Author: Christina Rusnak

Widening Inclusion & Visibility

Ed note: There have been a number of recent changes at the International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM), including several new awards programs, which have been spearheaded by a group of highly energized newly elected group of board members. This month we’ve asked several of these board members to access the current new music landscape and to describe how they see IAWM helping to change the ecology for the better.-FJO

During the biting cold of the January 2018 blizzard in New York, I was attending the Chamber Music America conference. After the day’s sessions, I ducked into a restaurant on 37th Street for dinner. A trio was performing some great jazz – a blend of standards and original music. Startlingly, the trio was all female. A string trio comprised of women is no longer unusual enough to even register in my consciousness. Yet for as much as I wish it wasn’t, a jazz trio of women still is. As an alum from the University of North Texas, and a board member of the International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM), the lack of visibility of women in jazz is noteworthy, especially when it comes to composers. Is it more an issue of visibility than activity?

Many of us are aware of the statistic published by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; only 1.8 percent of the music performed by America’s 22 leading orchestras during the 2014-2015 season was composed by women. Are the numbers of women composers proportionately that small, or is their music merely not being programmed? A similar study of 85 American orchestras (that was reported on by Lucy Caplan in the Winter 2018 issue of Symphony magazine) reveals that living composers represented only 12.3% of programming in the 2016-17 season, so the limited real estate for music by pre-21st-century composers certainly contributes the to the low statistic. But that’s another article.

Meanwhile, over at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago, a couple of composers were musing, perhaps steaming, about the lack of women composers played by wind bands. In January, composer Katherine Bergman, wrote:

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.

I observed this myself! In March, I attended the College Band Directors National Association’s (CBDNA) West & Northwest conference at Sonoma State University. Out of 47 pieces of music performed, only one piece was composed by a woman. So are women not just composing for wind band, or is the music by women composers just not getting programmed?

Organizations such as the League of American Orchestras, Chamber Music America, and Opera America are putting more attention on women composers as well as composers of color through their granting opportunities.

Rob Deemer announced in January that the Women Composers Database, which he began embarking on in 2016, “was fully operational and ready for public inspection.” He 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” for conductors, performers, educators, and researchers to use. The document lists THREE THOUSAND women composers. As Midgette mentions in her Washington Post article, organizations such as the League of American Orchestras, Chamber Music America, and Opera America are putting more attention on women composers as well as composers of color through their granting opportunities.

The mission of the International Alliance for Women in Music is to foster and encourage the activities of women in music, particularly in the areas of performing, composing, and research in which gender discrimination continues to be a concern. So IAWM further explored the landscape of major awards recognizing the prowess of women composers.

Since Joan Tower’s win of the Grawemeyer Award in 1990, only two other women: Kaija Saariaho and Unsuk Chin, have received it. The Rome Prize, first awarded in 1924, is given most but not every year. Typically each year, two composers are awarded the prize which includes a year-long residency at the American Academy in Rome. Barbara Kolb was the first woman awarded the prize in 1971 and she received it again in 1976. During the remainder of the 20th century, an additional seven women were awarded: Sheila Silver in 1979; Kathryn Alexander and Michelle Ekizian in 1989; Ellen Taaffe Zwilich in 1990; Bun-Ching Lam in 1992; Tania León in 1998; and Betsy Jolas in 1999. Since the 21st century, women have fared significantly better; a total of nine women have received this honor: Shih-Hui Chen and Carolyn Yarnell in 2000; Susan Botti in 2006; Erin Gee in 2008; Nina Young in 2015; and, in the past two years all four recipients have been women—Suzanne Farrin and Ashley Fure in 2017 and Michelle Lou and Jessie Marino in 2018. The Nemmers Prize in Music Composition began recognizing and honoring classical music composers of outstanding achievement in a body of work and a unique creativity in 2004. Of the eight recipients thus far, two have been women: Kaija Saariaho was the first, in 2008, and this year’s recipient was Jennifer Higdon.

Women have fared better with other prizes. The Pulitzer Prize, which Ellen Taaffe Zwilich won to much fanfare in 1983, has been awarded to seven women, four in the last decade, most recently to Du Yun in 2017. Representation of Women receiving American Academy Arts & Letters’ awards, founded at the turn of the 20th century to honor the country’s leading architects, artists, composers, and writers, has been historically greater than other awards – 12.6% up through 1999, and 15.5% from 2000-2017. So the 21st century figures bear out a slow but growing trend toward rewarding women. Noted though that in 2017 and 2018, women were awarded 31% and 20% respectively. The American Composers Forum supports an eclectic mix of awards that recognizes diverse composers from around the country.

