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I still vividly remember my very first encounter with Julie Giroux. It was in 2015 during the first time I attended the Midwest Clinic, a massive music conference/festival/expo which is heavily but not exclusively devoted to wind band music held annually in Chicago right before the end of each calendar year.
Though I knew some wind band repertoire and had even attended a few wind band concerts over the years, nothing prepared me for how huge the wind band community is—comprising school-based ensembles, community groups, and musical units that are the pride of each of the branches of the military, plus wind bands from around the world. I was not only floored by the sensitivity and virtuosity of performance at what were basically showcases at a conference center which normally might not inspire such a level of commitment, but also how devoted these musicians were to newly composed music. There were so many new composers I discovered that first year, mostly all men, with one very noticeable exception—Julie Giroux, whose works were featured on several concerts. I still remember two of her pieces I heard that week—Riften Wed and Just Flyin’. Both took the audience on a journey that was a real sonic adventure and, at the same time, both were—dare I say it—fun.
Who was this Julie Giroux? I had to meet her. I tracked her down in the giant exhibition area of McCormick Center, which is where Midwest Clinic attendees congregate in between concerts and panel discussions. In fact, it’s a giant marketplace where attendees can and do buy sheet music, recordings (fancy that!), instruments, and even band uniforms. Giroux was holding court by the stand of her music publisher, Musica Propria. There was a line waiting to get her autograph that was longer than two city blocks. I waited. When I finally got directly in front of her, she was laughing uproariously, perhaps at something someone had just said. I was not sure. It’s very loud in that space. I didn’t have much time since there was a line just as long behind me by that point, but I told her how much I liked her music and handed her my business card saying that I hoped we’d have a chance to have a longer conversation at some point for NewMusicBox. I learned that she was based in Mississippi and began plotting ways of traveling there to chat with her. It proved challenging. Then I thought maybe we could record a convo with her during next year’s Midwest Clinic. That proved impossible since everyone else there wanted to talk to her, too, but at least I managed to say hi briefly again and hear some more of her music. And the cycle repeated itself in 2017, 2018, and 2019.
But strangely in this crazy year of 2020 when no one is able to go anywhere, we’re actually able to go more places than usual—virtually—since almost everyone is online all the time. In fact, this week (December 16-18), the Midwest Clinic, which typically attracts well over 15,000 attendees, is also an exclusively web-based experience and, as a result, might even break their previous attendance records. So, I thought I’d take a chance and reach out to Julie Giroux and see if she’d be willing to talk over Zoom. It took a while to set up, but it was well worth the wait.
“I feel like we’re in one of those really bad sci-fi films from the ‘70s where you get sucked into some computer and are trying to live that way,” she commented at some point during our sprawling conversation in which we explored the ins and outs of the wind band (including an in-depth discussion of her own wind band symphonies), her career in Hollywood (which led to her being the first female composer to win an Emmy), her wacky arrangements of Christmas songs (‘tis the season after all), and how she’s coping with life in quarantine. “I have a whole other year to sit here, and eat Cheetos and play video games,” she quipped.
When I was in junior high, I was writing for junior high band, because that was the level I was.
Julie Giroux, composer
Because I’d always played piano—when I got into band, I realized I was only playing one note. And that’s pretty boring.
Julie Giroux, composer
Now I have a whole other year to sit here, and eat Cheetos and play video games.
Julie Giroux, composer
I didn’t know that there weren’t women. I didn’t think about it. … . I didn’t know anybody was alive who was doing it.
Julie Giroux, composer
The band is as complex and has as many colors as an orchestra does.
Julie Giroux, composer
Elvis stopped being Elvis because he stopped growing.
Julie Giroux, composer
It’s like I have a box of 168 crayons. And if you want to give me 12, I don’t want to color with 12.
Julie Giroux, composer
There isn’t a person in the United States that doesn’t know “Jingle Bells.”
Julie Giroux, composer
I was somewhat surprised to learn that despite Giroux’s interest in a broad range of music making, she is not terribly interested in writing chamber music. “It’s because I am just a spoiled brat,” she confessed. “It’s like I have a box of 168 crayons. Right? And if you want to give me 12, I don’t want to color with 12. I want to color with 168, you know. So to me, it’s always no. It’s like you go to a restaurant and it’s a menu that has one thing on it. You know, you’re like, ‘No, no. I want pages. I want to just be overwhelmed with the choices that I have.’ … I mean it does sound like something I need to do to be a better composer, but it’s not something I want to do.”
[Updated December 14, 2020] On December 6 and 12, two concerts from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem presented over Zoom, both at 7:00 EST, offered listeners their first opportunity to hear six world premieres that are the result of a new initiative called Mutual Mentorship for Musicians, M³ for short. The two concerts were hosted by M³ “Editor in Chief” Jordannah Elizabeth, who also guided post premiere Q&As with the audience. M³ is a revolutionary new model for mentorship which was created by co-founders Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa in March and launched in June 2020 at the height of the pandemic. The founders describe M³ as “a think tank for new ways to connect, collaborate, support, create, and empower womxn musicians worldwide including BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S+, and musicians of all abilities across generations.” To celebrate these first two concerts of this new initiative, we asked the twelve initial participating musicians about why they decided to participate in this opportunity and how mutual mentorship and creative collaboration have affected their artistic process. New Music USA is funding the next round of M³ collaborations. – FJO
On New Year’s Eve 2019, I remember being excited for 2020 and making all the 2020 puns I could; it was the year of 20/20 vision. In my opinion 2019 had been a pretty rough year and I was excited to start afresh, so to speak. By mid-March of this year all the optimism had completely dissipated. From the moment I landed back in the UK to quarantine, it just seemed to go from bad to worse. And in the middle of this, I was being forced to learn some hard truths myself, personally and artistically. How do I interact with my friends and peers? How can I offer support when I felt like this is a time that I’ve probably needed the most support? How do I create without being surrounded by immensely creative beings? How do I collaborate? Is music even important anymore?
It was in the midst of this doubt and fear that Jen contacted me about M³ and it felt like this little beam of excitement and happiness. Yet, I could never have envisioned what M³ would really do for me. I remember tentatively turning up for the first meeting via Zoom and instantly I experienced complete warmth and honesty from everybody and felt inspired. I wanted to play again. I wanted to write again. Music became important again. Although we have had to conduct the whole process via Zoom, with a 5-hour time difference and the lag or cameras not working properly and being entirely at the mercy of technology, music and this community that has been created prevailed over all of these obstacles.
Some are born into tribes, but the creative process of re-defining ourselves places us in new ones. This year has presented some pretty severe obstacles—the pandemic, the persisting face of race, gender, and class biases, the political climate, the encroaching climate crisis. All seem to divide us into factions while at the same time allowing us to connect with individuals who are ready and willing to fight for the cause.
The initiative dreamed up by Jen and Sara has gifted me safe spaces with which to unpack all of these obstacles and more. The group space gives perspective, while the smaller meetings have opened intimate ways of interpreting and designing poetry, melody, and video production, through sending messages, phone calls, and meetings on Zoom. With each passing meeting, my mind sees how each of us would handle situations differently, leaving me confident to approach my creative and professional endeavors with more vigor. The creations haven’t felt prescribed or scheduled in any sense; rather, they are journeys that we are all on in this tribe, which, in the end will emerge most naturally.
Why say yes to M³? There is the easy answer of how could I possibly refuse any opportunity to work with the brilliant Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa? But also, I think I responded instinctively from a yearning for a holistic musical community, one that certainly predated the pandemic, and was only intensified through it.
Particularly, there seem to be so few models for intergenerational artistic communion; I’ve spoken with many friends who are also aspiring artists, and who have shared such deep desires for something akin to mentorship or apprenticeship. There is so much about the artistic landscape and industry that is utterly nebulous, especially for those (like myself) who do not come from artistic families or see themselves, their background, represented meaningfully. In the midst of cacophony and silencing discrimination, how does one find their voice? How does one survive, when attempting to employ their voice for artistic meaning and financial security? How, through our artistic practice, might we carry forward the legacy of those who fought, died, for a more just and equitable world? There is no handbook, no well-worn path, only the stories and experiences of those before us to gather any idea. So, this was one way in which M³ really struck me: as an avenue for such needed dialogue between youth and elders. To be honored with the presence and insights of such powerful and resilient women—and to also have my own perspectives celebrated and valued as something of worth—is indescribably enriching.
How is this program affecting my practice? I think, if anything, to have this vibrant community in my life right now has invigorated so much of my spirit. Given the bleakness of this time, frankly it has felt life-saving. I can perceive the growth, shifts of relationships with others and also with myself, due to the space we are creating now. What is evolving due to this program is a collective awareness and compassion and confidence that invariably influences my work by way of influencing my deeper self. And I believe that the interpersonal and internal changes occurring now will affect my practice for years to follow.
As a collaborator/artist, working with “Women” has always been a major goal of mine.
This creative collaboration/ mentorship has been such a blessing during these intense and uncertain times. It’s a great source of inspiration and support, and it connects me to women that I’ve always wanted to collaborate with.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how deep, structural change actually comes about. In moments like this one it’s easy to see change as something that is sparked spontaneously from the heat of a charged moment. But looking further, we find that social change comes about from a lineage of resistance—from decades of folks fighting not just for survival but for the right to live beautiful lives.
I’ve been reflecting on several linked movements—the fight against white supremacy, especially by radical Black feminists, the queer liberation movement, the development of creative improvised music—and how these movements all required groups of people who trusted each other to come together and create their own momentum outside of the systems that oppressed them. For me, Mutual Mentorship for Musicians feels like a continuation of this tradition. We are this little underground intergenerational family giving each other love and support to bolster ourselves against a society that leaves very little space for the voices of non-cis-male, queer and BIPOC artists. Our group completely reconstructs the foundations of our musical ecosystem; it imagines a community free from patriarchal, capitalistic, and white supremacist ideals and presents one based upon vulnerability, communal support, and compassion. And M3 does this while also meeting the current moment; over Zoom we have tuned in from Portugal, the UK, and all over the US.
The current limitations have challenged us to create new forms of community-building and art-making that take advantage of the digital format, from using the Zoom chat function to hype each other up to combining exquisite-corpse style audio recording with film editing for our joint projects. I’m so excited to continue this model of artistic collaboration and mentorship and I truly believe structures like these will create profound systemic change in our musical community and beyond.
The aspect of this initiative that I was not expecting, but feel so grateful for, is the intergenerational energy generated from our talks and sharing of perspectives. It is fertile ground for synergist transformations. It also has been a great experience to have the opportunity to collaborate with other artists that one might not have had the chance to do so otherwise, and to become more familiar with a whole new generation of amazing musicians and composers who have a strong and unique voice to contribute to the music.
Thank you Jen and Sara for spearheading the development of this creative community. I envision it expanding and growing stronger through the years. We need new spaces, new visions, new methods to communicate with and to support each other. If there was ever a time for transformation of the arts, the business, the culture, it is now. The breaking down of the normal, that this pandemic has created, let it become a crack that a new reality can be born through.
Black American Music, and the creative music it has informed, is inherently political. In a time where white supremacy, corporatization, and militant fascism seem to undermine the core values of our existence, it’s crucial we ask ourselves: how can the music, the process of collaboration, and the spaces we work within, actually reflect the times we’re living in?
History has shown us the capacity for change when we create spaces that reflect the diversity of our creative ecosystem. Groups like the AACM, the Black Artists’ Group, and the Pan-African Peoples Arkestra have focused on building community and social consciousness, and have done so outside of existing corporate structures. To me, M3 is an extension of this work, bringing together BIPOC womxn to foster support, love, and growth through adventurous music-making.
M3 has allowed me the space to be truthful and vulnerable in an otherwise white, male-dominated, cis-heteronormative space. I’m grateful to Jen and Sara and all my fellow M3-ers for nurturing this space, and for allowing the fullest expression of ourselves.
I’m reminded of this quote by Joshua Briond: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but rather individuals and classes repeat history.” Mary Lou Williams, Abbey Lincoln, Nicole Mitchell, Susie Ibarra, Amina Claudine Myers, Terri Lyne Carrington, Fay Victor, Matana Roberts… and all those who’ve illuminated the way, thank you…The fight for liberation continues!
When I was asked to be a part of this group, I was initially on the fence. While I was concerned about my gigs disappearing for what I realized at that point would be the rest of the year and into 2021, I also felt that there was a kind of pressure to still do, to be active…so many wonderful organizations were shifting quickly to create much needed lifelines for the artist community but honestly all I wanted to do was just be and process all that was and had been happening so quickly!
Over the years, I think I have felt a kind of exhaustion of always having to adapt to some new (mostly digital) change or update and I felt like, while the moment was indeed financially challenging, this might be the moment and rare opportunity that forces all of us to just slow down, reflect, reevaluate. To just simply stop. Is it okay to just not do for a while? Thus, I was weary to commit to something, especially something that I knew would be conducted expressly online and that would require an online performance as well. I was still very much resisting that reality, lol!
But Jen and Sara curated a wonderful cast of intergenerational womxn artists and I have really enjoyed sharing and getting to know them all, some of whom I have met prior to COVID life and others whom it will be exciting to meet in person someday! It’s been a great space to hear how others are managing in this current climate. Everyone is extremely supportive of where everyone is at this current moment. It’s been a welcome positive space to be a part of in this moment that has felt so fragile, confusing and disillusioning. I am grateful that this space has been created for us to just be.
It has always interested me how we, as artists, can create alternative structures that connect us as opposed to alienate/divide us, where the artist is free and does not have to conform or compete in order to be successful. This mutual and intergenerational mentorship initiative proposes the idea that we all learn from each other, instead of the original top-down mentorship structure. The absence of the traditional hierarchical system is liberating, and has allowed me for a personal transformation that initially was subtle. Now, as time goes by, this seed is growing and expanding to all relationships I nurture. The meetings have opened my mind to different ways of interacting with my peers: supportive instead of competitive, honest instead of performative, transforming instead of conforming.
I didn’t have this kind of support when I was growing and studying to be a musician, and just the fact that is right happening now, when we are all forced out of work and the world seems to be falling apart, has helped me going through the uncertainty of the moment. Zoom has limitations. Nothing can replace the act of being/ playing/ listening together in a room. However, each meeting is invigorating and inspiring and shows me that we are all more connected than I initially thought.
I feel incredibly fortunate for being able to communicate and interact with this group of womxn on a regular basis. I don’t want it to end in December! Each time we meet is different – the honesty, creativity and vulnerability each one of us brings into our projects or meetings stays with me during the periods we don’t meet, inspiring me to use different approaches to challenges that seem to always exist no matter the generation we belong to. The fact that each artist has such a unique and original way of expression makes me dream about the possibilities of expanding these kinds of dialogues to as many artists as possible. I am beyond grateful for this work and to be doing it with Jen—a work in progress of imagining, restructuring, discussing and hopefully transforming our artistic landscape, in which kindness, generosity and respect prevail.
