Without them, what would little boys do?

Reviewing the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
Boston Globe, December 13, 2010.

A review of an all-female-composer program in which I try to say something intelligent about the wherewithal, institutional and aesthetic, of an all-female-composer program. (Still, even after almost 40 years, one of the best cocktails of thinking on this sort of thing remains Linda Nochlin’s.)


  1. When you are essentially “asked” to write a review that takes gender into consideration, you have no choice but to take a stab at adding a gender-specific paragraph for the sake of fulfilling expectations. In the 21st century we know that music is about musicianship and not about gender. “Genderists” might disagree, but I would challenge them to guess the gender (or age, or race, for that matter) of a composer writing in the 21st century in a blind test.

    People who know new music might recognize a particular composer's voice (and successful composers generally have recognizable voices), so the composers in the group would have to be lesser-known composers.

  2. Yeah, one of the points I was trying to make in 400 words or less was that, for Johnson, Chen, and Weir, genre is a better descriptor of their sounds than gender. But I still think the context is a good opportunity to think about whether there's still an institutional hangover from the situation Nochlin was describing. (The Boston Symphony Orchestra for example, has programmed exactly one female composer this season.) I don't think gender makes very much difference in musical imagination, but the necessity of getting one's music performed and heard? That's a process in which, in my experience, musicianship is only one among a host of relevant and irrelevant factors.

    By the way, you can listen to “Dollar Beers” on Johnson's website:


    I pretty much had it looping for most of last Friday, and I never got tired of it.

  3. It's startling to consider that in 1977, 1750 Arch released an anthology of electronic music by seven composers, without making any special note on the cover or the disk labels of the fact that all the composers on the disk were women, that when re-released by CRI in 1997 (and subsequently by New World in 2006) that a prominent subtitle was added indicating the gender of the seven. This seems like a mighty step backwards and a completely unnecessary form of historical justification for a recording that stood and stands very well on the basis of its musical content alone.

  4. Daniel: Annoying, but not all that surprising, particularly in America, where even the marketing hooks seem to need their own marketing hooks.

    It did get me thinking, though—considering that, historically, the American experimental school was always more gender-balanced in their composers than the mainstream new-music school (this was definitely the case back when I was trying to make a go of it as a composer), I wonder how much the increased presence of female composers can be attributed to the mainstreaming of that experimental tradition, and how much the mainstreaming of the experimental tradition can be attributed to a desire to program more female composers? (Caveat: that ecological analysis is no doubt shaded by my own Midwest/East Coast U.S. experience.)

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