I’ve only recently been aware of the Herb Alpert Award, presented annually since 1995 to “risk-taking mid-career artists” working in several fields of art.  Of the 24 awards presented in music, 46% were awarded to 11 diverse women, pushing musical boundaries. The foundation also supports Young Jazz Composer Awards for jazz composers under 30. Out of the 15 annual winners, one in 2018 and four in 2017 were young women.

Do fellowships skew differently regarding gender? The Guggenheim Memorial Foundation began offering Fellowships in 1925, “to further the development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts, under the freest possible conditions and irrespective of race, color, or creed.” During its initial 74 years, 568 Fellowships were awarded for Musical Composition, 39 (6.9%) to women. Since 2000, the percentage of women represented has increased over time. The Guggenheim has given 257 Fellowships with 55 (21.4%) to women.

The MacArthur Fellows Program, often called the genius grant is “intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations”. One must be nominated through an ever-changing of pool of appointed external nominators chosen from a wide range of fields. Only 42 people in the musician/composer category have been awarded; 10 have been women.

In jazz, gender bias seems to be more of a well-known secret. Erin Wehr, who has conducted extensive research in gender and jazz, recently wrote: “The reality is that negative stereotypes of women still persist in jazz today. Even if such biases are a minority, negativity is so powerful that even great amounts of positive social support often can’t take away the sting of one pointed, judgmental comment.” Chamber Music America has given out awards for New Jazz Works since 2000. Out of 362 awards, 14 (3.9%) have been awarded to women.

IAWM’s commitment to providing visibility to women composers has moved like-minded sponsors to support awards for the annual Search for New Music. These prizes for new music by women are offered in a number of categories ranging from chamber works to sound installations. Through a competitive call for works, with a theme that changes annually, IAWM also presents a concert of new works by living women composers. In 2017, ACF honored the IAWM as one of its three 2017 Champion of New Music Awards. The IAWM also sponsors the Pauline Alderman Awards for musicological and journalistic works on women in music, most recently for Denise von Glahn’s book, Music and the Skillful Listener. But it’s not enough. How can we do better? How can we broaden our scope to increase the visibility of the vast amount of music composed by women? At least THREE THOUSAND OF THEM.

How can we broaden our scope to increase the visibility of the vast amount of music composed by women? At least THREE THOUSAND OF THEM.

The IAWM board has acknowledged that significant numbers of women in other areas of music are equally lacking visibility, and we are seeking to become more inclusive. Following New Music USA’s lead, IAWM published its Statement of Equity and Inclusion in 2017. In addition to social equity, IAWM seeks to ensure that the organization welcomes women across genres and disciplines, by being explicit in our commitment to promote cultural and professional musical diversity and inclusion within our board and membership. Women in Music work as performers, composers, arrangers, media artists, conductors, theorists, producers, musicologists, historians and educators. We know that a diversity of ideas, approaches, disciplines and musical styles are essential to inclusion and equity.

In analyzing our membership and the musical landscape, the IAWM board realized that we needed to expand our support networks and increase our relevance in the field. We are ramping up our advocacy efforts and our commitment to providing visibility to women writing in various genres of music, as well as to provide recognizing of our members working as performers and educators and in other areas of music.

In October 2017, the IAWM Board voted to create two new composition awards, for jazz and wind band, which rolled out this spring with a deadline of April 30. Sponsored by a consortium of jazz musicians in Portland, Oregon, the PDX Jazz Prize is a competitive award of $300 for women jazz composers for pieces of any duration from small ensembles to big band. The Alex Shapiro Wind Band Prize, which includes a $500 cash award and mentorship/consultation from Alex Shapiro, is for works of any duration for large ensemble wind band requiring a conductor, with or without a soloist, acoustic or electroacoustic, published or as yet unpublished. IAWM will soon be rolling out a Performer award, and an Education grant targeting K-12 music educators. As the membership of IAWM is becoming more diverse, so will our awards.

As the membership of IAWM is becoming more diverse, so will our awards.

