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Defiant Women Who Deserve a Hearing

Although there's never been a better time in history for female composers, those who buck the establishment still pay a price.

February 11, 2001|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

"Beth Anderson writes pretty music," begins an article by Kyle Gann in the February issue of Chamber Music magazine, "the prettiest music I know of, after Schubert, Faure, Debussy, and a few other long-dead white males."

Anderson happens to have been a classmate of mine at Mills College in Oakland in the early 1970s. At that time she was a wonderfully outrageous composer. A feminist opera she staged at Mills was so bizarre and provocative that one newspaper critic walked out and refused to set foot on the campus for years. She also helped start EAR magazine, to which I contributed a polemic or two when it was still a mimeographed handout--it eventually became a respectable and important new music journal that lasted two decades.

I did not recognize Anderson by her picture in the magazine nor by the description of her music. But it's been a long time, and she has had so little visibility during the past quarter century that it was almost as though she had vanished altogether. If hers is, as Gann writes, "charming, accessible music, striking and sturdy," why haven't we heard of it?

Gann contends that it's because new music distribution is controlled by composers loath to program works more audience-friendly than their own. I wonder if the reason may not have something to do with Anderson herself. As feisty a composer as I have ever known, she is hardly the type to play other people's games, even if, or maybe especially if, she now writes pretty music. And she is a woman.

Some of the best composers in America are, in fact, women who are not very well-known. Take Lois V Vierk. As a student at CalArts in the late '70s, she was already blowing minds, writing pieces for single instrument ensembles that sound like the acoustical equivalent of an M.C. Escher drawing. She has long since branched out to writing for standard ensembles, but the acoustical marvels continue, with each piece sounding more exhilarating than the last.

The narrow new-music community does, in fact, know her. She's had a Kronos Quartet commission and been championed by the pianist Ursula Oppens. She's received her share of awards, commissions and performances on the international festival circuit. Her music can be found on CD, with four brilliant recent works just out on the Tazdik label. Nevertheless, one of our most interesting and mesmerizing composers remains an undeservedly minor figure in American music.

Vierk has not had much experience with orchestras, which, arguably, prevents her from achieving greater exposure. But that doesn't explain the situation with Gloria Coates. I first heard a Coates symphony in 1989 at a New Music America festival and thought it one of the most unusual and gripping symphonies by a living American composer. Coates, who divides her time between Munich and New York, has written extensively for orchestra. She has had two CDs released by the German CPO label, which specializes in obscure music. It includes her Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 7, along with some other orchestral pieces that are hard to describe because their sound is so new and striking. The music swirls around the listener in eerie, riveting, unforgettable sonic clouds. Like Vierk's music, the very sound of Coates' work can be addictive. And yet her name draws a blank even among professionals well-informed about new music.

I can't prove that these three accomplished American composers are neglected simply because they are women. They all flout convention in one way or another, and none is particularly adept at politicking or self-promotion. Perhaps once you factor gender into the equation, that makes for an unsurmountable hurdle.


Certainly, gender alone is no longer the detriment for women composers that it once was. These can be very good times for women composers.

Augusta Reed Thomas, a well-respected composer who is rapidly gaining international prominence, is composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony, one of the few American orchestras to still support such a post. Her predecessor was an Israeli woman, Shulamit Ran, another composer of substance. And the most recent composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic was the lively Cuban American Tania Leon. Joan Tower, whose music is often a delight, was a composer-in-residence for the St. Louis Symphony. When Carnegie Hall decided, some years ago, that it should have a house composer, it turned to Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in music. Los Angeles Opera has commissioned a new opera by Deborah Dratell.

These are intelligent and personable composers who write music that musicians find agreeable to play and audiences find agreeable to hear. They make a necessary contribution to maintaining the life force in our musical culture by refreshing it with new work. But why are they so successful in the musical establishment and the likes of Anderson, Vierk and Coates, so much less so?

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