The controversy about the title “Female Composer”…..

Hildegard-220x300…or “Woman” composer, (or “Latin American” composer, for that matter) gets a perspective from composer Kristin Kuster here. It is worth reading her opinion piece in the New York Times alongside the piece she quotes from NewMusicBox.

Much of what she says about women composers applies to women conductors, and both contingents are underrepresented in the high-level circles of the profession that receive the most performances or conduct the elite ensembles. She is right that women have sought to separate the gender qualification from the reception of their work. I, for example, refuse to conduct in skirts. I have always argued that it has nothing to do with embracing a masculine persona, and everything to do with the comfort and line of a dancer. But, perhaps, it has also something to do with avoiding the perturbing shock of the unusual for the ensemble and the audience.  On the other hand, the mark of great art is deep authenticity. One cannot deny one’s identity in true art.

It is also interesting to consider that interdisciplinary women artists who were able to break and continue to break boundaries between artistic disciplines seem to inhabit a different reception sphere, and are not plagued by the conflict between denying and embracing femininity.  These women artists (Meredith Monk, Martha Graham, Laurie Anderson among many others) do not feel compelled to sidestep the feminine, but rather embrace it both directly and as an archetype. It seems to me that the friction stems from the location of the classical composer’s work within a concert paradigm that is rooted in a 19th-century Western European and male dominated model.  I must say that I have, like Kristin Kuster, come to terms with the problem in new ways.  It may be imperative as conductor and interdisciplinary artist to move away from the male-dominated conventions of the traditional concert.  It is time, anyway, to create a new paradigm for music presentation, as the old one is already failing.


  1. Molly

    “It may be imperative as conductor and interdisciplinary artist to move away from the male-dominated conventions of the traditional concert.” Fascinating! I guess my question is, what do you think are the specific conventions of the current concert paradigm that are “male-dominated,” and what are examples of new “feminine” elements that could be incorporated into the new paradigm? And are you speaking literally here, or more archetypically?

  2. Good question! First of all, it is not the art of conducting or composing that is masculine or feminine. I believe conductors–and I think all artists– are expressing both masculine and feminine outlooks and states of mind– if you wish to speak in archetypes– in a individualized synthesis peculiar to each artist. The problem is rather one of insertion into the economics of the professional music world. The conductor in the 19th-century and all the way to our modern concert practice has been marketed (and I mean, this is an artificial construct, like most marketing strategies) with a forceful masculine persona, surrounded by any or all of the trappings of hierarchical masculinity, such as airplanes and constant international travel, race cars, a lion-like mane or austere baldness, multiple wives, Italian suits and all-black outfits, and an empire built of several orchestras, opera houses and festivals in different countries; in short–not much different to the personas of James Bond, Cary Grant, or Vladimir Putin. Anecdotes abound about the tyrannical, or at least awe-inspiring influence of conductors over their musicians, all in all projecting a top-down, dominant/submissive dynamic. We certainly see some interesting variations and even a gradual evolution away from this model in the last 20 years, but not enough to significantly increase the impact of women conductors because the orchestra as such still is shaped by an old model, and by now the audience cannot separate the artistic action of a conductor from this exacerbated masculine persona. The modern orchestra became consolidated in the mid-20th century as a highly disciplined hierarchical institution that only gradually took power away from the conductor and conceded decision-making power to the musicians. Still boards and executive directors may retain hierarchical models, especially within the most famous orchestras in the richest capitals of the world. It is hard for women to project themselves within this environment without entering in conflict with both their intrinsic and/or socially accepted manifestations of femininity. Another way of saying this is that a female artist cannot negotiate this environment without adopting some variation of the “masculine” archetype in her persona. There are indeed female presidents of important orchestras, but not a single female music director of a top orchestra. The topic is extremely complex, and worth examining in all its ramifications. I do not pretend to have a simple or single answer here. Women conductors are beginning to appear with some regularity with major orchestras.

  3. You are provoking me to try a miniskirt and patterned tights with my ipad attached to the stem of my mike boom, just for fun. I have not actually tried conducting in a dress, but perhaps it IS time for the feminine to be evoked from the podium and also from the pulpit. I have faced the same biased issues in Evangelical, Non-Denominational, and Denominational circles, wether I am conducting, leading worship or reading Scripture, yet I have a mission to bring music to people through new lenses. Those new views may be female or they may just be me. I see myself as an educator of music first, and additionally a woman who can bring to life a musical perspective that staunchly male viewpoints may or may not perceive as of value at first glance. Women who are called to these traditionally male positions do, I believe, need tenacity in knowing as Hildegard knew that composing, conducting, leading worship and teaching are innate gifts that cannot be squelched.

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