An example of progressive change is occurring in the UK. The PRS Foundation announced its new Keychange Initiative earlier this year, which, as Amanda Cook reported in I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, is “empowering women to transform the future of the music industry and encouraging festivals to achieve a 50:50 balance by 2022. While a number of contemporary music festivals have committed to this initiative, the Borealis Festival has already achieved gender-balanced programming.”

Women are working in all genres of music, from chamber to choral to jazz; from orchestra to wind band to film and media. The International Alliance for Women in Music is working to bring awareness and visibility to music that is under-represented in the musical landscape.

Back to that restaurant on East 37th Street: inspired by their wonderful performance and intrigued by works I’d not heard before, I introduced myself and told them about the International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) and the new award for women jazz composers. I hope they and many more apply. Unbeknownst to them, they made my night a memorable evening.

New Music and Place: Creating Community

An invisible thread ties people together—by profession, by socio-economics, by ideology, by ethnicity, by gender, by interests, and by place. This could all be stratified further. Even within music, we tend to align by instrument family and/or by genre. We co-exist along many of these threads. The threads wound together create community.

Physical communities are shaped by the ecosystems in which they grow into existence. Our landscape shapes our perception of the world, and thereby our culture. The infrastructure and architecture reflects the environment, climate, and the people who have built lives in a place over time. Local museums overflow with objects of our collective past redefined as shared identity. The community thread connects us with a common understanding, language (lingo), memories, and shared experiences. It is this shared sense of place that is fostering the creation of new works that evoke the complex landscapes, histories, and cultural heritage of ensembles and their communities.

For many in the Southwest, lack of water is the pervasive reality. In January 2016, the Downey Symphony Orchestra premiered To Dust, a water war requiem for string orchestra and multimedia created by composer Bryan Curt Kostors. The piece shares the story of the decimation of the 110-square-mile Owens Valley Lake, northeast of Los Angeles. In 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed, diverting the water to the growing city. Today the lake is nearly dry, and its remaining sediment creates one of the highest levels of toxic pollution in the country.

In Georgia, composer Steven Landis composed Thronateeska for the 50th anniversary of the state’s Albany Symphony. The Flint River is a vital artery in western Georgia. Premiered in February 2015, Landis had percussionists use actual pieces of flint rhythmically to symbolize historic Creek people chipping away at the rock to create tools.

Some may argue that place-based music written in the present can “color the complexion of places,” but we can be richer for it. Since places, like music, are dynamic, they continually transition and are experienced over time. New associations and memories can broaden our perceived definition of place and spark imagination and new ways of seeing—and hearing. Donald Rosenberg writes “in commissioning portraits of their regions, orchestras are…exploring topics vital to their communities.”

Communities are also re-exploring their past and commemorating milestones through new music. To recognize Boise Idaho’s 150th Anniversary in 2013, the Philharmonic commissioned Idaho composer Jim Cockey to write Sacred Land: A Tribute to the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. The Dallas Symphony looked to composer Steven Stucky and librettist Gene Scheer to commemorate Lyndon Johnson’s birth 100 years before. In September 2008, the DSO premiered August 4, 1964 focusing on one of the most controversial days in Johnson’s presidency.

Most exciting is to see how the various community threads are weaving fresh patterns into our places. New music is being created that connects with our cultural heritage and reflects the cultural diversity within our communities. In central Illinois, the Heritage Ensemble brings the rich musical literature of the African American experience to a wider audience. The Seattle Symphony works to build cultural understanding through the creation of new music with local tribal nations through the Native Lands Project.

Thai born composer Narong Prangcharoen, a resident composer at the Pacific Symphony, researched Orange County, California, for a year to compose Beyond Land and Ocean. While he explored, talked to residents, and listened to the sounds of the waves, Disneyland, and mission San Juan Capistrano and nearly 60 other locations, the Pacific Symphony sought contributions from the public, who sent in personal stories, images, recordings, and other artifacts. Prangcharoen describes the work, premiered in September 2015, as a celebration of diversity and how that diversity somehow unites us.”

Likewise, composer Tod Machover immersed himself in the city of Detroit beginning in 2014. Integrating sounds of its industrial, social, and cultural history, he also collected conversations with people across all walks of life. Many are integrated into the performance of Symphony in D on stage. Speaking about the piece, Machover said, “having a project that is a kind of forum for people to be able to express themselves and to meet each other is wonderful. It can’t possibly be the ultimate story of Detroit, but it will allow people to rally around a narrative of their city.”

