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
Posted by Natalie