Addressing publicly that one composes referencing a woman’s experience feels akin to coming out, laden with similar anxieties. Given the number of composers who are actively accessing their ethnic heritage—using it in the work’s content, its timbre and instrumentation, its extra-musical inspirations—and being applauded for it by many listeners, we seem to have entered an era in which diversity is welcomed. But it has never been fashionable to reference a woman’s experience in music, or even generally understood.
Until I became a mother 12 years ago, I actively avoided thinking about being a woman, as it seemed to get in the way. Writing modernist music, I loved the abstraction of it all, composing from my mind and ignoring all the rest. But after this life-altering experience, I found I really could not compose solely from my head any longer. And after that stylistic change, I noticed that the people who came up to speak with me after concerts were primarily women. What had changed in my music? Senses of time, senses of what constitutes a unity, a female sensibility?
Recently I discovered the results of a questionnaire Elaine Barkin distributed to women composers in 1982 (Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 20, Nos. 1 and 2). In Annea Lockwood’s response she states, “Do we even understand what notions about women are? … I believe it’s possible that the culture’s notions of what we are run so contrary to our own sense of ourselves that in deeper ways we really don’t realize what these notions are, and hence their implications.” Is this still true in 2008?