Woman Composer

Woman Composer

Recently I saw a former student at a concert. In catching up on things, she asked me if I ever encountered being labeled a woman composer. She and another fellow student had been discussing how they never identified themselves that way and felt frustrated because another colleague had done so. I was surprised, relieved, and somewhat saddened to hear her story.

I have a number of conflicting feelings about the label “woman composer.” As my contemporaries and I progress in our professional lives, I see very few women following us. It seems that there are fewer women entering formal studies in composition. I have noticed how colleagues are at a loss to find more than one or two qualified candidates to enter their composition programs who are female. There are even some schools with no women composers at all. Ironically, at a time when there are more female role models, mentors, and opportunities, the number of women entering composition looks as if it is drying up.

So, what has changed? When I entered college, it was the opposite. I entered graduate school in the early ’90s, when government affirmative action was still in and the first Iraq war had yet to begin. At that time, I knew of only a handful of professional composers who were women. But not one female composer was ever mentioned in any of my music history classes. In fact, in an attempt to find some music by a woman composer, I went to the local record store. I found nothing until I finally got to the letter Z, where there was one lone bargin-price record of music by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

However, in school I thrived. Even though all my teachers (save one guest) were male, they never singled me out for being a woman. I almost always had wholehearted support for my work, and when I didn’t, it had nothing to do with my gender, but with my style. In fact, the ratio of male to female student composers was 60-40 at my one of my schools. It was not the only one. As I began to go to festivals and conferences I encountered other young colleagues who also came from schools that had a significant number of female students.

Yes, I have encountered stereotypical sexism and discrimination from time to time. But that’s true for most professions, and I have not found it to be unduly more so in music. So while I hate being identified as a woman composer, I still find it necessary. And, while I cheer my younger counterparts for not feeling the need to use that identity, I believe they need to be aware of it. Like it or not, there is still a need to consciously foster and encourage girls and young women to feel free to enter this arena of music. For whatever reasons, women are still a very small minority in the new music field.

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5 thoughts on “Woman Composer

  1. NoraKroll-Rosenbaum

    You bring up some very important, and often echoed points. We live in an odd, “post-affirmative-action” time when composers in my generation are indeed straying from gendered identifications, opting-out of conversations about equal opportunity. I’m proud to be a woman composer — while I have certainly encountered sexisim, I have also had terrific opportunities and worked with tremendous people. I must say though, progress sure is slow. It seems like the number of women winnning competitions, being programmed, etc., hasn’t changed much over the last twenty years. However, there are some promising new competitions for women. Hopefully we are in the begining of a new upswing.

    This past Saturday, the Detroit Symphony, led by Carolyn Kuan, a fantastic young woman conductor, performed music celebrating the Chinese new year. Of the six pieces on the program, three were written by living women composers — Laura Karpman “A Monkey’s Tale,”
    Chia-Yu Hsu “Hard Roads in Shu,” and my, “Gong Xi, Gong Xi (Congratulations! Congratulations!).”

    The concert was a great success. I have to commend Carolyn Kuan, the DSO, and the patrons of the orchestra who consciously made an effort to program music by living women composers. I was particularly moved by the fact that in a holiday celebration like this, with so many children in attendance, it was tremendously powerful for all of the girls in the audience to have the opportunity to meet living women composers and a woman conductor. The greater the visibility, the more change we will all experience.

  2. hausorob

    Over the past few months I’ve begun a radio program that’s been focusing on composers in various regions and cities around the country. I’ve been pleasantly surprised not only on how many female composers I’ve been able to program so far (and plan to program) but also by the fact that they can be found in many areas around the country (and not in just one or two metropolitan locations). The fact that you can find composers like Belinda, Alex Shapiro, Judith Lang Zaimont, Melissa Hui, Carolyn Bremer or Pauline Oliveros in the west, Chen Yi, Cindy McTee, Maya Raviv, Shih-Hui Chen, Shulamit Ran, Augusta Read Thomas, Stacey Garrop, Libby Larsen, Laura Schwendinger, Abbie Betinis, Mary Ellen Childs, Margaret Brower, Orianna Webb and Susan Botti in the Midwest and Joan Tower, Jennifer Higdon, Eve Beglarian, Tania Leon, Lisa Bielawa, Julia Wolfe, Elizabeth Brown, Beata Moon, Alexandra Du Bois and Ellen Taaffe Zwillich on the east coast (just to name a few!) might mean that those young women we need to foster and encourage have a much better chance of seeing and meeting their role models in real life than they did in the past.

    Of course, that would all depend on the folks who program concerts – if their music isn’t being heard, how is anyone going to know about them?

  3. tubatimberinger

    just another thought
    In South Korea 80% of the composers are women. And they are really, REALLY great composers. However, 95% of the teachers of composition are men.

  4. beth@beand.com

    From: Beth Anderson

    In the 1970’s in the bay area, it was a good thing to be a woman composer. I was surprised to discover that there were women composers who rejected that description of themselves. I have noticed that some of those composers who used to deny being women composers, have after 30 years come around to thinking it is not such a bad description.

    Women composers are still not often included on new music festivals. There are still statistics about concerts and composition jobs where women are perhaps 2% and often, just not represented at all. And of course, we celebrate the 2% when they are included.

    Still, it is very important to have concerts of women composers’ music, festivals of women composers’ music, women performers, women conductors, women teaching composition, women writing music for movies and dance, women’s rock bands and like that.

    I’m not against men. I just want them to move over a bit so we all have room. I do celebrate women. One of the most exciting places I have been is the Washington D.C. National Museum of Women in the Arts. Usually I go to a museum and look at the tags on pictures to see which are by women but at the NMWA, they are all by women and they are amazing.

    And the Brooklyn Museum is about to open a big show of feminist art.

    March is upon us and we can all celebrate women composers and their herstory.

    And if you are in New York City, come to the Women’s Work series in March and see what all those women composers are doing. There’s at least one male composer on the series. It just happened that way. Women’s Work is an all-girl band with boys. We have a MySpace site (women’s Work 2007) and the poster is up on the GHA site.

  5. Joanne Forman

    I guess I’m an “elder stateswoman.” I very unwisely announced at the age of 16 (1950!)that I was going to be a composer. Said my parents, my teachers, EVERYONE: “Girls can’t do that.”
    Other things operating at that time were the notion that (1)unless you were a genius like Mozart or Beethoven, you didn’t have the right to be a composer and (2)because Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby didn’t read music, it was somehow second-rate to need instruction.

    Later, while noticing that the annual Composer’s Fest at the University of New Mexico had no women, when I pointed this out, the then guy in charge uttered that immortal bit: “Oh, I didn’t think of it.” “Well, think of it!” said I. And he did!

    At another annual, I had asked a brass group to read a piece I was working on. As I descended the stairs to the rehearsal room, I heard one guy ask another who the piece was by. “Oh, some old bag.” (I was in my fifties then!) I turned around and went away. (Today, I’d cheerfully walk in and announce “The Old Bag Is Here!”….a colleague, a bassoonist with the NM Phil, got such bad vibes from a piece grudgingly read that she’s stopped composing.

    Also, an Albq music teacher with TWO degrees was told to her face “We don’t hire housewives.” Today, they possibly still wouldn’t hire her, but they’d lie about it.

    I suppose we all have our horror stories. At present, I organize all my own performances–nobody else will do it–on the very small canvas of Taos, NM; I do put out CDs. My recently concluded project was a one-act opera THE FIXER, about Josel of Rosheim, the most prominent Jew in Europe during the era of the Reformation. This was presented at the Taos Jewish Center.


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