Thoughts on a Philosophy of Programming (#1)

I’ve had it with categories!

We’ve just finished two months with specialist focus — February: African-American History Month and March: Women’s History Month – and every year in March there’s a bump-up in performances of my music. (Tania Leon once mentioned that her works get more frequent playing in February and March than at any other point around the calendar.)

Good? Not-so-good? Healthy? Unhealthy?

I am fascinated by, and yet deplore, the penchant for programming by categories. I like to imagine how to replicate the thinking behind the planning of a particular ensemble’s season. And knee-jerk, lip-service nods in select directions irk me no end.

Whatever happened to the philosophy of programming according to music the artist/ensemble finds fascinating in its own right, and return the favor by inviting listeners to join in the discovery? The aura of “Duty” is a pall indeed.

Sigh! :: In the latter ‘90s a respected musicologist colleague came to me privately to ask for my recommendations for *one* work by a woman to add to his basic music-history syllabus.
Instead, I gave him a list of 8 pieces, scattered across the 19th and 20th centuries and suggested he acquaint himself with all of them and then pick for himself. Rebecca Clarke’s great Viola Sonata eventually made its way into his course offering.

Sigh! :: It’s equally not helpful for someone as sensitive as Rob Deemer to punt when he addresses the question. In a recent NMBox posting he waffles by simply listing more than 200 names of female composers.
What good is it to have so large a field? According to a telling anecdote in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”, we withdraw when there are more than c. six choices at hand. Two hundred is 194 too many.
Why are people – good people, sensitive, knowledgeable people – reluctant to express their opinion? Why run scared of standing behind your principles, your choices?

Over the years I’ve kept sporadic data on the frequency of programming music composed by women in various genres. (This was begun during the ‘80s, when I was working on the volumes of The Musical Woman book series.) While it’s changed fractionally in some smaller genres – and in a major way in the pop-music sphere — for symphonic music and for larger chamber works it hasn’t materially budged.

Composing Women are still scraping our way towards some semblance of parity.

I close by citing my own comments from an interview published in FANFARE magazine last fall:

Q: Do you think we have reached a point in America where it is now superfluous to identify a composer with the appellation of “woman?”

“Adjective Composer” — what an unwieldy term! But once composers who were female started to get together in the ‘70s and ‘80s and we began to recognize that while we generally knew what we all were up to, we didn’t know much at all about our sister composers from the past. Our group was musically active — writing, getting played – but what amazed me was that past composers of distinction –- like Elizabeth Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, Lili Boulanger, Ruth Crawford, Rebecca Clarke, Amy Beach — who were celebrated in their own time seemed invisible to history once their era was past. We all knew Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann as pianists, but how many of us at that point knew a note of what they’d composed? It became really clear that something had to be done to stop the progressive erosion of the historical record. Stopping the erosion, and shedding light on distinguished present-day practitioners of all music specialties was what motivated my creating the books.

But that was then. Now, thirty years later we’re more visible (like raisins in a muffin), and four Pulitzer Prizes have gone to women. But grouping together all the women who write music is tricky — our affinity is only skin-deep since we span all styles and every approach to guiding sound over time.

Surely but slowly we’re being folded into the general stream of all-music. I’d welcome the day the adjective disappears. And signs are encouraging, now that more baccalaureate degrees go to women than to men. But I keep my eye on the stats, since even today in the US we’re not yet being programmed anywhere near Germaine Tailleferre’s 18% “share” of Les Six.

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