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  • Writer's pictureKate Amrine


I am a part of this fabulous workshop where we discuss the connections between art, music, and activism and work on our own personal projects in a community of like-minded people. Here is my blog post after one of our recent sessions.

12/2/2016 Art and Activism Workshop ::

At our final session for 2016, shortly after the presidential election, we had many things to discuss, especially in terms how to best promote diversity and marginalized groups. Although the theme of our session was women composers and performers, the underlying message was for support and awareness. How can we increase support and diverse representation for young classical musicians of color? How can we encourage more women to pursue collegiate studies in composition when there are less women teaching at universities? We certainly didn’t solve these problems in one meeting, but through our conversations, we opened the door towards greater support, recognition and awareness.

Before our session, we examined the writings of three composers: Amy Beth Kirsten (The Woman Composer is Dead), Alex Temple (I’m a Trans Composer. What the Hell Does That Mean?), and Ashley Fure (Reflections on Risk). Each composer described their own relationship to being a woman composer and considered whether or how this impacts their work. Some composers, like Ashley Fure, embrace the label “woman composer,” yet recognize the difficulties with speaking out about inequalities in the music world. Others, like Amy Beth Kirsten, do not want to be limited by this description or have anything to do with events that focus on gender.

We also discussed an interview with Björk, in which she describes how women artists are expected to only write about relationships and “womanly things.” When women artists write about other subject matter or other personal ideas, we often need to say something five times louder just to be heard and recognized, yet men are still falsely credited for our work. In the same way that we are trying to increase awareness of women in STEM fields, the same work needs to be done for women composers and performance, who often face questions like, “you created the electronics yourself?” and “I thought you were just a singer”.

Much of the conversation was spent evaluating the comments on Amy Beth Kirsten’s article and the realizations that Ashley Fure had in her experience at Darmstadt. Because of the issues with being pigeonholed – as a woman composer, activist composer, or Persian composer – we questioned whether we should make these distinctions, and whether they are more beneficial or hurtful. Despite the various opinions on this, in the articles and in our discussions, nobody disagreed about the lack of gender and racial diversity among composers and performers. The Metropolitan Opera just programmed an opera by woman composer for the first time in over 100 years, and frankly this is so embarrassing! How did we let The Met go that long without recognizing that perhaps there was a lack of representation? Even the recently announced programming for the NY Philharmonic’s next season only includes one piece by a woman and six living composers.

After discussing these issues, we addressed possible solutions and ways of increasing representation. Anonymous score submissions and blind auditions are great, because they allow us to simply focus on finding and promoting excellent music. If we want to better represent women composers and artists of varied genders and racial backgrounds, I don’t believe it’s possible to do so silently, or by hoping that we are seen as composers/performers and not composers/performers who are women for example. It is very easy to not want to be defined by our appearance, gender, or race, yet most of us don’t have that luxury. We should be celebrating our differences and increasing support for these groups, because until there is more equal representation and support for these artists, we haven’t solved the problem. On the other hand, calls for scores and other programs that target certain backgrounds are only helpful if we have people who are applying and meeting the criteria.

In an interview about her new opera at the Met, Kaija Saariaho reflected on how tired she was of being asked questions about gender, and wished “that we could speak about my music and not of me being a woman.” While insightful and understandable, even Saariaho recognized that her statement needed to be revised after realizing that women are still facing the same issues and lack of representation today that she faced many years ago. When speaking about these problems and gender barriers, Saariaho declared, “maybe we, then, should speak about it, even if it seems so unbelievable. You know, half of humanity has something to say, also.”

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