The ‘Woman Composer’ is Dead

The ‘Woman Composer’ is Dead


The principle of utu dharma, followed by ancient mystics, is summarized in the following statement: one side can only go so far before it becomes its opposite. To my way of thinking, this idea is quite pertinent to this very specific history, that of the ‘woman composer.’

To fully understand the term ‘woman composer’ and all of the historical baggage associated with it, it’s important to be aware of hundreds of years of challenges met and overcome.  Three years of research from 2007-2010 taught me that the main challenges to women’s authorship were the social structures of historical times, which manifested in the very personal, internal conflicts of individuals. The private writings of Clara Schumann, Julie Candeille (a composer who in 1795 had 154 performances of an opera she composed, and who was greatly scrutinized because of it), and Corona Schröter, among many others, poignantly disclose these conflicts. To give you a snapshot from 18th-century thought, here is Schröter in her own words (1786):

I have had to overcome much hesitation before I seriously made the decision to publish a collection of short poems that I have provided with melodies. A certain feeling towards propriety and morality is stamped upon our sex, which does not allow us to appear alone in public, and without an escort: Thus, how can I otherwise present this, my musical work to the public, than with timidity? For the complimentary opinions and the encouragement of a few persons…can easily be biased out of pity.[1]

In the 19th century, Clara Schumann wrote this in her diary (1839):

I once thought that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—not one has been able to do it, and why should I expect to? It would be arrogance, though indeed, my father led me into it in earlier days.[2]

Both of these are examples of the inner conflicts which reflect broader social struggles of the times. Schröter’s time period was bound by social propriety, one that considered it offensively bold for a woman to speak her thoughts outright, much less put them in print—a format that was then thought of as eternal. You can follow the implications therein. Schumann’s conflict, which undoubtedly echoes similar social constraints, incorporates self-criticism and rationalization (conflicts which also appear as far back as the writings of Hildegard). I offer these brief, yet specific examples to give a small cross-section of scope, history, and of the burden associated with the term ‘woman composer.’

Examining this subject can take you even farther back in history. Most fascinating to me is the idea that social, religious, and scientific philosophies upheld over time, in an effort to maintain a kind of social order, did not keep women from authorship, quite the contrary. There were many women who broke through constraints and forged ahead (sometimes literally endangering their own lives) because they felt they had something to say, and because they believed, deep down, in their own ability (even if they had to deny it with their own pens). As I researched this subject, I gained a more complete picture of the history as well as a strong aversion to the term ‘woman composer.’ Although it may be lost on a younger generation, its very use implies that the corresponding body of work is of a lesser quality; in effect, the term renders it a sub-group.

The middle part of the 20th century was a tumultuous and transitional time. As such, the term ‘woman composer’ may have been beneficial, if only to assert the presence of quality authors who were women, to wave a flag on behalf of equality, and to have a specific term to identify a cause. As Western culture seriously struggled to transcend issues of race and gender, perhaps the label was needed for a time.

To take a phrase from Dame Ethel Smyth, “if you put on your binoculars and sweep across the landscape,” things are quite a bit different now. We’ve come a long way since these earlier centuries when the act of women’s authorship (both literary and musical) had to be self-excused and rationalized. We’ve come a long way since the time when the act of composing was caught up in political causes defined by gender. Many battles, seen and un-seen, were fought on behalf of gender equality. What reward did those challenges reap for the artistic pursuits of today’s composers? A relative healthy lack of self-awareness with regard to gender. There is no shortage of new music composers, no shortage of excellent ones, and no shortage of women. The fact the Rob Deemer could easily come up with a list of 202 living women in the field is evidence of that. A mere 20 years ago, that list would have been much smaller.

It’s important to be aware of the history, so we can understand that the term ‘woman composer’ is nothing more than the residue of struggles past, persisting like a bad habit.

My biggest concern, however, about the resurgence of this whole subject of late, is the issue of programming. I’m sympathetic to the fact that International Women’s Day may have given understandable attention to, and examination of the issue across the world and even in our field, but I feel compelled to offer a different perspective than those previously expressed on NewMusicBox.

If the leading new music ensembles today are programming 8-22% composers of the female sex (as David Smooke’s pie charts maintain), I simply must point out that 15 years ago this number would probably have been 0-3%. But most importantly, I do not accept, and do not believe, that analyzing programming data is the way to measure success of composers in this field. Perhaps a better way is to ask young composers if they feel gender is an obstacle in their personal quest to make art. No doubt you will be greeted with total confusion and a look that betrays the thought, “Does not compute.” Perhaps an even better way to measure success would be to notice how many composers today have this healthy lack of self-awareness I mentioned above. It pains me to think that we are “celebrating” composers of the female sex by criticizing ensembles (who are supporting a diverse body of excellent works) for not programming enough of them. These ensembles are surely programming music they find compelling. I would hope they are not basing their programming choices on gender, but rather on excellence.

As I wrote in my response to Deemer’s article, it’s commendable to be aware of and in support of all composers striving to make art, but our first responsibility is to identify and program music that is excellent—which of course has nothing to do with gender. I would hate to think that my work had been programmed simply because I’m a woman—and in fact, I’ve declined concert and recording opportunities that were gender-based.

It would be a great detriment to the field if suddenly, in the 21st century, when we’ve largely transcended the issue of gender, to start focusing on it again. Neither art nor artist is served by segregation—even if it’s well intended. The moment we begin programming based on gender, instead of excellence, is the moment we begin to go backwards. I would encourage administrators, ensembles, and concert producers to examine a diverse body of new works and program only those that speak to you and those that you find to be of the highest quality. Let those qualifications be the paradigm, and an excellent and diverse group of composers will surely continue to rise to the surface.

It’s wonderful to celebrate the composers of our time, but lets do it by freeing them from our gender-burdened past. If we do this, then what happens to the ‘woman composer’? Well, we bury her. She is, after all, quite dead.

Who killed her?

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Shulamit Ran, Jennifer Higdon, and Melinda Wagner did when they won the Pulitzer Prize for Music Composition; Kaija Saariaho, Jennifer Higdon, and Unsuk Chin did when they were among the first to be commissioned by major opera companies; Chen Yi also did when she received the Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; Joan Tower, Libby Larsen, Augusta Read Thomas, Jennifer Higdon, and Anna Clyne did when they became composers-in-residence for three of our country’s leading orchestras; Jennifer Higdon and Joan Tower did by winning Grammy Awards for Classical Composition (to trumpet only a small few of the most recognizable names and honors); and so too did all of the young composers who have poured into this field by way of undergraduate and graduate programs throughout the last forty years or so. If accomplishment is evidence of ability, then the proof is in the pudding.

The ‘woman composer’ opened doors for all of us—and we have many musicians and administrators to thank for this. But it was in the late 20th century that this label reached its most potent point and even then it was just short of becoming offensive. Before this label begins to darken our doors, which is the opposite of its intended purpose, let’s let the ‘woman composer’ rest in peace.

I know I’m only one person, but to me, in light of all of these things and in the context of a very long history, it is highly insulting to classify a composer by gender because it perpetuates the myth of a sub-group.  It’s even further insulting to imply that our ensembles have made, or should make, programming choices based on gender.


[1] Marcia J. Citron, “Corona Schröter: Singer, Composer, Actress,” Music and Letters, Vol. 61 No. 1 (January, 1980), 21.

[2] Berthold Litzmann, Clara Schumann: An Artist’s Life Based on Material Found in Diaries and Letters, trans. Grace E. Hadow, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1913), Vol. 1 241-244, quoted in Carol Neuls-Bates, ed., Women in Music: An Anthology of Source Readings from the Middle Ages to the Present (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996), 154.


Amy Beth Kirsten

Amy Beth Kirsten - Copyright 2012 J Henry Fair

Amy Beth Kirsten, one of this year’s Guggenheim Fellows in music composition, is currently composing a forty-five minute chamber opera—without singers—for the 2012 Grammy-winning ensemble eighth blackbird. The work, about a diabolical and murderous Harlequin back from the underworld to reclaim his theatrical throne, will be choreographed and directed by Martha Clarke for its 2013 premier. In recent years, Kirsten’s work has been recognized by the American Composers Orchestra, The MAP Fund, ASCAP, the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the state of Connecticut—where she now lives. Before coming to the East Coast to attend Peabody Conservatory, she was a singer-songwriter for ten years in the Chicago area and played at many of the city’s smallest, but mightiest, nightclubs. Since then she has written music for orchestra, chamber ensemble, opera, and for solo instruments. She currently teaches music composition at the HighSCORE summer music festival in Pavia, Italy. Upcoming projects include a work for solo cello commissioned by Jeffrey Zeigler of Kronos Quartet.

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.

104 thoughts on “The ‘Woman Composer’ is Dead

  1. Sarah Kirkland Snider

    I hear you, Amy, I do. But when the nation’s leading orchestras are programming only one woman per season (and only in the chamber series); when male composition teachers in the nation’s leading composition programs are urging female students to take classes twice as hard as their male counterparts in order to “be taken seriously”; and when other of those teachers–who incidentally hold prestigious, influential positions in the field–refuse to look at a female student’s orchestra piece “because let’s face it, she is going to get married and have babies, so what is the point?”–to name only a few examples, all of which happened within the last six years–well, then, unfortunately, we still have a very long way to go. I agree that programming should be based only on excellence, but the numbers do not attest that this is happening; if it were, more women would be represented.

    1. Christian Hertzog


      What you have to say about the treatment of female composers in universities is far more revealing about the prejudices of Academia than the prejudices of performers and artistic directors. Aside from their being excellent composers, have you considered that the reason younger women composers such as Missy Mazzoli, Anna Clyne, Paola Prestini, and Lisa Bielawa have been so successful is that they bypassed Academia as a career?

  2. Amy Kirsten

    The question of orchestra programming has been used for a long time as evidence that composers of the female sex are suffering. To me, orchestral programming is way behind in general and can’t be used as a reliable measure of success, for any living composer. These are institutions that are struggling to remain relevant and unfortunately not all of them have figured out that the best way to do this is to program excellent new music.

    There will always be unenlightened people to contend with. To me, the most important question to ask is: are they more important than my work?

    By the evidence of your recent work, Sarah, and successes both artistic and personal, I think you’ve answered that question in the best possible way.

  3. Alvaro Gallegos

    The fact that several articles published in the NMBx since International Women’s Day tell us something.

    If all the music institutions in the world would pay more attention to the music of today, then gender would be irrelevant. But many are still looking to the old days when ladies like Clara Schumann or Fanny Mendelssohn had lots of problems being composers.

  4. Natalie Draper

    I agree with Sarah Kirkland Snider. I fully appreciate what you are saying about the term “woman composer” (which is a frustrating and highly problematic term!) and, to a certain extent, about programming, but I disagree with the idea that women do not feel that gender is an obstacle (not just in terms of success, but also in terms of staying in the field, of writing music, etc.). I certainly wish this were the case and I don’t doubt that there are women who are lucky enough to feel that way, but I have known plenty of women (including myself) who feel differently and have had different experiences (including things along the lines of the quote that Snider offered). I think far too often when there is a period of progress we tend to decide that we’ve “made it” and that any further discussion is irrelevant. Culturally speaking, I don’t think it’s true to say that we’ve reached a period of equality in this country, especially since there is still a wage gap and women are still objectified in the media (not to mention the current battles in states over reproductive rights). Of course things have vastly improved, but that does not make the topic moot. To give an analogy, as my friend and composer Sarah Hersh said to me recently, “Just because we’ve elected Barack Obama does not mean that we are in a post-race world.” This is an incredibly complex and multifaceted topic with no easy answers, but I think it does a disservice to women (and men) who want to talk about gender to feel that they shouldn’t–that we are somehow past that. Also, the idea that only “excellent music should be programmed,” while wonderful and fair in theory, implies that any lack of representation is deserved (which is particularly doubtful, especially considering things such as the list that Rob Deemer supplied).


