Tag: gender

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.

A Tool For Change: The Women Composers Database


Sitting at her desk at the Stamford Symphony offices, Barbara Soroca is quiet, yet she is smiling as her eyes scroll down the page. A yellow legal pad of handwritten notes is tucked under her elbow.


The book she holds is Orchestral Music: A Handbook by David Daniels, a resource known to anyone who programs concerts, such as conductors, music directors, orchestra managers and music librarians. Soroca, CEO and president of the Stamford Symphony Orchestra, and her soon-to-be-successor, Russell Jones, have been using it to plan the orchestra’s 2018-19 season, hence the notes.

“I think it is important for American orchestras to play American music,” she says, placing the book off to one side. “We don’t do enough of that. At the Stamford Symphony, we certainly don’t do enough of that.”


A new endowed fund will help with that quest. The Soroca Fund for American Music, which has already raised about $150,000, will bring works by Leonard Bernstein, Copland, Charles Ives, and other contemporary composers to the stage.

—”Outgoing Stamford Symphony chief Barbara Soroca champions U.S. composers” by Christina Hennessy (Connecticut Post)


Beyond the leadership, Midwest Clinic’s programming is equally in need of modernization. After my second day at the conference, I realized that not a single one of the concerts I had attended included a female composer. Now, it would be impossible to see every concert at Midwest, and I had experienced just a handful of the performances. Was it a fluke that I had missed the pieces by women? To be certain, I pored through the festival program and found that of the 500 pieces performed at the Midwest Clinic by 51 different ensembles (including bands, orchestras, jazz bands, and chamber groups), only 23 pieces (4.6%) were composed by women, and just 71 (14.2%) were written by composers of color.

But what about the band concerts on their own? With such enthusiasm for new music, surely the wind ensemble programming would be more diverse than that of the orchestras, right? Alas, of the 212 pieces performed by bands during the Midwest Clinic, only seven (a measly 3.3%) were written by women, and 26 (12.3%) by people of color.

—“Stepping Forward at the Midwest Clinic” by Katherine Bergman (NewMusicBox)

The excerpts above are examples of how programming decisions are being made and the ramifications of not considering diversity throughout the programming process. Administrators such as Soroca and Jones are selecting their 2018-2019 season from a reference book that, while it is the best resource of its kind for traditional orchestral repertoire, is sorely lacking in its coverage of demographic diversity. It is unclear in this particular anecdote which hardcover edition they are perusing, but even if they were using the latest update of the online version of Daniels’s compendium, they would only be able to find 87 female composers out of 1,211 total names (only 16 of whom were born in 1960 or later) or 29 black composers (only four of whom were born in or after 1960).

On the bright side, they seem quite pleased with their “contemporary” programming of Ives, Copland, and Bernstein.

In the example of the Midwest Clinic, one’s disappointment with the lack of diversity is further enhanced by the fact that the Clinic has so many stringent limitations already in place for ensemble performances. In addition to mandates about the published status of the works in every program (each program is allowed only one self-published work), for example, the Clinic requires programs to balance their repertoire insofar as “for every grade 4, 5, or 6 an equal number of grade 1, 2, or 3 music must be played.” It would not be hard, therefore, to include a statement encouraging a demographically diverse program as well.

Over the years, there have been a great many calls for diversification within the concert music community, and one of the most prevalent responses from decision-makers is that they don’t know where to find under-represented composers. Inspired to address this issue and informed by the basic construct of Daniels’s book, I took the names that were included in the comments section of my NewMusicBox column “A Helpful List” and, in 2016, began to organize them. A few weeks ago, I announced that the Women Composers Database was fully operational and ready for public inspection. Using a simple Google Sheets spreadsheet, I and a team of students at the State University of New York at Fredonia had compiled a searchable and browsable database of more than 3,000 women composers that conductors, performers, educators, and researchers can use (along with a related “composers of color” database that is currently being built) to aid in their pursuit of more diverse performance programming and academic curricula.


As this project has evolved, I’ve received quite a bit of feedback and questions concerning the database. A few of the more common replies to this project that I will address in this essay are as follows:

  • What are the best ways to use this database?
  • There are already so many works and composers that deserve attention. How do we make room for diverse programming?
  • If the existing repertoire is what puts butts in seats, why should any ensemble risk that for the sake of diversity?
  • It shouldn’t matter who the composer is. We just want to play good music.
  • You’re not a woman. Why are you doing this?



Most large lists of composers have little to no viability when it comes to programming; conductors, directors, and performers don’t want to have to spend a long time hunting through a large number of websites hoping to find a composer who has composed works appropriate for their ensemble. In order to make the database as useful as possible, I decided to create several data points within the spreadsheet so that anyone searching for composers could focus their searches. These data points include whether or not the composers are living, what musical genres they have composed for, their race or ethnicity, and their cities and countries of residence. Users can then create multiple temporary filters to narrow down the number of composers to investigate. By clicking on the “filter” button, arrows emerge under each column. One only need to click an arrow and select “Sort A-Z” to bring any composers who are included in that column to the top.

Database filter

For instance, if I first do an A-Z sort under Wind Band, that will bring all 422 of the composers who have been marked under that genre to the top. (They’ll already be listed in alphabetical order because the database is set to that by default.) If I do a second A-Z sort after that Wind Band sort—this time for black composers—now all of the black composers are up at the top, but at the very top are the black women composers who have written for wind band.

In this case, we have focused down our search from 3000+ to 400+ to nine composers who share both data points, and it wouldn’t take long for anyone to peruse that cohort for potential works. If the Brooklyn Wind Symphony, for example, did such a search, they might discover that four of those composers—Valerie Coleman, Tania Léon, Allison Loggins-Hull, and Shelley Washington—live in the New York City area, which might spark discussions for a series of featured works across a season or guest residencies or commissions over several seasons.

Once composers have been sorted into small enough groups to make research feasible, then it’s still up to the researcher to explore each of the hyperlinked websites. The primary database is, by its very nature, an omnibus document fashioned to collect as many active and notable composers as possible. From this database, we hope to create a number of secondary databases for each genre that will allow for numerous data points on each work within that genre.

A good example of this is Christian Michael Folk’s Women Composers of Wind Band Music database; this database breaks each work down by title, instrumentation (wind ensemble, brass ensemble, etc.), grade level (.5–6), duration, and date of composition, as well as links to audio or video performances available online. Christian’s database was so close to what I had envisioned that he and I have agreed to join forces and soon his entire database will be available as a separate page within the Women Composers Database spreadsheet.



Easier access to diverse programming does not immediately solve the problem.

Easier access to diverse programming does not immediately solve the problem. Diversity and inclusion within musical programming and curriculum is almost always a zero-sum endeavor; seasons have a finite number of concerts, concerts have finite durations, and semesters last only so many weeks. Any serious diversification measures will inevitably mean that less of the traditional repertoire will be able to be performed or taught.