The night after our eighth M³ meeting, I dreamt that one of my students taught me a very specific way to move my hands and legs that would enable me to fly up the stairs without ever having to step down. The infinitely linked staircases in the dream hung in the air like in an M.C. Escher drawing. The room was hardly a room, but rather a greenhouse full of sunlight with no walls. Perhaps it was so big that I didn’t feel the walls around me.
I woke up. The dream still fresh in my half-sleeping body, I tried out the hand and leg movements in my kitchen, which will surely become new movements in a new dance. This process is a metaphor for what these M³ meetings have meant to me, whether in our full cohort of 12 or in our smaller groupings. We’ve been exercising our vision-building and integrating that envisioning into our everyday lives. Personally, I’ve infused those dream states into my reality not only as an artist, but as a human being and a citizen of the world. I’ve learned from each cohort member how I can better do this, from how each artist speaks, lives their art, articulates their ideas so clearly, and creates such profound work. The issues and situations that we have talked about, all happening in real time, have continually moved me and shaped my psyche. These are issues I rarely discussed openly on such a deep level with other womxn artists when I was in my 20s or 30s. Those conversations usually happened one-on-one and rather secretly, in the context of male leadership or in relationship to men, as I usually found myself as the only woman or one of two women in any given musical setting.
My concept of “mentor” has also changed. I have many mentors, most who influenced me in life-changing ways, but also some who placed their limitations on me, telling me I couldn’t be a “jack-of-all-trades,” for example. Obviously, I rebelled. Another interaction which challenged my idea of “mentor” was just after a breakfast with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell at the Ojai Festival in 2017, where I had performed solo the day before. Little did I know it would be the last time I would see Muhal before his passing four months later. As we were walking to the elevator, I told Muhal, “I just want to thank you for being such a generous mentor to all of us all these years.” He stopped me and said, “Now wait. I don’t like this word ‘mentor.’ Because it implies someone is higher than the other, like there’s a hierarchy. I prefer the word ‘exchange.’ Like I want to know about those Taiwanese folk songs you’re into.” I was stunned and humbled. This short conversation initiated the idea of “mutual mentorship” in my head, and when Sara and I began developing the manifestation of this idea, it was one of the concepts that inspired M³, which has been absolutely shaped by our inaugural cohort members every step of the way.
We always try to take a screenshot at the end of our meetings, capturing our time together which began on the Summer Solstice of this tumultuous year of 2020. These are magical snapshots of our lives colliding at different points in our careers, painting a picture of the work that needs to be done and how we’ll continue to grow this energy exponentially outward for the rest of our lives.
Anjna Swaminathan (photo by Molly Gazay of Diabla Productions)
Truthfully, I was initially reluctant to join M3. This of course has nothing to do with the brilliance and camaraderie that Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa offer or the beauty of the kind of mentorship they sought to cultivate. However, in the early stages of the pandemic, I was trying to feel secure in my ongoing projects and commissions and felt “too busy” for this. The feeling of community and catharsis that this group would offer was terrifying to me because it would push me to confront the fragility of our existing musical ecosystem.
As my colleagues lost gig after gig, I clenched harder to my lingering commitments, trying to convince myself that the pandemic couldn’t destabilize me. It was likely a triggered response. In March 2019 almost exactly a year before we became aware of the virus’s toll on New York City, I started experiencing severe chronic pain symptoms, which forced me to part with my instrument (the violin). I went through many of the same motions that our entire community of artists is going through now. I stopped performing. I stopped improvising with my community. I stopped traveling due to the toll it took on my back and the radiating neurological pain I was experiencing. And to make everything worse, I had also developed a psychosomatic response in my immune system that manifested as frequent respiratory illnesses, that kept me constantly washing my hands and fearful of touching my face. Fortunately, I found home in composing and felt safe to heal while still creating music.
I suppose, when the pandemic started, I wanted to be privileged enough to stay grounded. I got attached to not experiencing an existential crisis — even going so far as to create an alliance for patrons to connect to starving composers and performers from my oh-so-charitable high horse. I needed to hold on to this, and when I saw Jen’s email, my internal response was, “I’m totally fine! This should go to someone who actually needs community.” Of course, though fearful, I said yes to Jen, because I knew that every encounter I’ve had with Jen has taught me to confront my fears. I heard her voice saying something like, “go towards the things that frighten you and figure out why.”
Since we began our meetings, I’ve been so deeply grateful. For one, in these meetings, we speak at length about how these illusions of security were wound up in capitalistic, white supremacist, and heteropatriarchal structures. Many of us spoke of scarcity in our initial meetings. Feeling that there weren’t enough spaces where we could truly be ourselves, artistically, politically, and spiritually. We spoke about tactics to navigate existing power structures and to find our voices within them. And as these conversations have progressed, I’ve witnessed and experienced cosmic intergenerational healing. There are days when mentors in their 60s nurture and comfort mentors in their 20s. On other days younger mentors radicalize their experienced mentors. And on most days it is like a wild game of volleyball, each of us bouncing this radical and dynamic energy off of one another, working together to elevate in abundance rather than falling into scarcity. In the course of the past few months, the security of commissions and projects has dwindled. Yet, I feel renewed with a different kind of security. I feel connected to this ageless, timeless creative energy within me. With the love and encouragement of this community, I am exploring the widest and wildest extremes of artistic play. This group, in replacing power and hierarchy with love and radical vulnerability, has kindled a security in me that feels everlasting. I think back to this feeling of fragility in our musical ecosystem. Of course, it is fragile. It wasn’t working for musicians. This group is planting seeds of abundance, of communication, and of vulnerability that I know will transform music-making and fortify intergenerational mentorship for years to come.
I know it’s cliché to reference the Lotus Blossom that grows out of the mud. But that is precisely what M3 is, something beautiful, and exquisite that has arisen out of these chaotic, dark and troubled times…2020, whew, and it’s not over yet!
Saying yes to Jen and Sara who had the initial vision for M3 was easy, especially considering the dynamic group of invited persons to take part. I loved their idea and vision to collaborate, with a choice group of artists that represent the broadest spectrum of sexual identity, genre, and generations among women, to produce new music together as composers and players. We meet bi-monthly via Zoom, to support each other with our diverse creative processes. The duos and quartets were formed randomly and provide an even more intimate window to share and build. M3 has provided a means of support, caring and creativity that I am so grateful to be a part of, especially now! There is a way in which we have bonded and we are learning so much from each other. There is chemistry and momentum moving forward with love and mutual respect at its core. We are doing all this through the rather limited technology on Zoom of all things and this has surprised me!
I’m a child of the 60’s and 70’s. I was raised by radical left wing bi-racial parents during a very tumultuous time in this country. My parents lived through World War II, the Great Depression, the McCarthy era. My mother, who was Japanese American was imprisoned in Internment camps during World War II because of her race. My father who was African American, was a union man, a Marxist, a factory worker. My parents’ philosophies were woven into the fabric of their children’s lives. I cooked breakfast for the Black Panther breakfast program in Mantua Philadelphia when I was 12 years old! My family marched against the Vietnam War, when the country was unified, sick, and tired, but not too tired to protest.
The current struggles of our times is something not new to many of us, it’s an old fight. I am disheartened, angry and depressed at the level of anti-blackness in our culture, the systemic racism in our institutions and prison system and the fact that Black mothers, still fear for their son’s lives, but I am relieved to see the current revolution for racial injustice and people of all races engaged so actively across the globe uniting in solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement, the Me Too movement, the Climate crisis, and more.
Nina Simone, whom I greatly admire, said that artists must address their times. We can look to artists like her to learn exemplary ways in which artists can respond to injustice. Nina was black, beautiful and bold and knew it. Her musical expression contained her fury, love, and soulfulness, fighting for freedom and equality. We can look to artists like John Coltrane whose humanity and protean musical expression and legacy is a constant reminder of what it means to be free as an artist and a great human being.
The fight goes on, as it must until we reach a level of humanity, understanding, and acceptance, a more spiritual ground of love for one another. It might be that we have to keep going round and round until we get it right. The human realm is complex and flawed and ugly and beautiful.
Sometimes, when I have the time and energy and don’t feel like it will put my career at stake, I open up a conversation about gender balance in concert programming with those who have a record of performing or programming only or primarily works by men. Some simply haven’t noticed (as our bias towards thinking of composers as male is still so strong), but are open to change. Some are aware and eager to discuss ways to redress the imbalance. But a few dig in to defend their choices. After some back and forth, those reluctant to program equitably inevitably arrive at some version of: “But surely you wouldn’t want your music played just because you’re a woman? Surely you would want it played because you’re good?” As if this is some kind of novel and amazing trump card. As if I’m not already aware that some people think music by women is inherently less likely to be good. As if my confidence in my own work (and that of other women) is so shaky that simply knowing that some people might question its worth because of my gender will cause me to crumble and doubt myself and stop trying to get my music out there (and presumably get back into the kitchen, and make us all some coffee, please…)
The thing is: surely I do want my music played… and I don’t really care why! I want everyone’s music to be played more often, so in writing this I don’t intend to place undue emphasis on me and my music. What I want for myself, I want for all of us! I know that some believe that for composers who are women, people of color, LGBT, and/or underrepresented for any other reason to have more opportunities, straight cis white men will have to cede some of theirs, but I don’t believe that new music is a zero sum game. Rather than reducing opportunities for some so that others can have a chance, let’s increase opportunities for all, and make sure the opportunities are fairly distributed.
Most music is never programmed solely because it is good.
Most music programmed is “good,” but music is never programmed solely because it is good. Considerations such as instrumentation, length, fit with the other pieces on the program, and availability of scores always play a role. Yet these considerations are never held out as being in inherent opposition to a piece being “good”. In my 28 years as a composer, I have yet to hear someone say: “But surely you wouldn’t want your piece played just because it’s a string quartet? Surely you wouldn’t want it played just because it’s nine minutes long? Surely you wouldn’t want it played just because it goes well with the other pieces on the program? Surely you wouldn’t want it played just because your publisher’s website isn’t broken?”
In any case, my music is good, and should be heard more often. I don’t mean this arrogantly: I use “my music” here to stand in for all of our musics, and I think all composers’ music should be heard more often. Of course the best performances happen when the performers love the piece: but how will performers even find out if they love the piece or not if they don’t play it? And if the performers never come to love the piece, whether because of sexism or because they genuinely don’t like it? Well, that’s okay too. I don’t think there are any performers who love every piece they’ve ever performed. (I certainly don’t!) Any professionals worth their salt would still do their best to perform well. The audience may love it. Other performers may hear it, love it, and decide to play it. I’ll benefit from another performance (and perhaps will find ways to tweak the score to coax a good performance out of even a hostile performer). It’s another performance on my CV. It’s another score sold. It’s royalties. I don’t usually think about performances in such utilitarian ways, but I bring up these points here simply to illustrate that even if someone does program my piece “just because” I’m a woman, the consequences are really not that dire! (As composer Patricia Wallinga tweeted in response to my tweet-length version of this article, “Exactly! How would I feel [if someone commissioned me “just because” I’m a woman]? F**ing great paying my rent with the commission check, thanks!”)
Sometimes even wonderful champions of music by women take great pains to reassure me that they’ve programmed my piece because they love it, and not “just because” I’m a woman. While I’m always happy to know that someone loves my piece, I’ve never actually been worried that someone has programmed it “just because” of my gender. In fact, I’m always pleased to know that gender, racial, and other kinds of equity are important to a programmer! Just as “I don’t see colour” has not been an effective approach to fighting racism, “I don’t see gender” is not going to be an effective approach to undoing the sexism that has kept women composers in the shadows for so many centuries.
It’s only been in the last ten or so years that gender imbalance in programming has been discussed openly and often.
In my experience, it’s only been in the last ten or so years that gender imbalance in programming has been discussed openly and often. For many years, I and so many other women did everything we could to avoid drawing attention to gender imbalance at all, as if somehow mentioning it would make things worse (which in some circumstances it might have). Internalized sexism caused so many of us to believe women’s works were inherently inferior, and that gender imbalanced programs merely reflected a gender imbalanced distribution of “good” music. But as a Canadian-born composer, I do have long experience with another kind of programming that takes more than just whether a piece is “good” or not into account, the Canadian Content (“CanCon”) requirement, which stipulates that a certain percentage of radio and TV broadcasts consists of work by Canadian creators and/or performers. CanCon was introduced in the early 1970s to give Canadian artists, who had previously been overshadowed by artists from the USA and Europe, a chance to develop, thrive, and reach audiences in Canada and abroad. Similar initiatives from the Canada Council for the Arts and other Canadian funding bodies preferentially support ensembles that perform Canadian music, enable ensembles to commission pieces from Canadian composers, and fund tours of Canadian music and ensembles abroad.
Many initially grumbled about being required to include Canadian music, just as some now grumble about the idea of taking gender into account when making programming choices. Even those who benefited (and continue to benefit) from CanCon and similar requirements recognized that the system was not without flaws: Canadian composer Murray Schafer’s No Longer than Ten (10) Minutes, for example, gently pokes fun at a frequent stipulation of commissions from ensembles who are trying to do the bare minimum to meet Canadian content quotas. American friends, upon hearing about CanCon requirements are often skeptical. “But doesn’t this mean ensembles are just grudgingly playing works they hate? Shouldn’t they only play the pieces if they like them?” they ask. Well, sure, sometimes ensembles do end up playing pieces they don’t like. But just as often, ensembles come to love pieces they initially thought they wouldn’t like. Or they discover that while they don’t like the music of one Canadian composer, they do like the music of another. Over time, they come to find pieces they love, build up relationships with composers, and in so doing, help the composers develop relationships with the larger music community and with audiences beyond those typically found at new music concerts.
Canadian-born, UK-based organist Sarah MacDonald’s account is fairly typical. In “UK REPORT for Canada’s 150th – Canadian music in the UK,” published in the Spring 2017 issue of Organ Canada (the journal of the Royal Canadian College of Organists), she writes of how as a teenager she was “particularly irked” that she had to play a piece by Oskar Morawetz instead of a piece by Brahms in an exam, but she has since come to recognize the importance of CanCon and similar requirements. “My personal grumblings aside (Canadian disContent?), one positive implication of the imposition of CanCon obligations was that Canada had come of age, and now had its own post-colonial cultural identity which needed to be nurtured and shared, as well as protected. We… could contribute on an equal footing with the rest of the world. So, has this actually happened? Have we contributed bona fide Canadians (whatever they are!) to the international cultural stage? Manifestly, the answer is yes.” While the specifics surrounding the introduction of CanCon requirements and the need for gender balance in programming are quite different, I do think these parallels are instructive.