    1. Amy Kirsten

      Thank you for your comments, Natalie. I truly believe that if artists focus on doing their best work, then the work will live. I also believe that if you ask composers how they experience the making of their art, that very few if any of them will say it is born of gender. If artists don’t experience their own art that way, then it does a disservice to the art to categorize it that way. Each artist is different, and each has a different path, and everyone will experience different things along the way. No doubt all of us, women and men, have met with difficulties at some point. But when I look at the history, and figure our tiny little selves into the big picture, it’s exceptional that in today’s America there are hundreds of opportunities open to our huge and wonderfully diverse population of living composers, and very very few of them recognize gender as any kind of qualification. This is phenomenal. Equality is certainly not a moot topic – but perhaps if we are going to fixate on equality in programming it should be to balance out the division between living composers and dead ones.

      1. Natalie Draper

        Thanks for your reply, Amy!

        Also…Re: “Perhaps if we are going to fixate on equality in programming it should be to balance out the division between living composers and dead ones.”

        Yes, I agree. As Alvaro Gallegos said above, this would kill two birds with one stone.

  5. Nick Norton

    I was just having this conversation with a friend last night, and it’s got some serious parallels to the numerous affirmative action debates. And I love the stance you’ve taken here.

    Yes, female composers have historically been at a disadvantage. But nowadays, with equal access to opportunities (education, recordings, technology to play with, internet distribution and marketing, whatever else), and the trend of getting more and more performances (which will continue), I feel like continuing to draw attention to gender can do a disservice to the music. The only thing that should matter in a conversation about music is music. If it’s good, I don’t care who wrote it. If it’s not, then let’s move on.

    Of course female composers are programmed less. For the last 400+ years, there haven’t been nearly as many. But now that equal access is a thing, and anyone with the drive and ability can build a career for themselves, we’d be doing ourselves (male and female) a favor to get over it and get on with the composing.

    1. Amy Kirsten

      Hi Nick, thank you for your comments. I agree, I think that it’s healthy to occasionally “check-in” with issues such as this, if only to make sure we’re not getting off course. The most important thing, as you said, is the music.

  6. Steve Layton

    @Nick, I have a feeling that there’s still not “equal access”, in large measure due to the holdover number of male composition professors. Women have made huge inroads there, but since such a large segment of the “career” of composer is tied (for better or worse) to having a secure position at some school, composer/professors tend to stay ensconced in their safe spot until retirement (who could blame them?). And for quite a while the overwhelming majority of those positions were filled with men.

    I think this state of affairs will continue to change, and I don’t want to imply any any obstructionist agenda, but I do think that more equitable turnover is not going to happen overnight. Not that there’s ever likely to be true 1/1 parity, since women in general choose composition for their life, far less than men do (which is a whole other can of worms!).

    1. Nick Norton

      Hi Steve,

      That’s a fair point, to be sure, but isn’t it equally true for both genders? I would say that I’ve got equally restricted access to a professorship as any equally-qualified female composer. In that respect, I think it’s more a matter of time than anything else. Also, I think that if there’s a gender/hiring disparity to be discussed in that regard, it’s got to be more focused on the general conditions of the job market in academia, and not so much on music as a field within that.

      On a complete aside that always interests me, I do like to think that the association between having a career as a composer and having a secure academic position is beginning to break. Zillions of musicians (outside of this thing that we call “modern concert music” or whatever else) have forged careers for themselves without ever setting foot in an academic institution. I think relying on the comforts of that possibility, as rare as it may be these days, does a huge disservice to us a culturally relevant music makers. Plus you don’t hear this debate too much in independent popular music anymore. Girls seem to have caught up and in many cases ousted the male hegemony in a lot of cases there. Just having a look at the SXSW lineup this weekend confirms that.

      Man, we sure do like our other cans of worms, eh?

  7. Jim Altieri

    I don’t claim any right to speak on women’s behalf, for sure, but I do take issue with your idea that the very idea of gender-aware programming being inherently insulting. It’s perfectly in your right to refuse these sorts of opportunities, and kudos to you for sticking to your rhetorical guns. But I also give kudos to ensembles who want their programming not merely to reflect the present world, but to also foster a better, more equitable, and more diverse musical future for all of us.

  8. Kristin Kuster

    Amy, like Sarah, I hear you, I do. Yet I disagree.

    The no-longer-living women composers you mention did not open the door. Rather, they took the handle and turned it, just so far.

    Of course very few composers will say their art is born of gender. For gender is not the sole defining factor of who we are–it is one physical element. There are those who choose to focus on one defining element, like gender, in perhaps one piece or series; yet most of us, in the MAKING of our art, also do not focus on other defining physical elements like our eye color, or height.

    Of course the most important element in programing is excellence in the music. Of course. That is an ideal, however, and not the case for most ensembles, large and small, and soloists today. Programming decisions are born of the complex needs of each presenter, and/or relationships formed with composers apart from evaluation of excellence, much of which is not within artist’s control. It is how it is, and we each choose how to best navigate that landscape as individuals working to get our art into the world.

    The state of “equal access” is not true. Nor have we largely transcended the issue of gender. Yes, there are some young women composers pouring into undergrad and graduate programs at universities. Yes, there are many more women studying composition today than when I was in grad school in the late ‘90s. Yet as I do residencies at institutions across the country it is still remarkable to me that each seminar room is not even close to half-filled with women. It is worth remarking upon.

    I look forward to the time I can wholly agree with your thoughts here, because they are important. At the same time, I think you are a few decades early with this. Today, I assert that the mere ELEVEN (eleven is not very many!) living women composers you mention above have not killed the woman composer, and I am happy she’s still with us. These eleven have simply cracked the door a tiny, tiny bit. Thankfully they have got their feet firmly in it, keeping it ajar.

    Lastly, I think it is a disservice to all of us to merely dismiss the “unenlightened people” you mention in response to Sarah’s comment. I believe there is a wide open door to educate the unenlightened even further.


    1. Jacquie Leggatt

      Thank you Natalie Draper & Kristen Kuster. I was trying to think of a way to respond to Amy Kirsten but you have both expressed my views so eloquently that I have only a little to add.

      I have a Doctorate in Composition from a Canadian University (1st woman from that school). My first teacher told me outright that “men are just better composers than women”, my 2nd teacher sexually harassed me while encouraging my feminist views and several of the male students were extremely hostile and sexist in their criticisms.

      This all happened 20 years ago but 20 years ago is not that far in the past and if some of the Republicans have their way, it will soon feel like 50 years ago and female representation in music concerts will be the least of our concerns.

      My point is this: Amy, you sound like an awesome woman; intelligent, accomplished, and talented, and I wish you every success. But the fact that you have experienced success does not mean that gender issues have been dead since Dame Ethel Smythe expressed it thus nor does it mean that all women in the US and Canada (let alone the rest of the world) have the same musical/educational opportunities as men.

      1. Amy Kirsten

        Dear Jacquie,

        Thank you very much for your comment.

        My point of view on this subject developed over the course of a three year research project for my dissertation. The project traces women’s authorship from the ancient world to 2010 (focusing especially on the last 40 years) and includes excerpts of many interviews with composers who are living and working today. Many of the interviews I conducted and transcribed myself, and some are from the Oral History of American Music at Yale University.

        As the article explains, when I looked at this subject within the context of more than a thousand years of history of women’s authorship, I noticed some fascinating things. One of the most important things was that there has been a monumental shift in thinking about the issue of the ‘woman composer’ in the last 40 years alone. It’s absolutely wonderful and quite extraordinary, actually.

        This article is not intended in any way to be about me and my own experiences, nor is it intended to remark on you and your own personal experiences. The article is about taking a look at where we are now in the context of history. My research tells me we are at a fantastic place to seize the opportunity to be free of the ‘woman composer’ for good. But as I also said,I’m only one person. You may understand the history differently than I do.

        With warmest wishes to you as well,

    2. Amy Kirsten

      Hi Kristy,

      Just wanted to pop in quickly to also thank you for your comments – I’m looking forward to seeing you in a few short weeks in Michigan.

      Best wishes,

    3. Sugar Vendil

      1) Thanks Kristy! You said everything I was thinking.

      2) I don’t think ‘women composer’ is offensive, but it is annoying…very ‘special olympics.’ And, more importantly, it’s bad marketing. I think it’s great if people make the decision to program excellent female composers, and that they should do it. Concerts like these should be simply advertised as other concerts would be, not an all-women composer affair. Fact: ‘women composer concert’ is not a selling point! Less people are interested when you mention the all-women part because it does highlight gender rather than an exciting reason to attend an event.

  9. anon

    It would be a great detriment to the field if suddenly, in the 21st century, when we’ve largely transcended the issue of gender, to start focusing on it again.

    we’ve transcended the issue of gender about as well as we’ve transcended the issue of race…

    1. Donia

      “Perhaps a better way is to ask young composers if they feel gender is an obstacle in their personal quest to make art. No doubt you will be greeted with total confusion and a look that betrays the thought, “Does not compute.”

      Dear Amy,

      “No shortage of women?” Where were you when I sat through 6 years of musical education as either the only woman in my classes or one of two or three (maximum) women? Where were you when in my jazz history class of 21 men and 1 woman (me) my male professor apologized to me as “the lady of the classroom” when he cursed in front of us? Where were you when I was the only woman in my electronic music class? Where were you when I was the only woman who graduated from my masters class at the University of Michigan last year, where last year only 3 people out of the department of over 40 students were women? Where were you when one of my colleagues referred to me as the “best female composer of her class, because she’s the ONLY female composer of her class?” as a ‘joke’? Where were you when I performed a two piano piece I wrote at the Midwest Composers Symposium with a male pianist? When I walked off stage, a man backstage went up to my male colleague, shook his hand, and said “congratulations on a wonderful piece!” When my colleague turned to me and said “Actually, SHE’S the composer,” the man looked shocked! Where were you when me and my friends who are composers and women would sit around and talk for hours about how much of a relief it was to finally have another woman in the field to talk to about these problems or just in general to relate to on these shared obstacles?

      You were dreaming. You were dreaming that we’ve transcended the issue of gender.

      Do you know how important it was for me, a young and aspiring composer to have a woman as my professor and to see her succeed in the field, knowing that there are clear gender barriers and it’s not always necessarily so? And do you know how hard it was for me, how many hours, weeks and months I spent searching academic institutions for ones with female professors to try to escape all the bad vibes of male privilege around me?

      How can you say that people of my generation aren’t aware of gender being an obstacle in our quest to make art or that the term is lost on us? Truly, I wish it was, but as you can see for me unfortunately it isn’t and people will continue to label me as a “woman” composer. The fight for equality and for women’s equality is far from over. While I agree wholeheartedly with you about needing to lose the term “women composer” unfortunately it exists because the system still continues to label us as such and still continues to program mostly white, middle-class men. There is hardly any diversity and your listing a handful of women who’ve won the Pulitzer Prize doesn’t prove much of anything.

