9 Women Composers You Should Know, Part III

In the first two parts of this series, you learned about six women composers whose contributions in the music world were largely ignored until recent years. Here are Part 1 and Part 2.

We will end with three more women pioneers who revolutionised electronic music and sound design.

Daphne Oram

If you thought ‘drawing’ note events into a digital audio workstation such as Logic Pro or Reaper was a late 20th century endeavour, think again. Daphne Oram, a British electronic musician and composer, invented a machine that one could ‘draw’ sounds into it. She named it Oramics – and it was one of the earliest forms of electronic sound synthesis. This was not Daphne’s only contribution: she set up the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which was initially for radio effect experimentation and ‘radiophonic poems’. Two years later, she left to establish her own studio.

Daphne became interested in the potential of tape manipulation in the early 50s and while working at the BBC as a studio manager, she pushed to establish a space dedicated to electronic sound treatment for radio dramas. Unfortunately, it is believed she was pushed out on the pretext that being exposed too long to electronic sounds could be detrimental. However, this health-and-safety policy did not extend to her male colleagues. She formally quit the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1959 and branched out on her own after this experience. Although Daphne Oram was written out of the history of electronic music, she is finally being a praised as a pioneer and innovator.

“The BBC was an institution run by men, in a world that was more sexist… This is not to say she was perfect or everyone around her was villainous, but she was standing up for something she felt was undervalued. And she was met with the attitude: this woman is very difficult, and willful, and stubborn, and these are all bad things for a woman to be.” – Isobel McArthur, co-playwright of Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World of Sound, ca. 2017

“They wanted my ideas, they didn’t want me.” – Daphne Oram

(Daphne Oram = short documentary including examples of her work, ca. 1958-1972)

Wendy Carlos

In 1968, the album Switched-On Bach was released by composer, Walter Carlos, who eventually transitioned to Wendy Carlos in 1972. This epic release garnered three Grammys and put the Moog synthesizer on the map. It is the first time that a synthesizer is perceived to be a real musical instrument and not a sound experimental machine. This album is also the second classical album to sell over one million copies (Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops orchestral recording of “Jalouise” takes the distinction of being the first).  Wendy’s works include classic film scores such as A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Tron, along with a “Weird” Al Yankovic collaboration. She is also instrumental in influencing the direction Bob Moog would take with his synthesizers, making suggestions that would improve the action of the instrument’s keyboard.

When Wendy Carlos ‘came out’ to the world via a Playboy interview in 1979, the magazine treated her coming out event as a spectacle and dismissed her raison d’être, that of a composer. From then on, she never spoke about her experience as a transgender woman. Eventually, the public did not care, for she has left a legacy of works that will surpass her ‘transsexual’ identity.

“Being a transsexual makes me a barometer of other people’s own comfort with themselves. Those who aren’t sexually at peace with themselves tend to be the most uptight around me.”  Wendy Carlos in Playboy interview, ca. 1979

(An explanation on Wendy Carlos’s three asymmetric divisions of the octave)

Suzanne Ciani

America’s first female synth hero, Suzanne Ciani met Don Buchla, competitor of Bob Moog and the Moog synthesizer. She would use the Buchla synthesizer as her vehicle of expression to design sound and perform. Suzanne was one of the few people that knew how to operate the Buchla synthesizer since it lacked a keyboard, unlike the Moog. With her background in music composition, she started her own company and created jingles and sound logos for major companies such as Coca-Cola (she created the “pop and pour” sound effect). From there, she was offered opportunities to guest perform on albums. She also created the sounds to a pinball machine game and eventually went on to become the first female composer to score a film soundtrack in Hollywood.

Suzanne’s start as a musician and artist was not easy. As she shopped around for a record deal, the idea of her playing the Buchla synthesizer was not viable, neither was it understandable as to why a woman would want to perform with such an instrument. As a woman, she was expected to sing. This constant rejection eventually opened the door for her to work in the advertising world. Consequently, it allowed Suzanne Ciani to become the “Diva of the Diode”, where she was able to create new sounds, record her own kind of music, compose soundtracks and jingles, and explore performance spaces, especially with quadrophonic sound.

