Tag: women

“Splendid Sonority and Vivid Expressiveness”: The Theremin before Sci-Fi

A photo of a female conductor circa 1930

Most people who haven’t heard of the theremin have heard it, usually in old science fiction movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (or spoofs like Mars Attacks). The instrument has a reputation as an oddball, by virtue of its unusual method of playing without touch (players control pitch and volume by moving their arms in proximity to two antennae), its notoriously slippery chromatic sound, and its association with all things alien and strange.

Yet the instrument was popular with U.S. audiences well before its appearance in sci-fi films. A significant surviving reception history documents recitals and concerts during the ’30s and ’40s, often given by women, known as “thereminists,” who played the instrument professionally or semi-professionally. Years before Hollywood cemented the theremin’s association with the alien or otherworldly, critics heard different qualities in its sonority: emotional expressiveness and excessive sentimentality.

This history isn’t widely known or taught, but it reveals much about how electronic musical sound takes on meaning and significance. While we might take for granted that the instrument’s touchless technique and new electronic timbre would naturally register with early listeners as alien and strange, contemporary reviews and commentary upend such assumptions and reveal the extent to which sonorities take on meaning in specific contexts, and in relationship to specific bodies.

A Theremin for the American Home

RCA Victor began producing the first commercial theremin in 1929 after leasing exclusive rights to the patent for a two-year term from its inventor, Leon Theremin. The company marketed the theremin as an instrument for the home, hiding its working parts—oscillators, vacuum tubes, and circuit board—in a polished wooden cabinet. Working with Theremin (an amateur cellist himself), RCA engineers shaped the instrument’s tone to evoke a cello in its mid-range and a violin at the top, sonorities they presumed would appeal to consumers.

RCA Victor theremin brochure c. 1930

RCA Victor theremin brochure c. 1930

RCA launched a campaign to familiarize audiences with the instrument’s sound. Department stores and music retailers across the country advertised demonstrations and concerts, and a series of weekly radio programs on NBC featured theremin renditions of popular repertory of the day and classical melodies like Camille Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan.” RCA marketed the instrument as a pathway to instant musical gratification for the amateur, promising that anyone could play it “without musical knowledge or training of any sort … without tiresome or extended ‘practice.’” The theremin (RCA hoped) would become “the universal musical instrument,” the piano’s heir apparent in millions of American living rooms.

Claims of universality notwithstanding, this campaign primarily targeted middle and upper-class white women, a demographic frequently associated with (and compelled to take on) domestic music-making and most likely to select music technology purchased for the home. Although men frequently played the theremin in demonstrations and broadcasts, RCA Victor’s promotional material almost exclusively pictured women playing the instrument. In Madison, Wisconsin, the local Ludlow Radio company sponsored several theremin concerts by a Mr. Lennington Shewell, but otherwise emphasized female use. The company launched a search for a “mystery co-ed” at the University of Wisconsin, alleging a gifted thereminist lived among the student body (no record of such a student survives). The local Capital Times gamely took up the publicity stunt, running an image of Ludlow’s office manager Charlotte Hilton with the instrument—although she admitted she did not know how to play it.

“Seek Mystery ‘Co-ed’ who Plays Theremin," Capital Times front page, Madison, Wisconsin, October 19, 1930

“Seek Mystery ‘Co-ed’ who Plays Theremin,” Capital Times front page, Madison, Wisconsin, October 19, 1930

Despite RCA Victor’s marketing efforts, the theremin was a flop: the company sold only 485 models and abandoned the instrument just two years after its launch. Any number of factors contributed to the theremin’s commercial failure, not least of them the instrument’s $230 price tag (roughly equivalent to $3,300 in 2018), which made it a luxury item at the start of the Great Depression.