Go ahead and program my work “just because” I’m a woman.
So yes, go ahead and program my work “just because” I’m a woman, “just because” I’m Canadian (or American or Scotland-based), “just because” it’s a string quartet, or for any other reason you please. If someone has already decided in advance that they don’t like pieces by women because of our gender: well, that is their problem, not mine!
“Would you ever say any concert is just about the sound?” Ellen Reid asked me when I met with her in Brooklyn a few days after the final PROTOTYPE performance of her opera p r i s m.
That question might initially seem odd coming from someone who defines herself as both a composer and a sound artist—someone who pays close attention to sound, whether it’s the careful spatial positioning of objects in an installation or slightly changing the instrumental forces accompanying voices to make listeners think they’re hearing different music. Yet that question made total sense to me after attending two live performances of her music the previous week—the aforementioned emotionally traumatic yet life-affirming p r i s m and the powerful, politically charged choral work dreams of the new world.
Although the music was extremely compelling in both works, it was clearly conceived to be just one of many elements that went into these multisensory experiences. In the realm of contemporary opera, audiences are now accustomed to watching a theatrical experience unfold that is every bit as significant as the pitches in the arias that are being sung, so in that sense p r i s m is not unique. (It is unique rather for the way that the story does not unfold in linear time, and how the music helps to skew the storyline’s altered chronology.) Concert presentations of choral pieces, on the other hand, are usually always focused exclusively on the composer despite the pedigree of the text being set. Yet Reid made it clear in her comments before the performance of dreams of the new world, as well as in our conversation, that her music was just one of the elements that went into creating this piece. For those pre-performance comments, as well as during the bow she took at the end of it, Reid was joined by both her librettist Sarah LaBrie and Sayd Randle, who served as the work’s lead researcher and dramaturg.
“We came up with the concept together,” Reid explained. “We were all involved in each other’s work, and I think that that’s a really honest thing that happens in the craft of making music. I guess in all performative mediums, but especially in more theatrical mediums with a story.”
Reid’s collaborative generosity is extremely refreshing and comes from an extensive background in composing for film soundtracks and incidental music for theater, as well as living for two and a half years in Thailand where she immersed herself in traditional musical practices.
“The amount of people that it takes to make a work of art is enormous,” Reid elaborated. “We have put a certain amount of weight on different parts of those things to make some of them seem more important, but they couldn’t happen without the other ones. … I think one reason that I’m really set on featuring my collaborators is that I’ve done a lot of work in other mediums where composers are not the first artist. … [To me,] it feels more like a constellation.”
The amount of people that it takes to make a work of art is enormous, but it’s usually credited to one person.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
Would you ever say any concert is just about the sound?
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
You can’t ever watch anything for the first or second time if you’ve made it.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
I think it’s not that rare, especially for women, to start writing a little later.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
I grew up going to see different art things, but one thing that I didn’t see often was concert music.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
One of my entry points into opera was when I was living in Thailand working with Thai classical opera.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
I was obsessed with figuring out how I could make a song that sounded sad to every person in the world.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
Composition has to do with notes. And sound art has to do with how you hear.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
Everything’s in response to everything else.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
People who want to be playwrights want to be in the driver’s seat. And in opera, you’re not.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
Reid’s instinctive team spirit, as well as her awareness that sound always exists alongside other sensory stimuli, even informs music she creates that would otherwise be perceived as purely “instrumental” or “abstract,” words put in scare quotes here because they’re not particularly adequate descriptors for Reid’s output. For example, even when writing a piece for orchestra, Reid will write tempos a certain way based on her mindfulness of what the conductor will look like during its realization.
“I think there’s an element of choreography and theater in how everything is interpreted as a viewer,” she explained.
Reid seemed to imply that she would be composing for orchestra again in the near future, but since it had yet to be officially announced, she would not offer us any further details about the project other than to acknowledge that whatever she writes will inevitably be informed by the visual realities that occur during the process of a large group of people making music as a result of someone’s baton movements and/or hand gestures.
“It has to be. They’re front and center: a dancer conductor.”
Ellen Reid in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the home of Sarah Baird Knight in Brooklyn, NY
January 14, 2019—1:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
It is much more important who the singing master at Kisvarda (small village) is than who the director of the Opera House is, because a poor director will fail. (Often even a good one.) But a bad teacher may kill off the love of music for thirty years from thirty classes of pupils—Zoltan Kodaly, 1929
What are you doing with your power as a teacher?
Before some of you click away from this article, dismissing the notion of yourself as a teacher, consider this: Do you teach lessons in your home, or through a studio collective? Do you teach music theory and music history or composition seminars? Maybe you do the odd masterclass as a guest artist. Perhaps you get commissions to write for children’s choirs or you sing Carmenella in a traveling production. DO you slog through research and test data in the district where you teach or live to prove that it’s important that kids get reading intervention AND music? Maybe you don’t consider yourself to be a music professional at all, but because you are curious and excited, you listen and you tell others, “Hey, you should listen to this cool new thing!”
If you nodded your head to any or all of these, you are teaching. You are more powerful than any hiring committee. You are more powerful than the symphony board or arts commission or endowment. You have the power to enact far-reaching positive change on multitudes. You are a teacher.
Let me return to my original question: What are you doing with your power as a teacher?
The sea change that is needed in the music world to balance gender inequities must begin from and be reinforced through our music educators.
The sea change that is needed in the music world to balance gender inequities must begin from and be reinforced through our music educators.
I have been a music educator in various capacities for more than 15 years. I have done all of the jobs I listed above. In addition to being a music educator, I am a composer. I am also the president of the International Alliance for Women in Music. The IAWM exists for the sole purpose of promoting the interests of women in music. Originally founded as a collective of composers, our membership is far wider, encompassing researchers, performers, conductors, critics, and—of course—educators.
Hooray to the women’s choirs! Bravi to the ten-member trombone section with nine girls! Now I ask the directors: What are you playing this season? I ask the theory teachers: What scores are you studying this week? I ask the general music teachers: What are you listening to today? I ask the aficionados: What’s coming through the earbuds today? I hear the same names. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised to hear about a living composer. I am ecstatic and slightly shocked if I hear any of these teachers mention a female composer.
The IAWM exists for the sole purpose of promoting the interests of women in music.
In this battle of assuring lawmakers and policy enforcers and testmongers that the arts are a truly essential part of every student’s experience, we still must find ways and opportunities to teach our students and the public at large that music is not old, white, dead, and male. To ensure that music is and remains relevant to our students and our general education, we must be inclusive of gender in our classrooms, studios, and conversations about music. This issue, this problem of relevancy, should be every bit as important as the fattest prize, the latest commission, or the most admired new gadget.
Often a single experience will open the young soul to music for a whole lifetime. This experience cannot be left to chance; it is the duty of the school to provide it—Kodaly, 1957
In Song in The Heads: Music and Its Meaning in Children’s Lives (2nd edition, 2010), author Patricia Shehan Campbell recounts numerous interviews with children about their musical experience. The interviews reflect students receiving a broad range of music education: traditional Orff/Kodaly/Dalcroze-based methods at school, Suzuki or other private training, and wonderful family influences, which include traditional musics from multiple continents, popular genres, Western classical music, and their own compositions. One common thread these histories all share, though, is a lack of dialogue about female composers. There are female performing artists from popular genres mentioned, notably Whitney Houston, Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, and Fergie. These women are mentioned as performers, but never as writers or composers. In the classical field, we only hear children mention Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach.
During those most formative years in a student’s musical education, in elementary school, most of the music instruction is by women.
What’s funny/disturbing/confusing/disheartening in the mix of this is that during those most formative years in a student’s musical education, in elementary school, most of the music instruction is by women. A 2015 analysis of music teachers in the U.S.A. (http://mtdresearch.com/gender-analysis-of-music-teachers/) shows that around 74% of K-8 general music teachers are women (the number climbs to 78% when looking at only elementary grades). Why are these teachers, who are mostly women, not promoting the works of women alongside the typical canon?
One cause may be found in the K-12 classrooms themselves. Most teachers must rely on what is offered by a limited number of education supply sources when decorating their teaching space, selecting music for a festival, or choosing listening examples. This bottleneck allows very little new and fresh material into the classroom, resulting in practically no ready-to-use resources featuring women in music.
Would you like to hang portraits of great composers of the Western tradition? Here are 40 of them. They’re all dead/white/male, by the way. Or, here’s a nice timeline that’s a bit more diverse. Glad to see Bessie and Ella made the cut. I’m not knocking them by any means, but I do think there should be room for more than two female names.
In addition to participating in great oral traditions of folk songs and dances, students may begin to listen to great works. Here is a package deal geared toward the classroom teacher, offering the “greatest hits.”
It’s a little, well… sad. Correction: It’s maddening. There’s no new music, not a single female composer, not a single composer of color.
It takes some digging to find this supplement. It’s a fine product, but it’s the only one. As a female composer, it is frustrating to find many of my role models set aside in an “other” category. Ruth Crawford Seeger should be listed alongside Berg and Messiaen; Fanny and Clara should be alongside Felix and Robert; Barbara Strozzi should be a recognized heir of Claudio Monteverdi. None of these should be shuffled off into an “also rans,” because the message it communicates to students is that women aren’t equipped to be great composers.
What about those concert selections? Looking for a unison or two-part choral piece yields 55 selections noted as “Editor’s Choice” in the J.W. Pepper catalog, of which 20 are arrangements or original compositions by women. 14/50 for SAB concert selections, 13/85 for SATB. If you are looking for band works, the website recommends a “basic library” list of 363 works, which includes five works by two women. Looking for a concert opener? The Editor’s Choice list of 96 suggestions doesn’t include a single piece written by a woman. In fact, the entire Editor’s Choice list of 1680 works for concert and contest band music only includes 16 works by women composers or arrangers.
The second probable cause lies in the curricula of the music education major itself. In the USA, changes in tests such as the Praxis series reflect the expectations that music teachers possess knowledge of music technology and world music. These are appropriate and needed changes. However, diversity in education is not limited to making sure students have exposure to non-Western music. It is equally important that students have the chance to absorb the concepts of gender inclusivity in music classes.
Our most popular textbooks for core classes in the music major include relatively few references to women composers.
Unfortunately, our most popular textbooks for core classes in the music major include relatively few references to women composers. Though there are recent gains in some music history textbooks, most music theory textbooks remain behind the curve in gender inclusivity. Researchers and educators such as Roberta Lamb, Rosemary Killam, and others have been questioning the paucity of women composers in our music curricula for decades. The presence of women composers is noted in music histories more frequently now, but the absence of their works in music theory topics undermines the thought that music written by women is worth studying. Many outside resources have been published in anthologies, on dedicated websites, and in blogs, but few have actually made it into the standard textbooks and curriculum packages.
And I would advise my young colleagues, the composers of symphonies, to drop in sometimes at the kindergarten, too. It is there that it is decided whether there will be anybody to understand their works in twenty years’ time.—Kodaly, 1957
At the beginning of 2018, the IAWM welcomed six newly elected members onto our board of directors. As with any great change, people brought ideas for new areas of advocacy and new projects emerged. One new focus of our organization is to aid educators through more explicit efforts to supplement curricula. A new grant initiative was proposed and a pilot grant will be announced later this year. This grant is specifically to help teachers who bring women in music into the classroom, whether by purchasing new classroom materials that include women composers, helping to commission a new work by a woman, or bringing in a guest artist.
As president of IAWM, I envision a second, more extensive set of projects that includes advocating not just for women already in music, but for all students of music who desperately need to see, hear, and experience music written and performed by women, not just taught by women. These will include resolutions and recommendations to NASM and NAfME on gender diversity in music curricula, more extensive resource listings on our own website, and documents such as lesson plans, long-range planning guides, and syllabi to bridge the gap between current textbook offerings and the research available on women in music. The last piece will be lobbying publishers for greater exposure of works by women.
You’re a teacher with enormous power to effect change.
So, you’re a teacher with enormous power to effect change. You want all of your students to feel that. What do you do?
1. Actively seek out music by women composers. There is plenty of it out there, trust me. The 20th and 21st centuries have produced much wonderfully juicy low-hanging fruit by female composers. Pluck some.
2. Bring a score, pull up a recording, assign research. Actively studying the music acknowledges the worth of someone’s work. Simply mentioning a female musician’s name as “someone in the same school as X” is not creating gender diversity in your curriculum.
3. When teaching or reading, don’t assume that women composers were or are lagging behind the men. Just as often, we’re ahead of them, but don’t receive the credit.
4. Commission works by female composers. If you think you don’t have the budget to do this, form a consortium.
5. Have masterclasses with female musicians, or Skype interviews with researchers, performers, and other music professionals who are women.
6. Create and model more equitable opportunities for networking among your students.
7. Write to your local curriculum coordinator and/or standards writers and explain that they need to include gender diversity as a required component of K-12 music curricula, so that teachers have explicit guidance on the issue.
8. Think about the music teachers of your past. Just out of curiosity, how many of them were women? Find them, and write them a note to thank them.
Ed note: There have been a number of recent changes at the International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM), including several new awards programs, which have been spearheaded by a group of highly energized newly elected group of board members. This month we’ve asked several of these board members to access the current new music landscape and to describe how they see IAWM helping to change the ecology for the better.-FJO
During the biting cold of the January 2018 blizzard in New York, I was attending the Chamber Music America conference. After the day’s sessions, I ducked into a restaurant on 37th Street for dinner. A trio was performing some great jazz – a blend of standards and original music. Startlingly, the trio was all female. A string trio comprised of women is no longer unusual enough to even register in my consciousness. Yet for as much as I wish it wasn’t, a jazz trio of women still is. As an alum from the University of North Texas, and a board member of the International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM), the lack of visibility of women in jazz is noteworthy, especially when it comes to composers. Is it more an issue of visibility than activity?
Many of us are aware of the statistic published by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; only 1.8 percent of the music performed by America’s 22 leading orchestras during the 2014-2015 season was composed by women. Are the numbers of women composers proportionately that small, or is their music merely not being programmed? A similar study of 85 American orchestras (that was reported on by Lucy Caplan in the Winter 2018 issue of Symphony magazine) reveals that living composers represented only 12.3% of programming in the 2016-17 season, so the limited real estate for music by pre-21st-century composers certainly contributes the to the low statistic. But that’s another article.
Meanwhile, over at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago, a couple of composers were musing, perhaps steaming, about the lack of women composers played by wind bands. In January, composer Katherine Bergman, wrote:
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.
I observed this myself! In March, I attended the College Band Directors National Association’s (CBDNA) West & Northwest conference at Sonoma State University. Out of 47 pieces of music performed, only one piece was composed by a woman. So are women not just composing for wind band, or is the music by women composers just not getting programmed?
