Candy Floss and Merry-Go-Rounds: Female Composers, Gendered Language, and Emotion
Problematic gender messaging—in academia, the media, and the culture at large—can toxify the soil in which young musicians hope to grow their careers. Too many female composers drop out as a result. For the health, longevity, and diversity of the art form, we must do better.
When I was first starting out as a composer, a composition teacher offered me some bracing words of caution: “Sarah, you’ll have a difficult path. Your music is direct, lyrical, expressive. When a man writes like that, it’s brave and admirable; it’s going against type. But when a woman writes like that, it can be seen as sentimental and indulgent. Stay strong; don’t let it deter you.” At the time, I didn’t believe him. It was the late 1990s, after all—third-wave feminism, the riot grrrl movement, and queer theory were informing much of the broader arts and cultural conversation. Sure, classical music could be a bit slow to evolve, but times had long since changed there, too—right?
In 2017, as most people in our field are well aware, classical music’s “woman problem” lingers. This year’s wonderfully surprising Pulitzer Prize for Music coup notwithstanding (in which not only the winner but the two finalists were female), recent statistics confirm that gender bias continues to plague concert programming, conducting/performance, and academia. It’s a circular problem: classical music is a field strongly defined by role models and mentor relationships, and with few broadly visible women at the top, only so many young women feel compelled to enter and ascend the ranks. And due to concerns about optics and impropriety, the close mentoring of female students by male teachers can be fraught and complicated. But grim statistics and interpersonal dynamics aren’t the only factors that reinforce this imbalance: it’s also the subtle currents of problematic gender messaging—in academia, the media, and the culture at large—that can toxify the soil in which young female musicians hope to grow their careers.
I’ve noticed these currents time and again since my teacher first drew my attention to them. But now that I’m getting older and care not just about my own path but also that of the younger women coming up behind me, they trouble me more.
I receive a discouraging number of emails from young female composers thanking me for my “courage” and “bravery” in writing music that is emotionally direct. Courage! Bravery! They use these words because the implicit mistrust of emotion and affect in art is the aesthetic world we continue to live in, well beyond the turn of the 21st century. In a career where the deck is stacked against them before they write a single note, young female composers are eager to prove that they are every bit as serious and capable as men. Some feel pressure to compromise their natural artistic instincts to fit within a paradigm that can seem intractable and inhospitable. I know where these women are coming from.
For my graduate music studies, I attended the Yale School of Music, NYU, Aspen Music Festival, June in Buffalo, and various conferences and masterclasses. At the time, each one of these experiences featured male-only composition faculty, and very few—if any—female students. (My first year at Yale, I was the only woman in the department.) For the most part, my instructors in these institutions were fair, respectful, and treated me like one of the guys, in some cases becoming lifelong friends and mentors. A few did not. In addition to garden-variety sexist jokes and innuendo, there were comments my male peers didn’t receive, like: “I hope you don’t cry easily” and “you probably don’t want to mess with electronics.” There were inappropriate inquiries into my personal life and unsought counsel on marriage and children. There was the suggestion that I take harder courses than my male peers to “prove myself” and the explicit warning that potential future male composition students would not take me seriously because I was a woman; at one point I was denied the opportunity to teach a student who was known to be very religious. (“As a woman he will probably think you are the devil, so we’ll give him a guy, okay?”) There was the horrifying time a teacher—upon learning that I was engaged to a composer with whom I had never studied—sardonically told me that I should have “also dated” a former composition teacher of mine because “perhaps then you would have gotten more out of your lessons with him.” I never got past this and remained uncomfortable and largely silent in his presence—a problem as his role was pedagogically and socially central to the program and he wielded significant influence beyond the academy. There was a teacher’s semester-long dodging of orchestration lessons that was eventually explained with: “Oh Sarah, you’re going to get married and have kids. Do we really need to bother with this?” (Said with a benevolent smile and pat on the shoulder, as though all I really wanted was someone to release me from this ill-conceived charade in which I feigned interest in composing until I could find a husband.) And there was one teacher’s private confession—during our first lesson—that he’d only recently convinced himself that women were “physiologically capable” of writing music. I thought about this during every lesson with him thereafter, wondering whether he was “physiologically capable” of taking me seriously.
