Lend Me a Pick Ax: The Slow Dismantling of the Compositional Gender Divide

Lend Me a Pick Ax: The Slow Dismantling of the Compositional Gender Divide

Women have made tremendous strides toward parity with their male colleagues in the field of composition, but we’re not all the way home just yet.

Written By

Lisa Hirsch

In the world of classical music, as elsewhere, women have made tremendous progress over the last 30 years. Following the introduction of blind auditions in the 1970s, which greatly reduce bias, women now make up about half of the string and woodwind players in American orchestras. Women occupy prominent administrative positions in major musical institutions. Women direct and design productions at important opera houses.

Joan Tower
Joan Tower
Photo by Noah Sheldon

Women also make up about 30 percent of composition students in American colleges and conservatories. While this is a vast and positive change, it’s still not easy for women to get their works performed, especially by symphony orchestras. During the 2004-05 concert season, works by women accounted for only one percent of all pieces performed by the 300 or so member orchestras who responded to the repertory survey of the American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras, or LAO). The following year, with a boost from Joan Tower’s widely-performed Made in America, the number rose to two percent.

At the orchestral level, the situation remains much the same today. During the 2006-07 season, 54 works by 31 women were performed by the member orchestras reporting repertory to LAO. Of the 31 composers, only Jennifer Higdon (12), Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (5), Joan Tower (4), Gabriela Lena Frank (3), Kaija Saariaho (2), Augusta Read Thomas (2), and Sophia Gubaidulina (2) had more than one piece performed; the remaining 24 women composers were each represented by one work each. For the sake of comparison, the most-performed living composer was John Adams, with 18 pieces, trailed by John Corigliano with 12 and Michael Daugherty with 9. Among standard-repertory composers, we find Tchaikovsky and Beethoven with 44 works each. Most individual works by those two composers received far more performances than any work by a living composer received. Made in America was still the most-performed work by an America woman, and, with 28 performances, the most frequently performed contemporary piece.

You might think this represents the plight of the contemporary composer, because contemporary music represents a sadly small fraction of the current orchestral repertory. But during the 2006-07 season, LAO members managed to program works written in the last 25 years by about 160 different composers. Only 19 of them were women. Of the 31 women represented overall in the general survey, 12 wrote the work performed more than 25 years ago; some, such as Amy Beach, Clara Schumann, and Fanny Mendelssohn, are long gone.

But what of new music ensembles and contemporary music festivals, which focus on the music of the 20th and 21st centuries? Even here there’s a mixed record of performing music by women composers. Some ensembles present little or no music by women. For example, in the 2007-08 season, New York’s Either/Or lists no women among the composers whose works they’ve performed; of the 35 composers presented by the Cygnus Ensemble, one is a woman. More encouraging is the record of counter)induction, whose enormous repertory encompasses some 80 composers, of whom 13 are women. San Francisco’s Other Minds Festival has presented 115 composers, 29 of them women, and of the 36 composers who have received a commission from the Bang on a Can People’s Commissions, 8 are women.


How Did Things Get This Way?

Hildegard of Bingen

Women have composed music in the Western classical tradition for centuries, going back at least to Hildegard of Bingen, the great 12th-century composer, author, and religious mystic. The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers is nearly 600 pages long and lists hundreds of composers from every epoch. In trying to establish themselves as composers, women have dealt with the same problems they have faced whenever they enter male-dominated fields: institutional bias, outright exclusion, sexist attitudes and behavior by individuals, lack of opportunities, sexual harassment, and isolation. Women who wanted to study composition found themselves excluded from conservatories for much of the 19th century. Building on Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s work in literary criticism, Catherine Parsons Smith offers a persuasive argument that in the United States, musical modernism was, among other things, a reaction to the first wave of feminism in the late 19th century and to the emergence of women composers and musicians (“‘A Distinguishing Virility’: Feminism and Modernism in American Art Music,” in Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music, Susan C. Cook and Judy S. Tsou, eds., University of Illinois Press, 1994).

