American composer, Gwyneth Walker, just celebrated her 70th birthday, yet her choral works for female ensembles could not be more relevant to today’s young, strong, emerging women.
Walker’s notable songs for women include, “Let the Life I’ve Lived Speak for Me” and “Maid of Constant Sorrow,” both based on traditional texts, as well as “Why We Must Change,” with poetry by Alice Walker, and e. e. cummings renowned poem “i thank you God.” Gwyneth Walker has also composed a number of song sets. Harlem Songs utilizes the poetry of Langston Hughes; the aptly titled Songs for Women’s Voices is a group of six pieces setting texts by May Swenson; and three poems by Lucille Clifton are represented in the acapella set, My Girls. What stands out most about Walker’s treble-voice compositions is her choice of enriched poetry pertaining to diverse female experiences. With music to highlight the energy and prowess of the text, Gwyneth Walker brings new life and empowerment to the world of women’s vocal music.
The Lucille Clifton text in the song set, My Girls, speaks boldly to any generation of spirited, confident women. Comprised of three songs, “This Morning,” “To My Girls,” and “Sisters,” the first and third paint a portrait of girls in youthful sisterhood, both friendship and genetic, while the second portrays wisdom through motherhood. Though Walker set the poems to music in 1998, the sense of female camaraderie is timeless.
The opening line of “This Morning” bursts with the forte unison of Walker’s own added lyric, “Hey girl!” – a casual but confident salutation, in which any woman can recall meeting friends in the hallway between classes using the same cadence. The poem then goes on from the perspective of a young girl emerging into the world, “i met myself,” describing herself as a “bright jungle girl, shining quick as a snake,” complete with a strong hiss from the altos at the end of the phrase.
The second song, “To My Girls,” brings the excitement and energy of the first song down into a wizened, more contemplative perspective of a mother reflecting on the young lives of her daughters – “my more than me.” She builds them up – “i command you to be good runners, to go with grace…and make for the high ground.”
The third and final song, “Sisters,” was written by Clifton as a birthday gift to her sister, who was a singer. It highlights the sameness among the siblings – everything from being “scared of rats” and “stepping on roaches,” to letting their “hair go back” and “loving ourselves.” All the while, “mama laugh and shake her head.” Walker takes on an introductory playfulness with a handclap game among the performers, which creates the image that the sisters are young. However, as the song continues, we realize that they are at least in their mid-30s, but the handclap game is one thing they will always enjoy together. The one and only difference between these two women is depicted at the very end – “only where you sing, i poet.”
Hear these songs performed by the Central Florida-based group, Helena. For more information, please visit https://www.facebook.com/helenasinging/.