many Many Women takes 5 to 6 hours of uninterrupted performance. The entire text of Gertrude Stein’s 86-page novella of the same name is used. There is no general score, and the 173 sections are distributed among the musicians who shape the piece, deciding individually on each section’s entry. The piece has not been heard in its entirety since 2000.

The composer and musicologist Kyle Gann wrote in 2001 about Many Many Women:

“…a durable classic, in fact, from an era whose most spectacular productions often proved ephemeral. It is a musical monument,vast in scale, rich in polyphony, resonant in cultural associations.”

The writer and Cage scholar Richard Kostelanetz compared Kotik’s use of Stein’s text with the opera Four Saints by Virgil Thomson on the libretto by Gertrude Stein:

“where Thomson was a Harvard boy who had learned about Stein, then scarcely known, from his teacher … Kotik discovered Stein as a recent immigrant who barely knew English. What attracted him was American language that was original and yet accessible. Whereas Thomson enjoyed Stein’s wit and her freedom from semantic requirements, Kotik make Stein into something else – an innovative, exhaustive kind of contemporary plain chant with open chords. A further departure was Kotik’s decision to use the entire Stein text, pushing his piece to the audacious and finally marvelous length of almost six hours… Kotik’s “Many Many Women” is, like Stein’s text of the same name, a masterpiece that I’ve appreciated many times since.”

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Presented in collaboration with Ma.PS at White Box and New Music World.

S.E.M. Ensemble’s 2012-13 season is made possible with the generous support of the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature; with public funds from the Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; Phaedrus Foundation; and individual donations by Mark di Suvero, Virginia Dwan, Noni Pratt, Sheldon Berlow, Flora Biddle, Beth Greenberg, and an anonymous donor.

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