“Who Are These Women?”
Karin Pendle, Foreword to Women of Influence in Contemporary Music: “Who Are These Women?”
Who are these women, these “women of influence?” Why have they been chosen to represent not “women composers,” but “American composers,” and why have they been brought before us as people who have something important to say, something perhaps that we need to hear? Who are these women?
The answer—they are living, active, professional composers whose lives span nearly three generations of music history. Some are the products of musical families, where they were introduced to music making at early ages; some came to music later in life and in ways that might have seemed irregular to even the best-known women composers of the past century. Some have had to deal with sexism in pursuit of their goals, but none was denied advanced professional training because of her gender. They studied at major music schools or at public universities. They learned their craft in New England, in Europe, on the West Coast, in New York, in the south, or in the midwest. They write songs and music for piano; they also write chamber music, operas, symphonies, and concert pieces for major orchestras, concertos for celebrated soloists, works that involve electroacoustic media, and more. They create large forms or miniatures. They draw on European traditions or on the latest idioms from the worlds of jazz or pop. They write on commission; their music is performed. For them, the only boundaries are those set by the requirements of the piece and its performers. Finally, most have an interest in passing on what they have learned, by teaching, coaching, conducting, or serving on local and national committees and boards as advocates for their art.
And yet, how different they are. In Elizabeth Austin we see the clear, gradual development of an individual style over time, grounded in the best elements of the Western musical heritage. Susan Botti emerges from the world of the theater, conveying her ideas in a method of notation that links the compositional process to the desired outcome, the performance. World music comes into play strongly and personally in the music of Gabriela Lena Frank and Tania León, their works presenting a multitude of colors and infinite variety heretofore unrevealed to their American listeners. The amazing and purposeful productivity of Libby Larsen, or Judith Shatin’s constant experimentation with sound, and their sense of connection to the world around them these things mark them as individuals who share a drive to communicate through music. Jennifer Higdon, whose rising career has been marked by an energetic determination, her music by a noteworthy accessibility, seems to have sprung fully formed from Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall to performance halls throughout the country. Cindy McTee explores the full sounds of the symphony orchestra, the bright sounds of the symphonic band, and the computergenerated sounds made possible by modern technology. Meanwhile, alongside them, Marga Richter, with supreme art and meticulous craft, creates music in an eclectic idiom that continues to draw new listeners.
That these women have been able to forge successful careers in a field where so many women of the past have failed results not only from their superior talent and hard work. Many of the conditions that once dominated society’s perceptions and treatment of women have been altered, gradually in the aftermath of World War II, more quickly with the onset of the women’s movement of the later twentieth century. The word that best sums up these developments is access.
All the women in these essays were encouraged by their families to pursue their dreams, but unlike many women musicians and composers of the past, none had to depend on these families for their training or initiation into the music world as professionals. In North America, the establishment of public education, from elementary school to the university level, provided the model of access for young people to training in fields they might not otherwise have considered possible. Higdon’s youthful exposure to music came in a high school band; she then moved on to a state university. Larsen, Frank, Shatin, and McTee received all or part of their training in composition at state universities. Along with many fine private institutions, public schools and universities gave women access to the profession of composer.
Successful composers need access to performers, not only so that others can hear their music but so that they themselves can hear and learn from it. Academic institutions provided initial access in their performing ensembles or in ad hoc groups of students willing to take part in composition recitals. To this end, Larsen helped found the Minnesota (now American Composers Forum and remained in the Twin Cities because of the many opportunities she saw to have her music performed. Others have enjoyed similar experiences at schools and in cities where they have studied or taught: Higdon, Botti, Shatin, McTee, and Richter, for example. Access to performers has been important in establishing themselves as professional composers.
Other kinds of access have come with developments in technology. For example, access to the public has been facilitated by means of recordings and published scores. Works by all the women covered in this book have been recorded, making their music available for repeated hearings by listeners outside their own geographical areas. Many have found outlets with major publishers (e.g., Frank, Larsen, León, Richter), but computer technology has made self-publishing a viable option, as it has for Higdon and McTee.
Technology has also affected what were formerly the print media. Online journals, blogs, and music reviews come across the Internet with regularity, bringing reports of new music from across the land. Never before have women composers had better access to the kind of review process that is so necessary to establishing their reputations as professional composers. Finally, women have access to new sounds and means of production that have grown out of computer technology. Shatin, McTee, and Larsen are among those who have made telling and creative use of these media. New sounds have also come from the models of world music, accessed by León and Frank from the roots of their cultures, to become part of the American scene.
Together, these women, both in their commonalities and their differences, represent the current state of our concert music in its many incarnations. Their music is genderless, its worth unquestionable. It deserves to be performed, heard, and studied. The essays collected here provide thorough introductions to their lives, their personalities, and their art. In so many ways, they are indeed women of influence.