When Mary Stiles, a student at the University of Victoria (British Columbia, Canada) invited me to come to Victoria to be part of a concert of music by women, she also invited me to speak about being a woman composer. She sent me a sheaf of papers containing information about that year’s concert, along with a newspaper article with a photograph of six women composers, all of whom were featured in the concert: Heather DeRome, Marti Hopson, Nicole Burgess, Jennifer Balfour, Cassandra Miller, and Mary Stiles.
20 years ago, when I was a student at the University of Victoria, there were no fellow women composers majoring in music composition during the four years I was there. So I love this picture, and much of what I have written is dedicated to these women.
What is a woman composer?
Ok, what is a man composer? This question sounds bizarre because we never use the term “man composer”. We never have to say it because it’s assumed. The composer is a man. The writer. The artist. The conductor. This is how history has been.
What is a woman composer?
I have to begin by saying that I don’t really have an answer to this question. So I’m writing around the question to discover what I might mean by asking it, to discover what we might mean by ‘woman composer’.
I never thought of myself as a woman composer, or when a child, as a girl composer. When I was playing as a child, I never thought of myself as a girl player, when running, a girl runner, or when dancing, a girl dancer – that is, when I was in the act of doing I was not concerned with being male or female. I went about doing what all children do – living, playing, wondering, fighting, learning, thinking, imagining. I simply was.
My interest in composing began in childhood – I took piano lessons, and we had a piano in the house. I made up pieces all the time, and eventually I started inventing ways to remember them – titles, colours, images and so forth. I was neither encouraged nor discouraged particularly in the activity of composing, it was just something which seemed to enrapture me. It was something which was, in some way, available to me.
As I grew into adolescence and older, I don’t really remember questioning my abilities to do things because of being female. That is to say, I remember questioning things, but I was never able to equate that questioning with gender. There are now some studies on adolescents and self-doubt, and particularly adolescent girls and self-doubt. We know now that this is a dangerous time, where all kinds of inner decisions start to be made. We can learn from this and help the girls – and boys – of the future through these treacherous waters.
In school, I studied music. In high school my music teacher was the composer Allen Shawn. And as it was a very small school, I received fairly intensive attention on my small unfocused works. Allen introduced me to the work of many composers: Elliott Carter, Stravinsky, Bartok – and among them, the music of Lili Boulanger. This was the first music by a woman that I ever heard. I thought it beautiful and poetic, and I think it was the first time I thought about women composers at all. But even so, I was more impressed with her sister, Nadia Boulanger, who taught several generations of (male) composers in her famous classes in Paris. There was, in certain circles, a great emphasis on the tradition of studying with Nadia. In my own mixture of confidence and doubt I even had the thought that I might study with her. – And yet, here was the music of Lili Boulanger. In my future years of schooling, at Stony Brook in NY and in Victoria BC, no one really talked much about women composers. No one mentioned Lili.
So there I was at the University of Victoria, the only woman student majoring in composition. I had a very good education there. But back then (this was in the late seventies) there were no women composers mentioned in music history class, there were no women composers’ works analysed in theory class, there were few if any works by women composers on listening lists. They were not there….There were no women teaching composition on the faculty. There were no women’s works being played in the school concerts by either students or faculty (except on occasion my own student pieces). Composition seminar rarely strayed into the territory of work by women , except for maybe Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk – the grande dames of American experimentalism. And in all my years of piano lessons, no teacher ever gave me a piece by a woman to learn. And even so, after this incredible absence of women from my tutelage, I still thought I could write music. This is not just some sort of ego inflation on my part. I felt drawn into the art form, impelled there, deep in my humanness. I never thought to ask permission – I simply felt it was there for me. I wasn’t attempting to break into a man’s world. I thought it was my world.
What does history have to tell us? History tells us that there are no great women composers. Full stop. It’s not just history which tells us this. Look at the programmes of the symphony, any symphony. Look no farther than your radio. There are no great women composers. I want to say it’ s an open debate. There are no great women composers according to whom, and for whom?
