Opinions from the Dux Femina Facti: Women Leaders at the Grassroots of New Music
Through interviews with women leaders from grassroots music organizations from all over the country, we explore topics related to managing ensembles and festivals, commissioning, curating, and creating collegial workspaces where women’s voices can be heard.
“Anything that we create for ourselves. Nobody taught me to start a festival, to start a vocal quartet. I see some legacy roles going to women, but the biggest opportunity is for women to remake the industry from the ground up.”
— Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, Omaha Under the Radar
Over the past month, NewMusicBox has hosted a series of articles from the International Alliance for Women talking about various issue facing women in music today: awards and fellowships, education, and reception.
Our post today focuses on the idea of women as leaders in music, especially in new music. Through interviews with women leaders from grassroots music organizations from all over the country, we explore topics related to managing ensembles and festivals, commissioning, curating, and creating collegial workspaces where women’s voices can be heard.
Each of the organizations chosen is a relatively young festival, conference, or ensemble working to bring new music to audiences. The oldest of those interviewed, Rhymes With Opera, just celebrated its 10th season with all performances of their May mainstage production playing to sold-out audiences in New York City. Oh My Ears held its first marathon concert in 2014 and celebrated its fifth iteration as a four-day new music festival in downtown Phoenix in January. New Music Gathering issued its first call for proposals in 2014 and held its fourth conference in May. Two festivals begin in the next few days: Omaha Under the Radar has its fifth summer festival July 25-28; The Uncommon Music Festival begins its third season July 28-August 5 in Sitka, Alaska.
When It’s Lonely at the Top
Sometimes the woman at the top of the organization is a solo director, such as Amanda DeBoer Bartlett of Omaha Under the Radar and Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer of Oh My Ears. Bayer and DeBoer both acknowledged a sense of loneliness as the head of a festival.
As Bayer said, “We live in such a weird world where we see other people’s successes constantly on social media. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t getting enough stuff done on my own.”
During the course of the conversation, Bayer added several points of epiphany and self-transformation:
“The doors that opened happened because I was poor enough and desperate enough to knock on them!”
“I had to give myself permission to lead…”
“I had to stop downplaying my role…”
“I had to figure out how to delegate…”
DeBoer expressed similar issues. “Asking people to help is hard,” she admits. “But also getting out of the way and letting them do it is hard. For the first three years of the festival, I wouldn’t delegate anything. My team had to sit me down and tell me that I had to delegate more. I’m still having to teach and train people so that I can delegate, because I wouldn’t let them do it before.” Though she is the director, she co-organizes with Aubrey Byerly (Development and Grant Manager) and Stacey Barelos (Education Director), and credits them with doing “a massive amount of work and decision-making all year long.”
DeBoer also talked about her own style of leadership, discussing the possibility of a gendered experience as a “quiet leader.”
“[It] works in some situations, but I definitely feel the need to push back, especially in saying ‘no,’” she acknowledges.
DeBoer and Bayer both described the role of leader as emotionally draining, but also seemed very pleased with the freedom it afforded them. Oddly, as solo leaders, they also both described the feeling of community as an important factor in their leadership and planning decisions. Organizing festivals, to them, was a way of both seeking and creating community.
When Control is Shared
In the case of Uncommon Music Festival, Ariadne Lih is an equal co-director with Nate Barnett. Ruby Fulton, Elisabeth Halliday, and Bonnie Lander of Rhymes With Opera work with George Lam and Robert Maril. Lainie Fefferman works with a mixed group of men and women founders including Mary Kouyoumdjian, Jascha Narveson, Daniel Felsenfeld, and the late Matt Marks at New Music Gathering.
One woman with whom I spoke stated, “It’s up to the women to say: Don’t forget we need to try to hire a woman. There’s a heightened awareness of equity.” She noted that sometimes support from male colleagues might feel “lukewarm.” However, in these organizations where control is shared with a partner of the opposite sex or a small mixed company of partners, women report that they generally feel supported and that their voices are heard.
