Skip to main content

WOMEN IN MUSIC AND THE sexism that they face: Complaining Project for Lyndsey Schlax's AP Gov Class part 1

It's not a secret that the artistic world is full of prejudice and segregation of all shapes and sizes, and much like everyday life in general, sexism is present and in some cases even prominent in the music world. Orchestra conductors who are female are much harder to find than male ones, and same applies for music composers and stage directors. Why, in an age where women and men are supposedly represented equally, are there huge gender gaps in the music industry?

I found an article by Damian Thompson on The Spectator called There's a good reason why there are no great female composers, and in this article, Thompson examines how most works by female composers from the past that we attempt to glorify are not as great, to put it softly, as the works of their male counterparts. Thompson says that "[a] delicate  question lies at the heart of the subject of female composers...(and) it's 'How good is their music compared with that of male composers?'" Thompson argues that women composers are projected forth not for their merits as composers, but simply for being women. He says that composers like Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Amy Beach, and other women composers aren't as talented musicians as their male-counterparts of the time were. Thompson also adds that this is not necessarily due to the lack of musical talent in women, but because not enough women were and currently are composing for their to be any genius found. Of course, the majority of men who compose music are also boring and untalented, but talent and originality appears amidst a massive amount of untalented and boring people.  If only a small percentage of a group of people is doing something, such as composing music, it is hard to produce a genius when there isn't a mob to pull that genius from.

What I gleaned from Thompson's article is that he is a firm believer that we should not glorify women's compositions simply because they are written by women. We should consider other factors as well, like genius and originality of the said compositions. In other words, we should judge female and male compositions equally, not based on the sex of their composer, but on the talent of their composer. It makes sense and I get it. I'm sure anyone reading this gets it, but Thompson himself admits that the reason these women are glorified is because they are one of the very few women who were actually given a decent chance at a musical career. Thompson writes: "Clara and Fanny were not, of course, typical female composers of their day. They traded on their surnames, and Clara was also a world-famous virtuoso pianist. What about women who lacked these advantages?" The women who lacked these advantages may have still been able to compose and perform their music, but most women who most likely possessed that creative genius that Thompson loves to talk about were women who were not given any opportunity at music. These women may have been from poor families, and they simply couldn't afford a musical education, let alone a career with a profession that doesn't guarantee a steady income. 

In conclusion to his article, Thompson wrote that "[t]here may be some (great women composers) in the future, though I'm not sure whether 'greatness' is achievable amid the messy eclecticism of the 21st-century music". 21st-century music is different depending on which composer you look at. I know that the predominant style of music written in the 21st-century is obscurely dissonant, but generalizing ALL of 21st-century music this way isn't fair. Not everyone writes obscure and dissonant music, and this sort of pessimistic look on the future is what will bring down music in general. The only way women can establish themselves as great composers in the musical world is by going through all the mistakes that their male counterparts have been going through for the past 500 years.

Now, composing is not the only musical activity that women are not being manifested in as well as men are. Conducting and directing and just simply being a musician of any shape or size is more difficult for women than it is for men. Everything written above applies to any platform of music that is dominated by men. Not as many women go into these platforms because they are already dominated by men, and by attempting to become part of this community of musicians, women have to face prejudice and societal pressure in addition to having to actually do the job they want well.

Why are there so few women in contemporary music?, an article written by Ivan Hewett on The Telegraph explores some explanations as to why women are less inclined to go into contemporary music. Hewett writes: "Girls just aren't good at pushing themselves forward. They lack the swagger that allows the boys to shoulder their way into the record company with a half-finished demo, or mount the conductor's podium before they've actually learned the piece properly." Confidence. Girls and young women lack the confidence that boys and young men are forced to embrace, and as a result of which keep pushing forward despite unavoidable hardships. But the only reason girls experience this lack of confidence is because everyday they are told how inferior their skill set is to the skill set of their male counterparts, and this mentality gradually grows into music as well. "Female musical aesthetic" is a term that Hewett brought up in his article, calling himself "a foolhardy man that ventures into territory so richly sown with feminist landmines" as he discussed the stereotype that women are capable of composing only feminine music. "There was a time when women composers could only get a hearing by writing conventionally feminine music. They had to stick to salon pieces, and those who struck out into more ambitious territory, like Clara Schumann, were felt to be not quite 'natural'". Hewett proceeds to say that although these standards have supposedly been long removed from female composers, these characteristics remain stereotypical to female compositions even today. 

