Showing posts with label women composers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label women composers. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

What are you doing on Sunday?

Composer Lili Boulanger

Asking because those of you who are as exercised as I am about the proper recognition of music that's written by women might like to join this splendid initiative from Heather Roche and the Southbank Centre. They're having a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon on Sunday 2 September, with the aim of adding more female composers to the site's database. Annoyingly, I will be away in Denmark then, having an actual holiday (cloning urgently required). 

Here's what they say:
If you're in London, grab your laptop and come and join us at the The Royal Festival Hall, where we'll provide support and socialising for fledgling editors. Or: set your laptop up and participate remotely; we'll be live streaming the event via Facebook and tweeting throughout the day with the hashtag #ComposingWikipedia.  
Currently, only 17% of Wikipedia's entries about people are about women and only 10% of Wikipedia's contributing editors are women. Creating a Wikipedia entry is a simple and effective way to raise the profile of a composer. It's also not difficult to do: Wikipedia has become easy to use with a Visual Editor and lots of clear resources.  
If you'd like to sign up, please visit this link.

Pictured above, Lili Boulanger, one of the composers whose music is currently receiving wide acclaim and recognition in part thanks to this ongoing upswing of consciousness - a full century after her untimely death.

Friday, April 15, 2016

(The Lovely and) Talented: a guest post by composer Emily Doolittle

The composer Emily Doolittle has been pondering the niceties of the word "talented". She Googled "talented composer" and was both interested and not too delighted when she saw what happened. But it's not simply a patronising way in which women musicians are sometimes described: she detects a more general problem in the use of this word. Does it perhaps set up false expectations about how tremendously hard musicians actually have to work to achieve the necessary standards? Does it perhaps "deprofessionalise" the entire field? I've asked her to write a guest post on the subject, so here it is.

by Emily Dootlittle

A couple years ago I had a piece performed on a programme of music by women composers. I was a bit surprised that we were collectively described as “talented”: I’d always associated that word with students and young people, and most of us were professional composers in our 30s, 40s, and beyond. Although “talented” was almost certainly intended as complimentary, it came across to me as a bit patronizing. Since then I’ve noticed a number of examples where composers who are women are described, individually or collectively, as “talented”.

Wondering if it was just me who found this a slightly dismissive way of describing composers, I conducted an informal Facebook and Twitter poll on other people’s reaction to the word. Approximately a third of the friends who responded felt it was an unproblematic compliment; a third agreed that it was applied in a slightly gendered way, with (often unintended) condescending connotations; and a third found it problematic for other reasons, with or without being used in a gendered context. 

Describing someone as “talented” can erase the years of hard work that go into being a composer or performer. “Talented” may suggest that someone has potential, but has not yet produced much – perhaps a suitable descriptor for a student (though I prefer more precise descriptions like “learns quickly,” “has great ideas,” or “knows how to work to achieve what they want”), but not for someone who is already accomplished. It can serve to deprofessionalize the whole field of music, suggesting that good musicians are just lucky, not people who have devoted consistent, long-term effort (in an often hostile cultural and financial climate) to developing their skills. 

Some performers noted that people who described them as “talented” often expected them to perform for free. I think describing musicians as “talented” can also be a way of making us into something “other” – writing us off as quirky societal outliers, rather than recognising that anyone can make music as a meaningful part of their lives, if they have the opportunity to learn, a willingness to work, and a culture that supports music and the arts as an essential part of life for all.

Still curious about whether women were disproportionately described as “talented”
I turned to my other favourite online resource, Google, and did a search for “talented composer”. Indeed, my suspicions were confirmed. Of the first 40 results returned for “talented composer,” 10 referred to women and 12 to young composers. The first 40 results for “gifted composer” returned 6 references to women, and 8 to young composers. “Skilled composer” returned 2 references to women, and “genius composer” and “masterful composer” returned only one reference each! I couldn’t do a search just for “composer,” because so many of the results were non-music-related, but a search for “music composer” also returned only 1 woman out of the top 40 results. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that women and men composers are still described in different terms. A number of recent studies have shown that recommendation letters for women and men in a variety of fields tend to employ different words to describe the applicants. (

