Drawing on Paper,
from Mind to Voice

Sor Juana and the permeable
walls of a cell

The conception and text of SETZUNG 1.1 connect to the poet-nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whose life story and work continue to inspire me. Born as Juana Ramiréz de Asbaje2 near present-day Mexico City as an illegitimate child of a nobleman, she started to write poetry at an early age, and was celebrated as a young artist in the viceregal court. She had the strong wish to devote her life to studying and to art, planned at some time to dress up as a boy to enter school and university, refused to marry as a young woman, and in 1669 chose to be ordained as a nun instead. For the rest of her life, she never left the boundaries of her convent, the order of San Jerónimo, where she lived in a spacious cell, with a substantial library and an extensive collection of scientific and musical instruments. She wrote poetry, essays, plays, numerous letters and songs. She received guests and visitors in the convent, and maintained a substantial correspondence, intellectual exchange and debate with the outside world. Most of her works were commissioned, internationally published and spread all over the world - including Europe and as far as Hong Kong. She is renowned for her spirited text, the 'Reply to Sor Philotea' from 1691, in which she openly advocates the rights of women to study, to teach and to write (Paz, 1994, p. 599). Today, many of her works are destroyed and lost; what remains is enough to make her an outstanding Latin American poet (Paz, 1994, p.693). She probably also composed music, of which nothing is left today. Throughout her life as a nun, she had to cope with restrictions and increasing criticism from her (male) superiors in the church hierarchy. This conflict culminated in 1694: Sor Juana was forced to sign documents of abjuration, one in blood, renounce writing and artistic activities, and give up her library and possessions. Nursing her sister nuns, she died during a devastating epidemic in 1695 (Paz, 1994).

Reflecting on the life and work of the poet-nun in the context of my own creative process, I find the balance of retreat and outreach interesting. Sor Juana chose to withdraw from the world into a cell, to be able to pursue artistic research. Her writings expanded outside again. I observe a similar process in my work: I need to retreat into the inner core to be able to compose. From there a piece evolves, until it radiates to the outside reality, meeting an audience. Following Winnicott, there is a process from lonely isolation to common ground. The installation setting of the score-membrane and performance was inspired by the image of walls of a cell, a kind of social cell-membrane, which Sor Juana constantly penetrates with her writing.

In the composition and text I refer to poem XXI,3 where Sor Juana writes about a longing to communicate with a distant, beloved person (Cruz, 1966, pp.75-81). She postulates writing as a means of exchange, and acknowledges its limitations, brought about by her inability to intellectually comprehend certain emotional realms; she can only write about what she is able to conceptualise. I found her precise and detailed observations quite similar to what I perceive in my own writing process. Sor Juana uses the analogy of a feather for writing. Portraits of Sor Juana show her with a feather in her right hand, a traditional way of picturing an author, writer or scholar (Paz, 1994, pp. 384-385). This prompted me to use feathers as objects for sonic and visual outcomes.

A further aspect of Sor Juana's corpus of writings, which is of interest to me as a composer, is feminism. In my text for SETZUNG 1.1 there are explicitly feminist passages, referring to Sor Juana's fate

2 There is some dispute about the exact year of her birth, most likely 1648 or 1651 (Paz, 1994, p.107).

3 Sor Juana’s poems do not have titles originally; titles were added by her first publisher (Cruz, 1996, p. 16).