Jennifer Kelly is director of choral activities and associate professor of music at Lafayette College, Pennsylvania, she is also the artistic director of the Concord Chamber Singers and the author of In Her Own Words: Conversations with Composers in the United States. We asked her some questions about her book.
Q: Your collection of interviews focuses on contemporary female composers. The traditional, canonical composers taught and performed are overwhelmingly male. Are women more equally represented in the field of modern composition, or are they still overlooked?
Kelly: That is a big question. To answer, I would reference Marcia Citron’s exploration of a composer’s path to success and recognition beginning with education, publication, performance and critical reception. With some exceptions, over the past 100 years, women in Europe and the United States have gained equal access to traditional music education. Those achievements have contributed to why women in European-influenced countries are better represented today in the genres of classical instrumental, vocal, and contemporary music. I would also argue that because women have traditionally been on the fringes of compositional success and recognition, they have often naturally gravitated toward more accepting genres of music outside of traditional realms: electronic, electroacoustic, experimental, etc. Women are still vastly underrepresented today in the music areas of film, television, stage, and video games.
Q: What about some of the less outwardly obvious places of representation for composers, such as publishing?
Kelly: Women’s lack of a strong representation by publishers is another story, and I believe that women are actually leading the movement to self-publish (Jennifer Higdon is a strong example). In terms of performance, women (and I would expand that to include living and/or American composers of any gender) are still underrepresented in the larger orchestras, choruses, and university ensembles. Again, women composers often find their way to smaller chamber ensembles, contemporary music ensembles, and alternative venues. This avenue is working.
Textbooks are another example of where progress of equality is needed. As I address in the introduction of In Her Own Words, traditional music education uses textbooks that still do not adequately represent women (and other still underrepresented populations). For example, in my own music education as late as the 1990s I was under the mistaken impression that the pool of women composers was small because I was exposed to very few (3-5 at most). It was an extremely rare exception to perform a woman composer in choir, band, or orchestra, and it took me through graduate school to realize women composers were plentiful and simply unrecognized. Until music by composers of numerous genres, styles, genders, ethnicities, experiences, etc., are included in the textbooks and our education as a matter of course, we will perpetuate the mistaken assumption that they exist only on the fringes and in small numbers. Worse still, is when we also connect a lack of awareness to an assumed lack of worthiness. It is definitely still an issue, and yet an issue that is beginning to be discussed and that’s when change begins.
Q: Did you find any recurring themes from your interview subjects when it came to their approach toward composition?
Kelly: Every composer in the book is an individual with a strong sense of self, and therefore has her own approach to composition. I did find some recurring themes in terms of collaboration and finding creative solutions to obstacles. There were also themes of being supported by family and of women who often did not have children. With very few exceptions, most composers explained that composition cannot be taught, and that opened up interesting conversations with those who teach.
Q: Why did you choose to focus not only on American woman composers, or more broadly on women composers in general, but specifically on women from around the world who compose in the United States?
Kelly: While I do not fill the book with composers born in other countries, I wanted to present the current scene of women composers in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century, in terms of genre, experience, ethnicity, educational background, path to composition, and creative process. And the current scene for women composers in the U.S. includes some women who were not born in this country but have since made this country their home. In the book of 25 composers, I think there are 6 who were not born in the U.S.; I know I am biased, but I find that each of these 25 women has a unique and interesting American story to tell.
Q: The women you interviewed compose in a wide variety of genres, some of which are non-traditional, such as video game music. Did this present a challenge in terms of your research?
Kelly: Gathering research for this project was quite a learning experience. I explain this in some detail in the introduction of the book, but to summarize, different composers proved to be challenging in different ways. For composers who were more well-known, it was fairly easy to find musicological or theoretical analyses or reviews or even recordings of their work, but it was a challenge to receive more than one perusal score from a publisher to study. For less well-known composers, written words about their music may be few and there may or may not be recordings to access, but often their personal websites provided easy access to their scores and written program notes. Composers of collaborative mediums such as stage, film, and video games provided different challenges because their music exists as part of a collaborative whole. Written information about their work is little to none, and scores and recordings of the music alone may not exist for study. Gathering materials for research was a large lesson in access, promotion, and the power of a publisher or performing organization to champion one’s work.
Q: Are there particular genres that boast more female composers than others?
Kelly: In the United States, yes, absolutely. The genre with the most gender inclusivity would be classical instrumental tonal music. There are far fewer composers of stage, film/tv, and video games. To present a more accurate picture of women’s current participation in composition, there are consequently more composers of classical instrumental tonal music in the book than of commercial or media composers. This is just one example.