Friday, May 03, 2013

I am a woman. I am a composer. I am a woman composer.

Being a female composer is weird for the simple reason that there aren't very many of us and we aren't all that visible. (Being a female composer of color is even weirder.)

I've been calling myself a composer for about six years now, and over that time, I've become more and more conscious of my gender, and to a lesser degree, my ethnicity. Maybe at first I was just so narcissistically excited to think of myself as a composer at all that I didn't notice my colleagues' background. Once I started taking notice, however, it became a game at new music concerts to survey all the composers forced to take those terrible awkward bows from the audience after their pieces have been performed (God, I hate taking those bows). And the result?

The vast majority of composers are white men of average build with brown hair and glasses.

I don't have a scientific survey, but a tally of the people around me suggests that this majority is upward of 80%. Sometimes gaggles of composers look so similar that I can easily imagine they are all siblings in some incredibly musical quiverfull family whose father only shoots Y-chromosome sperm.

Some composers are older and their brown hair has turned grey or white, and sometimes they wear contact lenses instead of glasses, but for the most part, this stereotype is confirmed over and over again. Very occasionally the composers are Hispanic or Asian, but they usually retain the characteristics of maleness and having average build and brown hair and glasses.

I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with being an average-looking white guy with brown hair and glasses. They're not actively oppressing anyone just by being who they are. Nobody who fits this description should have to feel guilty about it. And obviously there are exceptions to this rule. But the stereotype applies to the point where I'm often left giggling at its absurd ubiquity.

So what the hell does this mean? We live in a world brimming with all kinds of gender (and racial) equality now, right?* Why aren't there more female composers around? Are the institutions sexist? Are the judging panels of composition contests and the programmers of concert series sexist?

I don't think they necessarily are, or at least, I don't think that's the real root of the problem. Institutions, judging panels, and programmers just exist in a world where the vast majority of all composers are already white men of average build with brown hair and glasses, and that majority isn't changing very quickly. How can you demonstrate equality between the sexes in any concert series when maybe one in ten composers out there are women?** You can't just pluck women at random from the street and ask them to compose some art music. It takes years of training, and of course, they have to want to do it in the first place.

And thus the problem is perpetuated because the example is very firmly set for younger generations: "Hey, kids! Composers look like white guys with brown hair and glasses. They've looked like this for 600 years, and they look the same way now."

When you're a child, you absorb all kinds of things about gender from the moment you start interacting with the world. Men are heroes, and women are princesses to be won. Men are doctors, and women are nurses. Alpha-male businessmen have ultra-feminine secretaries.

Quick: picture a firefighter. He's a man, right?

Quick: picture a professor. If you didn't think of an old white guy, you are a very unusual person.

Quick: picture a kindergarten teacher. If you didn't picture a woman, you are again a very unusual person.

I've worked with little kids a fair bit as a theater/acting educator, and something I notice about them is that you very rarely meet a little boy who wants to be a nurse or a teacher when he grows up. For whatever reason, little boys have been socialized to think of these jobs as unsuitable for them. You also don't find a lot of little girls wanting to be pilots or engineers or firefighters. Of course, when they grow older, they sometimes learn that these traditionally gendered careers are open to them after all, and they occasionally follow those paths. But still, over 90% of registered nurses are female. Over 80% of engineers are male.***

Now ask a musically literate child to think of ten composers. If she can name that many, how many do you think will be women? How many of the compositions that child has learned to play do you think are by women?

Knowing this, how many little girls do you think might want to be composers when they grow up? How many little girls even realize they can be composers? How many have even had the idea?

Maybe, just maybe, there's a reason that, despite being a musician all my life, I didn't even think about becoming a composer until I was 24, and I didn't call myself one until I was 26.

