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Life Arts    H4'ed 9/19/15

Regarding Women Composers, It's the Patriarchy, Stupid

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Was this composed by a man or woman?  How could you know?
Was this composed by a man or woman? How could you know?
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Right-wing British rag The Spectator published an article recently titled "There's a Good Reason There Are No Great Women Composers." They argue, basically, that women composers simply do not possess the genius of men, and they prop up Clara Schumann as a straw-woman to knock down vis-a-vis her slightly better-known husband Robert, by assessing the first ten seconds of Clara's piano concerto as mediocre. Violinist and writer Emily Hogstad brilliantly debunks this ridiculous article here (

I have a bit to add, however. Hogstad's argument basically goes, but, alas, there were great women composers in music history and here they are. She's undeniably correct; the examples she points to are perfect examples of the genius of woman composers in history--- what few there have been. But that's the problem. One cannot deny that history records a vastly greater pantheon of male composers than female composers. I don't think Hogstad is denying that; but I think the thrust of her argument overlooks one important thing.

The Spectator is therefore correct to observe this imbalance of male-to-female composers of greatness in the ledger of history, but they spectacularly get the cause wrong. There is a good reason why there are so few great women composers recorded by history: it's a thing called patriarchy.

There is nothing about the female mind that impairs it for great musical composition. We live in a world today where that is proven by any number of women composers, including Pauline Oliveros, Gabriela Lena Frank, Libby Larsen, Sofia Gubaidulina, Joan Tower, Ellen Taafe Zwilich, Judith Laing Zaimont, Shulamit Ran, Suzanne Sorkin, Nkeiru Okoye, Alexis Bacon, Jennifer Jolley, Orianna Webb, just to name a few off the top of my head. Recently Meredith Monk received that National Medal of Arts from President Obama ( If you still think composition is a man's game, you are very much mistaken.

Patriarchy, however, is a man's game. It has been my frank anecdotal experience in academia, which is--- I'm afraid the conservatives are right about this--- populated by a lot of liberals, that even liberal, well-meaning, reliably-Democratic-voting white males really chafe to admit to the equality of composers of any kind of oppressed identity, whether it's women composers, composers of color, disabled composers, etc. My experience is that frustrated white male composers (to be perfectly honest, my peer group for a long, long time) would uniformly and summarily dismiss the success of women and minority composers in academia. "Oh," they'd maintain. "Diversity hire."

Solipsism for the win. The frustrated white male composer rarely has the imagination to entertain the possibility that maybe the woman's stuff or maybe the black composer's stuff or the Asian composer's stuff was just better. It couldn't be that. No. Diversity hire. That explains it. (I must be a strange and insecure breed of white male composer, because my very first assumption that comes with any rejection at all is to assume the inferiority of my product.)

I do have to admit, it takes an awfully good sport (like, say, myself) to acknowledge that someone else's superiority, rather than gender or race identity, won the day in an academic hiring situation. It can be a bitter pill to swallow. We don't want to believe that our stuff is somehow wanting, inadequate or inferior. So it becomes all to easy to leap to a facile explanation, like "diversity hire."

But it's also incredibly dangerous to make that leap, because when we do, we've stopped listening to the music. We've stopped giving a fair chance to what that composer has to say. We have made an assumption that their music is inferior, and was only given the stage out of some "politically correct" act of Affirmative Action. Then, even though the woman composer or the composer of color has been given the stage and the space and the time, the imprimatur of inferiority that has long plagued non-white composers remains intact. And once we have the attitude "this will be inferior" in place, we are hard-pressed to hear it any other way.

I defy anybody to listen to this aria ( from the opera Harriet Tubman by Nkeiru Okoye an African-American woman, and say that it is anything but fantastic. Likewise, just listen to this stunning piece of chamber music by former Shulamit Ran student, now professor of composition Suzanne Sorkin ( and say that it's any less good than any male composer you could name. Give a fair chance to this gorgeous piece for nine violas by Prof. Jennifer Jolley ( When's the last time you heard a piece for nine violas? Now's your chance! Get on this!

I want to make something clear. We actually need diversity hires. "Diversity hiring" is a good thing. It mitigates the gross structural inequalities that exist holding women composers and composers of color back in the first place. Because for every composer like Okoye, Sorkin or Jolley, there is a male counterpart who is doing better, but who doesn't compose any better. I went to Oberlin with Okoye and Sorkin, and for every Okoye, there's a Reynold Tharp who also went to Oberlin and is teaching at a more prestigious school, but who doesn't compose any better than she does. I also went to Oberlin with Sorkin, and for every Sorkin, there's a David Ludwig who also went to Oberlin and is teaching at a more prestigious school, but who doesn't compose any better than she does. I went to the doctoral program at University of Southern California with Jolley, and for every Jolley, there's an Andrew Norman who also went to the doctoral program at USC, and who is teaching at a more prestigious school, but who doesn't compose any better than she does. That's what's unfair.

And that's how you get all-male-panels like this composition panel for this year's Atlanta Music Festival. Indeed, one should spend some time taking a look at the all-male panels floating around academia ( Then, once one has done that, one should ask one's self the question again:

Why are there fewer "great" women composers in history?

Because patriarchy has historically suppressed and oppressed women composers and composers of other marginalized groups. And we're still doing it.

I write for Progressive Difference ( and we're on a mission. We cover the living, breathing composers that aren't getting the coverage they deserve. It's easy to celebrate the already celebrated; to pile on the bandwagon of the already successful. That's neither progressive enough nor does it make much difference. We're going to challenge the concert music establishment on this blog just as we challenge the political establishment. A white-male-dominant concert music establishment will not do. We need to make the concert music world a fairer, more just, more egalitarian place for everyone. I am a white male, and I'm using my privilege to call for an end to, and to challenge, the racism, misogyny and homophobia that exists in the concert music establishment and academia, especially since they tend to be populated by alleged liberals who should know better.

Of course, if we lived in a world where there was enough societal support for the arts, we would not be divided, each of us scrambling for the crumbs that academic and concert-music subsidies provide. Would that we could live in a society that maintained such a robust program that there truly was enough to go around, and then the identity-politics resentments would not occur. What is happening here in the concert music world and academia is emblematic of what is going on in American society writ large. We are told by the demagogues that we don't have jobs because of Latinos or African-Americans undeservedly "stealing" "our" jobs ("our" meaning entitled white men mostly).

Instead, we need to look for complex, structural reasons why there are not enough jobs to go around, whether for workers in society, or for the microcosm of composers in academia. We do not have the robust National Endowment for the Arts that John Kennedy envisioned. Instead, we have allowed libertarian idiocy to infiltrate our body politic such that the thinking goes, well, if it can't do well in the marketplace, it shouldn't exist at all. Rugged individualism! Except, the problem is, unfortunately, the more complex music (whether tonal or post-tonal, whether common practice period or contemporary) will fall by the wayside in a marketplace-driven model, because complexity will never achieve popularity. Complexity in the arts needs societal subsidy in order to exist. We cannot count on the benevolence of elites to win the day, because their support is inherently capricious. A theme that occurs throughout Progressive Difference is this: systemic problems require systemic solutions. The problem of supporting artists in society must be met with a structural solution and that. Takes.

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Robert Gross is the editor-in-chief and composer-in-residence of Progressive Difference (progressivedifference dot wordpress dot com).
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