There could be no better way to celebrate International Women’s Day 2023 than to spend an evening with Sonya Lifschitz and her inspiring band of Creative Women. In collaboration with Robert Davidson, she has created an extraordinary audiovisual survey of creative women who have made their mark in significant ways. Subject choices range from the deeply personal family connections – Lifschitz’s Ukranian grandmother and great aunt – to internationally recognised crusaders for a better world.
The audience entered the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall to see three words projected onto the large screen at the back of the stage: “So much myself” – a quote from Nina Simone that forms the premise of the work. In the first of five Parts, we hear Simone explain, “What I hope to do all the time is to be so completely myself … that they’re confronted with what I am, inside and out, as honest as I can be. And this way they have to see things about themselves, immediately”.
Sonya Lifschitz entered sporting a body mic to welcome us – her expansive warmth and generosity of spirit setting a tone of vital engagement. What has become a customary, almost perfunctory, acknowledgment of the traditional owners was transformed into an integral part of the performance. Not only did she stress their cultural importance as artists, storytellers and custodians of a land that has never been ceded, but further explored its implications in Part 5, which included a talk between Aunty Delmae Barton (William Barton’s mother) and Jackie Marshall. Entitled “Gift of creation”, it provided a strong sense of unity and completion, especially when presented alongside Rachel Carson’s words of warning regarding “The Balance of Nature” as footage of beautiful birds was juxtaposed with the crop spraying that led to their death and a “Silent Spring”, and Greta Thunberg’s profoundly moving speech about climate change with its repeated “How dare you!”
Following the introduction, a video in which composer and visual artist Robert Davidson spoke about his love of recordings, films and documentaries as being “the closest thing we have to time travel” was screened. Central to his thinking was the concept of speech as music, demonstrated in the way composer and pianist reflected speech patterns and cadences as the women spoke. Much of the essence of a series of videos, photographs and riveting archival footage was also given musical expression. Sometimes speaking as she played and occasionally standing to comment on what we were about to see and hear, Lifschitz was passionate and articulate. The audience was treated to a densely rich experience that went well beyond the literal; it was re-made, re-created for us, giving us pause, making us think and wonder. Making us laugh and cry as we experienced what Davidson called “remnants of extraordinary lives … placed as precious objects into musical frames”.
Part 1 “Unfettered” began with footage of Patti Smith decrying the imposition of rules. “For me it’s not about tradition at all” and subsequent phrases were repeated many times. Minimalist in style, this and many of the following portraits were reminiscent of techniques used by Philip Glass in Einstein on the Beach. The visual component, however, did not move at glacial pace; rather, we were presented with an abundance of enthralling images. The Frida Kahlo material in “Portrait of Diego” was fascinating and, like so much of the program, a product of discerning choices. How wonderful to hear those women speak: Kahlo, Marie Curie, Nina Simone, Malouma and Nellie Melba. Some sequences were particularly striking, such as Lifschitz playing her grand piano while Nina Simone played hers almost in the same position on the screen above, and the unexpected concluding film of Melba dancing in her garden. What had the audience applauding in delight was Davidson’s compilation of footage of the wonderful Simone that highlighted both her formidable strength and delicious sense of humour.
Part 2 was mainly devoted to Clara Schumann and three of her piano pupils: Adelina de Lara, Ilona Eibenschütz and Ethel Smyth. Schumann’s “A woman must not desire to compose” was a telling indication of the constraints imposed on women, especially when she was left with six children to feed. Musically, it was a change of pace, with a piece by her being played while we saw the manuscript on screen. Smyth’s keen-eyed observations on Brahms and his dismissive attitude towards most women, whom he apparently regarded as “playthings”, provided another insight into the position of women at that time.
Most of the footage that comprised Part 3 was a video of Lifschitz’s grandmother and great aunt, who had fled Kiev in 1941 as Nazi bombs fell. The many confronting images of the dead and wounded were also terrible reminders of what is currently happening to Ukraine. And yet, those two women were hilarious in the humour of some of their recollections and in their teasing of one another; they radiated vigour and the courageous attitude that has enabled them to survive the horrors. Manya’s much thwarted desire to play the piano figured large, and it was touching to see her talent and affinity with the instrument being realised in this performance. Enthusiastic applause also greeted this segment.
Another two remarkable but very different women were featured in Part 4. Hrotsvit was Europe’s first playwright since antiquity, and we saw the thousand-year-old markings of her pen on vellum. As her words scrolled up, Lifschitz assumed the roles of the actors, dramatically narrating the story of a fragile woman who outwits a strong man – “Those bitches have made a fool of me!” – as she played a tuneful folk-like melody. Loops of Julia Gillard’s famous Misogyny Speech were accompanied by almost bell-like peals as we witnessed another feisty woman make political history by refusing to “be lectured to by that man” – the man who was willing to stand in front of the infamous “Ditch the Witch” banner. Now that was Mediaeval!
Although it was young Greta who had the last word, the standing ovation that followed was not just for her denunciation of feeble efforts to save our planet; it was also in appreciation of Sonya Lifschitz’s brilliant performance and her remarkable collaboration with Robert Davidson.
Heather Leviston reviewed “Sonya Lifschitz – Creative Women”, presented in collaboration with Robert Davidson at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on March 8, 2023.