Unlike previous generations, the stigma of being a female composer is gone. So it could be easy to assume that contemporary female composers are not challenging the music industry’s status quo. This is far from the case! In fact, women today are challenging not only the music industry but societal expectations of women in general.
Who are some of these interesting & trailblazing women? By the way, if you are wondering why it’s important to include female composers in your studio programming, read these surprising reasons that have nothing to do with music.
Abe, a Japanese female composer, has spent decades showing the world what ‘can’ be played on a marimba & has inspired percussionists all over the world. In fact, her collaboration with the Yamaha Corporation led to the 5-octave concert marimba that is standard today. Abe’s goal had been to take out the inconsistencies in sound & bring a greater range of musical possibilities to the instrument. And, wow did she succeed!
A favourite quote comes from when Keiko Abe became the first-ever woman to join the Percussive Arts Society.
While Abe enjoyed playing music from other composers, it wasn’t until she started improvising that she began to realize all the possibilities from the marimba. And, it changed the course of her life!
While I’ve always loved playing the piano, I discovered the same power in improvising. There is something about letting go of what ‘should’ be done & just trying things out. Plus, it’s helped my students during practice more time than I can count!
Read more about Abe here.
Agudelo, a Mexican composer & piano player, never wanted to feel tied down musically. She always wanted her music to feel “free” & was drawn to the avant-garde style of music. Rather than creating only piano music, Agudelo also wrote many chamber & orchestral works.
But, creating music wasn’t the only priority. Agudelo was known as Mexico’s most important music pedagogues. Considering I see teaching as something I will always do, I felt a kinship with her as well!
Ensuring primary schools had access to music education was something Agudelo tirelessly worked to make happen. Between writing books & lobbying for the musical protection of traditional/folk music, Agudelo saw herself as more than a female composer. She saw herself as someone who could push the boundaries of music, while also respecting & honouring what came before.
Read more about Agudelo here.
I was “introduced” to Kaija Saariaho, a Finnish female composer who lives in France when I was creating the “Music Around the World!” music labs. What originally struck me is her humour as she talked through the challenges of composing using computers back in the 1980s. Whereas now it’s possible to notate & create sounds instantly, it used to take hours for the programming to finish processing just a few notes. She jokingly talked about going to dinner with her fellow musicians & visiting over the meal. Afterwards, they would return to hear whether those notes had turned out. It struck me how this was a labour of love for Saariaho.
Saariaho was one of the early pioneers of “electro-acoustical” music; a blend of electronic/computer-created music with acoustic instruments. Yet, as her career has gone on she has expanded to trying new genres, like opera.
Saariaho’s philosophy is an idealogy that creates great freedom for new composers or improvisers. The great part is that improvising is a fantastic way to develop ‘good taste’ in a safe way.
Several years ago, I got Kats-Chernin’s ‘Book of Rags’ & immediately fell in love with her compositional style. It was at times playful, earnest, powerful, & light with each song taking me on a journey.
Born in Uzbekistan, Kats-Chernin moved to Australia in the mid-1970s. And, I get the sense they have adopted her as their own! In 2019, she received the “Officer of the Order of Australia” for all she has done for the performing arts as a composer.
Kats-Chernin has an honesty to her work that has only recently become more common. Whether dealing with the grief of her mother’s terminal illness, her son’s diagnosis with schizophrenia or the works she has created for medical & mental health institutes, Kats-Chernin finds a way to find life & something uplifting in any situation.
You can read an interview with Kats-Chernin here.
Who hasn’t loved singing along to an Adele song? While I could never hope to have the depth & timbre of Adele’s voice, that doesn’t stop me from singing my heart out along with her.
Adele, a British singer-songwriter, has always had an honesty in her music’s lyrics that draws listeners in. And, playing them on the piano is so much fun! Each album is a snapshot of what is going on in her life & how she is dealing with the ups & downs.
Adele has refused to play the part of a typical singer-songwriter. Whether it’s her clean lyrics or more conservative clothing, Adele has made her own decisions each step of her career. And, this has led to more than a dozen Grammys as well as Time magazine naming her (twice) as one of the most influential people in the world. Wow!
You can read more Adele quotes here.
This one may come as a surprise, I know. And, it certainly was a challenge finding a Lizzo song that didn’t have the b-word in it. But, I respect Lizzo for the same reason I respect Adele. As a female composer & artist, she has made her own decisions & refused to let the music industry dictate what she can (or cannot) do. Lizzo is a singer/rapper/flautist/composer with a classical music education. And she is on a mission.
Lizzo has become one of the leaders in the “body-positivity” movement & often includes this message in her music.
This is one of my favourite Lizzo quotes. We are all unique & have something special to bring to this world. But, how many of our students choose not to go that route because they worry it won’t be accepted? How many of us do the same in small (or big) ways?
Swift has certainly seen her share of controversy over the years. And, as I look at her latest ‘quarantine’ album, I see a maturity from this female composer coming through that I’m really liking. But, one of the things that makes her stand out is her push for composers to have more rights when working with record labels. This much-publicized battle between a member of her former record label & her pointed out how much control the labels have over songs. Even once artists leave them.
Swift certainly was right about that. While her lyrics tend to focus on former or current boyfriends, they share the good & the bad of those experiences. Seeing how she is remastering some of her best-hits has been interesting to listen to musically & see in the videos.
Read more quotes from Swift here.
Female Composers in 21st Century Music
There are so many female composers to highlight & it’s impossible to all of their contributions to not only to music but the world in general.
Looking to include more music history in your studio? These digital escape rooms highlight female composers throughout history! The ones introduced in this article are in the “21st Century” series, but you will save 20% in purchasing the bundle (Pre-Medieval through to now). To access these, click here or the big button below.
Which incredible 21st Century female composers did I miss from the list? Let me know in the comments below!
NOTE: This article was originally published on March 17, 2021. It’s since been updated with more ideas & resources to help you add more 21st Century female composers in an easy & fun way!