The Oscar nominees were announced this last week and while the shortlist was full of promise, featuring both Chanda Dancy and Hildur Guðnadóttir for best score, the actual nominee list featured only men. Extremely talented male composers who write fantastic scores, without doubt, but it was frustrating to once again see no women represented when their work was obviously just as deserving. Hildur was nominated and won a number of critics’ awards and yet was not nominated by the Academy music branch. We saw a similar situation with the best director nominees. But why does this even matter? Why do we feel so frustrated and unseen?
As a composer who happens to be a woman I long to “just be a composer” and simply focus on the music.
We need to stand up so we can be seen by those coming after us.
I had no idea that being a composer was a gig available to me.
I talk to filmmakers who tell me that I am the only woman composer they know. There is so much work to be done to make women composers in media, and all areas of the music world, visible.
We are seeing a lot more inclusivity in the hiring of composers. This change is a result of organizations like the Alliance for Women Film Composers, the Composers Diversity Collective, and programs like the Reel Change Film Fund.
I believe we are still at the beginning of a long journey. This year's all-male Oscar nominations for best score and best director show how far we still must go.
It is time to find all the ways we can to get loud, stand tall and call out inequality, even when it’s uncomfortable.
I have often pondered this question. As a composer who happens to be a woman I long to “just be a composer” and simply focus on the music. I would infinitely prefer not to have to wrestle with these questions of equality, inclusivity, and diversity. I know many of my colleagues–be they women, non-binary individuals, or any composer who doesn’t fall into the category of “white cis-male”–also long for the same freedom; the freedom to just look away and not get involved. But there is a very important reason to continue to grapple with this issue: representation. We need to stand up so we can be seen by those coming after us.
When I was thirteen and growing up in Tasmania, Australia, I managed to win a scholarship that afforded me a place in an expensive high school that had a stellar music program. It was a girls’ school. Throughout the years we girls were challenged to be the very best and told that we could do anything. The world was open to us. At the time I was a violinist and singer. I was surrounded by many strong brilliant women in the music world. But something wasn’t right for me. I knew I wasn’t going to be a performing classical musician, and I longed to get “off the page”. When I look back now at my younger self, I see someone dying to compose. And yet it took me years to find composition. Why? Because I didn’t know it was a thing! The only composers we studied were men. The music being performed in the orchestras and played on the radio was all by men; repertoire hundreds of years old. I had no idea that being a composer was a gig available to me. Representation. It just wasn’t there. It took me decades to find out that composition was an avenue I could pursue, and when I finally found it in my 30s, I remember feeling complete relief. After decades in the music world, I had found my home. I haven’t looked back since.
One of my dear friends and mentors, Lolita Ritmanis, has a story with a similar theme. She was conducting one of her works at a concert and afterwards met up with a young girl and her mother. They expressed surprise that women could be conductors–they didn’t know. The little girl was overjoyed at the prospect. She had to see it to believe it.
I have been part of the leadership for the Alliance for Women Film Composers now since 2016. We have a directory of women composers that stands currently at around 600 individuals, which is fantastic. Yet it seems like every few months I see a social media post that says something along the lines of, “How do I find women film composers? Are there any?” I talk to filmmakers who tell me that I am the only woman composer they know. There is so much work to be done to make women composers in media, and all areas of the music world, visible. And even as we have a love-hate relationship with awards and competitions, the benefit of such things is that they draw attention to the existence of individuals. They are a vehicle to make some noise. No award competition will ever be perfect, fair, free from politics or drama. But they are avenues for young women and non-binary people, young people of all shades of melanin, to see someone up there that looks like them, and say to themselves, “I belong in this industry, too. I am represented. I’m not alone. I can do this.”
The question is how do we do this? Things are changing and this is worth celebrating. The shortlist of the Oscars is testament to that, as is the diversity we see at film festivals like Sundance and SXSW. In the world of TV, we are seeing a lot more inclusivity in the hiring of composers. This change is a result of organizations like the Alliance for Women Film Composers, the Composers Diversity Collective, and programs like the Reel Change Film Fund (of which I am a grateful recipient) which give underrepresented composers the funds to elevate a project to a higher level, which opens doors for more and greater opportunities. We are seeing studio programs like the Universal Composers Initiative which chooses a group of diverse artists to amplify and uplift. All this is exciting, but I believe we are still at the beginning of a long journey. This year’s all-male Oscar nominations for best score and best director show how far we still must go. We need to simultaneously celebrate the progress and buckle down for a long road ahead. While the change must happen in all areas, I believe it begins with women supporting women. Women uplifting and amplifying their sister creatives, voting for them, celebrating their work. Women need to lead the way.
We cannot ignore ongoing deficits in equality, diversity, and inclusivity. It is time to find all the ways we can to get loud, stand tall and call out inequality, even when it’s uncomfortable. We need to ensure a richer creative landscape for the following generation to thrive.