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How Female Classical Composers Are Encouraging Gender Equality

Jennifer Higdon

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How Female Classical Composers Are Encouraging Gender Equality

This year’s GRAMMY-winning Classical composer, Jennifer Higdon, speaks with the Recording Academy about how to succeed as a woman in this male-dominated industry

GRAMMYs/Apr 8, 2020 - 09:19 pm

Throughout music history's illustrious, centuries-long repertoire of eclectic creations and multicultural musical endeavors, women composers have been continuously silenced. Plagued by the harrowing struggle to have their voices heard, only a handful of pre-20th century women who dared to compose actually won the battle to be performed, recorded, and remembered. Any scholar of Western classical music can attest to the fact that Fanny Mendelssohn, Cécile Chaminade, and Clara Schumann are three of the few pre-20th century women composers whose names come up in conversation on a regular basis in the classical community. In fact, Clara Schumann was an example of a composer who, if not for her husband and father encouraging and believing in her, would have turned away from pursuing her creative dreams.

"I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea… a woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one? It would be arrogance..." - Clara Schumann 

For 20th-century women composers, there were noticeable improvements. British composer Ethel Smyth, for instance, took part in the Women’s Suffrage movement in England, composing the official anthem of the Women's Social and Political Union entitled, "The March of the Women." The uplifting song, which has been arranged for choir, orchestra and even saxophone quintet, reached the ears of the entire nation and goes down in history as one of the early testaments to women’s compositional potential.

But was it enough to kickstart real change? In 1903, Smyth became the first woman to ever have an opera presented by the great Metropolitan Opera in New York when they performed Der Wald. Why didn’t the Met embrace another female-composed opera until 2017, more than a century later?

"Comrades, ye who have dared, first in the battle to strive and sorrow. Scorned, spurned, naught have you cared - raising your eyes to a wider ‘morrow." - Excerpt from Ethel Smyth’s "The March of the Women"

The year 2020 marks the first in history that three women have been nominated for the GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in the same year: Caroline Shaw, Julia Wolfe and Jennifer Higdon, who walked away with the award for her groundbreaking Harp Concerto, which Gramophone described as "a delight," performed by harpist Yolanda Kondonassis. In total, only three women have won this GRAMMY in Recording Academy history, and only seven women have ever been nominated. But thanks to the determination of longtime disadvantaged female composers, the field of classical music - one which is easy to perceive as dated—is on a path towards progress. Classical composers like GRAMMY award-winning Joan Tower, GRAMMY award-nominated Missy Mazzoli, and Pulitzer prize-winning Ellen Reid have demonstrated to the classical community—and the world—that women composers have been silenced for long enough.

This year’s GRAMMY-winning composer Jennifer Higdon faced her fair share of challenges early on in her career. Getting her start at age 15 when she taught herself to play the flute, it took years before Higdon developed her striking rhythmic, neo-romantic style, and more than a decade before she would be taken seriously by the classical community. But several concertos, an opera and three GRAMMYs later, Higdon’s list of accomplishments is as long as it is rich, even marveling fans as recently as two weeks ago when the Library of Congress announced that Higdon’s GRAMMY-winning Percussion Concerto has been inducted into the National Recording Registry. Higdon, who is currently practicing social distancing at her home in Philadelphia while she works on her upcoming opera Woman With Eyes Closed,  took a break to share a few lessons with us about how she arrived at this level of success, how she remains proactive, and how other women can follow in her footsteps.

Program Directors are out there looking

When asked about what improvements are still needed in the classical community, Higdon replied, "I want to see more women on programs." And Higdon makes a strong point, given that only 1.8 percent of music performed by the top 22 orchestras in the United States included women composers in their programming, according to a survey of the 2014-2015 concert season. And among living composers being programmed, women accounted only 14%, which means we can’t go blaming Beethoven and Mozart for the imbalance.

The question begs to be asked: why do we still see this imbalance in concert programming? According to Higdon, there are several right answers, and they don’t all involve gender bias. “Sometimes people just don’t know enough women composers. They just don’t realize how many women are out there working—working hard,” Higdon explains. The truth is, women composers are out there—just as many as there are men. In fact, at the Curtis Institute where Higdon has taught composition since 1994, more than half of her composition students are women.

