Author: Mara Gibson

Skirts or Pants? How About Both

Skirt by Wanda Ewing

“Skirt” by Wanda Ewing

When I first considered writing on the topic of gender in “classical” composition, I wondered how I could possibly have anything new to say. Then, my colleagues challenged me. Why not? As a consequence, I have read about the role of gender in popular music, punk misogyny, and photography and discussed analogies between film and composition with a number of friends and colleagues. I have conversed with my closest collaborators, both male and female. I have started asking deeper questions, and in doing so, confronting why this issue is so challenging for me.

In graduate school, I consciously disassociated being female with being a composer. In fact, I took that even further and came to the conclusion that being a composer was in direct conflict with what I knew as a teacher, as a student, and as an artist. While I was coming to realize that my work coupled with my teaching style reflected a theme of synergy and convergence, I perceived a dichotomy in trying to fuse my various roles. I am sure some of this can be simply attributed to youth, but also, I believe we have been part of a transformation, where our generation is realizing a gradual shift in the way we view the artist.

Generally, we are coming to accept a more multidimensional role for an artist in the 21st century. Being an entrepreneur, musician, and teacher (and/or any number of other occupations) are all equally important. As Claire Chase said in her 2013 Bienen School of Music convocation address, “You can’t really separate the act of creating music, even very old music, from entrepreneurship.” She examined how entrepreneurship manifests in our time by providing countless examples of how we assume multiple roles: the artist as collaborator, the artist as producer, the artist as organizer, the artist as educator, and the list goes on. The resounding message delivered is that there is no clear roadmap. She inspires her young audience to “blow the ceiling off anything resembling a limitation.” I try to remind myself of this mantra every day; however, it is not always easy.
From my vantage point, the “guru” mentality is an accurate snapshot of the history of the composer/composition teacher relationship. In graduate school, I was encouraged to ignore the gender bias, which at the time was probably for the best in order to preserve my identity; however, this is not the same advice I offer to my students. I want to talk openly and non-judgmentally with them about the inherent challenges of being female and a composer alongside being a composition teacher and entrepreneur. More importantly, I want begin to identify why and how we have fallen into patterns of behavior that support the status quo. We have far too many resources at hand in the 21st century for female composers/teachers/organizers not to have more visible role models.

As women, by and large, we have been taught to view ourselves as made up of independent spheres, separating our profession from our gender, and from our craft. One challenge is to allow and encourage our various roles to operate and shape us in tandem, rather than in silos. For me, this involves accepting that being a good composer is being a good teacher, and that composing is my lifelong lesson. These two essential parts of who I am should not, and cannot, be in conflict. Whether it is teaching and composing, or composing and being a mother, or doing any number of things that we as composers in the 21st century must do to survive, we all deserve the opportunity to merge our identities and define ourselves in our own unique way. Granted, I am primarily coming from the perspective of a female in academia, but I suspect that the challenge of balancing multiple and often simultaneously demanding roles is consistent for female composers in general.

Recent publications about the relationship of women to the field of composition present numerous heartening viewpoints. Amy Beth Kirsten’s “The Woman Composer is Dead” (2012) offers many valuable observations. Kristin Kuster’s “Taking Off My Pants” challenges us to embrace who we are, while maintaining respect for our craft. And Ellen McSweeny’s “The Power List” offers concrete solutions to incite change. These three articles in particular illustrate exactly how much we need to talk about this pervasive issue, so I assigned these articles to students. Their reactions ranged from, “I’m saddened” to “…a women could never have composed Beethoven’s Ninth or Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto…women need to stop having hissy fits about it.”
The teacher in me desperately wanted to understand these reactions, so I researched and looked to the visual art community for answers. As Linda Nochlin probes in her famous 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”:

“Why have there been no great women artists?” …like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist “controversy,” it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: “There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.”

Power structures have long operated along gendered presumptions like the one above. Certainly, all artists struggle to balance both creative and personal life challenges—this has become part of the romantic “plight” of being an artist—but I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that for me, this quandary was further complicated by sex and gender. As women, we are pulled in directions that are conflicted, both due to social pressures and the biological constraints of childbearing during key career-building years. Culturally, we are expected to respond in “feminine,” frequently subservient ways, but to follow the modernist trend, as composers we are expected to provide answers.

