Aspen Music Fest: Women composers still lack opportunity, but 2017 composition class is half female
If You Go …
What: Composer Showcase
Where: Harris Concert Hall
When: Saturday, Aug. 12, 9 a.m.
How much: Free
More information: The showcase includes concert readings of four newly written orchestra pieces by Aspen Music Festival and School composition fellows, performed by the Aspen Conducting Academy Orchestra.
What: Hannah Lash’s ‘Moth Sketches,’ performed by the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble
Where: Harris Concert Hall
When: Saturday, Aug. 12, 4 p.m.
How much: $45
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Hall box offices;
More info: This chamber music concert also features the world premiere of Mohammed Fairouz’s “Evermore” and a performance of Schubert’s “Trout” piano quartet.
What: New Music @ Aspen: Composition Fellows Showcase
Where: Hurst Hall, Bucksbaum Campus
When: Monday, Aug. 14, 8 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: The concert, organized by students, will feature performances of music written by all 10 of the 2017 Composition Fellows.
Listeners arriving last week at the Aspen Music Festival’s second Composition Program Recital of the summer had an all-too-rare experience at classical concerts: they saw a majority of works by women composers — three out of five.
The classical world remains a locus of glaring gender inequality. A 2015 study of major U.S. orchestras, conducted by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, found just 1.8 percent of pieces performed that season had been written by women. Surveying works by living composers, women’s pieces comprised a higher but still-shockingly low 10.3 percent of performances.
The structural bias and lack of opportunity for women that has led to this under-representation has become a prominent topic of debate in the music world in recent years, as progress has been slow but, it seems, steady.
One sign of the movement toward equality: the 2017 class at Aspen’s Schumann Center for Composition Studies is half women — 5 out of 10. The even gender split is a first for the Aspen Music Festival and School’s vaunted, decades-old composition program. It resulted, not from any affirmative action initiative, but from a rigorous application process based solely on talent.
The five women in the class have often been the only woman in the room during their academic and artistic careers. The equality of Aspen’s 2017 class, said composition fellow Kimberly Osberg, has erased gender from the conversation here.
“It’s been nice to have an equal balance of men and women,” she said. “We can just be people. I don’t feel so novel-ized.”
ASCENDING THE RANKS
Along with some overt sexism, the cause for the lack of women composers is often credited to the lack of women composition teachers and mentors.
“It’s a circular problem,” composer and Aspen alumna Sarah Kirkland Snider wrote in a recent essay for New Music Box. “Classical music is a field strongly defined by role models and mentor relationships, and with few broadly visible women at the top, only so many young women feel compelled to enter and ascend the ranks.”
Though led by male faculty, Aspen’s program this summer has included master classes from women composers including Judith Shatin, Augusta Read Thomas and Yuko Uebayahi.
Hannah Lash, an Aspen alumna who studied composition here in 2010, has risen to the top of the field. Now teaching at the Yale School of Music, Lash’s works have been commissioned by leading orchestras and earned her a steady stream of awards. Lash is back in Aspen this week to lead a master class with the composition fellows and have her “Moth Sketches” performed Saturday by the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble.
While the ranks of women composers is growing — four out of the past eight winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and all three 2017 finalists, have been women — Lash has found that problematic attitudes and assumptions persist about the kinds of music women can or should write.
“I’ve always written music that people tend to think of as masculine in some way,” she said. “But the thing about that is, I’ve found, that instead of that being a positive thing it’s often a very perplexing thing.”
Susan McClary, the groundbreaking feminist musicologist and author of “Feminine Endings,” wrote a generation ago that women were better positioned to innovate than men because they’re unbound by a tradition of female composers. Lash believes those sentiments limit and diminish the talent of women.
“It’s something that’s prevalent in the thinking of many people, which is that women don’t have access to the same tradition that men have, so of course we would have to move outside of it and establish something that doesn’t build on so-called male music,” Lash said. “That’s a set of assumptions that still lingers in people’s minds.”
Some festivals and orchestras, the 2017 composition fellows noted, try to drum up audiences for new and contemporary music — a challenge in Aspen and everywhere — by focusing on composer personalities. For women, this often means being touted as “female composers,” gendering their music in ways that often frustrate artists who would prefer to let their work stand on its own.
“The fastest way to do this,” Osberg said, “is to go, ‘Oh, it’s a woman!’ I think if marketing teams can be more creative with how they talk about our music and how they talk about us as individual people, then it’ll get better.”
Aspen’s administration generally eschews identity politics, both as a school and as a presenting festival. You won’t often see concerts here themed around gender, country of origin or the like. The Music Fest takes a more universal view of things (the summer 2017 festival theme, for instance, is simply “enchantment”). The fact that August’s composition recital featured work by a majority of women composers went unremarked upon from the stage.
Aspen’s program calls on its young composers to drink from a proverbial fire hose. They study under the guidance of composers-in-residence Stephen Hartke and Christopher Theofanidis — who took over the program last summer — and take master classes (sometimes two in a day) with a summer-long procession of world-class composers with diverse interests and perspectives. In addition, fellows attend dozens of concerts and must make time to socialize with the international crop of students and professionals who will be their future colleagues. Oh, and they need to find time to write. The program requires they each write one orchestral piece and one for the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble during the intensive eight-week term.