That necessary reduction brings with it some intriguing and obvious questions: Whose job is it to make such decisions? What are the factors that allow one to decide which pieces and composers are performed less? Are there some works or composers that are non-negotiable in terms of inclusion? The answers are, of course, different for everyone, but even bringing up the questions could be seen as controversial. As we have seen in sharp relief over the past year, the reaction to diversity initiatives is rarely calm and quiet, but the risk of confrontation should not preclude the necessary conversations and actions.


If music educators aren’t exposed to diverse composers when they’re in school, the chances of them incorporating a diverse range of repertoire into their own classrooms is probably not very high.

That risk of confrontation increases when the well-being of an individual or an organization is threatened; that well-being can be financial (as with non-profit ensembles) or in terms of time or reputation (as with educators and researchers). For orchestras, for example, the perceived connection between repertoire and ticket sales is acute, but there are a number of examples just this year of orchestras that have been willing to program female composers and composers of color as part of their mainstage season at a rate much higher than the average. Last spring I compiled the 2017-18 season programming of 45 major orchestras across the country and Albany (4 composers /11% of their season), Milwaukee (5/10%), Orlando (3/9%), and Colorado Symphony (6/8%) all programmed female composers at much higher than the 2% total average rate. And while the South Dakota Symphony only programmed four composers of color, those four composers comprised 17% of their entire season (vs. the 2% total average).

Cellist/composer Jon Silpayamanant makes this point even more clearly with data from Atlanta’s High Museum, where audience demographics have been intentionally targeted:

Which brings us to the High Museum in Atlanta and how it tripled their Nonwhite audience in two years. I mean, if even the Whitewashed Hollywood can learn the lesson that Diversity Pays at the Box Office, I think our Arts Institutions can learn a thing or two. How did the High Museum do it? The [article] gives us five points.

1. Content

Of the 15 shows the High presented this year, [Rand Suffolk, the museum’s director] says, five highlighted the work of artists of color, including the Atlanta-based muralist Hale Woodruff and the Kenyan-British potter Magdalene Odundo. “You can always do another white guy show,” Suffolk says, but that doesn’t mean you should.

2. Marketing Strategy

Before 2015, the High spent the vast majority of its marketing budget on the promotion of a few blockbuster exhibitions. The result, Suffolk says, was that most locals didn’t think of the museum as a place that fostered regular, repeat visits. If the blockbuster shows didn’t appeal, they had no reason to go. Now, the High spends 60 percent of its marketing budget to promote a cross-section of its exhibitions. (“There was a little bit of condescension in telling people come see this show but not invite you back for five other shows,” Suffolk notes.)

3. Admission Prices

Last year, however, the museum opted to overhaul its tiered structure and charge everyone the same price: $14.50. As Andrew Russeth has pointed out in ARTnews, the move was largely symbolic: Because it raised the price for children, it didn’t actually make the High much more affordable to families….[H]e believes the move has made potential visitors feel that the museum is making an effort to welcome them. “We’re telling people, ‘We’re listening to you, we hear we’ve gotten out of kilter with the marketplace,’” he says.

4. Diversify Docents

The High has also seen a radical change in the demographics of its docents—the people who guide students and visitors through the museum and may be the first faces they see when they enter. In 2014, the incoming class of docents was 11 percent people of color. By 2017, it was 33 percent.

5. Diversify Staff

In this area, Suffolk admits, the High still has a lot of work to do. Its staff has only become slightly less white over the past two years, from 69.6 percent in 2015 to 65.5 percent in 2017.

Repertoire-based demographic diversity issues are endemic in our educational and academic institutions, as well. If music educators aren’t exposed to diverse composers when they’re in school, the chances of them incorporating a diverse range of repertoire into their own classrooms is probably not very high. Their students will go out into the world perhaps with a love of what they think of as “good” music, but with a stunted sense of the breadth and depth of our musical universe in its totality.



That skewed sense of what is “good” is, of course, part of our human experience; we all have ideas about what is good and not-so-good based on layers and years of taste-modifying experiences. Those experiences will inevitably include being influenced by those whose opinions we respect—be they family or friends or teachers or critics or tastemakers of any sort.

Harvard musicologist Anne Shreffler recently penned a brilliant post on this concept through the lens of “masters” (a masculine title bequeathed to male composers by male conductors, historians, and critics) having transcended gender while women composers are just women who have composed. Two statements from her article make this point decisively:

Obvious reasons include institutional inertia, career ambitions, intellectual laziness, and individual bias. But there is another, less well understood reason why a virtually all-white, all-male repertory has been tolerated for so long: the widespread preconception that music has no gender, or much of anything else.


Feminists are often accused of “reducing” everything to gender. But we as a society have been judging music on the basis of gender all along, by privileging specific cultural notions of masculinity in the guise of gender neutrality.

Silpayamanant’s blog post responds to Shreffler’s essay with equally thoughtful ideas along these lines:

In “high art” we tend to hide behind the rubric that the quality matters more than the gender or color. We do that, however, without questioning the underlying assumptions of that contention. Namely, that so-called “quality” is highly subjective, culturally specific, and that systems of institutional power will favor the work of some populations over other populations and reinforce the norms that allow that privilege to exist.


When there are literally tens of thousands (likely more) of compositions in existence with no one having had the chance to listen to them all—much less do any sort of comparative analysis of them—we’re not in much of a position to even really address quality in anything other than culturally arbitrary terms.

It’s hard for us today to believe the stories we’ve read of Felix Mendelssohn’s advocacy of J.S. Bach or Leonard Bernstein’s advocacy of Gustav Mahler and their influence on the popularity of those “masters,” as both Bach and Mahler now seem to be so indelibly linked to our perceived collective musical experience.  And yet, just as there are millions upon millions who have never experienced Bach or Mahler, there are many other composers—both living and dead—who should be given the opportunity for advocacy and exposure to the ever-shifting concert audience.



If there is a subset of composers today that could be said to be “most privileged,” it could be composers who are white, male, and with a tenured position within an academic institution. I will admit that, as I started this endeavor, I did not explicitly consider my own identity within that subset (with my beard and glasses, I could compete for Poster Child of Privileged Composers), but that identity has been brought up numerous times in discussions, usually in conjunction with either the need for the database or the attention I’ve received as the database has become more well-known.

Others can attest much better than I to the financial challenges and time constraints that so many women composers and composers of color face on a consistent basis—I wouldn’t presume to know. Those of us who do have time or resources or both, at least in my opinion, do have an unspoken obligation to do what we can in whatever way we can to make things better for our entire musical community, and I’m glad that I can use some of my time and resources to help move the needle for women composers in some small way.

I can say that one aspect of my position helped immensely with this project: access to talented and motivated students. I worked on this project by myself and with the help of retired composer Jane Frasier for months and only completed a fraction of what the total database currently comprises. It wasn’t until five of my students here at Fredonia—Emily Joy Sullivan, Sierra Wojczack, Samantha Giacoia, Immanuel Mellis, and Sean Penzo—expressed interest in helping with the project as part of an independent study project that it really gathered steam. They all got to dive headlong into so many composers’ websites and Google searches in order to find the pertinent information and got a spectacular education in the process (much better than if I had given a lecture on website design in class). I know they’re looking forward to continuing their work on the Women Composers Database this semester and, along with another Fredonia student, Mikayla Wadsworth, will begin to help me with a Composers of Color Database that will hopefully be ready for public use by the summer.