I agree with Eva Hesse that “excellence has no gender.” But how exactly do we begin to tell that story? Visibility is imperative for role models to succeed.

I also relate to Lucy Lippard, who writes, “Of course art has no gender, but artists do.”
So then, the question is: does being a “female” composer make a difference to being a good composer?
In confronting the question solely in the realm of being a good composer, the answer is inequitably no. There are countless examples of superb, successful, living female composers. However, when confronted with being a good composer, alongside being a good mother, and (for me) a good teacher, it becomes more difficult to quantify.

Nochlin answers the women-artist question sensibly:

What is important is that women face up to the reality of their history and of their present situation, without making excuses or puffing mediocrity. Disadvantage may indeed be an excuse; it is not, however, an intellectual position. Rather, using as a vantage point their situation as underdogs in the realm of grandeur, and outsiders in that of ideology, women can reveal institutional and intellectual weaknesses in general, and, at the same time that they destroy false consciousness, take part in the creation of institutions in which clear thought—and true greatness—are challenges open to anyone, man or woman, courageous enough to take the necessary risk, the leap into the unknown.

As creative artists, we are students forever; otherwise, we would not have chosen such an infinite language to study. And frequently we have to act like a teacher, student, and artist simultaneously. Whether it is building music, art collaborations, schools, teaching, or learning, we create materials, build forms architecturally, and communicate those ideas creatively. Remember, maestro, male or female, as artists, we are inherently collaborators.
Gaining a broad perspective through all of the roles we must play has provided a critical lesson for me. Beyond social construction and convention, judgment, joy and anger, we must confront the abyss and challenge, question, and listen. And, above all, we should celebrate being female, and choose to wear pants or skirts as we see fit.

Rethinking How We Teach Composition, Part 2

Igor Stravinsky & Nadia Boulanger (1937)

Igor Stravinsky & Nadia Boulanger (1937)

In graduate school, I was shocked by the “master” mentality of the composition world. Young composers literally fawned over their professors, and it seemed insincere. I thought the purpose of going to graduate school was to carve my own path, not simply to hob-knob with the “greats.” Since I had come from a relatively non-traditional undergraduate experience, I was eager to gain the technical experience that my peers had already achieved. I took extra independent studies in counterpoint, spending almost a year on perfecting the retrogradable canon. I’m not sure I ever did actually master the skill, but I sure loved the process! I could not get enough of the literature and was fascinated by imitating forms. If I had been forced to do this work sooner, I would surely have recoiled from it. Yet to this day, I refer back to many of the readings and writings by composers about their work that I came across during that time. I also developed a passion for visual art and patterns—Morton Feldman became my hero. The way he wrote about his work, brainstormed, and drew inspiration from painters broadened my aesthetic palette.

Yet, beneath my excitement and fascination with the infinite study of music, fear was brewing; skepticism towards my teachers emerged—particularly the mentality that privileged the “master” over the “apprentice.” Coming from progressive and forward-thinking schools, I had built for myself a certain dreamscape for creativity, and this “guru” approach was confusing and concerning for me. As I got closer to the professional world, I started witnessing overt gender biases as well. I noticed that there were markedly fewer women in my graduate program than men. I distinctly recall dismissing this worry, consciously deciding that I could not give my concern credence, because if I did, it would get in the way of what I wanted and needed to make my music. I remain conflicted when trying to negotiate between the many roles I assume, now as a composer, a teacher, a mother, and an administrator. The survivalist in me still cautions about even considering whether being female makes a difference, but as I become more involved with all aspects of my career, I am not sure how ethical it is for me to ignore the issue. Aesthetically, it is impossible for me to separate being a composer and a teacher–both activities feed one another. However, when I consider the number of female role models in my education who were able to live lives that also successfully integrated being composers and teachers, I can barely count them on one hand.

There is a deep lineage from composer to student that is rooted in imitation and modeling. Like following the legacy of Feldman in Buffalo, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau. Nadia Boulanger’s spirit was alive and well, though I did not have the opportunity to work with her directly. As Leon Botstein explains, she was “less interested in the imposition of an aesthetic, and more invested in the transmission of discipline”—whether through conventional or non-conventional means. Like other modernists, she encouraged the exploration of new forms alongside a reverence for the masterpieces of the past. However, she was unique in that she was the first hugely influential female to train an extraordinary A-list of 20th-century composers. Her pedagogical approach was based in counterpoint—in combining the vertical and horizontal simultaneously. She composed, but we have come to know of her primarily as a pedagogue. And she was strict! Students consistently report that she made them work harder than they had ever worked before.

