Strength in Numbers

I honestly had not the faintest clue that shortly after posting last week’s little rant, I would end up spending an entire day on Twitter, engaged in what became the #DWG (which, fyi, stands for Dead White Guys) discussion. I don’t even like Twitter that much, but because the conversation was more thoughtful and constructive than things of this nature usually are—as one Twitter friend stated, there was “more light and less heat”—I found myself totally incapable of pulling away.

Interestingly, many of those who joined in the dialogue started with “I’m really not sure how I feel about this,” a statement to which I can completely relate, given that I struggled with how to approach that Chatter post. However, the topic of orchestras programming female composers obviously needed to be discussed, and branched out—as indicated by the hashtagged topic—to include composers who are not white, and also very importantly, not dead.

Because the event has already been expertly summarized, I’m not going to attempt any such thing. Rather, I’m interested in addressing why there are not more women (and other non-#DWGs) writing contemporary classical music.

This is important, because despite the fact that I and many others can recite a long, long list of excellent composers who happen to be women, there are still fewer female composers out there than male composers, so much of this is a numbers game. The number of female composers who graduate with advanced degrees is far lower than the number of males, as is the percentage of submissions to composer competitions by women, etc. I spent a couple of years teaching computer music at a community music school in Washington, D.C., and over 90 percent of my students were male. Similarly, when I gave a presentation to a composition seminar at a university last year, there was only one female in a group of almost 30 composers.

Rather than proposing short-term band-aid solutions like having composition competitions specifically for female composers or instituting “affirmative action”-style programming models, what about simply hooking young non-#DWGs on composing music early?

How?

Role models. Show them people writing music who are cool, so they can see that composing is a viable option for them. I know I would not have stuck with it had Annea Lockwood and Pauline Oliveros not been mentors during my college years, and it was the music of Laurie Anderson, Julia Wolfe, Meredith Monk, and many others that truly served as the inspiration that kept me on track.

Because let’s face it, how many 13-year-old girls are going to get psyched about composing if the only composers they hear about are these guys? Might they be more enthusiastic about the music of Missy Mazzoli, Liza Lim, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Jenny Olivia Johnson, or Pamela Z, to name just a few? Yes. Then take them back into time for Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Amy Beach, and the rest of the gang.

I hope that the music teachers and college professors out there will continue to expand their listening choices to include larger numbers of non-#DWGs, and that they will share that music with their students by incorporating it into their teaching. More than that though, the non-#DWG composers out there need to speak up and make yourselves heard as best you know how—get your music out to the world, however you see fit, with all the energy you’ve got.

Because I refuse to wait another hundred years.

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