Still ‘Uncommon Women’ at Aspen Music Fest

The "Uncommon Women of Note" panel at the virtual Aspen Music Festival.

A multi-generational group of seven leading female composers came together to discuss the state of gender equity in music at the virtual Aspen Music Festival.

The consensus among this diverse group — teachers and trailblazers and writers of symphonies, chamber music, sound installations, operas, libretti, founders of festivals ­— was that they’d prefer not to have to talk about their gender and that they wished “woman composer” would be an unnecessary term. Men, or more specifically the white men who have predominated music composition through history, do their work and are unburdened by representing their sex or justifying their place in the canon.

“In a certain sense, this is my least favorite subject,” said Julia Wolfe, the MacArthur “genius” grant and Pulitzer Prize recipient who chaired the panel and is herself among the great music minds of our time. “The idea that we are still discussing issues of women composers is so shocking to me.”

Added Jessie Montgomery: “It’s burdensome to always be representing a public consciousness all the time. … I’d like to see us in a place where we are able to be free in our art and not making some kind of political statement if it’s not part of your ethos.”

But Wolfe, Montgomery and their colleagues also recognized they could not ignore the realities of the inequities that persist in the field.

“It wasn’t very long ago that there were practically no women composing,” Wolfe said. “Many of us were the only women in our composition programs. There were no women on our composition faculties.”

The 90-minute roundtable was recorded via Zoom and aired Wednesday, July 15, and is available for free on-demand at

The group exchanged their personal histories as women in music and their perspectives on the field, highlighting some progress, many frustrations and, of course, the dispiriting fact that the canceled in-person summer 2020 Aspen Music Festival means the loss of the summer-long “Uncommon Women of Note” themed concerts.

Those were to include celebrations of the centenary of U.S. women’s suffrage, performances of Wolfe’s “Fountain of Youth,” a premiere work by Sarah Kirkland Snider and Missy Mazzoli’s “Ecstatic Silence.”

Mazzoli, on the panel, whose opera “Proving Up” was a high point of the 2019 opera season in Aspen, noted that while she and others on the panel have gained notoriety there are still startingly few works by women on stages. She has seen hundreds upon hundreds of operas by men in her life, she noted, and was able to count just eight she had ever seen by women.

“We do not have a big enough sample size to say whether women write this way or that way,” she said.

Joan Tower, the trailblazing composer whose career has spanned more than 50 years, underscored how far the movement has come in her time and helped place the music world within the broader context of social justice and femisim movements of the last half-century.

When she began in music, she had no women to look to as role models. There were no women in music history books yet. Even that took feminist musicologists of the ’60s and ’70s, for instance, to restore figures like Clara Schumann. Music was not then — and is not now — in a bubble, she added. Progress came, haltingly, in music apace with broader progress and consciousness of the pay gap in the American professional world, with better representation in journalism and academia.

That’s continued to this day, Wolfe emphasized. She noted that she won three major awards last year and credited it to the broader #MeToo movement, which has forced institutions to recognize women in recent years.

Often the only woman in the room early in her career, whether on panels or in an orchestra, Tower took it on herself to ask why she was alone and to advocate for raising more women’s voices.

“I became a feisty panelist,” she recalled with a laugh. “I’d walk in the room and the men would go, ‘Uh-oh, Joan is here. Do we have any women on this panel? Are there any women invited?”