Women of Influence in Contemporary Music: Nine American Composers

By Grolman, Ellen K. | Notes, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Women of Influence in Contemporary Music: Nine American Composers


Grolman, Ellen K., Notes


Women of Influence in Contemporary Music: Nine American Composers. Edited by Michael K. Slayton. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011. [xvi, 494 p. ISBN 9780810877429, $75.] Music examples, discography, index.

After reading Michael K. Slayton's Women of Influence in Contemporary Music: Nine American Composers, I wanted to create a spreadsheet that would allow me, in one glance, to view and weigh and compare the composers' collective musical influences, stylistic traits, daily composing rituals, educational backgrounds, preferred genres, approaches to teaching composition, notational eccentricities, relationships with performers, pre-compositional planning, life challenges and life changes, inspirations, aspirations, and thoughts about being composers who happen to be female. I didn't actually build the spreadsheet, of course, but what I found most engaging about Slayton's book was that it lent itself to precisely such multiple comparisons, highlighting, as it does, an admirable and impressive diversity of experience and approach, of perseverance and serendipity, of innovation and inspired musical juxtapositions.

The nine American living composers (listed both here and in the book alphabetically by surname) are Elizabeth R. Austin, Susan Botti, Gabriela Lena Frank, Jennifer Higdon, Libby Larsen, Tania León, Cindy McTee, Marga Richter, and Judith Shatin. The volume's portraits (two of which are authored by Slayton) are structured identically. Each includes a biography, music examples, an interview with the composer, and a coda, which provides the briefest summary of the composer's current activities and projects. End notes, a list of works, a discography, and a source list follow. The authors, in addition to Slayton (Vanderbilt University), include Carson Cooman (Boston), Deborah Hayes (Uni versity of Colorado, Boulder, emerita), Donald McKinney (Interlochen Arts Aca demy), Tina Milhorn Stallard (Uni versity of South Carolina), James Spinaz zola (University of Indianapolis), Sharon Mirchandani (Westminster Choir College of Rider University), and Judith Lochhead (State University of New York, Stony Brook). Slayton indicates that the authors were chosen "in collaboration with the composers themselves" (p. xiii); at least two of the authors were or are engaged in additional research focusing on the composers with whom they are paired in this volume.

Reflecting upon the multiplicity of compositional approaches, musical influences and heterogeneous backgrounds, Karin Pendle, author of Women & Music: A History (2d ed. [Bloomington: Indiana Uni - versity Press, 2001]) provides the book's foreword, entitled "Who Are These Women?" She notes that the composers featured "represent not only 'women composers' but 'American composers' " (p. ix) and reminds us that the many women who failed to "forge successful careers" (p. ix) in composition failed not necessarily because they were lacking in talent, but because they lacked access (italics Pendle's). Depen - dent variously upon geography, era, and class, they lacked access to the public, access to performers, access to technology, and access, perhaps most importantly, to education.

The composers unanimously express a clear commitment to the triumvirate of audience, performer, and the younger generation they currently mentor and teach. Each has searched for and found inspiration for composition in arenas other than music, including, but certainly not limited to, theater (Botti), personal heritage (León and Frank), literature (Austin and Richter), "science, social theory and religion" (Shatin) (p. 406), themes of social awareness (Larsen), and visual art (McTee and Higdon).

The composers' stylistic characteristics and sonic tools are as wide-ranging as their individual sources of inspiration and represent the entirety of approaches to composition in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Several, including Shatin and McTee, make use of electronic and digital media as well as employing their acoustic palette, while others, like Richter, remain resolutely acoustic. …

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