It’s one thing to talk and rant about the need for change, it’s another to make an attempt to do it. It is my sincerest hope that composers in this database receive more attention, advocacy, and performances as more programmers decide to make diversity a priority. Hopefully, they will find this tool useful to help make that priority a reality. If anyone has any suggestions as to how to improve the database (we’re looking at creating a more user-friendly interface later this spring), please feel free to leave them in the comments. And if you know anyone who is not yet in the database, you can use this link to fill out the information form. We update the database on a weekly basis.

Building Curriculum Diversity: Pink Noises

There has been a lot of talk in the past year about the need for greater gender and racial diversity in programming from large performance organizations. While some change can come from these institutions, there are integral changes that individuals can make by choosing to perform, program, or teach music that upholds these values of diversity. In the case of curriculum, we need to integrate works so that the content actually includes the depth of creativity that so many books/courses leave out by ignoring the contributions of women/nonbinary and people of color. For this series on building curriculum diversity, I interviewed various scholars, performers, and educators who have been creating wonderful resources that highlight these often ignored communities.

Tara Rodgers is a performer, composer, and scholar based in D.C. Her book Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound is a collection of interviews with some of the greatest minds in electronic music today. She generously agreed to an in-depth interview over email that is reproduced below.

Anne Lanzilotti: What is your first memory of creating electronic music?

Tara Rodgers: It was during college, when I was playing in a ’70s funk cover band and got my first synthesizer, a used Roland HS-60 (like the Juno 106). I learned how to program it by studying the sounds of the songs we were playing in the band–by Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, and more. At the same time, I was going out dancing in clubs and hearing the connections—musically, technologically, historically—between funk and early ’90s house music. It took a few more years before I began to formally produce electronic music, but this was when I began to pay attention to connections between music technologies and sonic aesthetics, and sensed that making electronic music was a path to go along.

But several years before, when I was about 12, I spent many months figuring out how to program popular songs in the BASIC language. This was in the mid-1980s; my father was a high school administrator and a computer enthusiast, and he had access to an Apple computer at work that he would sometimes bring home for us to use. This was very different from other ways of making music that I was familiar with at the time. It was more like an odd science project or like solving a puzzle to get the syntax right so songs would run without the code breaking. So I don’t remember it as “making electronic music,” even though it was… In retrospect, it must have laid a foundation for the composing I would do with SuperCollider a couple decades later.

AL: You say in the introduction to your book, “Sounds are points of departure to realms of personal history, cultural memory, and political struggle.” Could you elaborate on how your own music relates to these topics?

TR: I will try! One of my research interests has always been: where does musical and audio-technical knowledge come from? There’s a side of it that can be a mystery, especially for those of us born with an ability to pick up any instrument and play or sing. Where does that come from? I don’t know, but I like the story that one of my great uncles, whom I never met, could also pick up an instrument and play… And another story, about the time a woman overheard me playing piano at a flea market, looked very startled, and said, “It is like you have lived before!!” I share these anecdotes to say I’m a believer that making music is at least in part about possible pasts that are not entirely knowable to us. Like we harbor some ancestral sonic spirits—residual habits or joys or traumas or encounters from generations past—that manifest as the music now.

On a more concrete level, I grew up immersed in jazz music, learning to play piano by ear. Jazz recordings were my primary texts for learning music. For example, my ways of thinking about note density and placement are indebted to duets between Count Basie and Oscar Peterson—a study in contrasts. My ways of thinking about tempo and pacing and pause are deeply indebted to Shirley Horn. And I’m sure that exposure to the solo jazz piano historical trajectory in particular—Fats Waller, Bobby Henderson, Art Tatum, Dave McKenna—taught me how to listen for different instrumental parts emanating from a single performer, something that I now recognize as totally kindred with aspects of arranging and producing electronic music. My family was supportive of my musical curiosity but never directive about it. There was a piano and a stereo and recordings to listen to at home, and some time and encouragement to do that. All of these things were foundational for me, and a real privilege.

These ways in which music is a starting point for exploring questions or disjunctures of belonging and nonbelonging, of identity and difference—these have definitely fueled certain political priorities in my research and teaching.

Inside of that I think there were always at least a couple disjunctures for me around music and identity. One, as a woman for whom identification with masculinities is in some ways important to who I am, playing instruments and working with audio technologies was one realm of life where I could feel at ease being who I am—other realms of life weren’t always so straightforward, especially growing up. But, at the same time, you’re still dealing with a culture in which women are not always taken seriously as instrumentalists and technologists, which can be frustrating and limiting at times. And two, as a white person growing up in a predominantly white rural/suburban area in the 1970s and ‘80s, through my father’s musical interests and social networks, jazz was without question the musical canon in our household. At some point I became aware that I was working within Black musical traditions that have particular histories and politics that are not mine to claim, and started that never ending process of figuring out ways to learn from this music and its history and honor it, while also being positioned differently in relation to that history as a white practitioner. So, these ways in which music is a starting point for exploring questions or disjunctures of belonging and nonbelonging, of identity and difference—these have definitely fueled certain political priorities in my research and teaching, and probably also shaped my personal and political commitments over time in other ways.

AL: If you were to introduce someone to your music, what would you share with them and why?

TR: I’m almost ready to share new projects! But until then I’d share a few older recordings that represent different ways that I work…

Butterfly Effects—a generative multichannel composition in SuperCollider, inspired by ecosystem and behavioral dynamics of migrating butterflies. Also this was the first time I worked with randomized, shifting overtone structures—an element I’ve used a lot since, also in electroacoustic and techno compositions.

The Ocean State album—say Woonsocket Pocket and Ocean State—for the piano playing and the production.

And Slow December Beat 2 and Windup Groove on the Analog Tara mixtape, which has excerpts of MIDI grooves from over the years.

AL: Would you share which gear/setup you’re currently using?

TR: Sure. I’m currently working on some techno and atmospheric electronic music. For this, I use an analog MIDI setup. This includes a Vermona DRM mk III drum machine, Oberheim Matrix 1000 and Dave Smith Mopho synths, and an MPC500 for sequencing. Another (non-MIDI) instrument I especially love is the Flower Electronics Jealous Heart noise synth, designed by Jessica Rylan. The range of noises it produces is amazing and beautiful.

Jealous Heart noise synth designed by Jessica Rylan

Flower Electronics’s Jealous Heart noise synth designed by Jessica Rylan

My typical process is to work up drafts in the hardware realm, then record loops and mix and remix in ProTools and Ableton Live. I like using analog sound sources augmented by the detailed editing and effects processing that open up in the digital realm. I use Live when I perform.

