Rethinking the “Woman Composer” Label

Early last year, I wrote about being a “woman composer,” and what that meant to me.  I recognize that part of my viewpoint stems from my upbringing.  I’m the only girl in a family of 5 kids, and the expectations for me were on a par with the expectations for my brothers.  It was the value of my work that mattered, not my gender.

This week, I’ve come across two blog entries that are making me revisit this idea.  Kristin Kuster brings us “Taking Off My Pants,” and Amy Beth Kirsten declares that “The ‘Woman Composer’ is Dead.”  I strongly suggest you read both of them, so you can get a clear understanding of the viewpoint of each of these authors.

I’ve tended to shy away from “women-only” or “women-oriented” events and competitions.  As Ms. Kirsten points out, music should be chosen for its excellence, not the gender of the composer (or performer).  I want to be evaluated on a level playing field, and choosing to segregate myself by my gender seems counter-intuitive.

Reading her article further, I applaud her list of composers who “killed” the “woman composer.”  It is an impressive list (and notice how often Jennifer Higdon’s name appears).  Then I looked at a list of Pulitzer-winning composers over the years, and realized that, to my eye at least, women are still quite underrepresented.

On the hand, as Ms. Kuster says in her article, “Any composer’s success — no matter how we each define it — is never, not ever, all about the music.”  So many variables factor into one’s success.  For one, this is a community built on who you know – and who knows you.  In my experience, there are still plenty of people around – men and women – who carry a real gender bias in their dealings with all composers.

I guess what I’m saying is, there is a difference between the utopian view of what should be, and the reality of the world in which we live.

Of course we should be judging, choosing, and programming music based on the quality of the music alone.  In reality, those doing the programming tend to go to a familiar composer’s works first.  It takes a significant investment of time and money – both of which tend to be in short supply – to gather a multitude of unfamiliar works from lesser known (or unknown) composers, then read through each and every one in the hopes of finding an undiscovered diamond.

Another obstacle – and one that is completely gender-neutral, by the way – is access.  Composers have more control over their works by self-publishing, but publicity and distribution of new works becomes more fragmented.  Performers and artistic directors have a lot more places to look for new works, assuming they have more time to search.  Not to mention the uneven quality of the scores and recordings that are available – if you can find them.  Like it or not, it’s still easier to call the big publishing houses and say “what’s new?” and relegate both quality and quality control to them.

Personally, I want my work to be valued on its own merits.  But if I can’t get it heard, you’ll never know if you like it.  What these two articles have made me acknowledge is that, participating in women-centric musical events can give me access to distribution and recordings that I might not otherwise have.  And I’m OK with that now.

We have most certainly made great strides in the last 40 years, as Ms. Kirsten points out.  Frankly, though, that’s very small in proportion to the centuries of Western music composition.  We’ve come a long way, but we also have a long way left to go.

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