      I love the idea behind your article, I really do, and I agree with everything you’re saying about killing the women composer, but at the same time I find your generalizations and declarations of equality extremely problematic.

      I have to comment on what Nick Norton said as well about women in independent popular music. They’ve really taken over, and if you just look at the Grammys this past year, women swept all! However, when it comes to composers there are very few young women or all-women groups I can think of besides, for example, Missy Mazzoli’s “Victoire”. It’s no mystery that men dominate the composition world, and that 1 in 10 composers are women.

      A list of 202 living female composers is nothing, compared to how many living male composers? There are about 40-50 young male composers in a single academic institution alone.

      Then throw in the minority factor. To be a young composer who is a woman AND a minority… to hear the things that people say to you. . . I’d be curious to read an article by a successful living female composer who wasn’t White as well, alongside yours, to see what her opinions on the subject or experience was. The composition world is not diverse enough, it’s not diverse at all, and for me having a place where I can program my work as a minority woman and composer is really important. It makes me happy to know that I can apply for awards through the International Alliance of Women in Music for example targeted towards minority women. I don’t always see it as problematic, though I understand completely where you’re coming from. It would be ideal not to program based on gender, of course, and only excellence, but unfortunately it seems that most programs aren’t drafted on either one of those bases.

      On the other hand, the opportunities for aspiring composers in America are amazing, and the older I get the more and more confident I become that my gender shouldn’t become an issue. I’ve felt that I’ve come a long way as a composer and that the University I studied in treated me with equality and fairness. It was a wonderful experience, but at the same time, the women who composed music, instrumental music (orchestral composers, jazz composers, electronic music) were few and far in between. One for each graduating class, to be exact, and we were all close friends and brought together by the fact that we were just that… so few and far in between!

      I have the utmost respect for you and your music, really, and you’re one of the women that I’ve looked towards in the composition world. So naturally when I read this I had to respond in this way. Like Kristy said, your thoughts are important, and I hope one day we will have killed off the “woman” before composer, but its still a little ways away. But I’m not too worried about it after all. Just like the “women” dropped off of “writer,” so too will it drop off “composer”.

      Thank you,


      1. Sabrina Pena Young

        Hello Donia,

        I can relate to some of your difficulties as a female in the world of composition and electroacoustic music. What made an amazing difference in my life was having the opportunity to study with amazing women (composers) like Dr. Clare Shore and Dr. Kristine Burns, working with a younger male composer Paul Reller who didn’t seem to care about gender, and interning with an amazing composer like Pauline Oliveros. From the beginning, I knew that I could do it not only because I was capable, but because I have examples in front of me.

        Perhaps one of the greatest challenges that women in music (or in any profession really) faces is the false sense that one must choose between career and family. As a young mom, I find that obstacles galore abound now, from not having opportunities in academia because I choose to change diapers over spending years on a dissertation to avoiding conferences because who ever thought about adding “childcare provided” to a computer music conference?

        I believe obstacles are meant to steer you in the path that you are truly meant to go.

        I have found that I can flourish creatively (diaper bag in tow) with performances worldwide, an ever expanding portfolio (including the Creation oratorio and my current opera Libertaria), and opportunities that I can take advantage of because of technology. I am a respected composer and researcher in my field (which is some weird intermedia hybrid of electroacoustic and contemporary classical music and film, or something like that!)

        I want to encourage you to continue. The tools are out there to make your career what you want of it. Your career path might not look like that of your male counterparts, but who wants to do what was done before anyway?

        Viva New Music!

        Musically yours,
        Sabrina Pena Young
        Intermedia Composer

        1. Donia

          Dear Sabrina,

          Thank you for the encouragement. I just want to state that I am actually feeling that I’ve succeeded in many ways as a composer thus far, and have been given opportunities despite the obstacles of gender. It in no way discourages me from becoming a composer. My masters degree education was an amazing experience and equal and fair experience that steered me in the best direction possible and opened up a whole world of possibilities. Thank you for your support and for your words of wisdom. I’m excited to learn more about your music!



    2. Amy Kirsten

      Naturally, if you take sentences out of the context they were written they sound foolish. It’s important to keep in mind that the point of the article is to place this subject in the context of nearly a thousand years of history.

      1. Donia

        That’s true, but you made a false statement in “ask young composers if they feel gender is an obstacle in their personal quest to make art. No doubt you will be greeted with total confusion and a look that betrays the thought, “Does not compute.” I called you out on it. That’s all. I answered your question honestly from my experience as a minority woman in the music composition world. No disrespect intended.

        1. Amy Kirsten

          Hi Donia,

          Unfortunately, the comment above was intended for the poster named “anon” but I must have clicked the wrong button by accident. I totally respect your personal experiences and have no doubt about them whatsoever.

          As your comments come from your own experience, the comment in my article about your generation comes from my own teaching experience (my teaching studio is made up of students who are all in their early twenties) and countless interactions and interviews with composers from your generation. Perhaps it will lift your heart a little to know that there are young women your age who, in their artistic work, do not feel burdened by gender at all.

          I’m not sure this will help, but I’d like to share with you the best advice I received as a young composer:

          “Think beyond your university community as soon as possible. The sooner you get out into the world and begin to create generative experiences for yourself and your work, the sooner you will thrive.”

          I wish you all the very best and truly hope that at some point in the future you will feel free of this.


          1. Sabrina Pena Young

            Hello Amy,

            As you mentioned, much of your experience stems from your teaching experiences. I think your students have been very fortunate to have a female mentor. Throughout my studies and my own teaching experience at the university level, I find that having an instructor that is female and/or a minority (I am of Cuban-Dominican descent), noticeably increases the likelihood that students of both genders and of a diverse range of ethnicities will become involved in composition and in my case, electronic music.

            Perhaps you underestimate how important your own role has been in shaping this idea of gender neutrality in your students? I do agree that obsessing over inequality can become disproportionately discouraging, especially since the technology today allows a composer to truly be gender neutral, or even change gender, with a few clicks of the button. Perhaps in my unique position as being a young female composer of Hispanic descent prevents me from seeing that we have truly overcome hurdles related to gender, ethnicity, or even age, in this country, especially in regards to academia.

            Thank you for your poignant article. As you can tell, you have hit upon so many points that are so valid today.

            Musically and respectfully yours,

  10. Smooke

    Dear Amy,

    I understand that this isn’t the main point of your argument, but since you cite my previous NewMusicBox post as follows, “If the leading new music ensembles today are programming 8-22% composers of the female sex (as David Smooke’s pie charts maintain), I simply must point out that 15 years ago this number would probably have been 0-3%,” I need to emphasize the fact that I specifically chose the ensembles included in my informal survey based on my assumption that they would be among the most equal in their programming. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of many groups that go many seasons without programming a single composer who isn’t male. I avoided those groups in order to look at ones that seemed to be working towards improving the representation of all sorts of composers. In short, the numbers from my article were not designed to represent typical groups, but rather the most progressive groups I could find in their approach to gender equality.

    I’m happy to see you publishing here and hope to read more from you on this site.


    1. Les

      Yes David!

      This is such a complicated topic. We have not reached the point where women are programmed at the levels that they should be considering how many are now creating music as well (or better) as their male counterparts -period- Most groups feel good about their programming if they even include women on their programs (BTW the same is true for minorities in general)

      1. Smooke

        Thank you, Les. I think you might find that my post from today (The Genius Myth, Part Two) happens to cover some of the ground you suggest in your comment here.
        – David

  11. Erich Stem

    I completely agree with Alvaro. If it’s true that we’re not seeing women encouraged to enter in or be represented on programs as composers – it’s only because of the fact that the classical music world and academia are still obsessed with the performance and study of old Europe. In other words, it’s not a gender discrimination issue more than it is a time obsession issue. If a field is obsessed with and stuck in an old time period (where men did dominate published material), then you are going to get a lot of male representation and you will continue to perpetuate a male-only club. In essence, the gender representation is only a result of the real issue, not the issue itself. Little girls going to symphony or chamber concerts who hear Mozart and Brahms all of the time will not stop to think that women are a part of the classical composers scene. Why would they?

    So, get rid of this and replace it with something more current, and the gender problem will disappear. But, the problem is that we are unwilling to get out of this mindset. The classical music world and academia is stuck, almost hopelessly, in Europe up through the 19th century. We can’t fathom teaching our young children how to read music with works by recent composers or fill a symphony program with a 4:1 ratio of living composers to dead composers works. We don’t even teach our budding professional undergraduates anything (with any true depth) about the music of today (and if we do, it’s only a couple of classes or relegated to extra-curricular events, like random seminars and masterclasses). But, imagine a world where we did do this. Imagine a world where being in the know about the “now” is not just nice or a specialty (or a “cause”), but a requirement for the professional music degree. Or an expectation from society! Imagine if all of our ear training, theory, and conducting classes were taught with a large part of it representing the music of today (or at least recent music). Conductors studying at universities would inevitably be required to know the literature of female composers (it’s impossible to know about the present without knowing the music of female composers). And, then that conductor gets hired by a symphony orchestra and programs what they know. The door, as Kristin put it, would fly open – for everyone.

    1. Sabrina Pena Young

      “The classical music world and academia is stuck, almost hopelessly, in Europe up through the 19th century. ”

      Hello Erich,

      And perhaps that is why, at least in America, that classical music seems to be lost to newer generations. I always compare contemporary music history courses to the medical practices of the late 1800s. God forbid doctors today were trained in 19th century medicine! Who would line up first for lobotomies, leeches, and who knows what else when there are clearly more current options available? Why do music history courses screech to a halt once they hit Schoenberg? (Not even Cage!)

      Is there life after Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler? What is the obsession with decomposing composers?


      And now I need to write, because I have procrastinated enough…

      Musically yours,
      Sabrina Pena Young

      1. Erich Stem


        Absolutely. When, I look back at my undergraduate education, I’m still amazed that my last music theory class ended with, “and oh, by the way, the 20th century brought a lot of changes after tonal function harmony – cool eh?” And that was 1994 – 6 years before the 21st century! My music history class mentioned no women composers – why? Because the text viewed the last 50 years as irrelevant!!! Why? Why are we doing this to ourselves? The comforting thing about all of this is that we are in the driver’s seat now. It’s up to us to change this curriculum and ultimately, our view of the classical music world. Now, if only we can find the time to change the world and write music… well, that’s just details, right?

        Musically yours,


        1. Sabrina Pena Young

          Hello Erich,

          Yes, my own undergrad music history education (which was a decade after your studies) did not progress past Schoenberg, involved studying exactly two female composers that were either related or married to male composers, and studying exactly three classical composers outside of Europe. My electronic music history course did bring us up through 2000.

          Perhaps this discussion would be entirely moot if we brought music history into the 21st century? There are so many amazing classical composers, of both genders, throughout the world that are done a disservice by stopping pre-Cage. When I teach music history, I do include studies on living composers (though the university wants me to stop at 1935). Perhaps things will change…?

