In Her Own Words
Conversations with Composers in the United States
Publication Year: 2013
Published by: University of Illinois Press
This book was possible because of the creative and generous women contained in its pages. These twenty-five composers were gracious with their time; they have a sincere respect for their craft and a desire to share their art with others. I am grateful for their trust and their valuable time. Special thanks to Libby Larsen, the first woman composer whose work I ever performed. Her music eventually ...
Chronological List of Birthdates
This sourcebook contains interviews with twenty-five contemporary women composers in the United States. With interesting personal anecdotes and some-times surprising intimacy and humor, these conversations represent the range of women composing music in the United States from the mid-twentieth century As a conductor, performer, and teacher, I am keenly interested in exploring ...
1. Joan Tower
Numerous composers, including Jennifer Higdon, credit Joan Tower with help-ing to eradicate the glass ceiling for contemporary women composers. Born in New York in 1938 and spending most of her youth in South America, Tower has become a respected composer, performer, conductor, and educator. With degrees from Bennington College and Columbia University, her earliest works ...
2. Shulamit Ran
Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1949, Shulamit Ran was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1991 for Symphony. She was the second of only four women to be given this award by 2012. Spending most of her youth in Israel, Ran came to the United States at age fourteen for advanced musical study while on scholarship from the Mannes College of Music in New York and the America Israel Cultural Founda-...
3. Jennifer Higdon
Jennifer Higdon shares the company of Shulamit Ran as two of only four women recipients to date of the Pulitzer Prize in music. Higdon was awarded the Pulitzer in 2010 for her Violin Concerto, and she credits Joan Tower and Libby Larsen as composers who helped eradicate the glass ceiling for women. Born in Brooklyn in 1962, Higdon spent most of her formative years in the southern United States, ...
4. Gabriela Lena Frank
A self-described “old-fashioned” composer, Gabriela Lena Frank writes for acoustic instruments in familiar forms and takes inspiration from her Latin American roots. Born in Berkeley, California, in 1972, she has a strong connection to her family identity, especially her Andean/Peruvian heritage as passed down through her mother. Frank considers the exploration of her Latin roots a lifetime project, ...
5. Alice Parker
Alice Parker was born in Boston in 1925. The bulk of her catalog is composing and arranging for choir. Having grown up with the sounds of past centuries based on tonality, melody, and folk song, Parker was college-educated in twelve-tone technique (emphasizing the absence of a tonal center). She did not enjoy com-posing in this atonal manner, and she questioned what she had to offer twenti-...
6. Chen Yi
Chen Yi was born into a musical family in Guangzhou, China, in 1953. Raised with a respect for European- and Russian-influenced classical art music, Chen learned piano and violin and spent years listening to her father’s classical-music collec-tion. Her knowledge and practice of classical music helped carry her through the events of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. During our conversation, this nor-...
7. Tania León
Tania León’s connection to her birth country of Cuba is evident in her music. Born in Havana in 1943, her family has always been a great source of encourage-ment to her. Her formal music education began when she was four years old; her grandmother, noticing León’s musical aptitude, insisted that the Peyrellade’s Conservatorio de Música accept her as a student. León’s awareness of global cul-...
8. Hasu Patel
Hasu Patel’s identity is shaped by her family, her experience growing up in north-ern India, and subsequent decades in the United States. Despite her early blos-soming as a sitar player, Patel’s life circumstances parallel those of many women composers around the world, and she is just now gaining the recognition she has earned. Privately, Patel has been composing ragas for years within the Indian ...
9. Pauline Oliveros
Pauline Oliveros’s creative process accepts that everyone is part of the compo-sition. Widely considered one of the most influential composers of the twen-tieth century, she encourages deep listening, being open to what comes, and she has spent a lifetime actively creating communities of participation so that anyone can be part of the music-making experience. Born in 1932, Oliveros is ...
10. Meredith Monk
Born in 1942 in New York, Meredith Monk is an artist who has been defying categorization for decades. Often labeled a performance artist, she prefers the term “composer,” because the core of her interdisciplinary art is born out of the music. Inspired as a young artist by the ability of Jean Cocteau to combine many art forms, Monk began her own integrated artistic training through her early intro-...
11. Svjetlana Bukvich
Svjetlana Bukvich was born in 1967 in Sarajevo, in the former Yugoslavia. A composer, producer, performer, and teacher of electro-acoustic and multimedia works, Bukvich describes her influences as a hybrid of culture, inspiration, and art. Her music is the result of an amalgamation of her experiences before the Bosnian War, her immigration to the United States during the war, and her sub-...
12. Pamela Z
Pamela Z is a multimedia artist who fuses varied components into her work: voice, live electronic processing, body movement, sampling technology, found objects, and video. A composer-performer, Z works in alternative performance spaces that celebrate artistic community. Our conversation took place in the lobby of 3-Legged Dog, an experimental media and theater space in New York City. Born ...