That was then, and this is now, you might think–but women composers must still deal with these issues. For this article, I interviewed a number of composers, some of whom have academic appointments, some of whom are freelance composers. Not all were women. Almost all of the women reported some sense of isolation at the beginning of their careers. Sheila Silver, professor of composition, theory, and instrumentation at SUNY/Stony Brook, first saw another woman composer while studying in France on a George Ladd Prix de Paris award, when Betsy Jolas took a bow at the end of a concert. It was another two years before she met another woman who composed, and that was Pauline Oliveros. Linda Dusman, professor of composition and theory at the University of Maryland (Baltimore Campus), was sufficiently isolated as a student composer in the 1970s that she found an address where Ruth Crawford Seeger had once lived and sat in her car outside the house, even though it had been decades since Seeger’s death. Alice Shields, a pioneer of electronic music who for many years was associated with the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, studied composition at Columbia in the 1960s and ’70s. Neither her professors nor any texts in use ever mentioned women composers, though several women became composition students at Columbia by the late 1960s.

Silver received her Ph.D. in composition in 1976, Dusman in the mid-1980s. Music history textbooks of the time didn’t even give lip service to women composers. The 1973 edition of Donald Grout’s widely used History of Western Music lists Clara Schumann in the index, but the sentence mentioning her in the body of the text is about her pianism. The index lists Charles Griffes but not Amy Beach, the great teacher Nadia Boulanger but not her sister, the composer Lili Boulanger, though there are many entries for obscure male composers. When I was a musicology graduate student at Stony Brook in the early 1980s, a student in an elementary music class asked me why there were no great women composers. “Somebody had to take care of the children” was my off-the-cuff answer. Childbearing and family responsibilities have been important factors in limiting women’s entry into composing, especially before the 20th century, because women were expected to devote themselves to their children and husbands, not to their own careers. But I also didn’t know who to list for him, because to the extent that I knew the names of women composers, I had heard almost none of their music and had no idea of their stature as composers. I certainly wasn’t in a position to describe any of them as “great.”

Caroline Mallonée
Caroline Mallonée

Caroline Mallonée and Kyle Bartlett, who received their doctoral degrees in 2006 and 1999, respectively, reported to me that women were always a minority in their programs. The situation is better at some universities than others; for example, about one-third of the current graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley are women. At Stony Brook, Silver sees many more women studying composition than in the past, with women typically making up about thirty percent of the composers. Stony Brook’s composition faculty is half female, which may well make the department more attractive to young women composers than an all-male composition faculty. Still, Stony Brook’s faculty is unusual: as of 2001-2, less than 10 percent of the composition teachers in the College Music Society’s directory were women, according to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

As in other fields, women in composition often have to deal with sexual harassment. During her studies, Silver experienced sexual harassment on several separate occasions at different institutions. The Chronicle of Higher Education article referenced in the previous paragraph outlines the sexual harassment of women in music, including both student performers and composers, and discusses a number of cases in detail.

Women composers may also be subjected to sexist remarks that are demeaning, skeptical, insulting, or clueless but that don’t constitute harassment. One of Kaija Saariaho’s teachers told her that after having children, women could only compose lullabies (“Gender Negotiation of the Composer Kaija Saariaho in Finland: The Composer as Nomadic Subject,” by Pirkko Moisala, in Music and Gender, edited by Pirkko Moisala and Beverley Diamond, University of Illinois Press, 2000). Early in her career, men would ask Pamela Z who had helped her choose, design, and set up her electronic gear–all of which she had done by herself. She told me that these comments have diminished considerably since the 1980s, however, perhaps indicating an improvement in perceptions of women’s competence.


Why Are We Even Talking About This?

