Living American Woman

Living American Woman

Being a composer channels all the perceptions of my outer and inner lives. It affects everything, from how I act in the private sphere (as wife and mother) to all emphases of my work as thinker, scholar, and teacher, and my perceptions of and responses to professional and world events.

Written By

Judith Lang Zaimont

A portion of this article was delivered as “Progress, Conscience, Imagination: Riding the Tide of New Notes,” the Composer Keynote Address to the 2005 National Conference of Women in the Arts on November 12, 2005, at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

Composer Judith Lang Zaimont with students at the University of Minnesota
Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts

I am a composer—every aspect of my life responds to that central fact. Being a composer channels all the perceptions of my outer and inner lives. It affects everything, from how I act in the private sphere (as wife and mother) to all emphases of my work as thinker, scholar, and teacher, and my perceptions of and responses to professional and world events. It underlines the truism that I prefer to work behind the scenes rather than on center stage. And since composer is a loner occupation, it’s also true that I favor engaging the products of people’s minds rather than engaging in social chitchat.

As a creative artist, I relish a focus on the future—I enjoy peering around the corners of the now into the beckoning, unknown but exciting territories of the yet-to-come. I believe it is my job to imagine what might be, and then work like all get-out to realize that vision completely—striving always to make my vision manifest in indelible, fullest form by using every personal resource of taste, style, and imagination. In a 1991 speech introducing a group of composers of the senior generation, I referred to these creators as “non-renewable natural resources”: virtually irreplaceable, possessed of unique voices and singular perspectives on their art. No surprise then, that my constant goal is to create durable, original works of musical art, distinctly identifiable as my own, which taken together will establish over time a personal artistic legacy.

Treading across these “purities”, however, are three conditioning words. They cast long shadows and bring with them truly mighty consequences. These words are:


I quantify the three conditioners differently and always it was the first two—living American—that affected me most; for a long time I paid scant attention to the third. But I’d like to explore the impact and implications of all three, hoping thereby to arrive at a more complete understanding all of the practical lattice that supports, sustains, and sometimes deflects the composer and her ideals.


We start with “living” and so begin in the precious past. The living composer’s issues largely emanate from grappling with the glorious legacy of the past, a bounteous glossary of music in all genres from every preceding era, written by scores of brilliant and inspired composers. The sieve of history—a rigorous and thorough screen—has seen to it that only the most sublime, fulfilled, and complete of these compositions continues to be endorsed into our own day. This surviving music, then, can be legitimately termed “great”—meaning that it has withstood the test of speaking meaningfully to several societies in various geographic areas over time.

What does a fledgling composer look to glean from this legacy? The smart, tough ones are not overawed, but stimulated—contemplating, analyzing, and connecting with music of the past in myriad ways. Composers surely do compile private lists of great moments gleaned from the music of others, but our premier question—once we get past the “wow!” response—is: How did this composer do it? What makes that moment sublime? Is it how those particular sounds are stated or orchestrated? Is it how it’s prepared? Or, is it more a matter of where this passage sits within the movement overall? We ask, “Would this moment be as wonderful if it were the first sound in the piece (rather than a culminating one)?”

Composers probe the past to learn the lessons proposed by excellent models. We savor supreme examples of syntax, construction, and original forms, and we treasure the prompts/messages of encouragement that nudge us down the path to develop our own individual styles.

We do connect directly with the composers of the past—no translation needed. Yet, with all this said, we balance appreciation that the past is precious with the recognition that the past is past. And so now onwards to the present.

Nowadays music is in the air all around us—all-pervasive, disembodied, flattened out for electronic transmission. There is music in grocery stores, elevators, restaurants, and public restrooms. There is music in banks, in law offices, doctors’ waiting rooms. At the airport there is music and television. What kind of music is this? And how does such a bombardment of sound alter how we hear and cheapen the experience of listening?

In a recent speech, television journalist Robert McNeil, president of the MacDowell Colony, warns of pernicious leaching effects ascribable to the tabloidization of television and other media, where information/entertainment pours out in a constant stream. McNeil notes that the “the counterfeit currency of false [shallow] emotion and distorted emphasis” flattens general public discourse, working against any particular bit of information gaining a durable foothold. He also pleads that artists and those who write about the arts take up the challenge to sort through all extant examples, and “[work] to put ideas back into some sane hierarchies of importance”.

As never before, music has become a secondary, partnering art—a buttress to other art forms. Once we accept such service, it becomes hard to commit to listening as a foreground activity.

Not every human activity needs musical accompaniment. Over the long run, this cheapens the magic of music, relegating it to the status of a lesser form of expression. It also has real, perceivable consequences in younger listeners’ disconnect with the formalized aspects of a traditional concert experience, no longer knowing how to listen to an extended musical statement without some music-video element provided to keep their attention.

Beyond constant music, living composers have to contend with the availability of all music at the push of a button. Thanks to sophisticated documentation technology, more music than ever before is now available for access today—crossing all borders of history and geography. That these musics exist and are available at a moment’s notice to anyone is exciting. But it’s also mightily confusing.