          Musically yours,

  12. Emily

    Hi Amy,

    I agree that the idea of a “woman composer” as different than a composer is harmful and outdated. (I once went to a record store where all the women composers were filed under “W” for woman!) But aside from that, I disagree with much of your article. Good composers who happen to be women are routinely under-represented. For example, just today I received an anthology of 20th century music which had 31 pieces by male composers and one by a female composer. Woman are not 50% of the interesting composers of the 20th century, but they’re also not 3%. I’ve already written at greater length about this on the post by Rob Deemer, so I won’t repeat myself here, but there are a couple of things I want to add.

    You say: “Perhaps a better way is to ask young composers if they feel gender is an obstacle in their personal quest to make art. No doubt you will be greeted with total confusion and a look that betrays the thought, “Does not compute.” Perhaps an even better way to measure success would be to notice how many composers today have this healthy lack of self-awareness I mentioned above.”

    Actually, I hear many young composers who are women expressing frustration with not seeing people like themselves represented in concert series, textbooks, or the culturally prevalent images of who creates music. This affects their confidence, and sometimes their courage in putting their work out there to be heard. And here, on this very discussion page, you are seeing many women saying that they have experienced or observed gender as a barrier for some composers. (Obviously some women navigate the system really well, and some men don’t — other factors come into play too, but gender is a major one). So I think if you’re not hearing people say gender can be a obstacle, there are a lot of people you’re not asking. I wasn’t very gender aware when I was a student, and at that time I would have agreed whole-heartedly with your article, but 20 years of observing, experiencing, and waiting for things to change have really caused me to rethink my views.

    It’s interesting to me that when I talk about these issues with male colleagues these days, most of them seem very aware and eager to make changes. The people who I see providing greatest resistance to the idea of being more gender-aware tend to be women — it’s like we’ve become so used to fighting and trying to prove that we’re good enough that we can’t admit that there’s a problem. Or like it’s too painful to admit that discrimination still happens, so we have to pretend that it doesn’t. Or we’re afraid that if someone chooses our piece partly because we are women, then it must not also be good. Or we surround ourselves with our own, non-sexist communities, and stop noticing the larger picture. I don’t really understand it.

    Of course noone wants to have segregated concerts of music by women composers and music by men composers (at least not as a general rule), but until concert programs start representing good women composers in the proportions that they actually exist, we need people to be gender aware in programming. I, for one, am really glad whenever I see an ensemble has made reasonable efforts in this direction!


  13. Rob Deemer

    Good gravy – who would have thought that compiling a list of composers and posting it online would cause such discussion?

    I’ve already given a pretty substantial response to Amy’s initial comment in my own column on Friday (which she links to above), but after reading her own article here and the subsequent comments, I feel a bit more needs to be said.

    As I have mentioned before, I have had similar discussions as this with one or two other female composers, so I am not surprised that my column elicited such a reaction. Everyone is, of course, entitled to their own opinion and viewpoints and I think I have made my own views on this subject pretty clear – there is more work to do, and I for one felt that if I could be of some help in the matter, I did not mind spending part of my spring break researching, collecting, and coding such a list for everyone’s benefit.

    My concerns here are twofold. First, I am afraid by pulling the trigger on this particular argument without there being a very good reason for it ultimately dulls the argument to the point that it loses any effectiveness it may have had. If this article and the comment that it grew out of were directed toward a column espousing a programming concept that somehow segregated female composers, then the argument would feel appropriate. In this case, however, I went out of my way to suggest that the list was neutral in nature and was created with the sole intent to increase the awareness of these talented composers, and I feel that it is that intent that weakens this follow-up discussion.

    My second concern has to do with that awareness. What could possibly be wrong with spreading the word about these composers? Amy says herself – twice, in fact (in both this article and her previous comment) – that the most important thing is “to identify and program music that is excellent”. If anything, by creating this list I am allowing those who are in the position of choosing repertoire to do just that, with the added benefit that many of these composers are not in the typical circles in which many programming choices are made because of where they reside and where they went to school. If, by making this list, I was able to connect one composer with one performer, conductor, or ensemble because they felt that that composer’s work was excellent, then the entire exercise was worth it.

    I see this discussion as an example of the current state of affairs in the composition community – we can either choose to argue amongst ourselves, exchanging diatribes on an endless list of topics, or we can work together to find those issues that need addressing and actually improve life for everyone one small step at a time. I demonstrate through my actions which path I choose to take and I am heartened by the growing list in the comment section of my column that there are others who are doing the same.

    1. Matt Marks

      Hi Rob, I feel a bit conflicted about your list. On the one hand, I naturally loathe Who’s Who-type lists, especially in music. I can’t help but think of the many great female composers who are inevitably left off of the list. It reminds me of that Orpheus Project 440 thing, where it felt a little like a cadre of the cool kids (though I was uncomfortably a part of it).

      On the other hand, I appreciate that you’re doing what so many people fail to do when discussing the conspicuous lack of female composers in new music programming, you’re facilitating a solution! Identifying the issue is a necessary step, but I wish more people would focus on how to get more female composers on programs. Unfortunately, many choose to exert their effort on squabbling with people with whom they have minor disagreements (There is so a problem!), rather than using that time and effort to come up with solutions.

      But as I could easily be accused of doing the same right now, here goes: Maybe more groups and orchestras should commit to programming more females composers as a matter of policy. Social pressure is good and all, but is the “Q”-word really such a bad idea?

      1. Frank J. Oteri


        I must jump in here because I’m a tad confused about why Rob’s list reminds you of “that Orpheus Project 440 thing” for “a cadre of the cool kids.” Rob wrote the following in his original post which bears reprinting here:

        This list is just a start–I have collected names over the years and this is the fruit of that collection. I ask that if you know other names that should be added to this list, please add them in the comments section. I apologize ahead of time if I have left names off that are known to me–I’m quite sure there’s a least a few names that I neglected that will induce a facepalm.

        Many folks have added additional names to his original 202 (which seems a wonderfully random, non-judgmental number). I personally have added an additional 30 plus names and would have added more if I had the time to do so; sorry for having other deadlines. The fact that Rob’s list is open-ended means there is no ranking going on of who’s in and who’s out. All he did was create a space for folks to find what he described at the onset as “helpful” information and indeed it is. And the fact that it has led to such intense discussion and further essays shows just how important his act was.

        1. Matt Marks

          Ah, I see. I foolishly must have glazed over that part. Well, that renders my criticism moot, and leaves only props for helping to offer solutions. Apologies for misunderstanding, Rob.

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  15. Linda Dusman

    Last summer I finished a survey of women who recently finished graduate programs at a number of prestigious conservatories and schools of music. And while all of them applauded the music training they received, most of them acknowledged that sexism expressed in a variety of ways slowed them down as composers. Every time in which even unintended sexism prevents a woman’s work from being performed means a missed opportunity to grow as a composer.

    These sorts of disadvantages accumulate over time (see Viriginia Valian’s “Why So Slow” which focuses in general on the advancement of women in the professional world)–so that in a 30 year career, many women cannot achieve at the rate of their male counterparts because they have been denied the opportunity.

    In the theater world, there is a movement called “50/50 by 2020”–with a goal to reach gender parity for women playwrights by the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Might we in the new music community want to join them? (see

  16. Beth Anderson-Harold

    I did not understand how strongly people feel about this. I run a concert series called Women’s Work every March since 2004 in New York City at The Players Theater. I’m always excited to hear the wonderful works by women composers…just as I am to see the wonderful works of women artists when I go to the National Museum of Women In The Arts in Washington, DC.

    I agree that it would be great to be able to go to concerts and hear a great deal of music by women but in my experience, it doesn’t happen. What’s so wrong with arranging the performance of women composers and putting them on a series where people can hear them if they so choose?

    It is not a ghetto. It is a choice.

    Robb had a great idea to inform ensembles/performers about the women composers that are available. I hope they increase their programming of women composers. And in the mean time, Women’s Work is happening. March 26th is the next concert.

  17. Garrett Schumann

    Hello all,

    I think this is a wonderful discussion. Because it has conjured up a variety of responses within me, I ask you to forgive the discontinuity of my thoughts:

    Firstly, I want to respond to Rob, and echo some of what Matt has said above me. I agree the arguing in the comment feed is counterproductive (like Matt, I guiltily feel like I am participating in that palaver, but it can’t be helped if I want to contribute to the discussion), but I don’t think calling people out for that kind of behavior will do much.

    Rob, I admire your solutions-oriented approach (I try to have the same perspective on these situations when they involve articles of mine), but comment wars are a symptom of this medium. A well-written, compelling, thorough and provocative piece like Amy’s is going to stir up a lot of chatter, some of which will invariably lose her message, or the message of those whom she references.

    I think it is unfair to use this comment feed to diagnose composers writ large. Indeed, I think you’ve touched on an important issue in our community – that being the prevalence of petty infighting over unifying pragmatism – but using the 20+ voices on this page to make that point feels like a supercilious knee-jerk reaction.

    Ironically, it was this last point in your comment, Rob, that got me worked up and inspired my present response, so (and I say this sarcastically) I certainly embody the kind of commenter you warn against: I’m pointing my finger AND I’m not talking about the subject of the article at hand.

    Truthfully and sincerely, I am in no way incensed by your remarks, Rob, just a little surprised that you seem surprised that the message of Amy’s piece, and, by extension, yours, has become obscured over the course of this comment thread. Like I said, I consider such diversions concomitant to online forums such as this or Sequenza21, but I can see how someone could find my indifference problematic…and shoot an angry comment my way!


    Part of the reason I wanted to respond to Rob – besides sharing my opinion – is because I am, admittedly, unsure what I can contribute to the discussion of female composers. Obviously, I don’t share in their experience and, more importantly, I am hopelessly biased towards Kristy and Donia’s perspectives because I have personal relationships with them.

    Before I recuse myself, however, I want to generally second the idea that, “there is more work to be done”, because I think the more diverse the community of American composers is or becomes, the better for all of us.

    Women are not the only under-represented demographics in the world of composers – at least the world I’m familiar with – so, in addition to increasing the ranks of female composers, I think it is valuable to thank about how our art can become more inclusive to other minority groups.

    Because I can only refer to my own experience, I’m forced to be subjective and admit that in my own education and ‘time’ as a composer, I haven’t come across many girls or women, and fewer composers who are not caucasian.

    Rice University and the University of Michigan, the two school’s I’ve attended, both have one female on the composition faculty, but it wasn’t until my third year at Rice that there was more than one female student in our department. As Donia already explained, Michigan is about the same.

    If I may throw a conclusion into the fray here, I would venture to say that the “work” won’t be “done” until women – and other under-represented groups – become less exceptional in the world of composers. I don’t propose a utopia of diversity, but I think it can only help us if the group of people who do what we do reflected more accurately the larger group of people we want to care about what we do.

    In the spirit of solutions, I will proffer one suggestion that may help broaden the base of people who become interested in composing: community outreach. I know people (one personally, others in the abstract) who run after-school programs for kids in urban areas where all they do is create their own music.

    The backgrounds of the kids they work with are much more diverse than the composition seminars I’ve attended. Moreover, getting young people excited about self-expression in music is, to me, a clear first step towards their valuing music more, taking more interest in it, possibly playing music seriously and, perhaps, writing music.

    Now, I’m not sure if these kids write ‘contemporary’ music, or ‘classical’ music, but they care about music and understand the power of creating it. Whether that makes them ‘composers’ is something we can all debate in another comment war!