Lately I’ve been interested in the visceral qualities of electronic sound and am working to compose atmospheres that can be felt, where a certain quality of feeling is hopefully compelling to listeners in the moment and maybe memorable after. I’m thinking about the politics of electronic music that has no words—and that one way this music is political is in its profound capacities to engender feeling, in that feelings can be resources for healing and/or root generators of consciousness and action. So basically I want the sound to be as stunning as possible from the moment it floods the playback system! One doesn’t need particular gear, or expensive gear, to do this—but for me it’s been a useful technical challenge to integrate more pro audio devices into my workflow when I can afford it. A few years ago I added a 500-series channel strip (preamps, compressor, EQ) and a couple different DI boxes to my workflow. I’ve become a fan of modules by Rupert Neve Devices, Radial Engineering, and Kush Audio in particular. I’m always working to get better at mixing and producing and it has been exciting to work with these tools.

AL: What do you love about electronic music?

TR: I love that electronic music foregrounds the relationships of bodies and technologies; that it is often hard to locate where the boundaries are between these elements, and on what side of those boundaries musical agency is happening at any given moment; and that the emerging sounds come from that interplay, often in unexpected ways.

I also love the variety. There are countless and emerging genres. Artists often make their own instruments or unique combinations of instruments. And it is possible for one person to play several electronic instruments simultaneously, and make so much sound in the studio or in performance, and then do something completely different the next time. There is a freedom and flexibility there. I think this helps make electronic music a more capacious field overall—open to a wide range of practitioners—because one doesn’t necessarily have to reckon with the full weight of historical baggage that has attached itself to aesthetics and performance traditions in musical fields that are more entrenched.

AL: Why did you start pinknoises.com?

TR: I was learning how to record electronic music in a home studio in the late ‘90s and finding that the spaces for learning about this, both online and offline, were pretty heavily male-dominated and also not often welcoming for beginners. It was the early days of the internet, in that there weren’t yet the range of social networking options that are in place now; so starting a website to find, promote, and network with other women in the field made sense.

AL: Why is it important to include women in curriculums or histories of electronic music? Why is it important that women’s contributions are visible?

It’s important for curricula and histories to reflect what has actually been done in the field.

TR: Well, it’s important for curricula and histories to reflect what has actually been done in the field—and if they don’t, to explicitly state that they are partial. Too often we see “History of…” survey courses presented as universal when they only cover a select set of white men, for no clear reason other than an implicit bias.

Also, in fields like music composition and music technology in the U.S. at least, where non-male and non-white practitioners have been and still are marginalized in many music departments, it matters that students who embody these forms of difference in these spaces or who are interested in doing work on these issues actually see themselves and their interests reflected in curricula and histories available to them. There’s a politics of representation there, I think, that contributes to shaping the field moving forward. Curricula and syllabi and histories need to be living and dynamic forces for change that reflect what we want the field to be now and in the future, not ossified relics of somebody’s idealized notion of a problematic past…

AL: What are some resources that you use for discovering new artists?

TR: I tend to listen deeply more than broadly… so I’m likely to be stuck on a handful of albums or tracks, listening to them intently for years! But I do gather references to new music I want to check out, and a few times a year I will binge-listen to new things. I rely on friends and social media connections for recommendations. I am lucky to have access to a wealth of collective knowledge there. I like to know what other musicians are listening to especially… We can be a bit crazy in the intense relationships we have to music—a different sort of relationship to music than casual listeners or even music journalists have—so I seek out those recommendations in particular.

AL: Who inspires you?

TR: Pauline Oliveros and Daphne Oram, as women who were composers and philosophers of sound. Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, for their incisive and fearless analyses of arts, identity, and politics.
Maggi Payne is a big inspiration; she was one of my teachers, and she sets such a high bar for attention to detail when working creatively with sound. I am always working toward that.

I also admire artists who work at a high level across multiple realms: Terri Lyne Carrington—as a drummer, producer, songwriter, teacher, and leader of collaborative projects that foreground women musicians; and Carrie Brownstein, as a guitarist, writer, cultural critic and more.

And I am inspired by those super singular artists who pursue their creative visions relentlessly, regardless of what everyone else around them may be doing at the time. Pauline certainly fits this description. Also Miles Davis. Joni Mitchell. Prince. Missy Elliot. Björk. Solange…

Skirts or Pants? How About Both

Skirt by Wanda Ewing

“Skirt” by Wanda Ewing

When I first considered writing on the topic of gender in “classical” composition, I wondered how I could possibly have anything new to say. Then, my colleagues challenged me. Why not? As a consequence, I have read about the role of gender in popular music, punk misogyny, and photography and discussed analogies between film and composition with a number of friends and colleagues. I have conversed with my closest collaborators, both male and female. I have started asking deeper questions, and in doing so, confronting why this issue is so challenging for me.

In graduate school, I consciously disassociated being female with being a composer. In fact, I took that even further and came to the conclusion that being a composer was in direct conflict with what I knew as a teacher, as a student, and as an artist. While I was coming to realize that my work coupled with my teaching style reflected a theme of synergy and convergence, I perceived a dichotomy in trying to fuse my various roles. I am sure some of this can be simply attributed to youth, but also, I believe we have been part of a transformation, where our generation is realizing a gradual shift in the way we view the artist.

Generally, we are coming to accept a more multidimensional role for an artist in the 21st century. Being an entrepreneur, musician, and teacher (and/or any number of other occupations) are all equally important. As Claire Chase said in her 2013 Bienen School of Music convocation address, “You can’t really separate the act of creating music, even very old music, from entrepreneurship.” She examined how entrepreneurship manifests in our time by providing countless examples of how we assume multiple roles: the artist as collaborator, the artist as producer, the artist as organizer, the artist as educator, and the list goes on. The resounding message delivered is that there is no clear roadmap. She inspires her young audience to “blow the ceiling off anything resembling a limitation.” I try to remind myself of this mantra every day; however, it is not always easy.
From my vantage point, the “guru” mentality is an accurate snapshot of the history of the composer/composition teacher relationship. In graduate school, I was encouraged to ignore the gender bias, which at the time was probably for the best in order to preserve my identity; however, this is not the same advice I offer to my students. I want to talk openly and non-judgmentally with them about the inherent challenges of being female and a composer alongside being a composition teacher and entrepreneur. More importantly, I want begin to identify why and how we have fallen into patterns of behavior that support the status quo. We have far too many resources at hand in the 21st century for female composers/teachers/organizers not to have more visible role models.

As women, by and large, we have been taught to view ourselves as made up of independent spheres, separating our profession from our gender, and from our craft. One challenge is to allow and encourage our various roles to operate and shape us in tandem, rather than in silos. For me, this involves accepting that being a good composer is being a good teacher, and that composing is my lifelong lesson. These two essential parts of who I am should not, and cannot, be in conflict. Whether it is teaching and composing, or composing and being a mother, or doing any number of things that we as composers in the 21st century must do to survive, we all deserve the opportunity to merge our identities and define ourselves in our own unique way. Granted, I am primarily coming from the perspective of a female in academia, but I suspect that the challenge of balancing multiple and often simultaneously demanding roles is consistent for female composers in general.