This post isn’t intended as a criticism of anyone who has described women composers as “talented”: I’m more interested in bringing to light how our language use shows our lingering, often unconscious, cultural assumptions about women. We’ve reached a time where we’re collectively quite willing to accept women as having potential (more than 50% of music students in conservatories and universities are now women), but not willing to accept women as leaders (note the shortage of women conductors in the highest positions). I do suggest that if we are writing about women composers, we take a moment to consider if we would write about male composers of similar stature in the same way, and if not, think about changing our language. But I certainly hope this doesn’t put anyone off of writing about women composers, out of fear of accidentally using the wrong words. It’s only through writing and discussing that we can understand where we are, and how far we still have to go.

Composer Emily Doolittle was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1972, and lived in Amsterdam, Montreal, and Seattle, before moving to Glasgow in 2015. Upcoming projects include the premiere of her chamber opera Jan Tait and the Bear, by Glasgow-based Ensemble Thing, in October, 2016, and interdisciplinary research into seal vocalizations at St. Andrews University. Her CDall spring was released on the Composers Concordance Label in July, 2015.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Women composers are still climbing the Eiger

I was so angry about last week's all-male final results for the British Composer Awards that I called up my editor at the Independent and wrote this:

Honest to goodness, I thought there'd been more progress. The PRS for Music Foundation started a special fund called Women Make Music to help support new works by women composers. The Proms have been relatively heroic, likewise the Britten Sinfonia, and next year's Cheltenham Festival is apparently scheduling 14 premieres with eight by women. So why do these awards matter?

Well, the big awards make it into the news. They're a vital shop-window onto the world of classical music. They reach attention that day-to-day musical activities do not. And they create the wider public impression of what this little corner of the cultural world is all about.

And besides, women are writing good music. The latest Pulitzer Prize winner in the US is Caroline Shaw, who is 30 and the youngest composer ever to be awarded it: read about her here in the New York Times.

But here is more on the US situation, from New Music Box - a very good read.

There've been messages about my article from a variety of people insisting they've never encountered any prejudice towards women composers. But I think the problem is more insidious than the notion of a bunch of men sitting around a table saying "What, women write music? Mwahahahaha!"

The worrying statistics I quote in my piece show that something is going wrong at a much earlier stage. It's a matter of how deeply and unconsciously embedded in our culture is the idea that composers are mainly male and those who happen to be women are the exception. It goes back to the school system, home listening, radio and TV, training and profoundly ingrained expectation. There's nothing obviously and deliberately discriminatory about it, as far as we know - it's just that this is what people expect. And that's why it is so difficult to change. Some people have been pointing out that the UK's class system is more a problem than the gender one - most composers are from middle-class backgrounds and are privately educated - I'd suggest that it is all part of the same thing.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

British Composer Awards 2013 go to... 14 men and NO women

"Major Strasse has been shot. Round up the usual suspects..."

Now, this is in no way to derogate the life-force that is Harrison Birtwistle (it's taken me a long time to become a fan, but I am one now). Nor is it to derogate George Benjamin, James MacMillan, Colin Matthews or any of the exciting "9 new winners", their hard work or their fine compositions. But HOW IS IT POSSIBLE IN 2013 THAT 14 MEN GET PRIZES AND THERE IS NOT ONE WOMAN IN THE LINE-UP?

(This post has been updated since yesterday. There are 13 categories, all of them won by men. In fact one of the winning works is a joint effort, which means that 14 men, not 13, are in the lineup.)

This proves more than ever that it is time for an all-women prize for classical music. Women are achieving great things in this field - but they are not being adequately recognised for it. This time we need more than a list. We need action and we need it now.

Besides, if part of the point of these awards is to help "a composer and their work become more widely recognised" - frankly, Sir Harry is up there and he doesn't need one. The award to him is not so much Casablanca as Groundhog Day.

Here is part of the self-congratulatory press release that accompanies this pathetic outcome.

British Composer Awards 2013


The British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) tonight announced the winners in 13 categories of the 2013 British Composer Awards in a ceremony at London’s Goldsmiths' Hall. Of the 13 categories, nine were awarded to new winners.

