The International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) Blog

Decomposing Composers

Posted in Sabrina_Pena_Young by iawmblog on January 30, 2010

“So, what do you do?”

With reverential mystery I answer, “I compose.”

Invariably eyebrows raise. I used to think that being a composer surprised people because I generally defy the stereotypical idea of a composer – a white-haired European corpse.  Being a young  Latina composer with an obsession for science fiction, drums, zombie makeup, and computers, I am already used to sticking out in a crowd.  Just add on experimental composition to my list of costly addictions. But it is not my gender, ethnicity, or passion for Star Wars that makes my being a composer surprising. It is that I am a living composer. Period.

The average Joe or Nicole has difficulty naming three classical composers outside of the Big Three – Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. Work in any economically ravaged arts-deprived school today, and you will find that many students believe that all classical composers died centuries ago, with the exception of John Williams. Even our university music schools have encouraged this notion about decomposing composers by ending college music courses at the year 1930. (Thank goodness our medical schools don’t follow the same model. I would hate to have an operation using the techniques of eighty years ago!) Hollywood movies further romanticize long gone musical geniuses with schlock like Immortal Beloved or Amadeus, entirely ignoring the amazing triumphs of contemporary composers.

“Yes, I am a composer. And no, I am not dead. PS. I do not wear a powdered wig.”

Many non-musicians regard composers with a reverent awe akin to how I might regard a nuclear physicist or epidemiologist (I will let you Google that one). By some bizarre “magic,” composers create symphonies and operas in our heads. Hiding in our virtual music labs, we sketch little dots on paper which give birth to musical masterpieces. We experiment constantly with sounds, notes, timbre, color, instruments, melody, and harmony. Many, if not most, of us succumb to eccentricities and think on planes of thought that make little sense to someone who has not heard an entire chorus play constantly in their mind’s ear for weeks on end. Our loved ones know better than to interrupt when inspiration strikes, and often we are accused of being mentally absent when our inner workings begin exploring a new musical avenue. Some composers are so content to create masterworks in an intellectually exclusive vacuum that they further promulgate this notion of the composer as the mad scientist of classical music.

Are composers a dying breed? Or is it simply the antiquated definition of the “composer” that has been buried by the last century of the diversified technological globalization of music?

While I do enjoy proselytizing the wonders of avant-garde music and contemporary composition, sometimes I wonder if I myself have put up an imaginary wall. The Information Age has morphed the very definition of composition. Maybe the problem is not that there are too few living composers but that  there are millions and millions of living composers creating music on laptops, the internet, iPhones, electronic instruments, and desktop computers. Maybe by limiting the scope of composition to traditional classical music I have in fact self-imposed this exclusive view of music making, leaving me prey to all of its misconceptions and false assumptions. If I define myself as an “electronic musician,” I soon find kindred spirits that may never have taken Theory III or Orchestration, but create innovative music all the same. Perhaps I need to forget about writing “electroacoustic,” “experimental,” “classical,” “avant-garde,” or “intermedia” compositions, and just concentrate on writing, well, just plain old music. Then I might find myself no longer confined to patriarchal stereotypes and instead part of a larger collective of music lovers that includes every culture, generation, and gender.

So what do I really do?

I make music.


Sabrina Peña Young is an Intermedia Composer teaching at Murray State University and an experienced blogger. Her specialties are composition, technology, world music, percussion, and film & video.


Difference and Music

Posted in Sally_Macarthur by iawmblog on January 26, 2010

Sabrina Pena Young’s blog (Jan 23, 2010), defending electroacoustic music, opens up important questions to do with difference. She explains that electroacoustic music is as valid an art-form as acoustic music composition and should be recognised accordingly. She highlights the fact that electroacoustic composers are undervalued and/or sidelined for the wrong reasons. The underlying point she makes is that difference is used to discriminate against the category of electroacoustic music. Young implies that electroacoustic music has been judged unfairly against an implied normative music.

