Now you may ask, why is an article about prominent contemporary female composers being written by an inconsequential contemporary male composer? Beats me, but we’re both stuck here so let’s get going.
The music industry hasn’t ever been a great space for women. Or people of color. Or anyone that isn’t a straight cis white boy (that’s me!). Female composers have existed throughout time (notable examples being Hildegard of Bingen, Clara Schumann, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, etcetera), but the musical elite has always excelled at ignoring their works and accomplishments. Recently, more female composers have been gaining in prominence: I don’t know whether that’s through sheer force of will or an actual improvement in the culture. Let’s list a few. People like lists, right?
*Note: These composers are drawn from stream of composition admittedly pretentiously, and somewhat arbitrarily called contemporary art music. So that’s why Beyoncé isn’t here.
First on our alphabetical list is Jennifer Higdon, who coincidentally is one of the United States’ most recognized and performed living composers. Higdon does a beautiful job blending accessible harmonies with experimental ideas. She’s won several prominent awards, since that’s definitely how we should measure a composer’s worth, like the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her Violin Concerto and several Grammys: one in 2010 for her Percussion Concerto and two in 2018 for her Viola Concerto. I was lucky enough to meet Mrs. Higdon and her wife after a concert, so I can confirm that she’s not only a musical genius but also a cool dude.
2. Kaija Saariaho
It’s hard to know where to start with Kaija Saariaho. She’s led a resurgence in prominent Finnish composers, and over her career, showed her mastery in a wide variety of compositional fields. Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin, a collaboration with French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, tells the story of the famous troubadour Jaufré Rudel’s love of Countess Clémence of Tripoli, whom he has never met. I won’t spoil what happens, but the opera is a powerhouse winning a Grammy and the 2003 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition– one of the biggest awards in music.
For a smaller scale experience, check out Saariaho’s Sept Papillons for solo cello.
3. Caroline Shaw
If you’re a Kanye fan, you may recognize Caroline Shaw, who contributed to “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 2” and “Wolves” from The Life of Pablo and a dope remix of “Say You Will.” If not, still check her out; her solo music is beyond fantastic. Modern music is so often about historical horrors and the anxiety of the modern era but Shaw’s music brings something different, something exuberant and joyful. Her Partita for 8 Voices won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music, making her the youngest recipient of the award and, less importantly, its brilliance ruined all other a capella music for me.
Please listen to Partita. Her Entr’acte and This Might Also Be a Form of Dreaming (based on texts by Claudia Rankine!) are also solid choices, though it’s really hard to go wrong with any of Shaw’s works.
4. Chen Yi
The path that brought Chen Yi to today is beyond impressive. Born in Guangzhou, China in 1953 to a family that encouraged her to learn Western instruments like the piano and violin. At the age of 13, the Cultural Revolution started, making it illegal to partake in Western-influenced cultures and education. At age 15, she was sent to a labor camp in the countryside where she improvised Chinese revolutionary songs with the violin she smuggled into the camp. She survived and went on to quickly rise in China’s musical landscape. Her Si Ji for orchestra mixes Western classical music with traditional Chinese sounds.
Also check out Memory, which can be heard performed by a variety of different instruments.
I could continue, talking about Du Yun, Julia Wolfe, Kate Soper, and others like them for a while. But like, only a little while. Famous, living, female composers are still a small bunch, especially in comparison to their male counterparts. If you’re the type of person who enjoys these challenging and somewhat pretentious pieces, support female composers. Go to their concerts, buy their albums on whatever platform you buy music on, and if there are any small-time female composers (or frankly any non-cis, non-straight, non-white, or non-male composers) in your area, support them with your money and your attention. We’re narcissists; we can never get enough attention.