But, then, what is there to debate? They aren’t there.
There is a habit of thinking that history will prove the greatness of something. Time will tell. But who is doing the telling? Who is keeping, preserving, writing about, and performing the music? History has been his story.
There is unconscious silent collusion in this. It’s not just that there are men in power directing the course of history. Where are the women (or men) in the audience who call up the symphony to ask for work by women? Where are the requests for women’s music on the radio? Where are the students asking about their female forebears, in all fields? Or does everyone really believe that the great works really are by men, that women should of course have some attention, but really, they can’t be as good?… We might also say where are the black composers, the native composers, etc. But that’s another story.
There are several approaches to thinking about greatness. One approach says that, well there might actually after all be some great works by women (and indeed we know about Hildegard, Elizabeth, Clara and Fanny (referring to Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel)) – so we can start rewriting history incorporating works that have been overlooked. This is already starting to happen, and lots of riches may be mined.
Another approach is to say that there are no great works because they could not be made.
The art writer Linda Nochlin, in her paper “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?” talks about the history of art and how women were forbidden to learn essential techniques of painting, specifically how women were forbidden access to the nude:
“As late as 1893 ‘lady’ students were not admitted to life drawing at the official academy in London; even when they were admitted after that date, the model had to be partially draped…To be deprived of this ultimate stage of training meant, in effect, to be deprived of the possibility of creating major art works…It is rather as though a medical student were denied the opportunity to dissect or even examine the naked human body.”
“As late as 1893 ‘lady’ students were not admitted to life drawing at the official academy in London; even when they were admitted after that date, the model had to be partially draped…To be deprived of this ultimate stage of training meant, in effect, to be deprived of the possibility of creating major art works…It is rather as though a medical student were denied the opportunity to dissect or even examine the naked human body.”1
Nochlin also points out that In addition to life drawing, women were denied access to the situations which fostered artists:
“there was a regular progression and set competitions, crowned by the Prix de Rome, which enabled the young winner to work in the French Academy in that city; this was unthinkable for women of course, and they were unable to compete for the prize until the end of the 19th century…Deprived of encouragements, educational facilities and rewards, it is almost incredible that a certain percentage of women, admittedly a small one, actually sought out a profession in the arts.”2
The same problems existed to perhaps a greater extent in the realm of music. In her paper ‘Women as Musicians: A Question of Class’, the musicologist Nancy B. Reich talks about the difficulties facing a woman composer in the 18th and 19th centuries. She points out that many women attended conservatories but left the field of music when they married. In her words “Attending the conservatory was a nice thing for a girl to do, but turning professional was not.”3 She also points out that women were allowed to study at the conservatories, but their studies were limited to voice, piano and harp. She notes that “when women began to study violin, huge controversies erupted over their presence in orchestra classes”.4
And what of women composers? Nancy Reich, in the same article, writes:
“In every musical institution women were required to study harmony, but their course of study differed from that of the male students.” … “In Leipzig, a 3-year course in theory was required for men, whereas the women took a 2-year course…” In 1859, the Paris Conservatoire offered to male students two classes in written harmony as well as two in keyboard harmony and accompaniment; women were offered only the practical courses in keyboard harmony and accompaniment and were not permitted to study written harmony until 1879.”
“Few schools offered composition classes for women. The Paris Reglements of 1822 decreed that harmony, counterpoint and fugue were ‘for men’. Composition was specifically “‘for men only’.”5
So in music as well as in visual art, women were denied access to tools of the trade, to training in current techniques, and to the world – the milieu – of the art form.
Focusing on this lack of training or technique puts one in a double-bind of giving women an excuse (real and unfair as it may now seem), while being willing to dismiss (condemn?) their works of the past as somehow not up to the standard of great works by men. So between these two views – 1) that there are great works by women waiting to be unearthed like treasures dug out of a tomb, and 2) that there are no great works because women didn’t have access to training and techniques – between these two views I choose to hover, to explore both possibilities. I choose to examine the criteria of greatness – greatness by what lights? I choose to listen to women of the past and hear what music they were able to make, without asking that it be the same as music by men .
