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The Composer In A Gender Ghetto?


As the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in music, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich says she has no room to gripe. But she is an exception.

"Music is a social art," Zwilich says. "If you write a piece for orchestra and want to hear it played by professionals, know that you will need to win over armies or get the equivalent of a House and Senate vote. That's what it takes to persuade the staggering amount of people involved to support you.

"Without their support--without the grants and recommendations that go into paying copyists' fees for all those instrumental parts and without the clout for gaining a precious space on a symphony program designed for subscribers who would rather stay in the 19th Century--you're nowhere.

"Men have a hard time inspiring belief among the hordes, so imagine what it's like for women."

Few would argue the point. In fact, Pennsylvania State University sociologist Edward A. Abramson says its political implications would seem to put the pursuit of composing beyond those of minority status. (He claims that women constitute a minority in that "they function without equal privilege.")

If true, how do the disadvantaged wedge their way into such subjective, discretionary realms as the arts, where affirmative action, as a credo, does not resound?

Can the answer lie in the establishment of separate quarters? Is segregation a viable solution? Could an organization such as the International Congress of Women in Music bring acclaim and/or notoriety to those who are presented on its platform? Would there be a stigma attached to such a divided category? Does a new-music mainstream even exist, or is the term an oxymoron? The women who happen to be acknowledged American composers--among them Barbara Kolb, Joan Tower, Elizabeth (Libby) Larson, and Pauline Oliveros--disagree strenuously with each other on these issues. Especially pointed is the debate over whether they should strike out alone or band together in nationally organized groups.

"They (groups) are needed," Larson says, "as validation of the isolated work that might not have any recognition otherwise. But it takes shrewd figuring to opt for that advantage and at the same time keep the mainstream door open." The danger, she continues, is in creating a ghetto-like situation for women composers.

Disagreeing with Larson is Beverly Grigsby, professor of music at Cal State Northridge, who recently organized the International Congress on Women in Music for a campus festival that featured 40 new works.

"Mainstream, shmainstream," she says. "If I couldn't offer this platform to these talented people--frail souls, some, who might never have the temerity to stick their foot in a more formidable door--they would probably abandon the idea of composing altogether."

Grigsby, who studied with Ernst Krenek and directs a computer music studio that she founded 10 years ago, sees the entire new-music establishment as "clubs" and particularly reviles "the ol' boy system" that rewards its own members and excludes others. Locally, she brands the Monday Evening Concerts, Independent Composers Assn. and the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group as heavily political and thus casts doubt on whether a true mainstream exists. "Even at the university, what a person sees is a bunch of academics massaging each other's egos."

While Grigsby disparages the general ways in which one gains entry to the so-called mainstream, she does not deny that a women's group could conceivably harbor some who are less than gifted. "But if what we have is a monastery functioning as a temporary hiding place, we also know that those who get strong do leave and advance themselves. The others, of course, constitute the old guild membership."

However, Larson--who holds a whole slew of awards, grants and commissions, sits on numerous program boards judging others' works, and is currently composer-in-residence with the Minnesota Orchestra--points out that women's organizations can be "a trap, an excuse.

"To begin with, the programmers (of these groups) are naive. They think they're bringing works to the spotlight. They think that an inconsequential forum counts as the real thing, that a performance given by sub-professionals and attended by a few friends and relatives means a great deal. It doesn't," she says.

"Such events provide an excuse to programmers on mainstream boards who can, with impunity, say: 'Oh, well. So and so has already been taken care of (has heard her music played). We don't have to concern ourselves now with scheduling her work for one of our concerts.' "

Oliveros, a musical libertine (or anarchist, depending on one's vantage), has a nagging doubt as to the real gains achieved by all-women (or all-black or all-anything) groups.

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