The kind of difference frequently invoked for discussions to do with discrimination—such as that against electroacoustic or women’s music—is ‘categorical difference’ or as Deleuze, a philosopher in whose work I have recently become interested, puts it, ‘discrete difference’. ‘Discrete difference’ divides categories into rigid, separate, static, grid-like entities such that they become stratified. In this conception of difference, music is imagined to have hard boundaries around it. And it is the kind of difference that makes distinctions about identity in terms of various demarcations such as sex, gender, colour, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, age, ability, and so on. The list is endless. While these categories may be useful, they are limiting in the way they reduce the body (or music) to particular modes of being and interacting, and they are ultimately hierarchical. Categorical (or discrete) difference reduces music and identities to positive and negative images, and it is ultimately divisive and polarising.

Deleuze’s conception of ‘continuous difference’, which I think is a more useful way to think about difference, is based on the idea that difference is on a continuum and it is never static. Deleuze conceives of difference as a multiplicity under continuous construction. This conception of difference is based on the idea that it is internal rather than relational or external. To paraphrase Hickey Moody and Malins (in Deleuzian Encounters, 2007), the body is produced through an internal differenciation, as when cells multiply and, over time, differ from each other. The idea here is that difference keeps differing. In this conception, as I hope to elaborate over time as I deal with other Deleuzian concepts, difference is presented as positive and productive, rather than as negative and subtractive.

A Deleuzian conception of difference allows us to think about new possibilities, rather than being concerned with how one kind of music is viewed against another kind, or against some imagined standard or norm. Jenny Fowler’s recent email to the IAWM Listserv (26 Jan, 2010) encapsulates this idea. She suggests that drawing from the total pool of talent would be much more enriching to the music world than restricting the pool to particular categories or groups of composers. Of course, the total pool of talent, as I think she implies, is constantly changing and differing as new talents, and new works, including those by women (or from any other category of identity), are added to it. Thinking about the total pool of talent in a Deleuzian sense allows us to imagine endless possibilities for music, all of which would be positive. Such an idea exemplifies the concept of difference differing.

As Bronwyn Davies has written, this concept of difference, which is produced through an ongoing process of differenciation, disrupts the idea ‘of a self which is constituted through its difference to an “other”, and allows us to think of relationships between bodies as productive of (rather than reliant upon) difference.’ The value of thinking about difference in this manner, as an ongoing, productive process, allows us to shift the focus from the fixed end-product, such as the individual or the music, and from the idea that one kind of music is better than another. In Davies words, it allows us to think of difference as a constantly emerging process of becoming other-than-itself and as the ongoing production of life itself. Such an idea puts a positive spin on difference, wherever and whenever it appears.


Sally Macarthur is senior lecturer in musicology at the University of Western Sydney. She utilises feminist and poststructural theories in her work on contemporary art music and women’s new music. Her books include Feminist Aesthetics in Music (Greenwood Press, 2002) and Towards a Twenty-First Century Feminist Politics of Music (Ashgate, forthcoming).

Studying at the Jaroslav Ježek Jazz Conservatory in Prague: An Introduction

Posted in Eliška_Cílková by iawmblog on January 25, 2010

As my first report to the IAWM blog, I would like to say few words about The Jaroslav Ježek Conservatory in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic. I have been studying there since 2006. The Conservatory / Higher Specialized School is one of only a few schools of its kind, one which is focused on the field of jazz and other forms of nontraditional art. So if you study there you don’t learn only classical music, but also jazz. Actually you must study both – for example you should attend the music history course, but also jazz history course. You learn classical harmony and jazz harmony. You take private lessons in both classical piano and jazz piano as well.

I have been studying composition there. In addition to composing classical music, I have composed a lot of jazz. My teacher has taught me a lot about jazz music and that has been very interesting for me. I have learned big band instrumentation, arranging for a jazz combo, jazz improvisation and more. I really like it.

