Chamber Music Northwest: the sound of glass ceilings shattering

Festival's focus on female composers reveals institutions changing and opportunities for women growing, though barriers remain

It might seem like a good time to be female and a composer. All three of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music finalists were women, several have won the award over the years (including four of the past seven) and names like Kaija Saariaho, Jennifer Higdon, Julia Wolfe, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Chen Yi and many, many more are regularly recognized as among the finest living composers regardless of gender.

And yet, a widely cited Baltimore Symphony survey revealed that of the music performed this past season by 85 American orchestras, only a little over 1 percent was written by women. No women occupy the top ten slots of most performed orchestra composers, living or dead. Two of the most acclaimed young male American composers, Andrew Norman and Mohammed Fairouz, recently asked music organizations to consider awarding commissions to female composers even over their own music, all other things being equal. Clearly barriers remain to women in classical music.

But those obstacles haven’t deterred this summer’s Chamber Music Northwest festival from scheduling scores by a score of women among its five weeks of concerts, including commissioning — that is, paying for — a trio of world premieres by rising young female composers. The repertoire ranges from one of the earliest composers we know by name — the medieval abbess Hildegard of Bingen — to Romantic composers Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann to some of today’s composers, including award winners Joan Tower and Ellen Taafe Zwilich and Portland’s own Bonnie Miksch, who’ll also participate in a panel discussion with other top female American composers, six of whom will be in town for the festival. Several report that while some obstacles remain to full gender equality, even the hidebound world of classical music is changing for the better.

Some obstacles remain. “There’s been pressure placed on more established opera houses and chamber music societies whether they accept this notion that women composers can be part o their vernacular,” says Imani Winds flutist and composer Valerie Coleman. “And rightly so.”

The problem is especially acute with composers of color, she says. “In general composers of color face the same obstacles as woman — but it’s a double negative punch. There is a tone of frustration with composers of color now over the futility in writing music, knowing that their works may not be performed in more notable chamber music series. The big struggle that all institutions face now is with building audiences and donor bases, breaking that glass wall that prevents folks of color from coming into the concert series.”

Valerie Coleman (second from left) performs her music and more with Imani Winds at this summer’s Chamber Music Northwest festival.

Coleman worries that young women composers of color aren’t finding their way into classical music, in part because they don’t see people like them represented in programs and performances. “The big discussion among women composers of color is this huge elephant in room: why does it appear to be fewer and fewer composers emerging?”

Coleman’s answer: “There’s a lack of African American women composers not because of opportunity but because of the lack of outreach being made.”

Coleman cites the cautionary tale of Ruth Crawford Seeger, who in the 1930s set aside her promising composing career to nurture those of her composer husband and children from that famous American musical family. By the time she was able to free herself from those burdens and started writing powerful new music late in life, cancer deprived her and the rest of us the opportunity to hear more of her music.

Signs of Progress

Nevertheless, Coleman and others are starting to see signs of change, as women have become increasingly accepted as workers and artists.

The younger generation of women composers, including 35-year-old Hannah Lash, is asserting itself as never before. “I play an instrument (the harp) that’s almost exclusively associated with being female, and I’m also embracing a compositional tradition I’m an outsider to,” she acknowledges. “I find confounding those types of stereotypes a gift.”

Lash notes that some feminist scholars say women’s outsider status allows them to break boundaries that men can’t. “That sounds great, but if you look at it more deeply, it implies that women don’t have the right to compose in that classical tradition,” Lash says. “I firmly believe I have the cultural access and right to the music men have had. I don’t want to somehow define my music as Other. It’s a stance I feel passionate about. I have every right to stand in the river of classical music that flows forward. So instead of trying to redefine tonality or counterpoint or moving so far outside the tradition, I really am appropriating the tradition exclusively to men and growing it from there.”

One development that has made it easier for women to take charge of their compositional careers: technology.