Thankfully though, according to Higdon, in the past couple of years, people have become a lot more cognizant of the fact that there aren’t enough women composers on classical concerts. "It’s getting better, but I think there’s lots of room for improvement." She goes on to explain how, more and more often, artistic administrators who do the programming for orchestras are starting to look around for women composers to include in their concerts.

When the answer is gender bias, people are not inclined to share their biases and prejudices anyway. "People don’t come up and tell you, ‘Oh we’re not going to program you because you’re a woman,'" Jennifer explains. Consequently, women composers can be left questioning themselves, in the dark as to why they aren’t being heard. But Higdon is a radiant picture of steadfast perseverance, as no ounce of prejudice was ever enough to stop her from creating her best work. "I can remember in the early days when I was starting my career, probably in the late 90s, people were saying things to me like ‘I can’t believe a woman wrote that.'" At first, Higdon’s reaction to comments like these was to ask, "Really? What does that mean exactly?" But eventually, her response evolved into, "Yeah, a woman wrote it! It’s a fact. You need to get used to it."

We succeed when we unite

Another lesson we can learn from Higdon is that women get further when they unite and help each other. In 2010, Higdon won the Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto, which the Pulitzer committee described as "deeply engaging...combin[ing] flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity." It’s clear the experience was both humbling and overwhelming for Higdon. "The expectations are so high…I must’ve done at least 200 interviews in two weeks," she recalls. So when female composer Caroline Shaw won the prize a few years later, Higdon did not hesitate to help. "Right after winning the Pulitzer, she came down to Philadelphia and we talked about trying to cope with the intensity of that prize—how it’s a little overwhelming," Higdon shares. "We sat down and had coffee and talked about my experience, and how to not let the pressure drop down on your shoulders."

Higdon also makes a point to promote her female peers as often as she can. "Sometimes an orchestra will contact me and ask me for suggestions of composers they should check out, so I have a list of women composers that I will send," she describes. "I'll ask them what they’re looking for and then pass along as many names as I can." Higdon’s approach is a refreshingly simple yet positive way of being proactive.

The community of women in classical music is vast, and their ability to unite rather than compete is how they are succeeding. One album released last year, Project W (the "w" standing for "women") is an excellent tribute to women composers’ efforts by the Chicago Sinfonietta, which is known for doing works by people of color and women. Featuring only new orchestral works by female composers, the album is also conducted by world-renowned female conductor Mei-Ann Chen, whom Higdon describes as a "dynamo" when it comes to inclusivity. 

Organizations like Women in Music (WIM) have also aided this move towards progress. Founded in 1985, WIM is a non-profit organization out of New York that is committed to educating, empowering and advancing women in the music industry.

Let your music do the talking

Perhaps the most important lesson emphasized by Higdon is that no composer should ever give up and stop writing, even if she feels excluded, outnumbered, or unheard. "Keep writing the best music that you can," Higdon says. "That’s going to be the best argument to get your music out there; to have music where people go, ‘Oh, I want to hear that again!'" The sound advice is as empowering as it is true, for it comes from one of America’s most performed living composers. It is Higdon’s experience that if you keep creating your best work, eventually the fact that you’re a woman will become less and less relevant. The music will speak for itself. 

“Keep writing the best music that you can. That’s going to be the best argument to get your music out there; to have music where people go, ‘Oh, I want to hear that again!’” - Jennifer Higdon

Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

Joan as Police Woman

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors

GRAMMYs/Apr 7, 2020 - 07:21 pm

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.

Thursday, April 2

[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.

[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it. 

Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy. 

[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always. 

[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment. 

I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.

[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.

[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh. 

Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot. 

[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).

[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music. 

[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night. 

If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website

Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

Hero The Band perform at the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter Annual Membership Celebration
Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage

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Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

How sound planning for a creative future in our urban areas makes all the difference for artists and musicians

GRAMMYs/Oct 24, 2019 - 01:27 am

The future, as they say, is now. And for music makers around the world, building a future for themselves often starts at home, in their local creative community and in the city where they live. While technology has expanded communication and made the world smaller, cities continue to grow, making planning for the future a critical cultural mission of the present.