“Do not try to be men. Do your own thing by using your authentic voice. Be very good at what you do. You have to be better, to break through. You can’t show up and falter. Women have become better than men, because we have to be.” – Suzanne Ciani, ca. 2017

(Suzanne Ciani = Quadraphonic sound performance at Los Angeles Public Library, ca. 2019)

Spotify Playlist

To learn more about these composers, please check out my Spotify list below containing some of their works.

This concludes the series. However, next time, a bonus post introducing another influential female composer will be brought to you as a reward for reading all the way through this series.

9 Women Composers You Should Know, Part II

In the first part of this series, you were introduced to Hildegard von Bingen, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Clara Schumann. Their professional lives were challenged as composers simply because they were women. However, they followed their path and are earning their rightful place in history. If you missed the first part of this series, here is the link: 9 Women Composers You Should Know About, Part I

Below are three more composers you should know about.

Amy Beach

Amy Beach was a child prodigy who harmonised lullabies with her mother as an infant, composed waltzes at 4, and performed Beethoven sonatas by 7. Even more remarkable was her ability to analyse and compose without the aid of a musical instrument. Despite these gifts, Amy was not granted the opportunity to study music in Europe, at the time the place to receive extensive and elite training. This was a privilege her male counterparts enjoyed and therefore Amy resorted to other ways of training herself. She learned fugal composition by memorising most of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, writing fugues down and comparing them to the original scores. She also learned about tone colours by going to concerts and memorising the themes she heard with proper instrumentation. She then wrote them down and compared them to the original works. Eventually, Amy became the first American woman to publish a major symphonic work. Although her work met with positive reviews, the prevailing attitudes of the 19th Century offered her acceptance into the symphonic world – “as one of the boys”.

Like Fanny, Amy encountered the stigma of being an upper-class woman working in music. Her husband, Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, stopped her from being a piano tutor and limited her performances to two a year with proceeds donated to charities. However, he did encourage her to continue composing.

The general view held in Victorian society was that women were solely interpreters but too emotional for the science of writing music, to which Amy responded:

“From the year 1675 to the year 1885, women have composed 153 works, including 55 serious operas, 6 cantatas, 53 comic operas, 17 operettas, 6 sing-spiele, 4 ballets, 4 vaudevilles, 2 oratorios, one each of fares, pastorales, masques, ballads and buffas.”

“…more women are interested in the serious study of the science of music as well as the art than formerly.” – Amy Beach

(Amy Beach = “Gaelic Symphony”, ca. 1894)

Florence B. Price

Florence B. Price was the first black American woman to have a work performed by a major American symphonic orchestra. Her harmonies blended European tradition with Negro spirituals and black American folk tunes, a blend Czech composer Antonín Dvořák urged decades before for American musicians to embrace:

“The future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” – Antonín Dvořák

Florence excelled at piano (her mother taught her) and eventually auditioned at the New England Conservatory of Music. Adhering to her mother’s advice, she passed as someone of Mexican descent and won a spot. She also studied with renown composer, George Whitefield Chadwick, who encouraged her to take up composition. Florence started her career as a pianist and teacher, but was limited in her professional aspirations and denied acceptance into all-white music associations. She founded Little Rock Club of Musicians instead and taught in segregated black schools. Because of troubling race relations in Little Rock, Arkansas, Florence and her husband moved to Chicago. Eventually, her husband left Florence to support herself and her small children. However, she continued to enter composition contests and eventually won first place in the 1932 Wanamaker Prize, leading her “Symphony in E Minor” to be performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and earning her initial recognition.

Unfortunately, Florence B. Price’s work was overshadowed by the musical canon of WASP male composers; and while few gave her work a platform, she is slowly finding her rightful place in the symphonic repertoire.