RCA Victor’s most notorious blunder, though, was its gross misrepresentation of the instrument’s learning curve. It is incredibly difficult to play tonal melodies on a theremin: with no tactile interface and the entire chromatic spectrum available, the instrument lacks any readily apparent means to make a clear break between intervals, and requires a player’s hand to remain absolutely still in order to hold a steady pitch. Try to pick out even a simple melody on a theremin, and you’ll find yourself fighting a battle against continuous glissandi and poor intonation.

Thereminists and their critics

Despite these technical challenges, in the decades following the theremin’s commercial failure a small number of performers, most of them white women, concertized on the instrument in the U.S. and Europe. Among these, Clara Rockmore remains the most celebrated. A former child violin prodigy, Rockmore took theremin technique and virtuosity to a new level, developing a complex fingering method she adapted for each piece she performed. She carefully curated a repertoire for the instrument drawn mostly from works for violin and cello, with slow tempi and a great deal of step-wise motion that minimized the large pitch slides to which the instrument was prone. A typical program included works like Joseph Achron’s Hebrew Melody, Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera, and César Franck’s Cello Sonata in A Major. Her career included national tours as the opening act for Paul Robeson and a performance with the New York Philharmonic under Leopold Stokowski.

Clara Rockmore performs “The Swan” accompanied by her sister Nadia Reisenberg

Throughout her career, critics lauded Rockmore’s virtuosic playing and sophisticated musicianship. Reviewers frequently remarked on the instrument’s expressive powers in Rockmore’s hands, describing its tone as “warm” and “rich” and comparing it to the cello, violin, and human voice. They heard a “splendid sonority and vivid expressiveness” and a “clear, singing, almost mournful” tone in Rockmore’s playing. To this day, she remains influential among thereminists.

Yet critical response to Rockmore and the theremin was not universally positive. A rhetoric of noisiness threads through this early reception history, employed by (mostly white, mostly male) critics to mark the theremin as sonically obnoxious. During the ’30s and ’40s, when concert thereminists like Rockmore were active, critics often complained about their “excessive” use of vibrato and portamento. There is a practical explanation for such complaints: without the use of these techniques, it is next to impossible to locate pitches, or to create even the impression of accurate intonation, on the theremin.

Critics, however, did not limit themselves to practical questions about technique. Many turned to identity politics to signal their displeasure with the instrument’s slippery chromaticism, taking a cue from the long history of linking “excessive” chromaticism with bodies deemed sexually, racially, or otherwise aberrant. Writers for the New-York Tribune and Modern Music compared the theremin’s sonority to that of a “feline whine,” a fictional Wagnerian soprano dubbed “Mme. Wobble-eena,” and “fifty mothers all singing lullabies to their children at the same time.” Such comparisons are inseparable from the (frequently female) bodies that, in concert with the theremin, produced such sounds.

A few prominent figures in the American new music community at the time were particularly vehement in their criticism. In 1932 Marc Blitzstein wrote in Modern Music that the theremin’s “tone color remains lamentably sentimental, without virility. The most perfected [model], like a cello, exposes most brutally the cloying sound.” John Cage complained about concert thereminists in a 1937 talk (later published in the collection Silence). “When Theremin provided an instrument with genuinely new possibilities,” groused Cage, “Thereminists did their utmost to make the instrument sound like some old instrument, giving it a sickeningly sweet vibrato, and performing upon it, with difficulty, masterpieces from the past. Although the instrument is capable of a wide variety of sound qualities…Thereminists act as censors, giving the public those sounds they think the public will like. We are shielded from new sound experiences.”

The deficiencies commentators like Cage heard in the theremin’s sonority were not simply a response to the sound itself, but to the bodies and performance practices of thereminists like Rockmore. Composers of Western art music have long used “excessive” chromaticism to aurally mark women, and the thereminists’ frequent use of vibrato and portamento easily mapped onto the stereotype of the overly powerful and expressive operatic soprano. Meanwhile, new music proponents like Blitzstein often attacked traditional Western repertory in gendered terms as they sought to define a properly “virile” new music of their own. And we cannot dismiss the impact that the image of a woman performing held then (and holds now): such a vision can provoke both admiration and outrage.