Having attended progressive Wesleyan University as an undergraduate and spent the years between college and grad school in New York, living with friends who were politically-minded artists, writers, and activists, the social culture of the composition scene was quite shocking to me. In many ways it felt like stepping back in time; in addition to a conspicuous paucity of women or people of color, social gatherings tended to feature anachronistic gender dynamics and body language. It was hard not to notice the way that so many senior men in the field—composers, conductors, presenters—would offer distracted, half-hearted handshakes upon introduction while looking over my shoulder for the more powerful men in the room or interrupting me to insert a quip into a neighboring conversation. In those moments I couldn’t help but think of my elementary school music room, where the walls were lined with laminated photographs of all the great classical composers—dozens of men, not a single woman among them. My male peers would experience some of these social slights, too, but could chalk them up to a temporary merit-and-station-based hurdle, rather than a gender-based one.
Early on, I discovered that there were aspects of the mentoring process with our male teachers that female students couldn’t fully access or participate in—one-on-one beers after a lesson, weekend gardening/composition lessons, tennis/composition lessons, invitations to visit at a teacher’s summer home—due, presumably, to fraught gender dynamics or fear of misperceived intent. I’d hear about a young male composer who’d been taken under wing by a famous older male composer, brought along to a festival in Japan or high-profile performance in Europe where he was “introduced” to the composerly clique. (Certainly this kind of thing happened with an inappropriate agenda at times, too.) Even if a senior male composer wanted to champion a young female composer in this way, it was hard to imagine how he would pull it off. One elder statesman composer reached out to me after hearing my work at a festival; he praised my counterpoint and invited me to dinner with him and his wife. He was a model of professionalism, nowhere near inappropriate, but some male peers felt the need to caution me nonetheless: “I heard he helps female composers. Who knows what’s going on there.” While there was no shortage of mixed-group socializing with our teachers, it was the avuncular one-on-one bonding that my male peers tended to credit for significant advances in their careers. (“You should get _____ to take you mushroom-picking like he did with me last week; he sent my music to _____ yesterday!” they would say excitedly, in the way young composers share trade secrets with one another. “Oh wait…I guess that would be weird.”)
I thought that if I worked harder to emulate my male peers in certain ways (comportment, humor), and rival or exceed them in others (knowledge, craft, seriousness), I could somehow defuse and shift the imbalance of this reality. Sometimes it felt like my strategy was working and I’d think maybe, for a moment, my gender had disappeared—which made it all the more frustrating when certain teachers felt the continual need to bring it up, not solely in conversations about career strategy but in the music lessons themselves. Several teachers called my music “feminine,” a word whose meaning varied by context and instructor. One of these teachers raised this point as a matter of genuine, solemn care and concern, sharing with me his belief that the handful of 20th-century female composers who had found success had done so because they wrote “masculine” music. The way I set a Gertrude Stein text, he said, was overly brooding, emotional—in short, too feminized. “Ruth Crawford Seeger, Sofia Gubaidulina, Joan Tower, Tania León, Augusta Read Thomas…it’s pretty masculine music,” he told me. I asked what he meant by “masculine,” and what he thought I should take from his observation. “I don’t know,” he replied, “I’m not saying it’s fair or right. I just think you might want to think about it. The women who’ve busted down the doors aren’t necessarily the ones who would have been successful at any other point in history. They’re the ones whose vision and skill best matched the fashion of their time, and the 20th century has been a very macho-intellectual time.”
Like all of my peers—and as with any fledgling composer, writer, or artist—my work received unsparing critique in group seminars. The aesthetic values varied by institution, but in general, systems, complexity, and obfuscation ruled the day. My music, by contrast, tended to be clear and discernible: my interests were melody and narrative. I greatly appreciated the criticisms and challenges posed to me by my teachers and peers; they resulted in lively aesthetic debates, pushed and broadened me as an artist, and in many ways strengthened my resolve. What troubled me were the times when the critique turned from the technical to a vague indictment of the emotional, with problematically deployed language (“emotional, feminine, wounded, victimized, vulnerable, precious”) or effeminate gesticulations. One teacher, critiquing an orchestra piece of mine, leaped from side to side in front of the (all male but me) class, assuming mock-Victorian pearl-clutching-and-fainting poses to pantomime his perception of the music’s interior monologue as it moved from phrase to phrase: “Oh! I’m so sad! But, but now…now I’m…happy! But wait, now—now—I’m… sad again. Oh boohoohoohoo!”
