Her Music: Today's Emerging Female Composer

Q2 Music's 24-Hour Marathon Celebration of New Female Voices in New Music

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Young Woman Writing Music and Playing Piano Young Woman Writing Music and Playing Piano (Nathan Jones/Getty)

Even as women have achieved growing parity in the ranks of symphony orchestras and chamber music groups, their numbers suddenly thin out upon scanning the names of composers in a Playbill.

Q2 Music has analyzed several key areas in contemporary classical music. In the U.S., women hold only 15% percent of composition faculty positions; women constitute under 15% of living composers whose works were featured on recent orchestral seasons and new-music series; and in the history of prestigious composition prizes, women obtain top honors only 9% of the time. While a handful of established women have risen to garner these elite awards and lucrative commissions, emerging composers still struggle to break through and get their music heard.

With that in mind, Q2 Music is presenting Her Music, a 24-hour, no-repeats marathon of pieces by emerging female composers on Sunday, August 24. The day will spotlight and celebrate the dynamism and diversity of music-making around the globe, if still outside the major concert spotlight, and indirectly quash the notion of any discernible "female composer" sound. Voted by listeners into Q2 Music's 24 hours on the 24th monthly series, the marathon repeats Thursday, August 28.

A look at 20 of the top music schools in the U.S. (as named by U.S. College Rankings in 2012) in the chart below reveals that, in 2014, women hold only 15% of composition faculty positions, or 20 of the 151 current positions. In fact, over half of the elite schools have no women on their composition department faculty; and only the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia has a woman – Jennifer Higdon – as a department chair. In New York, the percentage of women in composition faculty for 2014 rises to 21% (or 14 of 67 positions), with almost 50% coming from the two SUNY faculties, at Stony Brook and Purchase.

Women Composition Faculty in U.S.
Women Composition Faculty in New York

We were not able to gather statistics on the expected gender disparity in the student bodies of higher education composition departments, but it's clear though that having more women in positions of influence sends a message that can only serve to empower and enable future generations of aspiring female composers. "A student should be able to believe wholeheartedly that they can reach those highest levels of compositional expression," wrote Jennifer Higdon in an e-mail, "Because so much of the world's population is made up of women, the presence of women composers can only help encourage those who would seek out music as a career (and as a form of expression)."

Q2 Music also looked at several new-music series and incubators (below). Our sample admittedly shows a New York bias and goes only so far in showing how emerging composers, male or female, get their music heard at the concert hall today. Nonetheless, women represent a staggeringly low percentage of living composers whose music is featured on major orchestra seasons or new-music series: 12% nationally as calculated from the League of American Orchestra's most recent 2010-2011 report; 13% in the complete six seasons of the New York Philharmonic's CONTACT! series; and 11% for the most recent five years of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Green Umbrella series.

Women Composers in U.S. Presenters of New Music

There are bright spots of gender balance in the new-music compositional landscape, however. Miller Theatre at Columbia University has brought gender diversity to its Composer Portraits series (an observation also made in 2013 by Alex Ross for the New Yorker). The International Contemporary Ensemble's ICElab – where composers are placed "in intensely collaborative incubation residencies" to develop new evening-length works – is another example. For both presenters, women represent 43% of composers over the past few seasons (women also serve as the chief administrators, with Miller Theatre's Melissa Smey and ICE's Claire Chase).

(Addition: This year, the League of American Orchestras will administer the first Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation commissions for two women composers in the early phases of their careers who have participated in American Composers Orchestra's EarShot program, a national orchestra composition discovery network. The $15,000 commissions will include world premiere performances of the new work with selected orchestras.)

A survey of prizes below including Pulitzer, Grawemeyer and Nemmers, also displays how underrepresented women are on the rolls of major composition awards and fellowships, amounting to only 9% of the total recipients. It should be noted that Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho has won a Grawemeyer (2003), Polar (2013) and the sole Nemmers to be awarded to a woman (2008).

Women Composers in Major Music Composition Prizes

There have been some encouraging bumps around a few top awards and fellowships in the last two decades however. Guggenheim Fellowships, considered an important career kickstarter, have gone to a growing number of women (now one out of every four prizes). Charles Ives Awards have risen to 19% for women composers; Arts and Letters Awards have gone from 9% women since 1941 to 17% in the last two decades. A Pulitzer Prize was given in 2013 to the young Caroline Shaw.

