Song of Herself

Song of Herself

Addressing publicly that one composes referencing a woman’s experience feels akin to coming out, laden with similar anxieties. Given the number of composers who are actively accessing their ethnic heritage—using it in the work’s content, its timbre and instrumentation, its extra-musical inspirations—and being applauded for it by many listeners, we seem to have entered an era in which diversity is welcomed. But it has never been fashionable to reference a woman’s experience in music, or even generally understood.

Until I became a mother 12 years ago, I actively avoided thinking about being a woman, as it seemed to get in the way. Writing modernist music, I loved the abstraction of it all, composing from my mind and ignoring all the rest. But after this life-altering experience, I found I really could not compose solely from my head any longer. And after that stylistic change, I noticed that the people who came up to speak with me after concerts were primarily women. What had changed in my music? Senses of time, senses of what constitutes a unity, a female sensibility?

Recently I discovered the results of a questionnaire Elaine Barkin distributed to women composers in 1982 (Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 20, Nos. 1 and 2). In Annea Lockwood’s response she states, “Do we even understand what notions about women are? … I believe it’s possible that the culture’s notions of what we are run so contrary to our own sense of ourselves that in deeper ways we really don’t realize what these notions are, and hence their implications.” Is this still true in 2008?

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12 thoughts on “Song of Herself

  1. Chris Becker


    This past weekend a dance for which I created a score was performed at Mary Anthony’s studio along with a variety of other works by students and members of Mary’s circle of artists. The performers included men and women (with women outnumbering the men) of all skin colors from all over the globe. Even the spectrum of age was represented with Mary still going at 95 and some of her dance students probably still in their teens. I was in a minority as the only composer who had created something specific for a dance (and that’s a whole other topic). All rest of the music came from CD collections – although the selections crossed centuries in period and style (Bach, Andre3000, Hans Zimmer, etc).

    One reason I collaborate with artists in other mediums (painting, film, dance) is that I need and enjoy variety in my life! My reasons are deeper than that of course, but it does come down to pushing myself towards new experiences and perspectives. That’s how I become a better composer.

    Most of the women I know in the arts do not read or contribute to blogs. And I think there are many (intelligent!) reasons for this. I am sort of a blog addict…but so many composer blogs are mindless and disposable and ultimately create a niche in a medium (the Internet) that is supposed to be inclusive.

    Not sure if this is helpful or relevant, but there it is.

  2. dusman


    Thanks for writing! Why do you think women do not participate in blogs? Do you think it has anything to do with being “public” in a way that is required by the form?

  3. Chris Becker

    “Do you think it has anything to do with being “public” in a way that is required by the form?”

    I can only relate what I’ve heard from my friends – women who I collaborate with in music, dance, and visual art. The time waster thing is an issue. The artists I know basically don’t want to spend time following a thread, adding a comment, and or maintaining a blog. The issue of privacy is another issue – a very real one. I’ve been guilty of posting some pretty reactive comments. And that stuff can come back to bite you. So if you are a professional in any field, it may be that you don’t want to find yourself pulled in to a discussion that includes a lot of cursing or ignorant comments.

    Also, to be blunt, stalking can be an issue for women. Putting out too much information on the Internet can be dangerous.

    The funny thing is, at concerts of contemporary music, I’ve seen men give each other raspberries, curse each other out, boo audiences, or trade dirty looks. It’s really childish – and I’m remembering concerts I attended at Universities! Maybe they knew their jobs were safe in part because its socially acceptable for men to act like morons?

  4. jchang4

    Depends on the generation that you refer to. Younger generations of women/girls are now matching the men in the areas of technology/science, which has not been the case in the past. I think what keeps some people from an active blogging life is that they’re just too damn busy.

  5. purgle

    I have considered having a blog on my website because I do enjoy writing, but I think part of the allure of music is that it can mean different things to different people. I think we’ve all probably had experiences where discovering the idea or meaning behind a piece of art changed your opinion of it, and not necessarily for the better.

    I’m also a private person, and there’s not much about me that I would want everyone to know, whether it regards my compositional process, the ideas behind the piece, or anything else that might happen on a daily basis.

  6. SB

    As a woman, let me describe women at the university where I teach music.

    Those women I know who deal with information, technology, and knowledge love to blog–for example, librarians or IT staff members.

    Those women I know who teach music see blogging as inessential, for the most part, unless they are highly motivated toward all technology–for example, only me in my department. But this is true of the men in my department, as well.

    Those women who are students would rather use their cell phones to communicate with friends and family than write about “an issue” in a linear way by blogging. It’s just awfully flat and linear as a way to converse, to many women (and men, perhaps), that multidimensional means of conversing trump, to most women students I know.

