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Vermont composer celebrates high-flying women in new piece

A continuous line drawing of a passenger airplane and a cloud on a white background.
Tetiana Garkusha
After delving into audio and flim footage, local composer Danielle O'Hallisey found many uplifting and triumphant stories about women pilots and those in the STEM fields over the decades.

In 2017, as a partial solar eclipse dimmed the daylight and millions cast their gazes skyward, Vermont musician Danielle O'Hallisey began to think about the stories we're taught about women in aeronautics. (That's the science of traveling through the air in all its forms, from airplanes to drones to rockets.)

Many were tragedies. Amelia Earhart — the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean — lost at sea. Astronaut Christa McAuliffe killed when the Challenger space shuttle exploded soon after takeoff in 1986.

O'Hallisey began to research what other women have studied the science of traveling through the air. From archival footage and found audio, she then composed music around it and created a multimedia piece.

"Women in Aeronautics" will have its world premiere this weekend in Burlington, with contemporary chamber group TURNMusic.

Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch caught up with O'Hallisey to talk about the research that went in to composing the work. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: As you were doing research into these women and aeronautics through the decades, what women did you find who had less tragic stories?

Danielle O'Hallisey: I found a very uplifting story of Valentina Tereshkova, who was the first acknowledged woman in space. I was a little shocked to discover that that was 20 years before Sally Ride, the first that we Americans tend to celebrate. That gave me new insight. And I just, I became utterly fascinated.

And Danielle, you've got archival footage, newsreels, audio, photos. How do you then pivot to composing? What informed the sound of your compositions?

Yeah, I mean, one of the first things that I sort of initially thought it would be — electronic based, and that began with Tareshkova's famous recording. She was announcing that she was "seagull," because she was flying. She was circling the Earth and she was in zero gravity — and that bit of audio is so uplifting.

Then I started manipulating it and turned it into several different electronic instruments over time. It grew very organically. I found myself thinking, "Well, sure Earhart went missing, but what happened next? Who during that era flew successfully and didn't die under mysterious circumstances?"

"This Modern World, " by Danielle O'Hallisey
Vermont composer Danielle O'Hallisey has written a multimedia piece around the theme of women in aeronautics. This piece uses archival audio of a speech given by American aviator, Amelia Earhart in the 1930s.

Where did the archival footage come from?

I have a friend, John Cannizzaro, who is a filmmaker, he did a lot of the video for Mythbusters back in the day. I talked with him and was able to get him to come on board the project. So a lot of the archival footage is actually stuff that he and the company he works for — Budget Films in Los Angeles — were able to find for us.

We have footage and spoken and recorded audio from as far back as, well the footage goes back into the 1920s. We have a recorded interview with Katherine Johnson, who was featured in the movie Hidden Figures. She was a NASA mathematician and African American woman, one of the many who were not featured in press releases at the time, but who worked to get the moon mission off the ground and safely returned.

Danielle, you're a composer. Are you also a pilot? Why the draw to women in aeronautics?

My engineering background. I've always been fascinated by aerospace, and I've had the good fortune to do bits and pieces of engineering projects that were at the edges of aerospace — a couple of proposed projects for NASA that didn't end up getting funded, but I worked on the preliminary work for them.

But there's just always this moment when you touch something that says "NASA" on it that makes you feel like, like you're being lifted off of the ground. I think that was a lot of my own fascination with this whole thing.

The music it sort of really led me more than I have ever been led by a project. I found that when I wrote the prelude and we had some video of the early wing walkers. There was a lot of craziness. Women would get a pilot's license and then not be able to work because no one would hire them because they were women. So they did stunt piloting, wing walking, which is literally, a plane is in the air and a woman is standing out on the wing, walking along without the benefit of a parachute or any kind of safety net. And the piece has a very Jazz Age kind of feel.

"I felt like a thread of a sweater had caught on something, was unfurling before my eyes." - Composer Danielle O'Hallisey, on researching women in aeronautics and writing music around that theme
Composer Danielle O'Hallisey

OK, so the audience files in, they find their seats, they see the musicians perhaps on stage. They might see a projector or film screen. What else can audiences expect?

I mean, we have the video and live music. But we also have two devices that are referred to as "holographic fan displays" that create this strange feeling like the propeller is spinning around and it's creating a sort of floating video display.

I don't want anyone to walk away thinking I'm an authority on this subject. I would rather that people walk away feeling the same way that I did on that day back in August 2017: I felt like a thread of a sweater had caught on something, was unfurling before my eyes.

And I began to realize there were a vast number of stories of women who participated in STEM fields over the years that I had never heard before. I hope people come away curious and wanting to learn more.

“Women in Aeronautics” gets its debut this Sunday, Oct. 2 with TURNmusic at Burlington City Arts 2nd Floor Gallery.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontpublic.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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