Of course, training is not the whole story.
Another part of the explanation for the absence of great works by women has to do with society and culture. In the not so long ago 19th century and even more recently, there existed social attitudes which maintained that women were better served by being able to do many things well, than by focusing on one thing. This lack of focus was to aid in woman better serving her husband, children and community.
Nochlin (from “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?”) quotes Mrs. Ellis’ popular 19th century work “The Family Monitor and Domestic Guide” :
“To be able to do a great many things tolerably well, is of infinitely more value to a woman than to be able to excel in any one. By the former, she may render herself generally useful; by the latter she may dazzle for an hour….All that would tend to draw away her thoughts from others and fix them on herself ought to be avoided as an evil to her…”6
So a woman is to be useful by obtaining a variety of skills, otherwise she would be useless. Linda Nochlin notes an additional observation by Mrs. Ellis, particularly relevant to any woman composer or musician:
“As far as painting specifically is concerned, Mrs Ellis finds that it has one immediate advantage for the young lady over its rival branch of artistic activity, music – it is quiet and disturbs no one.”7
It was important that women did not disturb anyone by making sound, by making music, perhaps by speaking as well. She must maintain the household, and care for others. This ‘cult of domesticity’ went hand in hand with the woman as muse – the cleaning woman on the pedestal. These social attitudes permeate culture, and often go unspoken. What is feminine is passive, receptive, etc. It is said often, and in many cultures, that the Sun is male, the moon female. This, followed through logically, means that Man, the sun, shines, and Woman, the moon, is a mere reflection of that light. The male acts, the female receives.
This brings to mind a kind of cultural duality inherent in our way of speaking about things, what the writer Hélène Cixous calls binaries:
As Cixous points out (in “Sorties:Out and out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays”), these hierarchical dualities present themselves in a positive/negative light. Male equals active equals sun equals good? Female equals passive, moon, night, bad? The logical as opposed to the irrational. The intellectual as opposed to the emotional. So for a woman to speak out, to act, to create, to do, can be seen (or, in the past could have been seen) as unfeminine. To take creative action, to write a book, to paint a painting, to compose a piece of music has been, historically, an extraordinary act of breaking the boundaries of cultural propriety…in the field of music perhaps most of all, because a work of music requires that others (performers, a conductor) be enlisted in the service of your work. What an assumption that is indeed.
The idea of what a woman was or should be has put a kind of stranglehold, not on women’s creativity, but on the freedom to express it, to put it out there, to claim it as a right, to have it be taken as seriously as the work of men. No wonder that the symbol of the caged bird is so prevalent in women’s literature (here I refer to Ellen Moers article”Literary Women” in which she examines the work of Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and others). The women writers and composers and painters themselves clearly had the sense of the limitations – the cage – imposed on them simply by their having been born female:
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel:
“That every day, at every step in life, one is reminded of her miserable feminine nature by the lords of creation is something that could put one into a fury. But the anger would destroy one’s womanliness and make the wrong even worse.”8
Here’s Christina Rosetti:
“Me, poor dove that must not coo –
eagle that must not soar…”9
Many of you know, and I hope know well, the work of Virginia Woolf.
In “A Room Of One’s Own” Virginia Woolf speaks directly to the subject of women as creators. She points out that “there was an enormous body of masculine opinion to the effect that nothing could be expected of women intellectually”. 10 You probably know the part about the dancing dog. Let me reconstruct it for you.
