“It’s almost impossible to tell a story through instrumental music,” says composer Patricia Morehead. Such attempts usually “come across as trite coloristic effects.” Yet she’s named her latest piece, a composition for two pianos, after Margaret Atwood’s 1986 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist allegory in which women are forced to become breeders for those rendered sterile by the toxic environment. When she read the book ten years ago, Morehead says, she felt “helpless outrage” at the prospect of chemical and nuclear contamination in the near future. “I’m terribly frightened as a mother and grandmother–more so now that our society has moved only closer to that scenario.”

Morehead says she based her composition’s four movements on a few details from the book. “You’ll hear an odd-cadenced march punctuated by ringing bells that suggest the handmaidens being ordered to walk in unison. And their whispering in the night is a perfect opportunity for a dialogue between the pianos.” A fugue conveys menace and futility, while another movement plays on Atwood’s references to pop tunes from the 50s and 60s. “I use a rock backbeat reminiscent of ‘Heartbreak Hotel,'” Morehead says. “After all, I grew up with Elvis.” But that’s the extent of her scene depiction.

In writing the piece for ace pianists Ursula Oppens and Aki Takahashi, Morehead knew she had 20 fingers experienced in the tricky maneuvers of modernist music. “I was happy to explore the possibilities in sonorities and volume, not to mention register, that would’ve been too much on one piano,” she says. Oppens calls the score “wild and intense, with overlapping voices and hands–and yet nicely underscoring the book’s tone of inwardness and claustrophobia.”

Morehead turned to composing late in life. In college she majored in the sciences, but decided at age 20 to become an oboe player. A quick learner, she went on to study in France, where she befriended Nadia Boulanger, the influential conductor and music teacher. In the summer of 1963, Boulanger introduced her to musicologist Philip Morehead. They married soon afterward, “and off we went to Harvard, where Phil continued with his studies, and I gave birth to three kids in four years,” Morehead recalls.

Their stay in Boston lasted 12 years, during which she earned a degree from the New England Conservatory, worked as a freelance oboist and teacher, and founded a chamber opera troupe with her husband–all while juggling family duties. It wasn’t until 1979, when Morehead was almost 40, that she began studying composition in earnest, inspired by a summer at Darmstadt, the German mecca for new music. “I’d come to believe that every instrumentalist must know how to compose, and vice versa. Otherwise you’re not a true musician.” Four years later Morehead enrolled at the University of Chicago to study under Ralph Shapey, who’d been influenced by Stefan Wolpe, one of her idols. (She also wanted to join her husband, who had landed a job at the Lyric Opera.) Besides Shapey, Morehead credits local composers Shulamit Ran and John Eaton with helping to develop her style.

While she writes her PhD dissertation, Morehead is keeping up her usual busy schedule of teaching and performing. Gregarious and generous, she’s a kind of den mother to the local new-music community. Recently she gathered almost 50 composers for a party in honor of Pierre Boulez, and she and her husband are founding members of Cube, one of the city’s most accomplished new-music ensembles. Whatever time is left over, she says, she devotes to composing. “Ultimately, that’s how I’ll be remembered, for conveying powerful emotions through music. A teacher told me once, ‘If you don’t feel passion in what you write, it will not cross the footlights to the audience.'”

Oppens and Takahashi will perform the world premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale Saturday at 7:30 at Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 1977 South Campus Drive in Evanston. Also on the program, presented by American Women Composers Midwest, are seldom-heard pieces for solo and duo pianos by Pauline Oliveros, Joan Tower, Lois Vierk, Haruna Miyake, Akemi Naito, and Ushio Torikai. Admission is $20, $15 for students and seniors. Call 847-467-4000. –Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Patricia Morehead photo by Randy Tunnell.