How to Talk to a Female Composer

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Hmm... Can you repeat the question? Hmm... Can you repeat the question? (Andréanne Germain/flickr)

Interviewing a composer these days can be a daunting proposition. The esoteric musical jargon, your creeping suspicion of the art’s ultimate demise, and their stubborn determination to engage with the issues of today as opposed to rehashing 18th-century proven, quality music-making. Then to be confronted with the alarming prospect, in some cases even bodily reality, of a composer who is non-male? What’s a well-intentioned interviewer to do?

Begin with basics. Always lead with the question, “What’s it like to be a composer and a woman?” or “How does being a woman influence your music?” Women love having their personal, defining creative impulses reduced to outdated stereotypes of gender, and don’t at all find it ironic that men are never asked “How does being a man influence your music?” as if estrogen and testosterone were the creative juices feeding all artistic inspiration. Or, maybe estrogen just makes it harder to compose? 

Next, dispense with the elephant in the room. “Do you see yourself as a mom first or a composer first?” We all know that women are the only half of any relationship concerned with the family’s health and well-being, and that have to grapple with the balance of work and family. Plus, why would women even care about an obviously subordinate act of creation such as composition, when they hold the trump card over their male counterparts with the ultimate act of creation - childbirth.

If your interviewee does not have a family yet, say she's still in college, it’s still a valid point of curiosity and welcome conversation. Find a subtle way of determining how much the prospect of family influences their compositional aspirations, such as “Do you plan on continuing to compose after you get married?” After all, there’s more pressure on women to get married than to have a career.

Now that you’re engaging in friendly, fruitful conversation, start tackling the deeper issues behind why our community of composers is so male-dominated. Your guest will be an expert in this matter, what with being a woman and a willing spokesperson for her gender, so inquire “Why aren’t there more of you? More female composers?”

With the complex, tacitly acknowledged and non-career-threatening-to-denounce reasons behind the scarcity of women composers explained away, probe into the specifics of what differentiates the sexes. “Do women have an advantage over men when it comes to raising money for their projects?” Skip over the unpleasant truths: men possess the vast majority of jobs in music (conductor, artistic administrator, university composition faculty member, award and fellowship committee member); statistically speaking, bosses tend to promote employees who are more like them; gender roles are still the victim of obsolete, if ingrained, trends and messaging in mass culture. Cut straight to implying affirmative action and a shortsighted, oversimplified assessment of its unfairness.

You might be sensing a little tension now. Divert your line of questioning to the calmer, collaborative waters of attempting to describe with your guest the “female composer” sound. If you’re feeling on shaky ground with the premise that the diverse constituents of half the population can be boiled down to a few adjectives, just ask “How are female composers different from male composers?” 

If, instead, you’re somewhat emboldened to offer your own perspective, inquire thus: “Why would a female composer choose a violent, sexual, controversial, or depressing subject as inspiration for a piece?” Such matters are surely unseemly, and outside the realm of what women should have to confront in music. Yes, in life such ugly realities are the provenance of both genders, especially you might say those not in positions of power. But this is classical music! Perfumed, courtly music salons! Organists and wigs! You know, the proven goods central to staying relevant as an art form, not to mention secure in gender roles.

Nostalgia aside, if these approaches do not produce the congenial results you anticipated, you can always resort to praise and confess “Your music has always struck me as music that only a woman could’ve written.” This is your emergency parachute, your balm. You have identified the thing that all women composers strive for in their music - femininity. She will be impressed with your discerning ear and how you can put a finger on what makes her the unique, striving artist that she is.

To close the conversation, gently transition out of your interviewer role, and demonstrate your private empathy and well-intentioned ineffectualness by acknowledging that sexism does exist and that there are men out there without the nuanced understanding of gender politics that you've come to possess. Try "I'm not sexist, but many of my male colleagues are. I'm just preparing you for that." or "Your music has to be twice as good as music written by your male colleagues, otherwise no one in the real world is going to take you seriously."

These are harsh truths, ones that are more decorously addressed in the safe waters of a private conversation. Good thing you ended the interview and went off the record before sharing them.

The successful interview you enjoyed with your female composer might tempt you to ask similar questions when you interview a male composer. You know, questions about the provider-creative artist conflict, the essential characteristics of the male-composer sound, the impact manhood has on music-making, etc. But what would be the point in asking them? After all, men writing music is the way it’s supposed to be, isn’t it?


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Comments [9]

Marti Epstein from United States

I just love this article so much. Thank you.

Apr. 16 2015 09:56 PM
Kathleen Supove from United States

Thanks, Alex!! Very funny. I found out about the article from my friend Marti Epstein (a woman and a composer, in Boston). Thought you may be interested: I'll be premiering a new piece of hers for prepared piano on MARCH 10 at Roulette. It's a concert of all premieres by Marti, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Joan La Barbara, and Randall Woolf. Horrors, 3 out of 4 are women!!! And Randy is, of course, my husband, so maybe that makes him an honorary woman???
Hope 2015 finds you well! xo Kathy

Jan. 17 2015 07:50 AM
Christine Ammer from Lexington, MA

Great piece! I've been trying to collect putdowns of women musicians (composers. performers, conductors, et al.) But don't yet have enough for an article.

Sep. 01 2014 11:17 AM
Rain Worthington from New York

This is great! And, the last paragraph was especially such a perfect extension.
Thank you.

Aug. 29 2014 03:41 PM

Hmmm, I guess more questions for Mr. Ambrose should include, "Do tears of laughter always produce major triads?" And, "Does laughing hard always make your ovaries hurt?"

Apparently his article has produced lots of laughter. I wonder whether that was his intent. DD~~

Aug. 29 2014 01:02 AM
John Montanari from Shutesbury, Mass.

Can Mr. Ambrose please post links to interviews where the questions he quoted were asked, or otherwise substantiate them?

Aug. 27 2014 09:34 PM
Sabrina Pena Young from Buffalo, NY

I remember hearing comments about how my music sounded like "men's music" because it was soooo angry and percussive. (I'm a drummer of 25 years, so, yes, my writing is rhythmic and not "pretty".) What a great satire if it wasn't true so many times! Thank you for an amazingly insightful and humorous take. I'm laughing so hard my ovaries are hurting.

Aug. 27 2014 02:43 PM
Alex Shapiro from Friday Harbor, WA

I am laughing so hard from reading this, that my oh-so-delicate tears are falling onto my manuscript paper and blurring the notes. This has resulted in morphing the violent, sexual, controversial, and depressing music I'd written between bars 53 and 58 into lovingly sweet (and very politely quiet) major triads that resolve into pools of feminine perfection. Phew! You’ve saved the day! Oh Alex, thank you for this! #nailedit

Aug. 27 2014 01:34 PM
QNetter from Seattle, WA

Perfect. It almost hurts to read, in the best way.

Aug. 27 2014 10:58 AM

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