    Thanks Amy, Rob, Donia, Kristy and everyone else for the inspiring remarks and ideas,


    1. Donia

      Thank you, Garrett! It’s true, musical outreach and educational outreach is extremely important. It opens up the possibility of studying music to children that otherwise would not be aware and allows us as educators to spot young talent that we can bring into the world that would otherwise fall through the cracks. Such has been my experience in working with refugee camp children in Palestine. So much potential!

      I think it’s important, since Garrett and I are both University of Michigan students and alumni, to state that Michigan is a rare GEM and beautiful exception to the gender and minority barrier. The two years I studied there, I was a Palestinian-American composer, there was also an Israeli composer, a Turkish composer, an Indian-American composer, and many Asian-American composers. The diversity of sound was fabulous! There were also many composers from different socio-economic backgrounds across America. The professors from the composition department and across the board were also extremely diverse. I don’t know how I could have neglected to mention that previously in my comment. It is important to note.

      Love to all and I have to say this discussion has been exciting to be a part of,


  18. Philip fried

    Robb, no matter how you try you can’t claim ownership of someone else’s problem. Benevolence too, has it hazards.

    1. Erich Stem


      And, thank you! One of the most beautiful things about free speech is the right to hear what we sometimes don’t want to hear (or at least that which gives us the opportunity to think about our previously held beliefs and ideas). Because, this as you know, is what creates real discourse.

      For me, there is more to this issue than gender. We composers (both living women and men) are all feeling left out of the musical conversation in the “classical” music world. Orchestras, Opera companies, ballet companies, academia, etc., – all of whom take the majority of funding from local and national government and privately supported arts foundations and which were, at one time, living-composer-centric – are now excluding living composers from the party (requiring us to hold our own conferences with our own money, hold chamber concerts with our own funds, and well, create and fund our own composers clubs who host websites where we air our views!). My hope is that we take this conversation in a direction where we (both men and women) can come together and figure out how we can make our field composer-centric again.

  19. Judah Adashi

    I’m proud to know (as friends, colleagues or students) many of the people who have posted about this topic on NewMusicBox in recent weeks, from the authors of the original articles to those who have participated thoughtfully in the subsequent comment threads.

    In one way or another, almost everyone has highlighted – and contributed to – awareness: of the repertoire and composers that are out there, of historical context, of the divergent ways in which individuals experience the current climate in our field with respect to gender.

    We often hear about a “national conversation on race,” one that rarely if ever materializes. To judge from this thread, our community is able to sustain a meaningful exchange about such things.

    I’m heartened by this dialogue, and leave it feeling that there is room for a pragmatic idealism that acknowledges and addresses the facts on the ground while taking a broad enough view to occasionally transcend them.

  20. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    I’m mighty late to the game here, but I have to chime in. Firstly, Amy, thank you for posting this. It has been fascinating over the last several days to see lists, articles, and discussions pop up on this subject. I’m white, male, and several generations native to the United States, although I have been called (unfairly, since I’m not practicing and have little knowledge of my background) a Jewish composer.

    With hardly any research to support my opinion, and only a handful of anecdotal evidence, I have to agree with Amy. There are both philosophical and practical reasons for this. (Philosophy is easy– I do not want to see categories emerge within the creative arts when they can be avoided; as open-minded as many of us believe ourselves to be, from experience it seems next to impossible to escape the trend of recognizing artists not for their work but for their identity. This includes race, gender, compositional approach, etc.)

    Practically speaking, however, there is a lot at stake here. There is, no doubt an enormous problem with females suffer in academia (often if not universally), are statistically under-represented on concert programs, and feel discouraged by sexist attitudes of their male counterparts. But like Amy suggests, affirmative action in the arts may only breed a further ghettoization (is that a word?) of females. There needs to be a solution which cuts off sexist attitudes at the source.

    It seems there are two large problems: dissemination and perception. My perception of the experience of female composers in academia is that they are relatively well treated and respected, but this only means that I went to a school where this was apparently the case. From what is described above, this is far from common. Another problem with perception stems from which organizations are surveyed when gathering statistical evidence– if we look at major orchestras, not only do we find that females are disproportionately under-represented, but we may come away with the sense that there are indeed fewer females composers out there than actually are working.

    Start with dissemination, because without solving this issue, perception will not change. I can easily count on one hand the number of living European female composers I have seen programmed by new music chamber groups in the last few years. With Americans, it’s an entirely different story, where the balance is much closer to 40%/60%. This is where Linda’s suggestion of a quota comes in: without a mandatory dissemination of the music of female composers, I miss an opportunity to learn of their existence. This raises the philosophical issue that I start with: how do we equally represent without ghettoizing the subject? Perhaps ensembles that feel they have a responsibility to the community can try and meet and unspoken quota, where the programming is still selected (as Amy wants) based on the merit of the composition.

    Despite this I welcomed Rob’s article. I personally need to get familiar with more composers. That those listed are female is immaterial to my interest in their music. However, that they are female is integral to my familiarity with their music– many have been poorly disseminated, and as a result my knowledge of their work is nonexistent. Similarly, I have been to concerts of all-female composers which were not advertised as such, and it was only after the fact that I realized this similarity between the artists. Good dissemination breeds a more correct perception.

    No one wants to feel like they need help to succeed, and no one wants to look like they are holding someone’s hand just to help them get a leg up. So maybe if we stop talking about it, and simply DO it, some of the problems will vanish. Wishful thinking?

  21. Sarah Kirkland Snider

    Amy, this debate has been illuminating, so I thank you for that. Emily, Kristy, and Donia expressed my feelings on this issue very thoroughly, but I did want to respond to a few things. In your comment to me you said, “There will always be unenlightened people to contend with. To me, the most important question to ask is: are they more important than my work?” Of course, when it comes to the way one views oneself, no experience of prejudice should be “more important” than one’s work. But there is a larger, more problematic issue here: when gender-based prejudice comes from individuals in positions of power–those who determine grants, fellowships, awards, commissions, school admissions, etc., that prejudice has greater bearing on the course of a composer’s development than the strength of her work itself. And when this happens time and again, in instances big and small across our musical world, it propagates a cycle: fewer female composers make it to the top, fewer role models emerge for young female composers, and fewer young women feel confident enough to pursue composition. The situation is, of course, improving gradually–progressive forces always win out, ultimately–but in the meantime, I do think it’s counterproductive to downplay how inequitable it actually is.

    It’s funny you mention my own case, because the work I’ve arguably had the greatest “success” with has been that which has the least to do with the classical establishment, and which wouldn’t have fared well had I submitted it for support from classical institutions. For that project I went in a different direction, in part because I was feeling some then-disillusionment with the classical world not un-related to this issue. And that work, incidentally, was very gender-dependent, or gender-investigative; at root, it was a meditation on what it means to be a woman in a man’s world. But I actually feel that gender is hugely operative in all of my music, all the time. Like anything else, it’s ground up in so fine a powder that it’s hard to parse, but because my experience of the world is female, my music has whatever that female experience is in it, and I constantly strive to identify that female-ness and bring it further out. And THIS, more than anything, is what I wish were different about the world of composition for women: we learn to write from a male-only tradition, our teachers are nearly all male (I never had a female teacher), and we feel we have to prove ourselves by being twice as good at whatever virtues they’re extolling. It’s impossible to know what music would sound like were the history of music written by women with a few men sprinkled in the past 100 years, but I often wonder. It’s not that I think the emotional worlds of men and women are necessarily so different (if they were, after all, I wouldn’t have been so profoundly moved by Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, et al that I devoted my life to writing in their tradition.) But obviously there are differences between the sexes, differences in the ways we think, evaluate and learn. Wouldn’t it be interesting to live in a world where every time you went to a concert or stepped into a train station (or wherever they pipe in classical music) you regularly got complex musical glimpses into those differences? A world where there’s several hundred years of celebrated masterpieces by both genders, giving us real insight into how the two differ in musical expression, never mind allowing us to enjoy so many varied interpretations of the female experience? It makes me sad to think I won’t experience this in my lifetime. But I’m confident that at some point, if we all keep striving to be conscious of the need for it, others will.


  22. Justin Capps

    As a composer who happens to be male, I wouldn’t presume to make any comment on the experience of my female colleagues. The porcupine is too prickly. However, there are a couple of issues that have been raised that make me concerned about the way we regard these matters.

    Firstly: There are certainly individuals in positions of power – whether they are highly lauded composers who teach at festivals, long-standing academic faculty, or judges for various prize competitions – who may hold offensive and sexist views, some even being so callous and insensitive as to openly express them. It is important to remember that many of the people in such positions are advanced in their careers, older, and rose to prominence in a time when such attitudes were standard form, even encouraged. Because these generations have not yet retired or been roundly penalized, they linger with the capacity to continue thoughtlessly regurgitating unfounded gender-based diatribes. That does not mean, however, that the situation isn’t improving. I hope that younger composers, poised to join faculties or to ascend the ranks, will bring an unbiased new order, and none of the young composers that I know has ever uttered such nonsense in my vicinity, so I have faith for the future. And though I would not dare to discount the trauma and violation suffered by those who have endured sexual harassment, it seems worthwhile to avoid letting the experiences of these composers and musicians stand as a damning commentary on the state of the entire field, just as such incidents when they occur in public schools do not reflect the condition everywhere else. The offenders should be called to account, as possible, and then we can help to motivate the macro-level turnover that will continue to displace these outmoded beliefs.

    Secondly: Statistics are trouble. Always trouble. Wonderful music by living composers should be heard, and it often isn’t. If we view the matter as one in flux, with an increasing number of women choosing to pursue composition, then this implies that there is of necessity a certain lag time that will be borne out by a variety of statistical analyses. According to Lisa Hersch’s excellently written “Lend Me a Pick Ax”, as of 2008, approximately “30 percent of composition students in American colleges and conservatories” were women. For the 2006-2007 season, members of the League of American Orchestras programmed 160 works written from 1982-2007, and 19 were written by women (11.875 %).

    Re: counter)induction – 13/80 (16.25 %);

    Other Minds – 29/115 (25.2 %);

    Bang on a Can – 8/36 (22.2 %);

    Pulitzer Prize – 4/29 (updated to include Jennifer Higdon’s award: 13.8 %);

    Guggenheim Fellowships for Music Composition – 68/596 (updated to include 2009-2011, which happens to be the period when Dr. Kirsten herself received one: 11.4 %, with 10/34, or 29.4 % going to women in that window); also, since these awards are frequently given to jazz composers as well, there is further gender distortion related to the underrepresentation of females in jazz, which is not explicitly reflective of the “art music” world’s own travails.

    It would seem that the rate of honoring female composers or taking on their works is catching up to their proportional representation in academic programs. Additionally, since the Pulitzer Prize is effectively a mid-late career honor, and the Guggenheim count extends back to 1925, these figures are heavily swayed by a disappointingly sexist past, but not indicative of an overwhelmingly ongoing anti-“woman composer” agenda. The same is true of orchestral programming. These groups are drawing on a repertoire that is hundreds of years old, and throughout most of that time, there were no women whose voices were heard. With such a preference for the “music of the dead”, as I like to call it, even if we were to grant living composers an absurdly inflated 40 % of the programming spots, taking the 30 % figure, that would translate to 12 % of orchestral programming for living female composers, in a perfectly gender-balanced, quality unconsidered world. Is that the goal? Things are changing, and change takes time. But it’s happening.

    1. Alvaro Gallegos

      Yeah, is just a matter of time. As more and more composers of the present are women, there’s no reason whey they shouldn’t be performed in equal terms as male composers. It is changing, indeed.

