The great female composers of our time
Women who define the recorded music era
NPR’s recent list of the 150 greatest albums by women was inspiring — but where were the composers? In the wake of much discussion about the chronic underrepresentation of female composers on American concert programs, I came up with my own list.
Since I was responding to a list of recordings, I confined myself to artists active in the recorded music era, the 20th and 21st centuries — leaving out Hildegard von Bingen, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Wieck Schumann, Barbara Strozzi, Marianne Martinez and many others. My selections are based on a combination of personal preference and some idea of what constitutes “importance,” and it was hard to winnow it down. My top 10 picks are printed here, and the list continues on wapo.st/femalecomposers, where you can weigh in with your own opinions.
Meredith Monk: One of the musical pioneers of our time, Meredith Monk has been carving out her own channels through the artistic landscape since the 1960s, defying categorization with work that used to be characterized as “dance” but now is clearly “composition.” Monk’s trademark is extended vocal technique, mining the voice for expressive possibilities not contained within the established conventions of Western notation. With evocative titles such as “Turtle Dreams” or “Dolmen Music,” her work has the feeling of a myth you’ve always known, rooted in our collective historical unconscious, offering a sense of deja vu in pieces that take the form of dreamlike narratives or “operas” (“Book of Days”), or of devotionals (“Songs of Ascension”). Now 74, she is working in an increasingly rich, instrumentbased idiom but has lost none of what she has called her “sense of wonder.”
Caroline Shaw: When she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, Shaw, 35, a violinist and singer, didn’t even consider herself a composer per se. But her “Partita for 8 Voices,” composed for the vocal group Roomful of Teeth (of which she is a member), a sequence of riffs on Baroque dance forms with a wide range of unusual vocal effects, got the attention of the Pulitzer jury. Shaw’s distinctive, lyrical vocal writing also got notice from the rapper Kanye West, who has both performed and released tracks with Shaw (including a remixof the song “Say You Will”). Recognition hasn’t changed Shaw’s honest, serious approach as she ex-
plores new musical idioms and forms — such as her first-ever piece for orchestra (with solo violin), “Lo,” premiered by the North Carolina Symphony at the Shift festival in Washington in March. “It is a strikingly original and moving work that rethinks what orchestral writing can be,”Simon Chin wrote in The Washington Post.
Joan Tower: A doyenne of American orchestral composers, Tower, 78, is known to many for her six “Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman,” a pendant to Aaron Copland’s musical prelude. However, these are relatively small works in a catalogue that has moved from early serialism to music that is impressionistic, colorful and direct, such as “Sequoia” (1981). Another signature piece, “Made in America” (2006), was performed in all 50 states before taking a Grammy award for best classical composition in 2008. Tower has taught composition at Bard College in Upstate New York for 41/2 decades and co-founded the Da Capo Chamber Players in 1969 as a forum for her own and other contemporary works. (She left the ensemble in 1984.) In music, she told an interviewer in 2015, “the gender issue is nonexistent . . . . Now, outside the music, there’s all sorts of problems!”
Kaija Saariaho: The Finnish composer, 64, had a new wave of publicity when the Metropolitan Opera performed her “L’Amour de Loin” last season, but she came to international attention when the piece was first premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2000. Saariaho’s music is characterized by surging, luminous tones and textures, large masses of sound that move and change, more static meditations than dramatic journeys. Saariaho got her international start working in Paris at IRCAM, the computer and electronic music center founded by Pierre Boulez, and the resulting analytic sensibility and ability to consider music as sound and sound as music has left its traces on her acoustic scores. But her work is anything but abstract, tied into a range of other human experiences and perceptions: sight and space, love and motherhood. “Long after the curtain goes down, you feel that you are still swimming along in her sound,” the musicologist Susan McClary told the New Yorker in 2016.
