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.


2 Responses

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  1. Lisa S. Robinson said, on March 1, 2010 at 7:29 am


    I used to only write avant-garde classical music, too. Then, at the ripe old age of 34 I took up a new instrument, the violin, which I had longed to play for years. It didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t going to be able to compete with all those classically trained violinists who started at age 3, so I moved over to playing fiddle and opened up a new world for myself. I joined multiple folk groups, discovered the wonderful rhythms of Slavic folk dances, the modality of old-time Appalachian music, and how easy it is to play by ear when the harmonies are as drop-dead simple as Irish fiddle music. In the bargain I discovered that I have an unexpected gift for writing melodies, real head-stickers and that there was another avenue for me to compose in. Now, there are a couple of my little waltzes on u-tube and I am amazed and flattered to find that people really want to play my pieces. (And I do sneak in some dissonance, too, which makes those pieces mine.)

    • Sabrina Pena Young said, on March 20, 2010 at 9:45 am

      Hi Lisa!

      I think it is interesting how expanding one’s musical horizons really can challenge creativity. I started working with electronics and video probably about ten years ago, and I have found that while few of my acoustic pieces have been well-played, my electronic music, film music, and multimedia/video pieces have had great success. I don’t think I would be where I am today as a composer if I had insisted on only writing a specific genre of music.

      What is your link, I would love to hear your music!

      Thanks for the comment,


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