The school doesn’t have its own symphonic orchestra, but it has an excellent big band. This big band is directed by Milan Svoboda and it is very successful. In 2007, the Jaroslav Ježek Conservatory Big Band took part in the Next Generation Festival in Monterey, California. It was the only big band from Europe to reach the finals and it placed as one of the six best big bands.

The school also offers a lot of interesting international courses with foreign guest lecturers. I clearly remember the visits of Maria Schneider and Skip Wilkins. They were fantastic.

Even thought I am in Bratislava more than in Prague now, I really appreciate the Jaroslav Ježek Conservatory. I had many important experiences and learned many skills there.

If you are interested in the Jaroslav Ježek Conservatory, you can visit its website:


Eliška Cílková recently moved to Bratislava, Slovakia where she is in her first year studying composition at Academy of Music.

In Defense of Music Technology: Adapt or Die

Posted in Sabrina_Pena_Young by iawmblog on January 23, 2010

Last year after an electronic music concert, I found myself defending electroacoustic music to a fellow composer who did not understand why composers in my field insisted on using multimedia in their works. Her companion agreed, and as both verbally snubbed composers who use electronics, I realized that music technology divides even the most knowledgeable of musicians. In my mind, there are not composers in “my” field of electroacoustic music and “their” field of strictly acoustic (and presumably better) music. Electroacoustic composers simply compose for electronics like they compose for a choir or orchestra, and many can just as easily create a symphony as a computer music piece.

Critics have always shunned innovation, whether it be the pianoforte, the record player, radio, the internet, virtual reality, or electroacoustic music. Whatever their motives – fear, ignorance, embarrassment – these critics wish to maintain the status quo, until their stalwart stance dooms them to obscurity. Unless a composer hides in a cave armed only with a pencil and manuscript, he or she will succumb to the digital revolution. The contemporary composer knows that posting one’s latest clarinet trio on YouTube is as important as learning how to write a string quartet, that a collaboration can mean anything from working with an alternative band down the street to jamming with a Kenyan drumming ensemble over i-Chat, and that publishing a score globally takes only a few clicks and broadband.

The musician who chooses to ignore technology may find that his or her music quickly becomes obsolete, though not for lack of quality. Competition committees pass over works with sloppy handwritten scores and noisy analog recordings, instead accepting polished computer scores with MIDI realizations. Music enthusiasts swipe audio files off an artist’s website instead of attending a live recital. Traditional mediums like physical recordings, music magazines, and terrestrial radio fail as, vlogs and blogs, and Pandora become the music distributors of choice. Composers who insist that they do not embrace technology still need to record their performances digitally, depend on Finale to publish their scores, and use e-mail to communicate with other musicians. Even the artist who reads this blog has chosen to accept new technology.

Today successful composers exploit electronic innovation by self-promoting their music through blogs and internet radio, hosting concert premieres through virtual worlds like Second Life, collaborating internationally through video chat, and composing new hybrid works with live performers and Max/MSP. Revolutionary composers not only utilize existing contemporary technology, but push the artistic envelope by inventing new digital marvels that further transform music. Cutting edge musicians turn to independent companies hosted by a single CPU in a music fan’s basement, and performers reach new audiences as advanced communications shrink the market. A digital tsunami has struck the world and only the technologically evolved will survive.


Sabrina Peña Young is an Intermedia Composer teaching at Murray State University and an experienced blogger. Her specialties are composition, technology, world music, percussion, and film & video.

Daring Divas: An Introduction

Posted in Julie_Cross by iawmblog on January 21, 2010

What does it mean to be a female performer?  What does it mean to focus on women’s music throughout your performing career?  How do others perceive you as a woman performing women’s music, or a woman performing music in general?  How do you choose and program repertoire?

A friend once said that one could identify mediocre singers by their focus on the music of women composers and/or new and contemporary music.  This opinion is not unique to my friend: many musicians have heard it before, whether spoken directly or implied.  How does this affect those who wish to focus on such music?   Furthermore…women’s music has continually been labeled as a separate entity in many performing circles. How do women composers infiltrate the mainstream?  Where is the balance between “niche focus” and assimilation?  How many groups are regularly programming the music of women composers?  Are there any generational tendencies?

