Communities of Artistic Women

In Her Words: Conversations with Composers in the United States
By Jennifer Kelly
Urbana, Chicago, & Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2013, 475 pp., $65.00, hardcover

Five Lives in Music: Women Performers, Composers, and Impresarios from the Baroque to the Present
By Cecelia Hopkins Hopkins Porter
Urbana, Chicago, & Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2013, $45.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Kate Doyle

Current writing on women composers and musicians illustrates the variety of perspective on women’s community within a field still rampant with gender bias. Throughout the last 25 years, we have seen innovative and discipline-changing musicological writing about women and sexuality, and have seen and experienced the rise of outstanding women composers and performers. Yet within the last year, we have also read about rising-star symphony conductor Vasily Petrenko asserting that women possess too much sexual energy to effectively to conduct an orchestra. Although musical compositions by women now appear in many programs featuring contemporary music, women composers from earlier periods in music history remain invisible to the mainstream audience and still fail to appear in university courses and textbooks. Understandably, then, women composers and writers identify themselves as members of a gendered community with differing degrees of enthusiasm. Some embrace women’s communal support and actively advocate women’s participation in music. Others distance themselves from associations with gender, not wanting these conversations to dominate the discussion and reception of their work.

Musicological writings also vary. These two recently published books, In Her Words, by Jennifer Kelly, and Five Lives in Music, by Cecelia Hopkins Porter, contribute to the dialogue about women in music and the arts in general. In Her Words comprises interviews with 25 contemporary women composers living and working in the US, while Five Lives in Music profiles women from the seventeenth century to the present.

Kelly is the director of choral activities and an assistant professor of music at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and the focus for the book arises from her work in programming as a conductor. She was motivated to compile the book by her experiences as both a student and a teacher concerned about the absence of women composers in music textbooks and the general repertoire. She aims to gather new information and to illuminate these women’s experiences and identities.

She cites Women, by the photographer Annie Leibovitz and the writer Susan Sontag (1999), as an inspiration for her interviews. Like Sontag and Leibovitz, Kelly presents carefully curated women’s profiles—although Sontag and Leibovitz work primarily with images, while Kelly works with words and (implied) sound. Kelly approaches her interviews as she would performances, an idea that she articulates in her introduction: her conversation with each artist, she says, is like an “alternative expression of [the artist’s] compositional voice.” She designs the overall trajectory of the interview as if she were planning a concert program.

Her selection of interview subjects represents a broad range of cultural experiences and backgrounds, as she profiles women of various ages, races, ethnicities, sexualities, birthplaces, educations, workplaces, and economic means. She highlights composers involved with many different genres of music, including works for orchestra, film scores, chamber music, musicals, commercials, video games, and performance art. The proportion of interviews of women working in each genre in the book, she explains, loosely reflects the ratio of women working within that genre in real life (thus, the collection includes more instrumental than video-games composers).

Kelly asks all her subjects about the “importance or irrelevance” of the label “woman composer,” the need for women’s concerts and events, and the role of gender in artistic process—and many take up her prompt with enthusiasm, to express their own philosophies and experiences. A number of them find the label irrelevant, stating that their gender has no effect on their work. Many note the importance of female role models in their own careers. Some are adamant about the need for advocacy of women’s issues in the field.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book is its discussion of creative process. I was enthralled, for example, by Augusta Read Thomas’s comments on sculpting sound with elegant design, Meredith Monk’s account of composition as a living form, Pamela Z’s emphasis on process, Joan Tower’s exploration of music and narrative tension, and Maria Schneider’s description of the role of physicality and touch in compositional creation. I left each interview inspired to hear and study the work of the composers.

Cecelia Hopkins Porter’s Five Lives in Music profiles a number of women who promoted musical culture, composed, and performed from the 1600s to the present: the German composer and harpsichordist Duchess Sophie-Elisabeth; the harpsichordist and composer at the court of Versailles, Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre; the German Romantic composer Josephine Lang; the early twentieth-century Viennese pianist and composer Maria Bach; and Ann Schein, an American concert pianist living today. Porter was motivated to write the book by a colleague who suggested she write an account of women in music over the last several centuries within the context of each one’s society. Five Lives in Music sheds light on social issues and introduces composers who have been overlooked in the mainstream musical canon.

Porter has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post for the last two decades. Her position as critic appears to have shaped her book, which actively attempts to connect her readers with the lives of her historical subjects. In her last two chapters, she comments upon the reviews the artists received. Having worked as a critic herself, Porter has an informed perspective on reviews, and she provides insight into the gender discrimination and cultural positions of these criticisms. It would be a fascinating project for Hopkins Porter to write a book that focuses specifically on reviews of women musicians and how they have changed (or not) throughout history.

Like Kelly’s, Porter’s professional career has given her a unique musicological perspective: she is concerned about how each composer was publicly received, and she wants to get contemporary audiences more involved in classical music. Writing about Ann Schein, Porter notes that she “seeks to remedy the lack of biographical information published in historical and biographical accounts, program notes, press releases, and Internet biographies.” She asks, “What kind of domestic scene surrounds them—spouses, children? Do they have any other serious avocations, such as painting, mountain climbing?”

Biographical details can often raise audience interest, and I appreciate Porter’s attempt to connect. There is some danger with this approach, however, in that placing these composers in their domestic environments puts the main focus on their lives as women, and only secondarily as composers and artists. While marriage and motherhood were important for women during the historical periods that Porter is researching, too much stress on these issues can lead us to learn more about how these artists dealt with their husbands than about their creativity and innovation. In what is surely an effort to provide continuity within her book, Porter also discusses her twentieth-century subject, Ann Schein, in relation to marriage and motherhood. This enables her to make interesting comparisons with the other women in the volume. But her emphasis on the role of wife and mother, even in the twentieth-century profile, risks implying that this is the only identity issue that women face today. It threatens to reinstate the gender identification or even discrimination that many of these composers fought against.

In their differing conceptual priorities and positioning of cultural context, Porter’s and Kelly’s books illustrate the complexity of writing about women composing music. Both work with this complexity, whether analyzing it, celebrating it, or deciding to leave it out all together. The books complement one another, together providing a multifaceted view of women’s issues throughout music history and in contemporary society. Although the two writers’ approaches differ and may even spark debates among readers, composers, historians, and artists, the dialogue that ensues should prove valuable. Whenever I encounter something that makes me want to hear a composer’s work or leads me to new discoveries about the artist and her art, I feel I have benefited.

I found a particularly moving moment in composer Chen Yi’s description of her belief in the importance of a supportive women’s community. Growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China, Yi says her gender was never an issue during her professional development or in her creative process. When she came to the US, however, she was surprised to find a community of women working together. She ultimately found great value in the support of this community, and she now serves as an advocate and mentor for women composers. Yi tells a story of going to a performance of her work at a meeting of the National Organization of Women. “The whole audience was women,” she says. “The first time I have seen so many women. This was so powerful . . . [w]hen the leader spoke on the stage, “We!”

Yi’s experience may have differed from that of other US women composers, but the community of artistic women became for her a source of joy and inspiration. Kelly and Porter emphasize different issues for women composers, but their work as a whole generously contributes to a community of women promoting and creating excellence in the field of music.

Kate Doyle is a doctoral student at Case Western Reserve University. She writes about gender and sexuality in music and is interested in musical composition for mixed media and interdisciplinary performance.


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