“Do not take up music unless you would rather die than do so.”
—Nadia Boulanger
Unfortunately, Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) did not have the same opportunities to be both a composer and a teacher that we have access to in 2014. While there are many speculations about why she was not equally successful as a composer and teacher, the lesson I take away is that we still have a long way to go in terms of shifting the model of what a composition teacher can provide. First, we must address the master/apprentice mentality. I propose we to do this by continuing to allow more inquisitive learning to take place alongside modeling. Secondly, we desperately need to openly and pragmatically identify the inherent challenges of gender in composition. When you add gender roles into an extraordinarily male dominated system, the challenge becomes further complicated. I will address this in more detail in my final post next week. In the meantime, I continue to admire Nadia, and all of her students, but I would celebrate and welcome the chance to rethink the mold, as a woman and a composer/teacher, simultaneously.

Rethinking How We Teach Composition, Part 1

Teaching composition requires a balance between the student and the teacher; between the micro and the macro. The strategy includes the teacher’s understanding of the creative process, the student’s reflection on that process, and a design of individually tailored tasks for the student—a set of activities mutually agreed upon. Constant shifting between the big picture and the small steps is critical.

Writing music leads composers to strategies for invention. While teachers can guide students through the creative process, students can also help teachers to reassess core aesthetic values. After all, how can one teach without being willing to learn at the same time? The roles of teacher and student become somewhat blurred in the process of making intuitive knowledge explicit. Similar roles between performers and composers exist, and they are fuzzy.

Like most artists, composers are basically lifelong students. Therefore, the most effective composition teachers are foremost learners and listeners. As a composer and a teacher, I encourage the development of preliminary expectations for a piece, ideally before any notes are composed. What is the composer’s musical and/or non-musical intention, and how does that relate to form, timbre, and any number of parameters? Then, and only then, do we move into design. Graphs work really well for me at this stage! After notes begin to emerge, we review the initial intention. Has it changed? Should it change? Maybe the material is calling for a different architecture than originally planned.

Mirar graph

Graph of Mara Gibson’s mirar (2001) for soprano, flutes, cello and two percussionists.

Map of Rain Hitting Water sketch

Sketch from Map of Rain Hitting Water

For example, I refined the graph of mirar after the music was composed (in preparation for the defense of my dissertation), while my sketch for Map of Rain Hitting Water was a general plan that I used as a guide throughout my process, allowing me to adapt the music as it emerged with Mark Lowry of newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (and later the video collaboration with Caitlin Horsmon). I find both approaches helpful and informative in working with performers.

Of course, questions can be tailored to a specific ability level or project, but the fundamental challenges remain the same. In fact, if pressed, I generally provide my young students more freedom early in their career because that is when it seems most necessary. Initially, I started the UMKC Composition Workshop to engage young composers in the same kind of opportunities that more experienced composers tend to have, such as chances to share their ideas in a group setting and hear those of others. It seemed ludicrous to me that composers needed to get to a graduate school level to join in such a forum. We all must find (and reassess) our voice, to recognize what it is that we want to say before we figure out how to say it. This is certainly not a new idea in creative thought. However, when I reflect back on my music and composition education and my teachers, this paradigm is a bit flipped. Participation in a forum should precede (and/or at least coincide with) creative “work.” The creative process is, after all, one of give and take; a combination of having a vision of what is to come and an understanding of what has proceeded—a kaleidoscopic process.

When I was learning the piano as a child, I was rigidly told how to play. However, it was not until I had an opportunity to shape those ideas that I began writing music and discovering my artistic voice. In retrospect, I think I needed to feel a sense of ownership over the music in order to express myself. Composing and interpreting music are very personal endeavors, ones that vary tremendously from personality to personality. I came to recognize my voice when I was granted the freedom to explore. In part, this was about me giving myself ownership, and in part, I needed my teachers to give me permission, to provide an extra nudge. (Yes, back to the Frost.) How and why should children—who many argue are more in touch with their inherent creativity than adults—be given any less freedom, any less room for spontaneity? As teachers, allowing freedom to explore, especially with children, makes our job more challenging on the front end, but I find the results much more rewarding in the long term.