Six of the winners are completely new to the British Composer Awards, having never even been on the shortlist before this year: Nigel Clarke, Matthew Martin, Ed Baxter/Chris Weaver, Peter McGarr and Toshio Hosokawa.

Nigel Clarke's Cornet Concerto, Mysteries of the Horizon was the winner of the Wind Band or Brass Band category and is a spellbinding work based upon four paintings by the Belgian artist René Margritte. Matthew Martin's innovative I Saw the Lord, written for Daniel Cook and St Davids Cathedral Choir won the Liturgical category while Ed Baxter and Chris Weaver's No Such Object, a major sound art work performed using bespoke hand made electrical equipment that premiered in August 2012 at Arthur's Seat, won the Sonic Art category.

Peter McGarr's Dry Stone Walls of Yorkshire, written for CoMA London Ensemble won the Making Music Award and Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa received the International Award for his orchestral work Woven Dreams.

British Composer Awards Committee Chairman, Sarah Rodgers, said: "One of the achievements BASCA is particularly proud of is that the British Composers Awards, year on year, brings to light rising composers and supports them in taking the next step in their careers. The broadcast and other media exposure we are able to offer, together with commissions and collaborations, all contribute to helping a composer and their work become more widely recognised."

Sir Harrison Birtwistle, who won his fifth British Composer Award for Gigue Machine in the Instrumental Solo or Duo category, became the most shortlisted and winning composer in BCA history. Birtwistle’s previous awards include both the Orchestral and Choral awards in 2005, the Instrumental Solo or Duo award for Crowd in 2007 and the Orchestral category in 2012 for Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Gigue Machine, for solo piano, was written for Nicolas Hodges and is a remarkably complex, virtuosic work described by Birtwistle as “mimicking a fantasia in two parts”, one resonant, the other staccato.

Joseph Phibbs, George Benjamin, John Surman and James Redwood, are all first-time winners although each has received previous nominations. Phibbs' Rivers to the Sea, commissioned for the 18th birthday celebrations of The Anvil, Basingstoke, won the Orchestral category while George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, which played to sold-out audiences and admiring notices at the Royal Opera House in March this year, won the Stage Works category. John Surman's Lifelines, a groundbreaking work marrying contemporary jazz with the traditional male voice choir was the winner of the Contemporary Jazz Composition category while James Redwood's massive work for 250 young musicians from six diverse ensembles Pass The Torch, An Olympic Symphony, received the Community or Educational Project Award.

Guy Fletcher, Chairman of PRS for Music, said:“Tonight’s new generation of British composers has been truly impressive and I am excited to see such breadth of talent and creativity on the winners’ shortlist. The British Composer Awards provide a vital showcase for music that is part of our cultural fabric and enjoyed the world over. PRS for Music is proud to sponsor such an important event.”

Colin Matthews, James MacMillan and Brian Elias all received Awards for the second time. Matthews, who won the Vocal category in 2012 for No Man's Land this year took the Chamber Award with his String Quartet No. 4, written for the Elias String Quartet. James MacMillan's Since it was the day of Preparation…, for bass, chorus and ensemble which tells the story of the Resurrection was the winner in the Choral category while Brian Elias received the Vocal Award for Electra Mourns, a work for mezzo soprano, solo cor anglais and String Orchestra that premiered at the Proms in 2012.

The Awards ceremony opened with a performance of Rodrigo Barbosa Camacho's work, American Candy - What the hell is Yellow no. 6?!? for viola - winner of the 4th Student Competition at the British Composer Awards - performed by Sarah-Jane Bradley.

Roger Wright, Controller, BBC Radio 3 & Director, BBC Proms said, “Congratulations to all the winners of this year’s 2013 BCA awards. As the home of classical music, and one of the most significant commissioners of new music, BBC Radio 3 is delighted once again to cover this important event for our millions of listeners.”

The British Composer Awards are presented by BASCA and sponsored by PRS for Music. In association with BBC Radio 3 providing exclusive broadcast coverage of the Awards on Saturday 7 December.