Recent publications about the relationship of women to the field of composition present numerous heartening viewpoints. Amy Beth Kirsten’s “The Woman Composer is Dead” (2012) offers many valuable observations. Kristin Kuster’s “Taking Off My Pants” challenges us to embrace who we are, while maintaining respect for our craft. And Ellen McSweeny’s “The Power List” offers concrete solutions to incite change. These three articles in particular illustrate exactly how much we need to talk about this pervasive issue, so I assigned these articles to students. Their reactions ranged from, “I’m saddened” to “…a women could never have composed Beethoven’s Ninth or Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto…women need to stop having hissy fits about it.”
The teacher in me desperately wanted to understand these reactions, so I researched and looked to the visual art community for answers. As Linda Nochlin probes in her famous 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”:

“Why have there been no great women artists?” …like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist “controversy,” it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: “There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.”

Power structures have long operated along gendered presumptions like the one above. Certainly, all artists struggle to balance both creative and personal life challenges—this has become part of the romantic “plight” of being an artist—but I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that for me, this quandary was further complicated by sex and gender. As women, we are pulled in directions that are conflicted, both due to social pressures and the biological constraints of childbearing during key career-building years. Culturally, we are expected to respond in “feminine,” frequently subservient ways, but to follow the modernist trend, as composers we are expected to provide answers.

I agree with Eva Hesse that “excellence has no gender.” But how exactly do we begin to tell that story? Visibility is imperative for role models to succeed.

I also relate to Lucy Lippard, who writes, “Of course art has no gender, but artists do.”
So then, the question is: does being a “female” composer make a difference to being a good composer?
In confronting the question solely in the realm of being a good composer, the answer is inequitably no. There are countless examples of superb, successful, living female composers. However, when confronted with being a good composer, alongside being a good mother, and (for me) a good teacher, it becomes more difficult to quantify.

Nochlin answers the women-artist question sensibly:

What is important is that women face up to the reality of their history and of their present situation, without making excuses or puffing mediocrity. Disadvantage may indeed be an excuse; it is not, however, an intellectual position. Rather, using as a vantage point their situation as underdogs in the realm of grandeur, and outsiders in that of ideology, women can reveal institutional and intellectual weaknesses in general, and, at the same time that they destroy false consciousness, take part in the creation of institutions in which clear thought—and true greatness—are challenges open to anyone, man or woman, courageous enough to take the necessary risk, the leap into the unknown.

As creative artists, we are students forever; otherwise, we would not have chosen such an infinite language to study. And frequently we have to act like a teacher, student, and artist simultaneously. Whether it is building music, art collaborations, schools, teaching, or learning, we create materials, build forms architecturally, and communicate those ideas creatively. Remember, maestro, male or female, as artists, we are inherently collaborators.
Gaining a broad perspective through all of the roles we must play has provided a critical lesson for me. Beyond social construction and convention, judgment, joy and anger, we must confront the abyss and challenge, question, and listen. And, above all, we should celebrate being female, and choose to wear pants or skirts as we see fit.

Rethinking How We Teach Composition, Part 2

Igor Stravinsky & Nadia Boulanger (1937)

Igor Stravinsky & Nadia Boulanger (1937)

In graduate school, I was shocked by the “master” mentality of the composition world. Young composers literally fawned over their professors, and it seemed insincere. I thought the purpose of going to graduate school was to carve my own path, not simply to hob-knob with the “greats.” Since I had come from a relatively non-traditional undergraduate experience, I was eager to gain the technical experience that my peers had already achieved. I took extra independent studies in counterpoint, spending almost a year on perfecting the retrogradable canon. I’m not sure I ever did actually master the skill, but I sure loved the process! I could not get enough of the literature and was fascinated by imitating forms. If I had been forced to do this work sooner, I would surely have recoiled from it. Yet to this day, I refer back to many of the readings and writings by composers about their work that I came across during that time. I also developed a passion for visual art and patterns—Morton Feldman became my hero. The way he wrote about his work, brainstormed, and drew inspiration from painters broadened my aesthetic palette.

Yet, beneath my excitement and fascination with the infinite study of music, fear was brewing; skepticism towards my teachers emerged—particularly the mentality that privileged the “master” over the “apprentice.” Coming from progressive and forward-thinking schools, I had built for myself a certain dreamscape for creativity, and this “guru” approach was confusing and concerning for me. As I got closer to the professional world, I started witnessing overt gender biases as well. I noticed that there were markedly fewer women in my graduate program than men. I distinctly recall dismissing this worry, consciously deciding that I could not give my concern credence, because if I did, it would get in the way of what I wanted and needed to make my music. I remain conflicted when trying to negotiate between the many roles I assume, now as a composer, a teacher, a mother, and an administrator. The survivalist in me still cautions about even considering whether being female makes a difference, but as I become more involved with all aspects of my career, I am not sure how ethical it is for me to ignore the issue. Aesthetically, it is impossible for me to separate being a composer and a teacher–both activities feed one another. However, when I consider the number of female role models in my education who were able to live lives that also successfully integrated being composers and teachers, I can barely count them on one hand.

There is a deep lineage from composer to student that is rooted in imitation and modeling. Like following the legacy of Feldman in Buffalo, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau. Nadia Boulanger’s spirit was alive and well, though I did not have the opportunity to work with her directly. As Leon Botstein explains, she was “less interested in the imposition of an aesthetic, and more invested in the transmission of discipline”—whether through conventional or non-conventional means. Like other modernists, she encouraged the exploration of new forms alongside a reverence for the masterpieces of the past. However, she was unique in that she was the first hugely influential female to train an extraordinary A-list of 20th-century composers. Her pedagogical approach was based in counterpoint—in combining the vertical and horizontal simultaneously. She composed, but we have come to know of her primarily as a pedagogue. And she was strict! Students consistently report that she made them work harder than they had ever worked before.

“Do not take up music unless you would rather die than do so.”
—Nadia Boulanger
Unfortunately, Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) did not have the same opportunities to be both a composer and a teacher that we have access to in 2014. While there are many speculations about why she was not equally successful as a composer and teacher, the lesson I take away is that we still have a long way to go in terms of shifting the model of what a composition teacher can provide. First, we must address the master/apprentice mentality. I propose we to do this by continuing to allow more inquisitive learning to take place alongside modeling. Secondly, we desperately need to openly and pragmatically identify the inherent challenges of gender in composition. When you add gender roles into an extraordinarily male dominated system, the challenge becomes further complicated. I will address this in more detail in my final post next week. In the meantime, I continue to admire Nadia, and all of her students, but I would celebrate and welcome the chance to rethink the mold, as a woman and a composer/teacher, simultaneously.