I cannot argue that the 20th-century dichotomous thinking about contemporary music—serious/cerebral/systems-based/complex/masculine vs. less serious/emotional/intuitive/simple/feminine—was necessarily fed to me disproportionately on account of my gender. My male peers struggled with these issues, too. But in recognizing the extent to which my sex preceded me as a composer, I envied the few female composers I knew whose interests naturally lay in writing gestural, modernist music, where expressivity was more about wind multiphonics and string bow pressure than traditional notions of line and syntax. I believed these women were more likely to be taken seriously by the male composers evaluating our work, even if those men didn’t necessarily write that way themselves. I struggled to make my music less clear and more complex, instantly mistrusting any idea I heard rather than derived from a system. I would catch myself excited about a melodic idea and then get depressed that I was excited. There were long, painful stretches in which I barely wrote—until, finally, I accepted that it wasn’t simply that I wasn’t very good at writing that way, it was that I didn’t want to.
I left graduate school pretty deeply ill at ease with the degree to which new music seemed to be an old white boys’ club, built in part on values and practices I couldn’t embrace or endorse. There was a period of time after graduation in which I found it painful even to listen to classical music—of any era. Hundreds of years of composers I grew up loving—music that had always been my home, a sanctuary—suddenly now just seemed like a club of men that never would have let me in, never would have seen my personhood as equivalent to theirs, even if they’d been alive today. It was a strange feeling of betrayal. But I am, by nature, a tenacious and quietly rebellious person. When someone tells me I can’t do something, my inclination is to push on, and that much harder than before. Ultimately, rather than flee the castle, I decided I wanted to raze the ramparts, bridge the moats, and make new music a more inclusive and broad-minded institution. I found some like-minded comrades, and we still work together towards these goals at New Amsterdam Records. But a lot of people don’t have that perverse inclination to swim upstream. I know too many female composers who’ve dropped out at various stages of their career because they were repulsed or alienated by the culture of our field. While I respect that choice, I mourn it, too.
I recently found myself thinking about all of this again, brought vividly back to my days as a young female composer struggling to feel I was being taken seriously. In a recent New York Times review of the Kennedy Center’s SHIFT Festival in Washington, D.C., regarding a performance by the North Carolina Symphony, critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim wrote the following about my music: “But the 13-song cycle Unremembered by Ms. Snider with Mr. Stith joined by the vocalists Shara Nova and Padma Newsome, was an overlong exercise in candy-floss-Gothic angst. Its setting of dark poems by Nathaniel Bellows — among them, visions of an abandoned slaughterhouse, a martyred swan and a copse of trees haunted by the memory of a suicide — proceed to the accompaniment of spare orchestral gestures, repeated as in a trance. Listening to Unremembered alongside the (lamentably much shorter) songs by Ms. Shaw highlighted the difference between sincerity and being overearnest.”
Ouch. One never likes to get a bad review, but when you put your music out there enough, it happens, and you learn to live with it. You tell yourself that it’s not necessarily a bad thing to write music that’s a little bit polarizing—maybe it’s even a good thing?—and you remind yourself to feel grateful that your work is being acknowledged at all. You shake it off and move on. In this case, however, the critique really got under my skin, and I wasn’t sure why. So I sat down to write these words and try to puzzle it out.