So, my final project for senior year in high school is a complaining project for Lyndsey Schlax's AP Government and Politics class, and I chose to complain about sexism in the performing arts. My main focus is geared towards the performing arts, specifically opera and classical music, but I talked to my calculus teacher about it too, Jhina Alverado, and she is also a visual artist in addition to being a calculus teacher.

I talked to many teachers at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, most of which are classical musicians. Ava Soifer is the director of the SOTA Piano Department (check out my thing on them here and here), and she is also the artistic director at Music on the Hill. Way back when, in 2010, Music on the Hill gave a concert of all women composers, and despite the general success of the concert, they received a review from a younger woman music critic who disagreed with the concept and necessity of doing a concert dedicated to all women composers. Ava said that the woman's response was that "[t]his is so done, this thing about women composers. We don't have discrimination left anymore. This is, you know, unnecessary to do a concert to promote just women composers". Ava proceeded to describe the woman's perspective and opinion that "[n]ow women are totally independent and free". But is that really true, especially "given what's going on in Congress, with the government right now and how we're being pushed back, especially planned parenthood". Ava said she was shocked because she grew up "in that era when the Women's Movement was a big was something that we had to fight with along with all the other issues that were going on with the Vietnam War and Civil Rights".

Kristen Grzeca is the director of the SOTA Vocal Department, and she talked to me very thoroughly about sexism in the arts, giving descriptive examples and interesting incites on the issue. She also brought up the idea of an all-women composers concert, and then expressed her disapproval of such an attempt at isolating female composers into one separate concert and then leaving their works in the basement for the rest of the year. Grzeca referred to The Divine Feminine (which I was a proud participator of and if you click the link you can get my thingy on it), and how Todd Wedge, the past director of the SOTA Vocal Department, definitely made a conscious effort at eliminating this gender barrier by organizing an all-women concert. The only problem was that none of these female composers were later integrated into any of his other concerts, which according to Grzeca (and I agree with this) defeats the purpose of doing an all-women composers concert in the first place. Grzeca said that she thinks "there's great power in that, but I also think that what needs to come with that is an integration of the work of female artists into standard canon". Grzeca also talked about how many female opera performers undergo objectification of their body and sexual harassment from stage directors all the time. "You cannot escape people commenting on your body and its various attributes every time you stand onstage."

Kristen Grzeca has done a lot for the promotion of women in the arts, and last year she selected two wonderful young women to be student conductors for the SOTA Vocal Department, and this year she also selected a trans young lady and a gender fluid student. Both events are accomplishments and baby steps taken for the normalization of non-male conductors in the musical world.

Michael Desnoyers is an artist-in-residence at the SOTA Vocal Department, and he is also a working professional tenor in the operatic world. He talked a lot about his personal experience and how he can only recall working with 3 female conductors during all those years he has been performing opera for a living. "I read something a while ago about how people in power don't want to give away that power. The tradition has been that men have that power." Mike's insight on power being at the bottom of all this went very well with the next musician I talked with for my project.

Tristan Arnold is the Orchestra Director at the SOTA Instrumental Department, and he shared a very insightful story. "There was one experience that I had: I was on a hiring committee in college and I was a student and I was around all these professors and there were many applicants, mostly men. It was for a bass professor, and there was a female applicant, and there was fear from some of the older guys on the committee like well if we bring this person in to interview, we're going to be expected to hire them because 'oh, we've got this female applicant. Wouldn't it be great to expand out female faculty'. In that sense, there are people that see the interest in spreading out those opportunities as a threat". Just like Mike said, the fear of losing power is what is really preventing us as a society from closing up the chasm that prevents women from excelling to the best of their abilities in an art form that they are more than capable of competing with men in.

