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Don't Expect Congrats

I am a female composer. As such, my compositions have been programmed on a concert about motherhood, though I do not have children; neither did most of the other women programmed on that concert. I’ve been asked mid-composition to change the theme of a piece, so the commission would relate to womanhood. (I did, but I didn’t rewrite the minute and a half of music I’d composed back when the commission’s theme was “outer space.”) I’ve been asked to sum up what it means to be a woman in a one-minute piece; I tried, but that piece ended up being about exactly how impossible the task is.


The hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment is in 2020. That and the aftermath of the #MeToo movement have created a perfect storm of what I think of as Lady Composer Commissions: pieces that ask the composer to reflect the experience of being a woman in her work. Equally popular these days is the Lady Composer Concert, which 1) features works by composers who identify as women, and 2) connects the music of these composers for no reason other than that they all share a gender identity.


Promotion of these concerts on social media often goes like this: “We’re so excited to feature the work of Lady Composer 1, Lady Composer 2, Lady Composer 3, Lady Composer 4!” The general tone of these posts? “Look at all of the women we rounded up! We found so many of them!” When I am tagged in these posts, I never know whether to share them, "like" them, or un-tag myself as quickly as possible and hope the conductor doesn’t notice.


Now, I know these concerts mean well. I would never tell anyone to stop programming the works of underrepresented composers. As someone who relies on commissions and royalties to pay the rent, I’m grateful to have my music programmed on any concert at all. But every time I’m tagged in a post for a concert like this—with no theme other than “Here’s A Bunch of Lady Composers”—I feel as though someone has drawn a sharp-edged square around my identity. I am positive that these concerts are programmed with earnest and kind intentions; nevertheless, they make me wonder whether any conductor thinks I want to be programmed like this, like some exotic, fragile butterfly pinned down, labeled appropriately, and locked in a glass box.


One of my two cats, Cotton, is obsessed with catching and eating flies. He’ll stalk one around our small house for hours before he finally catches and eats the thing. He seems to prefer the stalking to the meal itself. Immediately after he’s finally caught a fly, he comes over to my husband or me and meows, wanting recognition for his work: a gentle pat on the head, maybe, or a “Good job!” In our house, we call this routine “congrats,” as in: “Cotton just swallowed his second fly of the day, then came over for another congrats.”


Cotton pursuing a fly.

This is exactly how the Lady Composer Concerts and their inevitable social media promotion have started to feel to me: like they are an elaborate exercise in seeking congrats. They are not programmed with the audience in mind; if anything, they come off as self-congratulatory. (“Look how woke we are!”) If these concerts were serving the audience, they would have a theme beyond “a bunch of women wrote this music.”


All you need to do to find this concept ridiculous, of course, is to flip the gender: Imagine a conductor saying that any random collection of pieces clearly belong together on the same program, because they all were written by men.


I give the above example of gender-flipping whenever I talk about Lady Composer Concerts, and I’ve heard other friends do the same. Still, every time I bring this up, I hope it will be for the last time: “Music by Women” is not a theme. Collecting a bunch of pieces written by female composers does not in and of itself constitute an inspired concert program. It certainly doesn’t deserve congrats.


If you’re called to promote the work of composers who identify as women, consider—the same as you would with any other program—what the music and/or texts have in common. What’s the through-line of this music or collection of texts, regardless of the gender of who wrote it? Is the experience of hearing these particular compositions enhanced by virtue of their sharing a program? Does the order of the program present a narrative? Are there any other pieces, including pieces by composers who identify as men, that would better round out this particular program?


Whenever I discuss “Women in Music”—something else I’m often asked to do—I’m struck once again by the fact that we’re somehow still having the conversation about the lack of Lady Composers. I feel conflicted whenever I’m asked to talk about the role of women in music; I wish we didn’t need to have that discussion, and I resent being asked to talk about it again and again. At the same time, if I’d like to hear more conversations in the classical music world about systemic inequality—and I would—I have to be willing to talk about it myself. 


