Sounds Heard—On Shattering, Burning, and Diverting with Passion

Though Zwilich, Brouwer, and Shatin are only three of many distinguished female composers, they serve as important models of the different ways a successful career as a female composer can look. Each composer has something wildly different to offer to the contemporary music scene with new CD releases.

Written By

Jordan Borg

It is hard for me to overlook the fact that music is a male-dominated industry. I am one of six female undergraduates studying composition at my university, comprising a bleak 16% of the overall program. However, it would be inaccurate to claim that women have not been making a splash with their works. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939), Margaret Brouwer (b. 1940), and Judith Shatin (b. 1949) are three celebrated female composers—living proof that women have the capacity to excel as artists in the face of gender disparities and discrimination in the music industry. Born within ten years of each other, each are trailblazers in the field. Zwilich was the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for music composition as well as the first woman to receive a DMA from Juilliard. Brouwer has been commissioned by the Dallas Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic, the American Pianists Association, CityMusic Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, and the American Composer’s Orchestra, and is an American Academy of Arts and Letters awardee (2006) as well as a Guggenheim Fellow (2004). Shatin is the founder and director of the Virginia Center for Computer Music and has served on the boards of the American Composers Alliance, the League/ISCM, and the International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) and as president of American Women Composers, Inc. (1989-93).

Cover of Zwilich CD on Azica

(Azica ACD-71292)
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Aside from tremendous successes and formidable biographies, these women share something else: recent CD releases. In listening to all three discs, it is evident that each composer has something wildly different to offer to the contemporary music scene. Zwilich’s disc, Passionate Diversions, is like a musical sprint: tremendous amounts of emotional and physical energy are expended in a very short period of time. One of the most successful things about Passionate Diversions is the full spectrum of emotions and colors that Zwilich leads the listener through. The pieces are at different times (and often simultaneously) cinematic (e.g. the piano gestures 3’40” into the 2nd movement of Piano Trio), heart-wrenching and lyrical (the violin lines in the 2nd movement of Septet c. 3’08” – 3’34”), impish (the pizzicato motif c. 4’40” in the 2nd movement of Piano Trio), suggestive of Shostakovich (the opening of Piano Quintet) and reminiscent of Gershwin (the third movements of both the Piano Quintet and Septet). The ebb and flow of these assorted styles ultimately forms a soundscape that is endemic of Zwilich’s music.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Quintet for Violin, Viola, Cello, Contrabass, and Piano (2010) — 1st Mvmt.
Performed by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio with Michael Tree (viola) and Harold Robinson (bass).
℗ and © 2014 by Azica Records. Streamed with permission of the composer and the label.

Cover of Brouwer Naxos CD

(Naxos 8.559763)
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Brouwer’s disc, Shattered, features four original pieces and two arrangements of Debussy and Bach scored for mixed ensembles of various sizes. The disc has an energy commensurate with—though completely different from—Passionate Diversions. In her program notes for the recording, Brouwer likens the first piece on the disc, Shattered Glass, to “a musical kaleidoscope.” She explains,

Instead of seeing the constantly changing colors as you do in a kaleidoscope, you hear them. There are two contrasting yet related sound worlds…[which] eventually mix and overlap, becoming sometimes rhythmic, sometimes raucous, and sometimes mysterious and melodic.

During a 2010 NewMusicBox interview, Brouwer describes a specific passage in her Violin Concerto as an example of what it means to her to be 21st century composer:

[T]here’s a place where the violin is playing the twelve-tone row while the woodwinds are playing the tonal chords. I love the way that sounds. I like mixing. To me, that’s what I love to do as a 21st century composer, is mix those things. To me, that sounds avant-garde.

The pieces included on Shattered are perhaps the quintessence of this mixing which Brouwer loves so much. From the relentless, primal energy of Shattered Glass to the naked beauty of Whom do you call angel now? and lushness of her arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, Brouwer’s music represents just how uniquely diverse the output and voice of a single composer can be.

Margaret Brouwer: Whom do you call angel now? (2005).
Performed by Sandra Simon (soprano) with the Blue Streak Ensemble.
℗ and © 2014 by Naxos Rights US, Inc. Streamed with permission of the composer and the label.

Cover of Shatin innova CD

(innova 845)
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Judith Shatin’s boldly titled disc, Time to Burn, furthers this idea of unique diversity—output that is extensively varied yet identifiably and singularly branded. Whether her compositions are atmospheric and talkative (such as Glyph, written in 1984 for solo viola, string quartet, and piano) or literally robotic (as in Sic Transit, written for percussionist and CADI—i.e. Computer Assisted Drumming Machine), Shatin always accesses a space that is conversational—between musical lines, instruments, and performers and audiences. She allows herself to be inspired by shared stories (e.g. Elijah and his entrance into Heaven in her piece Elijah’s Chariot, or as she describes in her program notes, the “renewed holocausts” of the past decade “driven by ethnic and religious hatred”). When something is in conversation, it is escapes ephemerality: a state Shatin discusses in her profile on NewMusicBox. Reflecting on rapidly changing technologies of the late 20th century, which caused one of her initial pieces for electronics to become obsolete within a mere two years, Shatin admits that the experience “was a real sort of wake up call.” “How do we think about these things and do we care whether our pieces are ephemeral or not?” she ponders. “I guess for the most part I do because I spend a lot of time working on them…it’s not like writing for piano; that probably is pretty settled at this point.”

Judith Shatin: Glyph (1984) — IV. Incandescent.
Performed by James Dunham (viola), the Cassatt String Quartet, and Margaret Kampmeier (piano).
℗ and © 2014 by Wendigo Music. Streamed with permission of the composer and the label.

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Though Zwilich, Brouwer, and Shatin are only three of many distinguished female composers (check out this list of over 200), they serve as important models of the different ways a successful career as a female composer can look. While enjoying hard-earned success—particularly as a woman in a male-dominated field—calls for celebration, Zwilich offers young composers a cautionary piece of advice:

Success is more difficult than failure for a young person. When you fail, all those times you try to get your foot in the door and the door slams so tight it breaks your foot…all of the things where you fail to achieve whatever it is you’re looking for…if you can pick yourself up and go on, you’ve become much stronger. So I sometimes say to young composers, I hope you experience failure and learn how tough you are, how strong you really are.