Scales of Justice
Fair and Balanced

Fair and Balanced

Scales of Justice

Scales of Justice by Michael Grimes (a.k.a. Citizensheep) on Flickr

Folks in the United States, especially those of us in the cultural sector, frequently pride ourselves on our gender parity compared to that of other nations, but we’re actually lagging behind. While the balance of men and women in the field of new music has inspired an extremely wide range of viewpoints on these pages, there has been less discussion about how we compare to the rest of the world on this issue.

One of the highlights of my time in Bratislava last month was attending the world premiere performance of Dorian Gray, a new opera based on Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, at the Slovak National Theatre. At the reception following the performance, many people remarked about what an historic occasion this was since the composer, Ľubica Čekovská, and the librettist, Canadian-both British experimental novelist Kate Pullinger, were both women. The director of the production, Nicola Raab, was also female. I couldn’t help but think that to this day there has only been one opera by a woman ever presented at our own Metropolitan Opera House, the one-act Der Wald by British composer Ethel Smyth which received its American premiere on a double bill with Il Trovatore back in 1903. (While the track record at the now defunct New York City Opera was slightly better—NYCO gave world premiere performances of operas by Thea Musgrave and Deborah Drattell and presented excerpts from additional works by women composers as part of its Vox Contemporary Opera Lab—even they were still nowhere near gender parity.)

The biggest part of the problem is the Great Man myth that still permeates classical music and which has also found its way into the new music claiming its lineage from that tradition. Until we rid ourselves of the notion that the best music of all time was created by a handful of men who lived an ocean away from us and who all died more than a century before any of us were born, we will never have programming that truly reflects the vast array of musical creativity all around us. It’s the same myth that locks American repertoire out of most programming at opera houses and symphony orchestras as well as music by anyone from anywhere who is currently alive. When a work by someone who is alive, American, or female (or a combination of those attributes) is played, it’s inevitably a single work wedged in between the obligatory performances of works by Great Men. Heaven forbid a major opera company or symphony orchestra would mount a season that included a broad range of works that were not penned by Great Men!

To that end, it was fascinating to hear from Kealy Cozens about how Sound and Music, the national agency for contemporary music in the United Kingdom, is attempting to make a difference. (Last week, New Music USA hosted Kealy, who is Sound and Music’s Digital, Development and Communications Assistant, as part of a staff exchange sponsored by the International Association of Music Information Centres.) Under the leadership of its new Chief Executive, Susanna Eastburn, the organization makes clear in its criteria that “it expects applications to its multiple composer programmes to include women composers and that there would need to be an exceptionally good reason why this was not the case to secure funding.”

When Kealy explained this policy to representatives from various music organizations she met with during the week, reactions varied. While some lauded this initiative, others voiced concern that it was somehow forcing a quota system. But if most concert programs do not include a single work by a woman composer, many for an entire season year after year, are these programs truly reflective of the society in which we live and do they have relevance to today’s audiences?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

27 thoughts on “Fair and Balanced

  1. Allan J. Cronin

    You speak the truth here but unfortunately this truth is spoken endlessly without much effect on the largest concert organizations. There is very little surprising or challenging music being played on programs by major orchestras in this country and I think that is a direct result of currently accepted marketing strategies.
    The aim is purely to sell tickets, not necessarily fill the seats. So the programming is consistently linked to a general paradigm calculated to please and careful not to offend. I would suggest that the current strategies in programming of major orchestras, opera companies and pretty much all classical broadcast music stations would have left out many masterpieces had these strategies been in effect at an earlier time.
    Who would program something like “Rite of Spring” or “Moses und Aron”? Who would be willing to produce “Die Soldaten” or “Einstein on the Beach”? That might scare audiences away, right? But many masterpieces failed to please audiences at their premieres.
    I think that challenging programming which is focused on encouraging the best a culture has to offer at a given time is a long way off right now.