Organizations such as the League of American Orchestras, Chamber Music America, and Opera America are putting more attention on women composers as well as composers of color through their granting opportunities.
Rob Deemer announced in January that the Women Composers Database, which he began embarking on in 2016, “was fully operational and ready for public inspection.” He 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” for conductors, performers, educators, and researchers to use. The document lists THREE THOUSAND women composers. As Midgette mentions in her Washington Post article, organizations such as the League of American Orchestras, Chamber Music America, and Opera America are putting more attention on women composers as well as composers of color through their granting opportunities.
The mission of the International Alliance for Women in Music is to foster and encourage the activities of women in music, particularly in the areas of performing, composing, and research in which gender discrimination continues to be a concern. So IAWM further explored the landscape of major awards recognizing the prowess of women composers.
Since Joan Tower’s win of the Grawemeyer Award in 1990, only two other women: Kaija Saariaho and Unsuk Chin, have received it. The Rome Prize, first awarded in 1924, is given most but not every year. Typically each year, two composers are awarded the prize which includes a year-long residency at the American Academy in Rome. Barbara Kolb was the first woman awarded the prize in 1971 and she received it again in 1976. During the remainder of the 20th century, an additional seven women were awarded: Sheila Silver in 1979; Kathryn Alexander and Michelle Ekizian in 1989; Ellen Taaffe Zwilich in 1990; Bun-Ching Lam in 1992; Tania León in 1998; and Betsy Jolas in 1999. Since the 21st century, women have fared significantly better; a total of nine women have received this honor: Shih-Hui Chen and Carolyn Yarnell in 2000; Susan Botti in 2006; Erin Gee in 2008; Nina Young in 2015; and, in the past two years all four recipients have been women—Suzanne Farrin and Ashley Fure in 2017 and Michelle Lou and Jessie Marino in 2018. The Nemmers Prize in Music Composition began recognizing and honoring classical music composers of outstanding achievement in a body of work and a unique creativity in 2004. Of the eight recipients thus far, two have been women: Kaija Saariaho was the first, in 2008, and this year’s recipient was Jennifer Higdon.
Women have fared better with other prizes. The Pulitzer Prize, which Ellen Taaffe Zwilich won to much fanfare in 1983, has been awarded to seven women, four in the last decade, most recently to Du Yun in 2017. Representation of Women receiving American Academy Arts & Letters’ awards, founded at the turn of the 20th century to honor the country’s leading architects, artists, composers, and writers, has been historically greater than other awards – 12.6% up through 1999, and 15.5% from 2000-2017. So the 21st century figures bear out a slow but growing trend toward rewarding women. Noted though that in 2017 and 2018, women were awarded 31% and 20% respectively. The American Composers Forum supports an eclectic mix of awards that recognizes diverse composers from around the country.
I’ve only recently been aware of the Herb Alpert Award, presented annually since 1995 to “risk-taking mid-career artists” working in several fields of art. Of the 24 awards presented in music, 46% were awarded to 11 diverse women, pushing musical boundaries. The foundation also supports Young Jazz Composer Awards for jazz composers under 30. Out of the 15 annual winners, one in 2018 and four in 2017 were young women.
Do fellowships skew differently regarding gender? The Guggenheim Memorial Foundation began offering Fellowships in 1925, “to further the development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts, under the freest possible conditions and irrespective of race, color, or creed.” During its initial 74 years, 568 Fellowships were awarded for Musical Composition, 39 (6.9%) to women. Since 2000, the percentage of women represented has increased over time. The Guggenheim has given 257 Fellowships with 55 (21.4%) to women.
The MacArthur Fellows Program, often called the genius grant is “intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations”. One must be nominated through an ever-changing of pool of appointed external nominators chosen from a wide range of fields. Only 42 people in the musician/composer category have been awarded; 10 have been women.
In jazz, gender bias seems to be more of a well-known secret. Erin Wehr, who has conducted extensive research in gender and jazz, recently wrote: “The reality is that negative stereotypes of women still persist in jazz today. Even if such biases are a minority, negativity is so powerful that even great amounts of positive social support often can’t take away the sting of one pointed, judgmental comment.” Chamber Music America has given out awards for New Jazz Works since 2000. Out of 362 awards, 14 (3.9%) have been awarded to women.
IAWM’s commitment to providing visibility to women composers has moved like-minded sponsors to support awards for the annual Search for New Music. These prizes for new music by women are offered in a number of categories ranging from chamber works to sound installations. Through a competitive call for works, with a theme that changes annually, IAWM also presents a concert of new works by living women composers. In 2017, ACF honored the IAWM as one of its three 2017 Champion of New Music Awards. The IAWM also sponsors the Pauline Alderman Awards for musicological and journalistic works on women in music, most recently for Denise von Glahn’s book, Music and the Skillful Listener. But it’s not enough. How can we do better? How can we broaden our scope to increase the visibility of the vast amount of music composed by women? At least THREE THOUSAND OF THEM.
How can we broaden our scope to increase the visibility of the vast amount of music composed by women? At least THREE THOUSAND OF THEM.
The IAWM board has acknowledged that significant numbers of women in other areas of music are equally lacking visibility, and we are seeking to become more inclusive. Following New Music USA’s lead, IAWM published its Statement of Equity and Inclusion in 2017. In addition to social equity, IAWM seeks to ensure that the organization welcomes women across genres and disciplines, by being explicit in our commitment to promote cultural and professional musical diversity and inclusion within our board and membership. Women in Music work as performers, composers, arrangers, media artists, conductors, theorists, producers, musicologists, historians and educators. We know that a diversity of ideas, approaches, disciplines and musical styles are essential to inclusion and equity.
In analyzing our membership and the musical landscape, the IAWM board realized that we needed to expand our support networks and increase our relevance in the field. We are ramping up our advocacy efforts and our commitment to providing visibility to women writing in various genres of music, as well as to provide recognizing of our members working as performers and educators and in other areas of music.
In October 2017, the IAWM Board voted to create two new composition awards, for jazz and wind band, which rolled out this spring with a deadline of April 30. Sponsored by a consortium of jazz musicians in Portland, Oregon, the PDX Jazz Prize is a competitive award of $300 for women jazz composers for pieces of any duration from small ensembles to big band. The Alex Shapiro Wind Band Prize, which includes a $500 cash award and mentorship/consultation from Alex Shapiro, is for works of any duration for large ensemble wind band requiring a conductor, with or without a soloist, acoustic or electroacoustic, published or as yet unpublished. IAWM will soon be rolling out a Performer award, and an Education grant targeting K-12 music educators. As the membership of IAWM is becoming more diverse, so will our awards.
As the membership of IAWM is becoming more diverse, so will our awards.
An example of progressive change is occurring in the UK. The PRS Foundation announced its new Keychange Initiative earlier this year, which, as Amanda Cook reported in I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, is “empowering women to transform the future of the music industry and encouraging festivals to achieve a 50:50 balance by 2022. While a number of contemporary music festivals have committed to this initiative, the Borealis Festival has already achieved gender-balanced programming.”
Women are working in all genres of music, from chamber to choral to jazz; from orchestra to wind band to film and media. The International Alliance for Women in Music is working to bring awareness and visibility to music that is under-represented in the musical landscape.
Back to that restaurant on East 37th Street: inspired by their wonderful performance and intrigued by works I’d not heard before, I introduced myself and told them about the International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) and the new award for women jazz composers. I hope they and many more apply. Unbeknownst to them, they made my night a memorable evening.
History teaches us that no matter how meticulously we plan, something unexpected will inevitably occur. And if we take the exact opposite approach to careful preparation, which is to completely embrace serendipity and “go with the flow,” life can be an amazing adventure. Take, for example, the life of Kentucky born and raised composer Beth Anderson.
The only child born to constantly quarreling parents who raised her on a family farm between Mt. Sterling and North Middletown in Montgomery County, Anderson did not have a great deal of access to music early on. But her grandmother, who lived on the other side of the county, owned a Mason and Hamlin upright piano which fascinated Anderson so much that she was given a toy piano for Christmas at the age of three. Just before her seventh birthday, her parents sold the farm and the family moved to the town of Mt. Sterling. Shortly thereafter her parents divorced, and as a consolation, Anderson started piano lessons with a local teacher in town; one of the first pieces she learned to play was Scarf Dance by Cécile Chaminade. Around that time she also began to write short piano pieces as well.
“I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music,” Anderson acknowledged when we visited her in her apartment across the street from the Brooklyn Museum. But perhaps an even more significant chance encounter than the one with Chaminade was finding a copy of John Cage’s book Silence in the Mt. Sterling Public Library some years later when she started high school. As she remembered, “I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read. I looked up every name. I used it as a catalog of what to care about. He was my guy.”
Against Anderson’s wishes, she acquiesced to her mother’s plan for her to attend the University of Kentucky and again, as luck would have it, John Cage and Merce Cunningham showed up there for a week-long residency in 1968. That initial encounter with Cage validated her own compositional instincts, and she decided to leave Kentucky and head to the West Coast. But once she was in California, she tried to randomly connect to Lou Harrison and soon discovered that pure happenstance doesn’t always yield the best results, as she told us:
I had a friend who had a friend who was driving a race car, and he had to be down in the Aptos area, where Lou lived, at a very early hour. He dropped me off at six o’clock in the morning, and I walked up and knocked on the door. I hadn’t told them I was coming, because I didn’t know I was coming until the night before and I didn’t have the phone number. So I just knocked on the door, and Bill Colvig, Lou’s companion, got up and let me in, and went to start water for tea, and went to talk to Lou, to get him up and come talk to me, because I explained what I was there for. Lou was clearly not having it. He didn’t want to get up. He didn’t know who I was, or why I was there bothering them at dawn. Eventually he came out and we had a little conversation and a little tea. … But he wasn’t at all interested in being my teacher. … That was my experience of Lou in 1969. And then, in ’74, I met him again at the Cabrillo Festival, and … then we were friends. But before that, I think I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.
Still, once she was at Mills, pure chance led her to study with Terry Riley, who had only just begun teaching, and Robert Ashley. Infectious melodies and conceptual work inspired by text would be hallmarks of Beth Anderson’s own compositional style.
Beth then relocated again, to New York City, where she co-edited the legendary Ear magazine, spearheaded various initiatives to promote the music of female composers, and served as a piano accompanist for numerous dance companies while she continued to write pieces that explored converting the letters of a text into musical pitches and left the durations up to the performers. Eventually though, she abandoned this experimental approach and began to compose works that showcased unabashed tunefulness and regular rhythms. And yet, all this music is also the result of a form of serendipity, albeit one that is admittedly more controlled, as she elaborated:
I write little shreds and tatters and then figure out how to have more of this and less of that, and cut them into each other. I can write a whole section that was actually on a drone, like on a C, and then another whole section that was on F. Then I would cut them into each other, and I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music. People hear them and hear the harmonic movement, but it wasn’t really movement. It was just cut-ups.
Our own encounter with Beth Anderson this past month was also, by and large, a product of chance. Back in January at the Chamber Music America conference, I ran into her and she mentioned that she was writing her memoirs. Then in March, she sent me an email to ask if I knew of anyone who’d be willing to read them through for her before she attempted to approach book publishers. Since I love to read, I volunteered, and she showed up unannounced at my office to hand deliver a copy. On a whim, I started reading it on the subway that same evening. I was so compelled by her story that I couldn’t put it down and I finished the 258-page manuscript within a couple of days. I had known Anderson for many years and had heard a great deal of her music. I was always intrigued, but didn’t fully grasp it on some level. Yet after reading the story of her life, everything finally made sense—the shift in compositional style, the seemingly “normal” sounding music that becomes less and less normal the more carefully you listen to it, all of it.
“I wasn’t into planning,” she explained. “I didn’t seem to understand the concept, and I still sort of don’t. I mean, I brought you that book the other day, and you were totally surprised. I just sort of drop in.”
April 6, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.
Beth Anderson in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Anderson’s apartment in Brooklyn
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: We’ve known each other for a very long time, but I feel like I know you so much better now after having read the first draft of your memoirs. So thank you so much for letting me into your world that way. It was a fascinating trip, and it has helped me to understand so much more about you and your music than I did before. And it also inspired me to want to talk to you about it. Many people like to feel they know something about the composers whose music they care about, but it isn’t always positive. The more I’ve learned about Wagner, the less I’ve wanted to hear his music.
Beth Anderson: There is that. But sometimes it’s fun to know something about the person. I want my music to be paid more attention to. I felt like I’d sort of dropped out. It’s nice to have another way to engage an imaginary public by talking about my life. Obviously, if nobody reads it, it won’t have any positive effect on the number of people that listen to my music, but if a lot of people do, then maybe it would.
FJO: I do think when people know more about a composer, whether it’s some detail about that person’s life or even just a photo, it is possible to have more empathy with that composer’s music. I think this was a fundamental idea that led to the creation of Meet The Composer in 1974. If we want people to think composers are relevant to our world we must show that the people who actually create it represent the broad and diverse community we live in. One of the things that struck me in your memoir was how you learned about Cécile Chaminade while you were still a beginning pianist. I think that set you on a path that you might otherwise not have followed if every composer you studied had been an old dead guy.
“I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music.”
BA: I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music. That was cool. But it took a long time to find another one. They just did not show up in my practicing Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt, until I found Pauline Oliveros. And there was a big space between Chaminade and Oliveros.
FJO: But before you learned about Pauline Oliveros you also studied with Helen Lipscomb and learned that she was also a composer.
BA: But the only things I’d ever heard of hers were a trio and her teaching pieces. She did not have a big concert output, as far as I knew. I think that either the music is lost or somebody else besides me has it. One of her relatives sent me the Trio—that same trio, as though it were her whole output—and wanted me to be the keeper of it because I was the only person they could find on the internet who mentioned her name, which is tragic. I had hoped that the University of Kentucky would have her stuff, because she lived in town forever.
FJO: Even though there was this long time between finding women who wrote music, I was struck by something you wrote about your mindset at the time you had discovered Cécile Chaminade: you didn’t realize at that point—because why would you as a little girl growing up who just learned a piece composed by a woman—that there was this really huge disparity between the performances of music by male and female composers.
BA: And the availability of their music—until the ‘70s, when that set of three records came out called Women’s Work. It was sitting in the window of a big book and record store on Fifth Avenue [in Manhattan]; I was walking down the street and I almost fell over myself. My God! Women composers. So cool. There just weren’t any records. I had found Chaminade in a John Thompson book, and I didn’t find anything except Scarf Dance. It’s not like you could go down to the Mount Sterling Public Library [in Kentucky] and find Ruth Crawford Seeger or anybody else. So it was very exciting. It took a long time for that stuff to start coming out, and the musicologists are doing a great job bringing it forward, inch by inch. But Jeannie Pool, a friend of mine from the distant past, was trying to get a master’s writing about women composers, and her committee told her that this was not something that was appropriate.
