What’s it like to be a Woman Composer?

That question has been rumbling around the back of my mind for a bit.  And I don’t like it.  It’s similar to a conversation I once had with Michael Torke about his synesthesia, and comparing it to my husband’s color-blindness.  You can’t tell anyone what it’s “like” to have these conditions, because you’ve never experienced life without them.  By the same token, I can’t tell you what it’s like to be a “woman composer” because I have no other point of reference.  I’ve never been a “man composer.”

Which brings up an interesting point.  Why even make a distinction between “composers” and “women composers?”  And if we are going to use the term “women composers,” shouldn’t we also be referencing “men composers?”  Studies have been done that show the listening audience is often influenced by gender stereotypes, for better or worse.  Take this study using a performance from conductor Marin Alsop, for instance.

Influencing an audience’s expectations is not limited to gender stereotypes, of course.  Take this example referenced by the Composer’s Datebook:  February 4, 1837 – “Franz Liszt performs a chamber recital in Paris, featuring the then-unfamiliar Piano Trios of Beethoven; At the last minute, the performers decided to reverse the printed order of the program, performing on the first half of the concert a trio by Pixis, and a Beethoven trio on the second half; The audience (and critics) warmly applaud the Pixis, mistakenly thinking it was the Beethoven work, and react coolly to the Beethoven, assuming it was by Pixis; Among the critics, only [Hector] Berlioz notices the program switch.”  Ahh, it must be good, if it’s Beethoven – even if it really isn’t Beethoven.

I think the real root of “what’s it like” is actually a different question.  And that is, “do you experience bias (or discrimination) as a ‘woman composer’?”  And the answer to that lies directly in the question itself.  If you are making the distinction between “woman composer” and “composer,” you have established a bias in the asking.  Once the reference becomes – naturally and unthinkingly – simply “composer,” then the question of bias becomes moot.

As for gender discrimination, if I step back and look very critically, I realize I have experienced some instances of discrimination.  But I have discovered an interesting phenomenon.  First of all, if I don’t go looking for it, I generally don’t find it.  And if the discrimination is there, when I ignore it (either by choice or just naïveté) and just do what I do to the best of my abilities, it generally falls by the wayside.  It’s rather like an argument – it takes two to keep it going.  I choose not to feed into the “discrimination” monster, and eventually I am evaluated on my own merits, gender notwithstanding.

So, in response to the question, “what’s it like to be a woman composer?” I say to you, ask again when you want to know what it’s like to be (just) a composer.


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