  2. Kyle Gann

    Frank, I completely agree with you in principle, but surely this is raising a single anecdote to the status of a statistic. The Metropolitan Opera cannot be taken as emblematic of American music organizations in general. In all my years at the Village Voice, I found the representative programming of women composers at festivals and major new-music centers in the USA, if still insufficient, many times higher than it was in Europe, especially central Europe. The Balkan countries may be exceptional: Serbia, for instance, remains, as far as I know, the only country whose most paradigmatic modernist composer was a woman, Lubica Maric. But in general, far from lagging behind, I really think the USA – all its myriad faults notwithstanding – gives women composers far more visibility than any other country.

    1. Kyle Gann

      Ljubica Maric, excuse me (and I can’t do the Serbian diacritical markings on my computer); she’s an amazing composer.

    2. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      Kyle, I will regretfully concede that programming at major musical institutions in the other countries I mentioned also have quite a long way to go toward gender parity. Last week’s announcement of the 2013 British Composer Awards, which awarded 13 prizes to 13 male composers has caused a significant bru-ha-ha in the U.K.. But do you really believe that the “USA […] gives women composers far more visibility than any other country”? That funding paradigm currently in place at Sound and Music as well as that premiere I saw in Slovakia at the nation’s most prominent opera house, while admittedly more anecdotal than of statistical significance as you pointed out, do not have immediate American parallels that I can think of which is why I wanted to call attention to them and get a discussion going here.

      As I stated in the essay, I think the lack of consistent programming of women composers, both historic and contemporary, is a tremendous lacuna in classical music programming overall. This is a worldwide problem and it is unfortunately a legacy that new music inherits when it wants to follow in classical music’s footsteps with its sycophantic worship of the “Great Men.” On this last trip, I observed frescoes of important composers that greet visitors at the Vienna Staatsoper as well as composer busts inside the main hall of the Konzerthaus Berlin. (I sat underneath Berlioz during an all-Bernstein concert I attended there on November 15.) Like many venues throughout the world (including one in Albany I wrote about back in February), among these “great men,” there is not a single woman. Yet, though this is obviously anecdotal as well, before Germany adopted the euro, an image of a woman composer, Clara Schumann, graced the 100 Deutsche Mark note. Having such images as common currency (pun intended) are an important reminder which re-enforces the notion that creative acts are just not the domain of one gender, but are universal endeavors.

      1. william osborne

        In Germany, the Southwest German State Radio Orchestra is in the process of being eliminated. It is one of the country’s best orchestras. It is especially known for programming new music and is closely associated with the Donaueschingen Music Festival – widely considered to be Europe’s premiere new music festival.

        148 composers signed a letter of protest about the orchestra’s closing, but only 8 were women. 160 conductors associated with the orchestra also signed a letter, but only 4 were women. The combined m/f ratio for the two letters is 296 to 12 which is not so “fair and balanced.” These ratios reveal the situation women in classical music still face and add a certain irony to the letters’ cries for justice. .

        Kyle’s observation that the situation seems slightly better for women composers in the States is probably true, but Frank is also correct that this is a worldwide problem and that it is exacerbated by the lack of contemporary composers on programs.

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  4. lawrencedillon

    Just a guess, but I’m thinking as more and more musicians born in the 1980s and 90s take on programming decision-making, we will see dramatic improvement, because those musicians (and their audiences) were not born into the same acceptance of European white male prerogatives as previous generations.

    I look at the faculty recitals programmed by my younger colleagues here at the UNC School of the Arts this coming February, and I see five works by living composers. One of them is me; of the other four, three are women.

  5. Richard

    In other words…we should just dispense with the inconvenient truths of history and practice artistic affirmative action. By all means, let’s get rid of Beethoven and replace him with Gertrude Goosenslobber.