Framing Your Voice, Part 2

I visited Darmstadt as an impressionable graduate student during the summer of 1998. I have encountered many personalities who have shaped the composer I am, but the most distinct memories from that trip came from my interactions with two very different composers: Helmut Lachenmann and György Kurtág.

Lachenmann vehemently told us (particularly the Americans, a.k.a. the “zombies”) to forget everything we had learned up to that point. He encouraged us to develop our own material independently of our teachers. He explained that we are part of a “North American syndrome” that potentially results in work without any “real artistic provocation, just frustrating and boring.” His musical outlook could be encapsulated in the following quote:

With conventional or unconventional sounds, the question is how to create a new, authentic musical situation. The problem isn’t to search for new sounds, but for a new way of listening, of perception. I don’t know if there are still new sounds, but what we need are new contexts.

Kurtág modeled his process of composing through his practice of music making. Unlike Lachenmann, Kurtág would not meet with students for composition lessons, but instead opened his instrumental coaching sessions and rehearsals to students. Hearing Kurtág and his wife, Marta, perform Játékok at Darmstadt, I felt both emotionally and technically charged. Játékok consists of eight volumes of miniature solo and four-hand piano pieces, which aim to recapture the spirit of child’s play. The scores are frequently graphic and abstract, and include extensive descriptions of his notation. The pieces are inventive, playful, and even stoic at moments. Below the surface of the music, the layering of quotation and the sense of quiet reminiscence serves to take the listener away from reality by creating something new and breathtakingly beautiful. Becoming acquainted with the score, as well as with the recording that includes Bach transcriptions interspersed between his pedagogical performance pieces, has been both individually rewarding and collectively meaningful. These are qualities I strive to achieve in my own work. The experience I had with the Kurtágs was definitely beyond words. Their methods, derived from a strange combination of escapism, invention, and beauty, epitomize the motivation I have for music.

After all these years, I have kept a letter on the bulletin board above my desk that Lachenmann mailed to me after my visit, to remind me of his lesson. Alongside the letter, I also preserve a photo from that same trip of Kurtág and Marta performing.

Mara Gibson Inspiration Board

Mara Gibson’s inspiration board

With increasingly sophisticated “composerly” opportunities coming my way throughout graduate school, some of my peers thought I was out of my mind continuing to teach children. I have recently come to understand that this is part of my passion–teaching at any and all levels keeps my own child-like fascination with music in check alongside the practical application of how to make that passion a reality. Since grad school, I have shared Játékok with students of all levels, including children, university-level music majors and non-majors, as well as professional composers and performers. The consistent message of this piece, as outlined in Kurtág’s forward, is to “tackle bravely even the most difficult task without being afraid of making mistakes: we should try to create valid proportions, unity and continuity out of the long and short values–just for our own pleasure!”

Personally, I feel that I have learned how to explain things to grown-ups by having to explain things to children. Likewise, children remind us how to be genuine. Through performance and composition, Kurtág helped me understand this critical balance.

Mountain Climbing Music

Young composer, age 6 – Mountain Climber

For example, this young composer was not afraid to express the more abstract characteristics of movement in the work above. While the instrumentation is unclear, the dynamics, contour, and motion all clearly articulate his feelings about what it might be like to climb a mountain. More mature students might approach this in a way less connected to the physical experience of mountain climbing, but this young composer approached the idea bravely. Intuition plays a role in inventiveness: both Lachenmann and Kurtág were onto something after all!

Kurtág’s kinesthetic relationship between playing and creating alongside Lachenmann’s dedication to the authenticity of sound resonate with me deeply. As a composer interested in collaboration, my teaching naturally encompasses a variety of musical skills, including composition, performance, theory, and history. I believe that without the merger of all these ingredients, the language of music is unbalanced and can potentially sway toward the overly intellectual or creatively unchallenged. In music education, instructors frequently separate these elements. However, as musicians, we draw on these various musical experiences in tandem, recognizing how each subject reinforces the other. To prepare students for the rigors of making music, I hope to encourage simultaneous thinking about the multiple aspects of music. Through the fusion of skill and creativity, the student (and teacher) gain insight, and can begin to discover that nothing is a truly “separate.” Performance, composition technique, historical context, and theoretical understanding are all vital in cultivating a creative and thoughtful musician. After all, as artists, we learn through doing.

