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#HearAllComposers: Straining Our Ears, Amplifying Our Voices

“Behold the lunacy of our times.”

“So volatile!”

“The fact is, female composers are rarely performed because they have written little, if anything [sic] that is masterly.”

These are just a sampling of the sorts of messages I have received on a regular basis since writing a “Top 10 Living Women Composers” article published in January. You might think I would be getting disgruntled input from women composers who felt they deserved to be placed on the list, but every single negative message I have gotten has been from a man. These men like to claim that they aren’t sexist — that sexism, in fact, does not exist, but that women are inherently “inferior” composers. If women were better at writing music, nothing would be able to stop them from rising to the ranks of Mozart or Brahms. This sort of self-defeating logic, as well as the gendered insults and condescending tone that typically accompany it, is exhausting – and far too common in our current era of “bathroom bills” and a“pussy-grabbing” president.

I’ve been writing music criticism since I graduated college in 2012, but about a year ago I made the decision only to review concerts with at least one woman (or trans or nonbinary) composer on the program. I was tired of attending concerts featuring exclusively the music of white men, and tired of frantically sifting through concert season announcements that came in the mail, only to find a single token white woman amidst a sea of white men. People around me were perplexed. “Isn’t that a little excessive?” a casual acquaintance asked; an editor inquired, “How many quality women would you say are actually writing music today?”

Historically, women have been condemned to be vessels of sound, never its architects. The female voice has been associated with emotional volatility, while the male voice has been accorded power and authority. The voice is the link between body and disposition, the inner made outer. The Homeric figure of the Siren has perpetuated, across the centuries, the conception of female voices as shrill, dangerous, and sexual. The Siren’s song, a disembodied sonification of the female body, penetrates male ears with pure sound rather than words or language. Reduced from sense to pure sensation, the voice is sexualized and feminized: it is made dangerous.

Perhaps this is why another common complaint (aside from the misconception that women are simply incapable of composing) was the inclusion of Yoko Ono on the “Top 10” list. Ono’s voice has shrieked its way across the decades, influencing artists from John Cage to Kathleen Hanna, yet never failing to squick out the average “accidental misogynist.”

The division of space is as gendered as the division of voices. Public space has long been conceptualized as the space of men, while women are relegated to the “private space” of the home. Women in public space endure catcalls and street harassment; we are reminded that our bodies don’t belong here and our voices cannot be heard through the masculinized noise. (Notably, composer Shelley Washington has musicalized the experience of street harassment: “BIG Talk is my response to catcalling and rape culture. It’s supposed to be an endurance piece, signifying the INSANE things women/women-identifying folks have to go through to avoid/cope with these things on a literal daily basis.”) The silencing of women critics and women composers is, in its essence, the same sort of silencing that I witness as a clinic escort volunteer at a reproductive health clinic, where dozens of anti-abortion protesters assemble every Saturday morning to yell at women on the way to their doctors’ appointments.

Since making the decision not to review all-male concert programs, I have attended performances at the same rate as I did before. I heard Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de Loin, the first opera by a woman to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera in over a century. I heard Jessie Montgomery’s arrangement of a southeastern U.S. spiritual. In the span of three days I heard a spectral-tinged chamber piece by Ashley Fure while sipping a beer in the balcony of Roulette; I watched a string of pianists bang out multiple works by women at the MATA Festival; and I listened to Tansy Davies’s horn concerto Forest in a velvety seat at the New York Philharmonic. Another week included a Joan La Barbara song cycle, two female-authored electro-acoustic works performed by pianist and artistic director Sugar Vendil’s “unabashedly female” Nouveau Classical Project, and an orchestral premiere by Anna Thorvaldsdottir.

Thorvaldsdottir’s piece was on the same New York Philharmonic program as a recent work by a living male composer, and it was clear that her piece was more cohesive and intricate. To inhabit the same space (the concert program, the concert hall) as a male composer, a woman has to work at least twice as hard. In a recent essay, Sarah Kirkland Snider pointed out how difficult it can be for women to find their footing as composers, not only when it comes to the physical spaces of pedagogy and “networking,” but also in terms of finding one’s compositional voice.

In the case of the former, it can be difficult for women to interject themselves into historically “male spaces,” especially when men are resistant to inviting women into them. In the case of the latter, women’s music can risk being pigeonholed as “emotional” or “girly” when critics buy into prevailing gender norms. As Olga Neuwirth put it in a 2015 interview published by VAN Magazine, “The world of classical music [is] still white, male, and patriarchal — in other words, still rooted in a hegemonic system. And generally speaking all linguistic systems are still male, because an alternative female language hasn’t been found yet.”

Words: Rebecca Lentjes