Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Women Composer Question in the 21st Century

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

The Women Composer Question in the 21st Century

Article excerpt

Listening to Kathryn Mishell's recent interview of composer Joan Tower, one is struck by Tower's spunky frankness as she deftly responded to a query so frequently posed, known simply as the "woman composer question": "I do like the fact-and I do mention it-that that I am a woman composer, and living!"1 She continued:

I'm a fighter for both of these issues: the living composer and the woman composer. I ask audiences, have you heard a woman composer? Two hands go up. They are just not aware of this as a fact at all. See, this is just a fact, it's just a reminder that they are leaving out things. Well, how many living composers have you heard? Three [hands]. And how many [living] women? None! . . . I think that the statistics, if you look at them, are pretty miserable. I've never had any overt-you know, signs of-"we don't want you, you're a woman." But all you have to do is look at the statistics, and then you can see what is falling out.2

Indeed, the most recent statistics published by UNESCO reveal only five percent of classical art music performed today was created by women composers.3 This is corroborated by the latest data from the Information Resource Center of the American Symphony Orchestra League. "In the 05-06 Season, there were 13,258 performances of individual works. Among these performances, 149 performances were by female composers. The living female composers collectively had a total of 125 performances of individual works."4 Shockingly, only one percent of the works played by symphony orchestras were by women, and this appalling statistic further shrinks with the addition of the modifier "living" and moves to statistically insignificant if one is looking to find compositions by women of color.5

Joan Tower notes the apparent bleakness of opportunities for living composers-both male and female-and acknowledges that regardless of gender or ethnicity, all composers need similar things: time to compose; the opportunity to hear their music performed; and commissions, with the all-important support and encouragement they imply. However, an enormous imbalance remains even into the twenty-first century, and this is a source of deep concern. This disquiet inspired me to engage leading women composers in conversation, in order both to discover the possible reasons for this persistent imbalance, as well as to glean suggestions and insights for how we might inspire and evoke positive change, both inside and outside of the academy. If implemented, the solutions proffered would transform the broader field of classical art music, and profoundly impact our work as singers and teachers of vocal literature.

Institutions of higher learning in America, especially those in the highest echelons, traditionally have not been amenable to women composers. Indeed, the Juilliard School awarded its first Doctorate of Music in Composition degree to a woman as late as 1975, to an artist who later became the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1983, Ellen Zwilich.6 Of course the systematic reasons for these omissions are both historical and complex,7 but considering the meager track record of the past, it is clear that universities must play a pivotal role for any sense of balance to be possible in the future, and it is absolutely vital that we as singers and voice teachers exert influence at various points in the process. We should revise university entrance exams to recognize the profound shifts in the musical background and training of potential students. We must encourage reexamination of the musical canon selected for study and performance, both in terms of our own programming and in the recitals of our students.8 Finally, we need to rearticulate the mission of our search committee participation as we seek out future colleagues, for these new colleagues profoundly impact the future of our individual institutions, the field of singing, and the larger world of classical music.

Current university entrance requirements continue to be a significant impediment, as one of America's most frequently performed living composers, Libby Larsen, observes. …

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