Woolf quotes from “A Survey of Contemporary Music” a reference to the French composer Germaine Tailleferre:
“Of Mlle. Germaine Tailleferre one can only repeat Dr. Johnson’s dictum concerning a woman preacher, transposed into terms of music. “Sir, a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all”.11
This dog, clever thing, becomes a dancing dog in Woolf’s own version (perhaps a dancing Wolf?), which occurs in a story she tells, a kind of ‘what if’ scenario, about what would have happened if Shakespeare had had a gifted sister, who she names Judith. This is fiction, and like much of fiction, it contains a truth. First, Virginia Woolf describes Shakespeare and how he was encouraged in his talents and how all doors were opened to him. She then describes Judith:
“She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages.”12
Later, as she grew up, it was assumed that Judith Shakespeare would marry. Her father scolded and beat her because she didn’t wish to marry. As Virginia Woolf writes:
“How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart? The force of her gift drove her to it.”13
So she ran away, to a theatre, where she hoped to get some training in her craft , but where the manager, however, laughed in her face:
“He bellowed something about poodles dancing and women acting – no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress.”14
She had no choices available to her, but in the end the manager took pity on her, and :
“…she found herself with child by that gentleman and so – who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body? – killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some crossroads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.”15
So here is one possible answer to the question : A woman composer is a dancing dog. But we also have this: the disturbing news that Judith Shakespeare, unable to fulfil her artistic urges, would have killed herself. What does this mean? (And let’s not forget that Virginia Woolf killed herself). This tells us what the stakes really are, and have always been. For men and for women. Because I ‘m not talking about a simple pastime, a leisure activity or a hobby. I’m talking about the full commitment of one’s being to one’s work. It is life or death. Art is a journey where you travel far to find something, hoping to return alive.
Now in general, I’m not speaking about women being oppressed by men – there are lots of cases of this, lots of situations where, for instance, women composers are not taken seriously by men in positions of power, the classic case being that of a woman engaging in discussions with a male composer/conductor, etc., and realising he is only flirting with her, or worse – though these problems exist, that is not the direction of my thinking here.
No, I am talking about what some might call ‘patriarchy’, or others might call ‘old belief systems’. And men are victims of this too. I’m talking about old systems which insist that things must be a certain way, a kind of overarching sense of tradition which rejects the new, rejects a questioning attitude, and offers instead a judgment – this, which follows old principles, is good, that, which does not conform, is bad. It’s important to make this distinction so that men and women, can question things like the curriculum of a class, the programming of a concert, the content of history books. It is difficult to question tradition, because there is lots there we may want to keep. But for the parts which are judgmental, restricting, oppressive? Patriarchy, the old system of canonic laws, is hard to beat down. It reminds me of those plastic heads which you ‘re supposed to pretend is your boss or whatever, which you can squeeze and pull, and twist, but no matter what you do, they always return to their original shape. Change comes hard, and always at a price. But what is the alternative?
I never really think of myself as a woman composer. It is something thrust upon me from outside. The minute I think of myself as woman composer, I feel a cloud dulling my sense of myself, a kind of blankness takes hold. I feel vague and confused.
There are dangers in talking about categories like women composers. Margaret Atwood, in ‘Paradoxes and Dilemmas, the Woman as Writer’ writes of this:
“The Lady Painter Syndrome, or She Writes Like A Man. This is a pattern in which good equals male, bad equals female. I call it the Lady Painter Syndrome because of a conversation I had about female painters with a male painter in 1960. ‘When she’s good,’ he said, ‘we call her a painter; when she’s bad we call her a lady painter’. ‘She writes like a man’ is part of the same pattern; it’s usually used by a male reviewer who is impressed by a female writer. It’s meant as a compliment. See also ‘She thinks like a man’, which means the author thinks, unlike most women, who are held to be incapable of objective thought (their province is ‘feeling’).”16
Categorization is dangerous. I truly respect those who produce concerts devoted to the work of women composers. Perhaps there is a necessity for this right now… But there is a danger here. As Pauline Oliveros has said ” the term lady composer effectively separates womens’ work from the main stream.”17
There is a danger of being separated out from the main stream. Of course there are other things that may do this, – race, aesthetics, style – and it can be difficult to know which thing is at play at any given moment. Pauline Oliveros has identified a pitfall of marginalization. (What used to be called ghettoizing). But for me there is an even greater danger, which is the danger of oversimplification, or essentialism.
