Each one’s voice: Susan Frykberg’s Mother Too

August 25, 2016

By Gloria Lipski

You can hear a performance of Mother Too by using your free CMC account and listening to an archived performance on Centrestreams.

Mother Too is a score that you have to read, and not in the usual sense of reading musical notation. However, if you do read it you’ll find the ending given away too soon. The score begins, as does the piece itself, with a question: “Where are my songs/stories/dances?”.1 By the second paragraph, we know the answer.

Susan Frykberg (left) pictured with Barry Truax and Franco Sbacco (seated) inside the Sonic Research Studio at Simon Fraser University in 1989. Frykberg worked on Mother Too in this studio.

Mother Too for voice and electroacoustics was written by CMC Associate Composer Susan Frykberg in 1991. You will find the piece situated amongst other Frykberg compositions on an album called Astonishing Sense of Being Taken Over by Something Far Greater Than Me, available through the Canadian Music Centre (CMC) website. Susan’s works aim to create musical environments in which women’s lived experience can be heard—an aim that has been especially inspired by her experience of giving birth to and mothering her son. Born in New Zealand, she has built strong connections to Toronto, Vancouver (Simon Fraser University), and Melbourne, Australia, while also receiving international grants and broadcasts throughout her career. Currently living in Melbourne, Susan’s recent works revolve primarily around chant, soundscape, and spirituality.

An excerpt from the first section of Mother Too, copyright Susan Frykberg

On the first pages of Mother Too, the text is spelled out, pitchless, with each repetition of the words specifically iterated: “my mother my mother my mother”.2 The vocalist is described as a messenger from the ‘MOTHER’, calling up numerous symbols of nature: tree, cloud, rain, rock, sky. While the text is quite clear as to the quality of ‘mother’ in the piece, the score notes make it explicit. Susan elaborates, “Great Mother, Mother Earth, Mother as Nurturer”, firmly rooting her concept of ‘mother’ in mythological imagery.3 Gender stereotypes of women as nurturers and child bearers are problematic and can be oppressive, but I want to explore the often meaningful mythological and psychological symbolism of ‘mother’ that has been laid out by Susan. Although I will not discuss it at length here, it is worth mentioning that Susan has done her fair share of challenging gender stereotypes, whether she is claiming traditionally male-dominated tools (computers and machines) to empower her music making, problematizing domesticity, creating non-hierarchical collective vocal compositions, and otherwise exploring concepts of feminism and androgyny in her work.4

Within Mother Too, the juxtaposition of compositional technology and technique (the tape, granular synthesis, and electroacoustics more broadly) with nature (the breath, the tree, the mother) is interesting in its compatibility. These two supposedly disparate worlds are not antagonistic towards each other. In fact, the innermost human voice is often represented through the electroacoustics, in this case through tape and processing. That the piece portrays a sense of humanity, technology, and nature being enmeshed might not be surprising in our current age of hyperconnectivity, pseudo-cyborgs, and everyday augmented reality. I imagine there might have been more tension on that front for a piece from the early 90s given that home computers and internet services were not yet ubiquitous. Susan herself explores more of the issues, changes, and confusion that can accompany technological development in a piece performed at Toronto’s Harbourfront in 1984 called Machinewoman.5 Not so in Mother Too, where the deeply human is equated with the deeply technological. But what of performance in the world of technology?

As a composer whose work often integrates theatrical elements, Susan makes several specific instructions regarding the performance of the tape part in Mother Too. It is amusing to imagine a score that specifies that a violinist should consider themself a performer, a seemingly obvious fact. In Susan’s score, she tells the tape processor-operator just that: don’t forget to listen to the ensemble and strive for balance. Be free to develop sonic integrity. Remember to develop a journey. It can’t hurt, now and then, to remind your performers to be performers, to make music using their chosen technology, whether that be a traditional orchestral instrument or cassette playback. Susan encourages the performers to work artfully towards answering the original question of Mother Too: “Where are my songs/stories/dances?”