Fefferman spoke of feeling lucky in her partners at New Music Gathering: “We’ve talked really deeply about biases we want to fight in our curation, and it made me feel like I didn’t have to self-censor. I have felt supported and appreciated by my colleagues, and that’s not always a given. There are maybe views I have or preferences that are informed by my gender, but I felt free to express that to the group, and they respected my opinion.”
Dealing with those outside the organization, though, can be a frustrating experience in sexism. DeBoer and Bayer both spoke of being ignored by people who failed to recognize the person in charge of the event was a woman. The women from Rhymes With Opera also shared some stories about being discounted as a leader.
Lander complained, “Last December, I organized a series, and there was some disbelief that I was the organizer.”
Fulton chimed in, “One thing I definitely notice is that people will assume that if there’s a man there, that’s the person in charge. Because I’m a woman, and short, and look younger than I am, people don’t think I’m the person to talk to.”
Lih shared that it was actually her male co-director Barnett who suggested that they flip the names on their email signature from “Nate and Ariadne” to “Ariadne and Nate,” so that her name was first. Barnett underlined that “explaining that we are co-directors has been a challenge. We’ve had to undo the assumptions about who is ‘really in charge.’”
Barnett also pointed out the value of sharing leadership with a woman. “It’s a very charged time… I can actually take a step back and say, ‘That’s a question best answered by… Ariadne.’”
Canon, Inclusivity, and Relevance in Curation
Even though all of these groups are oriented in some measure towards new music, I asked everyone specifically if they ever felt pressure to program works from a canon, or if they felt free to choose. The response was overwhelmingly one-sided.
“What’s a canon?” Fulton chuckled.
“No! Boy, do I have the freedom to choose!” exclaimed Fefferman.
The Uncommon Music Festival, which showcases a combination of new music and early music, delights in presenting works by underrepresented composers, even in their selections from early music, though Lih does tend to include more canonical works for educational programming.
When Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians was programmed for the Omaha Under the Radar festival, it was, and remains to this day, their most-attended event, but Bartlett hasn’t tried to repeat that attendance level through programming piece from the growing new music “canon” – those pieces that have attained a certain recognition in textbooks and anthologies. She said that the pressure to program certain works usually whittles down to the occasional suggestion “to program more accessible pieces. Like, my mom would always wish that I would sing more contemporary Christian music. That advice to be more accessible, I usually outright ignore it.”
As Bayer quipped, a shoestring budget often isn’t compatible with playing works from the new music canon, anyway. “Money is definitely a factor in not playing canonical works – we can’t afford the rental fees!”
In every case, the programmers were looking to showcase works outside a canon, and sometimes were looking for ways to showcase their own compositions or a particular set of talents. DeBoer concurred, “If there is an ensemble with a non-diverse program, it’s not an interesting application.”
All of the organizations felt a responsibility to program female artists and composers, as well as other underrepresented groups.
For Rhymes With Opera, the unusual setup has built-in safeguards for gender parity. Founding members George Lam and Ruby Fulton share composition responsibilities for many of the ensemble’s pieces. Bonnie Lander is also a composer. Fulton added, “A few years ago, we did a set of one-minute pieces—“signatures”—and we got an equal split of men and women. It’s a little more challenging when we’re picking one person for a commission, but we keep it about 50/50.”
However, most organizers felt that inclusivity required planning and deliberate action. Omaha Under the Radar said that it’s not a challenge to find female composers, but occasionally things hit a snag. “I realized last year that we had not programmed a large ensemble piece by a woman,” DeBoer confessed. “My jaw hit the floor. How could we have missed that? We have to be super vigilant. It’s a conversation we’re constantly having. It’s a constant reminder that things like that don’t happen naturally.” She uses spreadsheets to track demographics of participating ensembles and their programs.
