Tag: equality

Ain’t I A Woman Too

The classical and contemporary music worlds have recently replaced the buzzword “collaboration” with “diversity,” and that push for broader inclusion has largely centered on women. The fundamental issue with the marketing and implementation of this very important matter of inclusion is that the faces and voices in the conversation are largely those of cisgender white women.

First off, I want to recognize how inspired I am by the many women who are addressing a number of problems related to inequality in our industry—from problematic power structures to sexual harassment to equal pay for equal work disparities. I do not discount any of the efforts that these strong women have made to move all of us forward.

However, the problem comes when the voices of those speaking out about diversity are largely homogenized. The problem continues when organizations promote “diversity initiatives” using only images of cisgender white women. What these actions and inactions tell women who look like me—women of color, and individuals for whom I am an ally, including non-binary and queer women—is that our voices and, more poignantly, our faces are not welcome in this conversation. Personally, it has the effect of taking my agency as a woman away from me. When people mention the breakthroughs of women composers, I do not identify with these achievements as a part of the evolution that paves my path in the music industry. The more I talk to other women of color hailing from nations across the globe, the more I understand how the subconscious presentation of diversity framed exclusively as a “middle-class white cisgender woman’s problem” has the ripple effect of silencing women of varied ethnic backgrounds and gender identities.

When we leave people out of important conversations about diversity, we are creating hard barriers to inclusion.

About a year ago, a friend and colleague in the composition world spoke to me strongly about how she felt that the music industry was inherently stacked against her as a woman. In a moment which she later described to me as a “much-needed check of her privilege,” I explained to her that while the world might seem difficult for her as a woman, as a black woman I have almost nothing going for me…and every small task is a fight for survival in this new music world.

As the daughter of a British mum and an African-American father, my childhood was largely influenced by my mum’s continental culture. I spent a great deal of my time in the family room listening to recordings of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and wearing out countless cassette recordings of Peter and the Wolf. My father, who was determined to give me all the resources that he could, sent me to Dale Carnegie executive training courses with upwardly mobile employees of Fortune 500 companies, while other preteens whirled around in the fanciful teacups at Disney World. At the same time that I was afforded all this privilege in my youth, I was in touch with those from humbler means, as both of my parents wanted to instill within me the idea that I learn to serve others and to be grateful for whatever I was blessed to have in my life.

While my childhood was sprinkled with the privilege of the pre-recession upper middle-class, there was still a disparity. Every time I walked outside my home and had to stand on my own without the back up of my parents, I was challenged. My parents frequently had to come to school to meet with administrators and teachers who thought that I was cheating on my papers because my command of the English language was far above my grade level. If I had been a white male child, they would likely have called me a prodigy. Instead, I was tested, writing essays under time and pressure by hand on notebook paper, with the same results each time. My vernacular and writing style were not influenced by anyone but the inner voice, which sought to express my being in the most artistic and factual manner possible.

I constantly heard from my white friends, “You’re black, but you aren’t really black.” But I was definitely black enough to be kept waiting as a child at a diner in Georgia while white patron after white patron was served before me for more than three hours. I was definitely black enough to be called a gorilla, a beast, a man, and a whole host of denigrating terms when I developed a muscular build akin to Serena Williams. I was definitely black enough to be told by multiple men throughout my life that I wasn’t “classically beautiful” and that “if only you were white with blonde hair” then I would be desirable. I was definitely black enough to be told that having people steal my music wasn’t a big deal because it had been happening to blacks for generations.


Elizabeth Baker steps over her gear during a performance at LLEAPP 2018
Photo by Megan Patzem

When I made the decision to pursue music, I understood at my core that I did not want to fall into the stereotypes of what “black music” was expected to sound like. I knew that my natural form of expression had another voice that deserved to be cultivated. I knew that focusing on a “classical” practice exploiting Negro spirituals would feel forced and disconnected from the Roman Catholic faith that was integral to my rearing. I often found myself recoiling into the works of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Arvo Pärt, and Arnold Schoenberg. I was a frequent loner in music school because my tracks were largely independently driven. These men gave me a place to start experimenting with a different voice. Then one day, I met a friend and colleague who would change my life in more ways than I could imagine—a person who challenged me to question my perceptions of how I was treated, making me realize that I deserved more basic respect than others were giving me in my personal and professional life; a person who made me realize that the only way to be the truest artist and most authentic version of myself would be to embrace all parts of myself, to put in the work to better myself, but to accept my humanity and stop beating myself up for not being the perfect little black girl everyone wanted me to be; and, most importantly, the person who introduced me to the work of Pamela Z.