A Wholly Factual Account of a Failed Attempt to Transcend Gender Through Electroacoustic Musical Theatre

I was excited to see that Alex Temple’s blog post, “I’m a Trans Composer. What the hell does that mean?” was reposted here at NewMusicBox. I think it’s a great article, dense with ideas—each paragraph could easily be expanded into a full article itself. And even though I’m not transgendered myself, I found a lot in Alex’s words to relate to and identify with. This part, in particular, might apply to nearly every composer who has commented on NewMusicBox:

Even though, objectively speaking, I’m an insider in the classical music world—I’ve been studying it formally since I was a kid, and I’ve been in academia for ten years—I always wind up feeling like an outsider, no matter what city or scene or university department I’m in.

For Alex, being an outsider is connected to her identification with being genderqueer, and there’s certainly a kind of metaphorical resonance between the two. And while you certainly don’t need to be genderqueer to feel like an outsider, feeling that way can give you a certain sympathetic resonance with other kinds of outsiders. At least, I’d like to think so.

Maybe this is one reason why I’ve felt a recurring need to explore or investigate issues related to gender through music. But it’s a puzzling thing. At times gender and music seem to have nothing to do with each other, while at other times they seem inseparable. Vocal music, in particular, seems inextricably bound to gender, as the history of gender-swapped roles in opera makes apparent. (Pop music, too—The Magnetic Fields’s Stephin Merritt makes gender ambiguity a near-ubiquitous trope in his music.) This is a tradition I’ve participated in from time to time. When determining roles for my opera Light and Power, librettist Jillian Burcar and I agreed that it made sense to cast Nikola Tesla as a soprano, to highlight some of his androgynous qualities and his self-professed celibacy.

Other times, my attempts to experiment with gender through music have not gone so well. When writing my piece Concerto for Mannequin Head, I was thinking a great deal about the disembodied nature of electronic music. With most live music, even if you don’t know much about musical performance, you can discern certain things about how the music is created just by watching someone perform. Electronics, on the other hand, are often a black box. There may be no easily discernible visible difference between someone playing back a recording and someone doing extremely detailed, virtuosic live performance. This is even leaving out the issue of what kind of preparations the performer has done before the performance. The synesthetic connection between the visual display of skill and the resulting sound is essentially severed. You can look at this as a problem or an opportunity. The opportunity is that this black box can be filled with essentially anything you can dream up. It is a great chance, in particular, for theatre—but theatre is a wholly different art form from music, with its own set of skills and conventions, as I learned the hard way.

My solution to the electronic music problem in Concerto for Mannequin Head was to employ a sort of intentionally shabby (is it too pretentious to call it Brechtian?) theatricality that asks the audience to suspend their disbelief in the face of a transparent fiction. The conceit that the audience is asked to buy into is that an onstage mannequin head is singing to them. Meanwhile, backstage the real performer (in this case me) sings into electronics that modulate and distort the human voice, rendering it ambiguously gendered (and dubiously human). During the cadenza, the mannequin head “malfunctions” and the human performer must come onstage to “fix” it.

In its first performance I thought the piece worked pretty well, with its campy humor and elements of surprise. The next time I performed it, however, I did not have a mannequin head handy, so I asked another composer if she would like to play the part of Mannequin Head, and she agreed. I was not at all prepared for how this would dramatically change the character and meaning of the piece. When the soloist was a genderless inanimate object, it could be a kind of stylized, androgynous projection of myself. But by changing that into an unambiguously gendered human being, suddenly the piece was less about identity and technology and more about power and control. During the performance, I started to feel profoundly uncomfortable in a creepy, Pygmalionesque way.

The lesson I learned (other than that I should probably leave theatre to the theatre kids) is that while music itself isn’t inherently gendered, gender can have a huge impact on how music is perceived and interpreted. I have also become more suspicious of claims that music can transcend gender in some way. I do think that it still has the power to say interesting things about gender, though!

I’m a Trans Composer. What the Hell Does That Mean?

As regular readers may have noticed, we’ve had some passionate dialog about music and gender and careers and creativity over the past year. On Friday, composer Alex Temple picked up that thread here to offer “some thoughts on what it’s like to be a composer on the trans-female spectrum in the early 21st century.” We asked Alex for permission (which was generously granted) to repost that piece on NewMusicBox and continue the conversation.–MS

In the last few months, there have been a number of highly circulated articles about women and contemporary classical music. There was Amy Beth Kirsten at NewMusicBox, arguing that the term “woman composer” is anachronistic; Kristin Kuster in the New York Times challenging that idea on the grounds that a composer’s success is never “all about the music”; Melissa Dunphy’s post about the need for women to be visible in a world where most composers are “white men of average build with brown hair and glasses”; and Ellen McSweeney, also at NewMusicBox, examining some possible reasons for women’s under-representation in the new music world.

Reading all these articles got me thinking about the role that gender plays in my own musical life. For those unaware, I’m transgender and genderqueer, and while I wouldn’t exactly describe myself as a “woman,” it’s a lot closer to the mark than “man.” So here are some thoughts on what it’s like to be a composer on the trans-female spectrum in the early 21st century.

Defining My Terms

Before I get to the “composer” part, let’s talk about the “trans” part. There are about seven million different words that describe the various nuances of gender identity, and sorting them out can be pretty daunting, so I’ll start by explaining the terms I used in the previous paragraph.

When I say I’m “transgender,” I’m talking about two related but distinct ways in which there’s a mismatch between the gender I currently identify with and the gender I grew up inhabiting. The first has to do with my internal sense of what my body is supposed to look like—what the brilliant biologist, activist, and theorist Julia Serano calls “subconscious sex.” For example, I find the presence of hair on my face intensely alienating, as if there were something inexplicably wrong about its being there. (I’m currently in the very slow process of permanently removing it.) And when I see people and think, “I want to look like that,” those people are always female or androgynous—never male.

The second type of mismatch has more to do with social meanings than with physiology, and explaining it requires a bit of a digression. Let me start by saying that I find the way many people talk about gender to be overly reliant on stereotypes. It’s tempting to define the social aspects of gender in terms of particular kinds of clothing, particular tastes and hobbies, and particular ways of talking and moving. But that approach is too simplistic. It can’t account for, say, butch women who nonetheless identify as women. I think it makes more sense to describe gender as a lens through which all those things are given social meaning. If that doesn’t make sense, imagine walking into a bar and seeing a person with a flannel shirt, a buzz cut, a beer, a swagger, and a picture of their pet Rottweiler in their wallet. You don’t know how that person identifies, but interpreting them through a “male” lens produces a different social meaning than interpreting them through a “female” lens. The clothing, tastes, and behavioral affect haven’t changed, but they come across differently, in the same way that the same painting comes across differently if you think of it as being painted in the 20th century rather than if you think of it as being painted in the 16th.

So when I say that I identify as female(ish), I don’t mean that I think of my personality as an inherently or specifically female one; I’m not even sure that means anything. What I mean is that I feel comfortable, embodied, and sane when I view myself through the interpretive lens called “female,” whereas I feel alienated, disembodied, and panicky when I view myself through the interpretive lens called “male.” One produces meanings that make emotional sense, and the other doesn’t.