But a single Lady Composer Concert is unlikely to single-handedly resolve the fact that for centuries, classical music has revered the music of white, mostly dead, usually European men as the highest quality music of all time. In Music History classes, most of us are taught that this is the worthiest music to study. In Music Theory classes, we analyze these scores and exclude most others. Whenever we sing in a chorus, we are at the mercy of what our conductor presents as the worthiest music, and if that is exclusively the work of white and dead and European and male composers, who can blame us for subconsciously thinking that this is the music most worthy of programming?


We don’t (just) have a lack of Lady Composers or a dearth of Lady Composer Concerts. We have an entire educational system designed to teach us to esteem the music of dead white men above the music of all other composers. 


So I’m more than happy to congratulate anyone championing the work of historically underrepresented composers. Yes, please! Let’s talk about systemic oppression and racism and the discrimination that composers who are not white and/or male have faced for centuries. Let’s talk about implicit bias and financial privilege and how all of it affects which voices we perceive as most worthy of our attention.


And yet it’s equally important to acknowledge that no single concert will fix that systematic imbalance. If it was going to, the Lady Composer Concert would have already done this, because the Lady Composer Concert has been around for decades. The Lady Composer Concert is a stale concept; we’ve tried it already, and we’re still having this conversation.


I want to propose an idea that is new, though. If you truly want to champion the works of historically underrepresented composers, what would it look like if you did the loudest work behind the scenes?


What if you had bold conversations about why you feel compelled to program more historically underrepresented groups of composers, but for the concert itself, you presented your program the same way you would any other program—highlighting the specific compositions, thematic material, and the reasons that your audience should come hear this music?


What if you championed compositions written by these composers without needing to mention their race or gender as part of the promotion of your concert? What if you identified instead what you find most meaningful, exceptional, and unique about their compositions? 


And what if you told your peers about these works that you love? Over time, maybe that specificity—naming the pieces you love, not just a string of composers’ names—would eliminate another common problem I’ve heard conductors discuss: trouble finding quality repertoire written by underrepresented composers.


If you’re having trouble finding such repertoire, let your peers and friend-colleagues know that you’re searching for this work. Ask for recommendations. You can always reach out to composers directly with requests for perusal scores, too. I’m always more than happy to send along perusals when conductors are looking for new works, and I’m even happier if I’m asked for works that fit a specific theme. Getting to know a new composer’s work can be as simple as sending them a quick email through their website’s contact form. Ask if they have any pieces that might be a good fit for your upcoming concert season’s themes. You might even name some of the other works you already have in mind for that program and see if that composer can recommend compatible works from their catalogue.


Truth be told, I don’t want to write another piece about “being a woman.” I want to write pieces about emotions that are hard to capture in words but easy to express in music, because music has room to hold a staggering amount of complexity and nuance. I want to be given commissions with specific concert themes, even oddly specific ones. Especially oddly-specific ones! Please, give me your commissions for works with texts about weddings that must also include percussion, or a piece to pair with Taiwanese music about the sea.


I will rise to each challenge. This is what I do for a living, and I’m good at my job. I’ll find a text that adheres to each theme and write the best music I can write at this moment in time. I do this best when I don’t also have to wonder whether I am single-handedly summing up the entirety of what it means to “be a woman.” If the texts I choose or the music I write happens to capture some aspect of the female experience—of a female experience—great. Still, that will have been my decision to make.


When you program the works of underrepresented composers, don’t act like my cat does with a freshly-caught fly. Don’t proudly rattle off the names of women like you’ve hunted down their music and are laying it at the feet of your audience. Your audience deserves better; they deserve a concert with an actual theme.


When it comes time to promote the work of historically underrepresented composers, present their compositions—these works you’ve come to love—as you would any other excellent repertoire. Shout from the rooftops why you love each composition. Tell your colleagues and friends. Tell your board members. Tell your audience. And once you have, don’t expect congratulations for doing so. You don’t need or deserve praise simply for doing your job as a conductor. After all, programming music that you admire and respect—sharing that music, teaching that music, advocating for that music—is reward enough. Isn’t it?

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Originally published in Cantate Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 1, Fall 2019.


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