Bayer also said that she keeps a careful eye on her metrics to help her plan for and meet programming goals at OME. “Since Year One to now, we’ve gone from 20% female composers to 40-50% female composers. If we’re interested in an ensemble, and they don’t have a diverse program, we will contact them and ask if they would be willing to change. They always are.” She went on to add, “It’s about telling people’s stories, and we’re always seeking to improve our range of storytelling. When we present art from a more diverse group of people, I feel like we’re making the world a better place.”
The Uncommon Music Festival states specific goals on its website of “presenting inclusive, exciting music that is unlikely to have been heard by our audiences” and “to perform the work of underrepresented composers, especially women and composers of color.” Though this was a stated mission, directors Lih and Barnett realized that they needed measurable goals and quotas going into their third season. They decided that at least one-third of the works played needed to be by people of color, and the programs needed to show true 50/50 gender parity. It was a satisfying moment when they locked down their program for this year and realized they had met their goals.
“It seemed cold and calculating,” Barnett admitted, “but we realized it was the only way we could ensure that we would achieve what we set out to do.”
Lih clarified, “I feel that I really want to be an advocate for women and for racial diversity, but it’s also really joyful to discover these things I didn’t know. It feels less like a responsibility and more like an exciting artistic endeavor.”
For New Music Gathering, Fefferman took a slightly different view, saying she felt that the responsibility for many curation concerns—styles, tools, gender, race, geographic location, and ethnic backgrounds—all figured into the decision-making process. “In my circle now, gender parity is a lot easier than race or class. I am still worried about bringing opportunities to different gender-identifying people, but more so these days about bringing voices from different races and socioeconomic classes.”
Plans for upcoming seasons show that all of the organizers interviewed are not just responding or reacting to political and social foci such as the #MeToo movement; by keeping their focus on new music and inclusiveness, they are already programming works and commissioning composers with pieces that are speaking to a wide range of issues confronting the contemporary audience.
Glimpsing into the commissioning process of Rhymes With Opera, Halliday explained, “Our process is quite extended, but we’re interested in composers that are working topically, relevantly. Next year we’ve got a piece about Eleanor Roosevelt. That was planned two years out, but it feels really relevant right now. Our Rumpelstiltskin piece on its face is a fairy tale, but Ruby and George imagined it as a piece about gender and loneliness.”
Challenges and Mentorship
I asked everyone with whom I spoke to specifically describe their challenges and successes, as well as to muse a bit on whether they felt those challenges and definitions of success differed from those of men. Together, we questioned the idea of stereotypical gender roles and how that might play into ideas of success and perceived differences.
The women I interviewed felt, for the most part, that their challenges and successes were the same as anyone’s in their position, regardless of gender. The universal answer to the question, “What is your biggest challenge?” was “Fundraising!” (The eye rolls were audible over Skype and phone.) “We have no budget” was a theme repeated as often as death knocking in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with stories of self-financing through credit cards, Kickstarter, grant writing, donor-chasing, and family support all thrown into the mix.
“Even in entrepreneurship courses I took, we talked about budget, but not about gathering capital,” said Bayer. She learned how to ask for money and barter for spaces, occasionally receiving the polite “no” or non-response. “But what I remember most are the ‘yeses’ I received,” she added.
Interviewees also discussed challenges of time management and the overwhelming breadth of decision-making, though it was always in regards to balancing their roles as organizers and leaders with various other jobs, leadership roles, and projects. While some women felt that their challenges were not inherently gendered, the ways they had to learn to handle it might have been different from men in the same position.
“I often felt I was undeserving and felt hesitant about asking for support,” one woman recalled. “I feel like my upbringing as a ‘Southern woman’ pushed me into a subservient role.”
“Learning to ask for money was really, really hard. I think that’s a gendered feeling,” another opined, but added, “Sometimes I question, ‘Is this a gendered experience, or is it a common experience for organizers?’”