“To begin with I have two handicaps – those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins…”

“…I would like to be judged on merit alone.” – Florence B. Price

(Florence B. Price = “Concerto in One Movement”, ca. 1934)

Germaine Tailleferre

Attitude is what Germaine Tailleferre was born with – and lots of talent. A talent that was nurtured by her amateur pianist mother but disdained by a father who thought to be a musician was equivalent to being a prostitute; in addition, a woman in those days was not meant to be a composer. By age 2 Germaine was showing signs of a child prodigy and by age 8 she was already composing short pieces. Germaine’s mother secretly arranged for her to audition at the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris and was accepted. Two years later her father found out and enrolled her in a convent school. However, Germaine continued to defy her father, even after he discontinued to finance her education. Germaine then supported her studies by teaching and went back to the Conservatoire, winning multiple prizes. Impressed by her talents, quirky composer Erik Satie named her his “musical daughter”, while the poet and writer Jean Cocteau invited Germaine to his eclectic group of artists, comprised of five prominent French composers. This group would later become known as the famous “Les Six”, with Germaine being the only female member.

Germaine Tailleferre suffered some ups and downs in her personal life and her low self-esteem prevented her from receiving much-needed exposure. However, in recent years there has been an emerging interest in her work.

“… A woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.” – Cecil Gray, music critic commenting on Tailleferre’s work, ca. 1927

(Germaine Tailleferre = “Fandango for 2 Pianos”, ca. 1920)

Spotify Playlist:

To learn more about these composers, please check out my Spotify list containing some of their works. Next time, stay tuned for three more women composers whose works and importance are being re-discovered.

9 Women Composers You Should Know, Part I

Bach, Mozart, Beethoven: most people are familiar with these composers’ names. Other composers that may be a favourite to those following the Western art tradition are Frédéric Chopin, Franz Schubert, and Felix Mendelssohn. If you dabble in electronic music, you may even be familiar with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis. However, name your favourite female composer. Just one… Are you drawing a blank?

If so, you are not alone. The interest in women in music has been lacking for centuries. It has been a particular annoyance in the area of music composition. When was the last time you encountered a performance on a Lili Boulanger’s work? I have yet to find a concert programme on Fanny Mendelssohn’s compositions. Have you? However, your next classical concert will be enriched with the sounds of Bach, Schubert, or Gustav Mahler. Sprinkle a few more concerts with a dash of Richard Wagner, Robert Schumann, or Hector Berlioz and the crowds are sent home thinking they have experienced the pinnacle of Western art music.

Luckily, the recent movement towards a more inclusive and accepting society has given rise to research on the contributions of “the other” – historically marginalised peoples in mainstream society, or members outside of it. If you are looking to learn more about women in music, let this be your primer into the little known world of female composers. Yes, we have existed for centuries, but have been obscured not only by a lack of interest but also by a culture that has held limited beliefs on women’s musical (and technological) abilities and what their ‘proper’ roles in society should entail.

This is a 3-part series introducing nine women who followed their passion for composing music despite societal conventions, some defying expectations while others succumbing to it.

Hildegard von Bingen

In Hildegard’s times, only those that were part of the church had access to education. For women in the church, they were excluded from the priesthood – like today – and were to be silent. However, the only place that allowed women to be educated and have a voice was in a monastery. Hildegard demonstrated that not only would she be heard, but she would influence leaders of the church and state. Rare for a woman of her time, Hildegard was a polymath and wrote on matters of philosophy, zoology, botany, theology, and other subjects. She was also a mystic and chronicled her visions. Hildegard von Bingen gave the world a repertoire of monophonic chants that pushed compositional style forward, offering medieval sacred music a fresh makeover.

In 2012, the Roman Catholic Church canonized Hildegard von Bingen and named her Doctor of the Church, one of four women in all of Catholic history to be given such honour.