Opinions vary on this causes of the overall disparity in representation. Some point to lack of role models or mentors. Some suggest an old boys’ network. Some to the idea that women are not culturally encouraged to ask for things. In an effort to sidestep established power structures, some women have formed their own series, presenting organizations, labels and ensembles. It's clear from the music that these increasingly recognized organizations generate that there is no lack of available compelling and innovative music from emerging female composers. 

For Her Music, we reached out to colleagues, new-music and female-composer advocates and presenting organizations, but also directly to listeners and communities of composers, and we're thrilled to present and premiere all the irresistible music we've discovered. The music ranges from the most active, spiky post-minimalism to the most luxurious neo-Romanticism and infectious indie-classical, and will sound no different from any other Q2 Music daily playlist. We welcome this marathon's injection of diversity into our general library of tracks which currently include only 14% of works by women.

For many years, critics have proclaimed the demise of classical music, and it's hard to not point to obvious gender, not to mention racial, imbalance as reason for classical music's continued relevance question. Efforts to prioritize diversity in programming and mentorship however have the counteracting effect of making for a healthier, more vibrant, and living ecosystem for all. So let's listen and get to work!

Produced by:

Alex Ambrose


Hannis Brown, Charlotte Mundy and Elena Saavedra Buckley


More in:

Comments [12]

Sara Corry from Washington DC

Hello! I think that your Berklee composition faculty numbers need to be checked. So Berklee did employ 10 women on faculty, now 11! But, they give their conducting staff the title of "___ professor of Composition." I'm not sure why. That means that ONLY SIX of the TEN women teaching at Berklee actually teach a composition class. Four of them ONLY teach conducting. So if you're looking at "20 of the 151 current positions" that's actually 13.3%, now for females that actually teach a composition class 16/151 giving us a grand total of 10.6%.

Feb. 15 2017 08:26 PM
Rita from Los Angeles, CA

This is so interesting. I had no idea the gap was so vast. Can we find this playlist anywhere now thT the date has already passed? Would love to hear it.

Sep. 04 2014 12:03 AM
Todd Moellenberg from San Diego, CA

I appreciate your initiative to program more music from women composers. However, after reading phrases like "Quash any notion of a 'female composer' sound" and "No different from any other q2 playlist," along with some readers' responses, I am left wondering...

Is composed sound supposed to be gender neutral? What's the danger with sounding "different?"

Aug. 24 2014 10:31 PM
Theres a lot at play here

@John Your idea of eliminating cronyism is great, however, that statement supports the focus on gender as many women today are not hired in academia for a number of reasons, some by choice and some not (ex. childrearing, sexism, gender specific roles in the home, lack of childcare, pregnancy). And while both men and women are helpful mentors, the reality is that there are social barriers between opposite sex members in a professor/student relationship. For example, the young male prof that goes out alone at night with a female student may be looked poorly upon, even if the relationship is entirely platonic, but would not face the same scrutiny if with a male student. There are also predatory male profs that see female students as fresh meat.These are complex issues outside of music that affect women. Some simple solutions would be universities providing childcare allowances and flexible schedules (many do), take a woman's entire career into account (not just her degrees...for example, I'm not about to spend $30K on a PhD that is only useful in a dying field, especially with a young family to raise), be alert to predatory behavior in professors, and if a school sees an imbalance in their departments, to ask why and see what needs to be changed. I agree that getting angry does nothing. I do believe that making changes benefits everyone.

Aug. 24 2014 03:21 PM
Joelle from Austin, TX


Aug. 24 2014 08:15 AM
John Smith from New York

Maybe we should just focus on someone being a composer as opposed to focusing on their sex! No matter who you are it is difficult to get performed. The focus should not be on sex but rather on breaking down the barriers created by not being "a part of the club". That is to state that many composers get performed simply because of politics (i.e. with whom they studied, who they know, with whom they are friends, etc.). If these barriers were eliminated then it's a safe bet more composers would get performances of their music overall regardless of their sex. Knock down the barriers of cronyism and that will open up new doors for everyone!!!

Aug. 24 2014 03:36 AM
Per-Åke Byström from Stockholm, Sweden

For your information:
KVAST, Association of Swedish Women Composers, just have spread the word about the Q2 initiative 'Her Music'. Published on the website - http://kvast.org – and on the Facebook page.