Mr. Arnold also shared a story about how currently they are looking for a new chamber music teacher, and that the first round of applicants were all men. "I wouldn't say we were super focused on going out and saying that let's find highly qualified women, but we continue to search and we ended up having female applicants. We're going to have 2 women who are auditioning for the job".

I also talked to some people who are not professional musicians yet, Terra Hurtado and Angela Rey. Terra Hurtado is an aspiring composer and Angela Rey is currently in college and plays in a Latin jazz band.

Angela Rey said that she is definitely fighting this gender gap by simply being a young, female musician who plays piano in a predominantly male band and composes music. "Growing up, I didn't have any female musicians to look up to, you know?"

Terra Hurtado talked about how young boys are usually highly encouraged to go into the arts, while young girls are worried about not being able to feed themselves because making a living with music is difficult. "I don't have that safety net, I don't have the confidence that comes with it. I've been entrenched in the arts community my entire life, but I never really envisioned myself doing that because I always had this underlying idea that 'yeah, but...'".

Jhina Alverado is my Calculus teacher at SOTA, and she is also a great visual artist who agreed to share with me her insight and her perspective on the issue. "I've had people basically interested in my art, but wasn't actually interested in my art, and were just using that as a tool to like, for example, date me". 

Damien Thompson Article
Ivan Hewett Article


Popular posts from this blog

Opera gala time: Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra under Eduard Topchjan

The Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra, performing at the Aram Khachaturian Concert Hall, under the baton and artistic direction of Maestro Eduard Topchjan, never ceases to impress its summer audiences with the exceptionally entertaining and high-quality performances given. Featuring baritone David Babayants, soprano Ani Yorentz, tenor Liparit Avetisyan, soprano Hasmik Torosyan, bass Vazgen Gazaryan, and baritone Gianpiero Ruggeri, the Opera Gala produced an unforgettable effect upon the audience.
The program included selections from Leoncavallo, Gounod, Tchaikovsky, Mascagni, Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Rossini, and Donizetti.

The spectacular gala opened with Gianpiero Ruggeri’s stunning performanc of Si puo? Si puo? Signore! Signori!, Tonio’s prologue from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Not only was the actual content of Tonio’s Prologue an ideal stage-warming number, it also manifested Ruggeri’s intriguing acting and smooth vocal production.

Next on the program was Ani Yorentz…

The Last Judgement: Verdi's Masterful Requiem and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel

On September 14, 2017, the Armenian National Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet after A. Spendiarian performed Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem, but with a visual twist of murals from the Sistine Chapel, done by Michelangelo. The pictures were projected by "innovative technologies of the future" which allowed to create a "three-dimensional reproduction of the images of Michelangelo's masterpieces". Conducted by San Francisco-born conductor Konstantin Orbelyan Jr. (nephew of the famous Armenian conductor Konstantin Orbelyan), soloists soprano Marine Deinyan, guest mezzo-soprano from the USA Eleni Matos, bass Hayk Tigranyan, and tenor Sargis Aghamalyan performed Verdi's Requiem in this new realization of the stunning centerpiece of classical music. The visual effects were created by Italian stage and visual director Paolo Micciche. In Micciche's own words, "[t]he music of Verdi's Requiem has the same dramaturgy and rhythm as the great frescos by M…

Pianist Hrant Bagrazyan in Concert: In Memory of Professor Igor Yavryan

On July 19, accomplished classical pianist Hrant Bagrazyan gave a summer piano recital at the beautiful venue of the Komitas Museum-Institute, a "museum in Yerevan, Armenia, devoted to the renowned Armenian musicologist and composer Komitas", in memory of Professor Igor Yavryan, who passed away earlier this summer on June 16. Professor Yavryan was Bagrazyan's teacher and mentor.

"He helped me love and appreciate classical music and shaped me as a musician", wrote Bagrazyan. "Without him I wouldn't become a pianist."

The house was completely full, even with the necessity of adding several extra chairs to the rows in order to fit everyone who showed up for the performance. This is not surprising considering the high quality of the performance given.

The stunning program consisted of Komitas'  Six Dances, Johannes Brahms' Sonata No. 3 Op. 5 in f minor, Arno Babajanian's Six Pictures, and Maurice Ravel's Reflections. 

Komitas wrote th…