    1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      It is precisely your dismissive attitude that I was railing about in the essay above. While I’ve yet to hear any music by Gertrude Goosenslobber and doubt I or anyone else will in the foreseeable future (unless, Richard, you decide to write some and affix her name to it, since she does not exist), since you bring up Beethoven, there is a great deal to mine among the work of such historically significant composers as:

      • Louise Farrenc who, in addition to three formidable symphonies, penned the earliest known composition scored for piano and wind quintet (a tremendous work that is available on CD from cpo);
      • Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, the sister of Felix, who IMHO composed several works that are as worthy as his, including a wonderful Piano Trio and an extraordinary solo piano cycle entitled Das Jahr which has been recorded several times;
      • Lili Boulanger, whose sublime Pie Jesu is heartbreakingly beautiful; if only she had lived longer…
      • Dora Pejačević, composer of Croatia’s earliest piano concertos as well as a fine symphony, string quartet, other major chamber works, and excellent art songs;
      • Johanna Kinkel, a gifted melodist whose lieder are gems and who, like Beethoven was born in Bonn–I first learned about when I traveled there in 2010 and chanced upon a plaque bearing her name.

      There are many more who are worthy as well, but I’ll stop here for now. These pages are devoted to the music of contemporary American composers which include tons of fabulous women composers whose work can be explored further on other pages herein, but I bring up these historic European figures to prove a point about the erroneous “Great Man” way of parsing repertoire which does more to exclude than it does to enlighten. A broader assessment of the repertoire of the past, and making the music of our own time and place the centerpiece of it all, offers a much healthier listening regimen.

    2. John Borstlap

      Goosenslobber has been neglected to a scandalous extent. Recently, exploring the library of Saxony’s Women Information Centre in Zwickau, I came across the score of her opera “Schweinerdämmerung” which contains some fine sonic writing for amplified electronics, enveloping the orchestra which consists mainly of woodwinds and heavy brass. In the piece, 143 men are slain, and a damsel liberated from a dragon wearing a pope’s headgear, inspired by woodcuts of Dürer. The libretto also contains some humorous episodes, as when 15 (male) policemen are being disposed-of into the pit, showing that female composing does not necessarily mean fanatic seriousness in their pursuit of gender equality.

      1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

        Again all the vitriol from male commenters about the possibility that there could be women composers who are on par with the “Great Men” of classical music only proves my point that there is something fundamentally flawed with the Great Man theory which is toxic to establishing a repertoire that is broad and that can appeal to a broad range of people. Why are some men so threatened by the notion that music by a woman composer could be as rewarding to listen to as music by a celebrated male composer from the past? As further testimony to this threat, some even have to create a fictional (and, even more tellingly, misandrous) woman composer instead of responding to the very real and very wonderful music of the composers I mentioned in my comment above.

  6. william osborne

    It’s true that the Met has only performed one work by a woman — Ethel Smyth’s “Der Wald” 110 years ago. In the spring of 2000, The International Alliance for Women and Music wrote a letter to the Met asking that they perform a work by a woman composer. The Met did not even answer. A copy of the letter can be read here:

    Kaija Saariaho’s 2000 opera, “L’Amour de Loin,” will be performed during 2016-17 season – 16 years after the IAWM wrote its unanswered letter. This will create a 113 year gap between performances of operas by women.

    The Met has never performed a work by an American woman, and this seems unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.

    In late 2005, the Met initiated a commissioning program that included Rachel Portman and Jeanine Tesori, but the Met ran into financial problems and the program seems to have been quietly shelved. Information about that initial commissioning program and the composers involved can be found here:

    The program was reinitiated a few years ago, but in recent articles I have seen no mention of women composers being included. Here are a couple examples:


    Perhaps someone here knows if any women are still among the active participants in the commissioning program.

  7. John Borstlap

    “But if most concert programs do not include a single work by a woman composer, many for an entire season year after year, are these programs truly reflective of the society in which we live and do they have relevance to today’s audiences?”
    Is serious music meant to be ‘truly reflective of the society in which we live’? And how would this be related to the ‘relevance to today’s audiences’? It is not difficult to consider the patriarchal society of the past as unfair and based upon a misconception of gender differences. But if the great works of that past reflected their surrounding society, it is their universal artistic quality which makes them relevant to today’s audiences, who are not the slightest hungry to be confirmed in their historic context, since that is what they can find every day in the newspapers and on TV. It is a 20C myth that art can only be ‘relevant’ if telling audiences about their society.