FJO: What reason did they give her?
BA: There weren’t any primary sources. There wasn’t any music. They thought that it was unimportant and that she wouldn’t be able to find any stuff to write about. So she put out a little booklet about women composers which was very nice. She got a master’s eventually, but in California with different people. I’m not sure what she actually ended up writing about. But in New York, she was definitely told not to do it.
FJO: That’s terrible. To return to the Mount Sterling Public Library and the things that you did manage to find there in your formative years, it’s interesting how deeply some of the things that you found so early on stuck with you—like John Cage’s book Silence. You grew up in Kentucky, which is where bluegrass music began. You do seem to have an affinity for similar harmonies in your own music from many decades later, yet—as far as I know—you were not directly exposed to any of that music. You wrote about an uncle who loved opera.
BA: My uncle hated country music and my mother hated country music. I wasn’t allowed to listen to the Mount Sterling radio station, which actually had people from the hills coming down doing live singing on the radio there. That was discouraged. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a live bluegrass concert. I’d hear it in movies or something, but that’s about it. The music I was aware of was popular music, and piano music [I was studying], and stuff from the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s that my mother sang, so it took a while to get around to other stuff. And hymns. I was big on church music at the time, because they paid me to show up and play.
FJO: And yet for whatever reason, I hear some kind of relationship between your music and bluegrass, as well as the older music from which bluegrass derived, old timey music. And yet it was not because you were immersed in it.
BA: Well, I love folk music. I was a big Joan Baez freak. My favorite song was “Old Blue.” I used to have a big old dog named Blue, and she and I used to sing it together. Every time you say the word blue, she would howl. So, it was a chorus.
FJO: I was struck by your list of the three earliest songs that you remember hearing: “Love and Marriage,” “Lover, Come Back to Me,” and Rosemary Clooney singing “This Old House.” What about those three songs stuck with you?
BA: I think it was the ideas behind the songs more than the actual tunes, because my parents were so busy getting divorced and re-married, and we did live in an old house, then we lost the old house so there were a lot of house and divorce stories going on in my life.
FJO: And music became central to your life after their final divorce from each other.
BA: That’s what I got. I finally got that piano. My grandmother’s piano came to live with us.
FJO: But even before that, you had toy instruments and you tinkered with them. It was almost like you were set up to become an experimental music composer.
BA: I used to think that all those toy instruments ruined my ears as a child because I was clearly set up to become a microtonal composer. Those things are so far off, especially the harp. That was awful. It jangled and circled around a pitch; the strings were colored rubber bands. It was a bad instrument.
A very young Beth Anderson with her kitty at Sideview Farm in Montgomery County, Kentucky c. 1954. (Photo by Marjorie Celeste Hoskins Anderson, Beth Anderson’s mother, courtesy Beth Anderson.)
FJO: So, looking back to the very beginning of you creating your own music, you obviously experimented with the toy instruments. But there’s no surviving music composed for them by you. Did you know about the John Cage toy piano suite?
BA: Not yet, but I performed it on my MFA recital and various moments after that. I love toys.
FJO: But perhaps it was only when you started taking piano lessons and had to learn to read music that other people had written that you consciously started thinking about creating your own things.
BA: Yes, I thought it was fun to write stuff down. As soon as I got a pad of music paper, I was off, not that anybody thought it was a good idea. It takes away from your time practicing, and everybody wanted me to practice more and write less.
FJO: Your mother played the piano, but it was basically a hobby for her. Yet it seems to me that from pretty early on there was this idea that you were going to be a musician.
BA: Well that’s what I thought, but every year my mother would say, “Do you want to quit?” It cost her money and it was money she didn’t wish to spend, and she didn’t see any reason for me continuing on with this. She wanted me to have piano lessons, the way she wanted me to have ballet and tap. She wanted me to have a certain grace, what little girls are supposed to have who grow up and marry doctors or whatever. But she didn’t expect it to be a career, and she was mildly appalled that I kept at it, and at it, and at it. It was not a good thing. Unlike Prokofiev’s family, who kept pushing and pushing. His family was so helpful. Mine was not.
FJO: But since you were an only child, I think that in some ways music became a kind of surrogate sibling to you, a constant companion.
BA: Well, it certainly gave me something to entertain myself with that didn’t require other people.
FJO: But it’s interesting that even though your family didn’t want you to do music, they thought that playing piano was better than writing music.
BA: Well, according to my teachers. My mother didn’t care one way or another. She just was hoping I would quit. She wanted me to play the flute, because she saw that as social and getting out of the house, and doing something with other people, so she was willing to keep paying two dollars a month for the flute forever.
FJO: As it turned out, you wound up playing flute for years in wind bands, even in college. A very big part of your formative experience with music was playing in wind bands.
BA: And marching band was my primary exercise for many years. That was the world’s most exhausting activity as far as I could tell.
FJO: It also exposed you to a lot of repertoire that you might not have been exposed to otherwise. Certainly much different repertoire than the piano music that you were playing.
BA: Yes. If I had been a good enough flutist, I could have eventually played in the orchestra at Henry Clay. But I wasn’t one of those two girls. We had a sea of 30 flutes. The fact that I was eighth chair was pretty good; they had some really good flute players.
FJO: So your school had an orchestra as well as a wind band?
“The fact that I was eighth chair was pretty good; they had some really good flute players.”
BA: Yeah. And Henry Clay in Lexington had a really good symphonic band. We marched in the Cherry Blossom parade in Washington one year with the cherry blossoms falling from the sky. It was so magical. Definitely the best experience I ever had with marching.
FJO: And you stayed with it for years and years, even after you could have done other stuff! What was the appeal?
BA: Well, in college as a music major, you had to have an ensemble activity, and I could already play flute. So I just stayed with the band instead of switching to chorus. Not that I didn’t sing in chorus. I was also in Madame Butterfly one summer. I was one of those girls in a lavender kimono with an umbrella. I liked singing, but I stayed with the band.
FJO: One thing that I find so incongruous about your early musical studies is that when you were studying the piano you were basically playing music exclusively by old dead men, but in band you were playing newer music, undoubtedly including some music by living composers, though probably not stuff that would have sounded like Webern and Stockhausen.
BA: No, but there was Persichetti. There was an awful lot of Leroy Anderson, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Sousa, and re-writes of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. I don’t know why that seemed to come year after year with those clarinets going forever and ever.
FJO: The reason I bring this up is that it seems so whacky that it was one of your early band teachers who first introduced you to 12-tone music. That seems like a very odd person to be the person who did that.
BA: Mr. [Richard] Borchardt. Well, he was a special guy. I wish I knew more about him. He’s not with us anymore. It was [during] a summer band clinic of some sort—we were practicing the 1812 Overture and there was some kind of little composition class. I, of course, got involved with that, and he chose to teach us how to do 12-tone music. I thought that it was the coolest thing in the world. So I wrote this quartet right away, and he put it on the show with the 1812 Overture. That was kind of a fun side by side.
FJO: Does that piece survive?
BA: Possibly. But it’s not in Finale, I’ll tell you. And I don’t know where it is.
FJO: So you won’t be taking it out to show us.
BA: I’m hoping not to. It wasn’t a great a piece, but it was hilarious because it kept being performed. There was a wine glass at the end that was supposed to break, but it never broke.
FJO: Yeah, I love that story. It’s what actually made me want to hear the piece.
BA: With the wine glass hitting the metal and not breaking, just going thump.
FJO: Maybe you should try it again with a cheaper wine glass.
BA: Oh, I think that’s the point. It was cheap, and therefore it wouldn’t break. It was too tough. It bounced. You have to get an expensive, really elegant one.
FJO: One that could cost more than hiring a musician to throw it! But aside from the curiosity factor of the wine glass at the end, there isn’t a lot of 12-tone band music. So it’s notable that the person who wanted to put you in that direction was a band person.
BA: Well, I taught for Young Audiences a little bit. It’s a lot easier to teach something that’s coding or that has a system than to say, “Give me your heart,” in a clarinet solo to a child who doesn’t know what their heart is or even how to write for clarinet for that matter. So it was much easier to tell us, “Take these notes, put them in some weird order, and then turn them upside down” and stuff. You could talk about it, so it’s easier to teach.
FJO: Considering how much band experience you had, it’s surprising that you didn’t wind up writing more band music.
BA: The only other thing I did was a Suite for Winds and Percussion, and that was a re-write of music I wrote for a film score. I just took it and turned it into that because Robert Kogan, who had an orchestra in Staten Island, had asked for apiece that would not use his strings because the strings weren’t very strong at that point. So he wanted me to just use the rest of the people. So it’s not exactly a real band; it’s for orchestral winds and percussion.
FJO: An orchestra minus the strings, like the first movement of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto. Curiously though, in addition to being turned onto 12-tone music by your band director and then writing a 12-tone band piece, when you were enrolled at the University of Kentucky, one of the legendary band composers, John Barnes Chance, taught there. His Second Symphony and his Variations on a Korean Folk Song are really terrific pieces. But I suppose that by the time you got to study with him, your head was somewhere else.
BA: Yeah, I was into Webern and Cage. I really wasn’t trying to hang out around Korean folk songs. I was going in a different direction. I wanted to know about electronic music desperately at that point, and he made fun of that. He thought it was humorous. He could do it, it’s just that what he was doing it with was so basic that it was absurd. It was useful for the theater department, but it wasn’t exactly something he would call his music.
FJO: So what made you so curious about electronic music? How did you even become aware that it existed?
BA: I don’t know. Maybe John Cage talked about it in his books. I got to UK (University of Kentucky) when I was 16 and started working in the music library. I was reading Source, and I had a wonderful music history teacher, Kathleen Atkins. She played Tod Dockstader in class. That was my introduction to real electronic music, music that took faucets dripping and turned it into something else. I love Tod Dockstader! He doesn’t seem to be the big hit to everybody else that he was to me. Then I started hearing everybody else. Kathy wanted to build an electronic studio at UK, and they wouldn’t give her the money. So I left. When I went back to school, I went to Davis, and they had an electronic music studio, and I studied with Jerome Rosen. I think his level of interest in electronic music was trying to help us learn how to make advertisements using electronic music, because he was always assigning things that were 30 seconds or one minute. He didn’t want to hear a ten-minute electronic piece. He wanted to hear some tiny little gem that would somehow excite him. Then, of course, I finally got to Mills, where they had much more space and an interest in bigger pieces and different styles.
FJO: Let’s stay for a little bit longer at the University of Kentucky and those early years before you went to California. You were able to learn about Tod Dockstader, which is amazing because that music was not very widely distributed at the time. It wasn’t available everywhere, but it got to you. John Cage’s Silence, which was published by Wesleyan University Press, also reached you.
BA: In high school.
FJO: Which is amazing. And also Source Magazine.
“I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read.”
BA: They had a great a music library. They used to have a lot of money for it, and now they’ve got more, because there’s some lady down there in Kentucky that supports a lot of things, including that music library. The last time I was down there, I went over to see what was up, and it’s gorgeous. They have every periodical, even Fiddle Tune News; it’s that big. They’ve got all of it. And it’s not like when I was in NYU; I would go to look up a magazine and somebody had stolen half of the issues. I couldn’t find the whole run of anything. There were just huge holes in their collection. I hope they fixed that. But UK didn’t have that problem. They had a lot of stuff.
FJO: So if somebody was interested, they could find these things and go down that route. They could know that these things exist. That’s really important in terms of developing a sense and a knowledge base, finding that stuff on your own rather than just being told about it. I think it was really important for your personal development that you found those things on your own.
BA: Well, I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read. I looked up every name. I used it as a catalog of what to care about. He was my guy.
FJO: And then by dumb luck, pure serendipity, you go to the University of Kentucky, and he has a residency there.
BA: He shows up, and then I dropped out of school. And I come back and he’s there. He was at Davis for a term. It was freaky and wonderful.
FJO: One of the big revelations to me in reading your memoir is that your life has been this chain of seemingly pure accidents that completely flow into each other. You take these sudden turns and then you’re somewhere else, but it seems totally natural even though it’s totally unexpected. Interestingly, it’s similar to a lot of your music, which has been described by other people as collage oriented. I think that word doesn’t give an accurate sense of what it is, because when you think collage, you think these things don’t belong together, but in your music they do. It’s like they’re carefully woven together, even though they’re not connected. So you don’t realize that they shouldn’t work together, but they do, and it’s kind of the same way your life has unfolded.
BA: And the quilt.
FJO: Yes, exactly, we’ll get to that, too, in a bit. You initially didn’t want to go to the University of Kentucky, but your mother wanted you to go there. You wanted to go somewhere else because you were interested in John Cage. But then suddenly Cage was at the University of Kentucky.
BA: And the only reason I didn’t study with Ned Rorem was because I forgot to ask him to hang out and wait for me. The only reason I didn’t study with Pauline Oliveros is because I got a ride past her when I was hitchhiking. I always say, “Well, that’s the universe.” The universe was just going with it, whatever it was. I wasn’t into planning. I didn’t seem to understand the concept, and I still sort of don’t. I mean, I brought you that book the other day, and you were totally surprised. I just sort of drop in.
FJO: And now here we are talking. This happened the same way! It’s interesting that you also had read Ned Rorem pretty early on, around the same time you were reading Cage. I think of Rorem as a radical composer in a lot of ways, but a lot of people didn’t, especially at that time. They thought he was an old-fashioned composer because he never gave up tonality and he never gave up writing beautiful melodies. There was a real braveness to sticking to his guns and writing the music he wanted to write. And you learned about him and his music relatively early on. So in addition to all the avant-garde experimental music you were learning about, you also had a role model for going against the grain and writing really beautiful music, which is what you ultimately wound up doing.
BA: Well, Cage and Rorem went different places. But I thought they were both radicals, and I fell in love with Rorem’s stuff through playing for singers. At UK, that was their idea of modern music, Vaughn Williams and Ned Rorem. And the stuff was gorgeous. What’s not to like? And of course, his books were hilarious and wonderful. I wanted to go to Paris. I wanted to know all these wild and crazy people.
FJO: I feel like Rorem’s influence has even found its way into the writing style of your memoir. You’re just telling the story of your life the way he did, in a very honest and sincere way.
BA: I just don’t know some other way to do it. I haven’t read his books since I was very young, so I don’t think I actually tried to go in that direction. I’m just doing it the way I know how.
FJO: In terms of not planning, it’s very interesting how this played out in terms of possible role models you could have had as teachers. Cage was a certain kind of a role model. So were Pauline Oliveros, Ned Rorem, and Lou Harrison, a composer who found a way to be experimental and beautiful at the same time, writing music that was really original but also very immediate and very moving. And you tried to connect with Lou Harrison when you came to California, but it didn’t quite work out.