Seductively, the simultaneous presence of so many musics can suggest visions of fresh art simply by fusing together styles or manners that already exist: Okay, let’s cross Tibetan throat singing with Gregorian chant and western minimalism and voilà! Or combine whale songs with taped ping-pong ball sounds, all supporting an Appalachian folk-style melody, and voilà, again.

Is this genuine? Is this you? Hard nowadays to decode Polonius’s wise advice to his son Laertes (in Hamlet): “This above all—to thine own self be true.” With this external static omnipresent, how does the living composer discover and hone the essentials of a personal compositional voice? Ideally, this voice is stylistically distinct, well-inflected, complete, and true, and comprises a stylistically distinct idiom.

In the case of the composers of older music, we relish and magnify the distinctions—because we understand them! These distinctions operate both in terms of the idiom in which the music is written and the performance traditions associated with presenting this music completely. And we are encouraged to do so for three distinct reasons:

  1. We understand them. We comprehend their individual musics as a totality. Their music has been researched and studied analytically, with the entire output viewed as an artistic whole, as well as a body of music emblematic of the composer’s place, time, and stylistic period.
  2. There is a well-established, living performance tradition that serves to perpetuate their musical individualities and keeps these alive in the moment of performance.
  3. In school, we are scrupulously taught that these composers as distinct entities, never to be confused. We take great care to appreciate changes of emphasis and formal scope in the musics of Claude Debussy, Lili Boulanger, Maurice Ravel—precisely so it’s always possible to know and appreciate them as individuals.

But, when it comes to music of the past 60 years or so, it’s all being lumped together—lamely, as “new” or “contemporary” music. In fact, the passiveness of the designation serves passively to encourage a rather faceless, all-purpose performance style. Do we really know how to idiomatically play music by John Williams, as distinct from John Adams, and/or as distinct from John Tavener? Ellen Zwilich as distinct from Joan Tower? Judith Zaimont as distinct from Samuel Adler? Do you play Shulamit Ran like Milton Babbitt, or like Bernard Rands?

Newer music is not all one, big, common idiom. It’s a host of separate geographically, linguistically, syntactically individuated avenues of expression. In order to deliver a specific piece effectively, the performer has to get to know, relish, to love and to believe in that composer’s individual dialect. And if music’s evolution is to be healthy, it demands a sustaining, and personal, connection between performer and composer.


As an American composer, I work within a society which lacks a composers’ guild or union to address job issues and in a country where there exists no state-awarded prize for composers. In present-day America, the notion that our culture needs concert music-makers in order to be a complete society is disputable, let alone the issue of how many musicians our country may require. Professional conferences lately feature fretful hand-wringing over shrinking governmental support for music, and the general debate centers on attempts to re-balance public perceptions of high art vs. low art. Within such a fragmented context, issues of sheer survival, by default, turn out to command the most attention.

It wasn’t always thus. Especially in America, “musician” is a fluid term. One hundred and fifty years ago, it often designated someone who could fulfill several functions, including the creative. To be musical was to embody music in all its aspects. For example, in post-Civil War Boston, when the concept of the “American musician” was being re-thought, the model we wound up with was that of the combined composer-performer-teacher. Witness Amy Beach, George Chadwick, Arthur Foote—the complete musician as public presence. But this combination and model didn’t survive much past World War I.

Over the first third of the 20th century things changed so much that the enlightened generalist is now something of a suspect creature; ours is an era of the narrow-band specialist, and of the complex collaborative enterprise. From the Internet to the Channel Tunnel, to adventures in space, to putting on a new Lloyd Webber musical or John Adams opera—all are collective enterprises. Yes, indeed, we’re still producing people of vision—the Richard Wagners, the Ethel Smyths; it’s just that the scale and intricacy of vision now require collaboration in order to be realized.

The solace and support embedded in group endeavor are tailor-made for America. We tend to distrust the individual impulse, even though we admire what inspired individuals achieve. A decade ago, art critic Robert Hughes wrote in Time Magazine of “America’s unappeasable terror of loneliness, a fear that overflows into a mistrust of one of life’s most precious assets, optional solitude.” [Spring 1996, special issue, p. 76] Yet from just such a great solitude can come the creative insights, and fantastical hypotheses which, through implementation, meaningfully affect the course of humankind.

Being loners by definition, American artists therefore suffer unless we claim membership in some stylistic or philosophical group, unless we ally ourselves with some umbrella performing or presenting entity. Even as we work to raise our profile as participants within the concert music world, we navigate at a disadvantage, operating as individuals within a 501 (c) (3) environment. So, at least in America, ours remains a profession for the ultimate self-starters.


I refuse to revisit or bring forward old stereotypes, nor will I recount tales of past patterns of discrimination. Why? Aside from discomfiting me, such tales don’t apply really well in the present to actual circumstances for myself and sister composers. My remarks, therefore, orient from the present onwards.