When I first saw Pamela Z perform on YouTube, I cried.

I cried because her work is so beautiful, so powerful, so genuine that it touches the soul.

I cried because I saw the possibility of organic expression coming out of a setup that integrated electronics.

I cried because for the first time, I saw someone who looked like me expressing themselves freely, breaking the bonds of expectations that have been cast on our people for hundreds of years.

I often present experimental music workshops at schools throughout the U.S. I do this for a number of reasons, but the first being that when I step out onto a concert stage to play piano, the sonic expectation that my skin color and afro send the crowd is one deeply rooted in the traditions of Nina Simone and Alicia Keys. While I am grateful for the work that these women have done to pave the way for black women to be on the stage at all, I want to push the expectations of what black performers—and in particular, what black women—are expected to release into the sonic ecosystem of the concert hall.

When I inadvertently checked my colleague’s privilege, I brought up the point that as a black woman in experimental music or contemporary concert music in the United States, I do not fit in anywhere.

In 21st-century America, white presenters in cosmopolitan cities have told me that they do not feel as though a black woman playing piano and electronics would fill the house enough to warrant them turning the lights on for a performance.

Meanwhile, an administrator from an African-American history museum informed me that they would be cancelling my Black History Month presentation because they did not feel as though my music was “black music” and furthermore, that it was “inaccessible for regular society.”

So now as a black woman who composes and performs, I am faced with hard barriers to pursue a career in a field that I love, a field that has saved my life in difficult times, a field that has given my life meaning and purpose, space and tones that have been my blanket as I cried myself to sleep wishing that I could wake up and be a pretty white girl with all the promise and possibilities in the world in front of her.

When we see a poster for a new “diversity initiative,” it had better be a rainbow of skin tones and no professional model stand-ins because “you couldn’t find a real composer of color.”

When we leave people out of important conversations about diversity, we are creating hard barriers to inclusion. Leaving politics aside for a moment, how would it look to have the United Nations governed solely by the most Anglicized countries in the world, with absolutely no representation from Third World countries and those with more ethnically varied populations? You couldn’t exactly in good conscious call it the United Nations.

We are at a crossroads in the evolution of modern music. With the advent of resources like Rob Deemer’s Composer Diversity Database, we have the ability to reach out to others who are cut from a different cloth and to include their powerful voices and perspectives in the difficult conversations that we are having now about how to move forward. There should not be a conference where I am the “token black person.” There should not be a festival where people of color are afraid to participate because they fear that their essence will be misappropriated by white people who fetishize the “exotic.” Non-binary and queer individuals should not feel as though their very valid points about exclusionary practices centered on culture and gender identity are systematically being brushed aside or otherwise silenced by people and organizations at the top of the power structure food chain, ultimately reinforcing additional hard barriers to participation in the upper echelon of our industry. When we see a poster for a new “diversity initiative,” it had better be a rainbow of skin tones and no professional model stand-ins because “you couldn’t find a real composer of color.” When I look up major festivals of new music, I don’t want to hear that the lineup is whitewashed because “good black composers don’t exist.” And the most controversial of all, I don’t want to hear that “black people lack a place at the table of the diversity conversation because they are just falling into line with what Western Europeans have taught them.”

We can do better.

We can do better for ancestors.

We can do better for ourselves.

We can do better for future generations.

We can start today.

The ‘Woman Composer’ is Dead


It’s been nearly a millenium since Hildegard von Bingen composed music. Aren’t we finally past the era when it was unusual to be a “woman composer”? (Image from the Rupertsberger Codex c.1180)

The principle of utu dharma, followed by ancient mystics, is summarized in the following statement: one side can only go so far before it becomes its opposite. To my way of thinking, this idea is quite pertinent to this very specific history, that of the ‘woman composer.’