      This article, as well as Rob Deemer’s list and Alex Gardner’s article that started it all, have opened the doors for fascinating insights that are signs. At least I’m very optimistic about the future and all the girls who want to be composers.

  23. Judd Greenstein

    To fully understand the term ‘woman composer’ and all of the historical baggage associated with it, it’s important to be aware of hundreds of years of challenges met and overcome.

    Although it may be lost on a younger generation, its very use implies that the corresponding body of work is of a lesser quality; in effect, the term renders it a sub-group.

    The history of civil rights — the history of “challenges met and overcome” — is a history, not of pretending that what you call “subgroups” do not exist, but of articulating those distinctions so as to bring to light the disparate treatment afforded to different populations. We are all members of “subgroups”. I am a male composer. I am a Jewish composer. I am a White composer. I am a heterosexual composer. The privilege afforded to me by those characteristics does not make me “neutral”, or merely a part of the larger group called “composer”, even though three of those personal attributes put me squarely in the vast majority of known/celebrated/remembered composers active throughout history, and even today. There is no such thing as “neutral”, or “just a composer”.

    Calling someone a “woman composer” can certainly be insulting, if it is meant to stand in distinction to a “normal” composer. That is obviously offensive. And, as you point out through your brief history lesson, that is the ugly, traditional use of the term — as a contradistinction to normal/real/regular (male) composers. From that standpoint, of course we all want to erase that distinction, with its implications of power and quality, suggesting normal/male as better and other/woman as worse. But it’s a tremendous leap to suggest that this is how the term is used today, or that this is the only way that the term can be used. Today, we continue to need the term, to keep the idea of the “woman composer” alive, for two reasons, one political and the other personal.

    The first problem with retiring the idea of the “woman composer” (I struggle to even write these words, because this idea seems nonsensical on its face, unless you bar women from writing music) is political. If we stop discussing gender, we obviously substantially diminish our ability to talk about the power differentials that exist on that basis. You write extensively about the wonderful present and the even-brighter future, where bias against women is negligible and diminishing by the day (as seen by the gap between where we were and where we are now). But not everyone in the comments section feels as you do. Should those composers not be able to speak in terms of their gender, and in terms of the differential treatment that they perceive on that basis? When, exactly, was the moment when there was just enough positive treatment of women in the field of contemporary music that the term became anachronistic? 1970? 1990? Last week? And whose standpoint informs this decision?

    Bias is complicated. We tend to overemphasize personal bias (racist or sexist or classist acts) and ignore structural bias (racist or sexist or classist systems), at our peril. It’s easy, for example, for me to not think of myself as racially biased, and therefore not responsible for the preposterous underrepresentation of people of color on the Ecstatic Music Festival. But there are structural factors in play that lead to the vast majority of solicitations that I receive for the festival coming from White artists, many of whom I know personally, or have at least met, through the predominantly-White networks that I inhabit. If I only look within those networks for artists on the festival, if I merely choose the work of “highest quality” from among that pile, can I excuse myself from charges of racial bias? Or am I culpable for perpetuating the structural biases that have grown up around me, that brought me to my current position, and which continue to subtly work against people of color? If I choose the latter, and resolve to work harder to find people of color who meet the criteria of the festival — including excellence — am I transgressing my responsibility to choose the most excellent work from that initial pile? The author writes, “I would encourage administrators, ensembles, and concert producers to examine a diverse body of new works” — but how can I do this without taking race, in the case I discuss, into account? Isn’t the same true for gender, in a field that is skewed in favor of men, and has always been?

    Seeing difference — accepting the idea of the “woman composer” — allows us to even have this conversation. Otherwise, you’re left with ignoring structural biases and the possible remedies for that form of bias, and are instead left with the the false, simplistic, frankly insulting depiction of gender-consciousness as taking the form of a supposed “choice” between the “more-qualified male candidate” and the “less-qualified female candidate”. That distinction is better left for race-baiting GOP campaign commercials.

    That’s the political argument for keeping the term “woman composer” alive, but it’s a term that can be not merely politically descriptive, but also personally meaningful — and that’s the second problem with trying to “kill” the term. Sarah touches on the possibility — rendered impossible to discuss because of the legacy of sexism in our field — that men and women might approach composition in different ways. I genuinely don’t know how I feel about that theory, but I do know that people should have the freedom to proclaim their art, or aspects of it, as an expression of their identities and all the subsets that they perceive as important within those identities. No one bats an eye when I describe myself as a Jewish composer, in the context of discussing Sh’lomo or Hamakom or any of my other overtly Jewish-themed works. Why should this be different for women? Women need to be able to talk about their work in terms of their gender, if they choose to do so. And yes, it’s really complicated. Should a non-Jewish scholar be “allowed” to talk about the “Jewishness” in works that I don’t perceive as having anything to do with my identity? Should that scholar be “allowed” to talk about Sarah’s purely instrumental works in terms of her female identity? These are challenging, difficult questions, but they are in no way answered or solved by pretending that difference does not exist, or by diminishing our ability to talk about our art in terms of our identity.

    In the end, it is strange — to put it mildly — to think that we should stop discussing gender in a world where major musical institutions routinely program no works by women, where even a stacked survey of new music institutions (the most likely subgroup to program works by female composers) reveals that works by women constitute only 8-22% of programming, and where society at large is engaged in regressive, anti-feminist practices all the time. But it would be hardly less strange even if our world were more equitable. As long as there are real differences between people, we will need ways to discuss them. Even if we kill the old meaning of the term “woman composer”, we continue to require the new one — a term that is empowering rather than demeaning, emphasizing a woman’s right to be herself in society and in our field. If the “Woman Composer” is Dead, then Long Live the Woman Composer.

    1. Joe Phillps

      As someone who has to struggle against the similar moniker ‘black’ composer, I find the discussion interesting. In the recent book by Touré “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?” among many salient points he describes two generations of artists who are black: an earlier generation (contemporaneous with the early Civil Rights pioneers-early 20th c. to 60s) who ‘had’ the responsibility to represent the race, to depict themes that larger society ignored or dismissed and a later ‘post-black’ generation that was unburdened by the requirement of only representing the race.

      sure a descriptor like ‘women’ or ‘black’ or ‘Jewish’ might seem innocuous in theory but as someone who has to live everyday with the subtle implications of being “defined” by others by those perceptions of what those terms mean, I feel that they are anything but. Now I don’t define or limit myself nor do any of my circle of friends and contemporaries, but as Judd points, out there are systemic cultural/political/bureaucratic forces that make any “gender or race blindness” a fantasy. Not that anyone really wants blindness; of course those monikers are part of who we are and we don’t want to deny this, but rather seek not to have this limit in any way. someday it would be wonderful to say “woman composer” or “black composer” and have it really mean nothing but a descriptor but it isn’t today.

  24. Laura Karpman

    I could spend all day responding to all of this, but put simply, Are You Kidding Me? It is not an equal playing field and there is no reason to say that it is. Progress aside, we can’t stop the conversation before equity is actually achieved. I congratulate you though for a bold and brave article.
    Laura Karpman

  25. Frances White

    What a great discussion! Judd, I particularly appreciated your very thoughtful comment. Amy, as so many others have said, I hear you! And several years ago, would have agreed whole-heartedly. But I guess I have become more pragmatic of late. Of course I want to be thought of as a composer, not a “woman composer”, and of course I don’t want my music programmed just because I’m a woman. But I also don’t want my music NOT programmed just because I’m a woman and I’m not part of the right “old boy’s network” and therefore am not on anybody’s radar.

    You say we should focus on programming excellent music – well, sure, but who gets to decide what music is excellent and what is not? Is it always just the same people making these decisions? How can we get a more varied pool of people to make such decisions, and for what reasons? These include style, but also, I think they includes sex. Not that anybody is out there being deliberately sexist, but people program stuff they know, by people they hang out with and/or names they recognize and know their audiences will recognize (that’s how they sell tickets!). Male composers, in general, have much more name recognition, so of course they are thought of first. I think its obvious that men’s music is programmed to a much greater extent than women’s, particularly in the “big” venues like orchestral and opera: if that really is a battle of the 20th century, and its over now, then its a battle that we’ve lost.

    This is all related, I believe, to the problems in academia, which for better or worse has such a strong influence on our field. There are prominent university composition departments that have not a single woman on the faculty, and nobody thinks a thing of it. And those male professors often go on to hire more men, because many men do not feel comfortable with women as colleagues. And this is how the power structure is perpetuated. I think its a bit of a vicious cycle, because often the status quo is what is considered to be what is excellent, simply because its what we hear about, what we see in print and in reviews, etc. Maybe the only way to break this vicious cycle is to deliberately try to seek out music by woman. Music that is every bit as wonderful, but which just maybe nobody ever heard about. I think Rob’s list is a great idea, all he is trying to do is draw the attention of performers and ensembles to work that they might not be aware of, but might really respond to and want to play were they to get to know it!

    1. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

      Frances- this is a wonderfully positive response!

      “Maybe the only way to break this vicious cycle is to deliberately try to seek out music by woman. Music that is every bit as wonderful, but which just maybe nobody ever heard about.”

      I love this idea, and I couldn’t agree more. I was lucky to have a M/F ratio of 3/2 on my comp faculty, and all three of my teachers have been female. But most people do not get to see many (if any) female composers in positions of authority, recognition, or success. We can gripe about universities all day long, but that’s a waste of time.

      As far as I’m concerned, we can kiss goodbye the idea of waiting for academia to lead the charge. If we want to see change, we have to be proactive. We have to program our own concerts (as I do), we have to choose which ensembles and concerts we support, and we have to voice our opinion to programmers.

      Major symphony orchestras can kiss my butt as well. I, a male, am only marginally more likely (statistically) to be programmed than my female “counterparts,” and that is not about to change. The change needs to come from the audience, from the people in a position to make their own performances.

  26. Pingback: Post-concert beers and the ‘woman composer’ question « Ellen McSweeney

  27. Eve Beglarian

    my humble proposal is that from now on we advertise EVERY SINGLE concert of all male composers as a “Men Composers Festival.”

    this is a complete unedited list of email event announcements I have received in the last six hours:

    MEN COMPOSERS FESTIVAL installment #1
    Fulcrum Point New Music Project goes Ivy League: Harvard
    music by Ken Ueno, Randall Woolf, Peter Lieberson, Paul Moravec

    MEN COMPOSERS FESTIVAL installment #2
    The Formalist Quartet, with Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist, soprano
    music by Janacek, Shostakovich, Takemitsu, Harold Budd, Henry Purcell

    MEN COMPOSERS FESTIVAL installment #3
    Center for Contemporary Opera
    Cage Double Bill (music by Cage and Satie)

    NB: EXCEPTION!!!!!
    Brooklyn Philharmonic Brooklyn Village Project
    music by David T. Little, Matt Mehlan, SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER, Copland, Beethoven

    this is an admittedly completely skewed sample, just whatever randomly got sent to me in the last few hours. ONE female composer on four events programmed by honorable ensembles to whom I mean absolutely no disrespect.

    but, really?! ONE female composer in the lot, and we’re gonna argue about whether we’re in a post-sexist society?

    just sayin, people, just sayin…

    1. Justin Capps

      I would again suggest that part of this is due to historical biases rather than ongoing ones.