Clara Rockmore

Photograph of Clara Rockmore (c. 1930s) by Renato Toppo, courtesy of The Nadia Reisenberg / Clara Rockmore Foundation

“Serious” and “Beautiful” Electronic Music

It is composers like Cage who stand as towering figures in electronic music—not performers like Rockmore—and it is his take on the theremin that you’re likely to encounter in a book on the subject. Rockmore held entirely different opinions on the aesthetics of electronic musical sound. Looking back on her career in a 1977 interview with Bob Moog, she lamented that:

From the beginning of electronic instruments, the interest of composers,…builders, and performers, is that of a search for eerie, new or strange sound effects….Modern composers are shying away from melody, frankly because I don’t think they know how to write really beautiful melody….Now they make sound effects and noises when they write.

Rockmore also lamented what she saw as Hollywood’s devaluation of the theremin’s sound to a sonic cliché. She complained that Hollywood exploited the theremin for its “weird noises…you were supposed to be frightened by the sounds. That was not what I wanted to add to. I just wanted to be a serious musician…play Bach!” John Cage might have belittled Rockmore’s repertoire choices as “censorship,” but for her, playing “masterpieces from the past” was a way to confer legitimacy on her chosen instrument.

Contrasting Rockmore’s words about the theremin’s sound with Cage’s demonstrates how their relative positions of power and vulnerability influenced their discussions of electronic musical sound. Both were musicians in elite spheres—one traditional, the other avant-garde. Both worked in niche musical areas and proselytized for their chosen work. Both, at least publicly, disdained musical sounds they did not like or found threatening to their own careers.

Cage is often praised for his commitment to artistic freedom, and it is his definition of freedom—freedom from tonality, from traditional repertoire—that has been taken up and promoted by most electronic music historians. Yet in the case of the theremin, Cage argued for the restriction of performance practices, and historians use his words to explain why thereminists are not properly part of electronic musical history. Rockmore had a different take. When explaining how the theremin fit in the broader electronic music scene, she said, “The theremin is just another musical voice that the artist can feel free to do with what he can.” It is time we expand our own notions of musical freedom. Our histories will only grow richer when we do.

Building Curriculum Diversity: Analytical Essays

While much of the public debate about diversifying classical music has been about discovering the composers themselves and what makes them unique as people, there has not been as much attention drawn to the lack of academic resources that show the incredible craft and process behind their compositional output. Therefore, this week in this series on building curriculum diversity, I’ll focus on resources for music theory classrooms—specifically, analyses of works by women composers.

Laurel Parsons and Brenda Ravenscroft are the editors of Oxford’s new series Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers. This exciting new series will consist of four volumes, the first of which was recently published on Concert Music 1960–2000. Future volumes will collect other historical essays, and my personal favorite, Electroacoustic, Multimedia, and Experimental Music, 1950–2015 (forthcoming), will include essays on works by Laurie Anderson, Pauline Oliveros, and Björk. Parsons and Ravenscroft graciously agreed to answer some questions about their inspirations and current projects.

Anne Lanzilotti: What inspired you write/edit Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers?

Laurel Parsons: In the late 1990s while writing my dissertation on the music of British composer Elisabeth Lutyens, I began to notice how rare it was at music theory conferences to hear analysis papers on compositions by women, and by “rare” I mean one or two, but often none. The 2002 CSW Special Session with analysis papers on the music of five women composers was the first time there had ever been more than two in a single conference, but then the numbers dropped again. And the representation of female composers’ music in major music theory journals was even lower.

Then in 2006 a grad student told me how she’d been discouraged from doing her dissertation on a female composer because her advisor said her research would be considered marginal and she wouldn’t be able to get a job. That made me think something really needed to be done to signal that this kind of research didn’t have to be marginal, that it could be a legitimate and exciting research path. Writing my own articles wouldn’t be enough—there needed to be a critical mass of scholars publishing all in one place.