So why all the qualifiers—“female(ish),” “trans-female spectrum,” and so on? That’s why I describe myself as “genderqueer” as well as “transgender.” The word “genderqueer” means “not identifying solely or consistently as male or female,” and it includes people who identify as both at once, people who identify as one or the other at different times, people who identify as neither, and people who identify as a third gender. In my case, it doesn’t mean that I sometimes or partially think of myself as a guy. Rather, it means that the arbitrariness and constructedness of gender as a set of meanings imposed on human bodies is a part of my gut-level experience of myself and of the world. Or to put it less technically: I often feel like an anthropologist from Neptune sent to Earth to study the ways of humans—but I’d rather be a Neptunian disguised as a human female than a Neptunian disguised as a human male. At times I’ve also listed my gender on forms as “’80s” or “Daria.” These descriptions might sound inconsistent, but they’re all different ways of getting at the same idea: a kind of gender in which unreality is an essential component. Many trans women would be terribly insulted by the suggestion that they are in any sense “not real women,” but my reaction to that would be “yeah, that’s kinda true”—just not for the reason that transphobic people would think it’s true.

Women’s Music?

One of the issues that comes up a lot in discussions of gender and music is the question of whether men and women compose differently (with the implied question for me personally: is my music somehow “female”?) As far as I can tell, the answer is no. Life experience, social conditioning, and biology can all affect a composer’s music, but those things vary enormously among men as a group and among women as a group, and how people react to them artistically is idiosyncratic and unpredictable. Certainly I can think of plenty of pieces that fly in the face of gender stereotypes, and I’m sure you can, too. (First example that comes to mind: the violent, noisy music of Annie Gosfield.)

That said, I have noticed that certain specific attitudes toward music seem to correlate with gender. In particular, it seems like nearly every composer-performer whose work depends on an intense, profound, almost mystical relationship with the artist’s own body is a woman; and nearly every composer who sees music as a purely abstract, formalist construction, free of emotional, social, psychological, or political meaning, is a man. Given how our society is put together, the existence of those correlations shouldn’t come as a surprise. But I don’t feel any connection with either of those points of view, and my own approach to music, which has to do with cultural history and the fuzzy boundary between humor and horror, doesn’t seem to be a particularly gendered one.

Trans/Genderqueer Music?

While I don’t think of my work as specifically female, I do think of it as specifically genderqueer. Just as I often feel like I’m standing outside the world of gendered meanings, aware of them but never seeing them as inevitable natural facts like so many humans seem to do, I also tend to feel like I’m standing outside the world of artistic meanings. The discourse surrounding music tends to take certain value judgments for granted, although the value judgments vary with the musical style being discussed: complexity is better than simplicity, or emotional expression is better than cerebral formalism, or change is better than repetition, or raw authenticity is better than glitzy artifice, or whatever. But when I look at the world of music, I see an elaborate, sometimes gloriously absurd game, in which all of those rules are arbitrary conventions. Even though, objectively speaking, I’m an insider in the classical music world—I’ve been studying it formally since I was a kid, and I’ve been in academia for ten years—I always wind up feeling like an outsider, no matter what city or scene or university department I’m in. The fact that I’m a composer rather than some other kind of artist feels more like an accident of my personal history than something that was destined to happen. That’s why so much of my work looks at culture “from the outside,” to the extent that that’s possible—whether it’s commenting on mid-century love songs, faux world music, or TV sound logos.

The four songs of Behind the Wallpaper go one step further. In that piece, I tried to convey an outsider’s view not just of music, but of the experience of living in the world. I’ve written before about wanting to address trans issues in my work, and this set of songs is as explicit as I’ve gotten—especially “Unnatural,” which describes seeing people’s clothing and hairstyles as a set of social signifiers and concludes with the line “you make me feel like an unnatural woman,” and “This American Life,” which includes the image of someone in an uncomfortably tight dress being laughed at by a drunk person in a bar. Both songs can be interpreted in other ways—Connie Volk, who premiered the piece, clearly had no trouble relating to “Unnatural” despite not being trans herself, and one listener interpreted “This American Life” as being about a cisgender woman who feels uneasy about what she has to wear to work (the song also mentions a tedious part-time job). That’s fine with me; my hope is that anyone who’s ever felt alienated, for any reason, will be able to relate to the piece on some level. But I also wanted to create something that my fellow trans and/or genderqueer people in particular could listen to and say, “Yeah, I know what that’s like,” or maybe even, “You mean I’m not the only one who’s experienced that?” And it was important to me to make something that fills that role while at the same time being mysterious and subtle and strange, since, frankly, I find most trans art heavy-handed and way too fond of the word “fierce.” (Imogen Binnie’s novel Nevada is pretty fantastic, though. Go read that.)

Performance and Performativity (isn’t that a Jane Austen novel?)

In 2007 and 2008, I wrote a large-scale narrative piece called The Travels of E.C. Dumonde. It was the first thing I’d written for myself as a vocalist (mostly speaking, occasionally singing), and I performed it seven times in and around New York. At the time I thought of myself as a guy, albeit one with gender-bendy tendencies. In the video of me performing the piece at Roulette in 2008, I have a beard, and I deliberately use the low part of my vocal register; I was afraid at the time that my naturally high voice came across as un-adult.

I started describing myself as genderqueer, and began my ludicrously slow and still ongoing transition, right around when I left New York for Chicago in 2009. I didn’t perform Dumonde for a few years after that. The way I talked gradually shifted, along with the way I dressed, the way I carried myself, and the pronouns I preferred (for the record, I’m fine with either “she” or “they”). [Update, 10.22.15: since I wrote this article I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with being referred to using neutral pronouns, so it’s just “she” now.] Last fall I finally revived the piece, as part of a show with Grant Wallace Band at Gallery Cabaret. And when I did, I found that performing it was a totally different experience. Not only did I use a different part of my vocal register—that’s so automatic at this point that I don’t think I could sound the way I did in 2008 even if I wanted to—but the piece’s affect had changed. Dumonde in 2012 is less stentorian than Dumonde in 2008; it has more of a raised eyebrow and smile in it, influenced by Miranda July’s unsettling spoken-word albums from the ’90s (which, appropriately enough, were what got me interested in vocal performance in the first place, along with my old favorite Laurie Anderson). I also feel vastly more comfortable in my own body when I perform than I used to; or, to put it another way, I now feel like I have a body, rather than a thing that carries my mind around. (Despite what I said about composers who have intense relationships with their bodies above, I think this has more to do with coming out and transitioning than with anything female-specific; I know trans men who have described feeling the same way.)

