Talking About Women Composers Isn't Enough

Over the past few years—especially since the election—I’ve seen lots of meaningful conversation, art, and advocacy on behalf of women composers and their work. I’ve seen an elevation of public consciousness—not necessarily across the board, but within classical and jazz spheres, to be certain. And yes, we’ve got a lot of work still to do with drum corps (and classical and jazz) and the more mainstream-music-listening public; our efforts need to extend further than they already do, but we’re making progress. Women working in composition are seeing a shift in how we are treated, in the opportunities open to us, and in the interactions we have with our peers, colleagues, and superiors.

From here, this post could veer in two different directions. I could keep talking about the work we need to do with equity, to ensure that women are getting a statistically fair shot whenever possible. I could go on about what that means and how I’d do it. (Spoiler alert: it would make a lot of men mad.)

But that’s not actually the route I’m taking today. Maybe I’ll come back to it someday, but for now, there’s something more pressing on my mind.

Talking about women composers isn’t enough.

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Pardon Our Dust (this work is messy)

On this blog, I try to write about the intersections of womanhood, music, misogyny, and my own creative practice. The balance is a tenuous one to strike, especially since world events and major (musical) institutional announcements can necessitate posts that both move beyond my usual material and interrupt the flow of my thoughts. As such, even though I try to tie everything back to music or the work I do specifically, sometimes I think some folks forget that this all ties together for me.

And yes, it can be tempting to ditch the writing about feminism and activism and navigating music’s social scene in a decidedly female body. At times it feels like it would be easier to try to be the Buzzfeed of contemporary classical music. I know full well that I could opt for the familiarities of topics like leading ensembles and earning respect (now there’s a phrase fraught with male undertones) and inclusive programming. I already touch on these things from time to time, but they could become the mainstays of my written work. I could emphasize the traditional (or, at least, expected) career components we’re all familiar with.

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New Music and the Performer Problem

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of reading a post from my friend and colleague, Nico Bejarano, on cultivating acceptance of new music in a professional world that can at times seem dead set on only playing the repertoire already elevated to the echelon of “the classics.” (A comment my mentor Jody Rockmaker once made on my counterpoint homework, here taken wildly out of context, comes to mind: “Get your ears out of the nineteenth century!”) I concur with many of Nico’s sentiments, and I encourage you to check out his post here. I also wanted to take a few moments to address many of those same ideas from the perspective of someone who’s spent a long time being a composer first and a performer second.

Nico talks at length in his article about how the availability and mass consumption of recorded music has diluted audiences’ tastes down to an aural experience that prizes the familiar over all else. It’s an apt correlation; however, I argue that the demographic most affected by this oversaturation of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler isn’t our concertgoing audience­—it’s the armies of performers rising through the ranks of schools and orchestras that treat new music as an afterthought. These folks are used to cross-referencing recordings of the symphonies they’re performing that semester. They endlessly study their favorite soloists’ versions of their solo rep. And they lose the ability (or maybe the imagination) to look at a piece of unfamiliar music and bring it to life in their mind.

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