Essentialism claims that we can reduce ourselves to essential characteristics: male/female, white/black, heterosexual/ homosexual, etc. What do these say about us, and what do these say about the work we create? What does the fact of my being a woman tell you about the work you hear? What does the work you hear say about my womanness?
Yes, I am a woman. How does it influence the work in its making? Does it influence it more or less than the fact that I grew up in New York? More or less than the fact that I grew up listening to the music of Debussy and Ravel, more or less than the fact that I love the paintings of Rothko, Frankenthaler and Morandi, more or less than the fact that I spent much of my teen-age and early adulthood reading the work of Collette and Virginia Woolf? And this is just a tiny fraction of the list of facts which are me. I’m in rebellion against labels and want to keep as many doors open as possible at the same time. Don’t fence me in.
I am interested in the personal, the specificness of each human – what then does my work have in common with others?
“We are the sum of our birth, past and environment”, the writer/filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-Ha says. She also says “Neither black/red/yellow nor woman, but poet or writer.”18 And to that I say: “Neither white nor woman, but composer”. She says “All is empty when one is plural”.19 If I am Woman Composer, then I disappear into a cloud of women composers, I am no longer distinguishable. This is not to say that I reject or shed my whiteness or womanness or anything else. It is to say that when I compose, these aspects of myself accompany me (how can they not?) but they do not direct the journey; they are present, like all of my past is present, but they are not, necessarily, in the material. When I compose, I am neither white, nor woman, but composer. Creative works reach beyond autobiography, beyond the facts of our reality to a new reality.
The Norwegian writer Toril Moi says: “Essentialism (the belief in a given female nature) in the end always plays into the hands of those who want women to conform to predefined patterns of femininity.” 20 As an artist and as a being, I’m never much interested in conformity. I wish to be free to go my own way.
When I compose, I find out who I am. I compose my identity , through my life and my work.
There is still much work to be done, much thinking to be done, by all of us. We can all choose to adopt an attitude of inquiry about the structures and strictures surrounding our work. Some specific traps or pitfalls for women in the course of their lives and work have to do with things like self-esteem – women sometimes end up taking on roles like harlot, little girl and eccentric, in order to get along with their male colleagues, in order somehow not to upset the applecart… Another trap is something I call protecting one’s place. Women, who have worked so hard for their meagre portion of success, can feel ambivalence, even dislike, of work by other women, in the fear that their place on the ladder may be stolen by another woman. I prefer to think there is endless room on the ladder. Again, it’s not just women who can fall into these holes – there are potential landmines for everyone. I think it just pays to examine the ground for them, and watch one’s footing, so as not to be unconsciously tripped up.
Women are still struggling for their birthright, for their voice and for their own sense of authority. In art as in so many areas of life, women (and men) are faced with walls to climb and chasms to leap, in the name of their life and work.
Helene Cixous, in “Castration or Decapitation” speaks to our need to validate ourselves:
“Right from the moment they venture to speak what they have to say (women) will of necessity bring about a shift in metalanguage. And I think we’re completely crushed, especially in places like universities, by the highly repressive operations of metalanguage, the operation that sees to it that the moment women open their mouths – women more often than men – they are immediately asked in whose name and from what theoretical standpoint they are speaking, who is their master and where are they coming from: they have, in short to salute…and show their identity papers.”21
This again is a reference to patriarchy, to old belief systems, to the establishment – whatever you want to call it. It is the binding, controlling atmosphere of judgment which says if you do things one way you will be accepted, but if not, you are out of the club, no cigars and whiskey for you. Now women have been out of the club by virtue of being women, but many men are also hitting their heads against this wall, this closed door of authority; many men are wrestling with the judge and his gavel, or even , in Virginia Woolf’s words, the Angel of the House.
