As we approach Suffrage Day on September 19, aligning this year with New Zealand's general election, it is timely that Hamilton-based composer Janet Jennings has released an album of new music celebrating exactly this.

Voices of Women features leading female New Zealand musicians singing the words of some of the country's most well-known female leaders, writers and activists including, of course, Kate Sheppard, and our current Prime Minister.

Described by one reviewer as "an exemplary performance, by and of women, full of sound and pleasure", the album is available from Marbeck's in Auckland or online.

In creating Voices of Women, composer Janet Jennings has set to music words spoken and written by a range of iconic women.

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The project brought together a team of exceptional female musicians, including one of New Zealand's few professional marimba players, Yoshiko Tsuruta, well-known percussionist Rachel Thomas, violinist Maia Dean Martin and leading pianists Katherine Austin, Rachel Fuller, Noelle Dannenbring and Maria Mo.

Acclaimed NZ pianist Katherine Austin and leading vocalist Stephanie Acraman feature on the Voices of Women album. Photo / Kerry Blakeney-williams
Acclaimed NZ pianist Katherine Austin and leading vocalist Stephanie Acraman feature on the Voices of Women album. Photo / Kerry Blakeney-williams

Recorded last year at the Dr John Gallagher Concert Chamber at the University of Waikato, the recording followed a live concert presented as part of the Hamilton Fringe Festival.
The album opens with a new musical setting of The Magnificat.

Mary's song of praise is the longest New Testament text attributed to a woman, but was, of course, written by a man.

Jennings describes the text as "troubling because the image of Mary has pervaded our culture and formed a guiding – and restricting – principle for female conduct".

Musical settings of poetry by Christina Rossetti, Ursula Bethell and Jean Alison Bartlett form the body of the album.

The lives of these three leading writers and thinkers spanned a period of 170 years. The poems reveal their preoccupations and concerns, providing delightful moments of humour and moments of reflection.

The album is rounded out by the title work, Voices of Women, in which Jennings sets to music texts by Kate Sheppard, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ākenehi Tōmoana and Jacinda Ardern.

The work begins with words from one of Kate Sheppard's most influential speeches of 1892.

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One of NZ's few professional marimba players, Yoshiko Tsuruta, plays for the Voices of Women album. Photo / Kerry Blakeney-williams
One of NZ's few professional marimba players, Yoshiko Tsuruta, plays for the Voices of Women album. Photo / Kerry Blakeney-williams

A poem follows, by American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, published in 1911, that wittily summarises the arguments faced by those who fought for suffrage. Her fellow countrywomen did not gain the right to vote for another nine years.

The words of Ākenehi Tōmoana, a prominent Māori leader of chiefly status, advocate the inclusion of women in decision-making.

Kate Sheppard's words of September 19, 1893, when the Electoral Act was signed into law, are followed by the words of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, speaking in Parliament on September 19, 2018, as New Zealanders celebrated 125 years of female suffrage.

The texts are sung by a stellar line-up of NZ vocalists that includes Stephanie Acraman, Mere Boynton, Catrin Johnsson, Jayne Tankersley and Felicity Tomkins in an ensemble conducted by Rachael Griffiths-Hughes.

Dr Janet Jennings is one of NZ's leading composers for voice, and also writes for a wide range of instrumental groups. Her music is played internationally and throughout New Zealand, and her works often air on Radio NZ Concert.

Voices of Women is her second album released under the Atoll label, the previous album being Play-Pen, released in 2019.

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Voices of Women is available now at Marbeck's online music store and is expected to be released for download on a range of digital sites soon, including Amazon, Spotify and 7Digital.