After discussing some specific challenges from her life, Fefferman added, “Plus the usual skeezy challenges from a handful of awkward situations that I imagine males haven’t gotten.” The remark was heartbreaking because it was given so matter-of-factly and off-the-cuff, as an expected part of a woman’s experience.
When asked about mentorship, many said that it was challenging to find mentors. Lih noted, “I’ve been in situations where there are no visible women in leadership. That, I think, can be … not as easy a task … to imagine yourself in a leadership position.”
One woman interviewed said, “I 100% feel the need for role models. I have distant role models, but I don’t have an arts mentor. I feel that absence pretty keenly. Just in the past few months, I’ve decided that it’s something I can recognize that I need, but I also can’t dwell on its absence. I have to move forward on my own.”
Fefferman spoke highly of her experiences with Pauline Oliveros, and Fulton mentioned her wonderful time with Elinor Armer. Fefferman and Fulton both cited Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe as an influential role model. Fulton explained, “I also had a number of really cool male mentors, but it’s different and important to have female mentors, and I hope that I can be that for other females coming up, composing. I think it’s important to see how they work and present themselves and their work in the world.”
The Lens of Success
The views on success, interestingly, often came back to ideas of community.
Fefferman responded, “I saw early on, especially with Julia Wolfe and Pauline Oliveros, that success could be communal. I enjoy developing lasting relationships and collaborations with performers. Maybe that’s associated with a stereotypical gender role, but – it’s more fun!”
Bayer found that her experience as an intern at the Ojai Music Festival was a great influence on her feelings about what music festivals should be: “The entire town showed up for the festival.” For her, creating a festival was about seeking community in new music. She described the transition of Oh My Ears from marathon concert to a multi-day festival as a “leap of faith.” Expense and accessibility concerns made it necessary to go into downtown Phoenix where she had very few connections and form new bonds. The response, she said, was “amazing,” and the community she found in the move will aid in the longevity and growth of the event.
DeBoer described her role of festival organizer as a journey, explaining that her earlier efforts to create festivals in Omaha and Madison as an out-of-town organizer were disappointing. Living in and understanding her community was the key to the success of Omaha Under the Radar. “It’s about relationships,” she said. “For me, there is such a focus on creating an atmosphere of community, of communal effort. I want to nurture artists, and nurture Omaha. I like to hear about when artists meet in Omaha and then go on to collaborate outside this space. The most heartwarming success, and the number one goal of the whole event, is seeing people in the community, who otherwise wouldn’t seek out experimental music, getting to experience it here in Omaha.”
Lih and Barnett were excited about being able to serve as a resource for other organizations interested in achieving gender parity: “I think we’re at a moment where more organizations and people want to do this work, but there’s not a lot of precedent. We’re now in a position to help other organizations and be a resource for others. People are starting to be interested in change, and we’re excited to help them.”
On a personal note…
Over several days, I collected some 30 pages of notes from interviews. This article is only a brief summation of some of the common themes I discovered among this group of leaders. Some of the stories were entirely unique. Some of the experiences were commonplace. All were utterly personal. I want to say how deeply grateful I am for the time each person took in these interviews and the trust they placed in me.
The idea of mentorship was one that resonated deep within me, and I realized that I was being mentored through the process of writing this article. Each 45- to 90-minute window of time in the interview was a frank, honest, and yet overall positive outlook on the direction of new music and the growing acceptance of women’s roles in it. In a time when it is easy to be frustrated by numbers and disheartened by the recurring anecdotes, we can still find a community of people forging paths and blazing trails to positive change.
I asked interviewees, “What would be your advice for women pursuing leadership roles in music?” The women of Rhymes With Opera dovetailed their responses deftly in a chorus of encouragement.
“Do it!” Lander exclaimed.
Adding to Lander’s response, Fulton pointed out, “Just do it with fearless confidence. If there are enough people doing this, it will feel commonplace.”
Halliday added, “Find your community. Because you can do this, but it’s more fun with friends.”