In her critique of Unremembered, da Fonseca-Wollheim uses the phrase “candy floss,” a British-ism for cotton candy—pink, fluffy, spun sugar. If you Google Image Search the words “candy floss,” you find pictures of pink fluff, girls eating pink fluff, and girls with pink wigs eating pink fluff. The imagery is not just female, but young: pink cartoon animals, unicorns, butterflies, lipstick/makeup, lace underwear/lingerie, and frilly/girly fonts. Perhaps in choosing this phrase, da Fonseca-Wollheim did not mean for any “girly” connotation to factor as strongly as the “fluffy/insubstantial” aspect, but it’s hard for me to imagine her using “candy floss” to criticize work by a male composer, given the added tax of emasculation it would potentially levy. Regardless, what’s troubling here isn’t just the use of a gendered dig to criticize work by a female composer. Equally if not more problematic is the use of a gendered dig to criticize emotion, a concept laden with more gender baggage than perhaps any other in the art form. If “candy floss” had been used to criticize something technical like orchestration or harmony, it would have been problematic in the ways that any gendered word usage is problematic. But in using a female-coded image to deride “overearnestness,” da Fonseca-Wollheim takes the damage a step further by conflating two modes of shaming: the emotional and the feminine. With this metaphor, she invites readers to infer that an excess of earnest emotional expression is a female crime.
So this was why I felt so awful. Here I was again, back on The Merry-Go-Round. You know the one—it’s fallen a bit into disrepair, but a lot of female composers have ridden on it. It’s painted Pepto-Bismol pink with melon-green polka dots, yellow diamonds, and lavender stars. Each horse has a lace-doily-ed, heart-shaped message above it, hand-painted with curlicues; the text on these messages is customized per rider. In my case, they say: Too Much Emotion—Girl; Pearl-Clutching-and-Fainting Pantomime—Girl; Overly-Feminized Text Settings—Girl; Brooding Like a Wounded Animal—Girl; Cotton Candy—Girl; Too Earnest—Girl. The central axis is adorned with a large frilly banner that remains the same for every rider: Girl—Weak, Unserious, Shameful. The janky carousel organ is accompanied by a warbly recording of Florence Foster Jenkins pertly sing-chanting: “Emotion is female, and females are emotional!” over and over and over… Ugh. Hadn’t they shut down this ride years ago for safety violations? Being on it again made me seasick.
Realizing that this merry-go-round is still open made me think we should talk about it.
The thing is, even though The Merry-Go-Round is out back behind the parking lot of Classical Music, you can still see and hear it clearly from the parlor room. So its messages impact all composers, regardless of gender. The implications for masculinity are every bit as toxic as those for women; the feminization of emotion, as a concept, is toxic to all human beings. (One of my strongest memories of the pearl-clutching-and-fainting-pantomime episode was the look of horror on my male peers’ faces as their brains registered the memo.) But The Merry-Go-Round’s messages are, of course, most burdensome to young female composers, who, in addition to institutional gender-based career hurdles, already have plenty of stubborn, misogynist cultural stereotypes about the nature of female emotion—and tacit proscriptions regarding its place in their work—to contend with.
Whenever I hear the carousel tune waft in from afar, I think of the young women I mentioned earlier, the ones who write to tell me my work is “brave” or “courageous.” These women, usually in their late teens or early twenties, often come to composition through pop/rock/folk songwriting—music of direct emotional expression—because that’s where broadly visible female role models are. They write to me because their teachers recommended my song cycles Penelope and Unremembered, with their mix of stylistic influences, as a kind of new music gateway, a responsibility I greet by recommending wildly different styles of music by other female composers to them. These young women are usually aware of some of the challenges facing them but haven’t yet become hardened new music cynics.
I really don’t want these women to have to ride this rusty, old, broken-down merry-go-round. It’s painful and exhausting, and once you’re on, it’s hard to get off.
Be it in criticism, scholarship, or informal conversation, modes of classical music discourse that use gendered language, that conflate the emotional and the feminine, or that shame emotion in the place of analytic critique—bit by bit, they do real damage. Not just to these young women, but to the art form in general. Dismissing emotional immediacy as effeminate, lightweight, insubstantial—girlifying it—not only perpetuates tired, sexist clichés and messily condemns a long-embattled-and-recently-advanced aesthetic freedom in new music, it also has a chilling effect on new music’s ability to attract and retain young female composers. Language matters, words matter. It’s not about an occasional piece of rocky flotsam; it’s about a river of pernicious messaging that, over time, takes a toll.
