A Tool For Change: The Women Composers Database
Over the years, there have been a great many calls for diversification within the concert music community, and one of the most prevalent responses from decision-makers is that they don’t know where to find under-represented composers. Rob Deemer has led the development of a database to help, and now he needs your input too.
Sitting at her desk at the Stamford Symphony offices, Barbara Soroca is quiet, yet she is smiling as her eyes scroll down the page. A yellow legal pad of handwritten notes is tucked under her elbow.
The book she holds is Orchestral Music: A Handbook by David Daniels, a resource known to anyone who programs concerts, such as conductors, music directors, orchestra managers and music librarians. Soroca, CEO and president of the Stamford Symphony Orchestra, and her soon-to-be-successor, Russell Jones, have been using it to plan the orchestra’s 2018-19 season, hence the notes.
“I think it is important for American orchestras to play American music,” she says, placing the book off to one side. “We don’t do enough of that. At the Stamford Symphony, we certainly don’t do enough of that.”
A new endowed fund will help with that quest. The Soroca Fund for American Music, which has already raised about $150,000, will bring works by Leonard Bernstein, Copland, Charles Ives, and other contemporary composers to the stage.
—”Outgoing Stamford Symphony chief Barbara Soroca champions U.S. composers” by Christina Hennessy (Connecticut Post)
Beyond the leadership, Midwest Clinic’s programming is equally in need of modernization. After my second day at the conference, I realized that not a single one of the concerts I had attended included a female composer. Now, it would be impossible to see every concert at Midwest, and I had experienced just a handful of the performances. Was it a fluke that I had missed the pieces by women? To be certain, I pored through the festival program and found that of the 500 pieces performed at the Midwest Clinic by 51 different ensembles (including bands, orchestras, jazz bands, and chamber groups), only 23 pieces (4.6%) were composed by women, and just 71 (14.2%) were written by composers of color.
But what about the band concerts on their own? With such enthusiasm for new music, surely the wind ensemble programming would be more diverse than that of the orchestras, right? Alas, of the 212 pieces performed by bands during the Midwest Clinic, only seven (a measly 3.3%) were written by women, and 26 (12.3%) by people of color.
—“Stepping Forward at the Midwest Clinic” by Katherine Bergman (NewMusicBox)
The excerpts above are examples of how programming decisions are being made and the ramifications of not considering diversity throughout the programming process. Administrators such as Soroca and Jones are selecting their 2018-2019 season from a reference book that, while it is the best resource of its kind for traditional orchestral repertoire, is sorely lacking in its coverage of demographic diversity. It is unclear in this particular anecdote which hardcover edition they are perusing, but even if they were using the latest update of the online version of Daniels’s compendium, they would only be able to find 87 female composers out of 1,211 total names (only 16 of whom were born in 1960 or later) or 29 black composers (only four of whom were born in or after 1960).
On the bright side, they seem quite pleased with their “contemporary” programming of Ives, Copland, and Bernstein.
In the example of the Midwest Clinic, one’s disappointment with the lack of diversity is further enhanced by the fact that the Clinic has so many stringent limitations already in place for ensemble performances. In addition to mandates about the published status of the works in every program (each program is allowed only one self-published work), for example, the Clinic requires programs to balance their repertoire insofar as “for every grade 4, 5, or 6 an equal number of grade 1, 2, or 3 music must be played.” It would not be hard, therefore, to include a statement encouraging a demographically diverse program as well.
Over the years, there have been a great many calls for diversification within the concert music community, and one of the most prevalent responses from decision-makers is that they don’t know where to find under-represented composers. Inspired to address this issue and informed by the basic construct of Daniels’s book, I took the names that were included in the comments section of my NewMusicBox column “A Helpful List” and, in 2016, began to organize them. A few weeks ago, I announced that the Women Composers Database was fully operational and ready for public inspection. Using a simple Google Sheets spreadsheet, I and a team of students at the State University of New York at Fredonia had compiled a searchable and browsable database of more than 3,000 women composers that conductors, performers, educators, and researchers can use (along with a related “composers of color” database that is currently being built) to aid in their pursuit of more diverse performance programming and academic curricula.
As this project has evolved, I’ve received quite a bit of feedback and questions concerning the database. A few of the more common replies to this project that I will address in this essay are as follows:
- What are the best ways to use this database?
- There are already so many works and composers that deserve attention. How do we make room for diverse programming?
- If the existing repertoire is what puts butts in seats, why should any ensemble risk that for the sake of diversity?
- It shouldn’t matter who the composer is. We just want to play good music.
- You’re not a woman. Why are you doing this?
Most large lists of composers have little to no viability when it comes to programming; conductors, directors, and performers don’t want to have to spend a long time hunting through a large number of websites hoping to find a composer who has composed works appropriate for their ensemble. In order to make the database as useful as possible, I decided to create several data points within the spreadsheet so that anyone searching for composers could focus their searches. These data points include whether or not the composers are living, what musical genres they have composed for, their race or ethnicity, and their cities and countries of residence. Users can then create multiple temporary filters to narrow down the number of composers to investigate. By clicking on the “filter” button, arrows emerge under each column. One only need to click an arrow and select “Sort A-Z” to bring any composers who are included in that column to the top.
