Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Louise Farrenc, Joan Tower, TJ Cole, Rene Orth (photo by Andrew Bogard), Julie Wolfe (photo by Peter Serling), Rachel Grimes, and Jessie Mongomery (photo by Jiyang Chen)
Featuring Female Composers
Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Louise Farrenc, Joan Tower, TJ Cole, Rene Orth (photo by Andrew Bogard), Julie Wolfe (photo by Peter Serling), Rachel Grimes, and Jessie Mongomery (photo by Jiyang Chen)

Featuring Female Composers

In 2014, the Louisville Orchestra created a new series—Music Without Borders—to get the orchestra out into the community in different venues where you normally wouldn’t find them (churches, synagogues, community centers, etc.) and to develop a broader footprint. Now in its third year, I thought if we could make it work, we should add an extra week to the Festival of American Music to include a Music Without Borders concert. I’m so excited that we have the opportunity to take this particular program into the community because it has two important themes; the celebration of uniquely Kentucky music, and addressing one of the questions that I get all the time: “Where are the female composers?”

One of the questions that I get all the time is “Where are the female composers?”

To answer this, I usually begin with one of the challenges: you can’t rewrite history. While there were a number of female composers of note (Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Louise Farrenc), they were often overlooked compared to their male counterparts.  And especially in America, we don’t see many female composers until the 20th-century. Fortunately today, that seems to be changing and this change is reflected in conservatories. In fact, we did a recent collaboration with the Curtis Institute of Music, and, of the five students in their composition department, four were women. In our 2015-16 season, we featured all four of these talented women in a piece we called the Curtis Suite; a four movement piece that took inspirations from Kentucky including one of the biggest zombie walks in the country, an ode to Kentucky bluegrass, the largest fireworks displays in the country (Thunder Over Louisville) and the Kentucky Derby. Music by two of these women will be featured in this year’s Music Without Borders concert for the Festival of American Music.

While our first concerts this year for the festival will focus on the individual (Ben Folds and Michael Tilson Thomas), the theme for this middle week focuses on contemporary American female composers as well as representation from Kentucky. The program opens with a work written for us by Noah Sorota called The Bluegrass.  Noah grew up in Louisville and is currently a film score composer. There’s a natural sound to his work that you associate with the open expanse of the Bluegrass Region: the rolling hills, the Appalachian foothills, or just the very idea of a classical old Kentucky village. He’s created a piece that’s intricate, beautiful, perfectly orchestrated, and pays homage to this state. We premiered The Bluegrass at the beginning of the 2016/17 season during our free kick-off concert at the Iroquois Amphitheater (located at the south end of Louisville and in an area of the town with a population that we rarely saw attending our concerts until we started this free program in September 2014). The Bluegrass was so popular that we wanted to program it again. The remaining pieces on this program are all by female composers with completely different backgrounds and from different generations; they range from Joan Tower, an established senior stateswoman of American music, to pieces that were just written last year.  And two of these women have direct connections to Kentucky.

The number of bands, singer/songwriters, and important artists that have come from Kentucky is amazing.

I think people are fascinated with Kentucky when it comes to music because of our heritage; so many famous bluegrass, country, and even blues and popular artists have a connection to Kentucky. It’s amazing when you do the breakdown of the number of bands, singer/songwriters, and important artists that have come from this state. So we have two women with connections to Kentucky on this program—Rachel Grimes and Rene Orth.  Rachel lives in Kentucky on a farm that she loves and finds inspiring. Her piece Book of Leaves was originally composed as a piano suite, and she orchestrated it for us last season. Rachel blends different styles of music seamlessly. She’s at home in many genres; the way she composes and the way she thinks about music are equal parts folk and classical. She can do it all and it’s an authentic style. You listen to her music and—this is something that I look for in a composer—you know that it’s her music right away. For a 21st-century American composer, I think that’s special. Rene did her master’s work at the University of Louisville before attending Curtis and was part of the Curtis Suite project last season; she composed a piece called Run for the Roses inspired by our Louisville tradition, the Kentucky Derby. Also on this program is Death of the Poet by TJ Cole, another one of the Curtis project composers, as well as a piece by Jessie Montgomery called Starburst. Jessie has created a wonderful, great orchestration, and while I’m not sure what the subtext is, it doesn’t matter; you don’t need to have a subtext when you’re writing a piece that is so energetic!

While I’m very excited about all of these compositions, I’m particularly excited about Big Beautiful Dark and Scary by Julia Wolfe. Julia just won a MacArthur fellowship and she won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Anthracite Fields, a work about the history of coal and its impact on western Pennsylvania. Julia’s music is post-minimal, but it also incorporates sounds from the electronic and popular music world. It’s very daring. Julia is a very special artist and Big Beautiful Dark and Scary has the energy of rock and roll filtered through a minimalist lens. It’s for a smaller ensemble, and it’s gritty; when you hear her music you become fully enveloped in her sound world.

In curating the Festival of American Music, my goal is always to broaden the definition of American music played by an orchestra as well as to highlight the talent of American composers. This program in particular gives us the opportunity to showcase the extraordinary range of American female composers, as well as re-connect our audiences to the musical legacy of Kentucky. This is the Louisville Orchestra’s way of saying this is our world, this is our country, these are the artists that live here and write for us in this era and we’re celebrating that.

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4 thoughts on “Featuring Female Composers

  1. Juliana Hall

    Great you are doing this! For future projects, there are a few other enormously gifted women composers who have produced powerful orchestral works – may I recommend looking into the orchestral, concerto, and operatic works of Laura Elise Schwendinger, Elena Ruehr, Jennifer Higdon, Libby Larsen, and Lori Laitman.

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  2. M. L. Helm

    My intuition tells me that the songs in the public domain attributed as “folk song” or “traditional” or “spiritual” probably originated by women and were passed down by women. I don’t believe that the female mind was/is all that interested in CLAIMING its creative product for profit but in SHARING it for pleasure and purpose. There is no possible way that the female voice wasn’t singing and creating throughout history, the music just wasn’t claimed. I am suspicious of some compositions I perform, realizing husbands, brothers, fathers and lovers sometimes claimed music for or against the women composer. Music by women soothes babies, celebrates milestones, holds traditions, makes labor fun and fast and digs deep when loved ones leave, stands in solidarity, worships god and I believe it even passes secret information. These observations are not relegated to Western music but take into consideration all music. So the next time you look at an unattributed piece of music, just assume it was written by a women. How does that idea change our world? It levels the playing field considerably.

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  3. Lisa Renee Ragsdale

    In addition to the first generation of American women composers such as Joan Tower, Ellen Taafee Zwillich, Judith Lang Zaimont and many others I can’t even remember or never heard of, we now even have transgender women composers such as Alex Temple of Chicago, Mari Esabel Valverde of Texas, and the writer of this reply. Oddly I don’t seem to be of any generation as I just turned 66 last year and both Alex and Mari are not yet 30. At least Libby Larsen and I get along as I am the same age as Ms. Larsen. I expect there may be more of us in the near future; assuming the country survives the current “pseudo-administration.”

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  4. Elizabeth R. Austin

    ..to add to “Derby ditties”, I’ve written music for clarinet quartet (4 Bb’s) (2009) entitled “Weep No More”, commissioned by Scott Locke and the Commonwealth Clarinet Quartet.
    Many Derbys have been overshadowed by accidental injuries to a young horse; in this music, I memorialize Barbaro, one such heroic horse, who was injured in the 2006 Triple Crown race succeeding The Kentucky Derby: The Preakness.

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