Muse concert this Saturday— Singing out for women and world
- Published: March 8, 2012
The story of the Cincinnati vocal ensemble Muse begins 29 years ago, when doctoral student Catherine Roma combined her interests in choral conducting, peace and justice and feminism by starting a women’s choir to emphasize the female voice, empower women and promote social change.
But the impetus for the group goes back much further, to a Bible passage attributed to early Christian missionary St. Paul saying that women should be silent in church. For centuries, classic choral works were only written for men and children and the power and potential of women’s singing voices remained unfulfilled. Roma had much to explore with her new group and began finding lesser-known women’s pieces and commissioning new works so women could express their experience and connect with the sacred through song.
Roma now combines her work with another love — the village she calls home. A new Yellow Springs resident, Roma brings her choir to the village to mark international women’s month at a concert and community sing promoting Antioch College and benefitting the Yellow Springs Community Food Pantry.
At 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 3 in Antioch College’s South Gym, the women of Muse will perform collaboratively with local dancers, artists and accompanists. Donations of cash or non-perishable food items will be collected in lieu of an admissions charge. Ruth Rowan will sign the performance for the hearing impaired.
The program includes a song written for women in Bulgarian, works from the GLBT choral movement, sing-a-longs and a humorous song about coffee (dedicated to the village’s three “amazing” coffee shops, Roma said). In collaboration with local artists, Muse will sing the traditional gospel hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” with local folk act Wheels, while Mary White will accompany songs on the violin and local dancer Melissa Heston will interpret a song.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Lawrence, Mass. textile strike, “a very important struggle in women’s history,” according to Roma, Muse will sing the union song “Bread and Roses,” written about the three-month strike in 1912 to protect the wages of women and children workers.
Roma initially approached Antioch about bringing Muse to campus. Louise Smith, dean of community life, jumped at the opportunity to host a choir that meshed with the college’s interest in social justice, she said. Smith is particularly excited about the “community sing” aspect of the program, during which Antioch students, staff and villagers are invited to join in, since it is another town-gown community-building opportunity.
Social justice issues are often the subject of Muse’s music. The ensemble sings annually on the Cincinnati courthouse steps against abuse, has sung for the graduation of women in re-entry programs after being released from prison, performed at Cincinnati’s fountain square in support of a women’s right to choose and have taken their act to colleges, churches, synagogues and soup kitchens.
In speaking (or singing) out about injustice, Muse has taken risks. In 2006, during the Iraq war, Muse invited anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan to speak before a concert. Peace activist Holly Near sang with the choir at the event, which women from the group, Muslim Mothers Against Violence, attended. Local conservatives took issue.
“We got a little heat from the more conservative members of the community,” Roma said. “But we take some risk because we sing for social change. That means less violence, more peace in the lives of women, children and all people.”
During the 1980s, Muse chose to do seven pieces in the Zulu language of South Africa in support of the anti-apartheid movement there. When Archbishop Desmond Tutu later visited Cincinnati, Muse was invited to perform for him.
Roma said that the Muse choral community is expressing the concerns of its members and carrying on a long tradition of women’s involvement in social change.
“We identify and come from a long line of movements historically,” Roma said, including the abolition, labor, civil rights, GLBT and feminist movements. “Our voices are carrying on something that has continued. We look around us and we look at our world and we want to sing music that connects us.”
Even when not tackling a social issue, Muse is being an agent of change merely by bringing long-silenced women’s voices to the forefront and letting women sing songs that resonate with their experiences being women. Because men’s choral repertoire has a longer tradition because of a papal decree that women not sing in church, Roma finds the few older works for women but also commissions new pieces from women composers or re-configures songs originally for men or children for women’s ensembles.
“The whole women’s movement broke it open so much, that women would like to sing music that expresses and sings their lives,” Roma said. “It is really about expressing and naming what is the experience of grown women.”
The connection between Muse and Yellow Springs runs deep. The choir performed at Kelly Hall in the late 1980s and put on local concerts to benefit the Green Environmental Coalition, Feminist Health Fund and an orphanage in Nepal. Roma first came to the village in 1975 for an Antioch College socialist-feminist conference and moved here permanently last summer.
Though she will still direct Muse and minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Cincinnati, Roma wants to sing with local women in a new choir she hopes to found here — the World House Choir. Taking its name from the final chapter of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s book Where Do We Go From Here?, the ensemble will tackle global justice issues while benefitting local organizations.
Named after the nine women in Greek mythology who inspired creativity in the arts and music, Muse is made up of 60 women who inspire with their performance, and who are equally inspired by it.
“Music can move us — it’s transformational,” explained Roma. “Music is able to galvanize many different aspect of our experience.”
For those who have been silent for so long, singing out can be that much more enlivening, she said.