Thoughts on playing music by “female composers”

After having written four list-style posts on female classical guitar composers, I realized that I had missed answering a rather important question: Why? Why write a list of female composers? or perhaps Why is it important to play music by these female composers?

As a female guitarist, I find myself in a bit of a “catch-22,” so to speak. On one hand, because I am a woman, I feel that I should (and I want to) play music written by female composers. On the other hand, I know that if I program music by female composers, it will immediately be noticed that I am playing music by women. The act of including music by women is automatically seen as “feminist,” and there is an unfortunate assumption that I (as a woman) would not be playing the music if it were not composed by a woman. The trouble is, I also know that the majority of male classical guitarists will not seek out this music as it has not yet made its way into the mainstream of classical repertoire.

As you can see, because I am a woman, playing these pieces presents a bit of a challenge. While I would like to present the works simply as fantastic works of music, it is hard to present them without the over-bearing shroud of feminism. It is the same problem that Canadian music faces according to some critics. By identifying works as “Canadian” we are almost crying out to the public that we would not perform the works if they were not composed by a local. By labelling the piece, we are sending the message that piece is not good enough to stand on its own merit as a composition. By identifying compositions as “composed by a woman” it could seem that I am presenting the piece only because it is composed by what is said to be the fairer or weaker sex.

In the beginning of any movement, however, it is important to identify the music. As I have mentioned in previous posts, Annette Kruisbrink did this with her book and CD collection Guitar Music By Women Composers, which includes works by herself, as well as other female composers from the Baroque era to the 20th century, many of them surprising and unknown. Connie Sheu released an album of all female composers in 2012 called The Woman’s Voice. In the process of researching for this blog series, I came across another CD of female composers, Composition Feminine: Guitar Music by Women Composers, recorded by Chris Bilobram in 2006.

I hope that soon we will be able to present the works by these  so called “female composers” as simply works by composers. It will take a while, but I do hope that the works of Emilia Giuliani-Gugliemi, Ida Presti, and others make it into the core curriculum for classical guitarists at all stages of development.

Of course, some may argue that this is not really something worth fighting over. I myself am not entirely convinced. Perhaps the percentage of music by female composers represented in the mainstream guitar repertoire is proportionate to the number of women who play and write for the instrument.

However, I do believe that at least part of this argument is really important. I think that it is important to encourage young women to pursue things, like the classical guitar, that are still incredibly imbalanced in gender representation. I still cannot put my finger on what it is that turns young women away from the guitar, but I do believe that building strong female role models could be a very powerful way to change the perception of the guitar world. If the guitar community is seen as gender-balanced, perhaps young women would feel more comfortable in pursuing the instrument as a career or hobby. Pushing for music by female composers to become part of the mainstream guitar repertory is one easy way to contribute to this shift.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please leave me a comment below or on Facebook. Also, Happy International Women’s Day (March 8th)!

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I play guitar. I build guitars when I can. I enjoy all sorts of music, but Baroque, 'classical' guitar music of the 19th and 20th centuries, and jazz music hold special places in my heart. I am using this blog to document some of my adventures in guitar building, performing, and teaching, and hope to give my readers a bit of a look at the world inside a guitar.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on playing music by “female composers””

  1. The first thing to say is that there’s nothing “wrong” with feminism – as a movement and as an attitude, it’s been responsible for moving us towards a fairer, better, more inclusive society. And that’s a good thing.

    I look at what you’re doing not as “I will chose to promote works composed by women even if they’re not very good”, but more like “I will choose to promote excellent works that are composed by women.”

    The latter approach does two really good things: It raises general awareness of these works and of those composers, so that they will become part of the general repertoire of classical guitarists – enriching us all. And the second thing it does is to encourage talented young girls and women to pursue playing and writing for the guitar, which greatly increases the pool of potential excellent work. Another win for all.

    I think you’re doing the right thing. 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comment, Dino. Yes, I did not mean to come across as saying that there is something wrong with feminism – of course it is a very important movement and attitude to hold!

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