Virtual concert to celebrate women composers and Ars Femina Digital Library

24th August 2020

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–A virtual concert of works by women composers will shine a light on their creative prowess while unveiling a new feature of the IU Southeast Library.

The virtual concert is scheduled for Wednesday, August 26, to coincide with the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. It will be accessible on Facebook via the Floyd County Library page beginning at 12 p.m., and will also be recorded for future viewing. A second concert is envisioned for September.

The Ars Femina Digital Library is a digitized version of the holdings of the Ars Femina Collection, which contains physical musical scores, and positive and negative microfilm copies of musical work by women composers.

The collection serves as an informational tool for research in history, music and women’s studies, and will eventually encompass up to 3,000 scores of music written by women composers who lived and wrote between 1500s and 1800s.

The collection was donated in 2000 by The Ars Femina Ensemble, a group formed in 1985 in Louisville to celebrate women’s artistry through performing these works and educating the community.

One of the founding members of the group was Dr. Susan Riegler, former visiting and adjunct lecturer in biology and music at IU Southeast, and a member of the Commonwealth Brass Band and IU Southeast Orchestra.

The Ars Femina Ensemble has not performed since the early 2000s, but the collection of scores and other historical materials was digitized between 2004 and 2007. Now, with funding from an IU Southeast Regional Research and Creativity Grant to support the archiving of the collection and the concerts, the entire project has gained a new energy and focus.

Leading that effort are Melanie Hughes, the Library’s coordinator of automation and technical services, and Veronica Palensky, a graduate student pursuing a Masters in Library and Information Science and a certificate in archives and special collections.

Hughes has extensive experience in digital library education and professional development, having digitized jazz great Hoagy Carmichael’s sheet music, photographs from U.S. Steel, Ars Femina sheet music by female composers from before 1900, and IU Southeast student newspapers. She has also digitized artifacts in 3D from Floyd County cultural heritage institutions. It was Hughes who, working closely with the Ars Femina Archives, wrote the proposal for a grant to digitize the collection in 2002.

Palensky brings a background in music, having received a Bachelor’s of Music Performance from the University of Louisville.  Palensky has been the archival intern at IU Southeast Library since spring of 2019, during which time she has helped with the re-organization of the Ars Femina Archives. She has created a print finding aid for the collection and is currently working on creating an online finding aid to go along with the digitization of the collection.

Along the way, Palensky overcame a number of challenges.

“Almost all of the archival side of this project has been a kind of treasure hunt and mystery,” Palensky said. “I’ve had to learn a lot, interview multiple people, look closely at each item and its metadata, organize and deliberate which pieces belonged to which composers.”

“There was a big learning curve for me concerning applying my knowledge of organizational and technical skills of processing an archival collection,” Palensky said. “I was exposed to a lot of new technology, like the new archival software that is being used across all IU campuses, called ArchiveSpace, and I taught myself how to create XML finding aids.”

Palensky also had to make decisions on how best to organize the collection in a way that would create the best form of access, and use grant money to coordinate a concert during a time where musicians and audience members cannot directly interact.

Thanks to Palensky’s background in music performance, she was directly involved in choosing pieces from the archive, creating a program, organizing rehearsal schedules, and any other necessary tasks for the concert.

The concert will include works by Margaret Casson, Mary Lou Williams, Elisabeth de Gambarini, Jimmy McHughes and Dorothy Fields, and Angel Villoldo and Maria Paz Gainsborg, and others. Musicians will include IU Southeast students, alumni, and former faculty, and professional community musicians, including Sidney King, Evelyn Loehrlein, Natalie Anthony, Maxwell Griffey, Kiana Benhoff, Katelyn Blaszynski, Nala Kay, Jailynn Lake-Noel, Veronica Palensky, Fiona Palensky, and De’Quan Tunstull.

Women have been historically underrepresented in both music and archives, and this concert will celebrate the contributions women have made to music and why their works should be remembered and preserved, a goal that resonates strongly with Palensky.

“This project is very personal to me as a woman musician and composer, and I believe it is important to both provide access to open access to works by women composers and to continue to perform those works,” Palensky said.

For her part, Hughes hopes that the concert will spur the expansion of research into women composers globally, and also that it builds a stronger connection between IU Southeast and the community.

“The significance of Ars Femina is international,” Hughes said. “It is one of the first archival collections of this music composed by women composers.”

Homepage photo: A libretto excerpt for the opening of “Les Rossignols dès que le jour commence,” from the opera, Céphale et Procris, by Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1666-1729), in the Ars Femina collection of the IU Southeast Library.

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