(Related: how many black children do you think want to be art music composers when they grow up? Funny story: like every other clunky-fingered beginner pianist, I learned The Entertainer as a child, but I am horrifically ashamed to admit I only found out last year that Scott Joplin was black. The internet didn't exist when I learned The Entertainer, I'd never seen a picture, and nobody ever mentioned to me that he was black, so by default, I had always pictured him as a white guy (probably wearing a boater hat). Shocked and mortified by my own ignorance, I informed my husband how dumb his wife was, and he had to admit that, until that moment, he also had not known that Scott Joplin was black, despite learning about ragtime in high school music class. Nobody had told him either.)

One of the pressures that I feel as a woman composer is my own desire to demonstrate to future generations of little girls that composers aren't just white men with brown hair and glasses. Even though most of them still are. The only way the demographics are going to change is if we go in at the ground level. We need young girls and boys to see that composition is not a gendered pursuit, not just by telling them so, but by showing them. We need a Girls Rock Philly organization for classical music — or maybe there would be a way to fit classical music into their mission? I don't know — I haven't approached them, though I absolutely love what they do. I really want to volunteer with them once my schedule allows i.e. after Ayn. I want to start a composition school for girls.

Maybe I'm doing myself no favors, but I don't feel it's enough for me to exist as a composer and forget about the "woman" part. I personally feel an obligation to be more visible if I can be, to make up for the fact that I'm such a minority, so that it's not such a fucking embarrassment to new music that all the composers taking a bow look exactly the same. With the situation as it is, women composers need to shine brighter than their abundant male counterparts so that eventually, one frabjous day, so many aspiring girls will take our place that we will be able to forget about the "woman" part. That day has not arrived. Yeah, this is problematic; that's a lot of pressure to place on current women composers. It makes things unequal for us. It contributes to the sense that in order to make it, we have to work twice as hard. It confirms the idea that the default majority can make it as individuals, but minority artists are forced to represent their entire group. But I'd rather do that than pretend there isn't an imbalance and do nothing, which is about as useful a solution as calling myself George and wearing a top hat. ("Hey kids! Composition is such a male pursuit, I had to become a man in order to do it!")

(Tangentially related: I think it would be really interesting to study how the demographics of forensic scientists, particularly forensic pathologists, have changed since the 1980's. I've mentioned this before: I watch a lot, I mean a lot of television detective shows, particularly police procedurals, and it seems like virtually every TV forensic pathologist is a woman now. I enrolled in med school in 1997 only because I wanted to be a forensic pathologist (and quit when I realized there weren't enough jobs in Australia in that field); I have no doubt now that this desire was in part inspired by The X-Files and Patricia Cornwell, and there are even more fictional examples of female FP's now. Has fictional representation in the media done anything to affect gender distribution in forensic pathology more than other medical fields? I'd be so curious to know.)

I am woman, hear me ... make woman music

Here's a confession. When I first decided to become a composer, I bristled at the idea that I was a "female composer." I felt there was a stereotype about the kind of music that a female composer would write, and I didn't want to fit that mold. What can I say? I hadn't really thought deeply about the reasons behind my views. I had just finished a long fling with industrial music, which is deeply gendered and whose fans can be quite sexist when explaining their musical preferences ("I don't like female-fronted bands."). I wanted to make it in a man's world writing MANLY MALE MUSIC like all those MAN COMPOSERS I had admired all my life. The ultimate expression of (second-wave) feminism, right?

Of course, this brings up a huge, touchy question. Do female composers and male composers write different kinds of music? I don't claim to have any kind of definitive answer. We are almost certainly socialized very early on to believe that there is some level of gender differentiation in music. Society still tends to squeeze everyone and everything into categories of feminine and masculine. Boys are given trucks to play with and encouraged to listen to loud tough music. Girls are given dolls to play with and encouraged to listen to pretty soothing music. By the time you reach middle school, there are at least some boundaries set, sad as they may be. A boy would probably catch hell for being into female pop bands. A girl is flying a tomboy flag if she's into heavy metal. A lot of children start throwing around slurs when they see peers not behaving in a strictly heteronormative way. Children learn to conform, no matter how much we ask them to be brave.