BA: [My then composition teacher] Richard Swift and I talked and clearly I wasn’t interested in writing 12-tone music when I was studying with him and that’s what he wrote. So you would think we would not go together as a great teacher-student duo. So he thought that I would like to study with Lou Harrison, and he said, “Why don’t you go see him?” I didn’t have any money to figure out how to get there by paying for the bus, but I had a friend who had a friend who was driving a race car, and he had to be down in the Aptos area, where Lou lived, at a very early hour. He dropped me off at six o’clock in the morning, and I walked up and knocked on the door. I hadn’t told them I was coming, because I didn’t know I was coming until the night before and I didn’t have the phone number. So I just knocked on the door, and Bill Colvig, Lou’s companion, got up and let me in, and went to start water for tea, and went to talk to Lou, to get him up and come talk to me, because I explained what I was there for.
“I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.”
Lou was clearly not having it. He didn’t want to get up. He didn’t know who I was, or why I was there bothering them at dawn. Eventually he came out and we had a little conversation and a little tea, and he agreed with me that perhaps I would enjoy meeting the gardener at UC Santa Cruz that Cage talked about in his books and that yes, in fact there were communes in the hills around Aptos and Santa Cruz and that, if I hitched around, I’d eventually find somebody that would take me to one of these places. But he wasn’t at all interested in being my teacher and having me come and sit at his knee. And Bill—I didn’t know anything about building instruments. I thought it would be fun, but I was starting from zero. I’d never built a bird house, much less anything else with wood. So they just sent me on my way after a couple of hours, and I hitched down to the beach to wait for the guy to come pick me up at the end of the day. And that was my experience of Lou in 1969. And then, in ’74, I met him again at the Cabrillo Festival, and he really liked my piece, and then we were friends. But before that, I think I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.
FJO: That doesn’t seem like a good way to make a first impression.
BA: But if the universe spoke to him and said, “Yes, take this girl and help her,” then something could have happened. But the universe failed to so speak and so duh.
FJO: At least he woke up and spoke to you.
BA: Yes, that was very kind. And Bill was terrific. He really tried.
FJO: Your first encounter with Pauline Oliveros was also really bizarre.
BA: Yes. I’d been wanting to actually meet her for a while. I created this independent study with Nate Rubin at Mills, so I was going to interview Pauline and write a paper about her. Once again, I got some crazy ride down to San Diego, and these people took me to a Salvation Army for some reason. They wanted to buy something, and in there I found this big scroll. It was a paint by numbers scroll of a toreador and a bull. I bought this thing for a dime, and I thought. “Oooh, this is so cool. I got this thing about a bull, and I’m going to see this woman who’s so brave and tough.” I thought it was a great simultaneity, and I went to see Pauline. They dropped me off at her house, and I went in. She was expecting me; I had written her a letter. But she had a concert that night, and on the days of concerts, she did not talk. So there she was not talking, for the whole day, and I spent the whole day in her house. She had this huge cage with multiple birds in it, and they were squawking. Then the women from her women’s ensemble were there. They were cooking things to serve at the end of the concert. So there were the birds, the other women, and the cooking, but Pauline never said a word the whole day I was there. So I wrote the paper about that.
FJO: But at least you did let her know in advance that you were visiting her. So it wasn’t like your first encounter with Lou Harrison. So perhaps by then you had learned your lesson.
BA: Well yes, I had managed somehow by 23 or something to figure out you might want to send a letter. And, in fact, I did bring her some of my really early, awful music, and she turned the pages. She didn’t say a word, but she looked, and I gave her copies of them. And she smiled at me. That was fine. That was sufficient.
FJO: So how did you first become aware of Pauline Oliveros? Was that at the University of Kentucky also?
BA: Yeah, at UK, she was on the flip side of [the LP recording of] Come Out by Steve Reich.
BA: And Kathy Atkins played it for us in music history class.
BA: And, you know, it wasn’t that I was so wild about the piece; I was so wild that a woman composer exists, another one. Here’s another one!
FJO: Parallel to your life as a composer, you’ve been a strong advocate for women composers. During your student days, you put together a festival. Then when you first came to New York—I know I’m jumping ahead here—you were the co-founder of a project called Meet The Woman Composer and got the blessing of John Duffy, who had only recently founded Meet The Composer.
Julia Smith (left) presenting the National Federation of Music Clubs Award of Merit for contributions to women in music to Sorrel Hays (center) and Beth Anderson (right) for Meet The Woman Composer in 1977. (Photo courtesy Beth Anderson.)
BA: Well, Bob Ashley basically set up that first festival, but he told me I was in charge. He’d already decided who he wanted to invite. It was a cool array, and you could not find three more distinct people—Vivian Fine, Pauline Oliveros, and Charlotte Moorman. That was a great group. Then when I came to New York, Doris Hays, now known as Sorrel [Hays], was soon to be starting this thing, but she wanted me to do it with her at the New School. She got all the funding from John Duffy for that. Apparently his organization had not existed long, so the idea that he would give us most of his money for the year was really astounding. He was very supportive. We did those evenings—10 or 15, I don’t know anymore—of all those women. And all these musicologists came and wrote articles about them, so it was useful to do. Then [many years later], B.C. Vermeersch at Greenwich House wanted me to do a women composers series at Greenwich House, and that went on for ten years. So, yes, I liked the idea of putting together concerts of women’s music because it’s not heard as much as people currently think it is.
FJO: There are organizations like IAWM, which I think does a lot of really tremendous work, but I know some younger composers who do not want to identify themselves that way. “I’m a composer and I happen to be a woman, but I’m not a woman composer. There’s no need for this.” Then you see something like the announcement of the Cleveland Orchestra’s 2018-19 season. There’s not a single piece by a woman on it. It’s been that way year after year. Same with the 2018-19 Boston Symphony season. It seems pretty clear that there’s a real problem.
BA: You think?
FJO: If there shouldn’t be concerts of just women composers, why are there so many concerts of just men composers?
“There are piles of music that should be performed that aren’t.”
BA: All the time. Or a whole festival, like a hundred composers, and two of them are women. They think they’ve done a big thing, that they’ve got two. That’s ridiculous. Somebody was telling me that he taught composition in Australia and all of his students were women. I don’t know, are men getting out of the field because it’s so badly paid? One wonders. Aaron Copland used to say there were no women composers, which is crazy, or that there were no good ones. None that have been properly educated. There are piles! The Baltimore Symphony apparently has been doing all these statistics, and women are just a very, very small percentage. If you take the ratio of men to women among living composers that are performed by the big orchestras in this country, it’s 85 to 15. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible. But if you take the amount of women that are performed, dead or alive, it’s like one percent. Think of all the wonderful women that are dead that have written fabulous things I would love to hear, for the very first time, like Mary Howe. Usually orchestras are good at holding onto the past and presenting that. There are just piles of music that should be performed that aren’t.
FJO: Part of the reason things are the way they are, which rarely gets spoken of, is the economics of it all—the economics of obtaining the music, as well as the time for rehearsing it. I’m a big fan of the music of Louise Farrenc, a 19th-century French composer who wrote three symphonies, as well as the first-ever piece for piano and wind quintet. That alone should earn her a place in the repertoire.
BA: I played a lovely trio of hers once.
FJO: It’s wonderful music. But there are no modern editions of the symphonies. You can get them from one place that charges a crazy rental fee. Then, since the players don’t know the piece, they’ll need more time to learn it. But if they just played Brahms again, they’ve already played it a million times so they can rehearse it only twice and it’ll sound pretty good. Playing an old unfamiliar piece is kind of the same as playing a new piece. Worse, because then it goes to the marketing department and they don’t know the name.
BA: But Henze, which you can imagine would take quite a bit of doing to get on, they will rehearse that to the ends of the earth. They will rehearse anything big that’s dissonant and difficult. They understand that they have to rehearse that, and they’re willing to do that for the guys. But if it’s just a beautiful piece by an antique composer who happens to be a woman, it’s too much of a struggle. You just can’t keep doing the Beethoven Third all the time—lovely piece, but enough.
FJO: Do the Farrenc Third instead!
BA: Florence Price, also. There are so many people.
FJO: I’m very happy to hear you saying this because as important as it is to do music by living composers, if we really want to learn about the full history of music, we need to pay attention to historical women composers as well and embrace them as part of the canon, if we’re going to have a canon.
BA: Instead of an AK-47.
FJO: So how to advocate for this stuff? One issue is making sure that there are editions that are not only available but also affordable. A lot of the older music is now showing up on sites like IMSLP.org, so it is possible to easily obtain some of this music. But then there are also rules to consider. Musicians in most professional orchestras will only play from parts where the paper is a certain size; you can’t just print things out on 8 ½” by 11” sheets, because that’s too small.
BA: Well, that explains why my pieces aren’t performed because they’re only 8 ½” by 11” paper. I can make them bigger. No problem.
FJO: You definitely should. Which is a good segue to get us back to talking about your music and how you came to write the music you write. Connecting with Lou Harrison and Pauline Oliveros ultimately didn’t work out, but you did study for a time with both Terry Riley and Robert Ashley.
BA: I studied with Terry Riley the first semester he was at Mills; he was new to teaching. Terry taught me what was called cyclic composition, which was South Indian singing. He sang and then we sang. It was just copying, which was the teaching method of the time. But I loved the fact that there was a tal—a rhythm, a beat. Cage was sort of against it. He didn’t like regularly recurring meters, and Terry was trying to figure out what you could do within the meter that was interesting. Terry kept using scale steps and putting things together in interesting ways. The whole thing came out sounding very beautiful, because it had this beautiful big drone underneath it.
“I kept hanging on to this thing that I kept seeing as a process that Robert Ashley kept saying wasn’t a process.”
My oratorio Joan had a big A drone underneath it, partially for the singers so that they could find their pitches relative to the A. That was my plan. Not so easy, but it gave them an A at least. So Terry had a big effect on me, but not right away. I kept hanging on to this thing that I kept seeing as a process that Ashley kept saying wasn’t a process. I was coding words. I like changing one thing into something else, layering things like sedimentary rock. I like to have the same thing done different ways, so that the text that you would hear somebody singing would be changed into the pitches for the instruments, then the meaning of the text would be another text. They’d all be layered, or there’d be some weirdo video thing that would explain the text as another layer. I like layers. Anyway, Mr. Ashley did not see that as a process. I guess he saw it as a layered collage, which is certainly a way you could think about it.
FJO: It sounds like a process to me. I’m very curious about this idea of turning letters into pitches and being so focused on pitch, but not so much on rhythm.
BA: The rhythm was improvised by the player. But I was giving them the pitches and the rules. I would have some rule like, if you leap up from A to E, and got to the end of the word, then you would come back down a half step, then go on to the next word.
FJO: There were also pieces where you’d have certain pitches drop out over time. You’d begin with all these pitches, and eventually have way fewer.
BA: That was a modulating coding system designed just for Joan. It started with just the white notes on the piano from A to A, and then you kept decoding the same text, but you kept using one less letter from the alphabet until you ended up with just A-B-A-B-A-B, B-B-B-B. A-A-A-A. And AAAA.
FJO: This also sounds similar to what you did in a later piece that you wrote for solo ocarina called Preparation for the Dominant. You have a bunch of pitches in the beginning, but then fewer as time goes by. You have this sort of attrition of pitch.
BA: Do I?
FJO: That’s how it sounded when I heard it. I think it’s a very interesting idea, and I think it also sounds really good. There’s a rigor to it, but there’s also a freedom to it at the same time, which is maybe why Ashley didn’t think of it as a process. But the best processes are the ones that allow you to do your own thing with them.
BA: Yeah, like Schoenberg actually broke his own rules. I love that.
FJO: Exactly. And there are parallel fifths in Bach if you look hard enough for them.
FJO: Rules only get you so far, but then you need to make music with them. Maybe that’s something that the folks who were so obsessed with process-oriented music in the mid-century lost track of, the process is a means to an end, but not necessarily an end in and of itself.
BA: That sounds reasonable.
FJO: Well, it certainly seems to be the way that your music has played out.
BA: I like that.
FJO: I only know Joan from the keyboard version that’s on the Pogus CD of your music.
BA: Which had one performance consequently.
FJO: But there was also the performance at Cabrillo of the original version.
BA: KPFA has a recording, and probably Other Minds has it now, because Charles Amirkhanian was in charge of all that. They also have the original She Wrote from Gertrude Stein’s 100th birthday concert in ’74. I was complaining online recently, “This should be somewhere, and I’ll never hear it again.” And Charles wrote me back and said, “Oh! Cut it out. I’ve got it. You can hear it by clicking here.” They probably have Joan somewhere, too.
FJO: It would be so great for that to be out in the world.
BA: Well, you know, it is kind of afflicted by those naked guys, the timpani players, that ran through the middle of it and made the whole audience laugh and carry on. The idea that the critic Robert Commanday thought that that was something in the piece was particularly bizarre.
FJO: Well, how would he know?
BA: I don’t know. Everybody else talked to me—the man from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, as well as the critic from the Tribune. So they knew. But Commanday didn’t ask. He was a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of guy.
FJO: There has been this crazy idea in music criticism that if you talk to the musicians performing a piece or the composer, you’re somehow tainted and you’re going to be influenced so you’re not going to have objective criticism.
BA: I hate that.
FJO: And heaven forbid you’re friends with these people, or worse, that you actually perform or compose music yourself.
BA: Or that you actually know something about it. Now you’re supposed to have a degree in American studies, and you’re supposed to have a general drift of the culture, but you’re not supposed to actually know anything about it. I think that’s appalling. I loved it when Eric Salzman and Virgil Thomson, people who actually wrote music, wrote music criticism. You would know what their biases were, because you’d go listen to their own music. And you could see it. But if you have somebody that has a degree in sociology writing about music, then you don’t even know that their favorite composer is Philip Glass. I used to think that they should list their favorite composers at the top of their columns, so that you would know. Well, if they like this, this, and this, then there’s no big surprise that they didn’t like that. I thought it would be very helpful. But the only way you could get that sense of bias would be to read them for a long time. Then you would see over time what they liked, and what they didn’t like. But I don’t think that there’s a lot of purity.
When I moved to New York, Mr. [John] Rockwell was the best friend of my friend Charles Shere. They had both done symphony or opera broadcasts together in San Francisco. Charles stayed on the West Coast, and John came to New York. When I moved here, Charles said, “You’ll have to meet my wonderful friend John Rockwell.” So I called him up the moment I arrived, and I said, “I’m a friend of Charles, and I’m a composer. I would love to meet you.” And he said, “Oh yes, come to tea.” Then the next day, he called back and he said, “Are you moving to New York?” And I said yes. And he said, “Well, then I can’t talk to you.” And that was that. He wanted to continue that purity, that separation of church and state somehow. But I think that it’s a poor thing. I think you need to talk to composers—especially if you can’t read music or can’t play an instrument. That wonderful man from TheWashington Post, Joseph McLellan, said that he wrote a guitar piece so that he would have the experience of having written something. He could actually play an instrument, and they shockingly allowed him to write criticism for TheWashington Post. But he mainly reviewed parties. Apparently he was the social guy. He went to five parties a week, and then they also let him review concerts.
