The pianist talks about her upcoming collaboration with composer Robert Davidson, a work weaving in the voices of pioneering women with her piano.

Creative Women/So Much Myself: Piano Portraits, which will tour to the Canberra International Music Festival, weaves video footage and audio recordings with live piano and Sonya Lifschitz’s voice in a duet celebrating the strength and innovation of women.

“We want to showcase the incredible women who have challenged stereotypes and the status quo, had stood up to the prejudices of convention, and had envisaged and fought for a more just and humane world,” says Lifschitz to Limelight.

Sonya Lifschitz. Photo supplied.

The work follows on the heels of Stalin’s Piano, the first multidisciplinary collaboration Davidson and Lifschitz undertook and a type of performance Lifschitz finds “immensely exciting.”

Stalin’s Piano blended Lifschitz’s piano with the footage and words of 19 historical figures – among them the playwright Bertolt Brecht, the architect Le Corbusier, Australian poet Judith Wright, former US president Donald J. Trump and pianist Maria Yudina – to explore points where art and politics intersect.

Creative Women/So Much Myself: Piano Portraits is a sequel of sorts, Lifschitz explains. Like its predecessor, it weaves together virtuosic piano, archival recordings and Lifschitz’s own voice into a tapestry of disparate vignettes into “a complex, interconnecting web of stories celebrating discovery and courage.”

This time around, the voices included in this work are those of women who have been influential to both Davidson and Lifschitz on a personal level, as well as to the wider world: Opera star Nellie Melba, the artist Frida Kahlo, poet and bandleader Patti Smith and pioneering scientist Marie Curie are among the voices telling inspirational, sometimes deeply-moving stories.

Robert Davidson. Photo supplied.

“These women speak of bringing their fullest selves to the challenges of inertia, bias and convention,” says Lifschitz. “This work is a five-part musical portrait gallery, spanning a millennium of creators whose stories reveal something of our own.”

The work takes its title from a quote by Nina Simone, also featured among the recorded voices: “What I hope to do all the time is to be so completely myself … to be so much myself that the audience is 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.”

All of the women featured found a profound sense of beauty and refuge within their fields. Curie tells of the child-like awe that resonates for her within science. Closer to home, Aunty Delmae Barton, Australian vocalist and mother of William Barton, “speaks of music being her healing in a particularly beautiful manner,” says Lifschitz.

“We also hear Dame Nellie Melba’s rousing farewell speech – the only existing recording of her speaking voice – from her final performance at Covent Garden, and the incredible stories of Clara Schumann’s students recounting encounters with Brahms. We are implored by Greta Thunberg and Rachel Carson to caretake our fragile, beautiful, and threatened planet, and are reminded of Julia Gillard’s epoch-making misogyny speech.”

For Lifschitz, however, some of the most important voices are those of the women in her own family.  

“Perhaps the most moving story of all is that of my grandmother and great aunt escaping Kyiv in 1941 as Nazi bombs fell, shattering my grandmother’s dream of becoming a concert pianist,” she says.

Creative Women/So Much Myself is also a product of a deep artistic trust and a shared love for musical storytelling.

“Robert and I had a wonderful time collaborating, it felt joyous to embark on a new piece together,” Lifschitz says. “Working with a living composer and being involved in the creation of new work as a performer is a profound privilege.”

The multidisciplinary approach to music-making is something Lifschitz finds thrilling as a performer as well as a creator: audio-visuality augments the stories at the heart of the work, she notes, and brings them to life in a three-dimensional, vivid and dynamic way.

“What’s particularly exciting for me in this work is the juxtaposition between archival material and stories from the past and an innovative, unorthodox performance format. I think music, like all creative disciplines, is a living, evolving ecology which reflects and responds to the world within which it is created, and so working in a multimedia, multi-disciplinary space feels like a natural extension.”

So Much Myself: Piano Portraits will be performed at the Canberra International Music Festival on 7 May.

This article was originally written and published by Maddy Briggs from Limelight on 15 February 2023.