Sunday, February 6, 2011

Where Are the Female Composers?

Author's Note:  Too often we shy away from discussing gender bias in the field of composition.  We are silent for many reasons, including the fact that we don’t want to upset the countless teachers and peers who have been supportive to us and who have never displayed any sort of prejudice.  Please know that this discussion is about an ingrained culture and we are forever grateful to those who support us and treat us fairly. 

As female composers, none of us want to come off as “whiners,” “victims,” etc.  Nor do we want to feel that our achievements are due to affirmative action or, even worse, sexuality.  In her last post, Sarah shared an important quote by Jill Halstead that addresses a fallacy that composers, male and female alike, reference far too often: the idea that if a female composer’s music is really strong it will speak for itself. 

Unfortunately, the female composer’s music cannot speak for itself if nobody admits her to school, if nobody takes her seriously once she’s in school, if nobody performs her music, and if nobody chooses to listen to it.  During his recent listing of the top ten composers, Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times addressed the “female factor,” by discussing chauvinism and opportunity in the music world:

“The main reason, I think, that there were so few female composers during the glory centuries of classical music is that composers depend on performing musicians and ensembles to play their works, and until relatively recent times, musicians, ensembles and musical institutions were overwhelmingly male.”

Although the overwhelming presence of men in authority positions doesn’t preclude someone from programming the music of a female composer, the chances are often reduced.  Unfortunately, Tommasini’s analysis still applies today, especially since the music directors and/or conductors of orchestras and other large ensembles are still mostly male (I challenge you to come up with more than a handful of current female conductors and, perhaps related, female orchestral composers).

You might ask, So what?  Lots of current composers make the argument that orchestral music is dead and that the future of music will rest in other genres, such as electronic music, chamber music, choral music, collaborations, crossover music, etc.  There are countless female composers contributing to these genres on a regular basis.  So why should it matter if female orchestral composers continue to be underrepresented?

Whether we like it or not, Western tradition tends to measure compositional greatness by orchestral composing.  Orchestral music (and large ensemble music in general) has a huge influence on which composers are “known” both within and outside of the music world, due to the realities of exposure, both in terms of musicians performing orchestral works and in terms of audience size.  Furthermore, orchestral composers are often the ones receiving acclaim.  The coveted Pulitzer Prize tends to be awarded to large ensemble pieces.  Since 1943, only four Pulitzers have been awarded to women and all of them were for orchestral pieces, despite the fact that women have been writing exceptional pieces in large and small mediums for decades.

I truly hope that as music shifts its focus to a wider variety of genres that the male-dominated culture will disintegrate.  What worries me is how slow this process is happening both in the concert hall, as I mentioned above, and in the university system. 

At a new music festival a couple summers ago, a male student from a visiting school made a comment to me and a friend of mine, who is also a female composer.  He said, “You know, it’s really amazing how many female composers your school has.  When we all first got here, we thought, ‘Hey, what’s up with that?’  But then we heard your music and we realized, ‘Oh, nothing’s up with that.  They’re really good!’”

At the time that he made this comment, our department had eight female composers out of 25 students.  Aside from the insulting implications of his statement, it’s also upsetting that it didn’t cause him to question his own department.  If a third of our department consisted of “really good” female composers, why do so many other composition departments have none?

A male friend of mine once lamented to me that his department had trouble getting female composers due to the very fact that it was so male-dominated (his department had only one female student and, perhaps related, no female faculty members). I know that I personally did not even consider applying to schools that didn’t have women either in the composition student body or on faculty.  The challenge for the university system, therefore, isn’t just about admitting female students, it’s also about hiring female faculty members and offering them tenure.  Chances are that women will be more comfortable going to a school that has established egalitarian practices all the way to the top. 

The underrepresentation of women in authority positions both in the university system and in the concert hall slows the process of breaking down gender barriers.  Furthermore, such an underrepresentation creates a poverty in what could be an incredibly rich culture. We all benefit from hearing different perspectives.  And sadly, we still continue to get most of our musical stories from only one demographic.

Posted by Natalie


  1. Word. I am really glad you posted this. It is unfortunate that when we point out the marginalization of an identity group, any group, the majority in power reacts with accusations of false victimhood. It is that reactionary response that prevents progress.

    In the artistic community, which often represents minorities of race, sexual orientation, SES, etc it is disgusting that more do not stand up for justice for all persons.

    Sorry for the rant.

  2. I must say that I hadn't thought of this, but after reading your post, I realize that women the lack of women within the field of orchestral composition, and likely a lack of women seeking advanced degrees within the art community, has been sorely overlooked.

    Women in scientific fields are often only concerned about our own well-publicized struggles. In our self-absorbed martyrdom, we fail to recognize the struggle of women in the arts. You deal with as much chauvinism and sexism as women in science, yet manage to create work that transcends sexual, cultural, and popular boundaries – something that cannot be said about much scientific research (I mean, ice, really). You rock!

  3. A few years ago a visiting composer was giving one-on-one master classes to the composition grad students in my department. When it was my turn, we ended up chit-chatting a little about my background. I mentioned that I was married and my husband was also a graduate student at the same school. "Do you want to have kids some day?" asked the visiting composer. Well, yeah, someday, I said. "That's nice," he said, "it's really refreshing to meet someone who isn't ambitious."
    Now, am I wrong or would you never say that to a male composer? Why would you assume a desire for a family contradicted career ambitions? Would you even ask that sort of question of a male composer in the first place? It seems to me that men historically have had not only established channels for their careers through male musical colleagues, but support for their personal lives through wives, children, servants and employees, etc. -- support that is easily taken for granted by men in some cases, but still not really a given for women, even today.
    Anyhow, that's the only time I have only felt overtly patronized for being a woman composer.

    I think you make an excellent point about the importance of female faculty members in encouraging female students. Sometimes just having one woman in the department is enough to encourage many more women to join; I've seen that happen in both schools where I was a composer, going from no female composers to several in just a few years. I think it's an encouraging sign.

  4. Thank you all for your feedback! (And no need to apologize for ranting, Amanda!)

    Lauren, I assume your pun with "rock" was intentional?? :)

    Kerrith, I'm glad you brought up your experience with the visiting composer. I have heard other similar stories from other composers:

    The composer who told one of his female students (I'm paraphrasing) that she would do better to find a man to take care of her than to continue in the field.

    The department that stopped taking seriously one of its married female students when she became pregnant.

    The list goes on...

    I know we all hesitate to share these things. And most of the time we go about our composing lives without worrying about prejudice---and for this I am so grateful. Things have come a long way. But the reality is that these kind of stories are still happening (in the 21st century!). I don't know a single female composer who doesn't have one of these stories.

    I hope that keeping an open dialogue about this will at least offer a sense of community to others who have experienced the same things and will also remind people of persisting cultural obstacles that we cannot afford to ignore.


  5. P.S. Also---that's great about your schools with the addition of female faculty! I think it does make a difference. It gives you the sense, as a student, that women are taken seriously not only as students, but also as colleagues. Here's hoping that this kind of change will continue to happen in other departments, as well!

  6. Just for the sake of accuracy:

    I realized in my count in my department that I didn't include some of the composers who were in their dissertation phase.

    So our department stats were closer to something like 10 women out of 30 students. Roughly the same percentage, but it's always good to get the facts right. :)

  7. Just to add another department's stats: Since I graduated, the total number of women composers in my former department is now 3 (including dissertating composers) out of a total of 14.