I write these disjointed comments as a female member of Chicago’s new music community, and a close observer of gender dynamics. I’m a performer, not a composer — and women performers are far more common than women composers. I imagine I’ve only experienced a fraction of the ‘gender trouble’ that a woman composer might experience. But I take issue with some of the assertions Amy Beth Kirsten makes in her recent column, ‘The Woman Composer is Dead’.

She argues that it’s time to stop talking about the ‘woman composer,’ stop keeping track of how often women’s work is performed, stop complaining about women’s under-representation. She claims that, because of all the hard-fought battles for women’s authorship over the past couple of centuries, our society is now rewarded by a “relatively healthy lack of self-awareness with regard to gender.”

And you know what? On one hand, Ms. Kirsten is right. We’ve come a LONG way since the bad old days. My artistic life in Chicago is loaded with experiences of mutual respect, shared creativity, and collegiality. I gotta give props to my community:

– Male friends & colleagues regularly provide me with support and mentorship: about how to write a press release, how to promote a CD, how to conduct a search for a new ensemble member, how to keep books, and endless other things

– Male friends & colleagues fully support my ensemble’s work as collaborators and fans

– Men regularly negotiate with me in good faith over contracts, performance fees, and more

– Men generally treat me as a friend and an equal, buy me beers, allow me to buy them beers, crack my sh*t up, and inspire me creatively.

But Ms. Kirsten goes too far when she writes ” … ask young composers if they feel gender is an obstacle in their personal quest to make art. No doubt you will be greeted with total confusion and a look that betrays the thought, “Does not compute.”

Say what?! My head is spinning. To say we’ve come a long way is one thing; to say gender is no longer an issue is crazy.

A small crop of personal experiences come to mind:

-attending a New Music Chicago happy hour, having a great time, and suddenly realizing that I’m the only woman there.

– having a male coach tell my quartet that our sound was “too voluptuous.”

-having another male coach tell my quartet that we “sound like a bunch of polite women.”

– having my private teacher tell me that I needed to play more like a man (e.g. better — more sustained sound)

– looking at countless lists of composition awards and fellowships, and finding very few women

– choosing ten Twitter feeds to mention on Follow Friday, and realizing I had chosen only men

– noticing that male colleagues are more comfortable with self-promotion, which is so essential to professional success. (Research shows that when women self-promote, their likability goes down. Which successful women already knew.)

Some of these things may seem insignificant. But I’m VERY interested in the ways men and women relate to each other, especially in hybrid social/professional settings — from Follow Fridays to happy hours. Because let’s face it: a lot of collaborations, commissions, residencies and job offers are born over a few beers after a concert.  Are women and men equally comfortable in those settings? Do we stand to gain in the same way? Making a career in music is so much about personal networking that there really are no “little things.” The subtle moments that occur between men and women matter. As this article in Bloomberg Business Week points out, “Informal culture plays a critical role in whether a boys’ club exists and whether invisible, but often impenetrable, barriers turn the glass ceiling into cement.”
One of the biggest obstacles I’ve seen discussed for women, in composition and elsewhere, is the invisible boys club. When the composition department went out for post-concert drinks in the 1990’s, they didn’t go to your favorite brunch spot or martini bar. (For the record: I’m a beer drinker. But I’m just saying.) Women often leave male-dominated fields because the social environment is inhospitable.

As long as gender remains an issue in our interactions (which it always will!), gender remains an issue in composition and performance.

What I’m saying is that we need to look not only at women’s rate of commissions, performances, fellowships, and composition doctorates, but also at how we can make the professional/social environment more welcoming to women. We’re doing okay. But it could be better.

P.S. We’ve got a new CD out April 15. A woman wrote the music. Four women performed it. How’s that for self-promotion?