Interacting with Kurtág and Lachenmann during a formative period in my life functioned as refreshing contrasting models for me as an emerging composer. Initially, Kurtág was Frost’s “gentle nudge” and Lachenmann was my “quail shot,” and with time, finding a complimentary balance between both composers was immensely beneficial. As a consequence, I frequently turn to both for inspiration, craft, and teaching. After all, as artists, young and old alike, we are life-long learners and, above all, we aim to sincerely communicate.

Framing Your Voice, Part 1

Baldessari's "Beethoven's Trumpet (With Ear)"

Baldessari’s “Beethoven’s Trumpet (With Ear)”

There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies. —Robert Frost

As young musicians, we may encounter many types of teachers, ranging from the traditional to a Suzuki advocate, and perhaps even some champions of Orff, Dalcroze, or Kodaly for a lucky few. So, what distinguishes a good teacher from a great one? At different career points, both of Frost’s teachers hold value. In my own teaching and composing, I find myself returning to a few basic principles that illustrate these ideas. First and foremost, I build rules/identify parameters, ask questions, and maintain dedication. The most successful atmosphere for the student and teacher exists when both parties are thinking, creating, and being stimulated by one another’s ideas and artistic solutions.

The most fundamental goal for a young musician is to find her/his artistic voice. After all, we make music to communicate something beyond words, something transcendental. For composers, creating a form, choosing an instrumentation, and devising an intention in tandem are critical. While modeling forms can be immensely important, beginners seem to excel when presented with an open palette, one that allows them to help build the rules of their craft. Boundaries tend to limit the student, while options inspire. While every student is unique, I have found that encouraging open parameters is helpful; when a student has a hand in determining a form that reflects his/her creative intention, he/she is more prone to remain devoted to the inspiration.
For most of us, teaching students how to ask questions and find solutions is more valuable than articulating history. If a sincere answer is to be discovered, the student must ask the question. For the teacher, this generally requires a lot of patience, listening, and learning. In creative fields, the answer is most always found in the question. Once the student is invested in this process, then historicizing, theorizing, and analyzing will be natural consequences. For example, imagine a student who wants to illuminate the state of mind in-between consciousness and unconsciousness in a composition, like being awakened from a dream. Rather than ask the student to mimic Debussy (a logical connection) without context, I would advocate for the student to first create their own form and instrumentation, requiring them to generate both the content and motivation for formal decision-making. Alongside these tasks, I would encourage several listening assignments—music by historically contrasting composers (with score, if possible); this type of complimentary approach strengthens both expressiveness and craft.

Teaching demands a dedication similar to what’s required when writing music or playing an instrument. For me, there is a natural and beneficial balance to be struck between being a musician and a teacher, as both strengthen knowledge and encourage inquiry (on behalf of the student and teacher alike!). The most successful learning atmosphere exists when both parties are thinking and creating, stimulated by one another’s ideas and artistic solutions. When I consider the most memorable “teaching moments,” which are signposts in my own learning, I come up with a few consistent themes:

Listen to and question everything
Hear what you compose and compose what you hear
Organize what you compose (know where/when things belong)
Create a structure/language for what you compose/hear

I tend to think the best teachers operate in both ways Frost describes, depending on where the student needs to go. Our job is to awaken curiosity, both in our students and within ourselves. I had my fair share of both the teachers who filled me with “quail-shot” and many more who gently nudged me into the sky.


Mara Gibson
Composer Mara Gibson is originally from Charlottesville, Virginia. She graduated from Bennington College and completed her Ph.D. at SUNY Buffalo. She has received grants and honors from the American Composers Forum, the Banff Center, Louisiana Division of the Arts, ArtsKC, Meet The Composer, the Kansas Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the International Bass Society, ASCAP, and the John Hendrick Memorial Commission. Internationally renowned ensembles and soloists have performed her music throughout the United States, Canada, South America, Asia, and Europe. Gibson teaches at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance while leading the conservatory’s Community Music and Dance Academy as director, where she is founder of the UMKC Composition Workshop and co-director/founder of ArtSounds.