FJO: You also had a career as a music journalist yourself. You were involved with Ear magazine in its formative years. I’ve always considered Ear one of role models for NewMusicBox.
BA: Well, it is certainly the same kind of exhaustive experience that you’re never done. You do this one, and then the next one’s coming up and how can you get people to give you the stuff that you need for the next issue. I used to have to go over to people’s houses and stand over them, waiting for people to write their articles because people wouldn’t do it. They would say, “Oh, yeah. I’ll do it.” And it wouldn’t happen. But basically Ear was about promoting. I’m not sure we ever wrote anything negative. I can’t remember if we did. But we were boosters for sure. And we were saying, “This is what’s happening. Isn’t this fun? Come play with us.”
FJO: And Ear also had this very key idea that the people involved in making the music should be the spokespeople for it, which I think is a very important thing and a very different model from the separation of church and state, the armchair critic who can’t talk to you if you’re someone he or she might potentially review. Well, it was almost always he, always a man.
BA: Well, there aren’t a lot of women critics.
FJO: But then you had an experience of actually writing criticism that wasn’t exclusively positive when you wrote about the entire New Music America festival.
BA: Oh, that was a disaster. I didn’t mean harm, but I think I was thoroughly hated. The Kitchen never recovered from that, although some people thought it was a great thing because I was the only person that reviewed everything. And not just the concerts, but also the [panel discussions of the] Music Critics Association, which I found really intriguing. I loved hearing the critics read their papers, not having practiced them. They didn’t see performing as something you might want to rehearse. But anyway, Reports from the Front was something I created because I wanted to participate in the festival at The Kitchen in ’79, and I didn’t think that anybody would see it as negative because I was just saying whatever came into my mind. It was so clear that it wasn’t thought out and it wasn’t directed in a negative way. I was trying to describe stuff, and compare stuff to other performances of the same pieces. I thought I was so unimportant that nobody would take it badly, but people did. It angered the whole downtown scene in one fell swoop, in nine days.
FJO: And it also angered the music critics, right?
“I never think about—or never have thought about—consequences.”
BA: Oh yeah, there was that. There were so many times in my life that it would have been a good idea to be quiet, or to just not be there. But I never think about—or never have thought about—consequences. I think about it a little bit more now at this age than I did at that age.
FJO: Despite the lesson of Pauline Oliveros being silent the whole day.
BA: Yes. She sure is a great teacher. I should have paid more attention.
FJO: Before we completely leave California and keep talking about your life in New York, I was curious if you were at all connected with any of the extremely innovative things that were happening in so-called pop music there at the time. Not only was it a golden era in terms of the amazing things people were doing with electronics, plus early minimalism and all the conceptual pieces, California was the epicenter of psychedelia. Were you connected to any of that music? Were you aware that it was happening?
BA: I listened to pop music from ’57 to ’69. Acid rock like Steppenwolf and Blue Cheer—I loved that stuff. But, by then, I was over the edge into Stockhausen and Cage, so that was the direction my listening went.
FJO: All of the seismic shifts in your life feel somehow connected. There was the move from Kentucky to California. Then the move to New York. Those are physical, corporeal things. But there’s another event that happened once you were in New York, which is perhaps the most important shift of all—how you thought about yourself as a composer. And I think that it relates to your dabbling in music criticism. You reached a point where you decided to write music that was intentionally pretty as opposed to something that adhered to some high concept. You approached it initially with an almost revolutionary zeal, being an advocate for beauty. I think it’s possible to hear all of your work as a related continuum, but at the time it seemed like a huge chasm.
BA: I don’t really understand it myself. I know that I was doing this kind of thing. I came to New York, and even in my second concert at The Kitchen in ’79, I was still decoding the word “skate,” all the possible definitions of the word skate [in my composition Skate Suite]. But I also did songs that were actually freely written. At the same time, part of it was [flutist] Andrew Bolotowsky’s influence that everything had to be on staves. If I wrote music on staves the way he wanted it done, I had to assign the rhythms, so that took away the player’s improvisatorial input. I could have coded the rhythms, but I didn’t. I just did them freely. I was still decoding pitches [from words], but then I made up my own rhythms.
Then I met Michael Sahl, and he had very powerful opinions about harmony. His music was very harmonically centered, even more than it was melodically. He was big into this heavy jazz piano, bass, and drums kind of feeling underneath it that I never really got into. I liked cutting up and collaging things, but he still had an influence.
“I want to see you turn on a dime, schizophrenically, and be somewhere else.”
Some people see my music, that’s now in Finale, and when they see the cut-ups they want to finish and stop [the phrase]—lift the bow, then go on. Even though I don’t put a fermata over it, people want to do that because they were taught to do that. But some of my pieces have so many cut-ups in them, if you do that, a five-minute piece becomes a ten-minute piece. It just drags deathly into the ground. That’s the absolute opposite of what I want. I want the thing to lie against itself. I want to see you turn on a dime, schizophrenically, and be somewhere else. So, don’t do that people!
FJO: When a performance of your music is seamless, the effect can be similar to the hemiolas in Brahms or even Carter’s metric modulation; the sudden shifts are very satisfying musical surprises. In some ways, it’s like looking very carefully at the patterns that are sewn on quilts. Quilts have these purposeful incongruities in them because they’re made by human beings so you will get these things that don’t quite line up, and that’s the joy of what a quilt is.
BA: Especially a crazy quilt. There’s a whole lot of different patterns of quilts that are traditional, historic, antique patterns. But those aren’t the ones that are the most interesting to me. I like crazy quilts best.
FJO: Well, one of my all-time favorite pieces of yours is this big solo piano piece, Quilt Music. I assume you gave it that name because you heard that connection.
BA: Yes, it’s like a swale for piano, because the quilt is just another word for that. It’s equivalent to me. Anyway. Yes, I’m glad you like it.
FJO: Tell me more about how it’s put together.
BA: I have no idea. I’d have to get the score and stare at it. You know, it’s old. I mean, it’s long ago and far away.
FJO: Alright, but since you said it’s like a swale, I’m curious. At some point, you started calling pieces swales.
BA: In 1984. That’s the year that the horse named Swale won the Kentucky Derby, the first Saturday in May. And I never heard the word before, so I looked it up in the dictionary. At the time, I was writing a string quartet, and I thought that was a great name for it. I wanted to dedicate it to Mr. James Roy, because he had been so kind to me. He worked at BMI, and he was a friend I could go talk to in the middle of the day without an appointment. He was another one of those people I could drop in on for no reason, and he would see me. So I named it Pennyroyal Swale. I wanted to use his name somewhere in there.
That’s how the first one came to be. Then I wrote another one that Dave Soldier’s string quartet played the first time. The next year they wanted to do another one, so I wrote one for Rosalie Calabrese [who was the manager of the American Composers Alliance]. I named it Rosemary Swale. Rosemary is actually an interesting herb because you can use it to cook and it’s also some kind of an ingredient in the fixative in perfume. Practical and artsy and that’s Rosalie. So Rosemary Swale was that one. And then there got to be lots more.
FJO: So what is a swale for you musically?
BA: Well, that is a collage. There’s no question. I write little shreds and tatters and then figure out how to have more of this and less of that, and cut them into each other. I can write a whole section that was actually on a drone, like on a C, and then another whole section that was on F. Then I would cut them into each other, and I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music. People hear them and hear the harmonic movement, but it wasn’t really movement. It was just cut-ups.
FJO: But not every piece of yours since then is called a swale. I thought it was very interesting to hear you just say that Quilt Music is a swale, even though you didn’t call it one. What distinguishes swales from the non-swales? I know there was a piece of yours, The Eighth Ancestor, that was performed during the ISCM World Music Days that predates your first swale, but it has a similar form to them.
BA: It was cut-ups. It was from like ’79 or ’80, so I didn’t have the word yet. But I was definitely doing cut-ups, and part of cut-ups comes from not having the time. I wasn’t the kind of composer that took three notes and made it into a symphony. I wasn’t interested in developing the theme and making variations. I was working all those jobs for dancers, so I would write down things that I had just played while they were teaching the next thing. I was just writing like a crazy person while they were teaching the next thing, looking at them out of the corner out of my eye so I’d know what to play next. Then at the end of the day, I would have piles of these little scraps of paper. I would take them home and try to figure out how to connect them, or just connect them or cut them up. Then I could make them into pieces.
FJO: So when you were playing piano for all those dance classes, you were just improvising?
FJO: Luckily you were able to remember and reconstruct a lot of that music.
“I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music.”
BA: Well, I think I was a pretty boring dance accompanist, but I did do it for 20 years, so apparently I got away with it. I had certain kinds of things that I did in F, and certain kinds of things I did in B-flat, A-minor, and D-minor; that stuff would just spool out. I had massive amounts that I could play forever—pliés in D-minor, across the floors in B-flat.
FJO: Do you think that working with all those dancers might have led you to create music that had a more regular rhythmic pulse. You mentioned that Andrew Bolotowski wanting you to write music using standard notation is what led you to give up this idea of having improvised rhythms, but you were already forced into creating things that had regular rhythms when you were working with these dancers because that’s what they needed.
BA: For sure.
FJO: Could that have had an impact on why your music went the way it did?
BA: Absolutely. Years and years of banging out things in three, or four, or six, or twelve, unless you work for Merce Cunningham, in which case all bets are off.
FJO: You also wrote the songs for a couple of Off-Off-Broadway musicals in the early 1980s, which is a genre that prizes catchy melodies. When I was 16, some high school classmates and I rented out the Carter Hotel Theatre for a week and presented a musical I wrote, so I was very intrigued to learn that one of your musicals, Elizabeth Rex: or, The Well-Bred Mother Goes to Camp, ran for nearly a month there.
BA: Oh my God. That’s so fun. Isn’t it now the Cheetah Gentleman’s Club? The Carter Hotel was the dirtiest hotel in America. This was not an impressive venue, but it was very close to Broadway!
FJO: Are there recordings of those shows?
BA: Well, there certainly are shreds and tatters of the words and music, but the people on stage were not hired for their musicality. They looked like the part.
FJO:Elizabeth Rex was about this woman who tries to get her daughter not to be a lesbian, so she takes her to see a priest and it turns out that he’s secretly gay.
BA: I love it, but now there’d be all these questions about whether it’s making fun of priests fooling around with the altar boys. And it was pre-AIDS. But it was a very funny show, and I think it could be done as a period piece. We’ll see if somebody might want to do it. And Fat Opera could definitely be done as a cabaret show. It doesn’t need to be done as a musical.
FJO: All in all, I think you wrote three musicals.
BA: Yeah, the first one [Nirvana Manor] has a cast of 20, so that was huge.
FJO: To return to the piece of yours that was performed on the ISCM World Music Days. It was interesting that the piece was chosen by one of the adjudicators at the time, Fred Rzewski, based on what was a misunderstanding of your intentions in the piece. He thought that your return to totality and regular rhythms was a form of irony.
BA: I think he thought it was political, because he’s very political.
FJO: But in a way, it was political, I mean, you wrote a manifesto on why you aspired to write music that was beautiful that is very political.
BA: But it wasn’t Communist. It wasn’t Stalin, Mao, whoever, and it wasn’t Hindemith—Music for Use. It was just me doing what I did. Michael [Sahl] taught me actually at the ISCM to go around saying, “Je fais la musique de la petite femme blanche”—I make the little white girl’s music—as a defense against people saying you have no craftsmanship; you’re not sophisticated. This was the response I got from people there, so I was trying to let it fall off of me like water from a duck.
Michael Sahl and Beth Anderson in 1979. (Photos courtesy Beth Anderson.)
FJO: But there was someone in the audience who did like the piece, a very significant Belgian composer.
BA: Yes, Boudewijn Buckinx, whom I love. But he was far away in a booth. It wasn’t apparent to me that there was anybody there who liked that piece except Michael and me.
FJO: However, despite your feeling such negativity from most of the people there, you stuck to your guns and you stayed on this path, undeterred by what these folks or anyone else thought about your music. And now, decades later, there are four CDs out in the world that are devoted exclusively to your music and several pieces of yours included on other recordings, including orchestra pieces. It’s not as much as it should be and I know it’s not as much as you wish, but all in all, it’s a pretty good track record compared to the trajectory of many other composers.
BA: Well, I really wanted the CDs out so that these pieces wouldn’t just exist in my head or on these falling apart tapes from the distant past. I thought I was going to die at the time, so I really wanted them out before I died. I didn’t think my husband was going to put them out afterwards.
FJO: I know that you were quite sick several years ago.
BA: Yes, but “she recovered!” So onward. But yes, I very glad that the CDs are out, and I would like to do more, but I haven’t organized it yet. My husband assures me that I should not do CDs, that nobody’s buying CDs, which is certainly true. I should only make things for streaming. But then how do you send a CD to a radio station if you don’t have a CD?
FJO: We’re living in a very weird transitional time. A lot of people claim they have the answers, but I don’t think anybody really knows where it’s going. I’m personally thrilled that you made sure these CDs got released. Of course, people stumble upon music online all the time these days, but I love the idea that it is also possible that somebody could chance upon one of these recordings in, say, a library in some small town in Kentucky.
FJO: It could change that person’s life, just like stumbling upon a book by John Cage changed your life. The same is true with these memoirs you’ve written, which is why I think it’s important that they are published at some point.
“There are not a lot of memoirs of women composers out in the universe, despite Ethel Smyth doing like 12 or something.”
BA: There are not a lot of memoirs of women composers out in the universe, despite Ethel Smyth doing like 12 or something. It seems like there’s a space for that in the universe potentially. And somebody could find the book. It’s like I found Eric Salzman’s book on 20th-century music and all these other books that were so important to me as a child. Even when you’re not living in the center of the universe, you can find books and recordings in libraries. I’m a big library person.
FJO: But of course now with the internet, anybody can find anything anywhere, apparently.
BA: If you know what to look for. The thing about libraries is, you would fall across them because it was red or something. I read all the books in the Mount Sterling Public Library on theosophy because every one of them was a bright color. I’d see all these old books, and there’d be a bright red one or yellow or blue or green. On the internet, you need to know what you’re looking for a little bit.
FJO: Hopefully people will find your music online through reading and seeing and hearing this talk that we’ve just done.
I’ve been writing a play haunted by Daphne Oram. “Who?” many a composer or music professional has asked when I’ve confessed my current creative obsession.