An excerpt from section six of Mother Too, copyright Susan Frykberg

The ‘mother’ weeps and rages deity-like in Susan’s text, not dissimilar to an angry Christian father god in my mind, and she bemoans the presumed loss of the practices of dancing, singing, and storytelling.6 Narratives of community and solidarity are important to Susan. “There was a time when…” each one’s voice was heard by others through these creative practices, and others’ voices heard by the one.7 In another portion of text beginning with “my mother,” the distortion is instructed to increase to “very active processing” emphasizing the text: “is was is is was is.” Are nature and creativity fading from ‘is’ to ‘was’? In losing our stories and dances, are we losing the ‘mother’? Who has ‘lost their voice’ in our world?

A photo taken at The Vancouver Soundscape CD launch in Vancouver (June 1996). From left to right (back row), Dr. Werner Wolf, Bob MacNevin, Barry Truax, Hans Ulrich Werner, Susan Frykberg; (front row) Hildegard Westerkamp, Darren Copeland, Claude Schryer, Sabine Breitsameter.

Interestingly, the singer in Mother Too is not dictated as male or female, with instructions to adjust the voice range accordingly. The first note in the score indicates, “For female voice, transpose up an octave”.8 If Mother Too were written now, perhaps even female/male would not be referred to, making the score open to performance by a person with any lived experience of gender. In today’s feminist movements, the choice not to gender the voice might reflect the way that feminism seeks to dismantle all oppressive gender roles and amplify all marginalized voices. In the case of Mother Too, these voices are marginalized from access to their innermost nature, nurturance, and story. I would say that the gender expression of the singer actually does still make a difference to the meaning of the performance, but that in the context of this piece the freedom of identity of the singer points to Susan’s message that every person has something inside them that can help them live more fully.

Here, we enter “the depths of the psyche” and explore the piece’s original question.9 It is the tape’s job to evoke the subconscious, or what Susan calls ‘inconscious’ in her score. It’s a big responsibility that will carry the key meaning of the piece, a responsibility shared with the singer at page 10, where Susan prompts: “As if coming from the depths of your belly.” These sounds likely harken back to one of Susan’s earliest sound influences, what she has called “a dream image-of something like a machine that was in the centre of the earth, with this very low frequency pulsing.”10

In a theatrical pause, the singer is instructed to act “as if plucking up the courage to sing her true song.”11 Susan’s protagonist is going deep, seeking authenticity and their own true story. An alternative from a more systemic perspective would be to also look outward at social systems of oppression that cause certain voices to not be heard. But this does not strike me as part of Susan’s discourse in Mother Too in particular. Her answer lies within. As revealed early in the score, inside their innermost self, the singer finds their true song, their authentic voice.12

An excerpt from the section 9, stasis, of Mother Too, copyright Susan Frykberg

Given that today’s psychology now encompasses mindfulness, personal narrative, and anti-oppression along with psychoanalysis, Susan’s conclusion is a particularly beautiful one. You as the listener find that ‘stasis’—the title of the last section of Mother too—lies within you. Whoever you are, your psyche contains the nurturance and creative essence that you need; you are ‘mother too’, you are nature, and you are creative. In Mother too, Susan tells us where to look for our true voice: inner stillness, personal story, and creative expression. Hopefully the next step is to be heard.

You can learn more about Susan Frykberg by visiting her CMC profile page. This is part of a series of blog posts that highlight various works from CMC Associate Composers. Check back regularly for new posts, and new pieces!

1 Frykberg, Mother too, p.1
2 Ibid., p.1-2
3 Ibid., p.1
4 Electro-acoustic Music Theatre: An Interview with Susan Frykberg, p.1-2
5 Machinewoman, p.2
6 Frykberg, Mother too, p.1
7 Ibid., p.1-2
8 Frykberg, Mother too, p.1
9 Ibid., p.4
10 Electro-acoustic Music Theatre, p.1
11 Frykberg, Mother too, p.9
12 Ibid., p.1