Pauline Oliveros: Oliveros, who died in 2016 at the age of 84, was a pioneer of tape music, creating works such as the poignant “Bye Bye Butterfly,” which puts a recording of Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly” through a sequence of electronic filters, or “Crone Music,” which refracts and multiplies the sound of her own accordion. She is best remembered, though, for the work that she developed under the rubric “Deep Listening,” the name for both a trio of performers and a program based on the concepts of active listening and responding to other musicians. “Deep Listening” also underlined the autonomy of the individual in deciding how to create and experience music, liberating music’s practice from the restrictions of the Western canon — particularly with regard to female composers. “They are not necessarily intended to be concert pieces,” she told New Music Box in 2000, speaking of her seminal “Sonic Meditations.” “I turned the paradigm around by saying, ‘Okay, you make the music.’ ”
Julia Wolfe: In 1987, three young composers, David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, responded to their frustrations with the academic new-music scene by hosting a marathon performance featuring music of every style and stripe — and Bang on a Can was born. The organization has spawned an ensemble, a record label and a summer festival, as well as the annual marathon, and all three composers have become elder statesmen of what’s been termed alt-classical music. Wolfe, 58, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for “Anthracite Fields,” an oratorio about life in the Pennsylvania coal mines; she is also a recent MacArthur Fellow. Like her fellow Bang on a Can composers (she is married to Gordon), she has been moving from shorter, intense kinetic works, such as “Lick” (2009), to longer narrative ones: a piece about women in American labor will be premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 2018-19.
Sofia Gubaidulina: Like her colleague Arvo Part, Gubaidulina, 85, found refuge in music the restrictions of life under the Soviet regime, seeing music as a link to the divine in the face of proscription and blacklisting that kept her work unperformed for many years. A difference is that Gubaidulina’s music is more conventionally dramatic, like the dark outbursts and suffocated solo-line outcries of the violin concerto “Offertorium,” which Gidon Kremer helped champion in the West. Another champion was Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom she wrote “Canticle of the Sun,” a cello concerto with chorus. Drawing on musical traditions from both East and West, Gubaidulina has explored folk music and instruments such as the bayan, a Russian accordion. In 1992, she moved to Germany, where she has been able to enjoy her tremendous international renown.
Missy Mazzoli: Already an established fixture on the Brooklyn scene with her band, Victoire (which played D.C. in 2011), the 36-yearold Mazzoli came to the attention of a wider audience in 2016 with her second opera, “Breakfrom ing the Waves,” which brought the lyricism of Benjamin Britten through a filter of Louis Andriessen into the 21st century. “It’s so easy to create an idea of what my music is based on its labels: classical, indie-classical, post-minimal, contemporary, chamber-pop, opera, orchestral, etc.,” she said in a 2015 interview. “None of these words really tells you anything about how the music sounds or how you will feel about it.” She’s written for orchestras such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but her signature works remain vocal: from her first, acclaimed opera, “Song from the Uproar,” to the pop-song-like “Cathedral City.” Her third opera, “Proving Up,” will be premiered in January as part of the Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative.
Jennifer Higdon: One of today’s most-performed living composers, Higdon, 54, embodies a combination particularly appealing to American audiences: She’s at once a maverick and, in a certain way, a conservative. Self-taught until college, espousing no particular aesthetic school, she writes smart music that is not ashamed to be tonal, and beautiful. “Blue Cathedral,” one of the most-performed of all contemporary works, is a lush wash of tonalities throbbing through the orchestra. A teacher at the Curtis Institute, where she got her graduate degree, she has formed relationships with illustrious students, writing her vivid violin concerto, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, for Hilary Hahn, and her piano concerto, which the National Symphony Orchestra premiered in 2009, for Yuja Wang. In 2015, her first opera, “Cold Mountain,” had a success in its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera. “If my music is not communicating,” she said in 2012, “I feel it’s not doing its job.” Lili Boulanger: Most rosters of great female composers include Nadia Boulanger, the composer, conductor and influential teacher to a couple of generations of composers. But Nadia devoted considerable energies to keeping alive the memory of her sister, Lili, a child prodigy who died in 1918 at 24, having been the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome — with a big symphonic cantata, “Faust et Hélène,” that like many Prix de Rome-winning pieces is a little too cumbersome and weighty to fully reveal the strengths of a composer whose best work is packed with color and light. Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra gave a fine reading of her sun-dappled “D’un Matin de Printemps” when they last appeared here in January, though her best-known short work is probably the “Pie Jesu” — possibly the only surviving section of a planned requiem she did not live to finish.
“If my music is not communicating, I feel it’s not doing its job.” Jennifer Higdon, 54, one of today’s mostperformed living composers, speaking in 2012
ABOVE: Composer Missy Mazzoli, whose next opera will be premiered by the Washington National Opera in January. FAR LEFT: Julia Wolfe was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for “Anthracite Fields.” NEAR LEFT: Musical pioneer Meredith Monk has lost none of what she has called her “sense of wonder.” BOTTOM LEFT: Caroline Shaw was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for her work “Partita for 8 Voices.”