“Behold the lunacy of our times.”
“The fact is, female composers are rarely performed because they have written little, if anything [sic] that is masterly.”
These are just a sampling of the sorts of messages I have received on a regular basis since writing a “Top 10 Living Women Composers” article published in January. You might think I would be getting disgruntled input from women composers who felt they deserved to be placed on the list, but every single negative message I have gotten has been from a man. These men like to claim that they aren’t sexist — that sexism, in fact, does not exist, but that women are inherently “inferior” composers. If women were better at writing music, nothing would be able to stop them from rising to the ranks of Mozart or Brahms. This sort of self-defeating logic, as well as the gendered insults and condescending tone that typically accompany it, is exhausting – and far too common in our current era of “bathroom bills” and a“pussy-grabbing” president.
I’ve been writing music criticism since I graduated college in 2012, but about a year ago I made the decision only to review concerts with at least one woman (or trans or nonbinary) composer on the program. I was tired of attending concerts featuring exclusively the music of white men, and tired of frantically sifting through concert season announcements that came in the mail, only to find a single token white woman amidst a sea of white men. People around me were perplexed. “Isn’t that a little excessive?” a casual acquaintance asked; an editor inquired, “How many quality women would you say are actually writing music today?”
Historically, women have been condemned to be vessels of sound, never its architects. The female voice has been associated with emotional volatility, while the male voice has been accorded power and authority. The voice is the link between body and disposition, the inner made outer. The Homeric figure of the Siren has perpetuated, across the centuries, the conception of female voices as shrill, dangerous, and sexual. The Siren’s song, a disembodied sonification of the female body, penetrates male ears with pure sound rather than words or language. Reduced from sense to pure sensation, the voice is sexualized and feminized: it is made dangerous.
Perhaps this is why another common complaint (aside from the misconception that women are simply incapable of composing) was the inclusion of Yoko Ono on the “Top 10” list. Ono’s voice has shrieked its way across the decades, influencing artists from John Cage to Kathleen Hanna, yet never failing to squick out the average “accidental misogynist.”