The website presents more than 800 women composers around the world in short bios and portraits (and some music samples).
The Repertoire Bank (Repertoarbanken) - http://kvast.org/repertoar lists more than 1,000 pieces composed by women composers.

And this is just the beginning of our efforts to have women composers to be seen and heard.

Aug. 21 2014 06:10 PM
Alex McCoy from NYC

Unfortunately our society in just about every way is still dominated by traditional Western culture, where white men have reigned supreme for generations. Slowly but surely we are moving closer to equal parity.

When you think 'composer', who do you think of? Mozart, Bach, etc....it's not easy to break those stereotypes presented in our media.

Q2 is doing a great job of trying to bridge the gaps left by history. Congrats to all women composers for breaking the stereotype!

Aug. 21 2014 02:59 PM
Barry Lyons from New York City

As it happens, I was listening to a string quartet by Amy Wurtz last night. Nice piece.

And as for my favorite CD by a deceased female composer, that award goes to Doreen Carwithen and her two terrific string quartets, a Chandos recording that you can find on Amazon. (Carwithen was William Alwyn's wife; they shared a similar aesthetic.)

Aug. 21 2014 02:42 PM
Sabrina Pena Young from Buffalo, NY

Thank you so much for sharing these statistics. As a composer for over 15 years, I have found that my career path led me away from the traditional forms of music and organizations that have historically limited women's expression in music. Instead, in graduate school, I opted to study music technology and electroacoustic music, where there is no real precedent against women because of its relative "newness". I was fortunate that my main mentors were women, as well as a few men that were younger and not worried about my gender. This propensity to work outside the box helped me work with amazing artists to commission a multimedia oratorio and my first opera, the animated Libertaria: The Virtual Opera, which is available online and was entirely produced using the Internet and social media. I have tried in the past to go through traditional routes, but I am not a traditional type of girl, since the day that I decided that I wanted to be a famous rock drummer and picked up the sticks at age 10 (PS, not a famous rock drummer now). As a woman I have a choice. I can try to climb a ladder that is consistently tossing me down a few rungs because I am missing the almighty "Y" chromosome, or I can buck the ladder entirely and work with talented men and women throughout the globe that couldn't care less what I look like. So yes, I agree that many traditional organizations ignore women, but I would say that thousands, if not more, women and people of color have decided that its not worth the hassle of trying to meet someone's antiquated standards, and instead simply opt to create exciting new music that reaches out to the music more diverse and tech-savvy audience of today. And I would hazard to say that this antiquated approach to academia and classical music may very well be contributing to the rapid decline of our greatest traditional cultural institutions. There is change in music, but it is happening outside of our traditional classical music tradition. - Sabrina Pena Young, @dalatindiva

Aug. 21 2014 10:57 AM

@Lisa Renee Ragsdale

Dear Lisa, thanks for your comments and the great suggestions of composers for Q2 Music to investigate. Our ears are always open, but we rely on the suggestions and involvement of listeners such as yourself to amplify our playlists. And on that note, while it may be on the late side for inclusion for this marathon, please do send us your music anyway. We have plenty of others day per year to fill with the most freshly inked pieces.

Info on how to submit your music to us on this page:

Aug. 20 2014 03:46 PM
Lisa Renee Ragsdale from Minneapolis, MN

As a "woman composer" who started a little later in life but who is making great progress in the last few years (I'm 64) I am trying everything I can to get my music performed and this is not easy. The good news is that I am surrounded (here in Minneapolis/St. Paul) by numerous women composers some of whom would prefer to be known only as composers!!
To name just a few: Libby Larsen, Elizabeth Alexander, Edie Hill, Abbie Betinis, Jocelyn Hagan, Linda Tutas Haugen, Mary Ellen Childs, Tiffany Skidmore, Janika Vendervelde, Carol Barnett, and Ann Millikan.
WHEW! Is that enough women composers? And don't forget me (Lisa Renee Ragsdale).

I know you have already selected the composers & selections already for this 24 hour marathon, but I could contribute a few works in the future if you could squeeze a (??) 64 year old woman composer who doesn't write music in one "specific" style; i.e.: there are my "humorous pieces," my deadly serious works, my "just plain music" pieces, and my "picture music" works.

Aug. 20 2014 01:27 PM

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