Since I hadn’t done anything like this before I needed a collaborator and thought Brenda Ravenscroft would be ideal. So I was thrilled when she agreed, and it’s been a fabulous partnership. We’re still friends!

Brenda Ravenscroft: The collaboration has been particularly important as this project has developed and expanded. Our initial concept was rather modest: a single collection of essays on music by women composers from all periods. However, our first call for proposals resulted in a surprisingly high number of submissions, and we realized that we had enough material for several collections. This evolution in scope and scale is important: a single volume suggests that music written by women is rare and focuses attention on the gender of the composers. Four volumes organized by time period and genre shifts the focus to the range and depth of their compositional activities. But working on multiple volumes simultaneously is not a small task, and that’s where our partnership has been essential!

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

In less than a decade, we’d like to see the term “female composer” seem as ridiculous as “lady doctor.”

BR: It’s tempting to say “because it’s 2017!” But it’s not just about equity. I believe strongly in the phrase “if she can’t see it, she can’t be it.” Women need to be represented so that younger generations—both female and male—know that being a composer is a viable ambition for a young girl to have. If women are not included in curricula and histories, we run the risk of their absence being accepted as some kind of unquestionable natural state. We need to actively resist this by ensuring women and their music are present in our classrooms and concert halls. In less than a decade, we’d like to see the term “female composer” seem as ridiculous as “lady doctor.”

AL: How did womeninmusictheory.wordpress.com start?

LP: During my term as CSW chair [Committee on the Status of Women (CSW) of the Society for Music Theory], one of our members, Jane Piper Clendinning, came up with the idea of an online situational mentoring program where SMT members who needed to talk through a gender-related career issue could contact a volunteer mentor directly and anonymously without having to go through a program administrator. Around the same time, a friend of mine who is a female philosopher had introduced me to the blog “What is it Like to be a Woman in Philosophy?,” a forum where women could post anonymized accounts of their experiences in the field. I’d been thinking that something like that would be useful for the music theory community, so the CSW decided to launch our own blog. Stefanie Acevedo, our grad student member, did a beautiful job of setting it up, launching, and managing it in those first couple of years.

Chen Yi’s Symphony No. 2, one of the pieces analyzed in Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers: Concert Music from 1960-2000.

AL: Could you describe your involvement in the CSW, and how that evolved into this resource?

BR: We’ve both been involved in the leadership of the Society’s Committee on the Status of Women; I chaired it from 2006–2009 and Laurel held that position from 2012–2015. Our engagement in the CSW gave us the opportunity to create conference sessions focused on relevant topics—professional development for female theorists, analysis of music by women, feminist theory—to advocate for women within a Society that has a 70/30 ratio of male to female members, to support female theorists, and to build resources such as the blog.

LP: In addition to CSW mentoring programs, announcements, and posts about various issues, the blog provides a space for resources such as the SMT Guidelines for Non-Sexist Language, the CSW guidelines on preparing and answering interview questions, its Wiki Bibliography on Women and Gender in Music, and sample course syllabi for courses on women and music. There’s a lot to explore.

AL: Could you talk more about the mentoring program?

LP: The CSW actually offers three mentoring programs. The Proposal Mentoring program, launched in the early 2000s, pairs junior female scholars or grad students with experienced mentors who will read their draft conference proposals and provide constructive feedback. I was the grad student representative on the CSW at the time, and we developed it out of concern for the fact that women were giving a lower proportion of the papers at our annual conference than their proportion in the Society. The Article Mentoring program rolled out in 2012 and works in a similar way for drafts of articles for publication, since there’s been a similar discrepancy between membership and publication rates. It’s been great to see these discrepancies narrow and hopefully this trend will persist.

The newest addition is the situational mentoring program called Ask Me!, the brainchild of Jane Piper Clendinning that I mentioned earlier. Launched in 2015, it allows any Society member with a gender-related career problem to directly contact a mentor whose own experience and expertise best matches their own situation, while protecting their own privacy to the degree they choose.