Must the world be a certain way? Must things go on as they have? Are these rules necessary? Is there something that needs to change? Any of us, indeed all of us, can and maybe should pose these questions about the systems we find ourselves in, which we, after all, have inherited. As Michel Foucault says, “Who exercises power? How does it happen?”22
To which I add, maybe you inherit your father’s house. But you don’t have to live there.
When I ask What is a woman composer, I might also be asking is there a difference between men’s and women’s music? Where is the difference located, how does the difference manifest itself? I don’t think any of us want to fall back into some kind of duality ditch where soft music is women’s music, loud is men’s. Gentle music/aggressive music, fast/slow, intellectual/intuitive, etc. Is it a possibility to even say one is feminine the other masculine? This brings in the distinction between difference through the biological (male and female) and difference through the cultural/psychological (masculine/feminine). As has been stressed throughout the 20th century, all beings have both the masculine and feminine present within their psyches, the yin/yang of life as it were. Do we want to try to map these onto specific types of sound or styles? Perhaps it’s more fruitful to think of the feminine and masculine as general aspects of creative energy. Maybe there is a difference in point of view… Maybe there is a difference in thought processes… but I would prefer to say that women and men cross between the feminine and the masculine in the daily, moment-to-moment course of their lives and work, and that it is not a duality or dichotomy, but rather a range of experience, a vast series of gradations of imagining, thinking, intuiting, being, and doing, in a dizzying swirl of creativity.
What is a woman composer?
Or should I say, who?
I want to give you a brief list, (emphasis on brief), primarily of living or 20th century composers who are women:
Maria de Alvear (Spain/Germany); Wende Bartley (Canada); Linda Bouchard (Canada); Michelle Boudreau (Canada); Allison Cameron (Canada); Ruth Crawford (US); Barbara Monk Feldman (Canada/Germany); Sophia Gubaidalina (Russia); Adriana Holszky (Rumania); Ana Lara (Mexico); Tania Leon (Cuba/US); Annea Lockwood (US); Bunita Marcus (US); Pauline Oliveros (US); Cecile Ore (Norway); Younghi Pagh-Paan (Korea/Germany); Juliet Palmer (New Zealand/Canada); Barbara Pentland (Canada); Karen Rehnquist (Sweden); Kaija Saariajo (Finland/France); Ann Southam (Canada); Karen Tanaka (Japan); Galina Ustvolskaya (Russia); Judith Weir (Scotland); Hildegarde Westerkamp (Canada); and of course there’s Lili Boulanger.
A woman composer is a dancing dog, she is the moon, but one which shines with her own light, the eagle which must soar; I neither want entrance into the club, nor do I want to form a new club. I want to change the club. I want to see those apples rolling all over the floor.
What does the future hold? I know we will see great works by women; will we see them fully at home on the great stages? I don’t know. I am hopeful. A few have already been there once or twice. Progress.
How can one write music? One of the most important things is to feel free from constraints, both cultural and psychological. When Virginia Woolf wrote of the Angel of the House, she described her thus:
“She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily…
“And when I came to write, I encountered her with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room…And she made as if to guide my pen…
“I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her….Had I not killed her she would have killed me.”23
Each of us, man and woman, must be free to create, to become oneself, to remove the desire to please. Each of us must kill the Angel of the House, toss the judge from his throne. Patriarchy, that angel with rustling skirts, must be shown the door.
The important thing is for each person, male or female, to cultivate one’s own being, to become most fully who one is. For me, composing is my way of becoming more and more myself. It is how I discover what music can be. It’s not a question of appropriating what has been and trying to twist myself to fit it. It is a question of questioning: What other ways of creating music can there be, can we transform the compositional landscape by imagining a new kind of music, can we surpass the limits of what we know and create a new reality for ourselves? Can we not only break the rules, but change the game?
October 16, 1997
– Linda Catlin Smith