For instance, if I first do an A-Z sort under Wind Band, that will bring all 422 of the composers who have been marked under that genre to the top. (They’ll already be listed in alphabetical order because the database is set to that by default.) If I do a second A-Z sort after that Wind Band sort—this time for black composers—now all of the black composers are up at the top, but at the very top are the black women composers who have written for wind band.
In this case, we have focused down our search from 3000+ to 400+ to nine composers who share both data points, and it wouldn’t take long for anyone to peruse that cohort for potential works. If the Brooklyn Wind Symphony, for example, did such a search, they might discover that four of those composers—Valerie Coleman, Tania Léon, Allison Loggins-Hull, and Shelley Washington—live in the New York City area, which might spark discussions for a series of featured works across a season or guest residencies or commissions over several seasons.
Once composers have been sorted into small enough groups to make research feasible, then it’s still up to the researcher to explore each of the hyperlinked websites. The primary database is, by its very nature, an omnibus document fashioned to collect as many active and notable composers as possible. From this database, we hope to create a number of secondary databases for each genre that will allow for numerous data points on each work within that genre.
A good example of this is Christian Michael Folk’s Women Composers of Wind Band Music database; this database breaks each work down by title, instrumentation (wind ensemble, brass ensemble, etc.), grade level (.5–6), duration, and date of composition, as well as links to audio or video performances available online. Christian’s database was so close to what I had envisioned that he and I have agreed to join forces and soon his entire database will be available as a separate page within the Women Composers Database spreadsheet.
Easier access to diverse programming does not immediately solve the problem. Diversity and inclusion within musical programming and curriculum is almost always a zero-sum endeavor; seasons have a finite number of concerts, concerts have finite durations, and semesters last only so many weeks. Any serious diversification measures will inevitably mean that less of the traditional repertoire will be able to be performed or taught.
That necessary reduction brings with it some intriguing and obvious questions: Whose job is it to make such decisions? What are the factors that allow one to decide which pieces and composers are performed less? Are there some works or composers that are non-negotiable in terms of inclusion? The answers are, of course, different for everyone, but even bringing up the questions could be seen as controversial. As we have seen in sharp relief over the past year, the reaction to diversity initiatives is rarely calm and quiet, but the risk of confrontation should not preclude the necessary conversations and actions.
That risk of confrontation increases when the well-being of an individual or an organization is threatened; that well-being can be financial (as with non-profit ensembles) or in terms of time or reputation (as with educators and researchers). For orchestras, for example, the perceived connection between repertoire and ticket sales is acute, but there are a number of examples just this year of orchestras that have been willing to program female composers and composers of color as part of their mainstage season at a rate much higher than the average. Last spring I compiled the 2017-18 season programming of 45 major orchestras across the country and Albany (4 composers /11% of their season), Milwaukee (5/10%), Orlando (3/9%), and Colorado Symphony (6/8%) all programmed female composers at much higher than the 2% total average rate. And while the South Dakota Symphony only programmed four composers of color, those four composers comprised 17% of their entire season (vs. the 2% total average).
Cellist/composer Jon Silpayamanant makes this point even more clearly with data from Atlanta’s High Museum, where audience demographics have been intentionally targeted:
Which brings us to the High Museum in Atlanta and how it tripled their Nonwhite audience in two years. I mean, if even the Whitewashed Hollywood can learn the lesson that Diversity Pays at the Box Office, I think our Arts Institutions can learn a thing or two. How did the High Museum do it? The [article] gives us five points.
Of the 15 shows the High presented this year, [Rand Suffolk, the museum’s director] says, five highlighted the work of artists of color, including the Atlanta-based muralist Hale Woodruff and the Kenyan-British potter Magdalene Odundo. “You can always do another white guy show,” Suffolk says, but that doesn’t mean you should.
2. Marketing Strategy
Before 2015, the High spent the vast majority of its marketing budget on the promotion of a few blockbuster exhibitions. The result, Suffolk says, was that most locals didn’t think of the museum as a place that fostered regular, repeat visits. If the blockbuster shows didn’t appeal, they had no reason to go. Now, the High spends 60 percent of its marketing budget to promote a cross-section of its exhibitions. (“There was a little bit of condescension in telling people come see this show but not invite you back for five other shows,” Suffolk notes.)
3. Admission Prices
Last year, however, the museum opted to overhaul its tiered structure and charge everyone the same price: $14.50. As Andrew Russeth has pointed out in ARTnews, the move was largely symbolic: Because it raised the price for children, it didn’t actually make the High much more affordable to families….[H]e believes the move has made potential visitors feel that the museum is making an effort to welcome them. “We’re telling people, ‘We’re listening to you, we hear we’ve gotten out of kilter with the marketplace,’” he says.