To fully understand the term ‘woman composer’ and all of the historical baggage associated with it, it’s important to be aware of hundreds of years of challenges met and overcome.  Three years of research from 2007-2010 taught me that the main challenges to women’s authorship were the social structures of historical times, which manifested in the very personal, internal conflicts of individuals. The private writings of Clara Schumann, Julie Candeille (a composer who in 1795 had 154 performances of an opera she composed, and who was greatly scrutinized because of it), and Corona Schröter, among many others, poignantly disclose these conflicts. To give you a snapshot from 18th-century thought, here is Schröter in her own words (1786):

I have had to overcome much hesitation before I seriously made the decision to publish a collection of short poems that I have provided with melodies. A certain feeling towards propriety and morality is stamped upon our sex, which does not allow us to appear alone in public, and without an escort: Thus, how can I otherwise present this, my musical work to the public, than with timidity? For the complimentary opinions and the encouragement of a few persons…can easily be biased out of pity.[1]

In the 19th century, Clara Schumann wrote this in her diary (1839):

I once thought that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—not one has been able to do it, and why should I expect to? It would be arrogance, though indeed, my father led me into it in earlier days.[2]

Both of these are examples of the inner conflicts which reflect broader social struggles of the times. Schröter’s time period was bound by social propriety, one that considered it offensively bold for a woman to speak her thoughts outright, much less put them in print—a format that was then thought of as eternal. You can follow the implications therein. Schumann’s conflict, which undoubtedly echoes similar social constraints, incorporates self-criticism and rationalization (conflicts which also appear as far back as the writings of Hildegard). I offer these brief, yet specific examples to give a small cross-section of scope, history, and of the burden associated with the term ‘woman composer.’

Examining this subject can take you even farther back in history. Most fascinating to me is the idea that social, religious, and scientific philosophies upheld over time, in an effort to maintain a kind of social order, did not keep women from authorship, quite the contrary. There were many women who broke through constraints and forged ahead (sometimes literally endangering their own lives) because they felt they had something to say, and because they believed, deep down, in their own ability (even if they had to deny it with their own pens). As I researched this subject, I gained a more complete picture of the history as well as a strong aversion to the term ‘woman composer.’ Although it may be lost on a younger generation, its very use implies that the corresponding body of work is of a lesser quality; in effect, the term renders it a sub-group.

The middle part of the 20th century was a tumultuous and transitional time. As such, the term ‘woman composer’ may have been beneficial, if only to assert the presence of quality authors who were women, to wave a flag on behalf of equality, and to have a specific term to identify a cause. As Western culture seriously struggled to transcend issues of race and gender, perhaps the label was needed for a time.

To take a phrase from Dame Ethel Smyth, “if you put on your binoculars and sweep across the landscape,” things are quite a bit different now. We’ve come a long way since these earlier centuries when the act of women’s authorship (both literary and musical) had to be self-excused and rationalized. We’ve come a long way since the time when the act of composing was caught up in political causes defined by gender. Many battles, seen and un-seen, were fought on behalf of gender equality. What reward did those challenges reap for the artistic pursuits of today’s composers? A relative healthy lack of self-awareness with regard to gender. There is no shortage of new music composers, no shortage of excellent ones, and no shortage of women. The fact the Rob Deemer could easily come up with a list of 202 living women in the field is evidence of that. A mere 20 years ago, that list would have been much smaller.

It’s important to be aware of the history, so we can understand that the term ‘woman composer’ is nothing more than the residue of struggles past, persisting like a bad habit.

My biggest concern, however, about the resurgence of this whole subject of late, is the issue of programming. I’m sympathetic to the fact that International Women’s Day may have given understandable attention to, and examination of the issue across the world and even in our field, but I feel compelled to offer a different perspective than those previously expressed on NewMusicBox.

If the leading new music ensembles today are programming 8-22% composers of the female sex (as David Smooke’s pie charts maintain), I simply must point out that 15 years ago this number would probably have been 0-3%. But most importantly, I do not accept, and do not believe, that analyzing programming data is the way to measure success of composers in this field. Perhaps a better way is to ask young composers if they feel gender is an obstacle in their personal quest to make art. No doubt you will be greeted with total confusion and a look that betrays the thought, “Does not compute.” Perhaps an even better way to measure success would be to notice how many composers today have this healthy lack of self-awareness I mentioned above. It pains me to think that we are “celebrating” composers of the female sex by criticizing ensembles (who are supporting a diverse body of excellent works) for not programming enough of them. These ensembles are surely programming music they find compelling. I would hope they are not basing their programming choices on gender, but rather on excellence.