I brought this discussion up on a Facebook thread the other day, and a friend made a comment that got me thinking:
But do you find it worth exploring, like an evolutionary psychologist might, whether there are some maybe biological underpinnings for the different sorts of music they're likely to write and play?
My first impulse was to yell NO!! We are all forced to conform! We're all the same deep down! But then I wondered. And I remembered: biologically, women and men do perceive things differently. Take color. Women see more yellow in green and more red in orange than men do. Far more men are colorblind, but now we've discovered that some women are tetrachromats and see 100 million more colors than men. Where sound is concerned, women have a faster and more negative reaction to a baby's cry than men, to encourage/force them to look after their squalling young (a nasty evolutionary trick that helps explain why I become highly anxious on airplanes when a baby starts screaming, while Matt takes it perfectly calmly). Along the same lines, men and women have very different sensitivities to sounds, at least when sleeping. A crying baby is the sound most likely to wake a woman. The sound isn't even in the top ten for men, who are more likely to react to a car alarm.

If our senses are calibrated differently, wouldn't that have some kind of influence on our artistic taste? What kind of influence? (Maybe I don't like some types of dissonant music because they sound too much like babies crying? she ponders facetiously) It's a very complicated question, and any answer would be less than universal. But I have to wonder: if there were more women composers, would art music sound different? At some level, do women feel, like I once did, that they should make an effort to write like men, because male composers set all the examples we study in school?

Maybe these are stupid questions. I don't know. All I know for sure is that, six years ago, I had internalized some horrible idea that my music shouldn't be too "feminine," whatever the hell that means, because somehow "feminine" was bad. "Feminine" wouldn't be taken seriously enough by the art music world. People would roll their eyes and dismiss me as a wishy-washy woman composer. I hate that I held this attitude. It wasn't something at the forefront of my mind, I didn't express it in any overt way, but it was there. Ugh ugh ugh.

So here it is. I am a woman composer. I don't set out to write "feminine" music, but if anyone were to find it feminine, including myself, fine. Good. We have had 600 years of music written by men, 600 years of being told that that is what art music is. If—if—our music is different in any way, we shouldn't shy away from that. We shouldn't deny our gender.

And if we write "masculine" music, that's good too. But it's not better.

Maybe I'm the only person in the world to have internalized these ideas to the point where I have to talk myself out of them in a therapeutic blog rant. I doubt it, though.

**Without affirmative action, that is (OOGER BOOGER).
***Not even getting into women of color here because it's too depressing.


Anonymous said...

This is a great post. I'm a woman composer too. For me I find myself not necessarily wanting to write 'aggressively' masculine music, but wanting to write music that is intellectually 'pure', not sullied by feminine emotion.

I think it's an interesting discussion and much more complex than many people seem to think. Our experiences with gender are so intimate and so central to our lives, it seems only natural that it would inform our music just as much as the rest of our experience. Would it even be possible to create art divorced from our biology?

I feel like I hear a lot of black and white opinions on this matter -- that we have to either fight for women composers and we're just oh-so-oppressed and we need lots of women's music festivals and should be treated as a unique category, and then on the other hand I hear a lot of women saying they don't want to be thought of as a woman composer at all, that they bristle at the mere mention of the fact that they're female and wanted to be treated 'the same as the boys.'

Well, we're not boys, and isn't that MORE interesting than if we were just 'another of the boys'?

At least for me, my experience dealing with gender is just so interesting and complex that I can't imagine not addressing it in my music in some way, and that doesn't necessarily mean writing stereotypically feminine music about the ocean or relationships or whatever. But I don't have a problem with being called a female composer, because it is simply true. The thing is to realize that there's nothing wrong with being female.

Unknown said...

I am a female composer and I sent music in to classic fm in Holland as a mans name they loved it and then I td them j was a woman and they turned round and said it wasn't classical enough !