Musical women who occupy today’s leadership positions—composers and conductors—come forward into a professional world that is still largely male-dominated. This is the truth. But our numbers are not insignificant, and we no longer appear to materialize out of a void, since the historical contributions of our female forebears have become much more fully recognized over the last three decades. We know that women composers have been in evidence through the ages, and the explosion of documentary materials that began to surface in the 1980s has closed the door once and for all on the historical arguments that there weren’t any or that those who did exist were peripheral figures and anomalies.

It is vitally important for female musical leaders to know and claim their history. Unusual pressures exist for someone who senses she is a pioneer; among these is the stress of having her performance continually assessed as a thing beyond just her own work, standing in as a symbolic representation for all women. American Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke about just this at the time of her nomination to the Court, when she termed her nomination “significant, because it contributes to the end of the days women—at least half of the talent pool in our society—appear in high places only as one-at-a-time performers”.

Modern scholars have identified some 6,000 women composers throughout music’s history, the largest percentage of them living and working from the 18th century to the present. Today, as both composers and conductors, women remain a fairly constant professional presence of between 12 and 20 percent. Germaine Tailleferre’s one-sixth “share” of Les Six is emblematic in this regard, roughly equaling 17 percent! That’s perceptible, real, and a basis for empowerment. However, to the wider American world, the concept of women in concert music progressing beyond mere novelty as performers to recognized musical leaders is still foreign, off-putting, new.

How then do women composers and conductors reach a wider public? Well, concert music, in and of itself, is neither glamorous nor mainstream enough to be a continuing subject for the general journalist. The likeliest hook is the novelty value of a woman musician. Witness all the chatter surrounding Marin Alsop’s recent appointment to the conducting helm of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

What turns out to be the factor of cardinal significance is the sheer number of active participants: Women composers as a group need to be perceived as a presence, doing great work, and in places well above the horizon line!

We have in fact already achieved critical mass: presence in numbers sufficient so that the progress of a group of practitioners begins to have statistical significance. Through the message of numbers comes public recognition. For composers to know they have predecessors is an essential tool, and a weapon against the debilitating effects of isolation.

The message of numbers also voids women’s unique vulnerability. Because women composers are seen as singleton achievers—and exceptions to the general rule, easy to point out within a predominantly male population—women coming to the fore get heralded, but always as exceptions. And when any one of these exceptional women leaves the public scene, it’s interpreted as a back-step for all women in the field. Witness: Sandra Day O’Connor; witness Sarah Caldwell (operating in highly visible fashion at the helm of the Boston Opera Company in the’80s, then stepping aside and completely disappearing from public view). Witness all the rhetoric surrounding Ellen Zwilich’s Pulitzer Prize.

I say to you from personal experience: it’s hard to stay hanging out in the wind. It’s wearying over time always to be construed as model, or harbinger—like a ship’s figurehead out in front cleaving the wind.

Women who compose have to get comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to entertain large ambition—the capacity to aspire to major accomplishment. While all artists are by definition exceptional people, composers must be exceptional even amongst all musicians. For these leaders, merely to contribute is not enough. Leaders believe it’s essential to place their personal stamp on their art form, and this should occur on a continuing basis. Thus large ambition: the expression of the ego.

Not surprisingly, male composers and conductors find such ambition in women threatening, since it directly confounds gender typing. And it’s particularly threatening when it cannot be “explained” as being prompted by (or having been absorbed from) the presence of a male relative who is musical, or some other male connection (such as a mentor) who is an acknowledged musical adept. It’s clear we need a paradigm shift to prepare a more equitable future reality—one we can begin to engineer now. Those of us who know—who know who we are, and know who we have been—are charged with the responsibility to spread the word. The winds of change are blowing even as I speak, but slowly. Let’s ratchet up the gear.

Lasting change will occur only through a multi-pronged approach: through education and corrections to the historical record; through the continuing publication of scores, recordings, books, articles, and statistics which serve as documents and points of pressure; and through an honest willingness to be enlightened on the part of every one who holds a power position within the institutions of music. What is a certainty is that musical creators who are women will continue to come forward in ever-increasing numbers. It’s our grand job to chronicle meticulously all that these women accomplish—both as individuals of particular talent, and collectively—through group statistics, construing these musical sisters as a cohort working to make living musical history.

Pretty big task. Am I discouraged? No, not even a little. Delimitations energize; it’s just like starting a new piece. Recognizing key situational borders proves downright stimulating: it invites us to use our inspiration and intelligence, working towards a solution, step-by-step.

It’s up to us to imagine and implement the future—and I’m certain we possess all it takes to negotiate effectively through any questions or roadblocks: agile, sharpened imaginations and the will to do. The future beckons sharply—it’s provocative in all good ways and guaranteed to be one wild ride!

A grantee of both National Endowments, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, and Aaron Copland Award winner, Judith Lang Zaimont currently holds a 2005 Bush Foundation Artist Fellowship. She recently retired after three decades of teaching in higher education (Peabody Conservatory, CUNY, Adelphi University, University of Minnesota). Two new discs of her music have been released this past month: Pure Colors, a disc featuring six recent chamber and solo works on Albany; and a disc of her Jewish-themed secular and sacred music on the Naxos American Classics Milken Archive. She and her husband have just moved to the greater Phoenix area.

Looking for more content like this?