      Concert 1: was programmed with Harvardian gender-issues ingrained, and again, these are mid-late career individuals, with the youngest composer being in his early 40s (and one recently deceased).

      Concert 2: dead men and Harold Budd, in his mid-70s

      Concert 3: dead men

      Concert 4: 3 living composers, 2 dead ones. Of the living composers, 1 of the 3 is a woman. Above the accepted 30 % of academic enrollments.

      We’re trying to overcome a long history of unapologetic sexism in music. Is there still a long way to go? Absolutely. Is the situation better than it used to be? My impression is that it is, but that bar was very low. The thing that I think does a disservice to all in a discussion such as this is flippancy.

        1. Justin Capps

          I disagree. Many performers/programmers/music directors are still heavily fixated on the music of the past. It’s not because the composers were male, which would be a necessary requirement if one were to argue that it was attributable to a gender bias.

          1. Justin Capps

            Please see my comment below in response to Eve about the need for advocacy on behalf of the works of female composers who are no longer with us, and the necessity that such advocacy be made on the wholly justifiable grounds of musical merit and not on the exoticism of having a mysterious lady composer. (there is no way for me to adequately convey the dripping sarcasm that accompanies the last three words of that sentence)

      1. Eve Beglarian

        against the backdrop of a larger culture where birth control (of all things!) remains something to argue about, to claim we are almost ready to be gender-blind in concert music programming because a handful of women have broken through to mainstream recognition and success seems to me jejune at the very least.

        I myself might have agreed with Amy’s essay 25 years ago. and I agree wholeheartedly that concerts and festivals of “women composers” are NOT the answer. however, I do suggest that we ALL – men and women both – owe it to ourselves to draw attention to gender bias whenever we find it.

        if we added the rubric “Men Composers Festival” to every musical event (“historical” or not) that programmed only men composers, perhaps embarrassment might inspire the change that keeps promising to be just around the corner year after year after year.

        1. Justin Capps

          The social groups that are leading the charge against women’s reproductive rights are not the same groups as those who handle concert scheduling, and I think that it would be reckless to conflate the two.

          And again, I would argue that a crusade to shame organizations by labeling male-composer-only events as “Men Composers Festival” is dismissive of the fetishizing of dead guy music. For female composers who were forerunners of the current generations, the ones who fall in the same historical periods as the liberally-programmed deceased, we should advocate for their music to be given a fair hearing. But why should the argument for a performance of Amy Beach, Lili Boulanger, Grazyna Bacewicz, or any other talented composer be confined to the point of argument as a shiny oddity, to be presented because they were women, rather than simply because it’s some damn fine music? Until women make up a larger portion of the community of composers (if we accept the 30 % figure), what would constitute a sufficient ratio of programming? 1 piece per concert? 2? 3? The changes need to happen on many levels, and there need to be more young women who are encouraged to pursue the craft of composition. It should also be noted that there are a number of very successful women who have seized control of their careers by taking an altogether different route, and they are therefore not likely to appear on some of these concert programs.

          There are additionally questions of financial privilege, geographical location, incestuous networks of particular institutions and their alumni or composers and performers. A composer in a prestigious position at a major conservatory has stated before that those who have not been composing from their youth have no place writing music. Gender issues have certainly not disappeared, but I think that by making sexism the central target of an assault aimed at effectuating wholesale cultural change, we would be consigning the mission to failure, because the concerns are more widespread. People are more comfortable discussing gender because, for most of us, it’s a publicly discernible feature (excepting those who adopt androgyny or have personal struggles with gender identity). Conversations about classism and the role of the almighty dollar are unlikely to be trotted out into the light of day because people have the ability to keep that aspect of themselves private and they might prefer not to disclose an exceptionally well-off or poorly funded “life” (that thing outside of debates about the field of composition).

          In sum, I believe that we agree there is an imbalance. However, I see it as a situation that is improving, and in reviewing a number of different “honors”, women seem to be holding their own (as relative to the number of women in the field, proportionally, and accounting for the lag-time of change).

        2. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

          Eve- thanks for your comments. I’m male, and I’m young, but I remain as keenly aware as possible of these issues, and some of the problems seem to demand more aggressive solutions. My mind is not made up– and I certainly don’t presume to know what’s best for females– but I have to be suspicious of your suggestion.

          I run a tiny but fairly successful concert series in Boston. We program music based on slightly unusual criteria: rather than first seek out music of the highest quality, we choose to program local composers or those with local connections. Once we have appropriate pieces available for a given program, we operate by the quality of the music. When finding composers, I reach out to my circle first, because our intention is to reinforce the relationships of our community.

          This has had a lot of success, and the result has been that audiences have experienced music which they likely would not have heard otherwise. The effect I hope this has on the gender gap in composition is that female composers represented on our series get deserved recognition. As I say in my comment above (from two days ago), I believe that dissemination is the biggest obstacle working against female composers. Most of our generation in the arts (which– call me self-indulgent– feels fairly enlightened) can look primarily at quality of the music. For this reason I do not want to advertize when I program female composers. I do not want to create the appearance of providing a handout to those in need. Instead, I want to quietly identify that there IS a need, and to do my small part to rectify it.

          But this depends on personal responsibility based on good, selfless intentions. This cannot be enforced. I wonder if this generation of artists will be better on this issue than the last…..
          Or maybe it’s just my wishful thinking, growing up surrounded by successful female artists (my mother’s an actress, and all three of my teachers have been female). Am I totally deluding myself?

  28. Susan Allen

    Interesting. For years I championed women composers in my concerts. Now I do a lot of free improvisation, and that field is even worse with gender ratios. Much worse.

  29. Emily

    What a great discussion! I feel like we’re just starting to emerge from this weird 15-year period where we were all supposed to shut up and pretend sexism was over, even though it wasn’t. We couldn’t admit out loud, and sometimes not even to ourselves, that there was a problem, because somehow doing so might suggest we were weak or asking for special consideration or something. Even 5 years ago, I’m not sure I would have attached my name to public discussions of sexism in music. It’s really teaching that has made me feel that it’s not only ok for me to be more vocal about my opinions, but that it’s actually my responsibility to draw attention to and try to change unequal situations, if I want the world to be better for myself, my students, and all my colleagues, female and male.

    It’s wonderful to see so many people discussing these issues, and I find it particularly encouraging that men are participating in this discussion as much as women. I don’t think we’ll be able to make the changes we need to until we’re all working together — and it seems like the time is finally ripe for some real progress to be made!

    Emily Doolittle

  30. Chris Cerrone

    Seems like there’s a lot of smart people making a lot of smart points here! Amy, I think your goals here are very noble and I applaud them.

    Like many of the men here, I cannot possibly comment on the issue. Nor do I think an issue this large can or should be dealt with on an internet message board. But one thing I can relate is a story that women composers might not know: How they’re spoken about behind their backs.

    As an undergraduate student, I applied to a number of Ivy League universities for graduate school. Naturally, I met with professors at each schools. In one conversation, the professor said to me “Of course, I can’t guarantee you a spot in our program. It’s very competitive. AND we have to accept a woman every year!” Thankfully, I did not wind up going to this school. But the idea that the professor not only believed in quota systems, but also seemed to think of encouraging diversity as some sort of burden is disgusting. It was the only instance of that ever happening to me with a professor. But there is definitely still work to be done on all parts, which Amy acknowledges.

    1. Sabrina Pena Young

      Chris, you mentioned: Naturally, I met with professors at each schools. In one conversation, the professor said to me “Of course, I can’t guarantee you a spot in our program. It’s very competitive. AND we have to accept a woman every year!”

      Sigh…as a Latina and a woman I have had to deal with way too many misconceptions regarding the “opportunities” afforded me because of diversity initiatives.

      Truth be told, I earned $60k+ in scholarships because I was a National Merit Scholar, All-State Percussionist, and obsessive composer. I received $600 towards books as part of a diversity initiative in my undergrad.

      Should I apologize for the .01% that I received because I was a broke college student desperate to pay for books mid-semester? Or maybe I can accept that I earned .01% unfairly with a smile as I recall the first time a comp prof referred to my music “cute, like [my] personality” (for a piece that was represented the gruesomeness of the crucifixion of Christ)?

      For the record, there are very talented women out there. For the record, a person CAN be of a different ethnicity, race, religion, gender, age, etc. and have talent. For the record, perhaps the dozen or so people that I have had whine to me openly about how “they” are taking over their opportunities (apparently not realizing that I am Latina) need to look at their own work ethic.

      I know how I got where I am: Blood, sweat, and tears, baby.

      Thank you for sharing, Chris. Unfortunately, there will always be people in the world who like to make excuses for their own ineptitude. Typically they choose the perceived weaker members of society to blame…except this time, (to paraphrase), they have chosen…poorly.

  31. Phil Fried

    Perhaps to disparage a composer with a descriptor “woman… etc.” is to also admit that there are problems in our profession at least with jealousy. Politics exists in our world and any attempt to divide the art from the artist is a quagmire.

    Yet, when it comes to our own failings we are quick to blame someone else.

  32. Sabrina Pena Young

    Humble Solutions to More Diverse and/or Modern Programming

    1) Look for diverse and/or living composers:
    You can easily find names and contacts through many organizations and publishers: NALAC, IAWM, Kapralova Society, SEAMUS, ICMA, NAXOS, Leonarda Publishing, Women in Music, Deep Listening Institute, etc. Even Wikipedia can be useful with listings under gender, ethnicity, and era.

    2) Make a list of living composers:
    Choose a handful of composers you think would fit your programming needs and either contact them or Google them to see if their music fits your needs. Many living composers are more than happy to send you materials either gratis or reduced in pricing, especially for experimental music.

    3) Get Free Contemporary Scores:
    If you are on a budget, you can find thousands of free scores (legitimately) through the Petrucci online library, Scribd,, Creative Commons, and other sites. Just check the copyright restrictions and you are on your way.

    4) Partner up:
    Nothing is more musically exciting that partnering up with a living composer. You can set up lectures, make a documentary of the process, screen rehearsals online, live chat, Tweet – do all kinds of nifty things that poor dead (insert decomposing composer here) can’t partake of. If you need ideas, check out what composers like Alex Shapiro and Eric Whitacre are up to.

    5) Creative Programming:
    Sure, if the programming is “Exciting Waltzes about Dancing Flora and Fauna,” you will be limited. But what if you aimed for more contemporary programming: “Urban meets Classical”, “A Taste of South America”, “Chicago”, “East Meets West in the Concert Hall”, “Sound Art Symphonies”, etc. Suddenly you have a wonderful mix of the familiar and the new.

    6) The Kids:
    I still remember watching the now defunct Florida Philharmonic play “And God Created the Great Whales” and “Rite of Spring” during an open rehearsal on an elementary school field trip. Open it up to the kids. Beethoven, Oliveros, Cage, and Xenakis are fascinating live to a child. Want some interesting diverse programming? Gear it for kids. You will find that you have to include modern elements (and I am not talking about badly conceived video or dressing up like the latest version of the PowerRangers). There is a history of classical music for kids, and these have become endearing pieces of our time. So collaborate with a composer and make a concert that meets our future concertgoers where they are now. You might inspire the next Terry Riley, Jennifer Higdon, or Chen Yi.

    These humble suggestions submitted as a solution by a fellow contemporary composer who believes that change is a click away…

  33. Laurence Vittes

    Still, imagine how liberated our musical life would be if we heard music by women as much as by men.

