Sound Within Sound

by Kate Molleson

Ask anyone to name a classical composer, and the answer is usually the same: Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. Their music is wonderful, but what about composers who aren’t household names – who work outside the mainstream, who write challenging and difficult music? In Sound Within Sound, Kate Molleson beautifully tells the stories of ten twentieth-century composers who are almost completely unknown, focusing on women and people of colour. Molleson brilliantly contextualizes each composer within then-current political and musical trends, telling us their stories, influences, sources of inspiration, and the impact they had in their work and teaching.

What resonated with me about this book is the way Molleson describes selected pieces of music. Her insights prepare you for what you will hear in these works. Much of the music described here is challenging to listen to, and these trailblazers expand what is considered music. Take Júlian Carrillo’s Preludio a Colón, a song that showcases his “Thirteenth Sound” method of dissecting musical scales: with its incredibly small distances between notes, it sounds almost other-worldly.

Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet 1931 is a brooding, dissonant work that represented new directions in American composition, and was years ahead of its time. Contrast this with the lilting calm of Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbru, the daughter of Ethiopia’s ambassador; she recorded her compositions in the 1960s on a piano played by Mozart. Or the angular, plaintive dissonance of Galina Ustvolskaya, a Soviet composer of uncompromising, intense music; her Clarinet Trio is both fierce and fragile.

Just as interesting as the composers themselves is the discussion of power, politics, and tradition, and how their interplay decides which composers are heard or ignored. This gatekeeping is a relic of colonial influence. Filipino composer José Maceda asked “What has all this got to do with coconuts and rice?” — as Molleson elaborates, “how can classical music, its ideologies seeded in Europe, articulate the lived experience of human beings around the world?” Many of these composers turned to folk music, seeking sounds that would free their work of European influence.

Molleson’s writing is frank and engaging, making a compelling case for expanding the classical canon. This is an excellent read for anyone who is passionate about music or inclusion, or who simply wants to stretch their ears.