To that end, a new report by global organization Sound Diplomacy titled "This Must Be The Place" examines, "The role of music and cultural infrastructure in creating better future cities for all of us." The 37-page deep dive into community planning and development highlights the importance of creative culture in what it calls "Future Cities."

"The government defines ‘Future Cities’ as 'a term used to imagine what cities themselves will be like," the report states, "how they will operate, what systems will orchestrate them and how they will relate to their stakeholders (citizens, governments, businesses, investors, and others),'"

According to the report, only three global cities or states currently have cultural infrastructure plans: London, Amsterdam and New South Wales. This fact may be surprising considering how city planning and sustainability have become part of the discussion on development of urban areas, where the UN estimates 68 percent of people will live by 2050.

"Our future places must look at music and culture ecologically. Much like the way a building is an ecosystem, so is a community of creators, makers, consumers and disseminators," the report says. "The manner in which we understand how to maintain a building is not translated to protecting, preserving and promoting music and culture in communities."

The comparison and interaction between the intangibility of culture and the presence of physical space is an ongoing theme throughout the report. For instance, one section of the report outlines how buildings can and should be designed to fit the cultural needs of the neighborhoods they populate, as too often, use of a commercial space is considered during the leasing process, not the construction process, leading to costly renovations.

"All future cities are creative cities. All future cities are music cities."

On the residential side, as cities grow denser, the need increases for thoughtful acoustic design and sufficient sound isolation. Future cities can and should be places where people congregate

"If we don’t design and build our future cities to facilitate and welcome music and experience, we lose what makes them worth living in."

For musicians and artists of all mediums, the answer to making—and keeping—their cities worth living in boils down to considering their needs, impact and value more carefully and sooner in the planning process.

"The report argues that property is no longer an asset business, but one built on facilitating platforms for congregation, community and cohesion," it says. "By using music and culture at the beginning of the development process and incorporating it across the value chain from bid to design, meanwhile to construction, activation to commercialisation, this thinking and practice will result in better places."

The report offers examples of how planners and leaders are handling this from around the world. For instance, the Mayor Of London Night Czar, who helps ensure safety and nighttime infrastructure for venues toward the Mayor's Vision for London as a 24-hour city. Stateside, Pittsburgh, Penn., also has a Night Mayor in place to support and inform the growth of its creative class.

Diversity, inclusion, health and well-being also factor into the reports comprehensive look at how music and culture are every bit as important as conventional business, ergonomic and environmental considerations in Future Cites. Using the Queensland Chamber of Arts and Culture as a reference, it declared, "A Chamber of Culture is as important as a Chamber of Commerce."

In the end, the report serves as a beacon of light for governments, organizations, businesses and individuals involved in planning and developing future cities. Its core principals lay out guideposts for building friendly places to music and culture and are backed with case studies and recommendations. But perhaps the key to this progress is in changing how we approach the use of space itself, as the answer to supporting music may be found in how we look at the spaces we inhabit.

"To develop better cities, towns and places, we must alter the way we think about development, and place music and culture alongside design, viability, construction and customer experience," it says. "Buildings must be treated as platforms, not assets. We must explore mixed‑use within mixed‑use, so a floor of a building, or a lesser‑value ground floor unit can have multiple solutions for multiple communities."

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Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Ice-T In 1993

Photo by David Corio/Redferns

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Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Led by iconic rapper Ice-T, the L.A.-based seven-piece keep their socially conscious themes consistent and the music louder than ever on their seventh studio album

GRAMMYs/Mar 10, 2020 - 10:06 pm

In early 1992 Ernie Cunnigan visited the Burbank office of Howie Klein. The guitarist (who goes by Ernie C.) and the then-president of Reprise/Warner Bros. Records were listening to the upcoming self-titled debut from Cunnigan’s band, Body Count, fronted by his Crenshaw High School buddy Tracy Marrow, already famous as rapper Ice-T. Ice, with the savvy creative connectivity that guides his multi-hyphenate media career to this day, introduced his forthcoming metal band in 1991 via tracks on O.G. Original Gangster, his fourth album.