We live in a world that sometimes seems post-feminist, where it’s widely–and wrongly–assumed that sexism is somehow behind us. It’s difficult to talk about the particular issues facing women composers, because of the obvious progress in the last 35 years and because of the hazards of discussing composers by their gender rather than by their musical style. The late Miriam Gideon, born in 1906, equivocated about the issue, admitting that women composers faced particular challenges while not wanting to discuss them in depth. As Kaija Saariaho’s career progressed, she became more willing to talk about the way she had been treated because she was a woman. (See Pirkko Moisala’s article referenced above.) And one young composer decided against being interviewed for this article because of her legitimate frustration with articles that focus on what it’s like to be a woman in the field rather than on the music written by women in the field. The composers I spoke with understood the past utility of staging concerts of music exclusively by women composers, while thinking that at present, such segregation is more likely to be harmful in advancing women’s careers.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t concern about the current status of women composers. Linda Dusman cited the lack of current research and statistics on women’s success as graduate students in composition, and her plans to do such research in the future. She noted, as well, that we’re still asking these questions because we’re still facing the issues. Caroline Mallonée mentioned that concerns over the small number of women composition faculty and female graduate students are discussed constantly on the mailing list of the International Association of Women in Music.

Melinda Wagner
Melinda Wagner
Courtesy Theodore Presser

In addition, other patterns raise concerns about the survival and influence of the old boys’ networks, besides the performance and faculty statistics cited above. Only three Pulitzer Prizes in music have been awarded to women, all since 1983, none in the past decade. Since 1980, when the Pulitzer committee began announcing nominated finalists, four nominated finalists that did not win were works by women. Seven women have served on the Pulitzer music jury, all since 1975 (Miriam Gideon 1975 and 1983 (chair); Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, 1988 and 2002; Vivian Fine, 1989; Joan Tower, 1994; Melinda Wagner, 2000; Shulamit Ran, 2001; Ingrid Monson, 2007 and 2008). It’s worth noting that Ellen Taaffe Zwilich received her Pulitzer, the first awarded to a woman, in 1983, the year Gideon chaired the music jury. Of the 562 Guggenheim Fellowships awarded in music composition since the first went to Aaron Copland in 1925, 59 have gone to women, with 30 of them awarded since 1994.

More difficult to discuss or research are questions about whether music composed by women is any different from what is written by men, or whether women’s compositional process is different from men’s. The history of past “research” on sex and racial differences makes it likely that such discussions or research would be stigmatizing or used to diminish women’s accomplishments as composers. Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man (W.W. Norton, 1981, 1996) provides a long and depressing account of such research, in which the language used to describe women and African Americans is strikingly similar, and in all cases deployed to demonstrate the inherent superiority of white men. For example, 19th and early 20th-century researchers described both women and African Americans as more passionate or emotional than logical, as timid in the world and needing guidance from white men, and so on. These racist and sexist views persisted well into the 20th century, and while they’ve gone underground and become more subtle, they’re by no means absent from the modern world.


Getting Performed

All composers face similar issues in trying to get their work performed: institutional and listener resistance to new music; financial constraints, especially for opera; the tendency of commissions to go to well-known or popular composers. Commissions from major institutions, such as the top orchestras and big opera companies, are far more likely to go to men than to women.

Pamela Z
Pamela Z
Photo by Jeff Cravotta

That said, the composers I spoke with were mostly happy with their ability to get their music performed. They write on commission, for interested faculty where they have academic affiliations, for musicians who’ve played their music before, for musicians they know personally, and for performing groups with which they’re affiliated. Those who are composer/performers have a different degree of control because they’re not dependent on others to perform their music. Pamela Z, for example, is a composer/performer and the primary performer of her own music, though sometimes she writes on commission. Elaine Fine mentioned that she often writes for unusual combinations of instruments, where there’s not much repertory but there are performers interested in playing together. She has found that only her operas are difficult to get performed, because of the time, effort, and money required to stage opera, which is admittedly a problem for all composers, regardless of gender. Alice Shields has received commissions from instrumentalists, and her new opera Criseyde, based on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, will be presented by both the American Virtuosi Opera Theater and New York City Opera’s VOX program. Sheila Silver won the 2007 Sackler Composition Prize, which will lead to two performances of her new opera The Wooden Sword.


