Phlox Ensembles Give Underrepresented Groups a Voice

January 19, 2020
Hannah Schoepe ’20
students sing in an ensemble.
Photo credit: Dale Preston '83

Ensembles promote women and trans individuals in classical music, and celebrates repertoire by composers of these identities.

The Phlox ensemble, an orchestra and choir promoting women and trans individuals in classical music, is an intensive Winter Term 2020 project that provides a space for students of traditionally underrepresented gender identities and those with a commitment to gender inclusion to engage with classical music, and celebrates repertoire by composers of these identities.

The Phlox ensembles presented two events during the final week of winter term, featuring a program of women, trans, and non-binary composers, ranging from Fanny Mendelssohn to Rachel Gibson ’20, a percussion performance and TIMARA major.

The project has around 60 members who rehearsed daily for two weeks, culminating in performances on February 1 and 2. Named after the phlox flower, a symbol of harmony and partnership, the ensemble was founded by Oberlin students in 2018, all of whom are now members of the Oberlin Students for Gender Inclusivity in Music committee, founded to support the organization of the Phlox project.

Student conductor and musical studies major Sophia Bass ’20 notes the importance of these activities: “We are living in a time in which there is greater awareness of the lack of diverse gender representation in the classical music scene, and strides are being made to amend that.”

Gibson’s piece brings many of these thoughts together in her composition, which she describes as an “orchestra of mobile phones.” Gibson collected voice recordings from Phlox members for the composition, asking each individual to talk about what gender inclusivity in classical music means to them, whether it’s experiences, words, feelings, or something else.

As another component, Gibson created a phone app that allows the recordings to be played as a longer work by phones stationed in and around the audience. Each “phone player” has control of certain sound parameters (such as adding echo to the recording, for enamel) freely as they wish to distort the voices.

Gibson describes the listening experience saying, “Ultimately, the “lo-fi”-ness of playing the recording through the speakers of a phone, plus the sound manipulation, will force the audience to listen very closely to hear our thoughts and stories. I think this comments on how women/non-binary/trans-people are often overlooked or not listened to in today’s society.”

Other events initiated by the Phlox ensembles include a listening party featuring an all women/trans/non-binary composer playlist and a talk by professional conductor Nan Washburn in Kulas Recital Hall. Public Services librarian Kathy Abromeit also led a Wikipedia ed-ithon, where students improved the Wikipedia pages of women/trans/non-binary artists.  

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