It's not unusual for high school pals to form a band. What was unusual, though, was that Body Count was a hardcore thrash metal band comprised of all-black musicians, with point-blank lyrics that were both insightful and incite-ful concerning racial and social inequities and the climate of America. Listening to the 18-track debut, Klein praised it, while voicing concern about the lyrics of "Momma's Gotta Die Tonight," a song about the matricide and dismemberment of a racist parent. Turns out it was the last track, a ditty called "Cop Killer," that should have given the executive pause. 

While Klein was and remains stridently opposed to censorship and is a dedicated free speech advocate, Body Count, per the era, was released with a parental advisory sticker (as was Original Gangster). Less than two months after Body Count dropped, Los Angeles exploded in fiery violence in reaction to the acquittal of four policemen in the beating of Rodney King, as well as the shooting death of black teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocer. (The grocer was given only probation.) It was the worst possible climate for "Cop Killer," with lyrics including "Fk the police, yeah!" and shout-outs to then L.A.P.D. chief Daryl Gates, Ice's "dead homies" and King. The blowback went all the way up to then-President George Bush, and though Time Warner supported Ice-T in his fight against the song's opponents, he eventually pulled the cut from new pressings of the album.

Currently, streaming services including Spotify and Apple Music offer the version sans the group's most (in)famous song, replacing "Cop Killer" with "Freedom Of Speech" from Ice's 1989 solo album, The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say, edited to add samples of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and the voice of political punker Jello Biafra. On YouTube, "Cop Killer" has more than 1.5 million views, with most of the comments thoughtful and positive, understanding the intentionally incendiary messages Body Count was delivering. Ultimately, if Body Count isn’t a classic record in the way that critics consider Nirvana’s Nevermind or Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back to be, it’s an important and groundbreaking one. As Ice-T has said, Body Count is: "a protest record,” not the norm in the metal world, but still the way BC's songs operate today.

Indeed, 28 years later, things haven’t changed. Biafra is also on Body Count's powerful new album, Carnivore. Police actions like "stop and frisk" (the NYC law enforcement program that was proven to disproportionally target black and Latino men) wasn’t legally discredited until 2014. Body Count’s one-time bassist, Lloyd "Mooseman" Roberts III, was murdered in South Central Los Angeles in 2001 in an accidental drive-by; in the last 12 months, 126 black men were killed by guns in L.A. County, as opposed to 23 white men. And Ice-T and Body Count are still raging against the machine.

Ice-T enjoys pushing buttons lyrically, and if they’ve sometimes been heavy-handed or misguided ("KKK Bitch" or "Bitch In The Pit"), Ice-T is a politically eloquent, passionate and personal songwriter, which can be too easily overlooked given Body Count's volume-heavy metal chops and Ice's delivery, a speedy vocal style that’s been traditionally more aggro-rapping than melodic singing.  

That said, Carnivore is Body Count’s best album to date; it’s the most fully realized musically, and there’s a cohesion to the vocals and music that led Body Count bassist Vincent Price to lay out the band’s growth in a Metallica timeline: "Manslaughter [2014] was basically Kill ‘Em All; Bloodlust [2017] was our Ride The Lightningand Carnivore’s our Master Of Puppets."

He's not wrong, and though Ice-T’s more than 20-year stint as detective Odafin "Fin" Tutuola on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has precluded lengthy Body Count tours, the buzz is loud for this seventh album.

Ice-T may be the original gangster, yet he’s patient, articulate and fervent in explaining songs and motivations to audiences and the press alike. "When I'm Gone," featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence, was inspired by the killing of Nipsey Hussle. It’s a reminder, as he says in the tune, to "tell the people that you love, that you love them now. … Don't wait; tomorrow may be too fking late."

His prolific musical social criticism and seemingly left-leaning views are thoughtful and targeted, despite the vitriol of so many Body Count songs. In the nearly 30 years since founding his revolutionary band, Ice-T observes, "I think you’ve got less racism; less people, but more avid racism. It’s unnerving to think that we’ve come so far but there’s still so far to go." As he advised in a 2017 interview, "Don’t just be angry. Know what you’re talking about so you don’t alienate someone who should be an ally."