Getting Yourself Out There


Last year, Word World Publications issued a massive volume entitled The World of Women in Classical Music by Dr. Anne K. Gray. On its 1000-plus pages are brief biographical sketches, many including photos, of significant musical women from around the world going back to ancient times. Not limited to composers, Gray also includes chapters on female conductors, instrumentalists, singers, musicologists, industry professionals, and even philanthropists.

Inevitably, as with any project that attempts to be comprehensive, there are glaring omissions. Gray’s volume does not contain a single reference to Johanna Magdalena Beyer, a maverick composer whose music has finally been collected on a recent New World 2-CD set, or to microtonal pioneer Mildred Couper. Bringing it more up-to-date, Gray also fails to acknowledge Gloria Coates, who has been described as America’s most prolific female symphonist, or even Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe. That said, the book offers valuable background on nearly 100 American women composers representing a broad range of styles, from Zenobia Powell Perry and Lucia Dlugoszewski to Laurie Anderson and Jennifer Higdon, which makes for strong supporting evidence for the tremendous progress Lisa Hirsch describes on our pages.


Every composer I spoke with mentioned the importance of self-promotion. Shields noted ruefully that she’s not at all good at this aspect of the business of being a composer, and that it has resulted in economic difficulties for her. Bartlett also said that this isn’t her strength, and while it keeps her career small, she has more time to do what she wants to do.

Alex Shapiro is a natural self-promoter, referring to herself as “very capitalist.” Her career started in commercial music, and as a result, she told me, she’s extremely comfortable with copyright, contracts, and other business matters. She uses her web site and blog to promote her music, offering samples, CDs, and the opportunity to purchase scores. She recently received a commission from the U.S. Army TRADOC concert band through her MySpace site.

Shapiro, who has led various seminars related to the music business and self-promotion, thinks that many women can do a better job of promoting themselves and presenting themselves professionally. She’s seen a surprising and dismaying number of women undermine themselves with competition submissions that included handwritten or apologetic cover letters.


Importance of Mentoring

Several of the composers told me about a mentor who had been especially important to their careers. Alice Shields told me about her deep gratitude to Vladimir Ussachevsky, one of the founders of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, who encouraged her to compose and who, she said, “gave me a future where I felt I had none.” Sheila Silver says that at the University of Washington, William Bolcom encouraged her as a composer and suggested that she leave the Northwest for a location with a more active musical community. At Berkeley, she worked with Edward Dugger, and while she was in Europe, György Ligeti was her mentor, even though he was not teaching classes at the time. Kyle Bartlett studied at the Longy School with Herman Weiss, and said that the environment at Longy encouraged everyone to pursue whatever their interests were. “If you wanted to conduct the orchestra, you could make it happen,” she said.

A well-known mentor has benefits beyond instruction: such a person can provide an entrée to an institution, or introductions to performers and presenters. It’s impossible to imagine some composers as good mentors to women. Aaron Copland didn’t believe women could be good composers; of Nadia Boulanger, he once said “But had she become a composer, she would of biological necessity have joined the automatically inferior ranks of the ‘woman composer'” (quoted in Catherine Parsons Smith’s article referenced above).


Starting Young

All of the composers I spoke to became musicians at an early age, starting music lessons in childhood. Most of them didn’t become composers until adulthood, discovering the vocation in college or even later. Elaine Fine, for example, has a flute degree from Juilliard, and subsequent to her studies there, started playing violin and viola. In her 30s, she began to make arrangements for a string quartet she played with, and as the arrangements became more complex, her own voice as a composer began to emerge. Pamela Z played the viola from grade school through high school, then studied voice in college. She considers herself lucky to have had a voice teacher who, unlike other instructors at her school, encouraged her to sing contemporary music. After school, she made her living singing and playing in nightclubs, but in the early 1980s, she encountered the music of Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, and others in the experimental music scene and began composing herself. Kyle Bartlett, who now teaches at Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, decided to become a composer as a teenager, after a summer of study at a gifted students’ school where, among other things, the orchestra played Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, music that thrilled and amazed her, because she’d never heard anything like it.