AL: What are some resources that each of you use for discovering new (or forgotten) composers?

LP: There are several lists of female composers online, and playlists of their music such as the Spotify list 1200 Years of Women Composers: From Hildegard to Higdon. Of course there are also important print resources such as Karin Pendle and Melinda Boyd’s Women in Music, or the anthologies edited by James Briscoe. The BBC’s Celebrating Women Composers pages are a marvelous resource, as is the Canadian Music Centre’s Composer Showcase although it’s not specifically devoted to female composers. Hildegard Publishing, ClarNan Editions, and A-R Editions deserve a mention here, too, along with societies like Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy and the International Alliance for Women in Music.

But our greatest discoveries have often come courtesy of authors who have responded to our calls for proposals. We’ve often received proposals on music by composers we’ve never heard of, and it’s been tremendously exciting to listen to all this “new” music even if we haven’t been able to accept every proposal. There’s just so much more out there to discover!

Saariaho’s speaks about From the Grammar of Dreams, which is also the subject of one of the analyses in Analytical Essays on Music by Women Composers: Concert Music from 1960-2000.

BR: Because music by female composers is more often performed than written about, I find reading concert reviews from international venues, looking at programs, and, of course, going to concerts can alert one to new names. It’s not systematic, but can be illuminating. Ironically, existing efforts to highlight overlooked composers rarely include a single female name. In an email that went out to the Society for Music Theory list a few years ago soliciting work on neglected composers, 46 of the 47 names were male!

AL: Do you have any words of encouragement for performers/scholars/educators who are trying to figure out how to make a difference, big or small?

Our goal is that the composer’s gender becomes unremarkable so that the focus of attention is the remarkable music.

BR: It doesn’t matter how small your contribution seems to be—including a single work by a female composer in a recital or radio broadcast, using an excerpt from a piece by a woman to demonstrate the German augmented sixth (Molly Murdock’s new website Music Theory Examples by Women is a great resource for teachers). Every effort counts towards making a difference and normalizing the inclusion of music by women. Our goal is that the composer’s gender becomes unremarkable so that the focus of attention is the remarkable music.

LP: Unless of course there’s evidence to suggest gender and music are significantly intertwined in a composition, but that’s another conversation.

You know, when we started out we were doing it out of a sense of equity and there will always be an element of that. But after years of reading all these essays and listening to all this music, we do it now because we’ve learned just how rich that mother lode of music by women really is, and we want other people to have the same terrific experience. So there’s no need to be motivated by a sense of duty—be motivated by the fact that there’s a world of wonderful, fresh repertoire out there waiting for someone to discover and share.

Con vibrato ma non troppo: Rethinking Sopranos

boys chorus

boys chorus

“Keep it light.”

“Less wobble.”

“Check your vibrato.”

Choral singers, from adolescents to adults, are familiar with a conductor’s fussing over, specifically, the soprano section’s vocal production. Conductors, many of whom are not trained sopranos, hate to confess that they ask their sopranos to sing senza vibrato. To most, such instruction is anathema.

Even so, there are a variety of ways they tiptoe around asking sopranos for such “pure” tone production. And what is often perceived by their singers is that vibrato is bad, ugly, tasteless, or unnecessary, to the extent that vocal pedal tones and high pianissimi look daunting.

Soprano and composer Victoria Fraser, a friend of mine who makes a living as a choral musician, recently referenced her experience at a summer music festival in Germany. They prepared one movement from a new major work by James MacMillan, commissioned for the following summer, and she said it “killed” the sopranos. To which I responded, “Well, MacMillan is not a soprano.”

I fondly recall singing the popular Scottish composer’s The Gallant Weaver under Simon Carrington as a member of the Texas All-State Choir. It is a sublime example of a work for advanced adult mixed voices requiring vocal flexibility, endurance, and wide ranges. The alto, tenor, and bass parts remain low and the sopranos are high and exposed. In fact, there are three soprano parts, creating a melody that echoes in heterophony with many sustained highs and repeated leaps to A5.