I’m a voice professor and performer who tries to find balance on these issues.  I try to introduce my students to the songs of women composers while assuring that they study the so-called “standard” male composers as well for their own depth of knowledge base.  I sing some song recitals consisting solely of female composers, some of male composers (by default), and most incorporating both genders.  As a female singer, I encounter fewer biases considering voice types than those who play various instruments.  I will be writing from the perspective of a vocal performer, but will converse with others for an instrumental point of view.  There are many wonderful publishers and recording companies/artists who focus on the music of women, and I will mention their offerings from time to time as well.  I have a passion for song literature, and will discuss themed recitals, women poets whose words have been set to song, and issues of women singing songs originally intentioned for men (such as Schubert’s Winterreise.)

I’m thrilled to be able to blog about these issues, to unearth preconceived notions, tendencies, thoughts, concerns, celebrations, and joys about performing women’s music, choosing repertoire of female composers, and being a woman in the performing arts world.  There’s so much to discuss!  It is my goal to approach these topics with a positive, proactive attitude.  We are not victims, but dedicated musicians interested in the highest possible artistic integrity for all in our field.  This is essential!   If you have any special requests for discussion, please feel free to leave a comment.  I can’t wait to begin to navigate through these questions and more, to set up a large-scale dialogue about women and the performing world.  Let’s begin!


Julie Cross teaches voice at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and is Treasurer of IAWM.  She recently recorded a CD entitled Songs of Forgotten Women, with songs of Giulia Recli, Bertha Frensel Wegener-Koopman, Mathilde von Kralik, and Adela Maddison.

Teaching “Women and Music” in a Liberal Arts Setting: an Introduction

Posted in Susan_Borwick, Teaching by iawmblog on January 9, 2010

Thirty-five years ago, it happened.  In my first full-time teaching job post-Ph.D., at my alma mater (full-time music jobs weren’t so rare then!), I sat on a master’s oral committee, along with three others: a choral director, a religion professor, and my mentor in music history.  I was “the kid” committee member and the only woman.

My question to the master’s student, a conductor-to-be, was simply “Tell us a little about a woman composer of your choice.”  Long silence.  “Well, just name a woman composer.”  Deadly silence.  Unbearable silence.

Then the music historian, my mentor, spoke up: “Well, women don’t really compose much, you know.  Their creativity goes into mothering their children.”

I was stunned.  Not only had the student not been able to answer a fairly broad [!] question; my mentor had had an issue with the question!  That mentor’s comment dropped my respect for him down several notches.

As a young second-wave feminist who had seen gender bias against several female students in grad school, I set about to design a “women and music” course, to educate the next generation’s musicians and their mentors about women composers, yes, and also about the dynamics behind stupid assumptions (my term!) about women and composing.

Musicians now early in your careers doubtless witness more nuanced challenges that undermine women.  I guess earning 79 pennies for every man’s dollar, U.S., isn’t all that nuanced, but let’s consider today’s more subtle challenges.  Ellen Malcolm, president of the U.S. women’s political action committee Emily’s List, describes today’s U.S. political scene as “corridors of power where more attention is paid to the tap of a woman’s high heels than to the ideas she champions; reporters who waste ink and airtime discussing women’s clothes instead of their character; the men who call themselves liberals but always seem to reach back into their network of guys when an opportunity for advancement materializes.”

In music, the nuances involve not knowing or including music written by women; choosing texts and methods that hardly allow for discussion of women’s compositional creativity; devaluing musical contributions that are by or about a woman; measuring a female colleague’s or student’s feelings as her “problem” rather than her frustration at the different treatment she experiences compared with her colleagues who are male.  All of us, men and women, carry these biases as cultural baggage.

In the face of the politics of today’s educational scene, then, how can we organize a “women and music” course that is academically viable and effective?  After all, we’re in an art whose participants often, perhaps usually, identify with being a musician above even being gendered.