British inventor and composer Daphne Oram, a pioneer of electronic music and co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic workshop, died impoverished and relatively unknown in 2003. Oram’s system of Oramics, an early form of sound synthesis developed in the late fifties, involved generating sound from drawn image. When, in 2010, a relic of the composer’s “Oramics machine,” a behemoth of a contraption designed to house multiple strands of film running through a series of scanners, was unearthed moldering in a barn in France, the composer’s legacy was exhumed. Oram experienced the beginnings of a revival of sorts, one that has been growing steadily ever since. In June 2016, Still Point, the piece Oram wrote for two orchestras and tape machine in 1948, when she was 23—thought to be the world’s first composition that manipulates electronic sounds in real time—premiered in London as part of the Southbank Centre’s Deep∞Minimalism festival to ecstatic notices 70 years after Oram composed the work. And yet, although Oram has clearly become a beacon for contemporary composers from Missy Mazzoli to Rene Orth to Anne LeBaron, the question, voiced by many a respected music colleague, keeps resounding: “Who?”
Oram has clearly become a beacon for contemporary composers from Missy Mazzoli to Rene Orth to Anne LeBaron.
Daphne’s invisibility is at the center of my new play Sound House, which runs from February 20 to March 4 at the Flea Theater in New York City, produced by New Georges as part of a repertory project entitled “Steeped in Sound.” Two research trips I made to the Daphne Oram archive at Goldsmith’s University in London fueled my work on the play, which has become not just an investigation into Oram’s sonic legacy but a meditation on the nature of trust (Daphne’s complicated relationship with her engineer) and doorbell ditching. (I found, in the archive, that Daphne was obsessed with a barrage of buzzes and bells she was convinced she had heard, and obsessively recorded all possible arrivals—no one was ever there.) Daphne’s alter ego in the play, Constance Sneed, who has come to the theater to tell us her own story involving a disappearing mother and Constance’s own struggle with invisibility, serves as the lens through which we view Daphne. Ultimately, Daphne’s and Constance’s stories bump up against each other, two parallel narratives converging at a distant vanishing point that envisions a world in which old ladies do not die alone or forgotten, trusted accomplices prove their mettle, and young women make themselves seen and heard. Oram’s pursuit of Francis Bacon’s vision of a utopian society clamorous with heretofore unknown sounds and music resonates at the core of the play, in which text, sound, and movement all function as primary modes of expression. Sound House is, I hope, a lot like Daphne’s music—visceral, strange, haunting, at times funny, a conjuring of psychic space through sound, a landscape one garners a sense of having journeyed through.
As a playwright who has, in recent years, become an opera librettist as well, writing this play and exploring it off the page, in three, perhaps even four dimensions, has been for me not just an inquiry into the various shadings and mind-bending qualities of invisibility, but an investigation into the architectonics of sound in the theatrical space; the collusion, or collision, of text and music; how it is that one composes a durational object.
Thanks to the generosity and the vision of New Georges, the company producing the play, my collaborators and I have been lucky enough to engage in a process that has involved four workshops over two years and a production rehearsal process with a sound designer frequently in the room. Sound House’s team of makers includes Debbie Saivetz (direction), Tyler Kieffer and Brandon Walcott (sound), Brendan Spieth (movement), Marsha Ginsberg (set), Kate McGee (lights), Olivera Gajic (costumes), and Christina Campanella (additional music), and actors Vicky Finney, Susanna Stahlmann, and Jim Himelsbach.
The composer’s almost hermetic relationship with the sounds she produced came from literally living with the music and her Oramics machine.
Just as Daphne’s story and her music have served as jumping-off points for my own idiosyncratic theatrical imagination, the sound designers of Sound House, Tyler Kieffer and Brandon Wolcott, have chosen to dream in to how Daphne’s music might sound to us if it were written now. The music in Sound House comes not just from Daphne, but from a wide array of sources, including composer Christina Campanella, my collaborator on Red Fly/Blue Bottle (2010), whose music for the play explores the tactility of Daphne’s sound world—the ways in which Oram coaxed sounds out of her machines—via a loping, slightly off-kilter composition created out of found sounds and Moog synthesizer. Campanella is compelled by the connection Daphne had with her music, the composer’s almost hermetic relationship with the sounds she produced, which came from literally living with the music and her Oramics machine in her studio, which was also her home, a former oast house in Kent entitled Tower Folly. Campanella’s music communicates Daphne’s sense of wonder as well as the ways in which Daphne’s sound inventions became, for Daphne, characters or companions. Campanella has also created a theme for Constance, which serves as a metaphor for the process my collaborators and I are undertaking as we venture into Daphne’s world, a journey of exploration and discovery that Constance concurrently undergoes as the play unfolds.
Susanna Stahlmann as Constance Sneed in Stephanie Fleischmann’s Sound House.
Incorporating Campanella’s work into the mix, the sound designers are, in this case, functioning as composers. But then again, in a way, so am I. So is everyone in the room. We are, in a sense, making a piece of music, a multidimensional sonic object in which movement and sound serve as text, text becomes music, and sound carves out not only space and time, but also story. The play is replete with refrains, for instance, the buzzes and bells Daphne keeps hearing, recurring images (sonic, textual, visual) that serve as motives. Its complex and elliptical dramaturgy defies narrative logic even as it is, at least on some level, rooted in character and story. There is clearly a need to tell, an urgency to the telling—but the shape of that articulation is elusive, an open field in which anything may be possible. And yet the work demands a remarkable rigor, a precision to the carving out of its moments in terms of the integration of text, sound, and movement that I have not previously experienced, whether working on a play, a performance, or an opera.
The sound designers are functioning as composers. But then again, in a way, so am I.
Inspired by Daphne Oram’s maverick vision, her life and her music, I find myself challenging what a play can be, the narrative structures it can hold. As opposed to hewing to a more conventional narrative arc, the play’s structural underpinnings arise from the cyclical and associative patterns of thought, in turn forging a shape whose logic (or illogic) has its roots in Oram’s music, which Horace Ohm, Daphne’s fictional engineer in Sound House, describes as “the underside of a half-remembered dream, like a distant thought, coated in rime, like memory itself.”
By the time she was in her sixties, Daphne found herself reduced to putting on outdoor concerts of recorded music to make ends meet. Calling on her early experiences as a junior engineer at the BBC, she installed sound systems in the forecourts, on the rolling lawns, in the apple orchards of the great houses of Kent, curating eclectic programs for a scattering of old-age pensioners, keeping meticulous notes as she wired up these sites: “20 paces from apple to yew to cherry.” “Daphne Oram’s Recorded Music Society” is a centerpiece of the play, which attempts to get at what my rendition of Daphne describes as “the endless ostinato that is the opposite of renown.” Daphne’s struggle to disseminate her system of Oramics to a wider audience, and for recognition as both an inventor and a composer, dogged her until the end of her life. What is the moment, the turning point that determines that a person’s dreams are not going to come about? Sifting through the clues contained in the Daphne Oram archive, musing on the trajectory of my own life and those of many gifted artists I have known, no one answer emerges. The experience of invisibility is not a linear phenomenon. Neither are the ways in which invisibility undermines a life. Daphne’s eroded hopes are not unlike the infrasonics, the low unheard frequencies that pervade the play, wearing away at Daphne’s resilience in all sorts of insidious ways. Charting the depths of the condition of invisibility from the point of view of music and its modalities is making the space for discoveries I’m not sure would have come about via more linear means.
Foregrounding sound means that the text becomes something of a scaffold—not unlike an opera libretto.
Foregrounding sound as a primary compositional tool means that the text becomes something of a scaffold—not unlike an opera libretto. How is it that writing a play like Sound House informs my work as a librettist? How does my work as a librettist inform my approach to a play such as Sound House? In many ways, the two forms and the processes fueling them are somewhat antithetical. Creating an opera libretto requires an intense amount of premeditation—outlining, problem-solving, planning, all of which transpires prior to the actual writing process. Paradoxically, I have never outlined any play I’ve ever written. Sound House is, in part, structured around the conceit of a trio of first-person testimonials. It contains many more words than any libretto I would venture to write. And yet, working in opera for the past six years has sharpened my ear, deepened my understanding of musical dramaturgy, which has clearly informed how I am making my way through this play.
Daphne Oram was obsessed with Francis Bacon’s Nova Atlantis (1624). She kept a passage from it—“We have also Sound Houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation”—pinned to her studio wall as inspiration. My contribution to an opera, the libretto—a fashioning of text as a scaffold for music, for drama, for lived time, for inhabited space, for story—must be all about a crystalline, almost cut-throat dramaturgy. But taking this leap into the more nonlinear terrain of Daphne Oram’s and Francis Bacon’s “Sound Houses,” however, has yielded invaluable insight into the machinations, if one dares use such a word, of music making, which can’t help but inform how I approach my next opera libretto. Working on Sound House has opened up new possibilities, leaving me to ponder what a libretto that does more than simply leave space for the music might look like; and ask not just how might I best serve the composer, but how can I build structures with my texts that truly house sound?
Jim Himelsbach (as Horace Ohm, Daphne Oram’s engineer), Susanna Stahlmann as Constance Sneed, and Vicky Finney as Daphne Oram in Stephanie Fleischmann’s Sound House.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
This is the final post in a four-part series about the important role female mentors have played in developing my artistic and civic identity.
I mentioned in my previous article that advice at the right moment or the spontaneous outreach of compassion can turn anyone into a mentor. Of course, the opposite can happen. Tina Tallon recently shared a moving story—worth reading in full—about an all-too-familiar mentorship blunder:
The presenters asked if any of the students composed music, and only two people reacted…They were a seven-year-old girl in the front row, right in front of the presenters, and an older boy (probably 12 or 13) off to the side. The girl shyly raised her hand to about shoulder height, and the boy’s hand shot up in the air and he said “Oh, totally!” So the presenters of course turned and started up a conversation with him, asking him what instrument he played and whether he wrote music for himself or other people. He responded that he played violin, but that he wrote music for full orchestra. They noted how awesome that was and continued asking him questions and complimenting him, all while the girl looked more and more disappointed. By the end of the conversation, she was looking at the floor. The presenters then turned back to the center of the room and asked if there was anyone else, and this time, she didn’t raise her hand at all. She just kept looking at the floor.
Tallon came to the rescue by approaching the young girl after this exchange. She offered the enthusiasm and support the youngster had been denied in a public forum. Tallon also offers poignant cautionary advice to her readers: “It became very apparent that even the seemingly smallest of actions might have significant consequences… especially when working with the youngest members of our community, we need to be very clear about offering encouragement to everyone, not just the most gregarious (or whitest or male-est) students.”
This article is not about the countlessstudies that show men to be more talkative than women or more likely to interrupt their peers, garnering more attention than their female counterparts. Nor is it about the very real confidence gap that begins to distinguish genders at a very young age. But I can’t write about benefiting from strong female mentorship and reflect on my own teaching unless these cultural, historical, and sociological realities are recognized.
Dublin Lake, where I have often sat and thought about teaching when I’m at The Walden School.
I can’t write about benefiting from strong female mentorship and reflect on my own teaching unless cultural, historical, and sociological realities are recognized.
As a young and very green teacher of both classroom and private students, I have no illusions about making mistakes in my teaching. But Tallon’s story made me reflect on one teaching moment in particular.
At Bard Prep, where I teach music theory and composition, my most advanced music theory class this semester was comprised of four very loud, confident preteen boys and a shy, subdued, slightly younger girl—I’ll call her Alice. The boys had a common interest in composition, and they would often leave the classroom talking excitedly at each other about their projects.
Alice was an engaged but quiet participant, clearly listening but only contributing if explicitly called upon. While I was definitely sensitive to Alice’s timidity in the midst of this garrulous boy-dominated classroom environment, I didn’t want to make her feel self-conscious by singling her out, nor did I want to disrupt what I thought was relatively productive management of a high-energy class.
After the last class of the semester, Alice stayed behind and asked if she could show me a piece she’d written. Of course, I was elated! One of her classmates, I’ll call him Pat, overheard this exchange and asked if he could stay and listen to Alice’s composition, because “he too was a composer and very interested to hear what she’d come up with.” At first, I hesitated, thinking that perhaps Alice would retreat into shyness if she felt judged by a peer. But Alice consented and proceeded to play a gorgeous blues-y piano piece. Pat, in his sincere excitement, began explaining what he heard and appreciated, which quickly digressed into a monologue about what he likes to compose. When I tried to shift attention back to Alice by suggesting that she and I do a blues improvisation together, Pat automatically inserted himself into the activity.
I felt totally stuck as a teacher in this moment. On the one hand, I was petrified that Pat’s overbearing presence would make Alice feel insignificant in a moment of vulnerability. On the other hand, I didn’t want to exclude or shun Pat, who didn’t understand why his behavior might have been inconsiderate. Moreover, I also did not feel that this was the moment to address issues of peer listening with Pat, as this would further shift the interaction away from Alice’s music and towards Pat’s behavior. Add to that the fear of inappropriately projecting these anxieties onto what should be a positive musical experience, encouraging Alice to share her talents again (and again and again). Might my poor management of this situation create detrimental consequences for the impressionable Alice’s psyche? Gah!!
In the end, I was able to strongly connect with Alice and saw in her a newfound confidence and joy in music making.
This scenario contained several valuable lessons. First, I am ashamed to confess that if Alice had not approached me on that last day of class, I would not have known about her compositional interests because I did not ask. This reveals common challenges that teachers face in managing many different personalities in a classroom, particularly in equating vocality with interest or aptitude. I’m sad that I wasn’t able to identify and then overcome this challenge. I’m also glad to have gotten a chance to discover and try to remedy the situation.
Teachers face challenges in managing many different personalities in a classroom, particularly in equating vocality with interest or aptitude.
Second, just because I can’t ignore or brush aside the implications of this moment’s gender dynamics and their potential consequences doesn’t mean Alice is not enjoying herself. She was having a blast sharing music—she was not burdened by my baggage, sensitivity, awareness, etc., of the scenario at play. I have to be careful about imposing my anxieties onto her and Pat, making more out of a situation than is perhaps warranted. But maybe I am making the right amount of fuss about it. I just don’t know, and not knowing is why mentoring is so hard.
In what ways should we be vigilant as mentors, and how extreme should our vigilance make us? How do we best nurture a creative person’s individuality? What is our part in shaping that individual into a confident, compassionate community member? I think these are some of the questions that the mentors I’ve written about have considered with great care. As they were mentoring me, they were undoubtedly observing situations like these and making decisions about vigilance. For this I am grateful.
My classroom white board the last day of class. The students would keep track of what they called “Katie’s quotable quotes” and when ever I said something silly or dumb or amusing they’d write it down.