In the last few months, there have been a number of highly circulated articles about women and contemporary classical music. Reading all these articles got me thinking about the role that gender plays in my own musical life. So here are some thoughts on what it’s like to be a composer on the trans-female spectrum in the early 21st century.
From Charles Seeger to his contemporaries William Schuman and Henry Cowell in the 1940s, through John Cage and William Duckworth in the 1970s and 1980s, to young composers like David T. Little and Gabriel Kahane today, the American shape-note tradition has been a steady source for reexamination and inspiration.
With my antennae more or less permanently oriented toward music and the arts, the defining mood of this year’s commencement season has been realism. This is a year in which, it seems, society is determined not to let students of the arts out into the world without making sure they’re painfully aware of what awaits them.
Throughout my life, it had been drilled into me that jazz was created by blacks and represented the apex of African-American musical civilization. Against that historical backdrop, I also practiced a form of racial profiling of musicians. To like a “white sound,” or worse, a white musician who “sounded black,” was cultural treason. But jazz at the beginning of the 21st century is appropriately black, brown, and beige.
Discrimination against someone of the “wrong” color, ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation is generally frowned upon in modern society. But progress is still needed in the area of discrimination on the basis of a person’s age and ageism is very much alive in the emerging composer arena. In short, once you get to a certain age, you’re considered too old to tango.
We all know what is meant when the accusation of academicism is lobbed: that person (or their line of thinking) is cloistered, out of touch, has little bearing on the real world. But really, there is no “real world” and no “general public.” They are ghosts we chase or sticks with which we composers use to beat ourselves up.