Festival music director Robert Spano said the school’s approach to the composition program — led for years by the late Stephen Stucky — is to offer the widest possible range of instruction: “Not establishing a particular aesthetic or school of composition, but rather the fellows who come here for these programs getting multiple influences, and maybe even contradictory information, and having a lot of stimulus to bounce off of,” Spano explained. “A lot of input to maybe even be confused by. We think of that as a good thing.”
Weekly private lessons with Theofanidis and Hartke are open-ended. Students might spend a day revising a score with them, working on a particular issue with orchestration or notation, listening to a recording, or getting career advice.
Fellow Linda Dallimore recalled a lesson she spent with her orchestra score spread across the floor, walking along it and reading it with her teacher.
The public composition recitals offer a fascinating glimpse into the fellows’ creative processes. Conductor Tim Weiss briefly interviews each of the composers about their work before the Contemporary Ensemble performs it. At the orchestra readings, composers demonstrate what they’ve changed about their pieces over the course of the summer for an audience in concerts Theofanidis has dubbed “semi-didactic.”
Untethered by commercial responsibilities or expectations, the composition fellows bring some of the most adventurous, groundbreaking — and, sometimes, downright weird — music heard in Aspen.
The August recital included a wild work by fellow Peter S. Shin that called on a quartet to play against electronic recordings of breathing, saxophone slaps and pulsing sounds, accentuated by dramatic lighting cues. Liliya Ugay’s “Third World Fable,” a piano trio, utilized romantic harmonies that devolved into dissonant passages and called on the pianist to stand and pluck piano strings. Fellow Loren Loiacano brought a piece for solo viola that called for the violist — Benjamin Wagner at the premiere — to hold his instrument like a guitar and strum it with a pick.
“This piece is about making viola not sound like viola,” Loiacano said at the recital.
Such sonic rebellions and experimentation with extended techniques are standard fare for young composers trying to stake out new creative territory. For Weiss, the question is whether the pieces can have life beyond this academic environment.
“The litmus test is if your piece can be notated so that a musician who does not know you can pick up the score and perform it in a way that you feel is a wonderful rendition,” he said.
This summer, Osberg finished a movement for a piece called “Sketches From Yellowood,” inspired by her time in the woods at Yellowood State Forest in Indiana. It mimics the sounds of fluttering butterflies in a tremendous cumulative effect produced by the ensemble’s winds, piano, strings and percussion.
Weiss called Osberg’s orchestration “an endless array of brilliant mosaics, little tiny pieces that are extremely intricate.”
(Osberg also wrote a brass fanfare that was performed before a big Aspen Festival Orchestra concert. However, it ended up playing as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg walked into the Benedict Music Tent, which elicited a standing ovation and drowned out Osberg’s piece. “The composers have been joking that I ended up writing processional music for a Supreme Court justice,” Osberg quipped.)
Osberg, 24, finished her master’s degree at Indiana University in December. After Aspen, she’s moving to Dallas for what she’s calling “a playground year” to write music and seek out interdisciplinary opportunities.
“I’m going to have my fingers in everything and see what sticks,” she said.
At Indiana, she was one of seven women in a class of 55 composers. Before focusing on composition, Osberg worked in other male-dominated creative fields: theater tech and percussion performance. She didn’t think twice about gender inequity until others pointed it out.
“I didn’t realize it was weird that I was doing composition until I started getting older and people were like, ‘Do you know you’re a woman?’” she recalled with a laugh. “And I was like, ‘I guess I am. Is that weird?’”
“Everybody has their horror stories, but I’ve had a positive experience,” she added. “It’s never been like, ‘Oh, you’re a woman, so we just want you to feel comfortable.’”
Composition fellow Liliya Ugay, 27, is a teaching fellow at Yale College. In her master’s program at Yale, she was one of three women in a class of seven.
“I’ve not felt oppressed,” she said. “In this field, everyone is so unique that you can only judge a person by his- or herself, not by a group and certainly not by such a broad group as gender.”
Along with her writing, and performing as a concert pianist, Ugay — a native of Ukraine — has been staging lecture recitals over the past year on largely forgotten composers of Soviet Russia, attempting to revive little-heard works that were repressed in their time.
Linda Dallimore this summer wrote a piece for the Contemporary Ensemble based on the recent legal decision in New Zealand that granted the Whanganui River — a sacred site of the Maori people — the same legal rights as a human being.
A Berklee School of Music grad, Dallimore, 36, also works for the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra and is studying for a master’s degree.
Five years ago, Dallimore quit a career in banking — also a notorious boys’ club — to focus on writing music. So being in the minority is nothing new for her, Dallimore said. Working in the U.S., Argentina and New Zealand — where she’ll return after the summer — her gender hasn’t been a factor in her creative life.
“It’s been a non-issue,” she said. “It’s a bit surprising to hear people mention it like it’s a thing. Why? I’m a composer. Woman or not, what’s the difference? It can be frustrating to be identified like that because it should be irrelevant.”
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