    What I like about blogging is it’s optional. It takes up whatever time I choose to give it. It’s also issue-oriented, which seems comfortable to me as a university teacher. It’s convenient for students, too, as a means to carrying out discussions. So I use it as a teaching/learning tool and am pleased with the results.

  7. Musika

    Hello Linda,

    I find that in general my experiences as a woman, especially in regard to violence, play an ongoing thread in my works…whether outright or simply an eerie psychological thread which weave my works into a frightening nightmarish web.

    What I have not learned how to do is how to celebrate my being a woman in my art and music.

    I do not know how to include the wonders of being female into my music without being banal, unreal, or even “pretty”. I always delve into the painful abyss that swims beneath the jovial surface. I am always angry, always afraid, always sad, always fearful, and my music reflects this.

    Perhaps women do not celebrate their femininity because it seems false – something handed down to us by men. Perhaps it is more painful than some women are willing to embrace. Perhaps being a woman lies somewhere beyond Barbie doll pink, but we as women do not know how to access who we are NOT in relation to man.

  8. siobhannp

    Hi Linda,

    I’d like to get back to the original discussion about a woman’s experience in music. I attended a women’s college as an undergrad and had a (female) guitar teacher who made a comment about male vs. female guitar students. She said that most of her male students only wanted to learn fancy Hendrix-like guitar riffs and licks, whereas her female students were more interested in learning chord progressions. I have often thought about this idea that males (in general, not speaking of everyone, of course) seem more interested in the individual’s experience of music (i.e. “showing off”) and that females are generally interested in the connections, or relationships in music (the group’s experience of the music). These are broad generalizations, but I do wonder if forces of biology and evolution have more of an impact on our creative processes than we realize.

    As a music student in undergraduate and graduate school I participated in many ensembles and saw this same thing happening in my percussion and jazz improvisation groups. Females were few in number in these ensembles which made me wonder, do we have an inherent modesty that prevents us from “showing off?” I guess this could also relate to blogging.

    In terms of a female sound in compositions by women, I think there may be something to that, although it’s hard to quantify. What is the “female” sound? Does it have something to do with “mind” music vs. “body” music? Is it in the composer’s relationship to an audience? Is it in the process of composing? Because music is such a human experience, any discussions of gender are problematic. However, I would like to see more research in the areas of gender and music composition.

  9. coreydargel

    If musicians incorporate their life experiences, their emotions, their philosophies, into making music, then why not speak more specifically about, and more directly to, those life experiences, emotions, and philosophies? Why reduce it to “male” vs. “female?” Isn’t it possible (and desirable) for men and women both to experience the feelings we categorize as “male” or “female?” There are obviously some exceptions. For example, a man cannot (yet) become pregnant, but if a woman is inspired by her pregnancy to compose a piece of music about it, she should call it a piece about “being pregnant,” not a piece about “being a woman.” This kind of specificity could be a antidote to the poison of shallow categorizations, and it seems to me that very few composers who are women appreciate being categorized as a “woman composer.”

  10. philmusic

    I agree with you Corey, yet I must mention that many artists, not just feminists, have such a particular experience with our messy world that they refuse to be subsumed into a universality that they feel is not their own; the AACM for example. Why should they?

    The actuarial tables and the male and female categories that the advertisers create and maintain to sell us stuff, including music, can not tell us who we are.

    Accepting difference also means accepting rejection.

    Phil Fried

  11. mlpbadarak

    I started this blog a couple of years ago as a means of publicly clearing and airing my thoughts about being a composer. I have to admit I hadn’t given much thought about being a “woman” composer – though I’m sure it’s sub-textual throughout.

  12. hieshbre

    I believe that there is something to be learned in your story of switching from more mind-centered composition to experiential composition. You mentioned that more women came up to you after concerts when you started composing experientially, I think this could be do to the fact that not only is there a feminine nuance to your musical story, but music written experientially tends to be more emotional. More women may have come up to you simple because you pulled at their heartstrings more with this music. Composing from the mind does not usually have a purpose that can be heard or felt by someone unless they have a musical background…while it is exhilarating to not “know” what is coming next, works that are inspired by a specific event or relationship, have a direction to them that is not academic, but very much an emotion. It is something akin to Arvo Part’s idea that each note is like white light which passes through the prism of each individual audience member to become something wholly of its own to each of them.

    More often than not (I am not wishing to incite riots here), women are much more sensitive and emotional than men, and when it comes to feeling the nuances of work, especially one inspired by something as life-changing as motherhood, women are much more adept at it. I personally believe that that in itself is a beautiful thought. It would be very interesting to see more research into gender and music composition, like siobhannp.

    Brendan Hieshetter


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