Female Composers Making Strides in Music World Recent Gains Come despite No Help from Modern Classical Music World

By Midgette, Anne | The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), November 4, 2017 | Go to article overview

Female Composers Making Strides in Music World Recent Gains Come despite No Help from Modern Classical Music World


Midgette, Anne, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)


The headline looks like a spoof: "There's a good reason there are no great female composers. The article beneath it eviscerates the outputs of Clara Schumann ("a dud), Fanny Mendelssohn, Amy Beach and Dame Ethyl Smyth - wondering, basically, who could be bothered to listen to such inferior talents.

I wish this were a relic of the past, something to be chuckled over to demonstrate how far we've come, but I can't. It ran in the well-known British conservative weekly Spectator in 2015.

Even today, men still laugh at the idea of women composing classical music.

We should be beyond this by now. Indeed, we should have been beyond it a generation ago. "The social culture of the composition scene was quite shocking to me, composer Sarah Kirkland Snider wrote earlier this year on NewMusicBox.com, the leading contemporary-music webzine. "In many ways it felt like stepping back in time.

Classical music institutions cling to the past in more ways than one. While American orchestras have managed to significantly increase their proportions of female players, female composers remain almost nonexistent. In the 2014-2015 season, according to statistics published by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, music by women represented 1.8 percent of the music played by America's 22 leading orchestras. As for conservatories, "when I get the applicant pool, says composer Laura Kaminsky, head of composition at the conservatory at the State University of New York at Purchase, "and see three-quarters of the applications are male, I get depressed.

And yet there are hundreds of active female composers. A list I compiled this summer of the top 35 barely scratched the surface. So why don't the institutions present them?

Some are trying. Four of the past eight music Pulitzers have gone to female composers. Both Opera America and the League of American Orchestras have established recent initiatives providing grants to female composers. The performance space National Sawdust in Brooklyn announced a competition for emerging female composers. And individual chamber groups have been staging all-women concerts for many years - although you can debate whether this kind of segregation is a good thing.

When the chamber music collective A Far Cry decided to commission a song cycle, "The Blue Hour, as a collaborative project by five female composers, at least one woman turned them down. "We didn't choose that idea, said composer Rachel Grimes, a member of the former indie rock/chamber music group Rachel's who served as the point person on the project. "I am sort of weary of it (female composers) being a focal point, she added.

For some of the women involved in "The Blue Hour, classical music's conventional institutions smack of an old-boys network. "I only have a bachelor's degree, Grimes said. "I didn't see the feasibility of succeeding in the patriarchal academic system. My music didn't correlate with what I perceived to be the accepted academic language. I'm not enough of a rebel that I wanted to swim against that current constantly. Western classical tradition ... necessitates an understanding of that hierarchical mentality: the best, or most virtuosic, or most complicated. My technique and personality don't work with that. So I took a soft left and took my own direction. Grimes's career has involved playing with bands, solo piano concerts and recordings of her own work.

Shara Nova (formerly Shara Worden), a vocalist and composer (of My Brightest Diamond) who also contributed to "The Blue Hour, has a similar view of the classical world. "I refused to use the word ("composer) for a really long time, she said. "The question that I'm concerned with is not being a woman, because I don't have aspirations to write for the Met(ropolitan Opera). I'm at BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music), I'm good. In other words, being a woman would interfere with her ability to write for the Met - and she has a point, since the Met has to date produced only two operas by women, more than a century apart. …

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