Classical music has a gender problem. The numbers are consistent and dismal: as various orchestras have announced their 2017–18 seasons, numerous outlets have tallied how many male and female composers are represented, and so far none seem to be doing better than the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where male composers still take up 88 percent of the programming. Several orchestras will be presenting seasons comprised exclusively of works written by men.
Numbers such as these have given rise to a number of campaigns aimed at raising awareness of music written by female composers. Some of these campaigns are new—this past March saw the birth of #HearAllComposers, a Twitter awareness-raising campaign launched by Amanda Feery, Emma O’Halloran, and Finola Merivale and then expanded by Mika Godbole and Annika Socolofsky. Others have been around for quite some time already—the UK’s Women In Music project was founded in 1987, and wasn’t the first project dedicated to amplifying women’s voices.
Awareness raising is important work, but commissions and performances are the lifeblood of a composer’s life, and in the current new music ecosystem, calls for scores are a major avenue for securing both. Fortunately, there are calls for scores targetted specifically at women. While some of these are one-off calls put out by a venue or ensemble looking to program a concert or two, others are regularly recurring calls, as with, for example, Opera America’s annual commissioning and discovery grants for female composers at different stages of their careers. This is heartening to see. While significant gender disparities remain when it comes to the overrepresentation of male composers, calls such as these show that there are people and institutions working in this field who are well aware of this issue and who are willing to devote concrete material resources towards rectifying it.
Unfortunately, the specific language these calls use creates frustrating ambiguity and uncertainty when it comes to composers like me.
I’m nonbinary; I’m not a man, but I’m also not a woman. There isn’t space in this essay to delve deeply into the history and theory of gender, but suffice it to say that there are many more genders than just “man” and “woman,” and genders beyond the binary have existed for as long as the concept of gender itself. Different people use different words to describe their different experiences with gender—some people feel like their gender fluctuates and gravitates towards labels like genderfluid or genderflux; others feel a partial but incomplete affinity for one gender or another and describe themselves as demi-boys or demi-girls; others still feel like they fall outside of the gender system entirely and prefer terms like agender, third gender, or neutrois. These are just some of many possibilities.
People with genders such as these aren’t always open about it, and don’t always have high profiles, but we’re out here, and some of us write classical music. The nonbinary umbrella is vast and sprawling, but the thing that unites everyone under it is that we’re not (or not entirely/exclusively) men nor are we (entirely/exclusively) women. Would our works be welcome in a call for scores geared specifically for female composers?
Looking more closely at the calls in question seldom offers much guidance. Like the 2017 call from the International Alliance for Women in Music, many specify that they welcome works from “anyone who identifies as a woman” (or similar language); this is usually a well-meaning attempt to clarify that trans women are welcome to submit work, but it doesn’t actually clarify anything. The distinction between being a woman and identifying as one is as specious as that between being yellow and reflecting light in a way that the human visual cortex processes as yellow—they mean the same thing.
Instead, the question is really one of intent. For the reasons outlined above, many of these calls for scores have rectifying gender imbalances in the classical music world as an implicit or explicit goal. It is absolutely undeniable that women have been and are marginalized on account of their gender, but it is also true that women are not the only group facing marginalization on account of their gender. If the goal is rectifying gender imbalances in classical music, then it stands to reason that nonbinary people should also be welcome in these calls.
If, however, the call is for a project specifically interested in women’s voices, then nonbinary people, or at least those nonbinary people who don’t identify at all with womanhood, shouldn’t apply. “Woman” is emphatically not synonymous with “person who isn’t a man”; insofar as women comprise a distinct societal group, there may well be contexts in which their voices alone are called for. (This is true along other axes of marginalization as well. All people of color are marginalized under white supremacy, but that doesn’t make all people of color interchangeable; a concert celebrating African-American History Month shouldn’t program exclusively Cambodian composers.) Not only does lumping “everyone who isn’t a man” under the label of “woman” misgender the many nonbinary people who don’t identify with that term, it also further centralizes men by implying that there are essentially two gender categories, “men” and a nebulous grouping of “everyone else.”
But many of these calls for scores do seem to be treating “woman” and “person who isn’t a man” interchangeably, and the ambiguity this creates only furthers the marginalization of nonbinary people. The aforementioned Opera America grants explicitly state that they exist to “[advance] the important objective of increasing diversity” in opera, but they also say that they are looking for “female composers” with no elaboration or clarification. Are we welcome, or are we not? The stated goals imply we are; the language used states we are not.
Some advocates for gender equity in classical music are waking up to this issue. Elisabeth Blair founded the Listening to Ladies project with the goal of showcasing female composers in order to lessen the overrepresentation of men in the classical music world. This past February, she published a note on the Listening to Ladies website acknowledging and apologizing for the ways in which that title and mission excluded nonbinary people who are also underrepresented in the classical music world; the most recent Listening to Ladies call for scores (in conjunction with the live electronics group Ctrl-Z) explicitly states that nonbinary and genderfluid people are welcome to apply.
I reached out to talk with her about the name and her current efforts on gender inclusivity. She described her initial focus on women specifically as “a clumsy, self-centered oversight” that stemmed from her “outrage and anger” on behalf of her status as a woman “eclipsing the bigger picture.” She elaborated, “I was rallying on behalf of my immediate ‘group’ and forgetting/overlooking the fact that everyone who is non-cis-male is really part of the same ‘group’ ” in terms of this issue. Plans to change the website name are currently in the works, and she’s interested in launching future podcasts that specifically feature people “across the gender spectrum.” She’s not satisfied with having started out meaning well: “Good intentions must be constantly updated with good information and awareness.”
Ultimately, that is what is at issue here. Calls for scores from women composers may have the best of intentions, but they often suffer from lack of good information and awareness about composers who exist outside the gender binary. This essay is not a demand to abolish such calls, it’s a request for clarity and precision in language. If you’re looking specifically and exclusively for women for your next commission, by all means say so. But if you’re looking for a composer who isn’t a cis man, say that instead. Those of us making a life outside the binary will thank you. ¶