Dedicated to the memory of recently departed trailblazer Pauline Oliveros (1932–2016)
Talking about gender has become more important than ever. In 2017, violence against women and trans/nonbinary people occurs at astonishing rates; pay equity remains to be realized; and countries such as Japan, Sweden, Italy, and the United States have never had a non-male leader. In the arts world the picture is no less bleak. According to online showcase/podcast Listening to Ladies, during the 2015–2016 season, the top 89 symphony orchestras in the US dedicated only 2% of their programs to music composed by women. Hopefully we will soon get to the point where "top 10 women composers" lists are no longer needed; hopefully women and trans/nonbinary people will be represented equitably on year-end "best of" lists and music history syllabi and arts programming.
For every woman on this list, there was another one I wanted to include (Caroline Shaw, Sofia Gubaidulina, Chaya Czernowin, Anna Thorvaldsdottir…); I have tried to provide readers and listeners with a varied assortment of sounds: younger and older; abstract and thematic; electroacoustic, vocal, electronic, orchestral, chamber, and so on.
1) Yoko Ono, b. Japan 1933: Yoko Ono created groundbreaking conceptual art and Fluxus works in 1960s New York City alongside John Cage and La Monte Young, yet is frequently overlooked, both in the history of avant-garde music and in popular music narratives that cast her as "that Asian woman who broke up the Beatles". Yet the importance and influence of Yoko Ono's fearless vocals, the incisive commentary of performance art such as Cut Piece, and the innovation of her collection of text scores, Grapefruit, cannot be ignored – nor should her decades of political activism.
2) Kaija Saariaho, b. Finland 1952: Kaija Saariaho was a pioneer of 1980s spectral music, who composes as fluidly for large-scale orchestra as for electroacoustic duet (Sept Papillons, below). In the last few months alone, her clarinet concerto D'om le vrai sens and her opera L'Amour de loin captivated audiences in New York City; despite her own successes she is critical of gendered obstacles in the classical music world, insisting in a recent interview: "You know, half of humanity has something to say, also."
3) Meredith Monk, b. United States 1942: Meredith Monk's music weaves sound, space, and movement into elegantly-choreographed, occasionally site-specific, works which she passes on to the members of her Vocal Ensemble via oral and experiential methods rather than notated scores. Incorporating otherworldly spirituality, medieval vocal techniques such as "hocketing" (Hocket, below), and intricate yet frequently wordless narratives, Monk has become as known for her vocal and physical gymnastics as for her omnipresent pair of long braids.
4) Tania León, b. Cuba 1943: Tania León's musical language strings together colors and genres in a non-hierarchical expressionist swirl, perhaps most easily observed in Batá (below). A musical polymath dividing her time between educating, composing and conducting, León also wrote the libretto for and conducted the première of her first opera, A Scourge of Hyacinths, a critique of Nigerian totalitarianism based on the play of the same name by Wole Soyinka.
5) Olga Neuwirth, b. Austria 1968: Olga Neuwirth's output includes Lost Highway, an opera based on the David Lynch film, in addition to several other stage works, chamber ensemble compositions, and concertos; variegated genres and extra-musical influences, such as the writings of Paul Auster, coalesce in her sound world. In an interview with VAN Magazine, Neuwirth explained, "the history of my life as a composer is also the story of the constant questioning of a woman’s ability to compose. And that’s demoralizing."
6) Beth Coleman, b. United States 1969: Otherwise known as DJ Singe, Beth Coleman distributes her time between new media studies and electronic music blending ambient and hip-hop. Alongside co-founders Howard Goldkrand and DJ Spooky, Coleman created the SoundLab collective, which endeavors to dismantle both musical and cultural segregation through environmental installations as well as the promotion of emerging artists. As Coleman stated regarding a DJ workshop participant: "it meant something to her that I was a girl, and a brown girl, doing it, because that's what she was – just a littler version."
7) Unsuk Chin, b. South Korea 1961: Assuming the Met Opera doesn't want to go another century between women composers (as they did between Ethel Smyth and Kaija Saariaho), they need look no further than Unsuk Chin's wondrous opera Alice in Wonderland (below). Chin's music – literary yet mathematic, smart yet playful – blends a cultivation of influences ranging from Balinese gamelan, Machaut, Euripides and the anagram poetry of Unica Zürn.
8) Éliane Radigue, b. France 1932: Like Kaija Saariaho, Éliane Radigue's pathbreaking work has been overshadowed by that of male colleagues: Radigue worked with musique concrète innovators Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer during the 1950s, eventually moving in her own direction with long tape loops and composing only for ARP 2500 modular synthesizer for decades, best heard in her 2000 composition L'Île Re-sonante (below). Also like Saariaho, Radigue has composed a work expressing the rhythmic counterpoint of pregnancy, as two hearts beat within the same body.
9) Julia Wolfe, b. United States 1958: Julia Wolfe is a co-founder of the new music collective Bang on a Can and a leading voice of the post-minimal genre (along with her co-founders David Lang and Michael Gordon). Wolfe is adept at telling stories both through unconventional instrumentation (Stronghold for eight double basses; Traveling Music for 100+ musicians of any type; Girlfriend for quintet, electronics, and "twelve cheap wine glasses to be stomped on") and the more traditional orchestra or large ensemble (Anthracite Fields, below).
10) Annea Lockwood, b. New Zealand 1939: Annea Lockwood sonifies both earthly and cosmic elements in her compositions such as her various river sound maps (which include the sounds of bleating goats as well as the human speech of her ethnographies) and the installation Wild Energy, which slowed down and magnified the normally inaudible oscillations of solar energy, hydrothermal vents, and the echolocation of bats. Despite the ecological overtones of much of her work, Lockwood is perhaps ironically best known for her 1960s performance art series of burning pianos (below).
Women to watch out for:
* Jessie Montgomery, b. United States 1982: Violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery threads together the sounds of jazz and world music into compositions such as Records from a Vanishing City, an impressive and promising three-movement piece premièred by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2016.
* Mary Kouyoumdjian, b. United States 1983: With exquisite yet disorienting chamber music, Armenian-American composer Mary Kouyoumdjian brings intense political and historical issues, such as the Armenian genocide and Syrian refugee crisis, to the ears of her listeners.
* Alex Temple, b. United States 1983: While in her nonmusical life she brings attention to trans rights, Alex Temple's compositional style queers musical language by incorporating sounds generally stereotyped as "cheesy", reframing nostalgia in surreal ways.