There are plenty of respectful ways to criticize music you find problematically emotive, if that is your grouse. All of them boil down to: be specific. Identify what’s actually bothering you. Does the music use too many bold emotional signifiers, e.g. sharp dynamic or harmonic contrasts? Do climactic moments seem unearned, or points of repose feel insufficient? Are melodic lines suffocatingly goal-directed or meandering? Is the phrasing long-winded, the textures too densely contrapuntal or unremittingly homophonic? Are motivic elements over-employed, or is there a dearth of memorable material? Is the concern one of aesthetics—are the influences not satisfyingly integrated? Should different styles/genres of music have different standards of emotional expressivity? And so on. A single concise, thought-provoking sentence will usually do. But to shame the emotion of a piece without substantive critique falsely implies that the work of “emotion” is not intellectual or intellectually interrogable. This kind of facile dismissal is not just lazy and old-fashioned, it’s insidiously repressive.
The making of any art requires courage, bravery, and risk—especially when it comes to putting it out into the world. But it’s ironic that in 21st-century classical music—a music that arguably invites excursive interior rumination, that aspires to probe deeply into the human condition—the pursuit of emotional honesty seems to require greater reserves of courage, bravery, and risk than the path of deliberately dispassionate restraint. For the health, longevity, and diversity of the art form, the way we think and talk about emotion and affect in 21st-century classical music must go deeper.
Essential to this is a proactive, vigilant rejection of the false dichotomy between the emotional/feminine and the intellectual/masculine in art, which is rarely articulated but nevertheless tends to linger just under the surface of many aesthetic arguments. A culture that colloquially refers to emotional awareness as “being in touch with one’s feminine side” will not be easily shifted in this regard. For this reason, public forums such as academia, journalism, and the media have a responsibility to take a conscious lead in flushing out the problematic currents of pre-supposition that travel subterraneously.
And in light of classical music’s glaring gender bias, care really should be taken to avoid gendered language. Non-gendered language is essential if your critical intent is to denounce or disparage, as sexist insults negatively impact not just the intended target, but all women (and differently but equally, men, non-binary, etc.) It’s true that what seems gendered to one person may not necessarily appear so to another, but all the situation requires is to ask oneself: Might this language be perceived as gendered? Would I feel equally confident using it with cis and trans women, men, and non-binary people? Should I conduct an informal poll to get a sense of how other people might see it? If there is room for debate, use different language. As we work to make the field of classical music more equitable and better reflect the diversity of the actual world we live in, demographically and aesthetically, we need to choose our words with care and consideration.
Most importantly, to young female composers: Do not be cowed by any shaming of the “emotional” or the “feminine” in your work—be it by critics, teachers, peers, men, women, whoever. Demand better. Tell your stories—loud, proud, bold, vulnerable, with the full gamut of your humanity. We’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for, and infinite facets of the female human experience to render.
Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider’s works have been commissioned and performed by the San Francisco, Detroit, Indianapolis, and North Carolina Symphonies; the Residentie Orkest Den Haag, American Composers Orchestra, and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra; percussionist Colin Currie, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, and vocalist Shara Nova; and The Knights, Ensemble Signal, yMusic, and Roomful of Teeth, among many others. Her music has been heard at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Kennedy Center, and at festivals including BAM Next Wave, Big Ears, Cross-linx, Aspen, Ecstatic, and Sundance. Her two orchestral song cycle records, Penelope (2010) and Unremembered (2015), graced Top Five lists on NPR, The Washington Post, The Nation, and Time Out New York. Upcoming projects include a mass for Trinity Wall Street Choir/NOVUS NY, a collaborative song cycle for A Far Cry, and an opera co-commissioned by Beth Morrison Projects and Opera Cabal. The winner of Detroit Symphony’s 2014 Elaine Lebenbom Award, Sarah’s music has also been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, New Music USA, Opera America, the Sorel Organization, and the Jerome Composers Commissioning Fund. A co-founder and co-artistic director of Brooklyn-based non-profit New Amsterdam Records, Sarah has an M.A. and A.D. from the Yale School of Music and a B.A. from Wesleyan University. Her music is published by G. Schirmer.