There has sprung forth in the past week or so a renewed desire to examine the state of affairs for women composers. I haven’t had time to trace it to its original instigation, nor have I had a chance to read all of the thoughtful and compelling responses it has stirred in people. However, I would recommend the entries of Amy Beth Kirsten, Lisa Hirsch, and Rob Deemer as useful starting points. There are, of course, many others.
My interest was piqued, in part, due to the use of statistics as definitive arbiters of truth regarding gender equality in the field of music composition. This is far too complicated an issue for me to pretend that I could offer a weighty and meaningful statement on it. But the maths, and the statistics, and their contexts and meanings, those things are not outside of my hubristic grasp. So, I submitted the following, with some gross misunderstanding of how to use the html tagging, as a comment on Dr. Kirsten’s NewMusicBox opinion piece, and I hope that it illustrates some of the problems that arise when anything at all is stripped down to untethered statistics.
As a composer who happens to be male, I wouldn’t presume to make any comment on the experience of my female colleagues. The porcupine is too prickly. However, there are a couple of issues that have been raised that make me concerned about the way we regard these matters.
Firstly: There are certainly individuals in positions of power – whether they are highly lauded composers who teach at festivals, long-standing academic faculty, or judges for various prize competitions – who may hold offensive and sexist views, some even being so callous and insensitive as to openly express them. It is important to remember that many of the people in such positions are advanced in their careers, older, and rose to prominence in a time when such attitudes were standard form, even encouraged. Because these generations have not yet retired or been roundly penalized, they linger with the capacity to continue thoughtlessly regurgitating unfounded gender-based diatribes. That does not mean, however, that the situation isn’t improving. I hope that younger composers, poised to join faculties or to ascend the ranks, will bring an unbiased new order, and none of the young composers that I know has ever uttered such nonsense in my vicinity, so I have faith for the future. And though I would not dare to discount the trauma and violation suffered by those who have endured sexual harassment, it seems worthwhile to avoid letting the experiences of these composers and musicians stand as a damning commentary on the state of the entire field, just as such incidents when they occur in public schools do not reflect the condition everywhere else. The offenders should be called to account, as possible, and then we can help to motivate the macro-level turnover that will continue to displace these outmoded beliefs.
Secondly: Statistics are trouble. Always trouble. Wonderful music by living composers should be heard, and it often isn’t. If we view the matter as one in flux, with an increasing number of women choosing to pursue composition, then this implies that there is of necessity a certain lag time that will be borne out by a variety of statistical analyses. According to Lisa Hersch’s excellently written “Lend Me a Pick Ax”, as of 2008, approximately “30 percent of composition students in American colleges and conservatories” were women. For the 2006-2007 season, members of the League of American Orchestras programmed 160 works written from 1982-2007, and 19 were written by women (11.875 %).
- Re: counter)induction – 13/80 (16.25 %);
- Other Minds – 29/115 (25.2 %);
- Bang on a Can – 8/36 (22.2 %);
- Pulitzer Prize – 4/29 (updated to include Jennifer Higdon’s award: 13.8 %);
- Guggenheim Fellowships for Music Composition – 68/596 (updated to include 2009-2011, which happens to be the period when Dr. Kirsten herself received one: 11.4 %, with 10/34, or 29.4 % going to women in that window); also, since these awards are frequently given to jazz composers as well, there is further gender distortion related to the underrepresentation of females in jazz, which is not explicitly reflective of the “art music” world’s own travails.
It would seem that the rate of honoring female composers or taking on their works is catching up to their proportional representation in academic programs. Additionally, since the Pulitzer Prize is effectively a mid-late career honor, and the Guggenheim count extends back to 1925, these figures are heavily swayed by a disappointingly sexist past, but not indicative of an overwhelmingly ongoing anti-“woman composer” agenda. The same is true of orchestral programming. These groups are drawing on a repertoire that is hundreds of years old, and throughout most of that time, there were no women whose voices were heard. With such a preference for the “music of the dead”, as I like to call it, even if we were to grant living composers an absurdly inflated 40 % of the programming spots, taking the 30 % figure, that would translate to 12 % of orchestral programming for living female composers, in a perfectly gender-balanced, quality unconsidered world. Is that the goal? Things are changing, and change takes time. But it’s happening.