But here’s the strange thing: not only do I feel more at ease with myself performing Dumonde now than I did in 2008, but I also feel more at ease with myself performing Dumonde than I do in everyday life. And this, once again, has to do with being genderqueer as well as trans. Since I often think of my gender as performative anyway, actually performing on a stage is incredibly freeing. It means I can give myself permission to make use of femme iconography without getting self-conscious and worrying about whether other people will see it as somehow “fake.” (Although of course, fake can be just as good…)

A Bit About Politics

The one thing I haven’t addressed in this post is the political aspect of working as a trans, more-or-less female-identified composer. There are certainly stories I could tell. In the past few years, I’ve started to experience the sexist microagressions that I’d previously only heard about, including uncomfortably intense compliments from older male colleagues, the assumption that I must be a singer, and questions like, “Did you do the electronics yourself?” (something I was never asked once when I presented as male). On the flip side, I’ve had a couple of professional experiences where my gender identity wasn’t taken seriously, including one that looked an awful lot like blatant discrimination. But the truth is, I haven’t been out for long enough to have a clear, big-picture view of this aspect of the social landscape. I don’t even necessarily know how people are perceiving me at any given time, especially given the slowness of my transition, the persistence of old versions of me in other people’s minds, and my androgynous name. So keep an eye out, and maybe I’ll have more to say about the political side of things in a year or two.


Alex Temple
Alex Temple’s music lies somewhere between surrealism and pop art, using iconic musical and textual materials to evoke clusters of associations while distorting and recombining them in order to create new meanings. In addition to collaborating with a variety of performers and ensembles, including Mellissa Hughes, Timothy Andres, the American Composers Orchestra, Fifth House Ensemble, and Spektral Quartet, Alex also does eerie electronic storytelling and plays synths and melodica for other composers. She’s currently living in Chicago, working on a DM at Northwestern University, and writing a podcast-opera about TV production company closing logos and the end of the world.

Let’s Celebrate Today

We Can Do It

It’s International Women’s Day! To properly celebrate, I say let’s all burn, sink, or plant a piano Annea Lockwood-style. Perhaps in keeping with the times we could extend this practice to electric keyboards as well. Be sure to send photos!

Not only would I like to take advantage of this occasion to point you towards David Smooke’s post from Tuesday, in which he runs a few unofficial yet telling numbers illustrating gender representation in some small slices of the concert programming world, but also offer some potential solutions via Timothy Rutherford-Johnson’s exellent IWD-themed playlist for today, not to mention pile on some additional numbers (which are actually not as abysmal as I expected).

It is very true that there are fewer female composers in the world than male composers, and for that reason we will probably not anytime soon reach a 50/50 split in concert programming across the board. I agree that a big reason for this is a lack of role models and female composition teachers. (Indeed, I can almost guarantee that I would not be working in this field today if I had not had female composition teachers from day one.) However, the issue at present seems less about persuading more young women to enter the field, than about celebrating the female composers who are here now, making music now. I also urge the female composers out there to celebrate (obviously well beyond today) yourself and your music. Get out there and bring it, ladies. It’s up to those making decisions about concert programming to pay attention and look beyond their immediate circles of influence to hear and see the music of the many amazing female composers active today, and responsibility also falls on the composers to put their music out there with everything they’ve got.

I do think that numbers are improving, but it’s slow going, and many institutions (the larger ones especially) have a lot of catching up to do. However, I am heartened by the number of college professors (both male and female) who are incorporating a diverse range of music by female composers into their curricula. I hope a day will come when we can look back at these statistics and laugh.

By the Numbers

Last week, the website “Vida: Women in Literature” published their 2011 count. This series of pie charts visualizes the ratio of female to male representatives in various categories—including published fiction, book reviewers, authors reviewed—at some of the most prestigious periodicals in the fiction world. As an example, The New York Review of Books, considered one of the most important publishers of criticism on contemporary works, contracted with female reviewers 21% of the time (roughly four male reviewers for every female) in order to talk about books whose authors skewed 82% male. The New Yorker performed marginally more equally, with 28% of their articles generated by female authors and exactly one third of their “Briefly Noted” reviews devoted to works by women. A quick scroll through the statistics shows most publications representing women in the 20–30% range, with Granta standing alone as the only publication who published more women than men overall. For more context on these numbers, I recommend Danielle Pafunda’s “The Trouble with Rationalizing the Numbers Trouble”.

I’ve been following the online reaction to these numbers with interest. Writers from all walks of life quickly condemned the ratios, and many of the editors promised to look into improving the equality of gender representation within their pages. Although there are obviously many people who defend current practices, the literary community appears to have reached an overall consensus that this sort of inequality is wrong and should be corrected.

The main thing that struck me about these numbers is this: If they had been generated by concert presenting organizations they would have seemed exceptionally progressive.

I co-founded the ensemble League of the Unsound Sound, which has presented four different concert programs over two seasons. Since I try to be aware of gender inclusivity, as part of our programming, I took care to ensure that each concert included at least one female composer. As our ratio of 5 works by female composers compared to 13 by male composers shows (when considering specific pieces as represented on distinct concert programs—repeated programs at multiple venues are considered as a single concert), the literary community would have considered my efforts to be an abject failure.

LotUS Programming

I wondered how LotUS compared to other new music ensembles, and so I unscientifically perused the websites of some of my favorite groups. I want to emphasize that I chose the following groups because I think they are all wonderful and also because their sites made the data easily available. Each of these ensembles is comprised of amazing performers who I would pay to hear perform any repertoire, and I believe that they are among the most progressive programmers in the U.S. today. In short, I only included artists for whom I have the utmost respect and who I believe care about working towards gender equality in their programming. If I took the time to check other groups, I strongly believe that the ones listed below would remain among the most equal in their gender distribution. This makes the data that much less encouraging.

Before continuing, I need to stop for an important caveat. The Vida site spends months compiling and checking their statistics. They look at the same publications over years. Their charts are created with a scientific rigor that I am not trying to equal. I compiled the data for the charts and ratios below by quickly perusing the websites of some of my favorite organizations. I might have miscounted. Please consider the following as rough estimates only.

Now celebrating their 25th anniversary, Bang on a Can has long been on the vanguard of new music, and so I was not surprised that the listed ensemble repertoire for the Bang on a Can All Stars displayed the most equality among the ones I counted. Their ratio of 13 works by women compared to 47 by men composers counts as the highest percentage of women among those surveyed.

BOAC Repetoire

Other of my favorite new music groups all showed gender distributions with more than four men represented for every woman. The incredible JACK Quartet lists 100 pieces in their repertoire, of which 12 are by women. According to their website, Eighth Blackbird has been responsible for the creation of an astonishing 100 commissions, of which 18 are by women. Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente, prints event listings that show that they have programmed 75 works this concert season (when considered like LotUS so distinct concert programs are counted separately but the same set of pieces performed in multiple venues is only counted once), 7 of which are by women. The current repertoire list of Alarm Will Sound names 65 different works, of which four are exclusively by women, one is an arrangement of the all-female band the Shaggs, and one is a John Lennon/Yoko Ono collaboration.

JACK Quartet Repetoire

Eighth Blackbird Commissions

Ensemble Dal Niente stats

AWS Repetoire

As I state above, I chose these groups because I imagine that they are among the most progressive programmers working today (and also because their websites are organized so that this data is easily available). I believe each of the ensembles I cite above has artistic directors that keep the goal of gender equity in mind when they determine their concert repertoire. It seems that we still have to travel far in order to achieve true equality.