Previously, I stated that composing about place and its engagement with geographic, cultural, and human history advocates on several levels. Specifically music that we create about, for, and with a community can itself act as an advocate for these places. By integrating the thread of community, new music can advocate within places as well, to the people who live here and share an understanding of the place they call home.

Composing Advocacy: Social Voices


Photo courtesty of Flickr

In this week’s essay on new music and advocacy, I’m narrowing my focus to show how composers and performers are looking at the diverse landscapes in which we live, with their complex human histories and changing values, as the grounds to examine the intersection of place and people—past and present. In other words, in addition to advocating for place, new music can advocate for the human and social context of place.

Composing music with political and social themes certainly isn’t new. Ruth Crawford Seeger famously pursued musical activism between the world wars to highlight social injustice in America. The songs of Woody Guthrie were employed to foster enthusiasm for the construction of massive dams to harness the power of the mighty Columbia River. Some people are uncomfortable with the subversive implication of using our artistic skills in this manner. I am not implying that we should all use music as a platform for activism. However, either in response or with intention, musicians are doing so. So are we truly experiencing a resurgence in new music composed to highlight social equity? Is this a manifestation of a larger sense of stewardship toward the places, communities, and cultures in which we live? And if so, why now?

As humans, most of us believe that we possess the power to make positive change in the world. Composer Darrell Grant has said,I believe that we who create art possess an extraordinary power to communicate, inspire, provoke, inform, and to move others to transform society.” Across communities, new music is actively challenging us to pay attention to the issues and the voices in our society.

While many works were composed to express the horror of 9/11, the reality is that we’ve been living with ongoing war, and its partner terrorism, for nearly 15 years. Many composers are grappling with its long-term effects. Composer Ethan Ganse Morse’s moving opera The Canticle of the Black Madonna addresses head-on the crisis level of PTSD in returning soldiers.


The pieces being wrought and their means of creation are diverse. Composers are ardently responding to harmful practices affecting our environment. Cellist Kari Juusela composed PBBP Blues, a searing response to the British Petroleum oil spill that devastated the Gulf coast in 2010. Brian Harnetty has examined the human and environmental impacts of the extraction industries of southeastern Ohio, both through his music and in a series for NewMusicBox just last month. These works are sobering reminders of the fragile nature of our ecosystem and the inextricable ways we are tied to our landscape. Others are composing works celebrating our national environmental treasures.

When I compose about place, I consider various points of view that the piece could embody. While we compose as an expression of our human experience, our singular voice, each of our points of view are limited in perspective and can’t convey all facets of the experience. So composers are raising social equity awareness and understanding by telling the story through historical and social narrative. For the Oregon Stories Project, composers Mark Orton, Darrell Grant, and Douglas Detrick have created a fusion of music and dialog to recount the stories of disenfranchised Oregonians who overcame society’s imposed limitations to make a lasting difference in their community. Composer Joan Szymko worked for months with families, patients, and caregivers to share the voices of those with Alzheimer’s disease in her choral work Shadow and Light.

New music is having the greatest social impact at the interactive community level. Composers and ensembles are reaching out—not with the outward Euro-paternalistic focus of the past, but with honest commitment—to understand how musicians can collaboratively work with the community to help solve problems. Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain’s oratorio Meditations on Raising Boys rose out of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s work with issues affecting boys and young men. The program involved lectures and workshops as well as master classes.

Chautauqua Symphony

Premiere of Meditation on Raising Boys, Chautauqua Symphony

Others ensembles are working in their communities to help refugees manage the transition into a new life in America as they struggle with identity and racial bias. Central Ohio Symphony initiated a drumming circle program for troubled teenagers.

Music also has the power to heal. Research confirming the health benefits of live music is well documented and has spawned music therapy programs across universities. As our population ages, this has inspired music ensembles across the country to work with area hospitals, rehab facilities, and related special needs programs.

New music can advocate for the changes needed in our society by connecting us to issues larger than ourselves. But why now? Perhaps composers and those commissioning new works are seeking to better connect music to our humanity. We all want to write music that is well crafted, that engages the performer, and that may outlast our limited lifespans. By creating works that look to the diverse landscapes in which we live as a foundation, the intersection of place and people expands our musical palette. The resulting pieces may become some of the most compelling works of our time.

Money, Support, and the Voice of New Music

cash keyboard

cash keyboard

As a composer of new music, I sometimes feel “water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink” when it comes to resources. We hear about the recovery of the economy and “investment,” but in the field of new music, funds for our work and our organizations seem in short supply.