4. Diversify Docents
The High has also seen a radical change in the demographics of its docents—the people who guide students and visitors through the museum and may be the first faces they see when they enter. In 2014, the incoming class of docents was 11 percent people of color. By 2017, it was 33 percent.
5. Diversify Staff
In this area, Suffolk admits, the High still has a lot of work to do. Its staff has only become slightly less white over the past two years, from 69.6 percent in 2015 to 65.5 percent in 2017.
Repertoire-based demographic diversity issues are endemic in our educational and academic institutions, as well. If music educators aren’t exposed to diverse composers when they’re in school, the chances of them incorporating a diverse range of repertoire into their own classrooms is probably not very high. Their students will go out into the world perhaps with a love of what they think of as “good” music, but with a stunted sense of the breadth and depth of our musical universe in its totality.
That skewed sense of what is “good” is, of course, part of our human experience; we all have ideas about what is good and not-so-good based on layers and years of taste-modifying experiences. Those experiences will inevitably include being influenced by those whose opinions we respect—be they family or friends or teachers or critics or tastemakers of any sort.
Harvard musicologist Anne Shreffler recently penned a brilliant post on this concept through the lens of “masters” (a masculine title bequeathed to male composers by male conductors, historians, and critics) having transcended gender while women composers are just women who have composed. Two statements from her article make this point decisively:
Obvious reasons include institutional inertia, career ambitions, intellectual laziness, and individual bias. But there is another, less well understood reason why a virtually all-white, all-male repertory has been tolerated for so long: the widespread preconception that music has no gender, or much of anything else.
Feminists are often accused of “reducing” everything to gender. But we as a society have been judging music on the basis of gender all along, by privileging specific cultural notions of masculinity in the guise of gender neutrality.
Silpayamanant’s blog post responds to Shreffler’s essay with equally thoughtful ideas along these lines:
In “high art” we tend to hide behind the rubric that the quality matters more than the gender or color. We do that, however, without questioning the underlying assumptions of that contention. Namely, that so-called “quality” is highly subjective, culturally specific, and that systems of institutional power will favor the work of some populations over other populations and reinforce the norms that allow that privilege to exist.
When there are literally tens of thousands (likely more) of compositions in existence with no one having had the chance to listen to them all—much less do any sort of comparative analysis of them—we’re not in much of a position to even really address quality in anything other than culturally arbitrary terms.
It’s hard for us today to believe the stories we’ve read of Felix Mendelssohn’s advocacy of J.S. Bach or Leonard Bernstein’s advocacy of Gustav Mahler and their influence on the popularity of those “masters,” as both Bach and Mahler now seem to be so indelibly linked to our perceived collective musical experience. And yet, just as there are millions upon millions who have never experienced Bach or Mahler, there are many other composers—both living and dead—who should be given the opportunity for advocacy and exposure to the ever-shifting concert audience.
If there is a subset of composers today that could be said to be “most privileged,” it could be composers who are white, male, and with a tenured position within an academic institution. I will admit that, as I started this endeavor, I did not explicitly consider my own identity within that subset (with my beard and glasses, I could compete for Poster Child of Privileged Composers), but that identity has been brought up numerous times in discussions, usually in conjunction with either the need for the database or the attention I’ve received as the database has become more well-known.
Others can attest much better than I to the financial challenges and time constraints that so many women composers and composers of color face on a consistent basis—I wouldn’t presume to know. Those of us who do have time or resources or both, at least in my opinion, do have an unspoken obligation to do what we can in whatever way we can to make things better for our entire musical community, and I’m glad that I can use some of my time and resources to help move the needle for women composers in some small way.
I can say that one aspect of my position helped immensely with this project: access to talented and motivated students. I worked on this project by myself and with the help of retired composer Jane Frasier for months and only completed a fraction of what the total database currently comprises. It wasn’t until five of my students here at Fredonia—Emily Joy Sullivan, Sierra Wojczack, Samantha Giacoia, Immanuel Mellis, and Sean Penzo—expressed interest in helping with the project as part of an independent study project that it really gathered steam. They all got to dive headlong into so many composers’ websites and Google searches in order to find the pertinent information and got a spectacular education in the process (much better than if I had given a lecture on website design in class). I know they’re looking forward to continuing their work on the Women Composers Database this semester and, along with another Fredonia student, Mikayla Wadsworth, will begin to help me with a Composers of Color Database that will hopefully be ready for public use by the summer.
It’s one thing to talk and rant about the need for change, it’s another to make an attempt to do it. It is my sincerest hope that composers in this database receive more attention, advocacy, and performances as more programmers decide to make diversity a priority. Hopefully, they will find this tool useful to help make that priority a reality. If anyone has any suggestions as to how to improve the database (we’re looking at creating a more user-friendly interface later this spring), please feel free to leave them in the comments. And if you know anyone who is not yet in the database, you can use this link to fill out the information form. We update the database on a weekly basis.