We’re Gonna Program Like It’s…1954

It’s the time of year when orchestras start to roll out their 2011-12 season announcements, and there has been some conversation around the New York Philharmonic’s season, which, as it has been pointed out, includes no music by women, nor does there appear to be any on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s season.

“Oh, but the NY Phil is doing Gruppen!” you say, or, “There are many female composers impacting music around the country and throughout the world!” Believe me, I am as excited about Gruppen as anyone, and while applauding the NY Phil’s and the L.A. Phil’s clear commitment to contemporary music, the lack of music by women is a significant oversight. Given the fact that composers who happen to be female are indeed making a greater worldwide impact than ever before—because more and more ensembles are playing their music and more and more music presenters are programming it—it boggles my mind that this remains an issue when it comes to the larger institutions of our musical world.

Several years ago, a good friend who was curating a new music series shared with me his upcoming concert season, and while he had made excellent choices, the first thing out of my mouth was “Why is there no music by women included?” He just stared at me blankly for a minute, and I realized that he simply hadn’t thought about it. A couple weeks later he had changed things substantially, and there were four or five female composers represented during the season. The next year’s programming brought the same thing—no music by women. So I piped in again and changes were made. However, since then there have been female composers represented in every season, with no nudging required. It takes time to make anything a habit.

UPDATE: Alex Ross writes to note that Zosha di Castri is on one of the L.A. Phil Green Umbrella concerts. I stand (happily) corrected!

7 thoughts on “We’re Gonna Program Like It’s…1954

  1. davidcoll

    I have to say I haven’t seen a single thing written about how we’re looking forward to hearing new works by composers Robin, Jarrell, and Lunsqui that is beyond a press release. I think that’s a shame, albeit a smaller problem than negligent programming. While I don’t know Lunsqui’s work, these first two composers are both very talented, and certainly deserve more attention than just a few reviews after the concert. So thats my little comment.

    So long as the repertoire continues to grow and refresh, we should begin seeing works by females that aren’t premieres, but rather just as mainstay as Ives or Boulez. I’m concerned about this more than programmers maintaining some constant balance of premieres. I fear a dead-composer discrimination where, once deceased, male composers continue to be chosen over women, perpetuating the same-old.

    Anthony Tommasini certainly doesn’t help, that’s for sure.

    Reply
  2. Wang Jie

    Alex,

    As a “Composer Who Happens To Be Female”, I applaud and appreciate your advocacy. Your article nails the problem. We’re not facing sexism; we’re up against lazy thinking, bad habits and dull business-as-usual. 

    On the other hand, the percentage of women presented by the major institutions: performance organizations, music publishing giants, record labels, etc. has been an honest reflection of the percentage of women composers out there. We are severely out-numbered. Don’t believe it? Just check out a typical music school composition department.

    But do take heart. Omens suggest that we’re in transition. In recent years, Boosey and Schirmer are daring to invite a few sisters into the composing frat party, and a few national competitions are focusing on us alone. While I’m on this, can we put our hands together for Jennifer Higdon?

    This wouldn’t hurt either: a Hollywood blockbuster about unknown woman composer, Ms. M (starring Meryl Streep), who has 19 children with her carpenter husband and who secretly teaches J.S.Bach everything he’ll ever know about music. (19 kids?! I’m not kidding…)

    If the film wins 10 Oscars, the next time you tell the dude sitting next to you on the airplane: “I’m a composer”, the answer would be: “Oh, you mean, like Ms. M from that movie?! Oh that’s so cool!” Problem solved!

    I’m holding out for the day when the institution loses the word “women” for good. We dedicate our lives to our beloved art form. We are composers. Period.

    -Wang Jie

    Reply
  3. Alexandra Gardner

    Wang Jie,

    Thanks so much for your comment! And WOW, I didn’t know about Ms. M! You are completely right – there are far fewer women composing than men, so it does make sense that the number of female composers represented is smaller. The last time I spoke to a composition seminar, in 2010, there was one woman in a class of 30 composers!

    But indeed, most days I am heartened by the increasing number of female composers out there, and today there has been much discussion about how to encourage more girls to start composing at an early age. I do believe that a transition is in progress!

    Reply
  4. holbrooke

    There are two popular strategies for crushing institutional sexism: (a) pressure backwards organizations (using shame, the law, force, etc.) to adapt to our modern values; or (b) allow stubborn institutions to slowly perish under pressure from more advanced competition.

    For those of you who love orchestras and want them to survive I can see how discouraging it must be to watch them consistently, and consciously it seems, choose the ‘slowly perish’ option rather than take some simple steps towards the modern world.

    Reply
  5. wangjie@wangjiemusic.com

    Alex,

    Thanks for your enthusiastic response, which only inspired me to return the ball with more enthusiasm.

    I should note that Ms. M only exists in the dramatist Wang Jie’s fictional world. She represents my wish that the mega-enormous film industry will eventually shine a spotlight on our often forgotten social presence.

    Since I brought up the film industry, might I ask: what goes behind the programming decisions in major movie studios?

    According to a reliable source, the decisions have nothing to do with prejudice, but everything to do with what movies make money. As far as they are concerned, if penguin movies are already making billions, the studios will make penguin movies written by penguins. What are the odds of the artsy classy Ms. M by Wang Jie making billions, too?

    Fortunately, our industry is not nearly as black and white. We, too, must sell tickets and are now making efforts to expand our audience from 3% to 4%
    . But we also have hundred-year-old works which for some reason, are best-kept secret and are close-kept to people’s heart. Whatever those reasons are is not as important as the next composer who contribute to this playlist. The question is: will this composer happen to be a woman?

    -Wang Jie

    Reply
  6. mclaren

    …Some of the best contemporary composers right now are women.

    Teri Hron, Zoe Caldwell, Gloria Coates, Letitia Sonami, Pamela Z, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, Cindy McTee, Joan Tower, Laurie Anderson, Laurie Spiegel, Jennifer Higdon, Annie Gosfield, Julia Wolfe, Bunita Marcus, Barbara Benary, Jody Diamond, Alice Shields, Eliane Radigue, Maria De Alvear…the list goes on and on and on.

    And how many of these wonderful composers ever get featured in major concerts?

    Coincidence?

    I don’t think so.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.