During fiscal year 2015, the National Endowment for the Arts gave 146 grants to music organizations or in support of programming for a total dollar amount of $3,777,500. That’s a lot of money, right? But the focus of these funds underwrite a wide variety of projects with relatively little dedicated to new music overall.

So how do we get our arms wrapped around the matter of money to support the creation, performance, and dissemination of new music? How do we, as individual performers, composers, and administrators help ourselves, and others, to support an infrastructure that enables new music to thrive? Is the new music community any better situated now than in 2000 when John Luther Adams lamented that new music needed a new model of funding?

Fifteen years ago, the funding options seemed straightforward, but limited:

  • Commissions
  • Grants
  • Foundations
  • Individual Donors
  • Prizes

While these are still significant sources of monetary support for the arts, we now have crowdfunding—a resource unimagined back then. Residencies have diversified from a solitary respite for composers to now include interactive work with scientist, doctors, and archeologists. I’m personally working with the Umatilla Tribe here in Oregon to connect our art and music with the restoration efforts of our state’s waterways and the traditions of First Foods.[1]

With the playing field reputedly leveling, the landscape becomes increasingly complex. Sitting in the trenches of new music, the struggle for funding still seems significant and intensely competitive. Former Koussevitzky foundation winner Jim Mobberley stated that without funding, his piece would not have happened. How many works or programmatically innovative projects slip through the cracks? What kind of support mechanisms do we need to ensure that new works are programmed and disseminated?

Moreover, as individual musicians and composers, most of us do not have the same funding choices as 501(c)(3) performing organizations. The biggest concern is continuing to put food on our tables while bringing to life compelling new music. I was inspired by Brian Chin’s article “On the Power of the Project-Based Life” in which he suggests that we think “of career as the sum of our daily practices and the thousands of individual projects we create along the way. These projects could be as simple as putting on a concert or building a teaching studio or as elaborate as building a business or working for a tech corporation.” The money earning and fundraising is part of our career, but it shouldn’t define us or our music. In addition to composing, I’ve worked as a new music curator for a museum, an executive director for an orchestra, and an arts consultant. I am currently working with a regional parks entity trying to bring music into our outdoor spaces.

Cash Week - sm

Read more new music and money coverage all this week on NewMusicBox.

We also need the means to support each other and the works we’re trying to produce. The dark truth is that much new music would not exist at all without a plethora of unpaid hours to make it happen! Synergetic partnerships can play an important role in fueling the creation of new works in such circumstances. So what opportunities are on the horizon to improve such activity? And what are the larger, underlying issues affecting all of us regarding money and support?

The reality that bites is that, externally to the field, people often think music creation is not a profession. A city that doesn’t blink at the six-figure cost of a highway, building, or park design cringes at commissioning a piece of new music for a fraction of that. I am fortunate to be involved with my state on a national initiative called Building Public Will[2], examining how to morph public perception of the arts from a “nice to have” to an integral foundation of our society that is critical to its thriving existence.

We all get caught up with the day-to-day in our own creative (and non-creative) caves. Sometimes, it’s tough just to remember to look up. How can each of us help to create a supportive community locally? Are there existing networks to do so, and do they still work, or are they outdated? If not, are there models, such as Seattle’s or Chicago’s, we can look to?

As we settle into the second decade of the 21st century, we have the opportunity to look beyond traditional funding models to keep our music fresh and authentic. A few months ago, a fellow composer and I talked about how we get commissions, marketing opportunities, etc. We all have the opportunity to share our journey and learn from each other. Most of my commissions have resulted from reaching out to people (organizations) and expressing the desire to compose a work about something that is meaningful to both of us.

Another choice is to build a diverse base of funding that may include sources outside of music to varying degrees, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Department of Transportation, foundations for social welfare, or historic and preservation societies. I’ve been hired by the U.S. Forest Service, by a museum, and by Oregon State Parks. We all have social and political issues in our community we care about, and increasingly cities are looking to bring attention to and help solve these issues through the arts. Meeting with our civic leaders can lead to opportunities and partnerships with local agencies that others may not think of unless you bring it up.

I truly believe we are in an unparalleled golden age of new music. We have to come together to find equally innovative ways to bring this work forth.


1. A sample funding list can be found at

2. Oregon is one of the four initial states for the initiative. (Read more.)