From Scapegoat to Feminist Icon - Reflections on Guinevere

Welcome back to another issue of Meet the Composer Blog!


We are delighted to introduce the fourth composer joining our commissioned project, “Guinevere's Tale: The Once and Future Queen.” South African cellist and composer Wilma Pistorius tells us about her compositional journey as she joins our project.

What inspired you to take up this project for traverso and harpsichord?

Period instruments have a special appeal for me. Their palette of sounds offers colours that are well suited to my music. I like their “pureness” and directness, and enjoy playing with the tension of combining the “old” associations they evoke with “new” harmonies and gestures.

I like how Amaranti Ensemble combines music with stories, to reach the audience in a more personal manner. This is something I always aim for with my work and a way in which we are well suited.

How does your piece relate to Queen Guinevere and any of the ways she's been portrayed?

Because the fact that I am a woman is inseparable from my experience of life, it is also a source of inspiration for my music. The exploration of intimate themes of femininity often provides starting points for my works. I am especially intrigued by feminine archetypes, and Guinevere is an excellent example of “the queen.” The history of her portrayal is a clear illustration of how the same figure can have different faces over time and how this reflects how we relate to an idea, in this case, the feminine. My piece will be based around some of the changing faces of Guinevere/feminism. It will also be a tribute to the artist and feminist revolutionary Betty Dodson (1929-2020), who recently passed away. Like Guinevere, her story is vividly and intimately connected to the history of feminism. The parallels between their characters also inspire the piece.

Tell us about your compositional process.

In the first stage of my compositional process, I research and collect little bits and pieces of inspiration. This is a very abstract phase, where I create a concept and work out how various ideas fit together. Once I understand the essence of the piece, I make rough sketches: graphic shapes and scribbles with pencils and ink on paper. My way of thinking is very visual, and I start imagining the kind of colours and textures I would like to use. This usually results in one page that contains all the information I need for the piece. Once I have this, the more concrete fun begins: capturing the sounds and melodies putting them on paper. I write by hand and digitalise my scores afterward. In this phase, I edit and polish the notes. Once the musicians have the music, the piece starts coming to life, but it still isn't finished. I make final adaptations based on the musicians’ feedback so that the piece can be optimally comfortable and effective for their instruments. Then it is ready to be released into the world and begin its exciting life of being played and heard.


Wilma shares her concept and description of the commissioned piece.

Fictional characters often reflect the ideas and morals of the times they are written in. As King Arthur’s legend was told and retold over the last thousand years, Queen Guinevere became a reflection of each time's ideas and ideals about women.

“Guinevere underwent changes as the society for which she was written evolved and changed, both in their attitudes to women and their ‘proper’ place in society.”

- Nicole Evelina, The once and future queen

The evolution of Guinevere's character over the course of a millennium is almost a story in itself, running parallel (or at right angles) to the legend it springs from: starting out as a two-dimensional background character, a mere “wife” and scapegoat with no rights or independence, in more recent years she has become “a symbol of feminism, a queen who owns her sexuality and isn't willing to apologise for taking what she wants from life.”

The Guinevere I can relate to, and who is my muse for this piece, is a woman of the 21st century, like me. She is sex-positive, independent-spirited, wilful, strong, and intelligent. But she also embodies a more “ancient” aspect of the feminine, one with ties to the realm of magic, witchcraft, and mystery. In the (re)tellings of Arthurian legend, there is a tradition of focusing on Guinevere as an unfaithful wife who has an affair. Seen through more emancipated eyes, however, Guinevere is simply an independent woman who is sexual for her own sake and not just to please others.

We (still) so often get the message that having sexual curiosity and desire as a woman is shameful and unacceptable. We aren't encouraged to think of ourselves as sexual while simultaneously being "sexualised" by images all around us. This confuses the relationship we have with ourselves and perpetuates inequality.

I am reminded of feminist figures who have been inspiring to me, especially the late artist and sexologist Dr. Betty Dodson (to whom this piece is also a tribute) and other unapologetically strong, sexual, and "feminist" women in the popular and alternative music I enjoy. This poses the question: if Guinevere made art, what would it look like? If she wrote the music, what would it sound like? And so I endeavor to crawl inside her, to see with her mind's eye, to speak with her gestures, and listen to the voices dancing through her head.


To find out more about Wilma, visit

www.wilmapistorius.com

Small pieces project: www.tailormadeartmusic.com

Instagram: @Wilma_pistorius

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