Sunday, August 7, 2011

Where are the Women in Composition?

A few weeks ago, before the craziness of my marching season job got going, I had a conversation on Twitter with a few colleagues. @BrandtSchneider started the whole thing by talking about trying to program more female composers for our school bands. We have a lot of girls in our programs(probably a majority in many programs). Do these girls know that composition could be a career for them? Are we doing them an injustice by programming male composers almost exclusively? They are so many questions that flew through my mind after this tweet. It seems a 140 characters can always get me riled up in one way or another.

First, I said good music is good music. We program good music for music's sake and that should be priority number 1. I didn't want this to be some kind of musical affirmative action. We could say these things about any group of people(by race, gender, locale, etc..) but that's not a good reason to program them. 

However, there is some good music out there written by women so why not program. I quizzed myself on female composers for wind band, after all I am a conducting master's student. I should do well. Libby Larsen, Anne McGinty, Julie Giroux, Cindy McTee, and Augusta Read Thomas. Wow, that's it. I could name 5 and this is what I do. The only one of I've ever programmed is McGinty because I taught in a small school and middle school. Giroux and Thomas I hadn't even heard of until my grad studies. I was ashamed, but should I have been? I didn't have groups that could do this stuff! Oh and FYI, Clare Grundman is a dude...

My teachers have programmed these composers because they have had ensembles that could play it. It's good writing and worthy of being programmed, but there aren't a lot of groups that will be playing the music of Julie Giroux at the HS level. I think the real issue is that we lack pieces that fit technical demands of the average band. If you look back at wind band history, the clear answer to this issue is commissioning for grade 3/4 works by up and coming women in composition. It's a possibility that some great music will come out of this if someone can back it. Maybe it's time we become a consortium!

I'll close with a conversation/interview I did with the only female composer I converse with on Twitter, Jennifer Jolley. Jennifer is a blogger and composer in Cincinnati. Feel free to start a conversation with her, @JennJolley I'm sure she'll be glad to discuss her work. I also invite you to view her blog, and her website, 

KF: A colleague of mine has been discussing programming choices and female composers as role models since band programs are majority girls.
JJ: That's so cool! I'm glad to hear this.
KF: Why composition?
JJ: Like how I got started composing? I was in high school and I wanted to write music for films. This was the first time I was conscious about wanting to be a composer; in the past, I would get bored practicing piano and doodle around a bit. Had I known I was improvising and that improvising was a form of composing, I think I would have started sooner.
KF: Issues because of gender?
JJ: Yes and no. I feel like I have not been held back because of my gender, but I'm wondering why there aren't as many girls who want to be composers when they grow up.
KF: Thoughts on writing for winds?
JJ: It's tricky! When I was writing my first band piece, I was a little scared because I didn't play a band instrument. To compensate, I studied scores and attended rehearsals. Also, my composition teacher gave me a good exercise to familiarize myself with the ensemble: he had me write scales from the low end of the ensemble to the high end. This gave me an idea where my ranges and color were, and I discovered that the wind ensemble is thick in the middle! Ack! What do you do? How do you balance this? At least I was aware of the situation. Now that I've written my first band piece, I will have more confidence when I write my next one.

What are your thoughts? Where do we go from here? I'm all for finding great music in all places. I'm sure there are some great musical ideas in some women out there, how do we find them and get them to write for the wind band?


Brandt Schneider said...

Start with programming composers. I am going to make an effort.

Brandt Schneider said...

I also programmed into my spring concert five student compositions. Helps to get their name in a program.

Anonymous said...

I know several women composers were featured in the BandQuest series. I believe all of those pieces are written at grade levels that are accessible to many mid and high school bands.

It would also be interesting to explore wind chamber music written by female composers.