Skirts or Pants? How About Both

by Mara Gibson

When I first considered writing on the topic of gender in “classical” composition, I wondered how I could possibly have anything new to say. Then, my colleagues challenged me. Why not? As a consequence, I have read about the role of gender in popular music, punk misogyny, and photography and discussed analogies between film and composition with a number of friends and colleagues. I have conversed with my closest collaborators, both male and female. I have started asking deeper questions, and in doing so, confronting why this issue is so challenging for me.

In graduate school, I consciously disassociated being female with being a composer. In fact, I took that even further and came to the conclusion that being a composer was in direct conflict with what I knew as a teacher, as a student, and as an artist. While I was coming to realize that my work coupled with my teaching style reflected a theme of synergy and convergence, I perceived a dichotomy in trying to fuse my various roles. I am sure some of this can be simply attributed to youth, but also, I believe we have been part of a transformation, where our generation is realizing a gradual shift in the way we view the artist.

Generally, we are coming to accept a more multidimensional role for an artist in the 21st century. Being an entrepreneur, musician, and teacher (and/or any number of other occupations) are all equally important. As Claire Chase said in her 2013 Bienen School of Music convocation address, “You can’t really separate the act of creating music, even very old music, from entrepreneurship.” She examined how entrepreneurship manifests in our time by providing countless examples of how we assume multiple roles: the artist as collaborator, the artist as producer, the artist as organizer, the artist as educator, and the list goes on. The resounding message delivered is that there is no clear roadmap. She inspires her young audience to “blow the ceiling off anything resembling a limitation.” I try to remind myself of this mantra every day; however, it is not always easy.

From my vantage point, the “guru” mentality is an accurate snapshot of the history of the composer/composition teacher relationship. In graduate school, I was encouraged to ignore the gender bias, which at the time was probably for the best in order to preserve my identity; however, this is not the same advice I offer to my students. I want to talk openly and non-judgmentally with them about the inherent challenges of being female and a composer alongside being a composition teacher and entrepreneur. More importantly, I want begin to identify why and how we have fallen into patterns of behavior that support the status quo. We have far too many resources at hand in the 21st century for female composers/teachers/organizers not to have more visible role models.

As women, by and large, we have been taught to view ourselves as made up of independent spheres, separating our profession from our gender, and from our craft. One challenge is to allow and encourage our various roles to operate and shape us in tandem, rather than in silos. For me, this involves accepting that being a good composer is being a good teacher, and that composing is my lifelong lesson. These two essential parts of who I am should not, and cannot, be in conflict. Whether it is teaching and composing, or composing and being a mother, or doing any number of things that we as composers in the 21st century must do to survive, we all deserve the opportunity to merge our identities and define ourselves in our own unique way. Granted, I am primarily coming from the perspective of a female in academia, but I suspect that the challenge of balancing multiple and often simultaneously demanding roles is consistent for female composers in general.

Recent publications about the relationship of women to the field of composition present numerous heartening viewpoints. Amy Beth Kirsten’s “The Woman Composer is Dead” (2012) offers many valuable observations. Kristin Kuster’s “Taking Off My Pants” challenges us to embrace who we are, while maintaining respect for our craft. And Ellen McSweeny’s “The Power List” offers concrete solutions to incite change. These three articles in particular illustrate exactly how much we need to talk about this pervasive issue, so I assigned these articles to students. Their reactions ranged from, “I’m saddened” to “…a women could never have composed Beethoven’s Ninth or Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto…women need to stop having hissy fits about it.”

The teacher in me desperately wanted to understand these reactions, so I researched and looked to the visual art community for answers. As Linda Nochlin probes in her famous 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”:

“Why have there been no great women artists?” …like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist “controversy,” it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: “There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.”

Power structures have long operated along gendered presumptions like the one above. Certainly, all artists struggle to balance both creative and personal life challenges—this has become part of the romantic “plight” of being an artist—but I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that for me, this quandary was further complicated by sex and gender. As women, we are pulled in directions that are conflicted, both due to social pressures and the biological constraints of childbearing during key career-building years. Culturally, we are expected to respond in “feminine,” frequently subservient ways, but to follow the modernist trend, as composers we are expected to provide answers.

repetition-nineteen-iii-1968

Repetition Nineteen III by Eva Hesse.

I agree with Eva Hesse that “excellence has no gender.” But how exactly do we begin to tell that story? Visibility is imperative for role models to succeed.

I also relate to Lucy Lippard, who writes, “Of course art has no gender, but artists do.”

So then, the question is: does being a “female” composer make a difference to being a good composer?

In confronting the question solely in the realm of being a good composer, the answer is inequitably no. There are countless examples of superb, successful, living female composers. However, when confronted with being a good composer, alongside being a good mother, and (for me) a good teacher, it becomes more difficult to quantify.

Nochlin answers the women-artist question sensibly:

What is important is that women face up to the reality of their history and of their present situation, without making excuses or puffing mediocrity. Disadvantage may indeed be an excuse; it is not, however, an intellectual position. Rather, using as a vantage point their situation as underdogs in the realm of grandeur, and outsiders in that of ideology, women can reveal institutional and intellectual weaknesses in general, and, at the same time that they destroy false consciousness, take part in the creation of institutions in which clear thought—and true greatness—are challenges open to anyone, man or woman, courageous enough to take the necessary risk, the leap into the unknown.

As creative artists, we are students forever; otherwise, we would not have chosen such an infinite language to study. And frequently we have to act like a teacher, student, and artist simultaneously. Whether it is building music, art collaborations, schools, teaching, or learning, we create materials, build forms architecturally, and communicate those ideas creatively. Remember, maestro, male or female, as artists, we are inherently collaborators.

Gaining a broad perspective through all of the roles we must play has provided a critical lesson for me. Beyond social construction and convention, judgment, joy and anger, we must confront the abyss and challenge, question, and listen. And, above all, we should celebrate being female, and choose to wear pants or skirts as we see fit.


This blog was originally posted to New Music Box.–

Composer Mara Gibson is originally from Charlottesville, Virginia, graduated from Bennington College and completed her Ph.D. at SUNY Buffalo. She attended London College of Music; L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Fontainebleau, France; and the International Music Institute at Darmstadt, Germany. She has received grants and honors from the American Composers Forum, the Banff Center, Louisiana Division of the Arts, ArtsKC, Meet the Composer, the Kansas Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the International Bass Society, ASCAP, and the John Henrick Memorial Foundation.

Internationally renowned ensembles and soloists have performed her music throughout the United States, Canada, South America, Asia, and Europe. Recent projects include a world premiere of D(u)o in three movements, a residency in Norway funded through the Trondheim Arts Council including a premiere performance of Fanfare, and a premiere of E:Tip with Madeleine Shapiro made possible through an Encore Award. During Summer 2009, Mara was an Artist-in-Residence at Silpakorn University, Bangkok, Thailand where she returned again during Summer 2011 in Chiang Mai.

Recent and upcoming projects include a new work for duo Contour based in Freiburg, Germany, as well as several newly commissioned works for the Pangea Piano Project, and Chicago-based violist Michael Hall which was premiered in conjunction with the installation of Roxy Paine’s FERMENT at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in April 2010. In 2011-12, she will complete these projects while teaching at the UMKC Conservatory and leading the Conservatory’s Community Music and Dance Academy as director. She is also founder, UMKC Composition Workshop for Young Composers and co-director/founder of ArtSounds.

Email Dr. Mara Gibson at gibsonmb@umkc.edu.