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Women Are Great Composers Too, Why Aren't They Being Heard?

Missing from the music stands across top U.S. orchestras: music written by women.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Missing from the music stands across top U.S. orchestras: music written by women.

As a composer, I entered a profession in which I knew I could actively alter our fractious present using the incomparable tools of art. After all, the intellectually curious and essentially progressive landscapes of our concert halls and opera houses seem like the perfect arenas in which to harness momentum for change and, through the aspirational craft of music, feel the resurrection of hope in the midst of despair and apathy.

Composers should be leading these conversations. We're not. The symphonic halls in which I work have singularly distinguished themselves among the humanities as the forum that takes the least account of the shape and form of humanity itself.

Women make up over half the world's population. But you still won't find their creative voices in the concert hall.

When it comes to concert music, we may be engaging with the only profession that actively discriminates against the living in favor of the dead. But even within that living minority, the numbers from a 2014-15 orchestral survey are a devastating embarrassment by any stretch of the imagination.

The artistic leadership of the 21 largest American orchestras have collectively programmed their seasons in such a way that women composers accounted for 1.8 percent of the overall season.

Just 1.8 percent... I'd like to understand the underlying conscious or unconscious motivation that has led us to this situation.

Many of these organizations are led by artistic and executive directors who are intelligent, sensitive and thoughtful people. And yet our concert halls are doing worse than even Congress in terms of female representation. To put it in perspective, 27 percent of the Trump administration's appointees so far are women. (To be clear, nobody should hold that number as a standard for female empowerment.)

In an interview on CNN marking International Women's Day, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.)'s ambassador to the United Nations, Lana Nusseibeh, commented that the day should not be viewed as a simple occasion for celebration. It could better be viewed as an opportunity to remind ourselves of the urgent need to redouble our efforts towards closing the chasm of opportunity and representation that separates women from men. Nusseibeh also cites World Economic Forum data projecting that we would not close the gender gap until the year 2186 should we continue at our current rate of progress.

What year would it be for classical music to close its gender gap?

Only 18 of the 193 nations who are U.N. member states currently have female heads of state leading them. That's less than 10 percent. This stark disparity of representation means that global leadership, by and large, does not reflect the way that the societies of our world actually look. That is an inorganic, counterproductive, self-defeating misrepresentation: a social lie of massive proportions.

And on top of all this, a disastrous message is being telegraphed to half of the human race, discouraging their aspirations to reach the top roles of leadership and visibility. Disinvesting from half of the population of the world is existentially untenable.

I'd like to gently suggest to those men and women in positions of artistic leadership: the next time you bristle when women are abused, attacked or demeaned, please consider the power that you have to counteract this sort of toxic objectification.

Rather than engage in yet another discussion with friends over the unchanging behavior of our proven public misogynists, discover and fall in love with a new score by a female composer. Program one of the many, many powerful works by one of my female colleagues. Realize that your concert halls are training grounds for empathy. The more that their music is allowed to speak to an audience, the harder it is for people to objectify or dehumanize the creators of the works that speak to their hearts.

I remember those music history courses back in conservatory. Not only did the old Norton anthologies of Western music casually brush aside the musical traditions held dear by the vast majority of cultures on our planet, they led me to constantly wonder how much raw human talent was just wasted in the 18th and 19th centuries. Beethoven is great but, taking these courses, one could easily imagine that there was not a single woman on the European continent for century after century.

To the orchestral deciders: I understand the reason why Mozart and Beethoven dominate your symphonic cycles. You want to program something great, and something that you know will bring in audiences. And then you program it again, and again, and again. Next season, instead of making your concert hall great again, look into the incredibly diverse musical communities that surround you (especially if you're at the helm of any of the United States' 21 biggest orchestras) and listen to the sounds that they are enamored with.

Much of my work as a composer and writer continues to focus on breaking through the clouds of misperception that bedevil communication between the Middle East and the Western world. After my most recent visit to the U.A.E., I noted that the statistics there tell a story very similar to — and sometimes much better than — the West. Emirati women make up more than 25 percent of cabinet-level ministers in the U.A.E. About 50 percent of employees in the U.A.E.'s space program are women, and 46 percent of the country's graduates in STEM subjects are female. By comparison, about 20 percent of U.S. Congresspeople are women.

In the world today, those are our "good numbers."

Ambassador Nusseibeh was right. It's not time to celebrate yet. Anyone can see that, in a world where over half of humanity is female, numbers that live between 20 and 25 percent simply prove that our "good" statistics need a lot of work.

"Realize that your concert halls are training grounds for empathy."

And here I have to come back to the orchestral circuit and our own shocking number: 1.8 percent of music programmed in concert halls by the 21 largest American orchestras, in 2014-15, was by female composers. That is an appalling statistic. This is a problem that must be viewed within a wider issue of diversification in concert music. As a man, I contend that men need to play our part to fix this, and we need to do so out of self-interest rather than any sense of false "charity."

Leave the moral dimension of equality aside. A strategic waste of potential on this scale will lead to a debilitation of the entire human enterprise. We're all in this together. And I'm pretty sure that if women could solve the problems of equality and representation themselves, then they would've done it by now. We made this mess and now we need to help clean it up.

For my part, I will say this: If you are programming a show and my music appeals to you as much as the music of one of my colleagues who happens to be a women, then please practice positive discrimination and pick my colleague over me.

In a September 2016 article in which I discussed programming diversity at the then-newly minted Dubai Opera, I also wrote about how a venue needs to mirror its audiences:

"In July, the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, posted a selfie with a group of Capitol Hill interns that immediately sparked comments on the lack of diversity in the photo. In response, Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, posted a photo showing a significantly more diverse group of Democratic interns. The two images are not only a commentary on disparity in diversity, they speak to one of the choices of our time: clinging to the sequestered past or moving forward towards an inevitably integrated future.

All institutions that want to thrive today must acknowledge and reflect what the world looks like today. Great artists have constantly cut to the core of the human experience in profound ways. So perhaps art has to reflect the way that humanity actually looks to survive."

If we are to survive, we need to start by reversing policies that silence the voices of half of humanity.

As President Kennedy said in one of his most touching speeches: "If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist."

Of course, JFK assumed in 1961 that the artist was a "him." But we cannot forgive ourselves if we continue on that path, a path that deprives the justice of equality from half of our society. We have no business illuminating the areas in which our society falls short of its highest potential if we ourselves are falling short of even basic standards. If we do not correct our path to a more inclusive one, we will mortally diminish the importance of our art form to the future of civilization and human discourse.

Mohammed Fairouz is a composer whose operas and symphonies have been performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center and internationally at venues such as the Dutch National Opera, Dubai Opera and the Barbican in London. His writings on the arts and foreign policy have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, The National (U.A.E.), The Independent, Open Democracy and The Huffington Post.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mohammed Fairouz