  8. Brighton

    Until we abandon the goal of “programming that truly reflects the vast array of musical creativity all around us,” the best women composers will never be honestly appreciated.

      1. Brighton

        I take issue with the idea of tokenism as being helpful. The fact that there is “creativity” all around us is immaterial. Real composers who are female need what all composes need – an educated critical community blind to their gender, race and age. Professional orchestra auditions are conducted behind a curtain and female players don’t complain about it. Mediocre contemporary classical music is often given exposure merely because it was written by a young person, a woman, or a nonwhite person. That exacerbates the problem rather than fixing it.

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  10. Robert

    Certainly institutions should make greater efforts to perform neglected works of artistic value, and given the evident sexist bias, especially those by women composers. But the political (rather than artistic) goal of gender parity is insane and–it must be said–philistine, because it assumes that there is an alternative universe of unplayed music as good as the innumerable sublime, great, good, and interesting compositions by the “great men” that the world’s orchestras insist on playing. That’s impressive faith–and proof of naive disrespect of the greatest masterpieces. I’ve not heard Goosenslobber’s music either, and would like to, but really, your leveling instincts don’t begin to understand the singular position of Beethoven in the tradition you so clearly resent.

    “Until we rid ourselves of the notion that the best music of all time was created by a handful of men who lived an ocean away from us and who all died more than a century before any of us were born, we will never have programming that truly reflects the vast array of musical creativity all around us.” Mahler, who I’d rank with the greatest composers, died 77 years before I was born, and I’m only 25. Berg died in 1935, Bartok in 1945, Strauss in 1949. Stravinsky, who is almost a household name, in 1973. Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” performed by soloists of the Berlin Phil and Mitsuko Uchida last weekend in the Berlin Kammermusiksaal, was the most moving performance I’ve heard in a year of constant concert going. Messiaen died in 1993, when I was five. Ligeti died in 2006. Boulez is still alive. Jorg Widmann is just 40 years old. We’re dealing with a living tradition, the fact that most provincial orchestras (some of which are very good) are forced into conservative programming (because they would otherwise be even more hard pressed to sell tickets to their less musically informed local communities) notwithstanding.

    The singular emphasis on authorship–that is, on the composer–is highly questionable, and the political status of women might be better served by directing our respective attention to
    the important roles of performers as well as subject matter. To wit, the Berlin Phil debuted a new piece today by Hans Abrahamsen, dedicated to and sung by Barbara Hannigan, setting the 450 words Shakespeare gave to Ophelia. This is a feminist piece by a male composer sung by an amazing female artist.

    There is a contradiction to your reasoning which reveals the absurdity of demanding gender parity among composers (which would doom so many struggling orchestras). Women have indeed been marginalized by a patriarchal musical culture. Until recently they were not to be found in the best orchestras in Austria and Germany. This oppression of female creativity was not total, given what women did achieve against the odds, but within the industrial art of orchestral music–which requires extensive sponsorship for a composer to have a chance–sexism was naturally much more devastating than in the relatively much more private productive practice of writing. So there were no women composers, with Clara Schumann as the one exception, as central to their culture as Jane Austen, George Sand, George Elliot, Gertrude Stein, or Simone de Beauvoir. This is a shame, and we might work towards gender parity in the very distant future (given the massive historical imbalance it would take a lot of time to even out the strength among the sexes within the tradition). But surely sexism prevented women from realizing their potential–otherwise it would be no great offense. Let’s play more obscure interesting music, by all means, but let’s not say philistine things about the great composers.

    1. Barbara

      Robert, you make many good points. It’s simply a fact that patriarchy prevented women from realizing their musical potential on almost every front, and as a result there is very little repertoire from the “common practice” period written by women. These days, I find myself performing new works written by women as often as not, but the hope that we can make significant progress in correcting this historical imbalance is running into the severe headwinds created by the collapse in interest in new art music over the last few generations.

      Mr. Oteri’s post struck me as being much longer on frustration than logic. The sad fact that women have been denied opportunities to fulfill their gifts over the centuries doesn’t make the greatness of the music of Bach, Mahler, Schubert, Debussy, Bartok, et al some sort of historical “myth”.