As I wrote in my response to Deemer’s article, it’s commendable to be aware of and in support of all composers striving to make art, but our first responsibility is to identify and program music that is excellent—which of course has nothing to do with gender. I would hate to think that my work had been programmed simply because I’m a woman—and in fact, I’ve declined concert and recording opportunities that were gender-based.

It would be a great detriment to the field if suddenly, in the 21st century, when we’ve largely transcended the issue of gender, to start focusing on it again. Neither art nor artist is served by segregation—even if it’s well intended. The moment we begin programming based on gender, instead of excellence, is the moment we begin to go backwards. I would encourage administrators, ensembles, and concert producers to examine a diverse body of new works and program only those that speak to you and those that you find to be of the highest quality. Let those qualifications be the paradigm, and an excellent and diverse group of composers will surely continue to rise to the surface.

It’s wonderful to celebrate the composers of our time, but lets do it by freeing them from our gender-burdened past. If we do this, then what happens to the ‘woman composer’? Well, we bury her. She is, after all, quite dead.

Who killed her?

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Shulamit Ran, Jennifer Higdon, and Melinda Wagner did when they won the Pulitzer Prize for Music Composition; Kaija Saariaho, Jennifer Higdon, and Unsuk Chin did when they were among the first to be commissioned by major opera companies; Chen Yi also did when she received the Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; Joan Tower, Libby Larsen, Augusta Read Thomas, Jennifer Higdon, and Anna Clyne did when they became composers-in-residence for three of our country’s leading orchestras; Jennifer Higdon and Joan Tower did by winning Grammy Awards for Classical Composition (to trumpet only a small few of the most recognizable names and honors); and so too did all of the young composers who have poured into this field by way of undergraduate and graduate programs throughout the last forty years or so. If accomplishment is evidence of ability, then the proof is in the pudding.

The ‘woman composer’ opened doors for all of us—and we have many musicians and administrators to thank for this. But it was in the late 20th century that this label reached its most potent point and even then it was just short of becoming offensive. Before this label begins to darken our doors, which is the opposite of its intended purpose, let’s let the ‘woman composer’ rest in peace.

I know I’m only one person, but to me, in light of all of these things and in the context of a very long history, it is highly insulting to classify a composer by gender because it perpetuates the myth of a sub-group.  It’s even further insulting to imply that our ensembles have made, or should make, programming choices based on gender.


[1] Marcia J. Citron, “Corona Schröter: Singer, Composer, Actress,” Music and Letters, Vol. 61 No. 1 (January, 1980), 21.

[2] Berthold Litzmann, Clara Schumann: An Artist’s Life Based on Material Found in Diaries and Letters, trans. Grace E. Hadow, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1913), Vol. 1 241-244, quoted in Carol Neuls-Bates, ed., Women in Music: An Anthology of Source Readings from the Middle Ages to the Present (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996), 154.


Amy Beth Kirsten

Amy Beth Kirsten – Copyright 2012 J Henry Fair

Amy Beth Kirsten, one of this year’s Guggenheim Fellows in music composition, is currently composing a forty-five minute chamber opera—without singers—for the 2012 Grammy-winning ensemble eighth blackbird. The work, about a diabolical and murderous Harlequin back from the underworld to reclaim his theatrical throne, will be choreographed and directed by Martha Clarke for its 2013 premier. In recent years, Kirsten’s work has been recognized by the American Composers Orchestra, The MAP Fund, ASCAP, the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the state of Connecticut—where she now lives. Before coming to the East Coast to attend Peabody Conservatory, she was a singer-songwriter for ten years in the Chicago area and played at many of the city’s smallest, but mightiest, nightclubs. Since then she has written music for orchestra, chamber ensemble, opera, and for solo instruments. She currently teaches music composition at the HighSCORE summer music festival in Pavia, Italy. Upcoming projects include a work for solo cello commissioned by Jeffrey Zeigler of Kronos Quartet.