13. Toshiko Akiyoshi
Born in 1929, Toshiko Akiyoshi came to the United States from Tokyo in 1956 as a young woman who played jazz piano. Akiyoshi is considered a pioneer in many respects, including her use of timbral color in big-band composition, leading her own band playing her own music, and incorporating her Japanese heritage and sometimes Japanese instruments into her charts. Her expanded use of color and ...
14. Maria Schneider
Maria Schneider is known today mostly for her big-band compositions and for leading her own ensemble, the Maria Schneider Orchestra (also known as the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra). Like Toshiko Akiyoshi, Schneider’s band focuses on Schneider’s compositions, to which she adds color by incorporating instruments uncommon to the jazz orchestra, such as the accordion. Schneider differs ...
15. Augusta Read Thomas
The composer and professor Augusta Read Thomas treats her scores with a meticulous hand. When composing, she is always thinking about the conductors and performers who will interpret them. Thomas is drawn to the details of nota-tion, explaining, “My scores are highly nuanced, certainly detailed, every note having a dynamic, articulation and/or adjective. The notation explains exactly ...
16. Hilary Tann
In 1947, when Hilary Tann was born, the coal mines were still open in South Wales. The landscape was green, yellow, and brown, the mountaintops bare, and the sky close. Born and raised in the town of Ferndale, high up in the enclosed valley of Rhondda Fach, Tann makes music that is inspired by the natural world around her. In fact, much of her varied musical catalog can be illustrated as the ...
17. Libby Larsen
Libby Larsen’s musical inspirations derive from our dynamically changing American culture, as she asks herself when she sits down to write, “What is music itself today, to me?” Born in 1950, Larsen has spent most of her life in Minneapolis. Her work is filled with performance directions drawn from common language, such as “Bring it!” designed to encourage conversation among performers. Larsen’s ...
18. Laura Karpman
Born in 1959 in Los Angeles, Laura Karpman first established herself in concert music with degrees from the University of Michigan and Juilliard, studying with Milton Babbitt. She was among the first composers selected as a Sundance Institute Film Scoring Fellow (at the recommendation of the forward-thinking Babbitt). Attending the Sundance Institute was a life-changing event for Karp-...
19. Winifred Phillips
Winifred Phillips is a media composer who lives and works in Los Angeles. From 1996 to 2005, she composed the music for Radio Tales, a series of dramatic programs airing on National Public Radio affiliate stations and SiriusXM Book Radio. Through Radio Tales, she met her working partner, the producer Winnie Waldron. Together they have won four Gracie Awards from the Foundation of ...
20. Deborah Lurie
Deborah Lurie is a collaborator at heart. Born in 1974, this composer of com-mercial media, known for her feature films, was named one of the top young composers to watch by the Hollywood Reporter. She was born with perfect pitch as well as the rare condition synesthesia, which allows her to identify every note by seeing a specific, corresponding color in her mind’s eye. Her career path was ...
21. Jeanine Tesori
Jeanine Tesori, like Deborah Lurie, considers herself both a composer and a collaborator. Most known for her music in live stage productions, Tesori’s celebrated scores include Shrek the Musical, Caroline or Change, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Twelfth Night, and Violet. During our conversation, Tesori openly discusses motherhood and the choices she continues to face as an active composer and ...
22. Beth Anderson
As the founder and producer of Women’s Work, an annual concert series in New York City featuring women composers, Beth Anderson openly discusses what it means for her to be a woman composer in the twenty-first century. Born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1950, Anderson recalls how her compositional influences began when she was a young teenager and her piano teacher, Helen Lipscomb, ...
23. Janika Vandervelde
Janika Vandervelde truly enjoys teaching composition to her students at Perpich Center for Arts Education, a statewide, innovative arts high school with a composition-based music program. During our conversation, Vandervelde dis-cusses the importance of teaching the creative process through composition, as opposed to using the standard levels of theory and analysis. She explains, “This ...
24. Mary Jane Leach
Mary Jane Leach’s music has evolved from instrumental music for multiples of the same instrument to an embrace of technology and on into music for vocal ensemble. Today, her compositional output varies, yet she focuses on advanced music for multiple voices as commissions dictate. Like Libby Larsen, Leach foresaw decades ago the technological shift in our culture and recognized its power ...
25. Emma Lou Diemer
The prolific composer Emma Lou Diemer has been writing music for over seventy years, and she still exclaims, “I think I’m the happiest when I’m writing!” Born in 1927 and growing up in and around Kansas City, Missouri, Diemer was exposed to big-band music, the American Songbook, 1930s radio broadcasts of orchestral music, and music from the Christian church. She and her siblings ...