Yes, it makes beautiful music, but it is what I call an “expensive piece.” It is demanding, to say the least. This model for vocal beauty has been popularized, and, much like society’s standards for feminine beauty, it is lofty, grossly impractical, and often, manufactured.

It is a suspicion of mine that this is the case because most of the choral repertory comes from male composers, who have no experience in the role of sopranos who are women.

A Misnomer

It so happens that a significant amount of our choral literature draws from an historical context in which women were not able to participate. The SATB voicing, as we know it today, belonged to all-male choruses, consisting of both pre- and post-pubescent male voices.

Consider the language. Soprano is Latin and ends in “o.” Even in 2016, even when discussing female roles through centuries of opera and the highest voices in our vocal ensembles across the world, women are given the title of “boy.”

Early music is customary in choral markets and programming, from high school on, and we have become more than comfortable with the “o.” And now, we are composing, conducting, and teaching in a way that puts post-pubescent female voices into the role of pre-pubescent males’. That is, we expect our sopranos to sing thin, high, and without vibrato.

Victoria Fraser suggests there has indeed been an early music “revolution,” which is a factor in the increased desire for straight tone singing. She believes that the trend of early music has “bled” into contemporary choral music, and she laments that conductors often opt out of a more energized, colored vocalization from their sopranos.

So, why as professionals do we perpetuate, and why as composers do we imitate, the sound of a soprano section comprised of pre-pubescent boys? Why insist on the misunderstanding that adult female sopranos are able to or should sing strictly senza vibrato in the way children do?

Vocal Health

Too often, conductors forsake healthy vocal production for easy tuning and clarity of tone. Then, we revisit the controversy between the proverbial choral director and their private vocal instructors.
The teacher in me would ask that we compose with the understanding that “straight tone” singing all the time is not only limiting to a soprano’s timbral capacity but also destructive to their instrument. Such strain can lead to vocal nodules and other health-related phonation problems.

Conversely, singing con vibrato is singing out, with energy, and it is conducive to efficient phonation for all voice types, especially on highs and fortes. Vibrato also helps with vocal endurance because it is only possible when the vocal mechanism is in a position to relax and allow for some vibration, which is an indication of steady breath flow.

That is to say, if the first sopranos are singing above the staff senza vibrato for longer than a couple of minutes with infrequent rests, you are going to have an exhausted soprano section for the remainder of your rehearsal or concert.

Composers would do well to prevent such a situation. We may think we can get away with sustained highs and louds senza vibrato because of that seductive playback function on our engraving software. Those sopranos do not have trouble sustaining and tuning when they are represented by a pre-recorded sound. But there are more reliable models.

As another expert in the vocal field, my brother Matthew Valverde, puts it: “Sopranos who can ‘straight tone’ beautifully all day do exist. But if you’re looking for the music to be done well and in diverse communities, it is best to allow women to just sing.”

Composers Are Responsible

One of the mundane but necessary parts of collegiate composition curricula is the study of what is idiomatic to compose for any given instrument. What are the different colors you get as you explore the clarinet’s registers? How difficult will it be to hear a flute at that dynamic level in that tessitura? What triple stops are feasible on the violin? How quickly can the harpist make these pedal changes?

Likewise, it behooves a composer to research the idiom of adult female voices. Unfortunately, recording after recording will suggest that sopranos have supernatural abilities of sustained tone production like sunbeams on a crisp winter morning. Such a sound comes at a cost, and we could stand to reimagine vocal beauty for the sake of the accessibility of our composition with sensitivity to the longevity of our collaborators’ livelihoods.

The ‘Woman Composer’ is Dead


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who killed her?

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

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

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


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

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


Amy Beth Kirsten

Amy Beth Kirsten – Copyright 2012 J Henry Fair

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