“In decades past, only a few women able to break through in classical music based on relationships,” Coleman explains. “Its always necessary to build relationships. With the advent of technology and social media in this day and age, taking that initiative and building something from ground up from scratch is much more easily done. You don’t need permission or validation to do that. You can just create what you want and put it up online for the world to see.”

Women are also acting collectively as well as individually to open opportunities for female composers.

“My generation is really picking up the mantle of nurturing these young women,” Coleman says. “Sarah Kirkland Snider, Suzanne Faris at SUNY-Purchase … that kind of visibility allows these women students to flock to her. (Composer) Tania Leon has taken it upon herself to locate these composers of color, sit down with us, and empower us to unearth these young talents. It’s something she’s charged us with and I take dearly to heart. I’m always asking myself what can I do to help? Not just women but men as well.”

Imani’s recent annual festival at the Mannes College of Music featured two young women composers among the nine showcased. “They brought something s that left me recharged,” Coleman says. “I like to think that Imani Winds is not limited to what’s on the concert stage but also how we can hone the minds of younger generations, and broaden them as well.”

That collective effort is happening here in Portland, too. “Women are taking control of their music through Cascadia Composers and starting Crazy Jane Composers,” says one of its founders, Portland State composer and professor Bonnie Miksch. She says the organization chose not to use a juried process for submissions to encourage women to send in their work, resulting in wide variety among the dozens of new works the organization has presented by female Portland composers.

Bonnie Miksch performed her music last year at Chamber Music Northwest.

Old line institutions are changing as a result. “Presenters are seeking out opportunities to program music by women,” Lash says. “Some of that was starting happen when I was a student, but I certainly don’t remember that amount of effort on the part of presenters to be affirmative toward composers who are female.” She also welcomes the fact that presenters are becoming more sensitive to composers who don’t identify with either gender.

“I’m starting to see grants emerge and start to favor this idea of diversity, not just of gender but also of race,” says Coleman. “Case studies are showing that venues benefited grants wise from the diversity they included in programs. Organizations like American Composers Orchestra and Chamber Music Northwest have  embraced other artists of color. That’s why we as a group have felt really at home there.

“When you have great artistic leadership like (CMNW artistic director) David Shifrin, who’s built a relationship with his constituents over time, ”there’s a  level of trust that if something excites him, they know they’re going to get a high quality product” — even if the composers aren’t men.

Chamber Music Northwest continues through July 30. Stay tuned to ArtsWatch for weekly previews of all the concerts. A shorter version of this story appeared in The Oregonian/O Live.

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2 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    I have put on full-length composer portrait concerts (with the composers in attendance) of:
    + Sofia Gubaidulina (1991 in Seattle)
    + Kaija Saariaho (1994 in Victoria, BC)
    Both of these superb composers emphatically told me that they want to be referred to as composers – NOT women composers. Furthermore, both Sofia & Kaija went on to say that they do NOT like being included on all women composers concerts as they feel that suchnesses there-like are both a slight & impediment to their aforementioned positions.
    I also featured Elinor Armer on a Seattle concert (1988) devoted to her work with Ursula K. Le Guin. She also stated that she did NOT like being “ghettoized” (her words) on a “women composers concert.”
    So, based on my own direct personal experience, I’d say that any & all proclamations as to how things are just now “starting” to change are more-or-less nonsense.

    • It’s a sticky wicket with no easy answers, that’s for sure. I suspect things have changed at least a little since your 90s concerts, but I couldn’t say for sure: I was still in high school listening to Siouxsie cassettes at the time 😀

      At last weekend’s CMNW panel discussion at Reed, the composers were split, specifically over the term “women composers”. Hannah Lash put forth the same idea that Gubaidulina and Saariaho shared with you: the term is essentialist and ghettoizing. Joan Tower on the other hand has always been pretty emphatic that the term remains necessary.

      We men composers are pretty lucky we don’t have to worry about this nonsense.

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