When La Boîte à Pépites (The Jewel Box) was announced as a new record label for women composers, I was cautious in my optimism. But founder Héloïse Luzzati shared a vision not about exclusion, but about uplifting voices: a project whose goal is not to record a composer just because she is a woman, but because, after extensive research and musical discernment, she is found to be a creator of interesting, relevant works. 

You’re unlikely to recognize any of the composers recorded by the label—by design. La Boîte à Pépites is a nonprofit prioritizing world premiere recordings, relishing the liberty of artistic freedom. 

VAN: What motivated you to start this project? And why now?

Héloïse Luzzati: I am a cellist and during my studies, I did not play any music by female composers. Several years ago, the question started to cross my mind: How is it possible, in a life spent playing music, to have only played works composed by men? It seemed strange to me to have had so many courses in music history and analysis, and to know only a few female composers and so few works.

The question of “why now” is a personal story. The Elles – Women Composers association is extremely time-consuming. In addition to the label, we have a festival, a research and score-reading device, a video channel… it takes up my whole life today. When my children were very small, it would not have been possible, and COVID-19 also helped: The time available, without any concerts, was extremely precious to me. 

Is changing representation in the recording industry, where major record companies are mostly run by white men, part of your motivation? 

I am first and foremost a musician and the creation of the label was done for this project. I had the option to do a collection with an existing label. But I wanted full liberty and freedom to do whatever I want. Unlike most labels, La Boîte à Pépites is a nonprofit. The freedom comes with a cost. Our first recording of composer Charlotte Sohy has one million streams already, but the point is not to earn money. And that’s really important. Of course, in general, the big decision makers in culture are too often white men, but I’m quite confident it’s changing now. The label was not a childhood dream, but I want women composers to be heard, so it was the only way.

Charlotte Sohy at the age of 29 (Photo courtesy of La Boîte à Pépites)

How do you choose which composers, projects, and performers to record?

The whole project is based on frequent reading sessions with a collective of talented musicians. I spend a lot of time searching for scores in libraries in France and abroad, but also in the homes of the descendants of female composers, like Charlotte Sohy’s grandson. We read the scores and decide whether or not they seem interesting. The idea is not to play a work by a woman because it was composed by a woman, but because we feel it is necessary to make it accessible to the public and the programmer. It’s not an objective way to pick music, but it’s a sensitive way: You have this feeling the work is important, and you want to play it. You want to defend it in front of the public. With male composers, it is the same. There is a lot of music we don’t know, and it’s not good; and a lot of music we don’t know, and it’s good. We so often play the same things all the time, never questioning posterity.

What’s your first release? Where and when can people listen to it?

The Charlotte Sohy project is available now on streaming platforms and on CD in the U.S. on October 21. It’s three CDs, one of her piano music, one of her chamber music, and one of her orchestral music. 

The next big project for La Boîte à Pépites is a digital advent calendar. This will be the third season this year and it’s a particularly exciting project. Each day we will broadcast a video on a different female composer via our network, streaming services, social media, and YouTube. The video starts with a drawing and story of the composer, then goes on to show a recording of one of her works. It’s a bit like a digital festival which brings together about 30 wonderful musicians. This year’s theme is night and more than half of the pieces are new. It’s not for money, just for fun. 

"The idea is not to play a work by a woman because it was composed by a woman, but because we feel it is necessary." @HLuzzati, founder of the new female-focused record label La Boîte à Pépites @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

Will your recordings feature male performers or exclusively women? Are the other people working on your projects, such as sound engineers and producers, also women?

Performers have always been and will always be mixed. If only women play female composers, the problem does not go away. It is essential to see men playing female composers, and in general, the idea is not to exclude men but rather to add women who should not have disappeared from the history of music. I do not want less of something. I want more of something. Our sound engineer, Mireille Faure, is really important to the project—and also our conductor for the Charlotte Sohy album, Debora Waldman. The artist for the composer cartoons is always a woman, because the thing is to promote female creation. It’s not the same when you are an interpreter of the music as when you are the creator of this music. 

I’m curious which composers can appear on your label. Is it correct to say that you focus on white European women composers from history? Are there any plans to record living composers or composers of other races, cultures and ethnicities in the future? 

We don’t focus solely on white European female composers. I spend a lot of time discovering American composers and other female composers from around the world. But of course, I’m French, and it’s easier to find French scores from the descendants of French women composers and at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. But I ask my library all the time for scores from all over the world. When I had this big article in the Guardian, it was amazing; many people contacted me about women composers. The press helps a lot. If someone reads this and has a composer in his or her family, they can contact us on our website. It’s a fun way to open things up. Last year’s advent calendar featured female composers from all over the world, some of whom were of course not white. We played some Black composers and composers from South America. 

The project is mainly focused on forgotten women composers, i.e., mainly deceased. It’s primarily a research project. It’s more complicated to find deceased composers because you have to do research and because of the lack of scores. I think rehabilitating women composers of the past is important for the younger generation. It creates role models and can trigger vocations. But we do play living composers at the festival and we have a few on our advent calendar. 

What about gender-marginalized composers, including but not limited to those who identify as transgender, nonbinary, and gender spectrum? Are they welcome on your label?

It’s not easy to respond to this question because we play more music from the past. We can infer sometimes that a woman from the past was not straight. It’s obvious sometimes when you read about their life. But for me it’s not so relevant because it’s an artistic project. 

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What are your long-term hopes for this project? Do you have a five-year plan?

Of course, we have plans for several years, but always with the flexibility to imagine new projects, spontaneously, as we do our research. We leave the door open for something we don’t know, and I need challenging new things. I imagine that I will discover composers over the next few years whom I don’t know about yet, and that’s the whole point of the project. After that I would of course like to make more records. But that means finding a lot of money and that’s not always easy. Next month we are going to launch a publishing house for scores. The idea is to make available as many scores as possible, especially the music we’ve recorded, so it can be played.

What impact do you hope your venture will have on the music industry?

I hope that women composers will gradually become part of the programming, in particular on orchestral and opera programs where they are so little represented or almost non-existent. Too few works have been identified, recorded, or published. I have a dream that Charlotte Sohy will be played sometimes. We will see. ¶

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Sarah Fritz

Sarah Fritz is a freelance writer and professional musician on the faculty at the Westminster Conservatory of Music. She’s working on a novel about Clara Schumann and tweets daily @sarahfritzwritr.