      1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

        Barbara and Robert, I do not deny that “Bach, Mahler, Schubert, Debussy, and Bartok” are all great composers, the myth I decry is that they and a few selected others (e.g. Beethoven, Mozart, etc.) are the only great composers. There are many other “great men” as well as “great women.” I don’t suggest we stop playing music by any of them. But I also don’t buy into the notion that orchestras in “provincial” communities would be “doomed” unless they played the same small handful of unquestioned masterpieces over and over again year in year out. In the 21st century, audiences seem to want more choices so why shouldn’t a broader range be considered? From my vantage point, offering such a small spectrum of repertoire is the main reason that there has been a “collapse in interest in new art music over the last few generations.”

        And Robert, why pray tell do you continue to promulgate the fictitious composer Goosenslobber in this thread when there actually are quite a few real historic women composers whose music is quite worthy of canonizing? Sorry, but that strikes me as far more “philistine.” You mentioned Clara Schumann; I mentioned five others in an earlier comment all of whom wrote music that has deeply moved me. Kyle Gann also referenced Ljubica Marić (1909-2003), a fabulous Serbian composer whose music would co-exist very nicely on a concert program that also included works by Messiaen and Bartók.

        Still, the biggest problem in terms of interest and building a new audience for this “tradition” is that living composers are not at the center of what is being put forward. While exclusively programming concerts of works by only male composers excludes 50% of humanity, knee-jerk programming devoted completely to music by dead composers from the past excludes 100% of people who are alive today.

        1. John Borstlap

          All very reasonable and true.

          But the real problem is, that high artistic standards were set in times with a strong gender bias, giving the impression that only males could compose in a masterful way. Today, female composers have to compete with male superior repertoire, but in that situation, they are in the same position as the males, who enjoy a last echo of that bias. To ask for a genius woman composer in these days is, in fact, asking for a genius composer anyway, and that is a different question. In other words: both male and female composers suffer from the same problem: how to compose in such a way that new works can be part of the normal repertoire? But behind this lies another problem: for which scene is one going to compose? For the ‘contemporary scene’? (specialized ensembles). Or for the ‘regular scene’, i.e. the establishment concert practice where composers have to compete with Beethoven, Mahler and Ravel?

          I just want to say that there is more to the problem of gender bias in contemporary composition than meets the eye.

  11. Ragle

    Although I agree with the notion that there are many fewer female composers gaining attention than there should be, I’ll just note that when I attended Juilliard and Eastman (2005-2010), I could count the total number of female composition students on one hand. The same is true at the large state schools at which I’ve taught; the number of male composition students dwarfs the number of female students. There are many women being trained as performers (just as many or even more than men), but in my experience, there are barely any being trained as composers. Rather than asking why women composers aren’t getting a proper hearing, perhaps we should be asking why women aren’t enrolling in composition programs.

    1. John Borstlap

      Could it not simply be that ‘composition courses’ appear to be rather sterile and abstract to girls? Given the general nature of contemporary music, i.e. how it mostly sounds, it could be assumed that this does not quite relate to the emotional inner landscape of a budding young woman. Maybe if in the 19th century there had not been such patriarchal bias against female composers, they could have had a surge of inspiration, but in these times, the ‘feminine’ side of music seems to have disappeared altogether from ‘new music’.

      Without going into the gender discussion again, we could conclude that feminine and masculine capacities are distributed along both females and males, and that in general the feminine aspects are more generously found in women, as the masculine are with men. Artists often have a rather more developed sense of the feminine than the average male, but they are mostly performers of the traditional repertoire which offers lots of opportunities to indulge in ‘femininity’. Composition however, because of the abstract nature of the craft ( as different from the ‘content’), seems to invite for typical masculine talents like abstract thinking, rational planning and structuring. Since these things are considered ideal for most contemporary music, they invite for the masculine type of composer, and young women may find that not very appealing – unless they, for some personal psychological reason, want exatly THAT. It cannot be pure coincidence that the female composers I have met in my life, were short-haired, left-wing hard-core feminist types without make-up, a hard-edged intonation in their voice, a ‘no-nonse’ approach to most things, and lacking any quality which traditionally have been described as ‘charm’. In contrast, some male composers I knew or know, are quite feminine in their psychological make-up if they write tonal, expressive music (nowadays often considered taboo or reactionary). In other words, the type of music seems to be related to the type of psychological orientation composers, male and female, seem to adopt.