    1. Liane Curtis

      Yes, Laurence, and imagine if a concert of all women composers could just be a “normal” concert the way concerts by all men are accepted as “normal”

  34. Karen

    Let me add yet one more possible wrinkle to the mix:

    That many young women don’t feel disadvantaged by their gender is no surprise. When I was a young woman, I didn’t feel disadvantaged, either. But as I grew older, two things happened.

    First, it became clear that my male colleagues were advancing professionally and I was not, and that they had benefited, and were continuing to benefit, from a quiet, ongoing, professional, male-on-male mentoring and support system that I’d never once had access to.

    Second, the older, grayer and more independent-minded I’ve grown, the less “interesting” I seem to be to many men who are able to help advance my professional standing and career.

    Now I wonder about those early years. And about how much of the ease I felt back then was really about my youthful “eye candy” ability to attract the male gaze.

  35. Laurence Vittes

    All I know is that it’s preposterous that one sex be the composers and conductors.

  36. Megan Schubert

    Dear Amy,
    I was thrilled to come across your article and the discussion that followed!

    Here is my unsolicited critique…

    I wish for “healthy lack of self-awareness” to be clearly defined.
    Could the path cleared for women’s forward momentum in this field also be a combination of learned coping mechanisms and filters, and, most importantly, could most of the exponential growth of “women composers” be attributed to a growing support network of heroes, mentors and colleagues? (In her time, Clara Schumann certainly didn’t have the opportunity to organize other women and/or ardent supporters who might have had the same ambitions–never mind any sort of how-to guide from the women who composed before her!) I would assert that the moment we forget the legacy of trailblazers and the trials of the past, we will go backwards. Hell, even Sir Isaac Newton (of another historically male-dominated field) acknowledged that he “stood on the shoulders of giants.” As they say, nobody is an island.*

    However, nobody accomplished anything if all they could do was feel sorry for themselves either.

    In this dissertation research, will the phenomenon of “anonymous”, pen-names skewing gender, and someone like Billy Tipton also be addressed?

    One wonders, who else would respond with “does not compute” when one asks about “gender getting in the way of making art [for public consumption]”? Top of my head, I’d say, the millions of women who don’t have the luxury of First World problems. This is no time to put up a “Mission Accomplished” banner. If one is worried about sub-groups, one ought to address a more global awareness; otherwise, acknowledge the unique attributes of the small community to which one’s observations apply. (Side note: sub-groups are not a “myth”, and if the dissertation is to include statistics of any kind–all parameters, sources, variables, demographics, etc. need thorough examination and explanation if they are at all intended to support any claim.)

    Regarding the refusals of “woman composer” programming… How is a woman discriminating against her own gender a step forward? I would hope/assume that those decisions to refuse participation weren’t solely made on that basis. If it’s an opportunity to be heard live, and it promises to be a great performance–that seems like a healthy priority that’s not too “self aware”. If and when–strictly hypothetically speaking– there aren’t enough predominantly-men composer concerts, wouldn’t that be the time to make that symbolic refusal?

    Would you not apply for the following because it is gender-based?
    (Assuming all else appealed.)
    The Elaine Lebenbom Annual Memorial Award for Female Composers

    A $10,000 cash prize AND a performance of an orchestral work?

    On a personal note, I recently had a miniature dilemma in programming a concert of all premieres of women composers (representing Korea, Spain, Iceland, and the U.S.). Ultimately, the consoling rationale was, “well, after 100’s of years of men-only concerts, I don’t think the pendulum of gender-based domination is in a rush to swing the other way if this concert that I program happens to be all women.” I’m a big fan of equality and an even bigger fan of diversity; and there’s a lot to learn from a “sub-group” if they get along with themselves and others…

    I applaud your work and hope to hear more of your ideas–both in print and on the stage– and hope that this collective feedback has been invigorating and inspiring for your continued dissertation research.

    Lots of luck!

    Also, have you read Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music? (Lisa Hirsch referenced it in her 2008 NMB article.) If not, I highly recommend it. I am still haunted by one of the authors’ theories on why Lili Boulanger was the first woman to win the Rome Prize in composition.

    * (David Smooke in a response to commentary on his referenced article, and Lisa Hirsch in the “Mentor” section of her article made similar points.)

    1. Amy Kirsten

      Dear Megan,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. In response to your questions all I can say is that I don’t want my work to be categorized by gender. I’m not interested in having my work represented that way. Because of this, I do not participate in events or apply for opportunities that are gender based. If others wish to participate, that is their choice and I feel no ill will toward them.

      Thank you again for joining the discussion.

      With warm wishes,

  37. Elaine Fine

    The success of a living composer depends a great deal on the way she presents herself and her work to the world. A woman’s individual work may be admired by decision makers (people who give grants, people who commission music, people who invite composers to be artists in residence), but in the grand cultural wash, it is always the composer who either promotes her own work tirelessly (something that old-school men might consider being “pushy” when practiced by a woman, but “impressive” when done by a man), pays someone to do it for her (implying that she has the money to do that), or has a partner or spouse take care of that part of her career (something not uncommon among successful men in any creative field–their wives act as unpaid business managers). There have been women who have enjoyed this kind of support: some from successful same-sex relationships and some from the support of female patrons (the Princess de Polignac, for example, and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who supported Rebecca Clarke). Some women, like Amy Beach, had the support of wealthy husbands–though her husband supported her as a composer, but limited her performing. Louise Farrenc had the support of her husband, who was also her publisher.

    The social circle of a living composer has always been incredibly important for success. In my travels through the work of dead composers, both male and female, this fact always rears its not-necessarily-musical head. The composers that end up in the front row of our greater culture (by whatever means) have always been a mere socially-supported handful. A few women have made it into that handful, which is good, but until our society at large is able to think of creative women as more than a sub group, the “woman composer” will still struggle with second class status.

    Society at large includes people in their 80s who refuse to have their opinions changed, and it includes people in their 20s who can’t imagine why the work of a woman should not be considered to have merit based on its quality rather than the gender of the person who made it.

    What is a woman to do about this? Nothing but keep writing the best music we can, and keep our expectations for success and recognition realistic. If commercial success is our goal, we need to market ourselves. If we would rather spend our energies on artistic activity than on commercial activity, we need to recognize where that path leads. Either one is fine, but our culture at large tends to recognize commercial success as the only kind of success, and it gives the greatest amount of recognition to those who participate in the “marketplace.” This is a problem for both men and women, by the way. And it has always been a problem.

  38. Judith Shatin

    The category “woman composer” remains quite alive, despite assertions to the contrary, as evidenced both in the multiple articles and discussions preceding it and comments following it, as well as ongoing discussions in the larger community.

    Is ‘woman composer’ a negative, essentializing category, or a positive identifier? Does it suggest something about how music by women sounds? Should women allow their music to be performed on programs that only include music by women? Should they join organizations of women in music such as the International Alliance for Women in Music? Should they take political action to change the status quo on behalf of women composers, instrumentalists and scholars? Is it, as one of my colleagues once said, academically suicidal to study the music of women?

    I have been active as a composer for several decades, have served as President of American Women Composers and on the advisory board of the International Alliance for Women in Music, and am in academia (University of Virginia). In these settings I have had discussions on the topic of ‘the woman composer’ for years, and have reached different conclusions than those of Ms. Kirsten. I have just returned from serving as Composer-In-Residence at the Hartford Women Composers’ Festival, ably organized by composers Daniel Morel and Jessica Rudman, where I met/heard a number of fascinating composers whom I had not come across before, and was unlikely to encounter in the normal course of events precisely because of the focus of this festival on music by women. There were also multiple performances of my own music that were carefully prepared and beautifully performed.

    I’m happy that some women are finding their way in this and other fields without thinking they are experiencing gender bias. They remain the exceptions. To assert that ‘we’ve largely transcended the issue of gender’ as Ms. Kirsten does, is shocking, whether in music or in the larger world around us. What about the explicit bias that many of us have experienced and continue to encounter, and that is threaded through so many fields? What about implicit bias, of the kind studied through Project Implicit headed by Prof. Mahzarin Benaji at Harvard?

    Belonging to a minority group (as do women composers) and being noticed as such can bring important focus to the contributions of the group. In Europe, the music of contemporary U.S. composers is under-represented on concert programs. Would composers who live in the US object to their inclusion on a program of music by American composers? I don’t think any of us would advocate programming music just because of the gender or other identity element of its creator; we just don’t want to see the opposite. Moreover, we want to see that music by contemporary composers of every stripe is given the same consideration.

    There are, of course, several other issues bound up in the category ‘woman composer.’ Take, for example, the question of gender in music. Does music by women sound a certain way? I say no! One has only to listen to the diversity of music created by women to put this question to rest. Or, to listen to the wonderful quiet of Feldman’s music to realize that quiet does not mean ‘feminine.’

    On the other hand, do some piece ideas occur to women that might not otherwise occur? Were I not a woman, I doubt that the idea would have sprung to mind to compose a piano concerto called The Passion of St. Cecilia. It arose both from a desire to create a piece about a female martyr, and I was intrigued by the idea that so much art had been created in honor of St. Cecilia, when her original martyrdom and legend had nothing to do with music. My composition rose from the idea of creating a piece about a woman fighting for her religious freedom. Likewise, were I not a woman, I doubt that the idea of composing Penelope’s Song (solo plus electronics made from processed weaving sounds) would have come to mind. I doubt I would have thought about how Queen Penelope is given such short shrift in the story of Ulysses.

    Those of us who make music do so through the totality of our identities. Sometimes we choose which elements to foreground, at other times it seems that those elements choose us. It has been enriching to encounter the work of such an amazing array of composers, performers and scholars through my association with the International Alliance of Women in Music and, before that American Women Composers and through conferences that foreground music by women. These associations have also made me acutely aware of the issues that face so many women in this field. Many, for instance, start their careers relatively late, yet the field, in its contests and rewards, hugely favors the young. Removing those hurdles would make a positive difference, as has the use of pseudonyms. So does the expanding list of women composers that has appeared in articles and comments preceding this one, as well as the forum provided here.

    1. Laurence Vittes

      Another part of the equation is the part women conductors could play in championing music by women composers–if there were enough women conductors to make difference. See my HuffPo Arts article:

  39. Lisa Hirsch

    Here’s some hard data on why musical organizations need to pay attention to their programming: in four years (2010-2013), Ojai Music Festival, which is 98% 20th and 21st c. music, has programmed one work composed by a woman. I just put up a blog posting listing all the composers for those years. (I am not clairvoyant; some details of 2013 were announced today.)

  40. Jeff Winslow

    I don’t have much to offer any discussion of sexism, other than the general suspicion that each of the sexes is pretty clueless about the other, and the observation that our lives and environments are rife with opportunities for misinterpretation, with disempowerment a frequent result.

    But I’m nervous about “excellence” being advanced as the sole criterion for selecting works to be performed. A casual scan through Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective” tells us that even the best composers often have little appreciation their (by now) equally-revered contemporaries. Rather than being so sure of ourselves, it wouldn’t hurt to keep an eye on a few non-musical considerations alongside our aesthetic opinions. I’d be surprised if a world in which power ownership due to sexism was in equilibrium between the sexes resulted in composers being 50% women – that just seems too tidy somehow – but I don’t doubt there’s plenty of room for improvement.

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