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Composing While Female

Dale TrumboreMy thoughts might have been the same as yours, upon reading this headline: Really? Do we really need another article about how under-programmed female composers are? A composer who’s a woman just won the Pulitzer, and haven’t we been over this already? Wasn’t that flurry of “female composer” articles a few years ago, by Kristin Kuster, Amy Beth Kirsten, Ellen McSweeney, and Alexandra Gardner, enough?

I know a lot of people look at concerts or festivals of music devoted to female composers, or awards reserved for them, and feel the same way. The question is, do we still need to talk about it?

I certainly don’t think about being a woman while I am composing. I don’t sit down to write and say to myself, “How would a woman set these notes to music?” I don’t think about being a woman when I apply to competitions, unless I have to choose a pseudonym; even then, I choose a (female) pseudonym and go on with my life. I don’t think about being a woman when I accept a new commission. I think about how wonderful it feels to be slowly inching my way towards making a full-time living as a composer; my gender is the last thing on my mind.

And yet I’ve gotten three commissions lately that came about because I’m a composer who is a woman. Was I going to turn them down? No. Each one resulted from an awareness on behalf of the commissioner that music by women is still generally lacking from the majority of concert programs.

I’m acutely aware of being a composer who’s a woman when I’m approached with a commission that came about only because one of the board members pointed out to the panel that, for the last five years of this initiative, only men had been approached with the commission. She talked about it, she noticed it, and—something changed.

I think about being a female composer when I go to a new music concert with only white guys on the program, or when I see a list of competition winners and every single one of them is a white dude. We’re conditioned not to notice this all-maleness, this whiteness. We come out of a long tradition where the best composers are, exclusively, white men. Rather than viewing each concert program as the astonishing lack of diversity it represents, we accept it as the norm. We don’t flinch. The fact that classical music has a race problem isn’t what we’re talking about, because we can’t even get equal numbers in the programming of women. Women, who make up half of the population.

When will we stop needing to write articles about female composers? When the question seems too obvious to ask. It’s not going to take one—or five—indignant articles on how women aren’t being programmed as frequently as men. It’s not going to take a festival of music by female composers.

It’s going to happen when we all notice. When we start recognizing the complete lack of diversity—of every kind of diversity—on a concert-by-concert basis. When we start a conversation about it. When we point it out, every single time.

Ask where the women are. If you’re putting together a program and can’t come up with any composers who are female, there’s Rob Deemer’s helpful list of 202 of them. There are even more in the comments.

Try harder. Go through the list. Get to know the names. Pick ten composers at random and listen to their music. You’re not going to like all of it—in fact, you might think some of it is terrible, the way you would with any random selection of composers. Some of it will be brilliant; take note of those names.

There’s no shortage of amazingly talented composers who happen to be women. We’re not the problem. The problem is anyone attending a concert of new music, seeing the program list only white men, and not being concerned by the lack of diversity they find there.

The next time you go to a concert of new music where everyone programmed is a white male, point it out to someone. Point it out to the person who programmed the concert; if that’s too frightening, too confrontational, bring it up with the person who accompanied you to the concert. Are there women on the program? How many women? We will only have more diversity when we notice it. We can all say something. We can all try harder.

Hailed by the New York Times for her “soaring melodies and beguiling harmonies deployed with finesse,” composer Dale Trumbore’s compositions have been performed widely in the United States and internationally by ensembles including the Kronos Quartet, ACME, Northwest Symphony Orchestra, and the USC Thornton Symphony. A native of Chatham, New Jersey, she currently resides in Los Angeles. WWW.DALETRUMBORE.COM

6 thoughts on “Composing While Female

  1. I’m a composer and a violinist. I’m currently a graduate in composition at the Hartt School in the Artists Diploma Program.
    I have an M.A. In composition from Queens College and an MFA in music/sound from Bard College.
    I write/make music/sound work for small chorus, for orchestra, chamber ensemble. I do a lot of Electroacoustic music. My work has been presented two years in a row at the New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival and has been reviews favorably by the New York Times.

  2. Rock on!

    This is great advise to all producer/curators: “Try harder. Go through the list. Get to know the names. Pick ten composers at random and listen to their music. You’re not going to like all of it—in fact, you might think some of it is terrible, the way you would with any random selection of composers. Some of it will be brilliant; take note of those names.”

  3. Perfectly put, Dale! You’ve articulated so concisely what I’ve been hollering from the rafters for years (and even in places without rafters, I keep hollerin’). I hope you share your excellent essay on many blogs, and throughout social media!

  4. How about also hiring and tenure of more female composers at Universities, Colleges, and Conservatories ?
    Seems like most of the schools I investigate have mostly white males for composition and music theory faculty.
    Something is wrong here.
    It must also be present in the commercial arena.

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