“Let us always invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he may inspire in the Church holy and courageous women like Saint Hildegard of Bingen who, developing the gifts they have received from God, make their own special and valuable contribution to the spiritual development of our communities and of the Church in our time.” – Pope Benedict XVI

(Hildegard von Bingen = “Ordo Virtutum”, ca. 1151)

Fanny Mendelssohn

Fanny Mendelssohn was the older sister of composer Felix Mendelssohn, a pillar in the Romantic Era. Fanny showed just as much compositional talent as her brother but unfortunately was constrained by the attitudes of her day. As a lady of society, she could not pursue music as a profession, only as a hobby:

“Music will perhaps become his (Felix’s) profession, while for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the root of your being and doing…” – Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy, father

Felix did publish some of his sister’s works under his famous Songs for Voice and Piano (Opus 8 and Opus 9). Fanny was equally supported by her husband, painter Wilhelm Hensel, who encouraged her to compose every day. Although Fanny died at a young age, she did live to see attitudes for women composers begin to change.

(Fanny Mendelssohn = “Ostersonate” (“Easter Sonata”), ca. 1828)

Clara Schumann

As time has pushed forward, Clara Wieck Schumann has become a subject of fascination and intrigue. She was one of the great pianists of her time and also took care of the business affairs of her performances and of her husband’s career, Robert Schumann, a composer of significant stature from the Romantic Era. Clara’s compositional talent was encouraged by her father, a notable piano teacher, and her husband. Clara Wieck’s middle-class position allowed her as a woman to work as a musician and publish her compositions under her name, unlike Fanny Mendelssohn,  who was restricted because of her social status. Although Clara enjoyed over a 60-year career as a performer and piano teacher, her career as a composer ended at the age of 36. Women’s compositions were considered moody and not considered note-worthy. Three years after Robert Schumann’s death, Clara abandoned composing:

“I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea, a woman must not desire to compose – there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?” – Clara Schumann

(Clara Schumann = “3 Romances, Op.22”, ca. 1853)

Spotify Playlist:

To learn more about these composers, please check out my Spotify list containing some of their works. Next time, stay tuned for three more women composers whose works and importance are being re-discovered.


Is It Noise or Music?

Merriam-Webster defines music as the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity.

However, does noise fall into this category? Can it be neatly combined and ordered to produce a composition? The Italian Futurists seemed to think so in the early 20th Century. However, their audiences were horrified. Turns out the Futurists may have been almost a century ahead of their time.

PBS Idea Channel makes the argument that dubstep, an electronic sub-genre dependent on noise, is the perfect example of the concept of noise as music.

A Brief History on Gated Reverb

Vox Pop’s Earworm series presents a brief history of gated reverb. This is the production technique that was accidentally discovered in the beginning of the 80s and re-emerged about 20 years ago. Berklee professors Susan Rogers and Prince Charles Alexander speak on the technique.

Long live the 80s!

Jack and Irene Delano: focused on archiving Puerto Rico

This is super exciting, especially for those of us of Puerto Rican heritage. Jack Delano, a Ukranian composer and photographer who settled on the island in 1946, and his wife, Irene, a designer and illustrator, created an impressive archive of photography, illustrations, letters, films, and insights delineating the society of Puerto Rico from the 1940s until the end of their lives.

The archive is now part of Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, in the Latino Arts and Activism Archive.

Jack and Irene Delano: Archive Documenting Puerto Rico’s Past Sheds Light on Its Present from Columbia University News on Vimeo.

Jack and Irene Delano: focused on archiving Puerto Rico

A Composer’s Perspective on Game Audio

An awesome article series of game audio techniques and technology by DJ, keyboardist, synthesist, and leading composer of music for video games, Lance Hayes:

  1. A Composer’s Perspective on Game Audio Pt. I
  2. A Composer’s Perspective on Game Audio Pt. 2 – Scoring Cut Scenes
  3. A Composer’s Perspective on Game Audio Pt. 3 – Gearing Up

Lance Hayes.png