      And then: should there be composition courses at all? One can learn the things around it, which are meant to train an overall musicianship, like counterpoint, harmony, handling an instrument, sight reading, history, etc. etc., but the writing of music cannot be enshrined into a practical curriculum. If composition is taught as a practical type of skill, everybody can do it, and that is what we see: thousands and thousands of young composers, probably many more, are yearly produced by the educational institutions in the Western world, and most of them abysmally fail and change professional direction.

      1. Ragle

        Good points, but regardless of your feeling on the usefulness of composition programs, the fact remains that most young up-and-coming composers are given hearings thanks to contacts they make via their educational programs. You could be the best composer in the world, but if you lack the connections made at schools and summer programs, you probably won’t get very far. If women are not represented proportionally in composition programs, the chances of their works finding powerful sponsors and thus performances is probably minimal.

  12. Zax

    Hmm. Shame I’ll probably never get the chance to introduce anyone here to, say, Roxanna Panufnik:

    We’re actually dealing with several distinct issues here. Okay, so we’ve got this musical legacy dating from a period when female aspiration of any kind was routinely suppressed. We can’t undo that any more than we can undo Wagner’s racist views and we can’t remedy the situation overnight. What we should hope to see happening as the century progresses is that women who wish to create their own compositional legacy will be able to do so; we need to reconvene in 100 years to see if that’s worked out.

    The second issue we need to consider is whether there still are in fact large numbers of women who wish to compose but who feel prevented from doing so by a prevailing male hegemony. Complaining about under-representation is irrelevant unless we have some data that demonstrates this to be the case; to attempt to decide this purely on the basis of gender presupposes that womens’ aspirations somehow need to match up to those of men, which is exactly the kind of male-centred (does anyone use the word ‘phaollocentric’ any more?) presupposition that always subverts these discussions.

    If this looks like a re-run of the old ‘women don’t want to compete’ argument, which is supposedly there to be dismissed, this is in fact a similarly male-centred stance in that it presupposes that (a) competition is desirable and (b) of course women can compete as well as men! Look at all their, er, sporting achievements and stuff – er, all of which are derived from what were originally male institutions, whether we’re talking tennis, tag wrestling, holding boardroom positions or composition.

    Yes, composition is, by definition, competitive. It’s not even a question of formally submitting a work to be judged against the works of others; the very act of committing notes to paper or a hard drive is a competitive act. The composer is competing for the listener’s time against everything else in the world that might take up that time. I’m not sure if this counts as biological determinism or whether that’s bad if so, but my belief is that women are wired to achieve via co-operation (productive, equable and conservative of resources) and men by competition (counter-productive, self-referential and wasteful). Interestingly, whenever I convene one of my workshop groups devoted to improvised music (productive, equable and even conservative of resources in that it uses whatever skills the participants have rather than insisting they aspire to something ‘greater’), the gender balance is almost always 50/50. Whenever music events are organised by women they seem to be based on the principles of inclusion rather than offering prizes for whoever’s ‘best.’ Aren’t we all asking the wrong question purely because it’s the kind of question men understand?

  13. Brighton

    Be honest, the playing field is pretty close to level. The real problem is that we don’t have enough geniuses. Of either gender. Kaija Saariaho, Jennifer Higdon, Bjork, and Laurie Anderson have succeeded as well or more than equally talented men. They made it by creating amazing art, learning the business, and schmoozing the right people. The bigger challenge is getting rid of the “business” and “schmoozing” and directly fund worthy artists with tax money, because art is the best thing any society can ever fund. Other countries do it. American capitalism is the problem. Enjoy your football. Art isn’t profitable, (except in every spiritual way possible), and governments are supposed to be businesses now.


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