Caroline Mallonée has always been a composer: she started at 8 and attended The Walden School’s Young Musician Program, a summer music camp for youth, from age 12 to 18. Now a teacher in that program, she told me children are completely unselfconscious about composing. Like Mallonée, Alex Shapiro knew she’d be a composer from an early age, and received her first paying commission at age 16. Shapiro says that she had the best possible childhood for a budding composer, growing up in New York City with music lessons at the Julliard Preparatory Division and summers at Aspen.

One way to give women more prominence as composers is to get more girls interested in composing at an early age. This means young instrumentalists need to play and hear music composed by women, so that they have role models and can imagine themselves writing music. All potential composers need to be offered theory and composition training when they’re young, and they need access to performers so they can hear their music played. They also need access to technology, because the ability to produce and distribute your own scores and recordings is such an important part of musical life today, and girls are typically less likely than boys to seek out and learn about hardware: In the 1990s, Pamela Z taught a workshop for high school kids, and found that the girls in her class enrolled to learn about audio technology so that they’d be less intimidated by boys and boys’ knowledge.

In addition to schools such as The Walden School, the Settlement Music School, and the preparatory divisions of conservatories, at least two major orchestras now extend their outreach to young composers. The Minnesota Orchestra has an intensive Composer Institute, whose week-long immersion program includes advanced composition and orchestration classes and classes focused on the business side of being a composer. The Composer Institute has had a good number of women participating over the years. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has a Composer Fellowship Program for high-school aged composers, instituted in the fall of 2007. The program is described as follows on the orchestra’s web site:

Select fellows in this mentorship program receive private and group composition lessons with LA Phil guest composers; attend seminars presented by LA Phil musicians; learn from film composers, music arrangers, and publishers; hear their music performed in class sessions by LA Phil musicians or teaching faculty; and attend concerts and rehearsals at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

This promises to be a great program for all participants, providing them with an intimate glimpse inside this professional slice of the industry even before they enter college. Underlining the need for outreach to young women who want to be composers, the four first-year fellows in 2007 were all young men.


What’s Next?

There’s no question in my mind that women composers today are in a much better situation than in the past, between the broad acceptance and awareness of women as composers, the widespread availability of advanced training, and the multitude of ways to be heard as a composer. And there’s now a large and expanding literature on women composers throughout music history. Still, there’s plenty of room for more progress.

On the academic side, college curricula need to incorporate information about women composers in teaching music history and composition. No music student should leave school without having heard these composers and analyzed this music.

Women are likely to benefit from ongoing changes in the overall music curriculum, as it incorporates more classes in entrepreneurship, self-promotion, and career paths, perhaps even more than men, because men are more likely than women to have a strong sense of entitlement and consequently are more at home with self-promotion.

The failure of women to make much headway in getting their music performed by symphonies and opera companies is an ongoing frustration. Most big commissions still go to male composers, though in the last few years Deborah Drattell, Rachel Portman, and Kaija Saariaho have all had new operas performed by major opera companies, while Saariaho, Higdon, Augusta Read Thomas, Joan Tower, Sofia Gubaidulina and other women have received major orchestral commissions. It’s also true that big commissions are few and far between in general, because of the extent to which big musical institutions are now museums rather than major promoters of the music of our time.

I’ll never again be tripped up by inconvenient questions, because now I can name many great and important composers, from Hildegard of Bingen to Chiara Cozzolani to Fanny Hensel to Ruth Crawford to Miriam Gideon to Jennifer Higdon and Kaija Saariaho. I’ve been able to hear works by all of these composers live or on record, and they are all prominently featured in the research literature on women composers. But these composers should be as well-known as the male composers of their respective generations, and we have a ways to go before we’re there.


Lisa Hirsch
Photo by Eric Lundblad

Lisa Hirsch is a technical writer, music reviewer for San Francisco Classical Voice, chorister, and martial artist. She studied music at Brandeis and Stony Brook.