I’ve found that including the powerful politics of gender—even beginning a women-and-music course with a theoretical model for gender politics—allows students and instructors to sit in our discomforts, whatever they may be.  Including musical politics at the get-go sometimes offends the music majors while making the liberal-arts majors more comfortable.  It’s a good place to begin.


Susan Borwick

Susan is a musicologist, theorist, and composer teaching at Wake Forest, and she’s also the Secretary of IAWM. Her areas of specialization include women’s and gender studies, and spirituality and the arts. She’ll be blogging about teaching “women and music” in a liberal arts setting.

Experiences in the Classroom: an Introduction

Posted in Jen_Baker, Teaching by iawmblog on January 7, 2010

Hi!  Thanks for reading my blog.  I’m really excited to be sharing my thoughts here because I feel that my experiences-both as educator and as performer- are unique and interesting.  I hope you will enjoy my posts.

I have taught music for nearly 17 years.  During this time, I have evolved enormously in my philosophy and outlook in terms of what a teacher is and does.  Prior to 2004, my teaching experiences were limited to private music lessons and chamber music/sectional coaching.  I had never had any interest in teaching classroom music, and had never even considered formal studies in music education.  (Blessed be, I’m a delusional trombonist.)

When I finally realized that I was interested in teaching, I brainstormed my ideal classroom setting and lessons.  These ideas came out of thinking over how to relate better to students so that whatever the age group, the whole person, not just the mental aspect, could participate and contribute to the class. I realized that I needed to have more information about how kids of all ages learn and what the various stages of learning look like.  I believe quite strongly that as teachers, we can better access the minds of our students when we have an understanding of each stage of development, starting as early as two years of age.  At that point most of my students had been high school or college-aged.  My goal then was to create a music class for young kids ages 4-12 that would allow their ideas to be an integral part of the curriculum and would nurture their spirits with compassionate teaching so they would feel free to be their authentic selves.  At the time I believed (accurately, as it turns out) that teaching younger kids would strengthen and enrich my development as a teacher so that when I returned to the high school and college-aged students with whom I had been familiar, I could reach them more easily and be a better teacher.

Here are a couple of the basic concepts that direct my activities.  I will expound further on each of them in upcoming blog posts.

A great way to send a message to a kid that their ideas are just as valid as the teacher’s is to sit in a circle.  I find that this seating arrangement feels better spiritually as well.  Everyone has eye contact with one another, and even though nothing in the circle indicates superiority of one person over another, the implicit understanding is that the teacher is the one in charge.  Besides, it’s not so easy to talk behind the teacher’s back or play with toys when everyone is equally exposed.

Hands-on Projects
Kids aren’t interested in learning theories alone.  They learn the theories by means of physical practice and by making mistakes.  I always include a major component of hands-on learning by using the body, musical instruments, or composition in class.  As much as as possible, I break the group into smaller groups or partners so learning (and making mistakes) can be less intimidating.


Jen Baker
Jen is a trombonist who specializes in new music and freelances in New York City.  She also teaches composition, improvisation, and homemade instrument making to children, and she’ll be blogging about experiences in the classroom.


Posted in Admin by iawmblog on January 7, 2010

Welcome to the IAWM blog. The IAWM (International Alliance for Women in Music) is a global network of women and men working to increase and enhance musical activities and opportunities and to promote all aspects of the music of women. You can find out more about the IAWM as well has browse through a large repository of useful information at our website, Dig in; there is a remarkable amount of material available there.

Six bloggers form our inaugural team. They represent a wide range of experiences and will be blogging about diverse topics. If you are an IAWM member and are interested in blogging for us, please contact the IAWM Blog Coordinator, Carolyn Bremer: For information on how to become a member of the IAWM, visit our membership page.

This blog was created as a way to share our experiences. Comments are welcome. If you have a story to share, please do! But be aware that spam and disrespectful comments will be deleted.