Where the women are

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(Left: An actress whose name I have not been able to find — help! — as Anna Magdalena Bach in the film “Composed by Mrs. Bach.” Right:  Annie Clark as St. Vincent.)

Have you kept up with the controversy surrounding the authorship of some of Johann Sebastian Bach’s works?  As summed up in the New Yorker by music critic Alex Ross, an Australia-based musicologist named Martin Jarvis has propagated the theory that the authorship of Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello, long acknowledged to be the summit of the instrument’s literature, should actually be ascribed to Bach’s second wife Anna Magdalena.

Jarvis’s theory, which he first published in 2006, has most recently been advanced in a documentary film called “Composed by Mrs.Bach” (pdf of the poster here), the publicity surrounding which has brought forth much opinionizing from both supporters and detractors.  In general, serious musicologists and other musical notables have been in the latter camp, while Jarvis’s supporters have used the “official” musical community’s “denial” of his theory to bolster their claims that the fix is in and the truth is being suppressed.  While I’m no expert and have no access to source materials, my antennae sense a dubious conspiracy theory along the lines of the questioned authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and the vaccine-autism link.

One of the reasons that such a theory would attract attention in the first place is classicaldom’s guilty conscience about its dearth of female composers, a situation which, while it has been politicized, is no crackpot’s conspiracy — it’s the real deal.  Indeed, the statistics in a study by journalist Ricky O’Bannon found on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s website (and linked on Ross’s article) put it rather bluntly:  “Female composers account for only 1.8% of the works performed (on 2014-15 concert programs of 21 American orchestras). When only looking at works from living composers, they account for 14.8%.”  I’m not particularly surprised about the 1.8% figure, considering how much concert programmers remain beholden to the distant, mostly female-free, past.  The 14.8% figure, however, is pretty stunning.  Haven’t we come further than that?

I guess not, as attested to by other facts and figures.  For instance, since Ellen Taaffe Zwilich became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1983, only four other women, Shulamit Ran, Melinda Wagner, Jennifer Higdon and Caroline Shaw, have been among the prize’s 31 recipients.  To save you from figuring it out, that’s about 12.9%.  Now, there are probably subsets of the classical concert scene, such as the hipster downtown Poisson Rouge alt-classical scene, where women get a better deal.  Overall, though, it’s a pretty discouraging situation.

But this problem, and a problem I believe it to be, can still be framed more than one way.  Maybe we can see it not just as classical music doing an injustice to its female composers, but also as a matter of potential female composers abandoning classical music for more congenial artistic ground.  Could it be some proportion of both?

I know of no tools to arrive at an answer to that question, other than my own experience as a devoted listener and chronicler of contemporary music in its many and varied manifestations, classical and otherwise.  And lately, I’ve found the most excitement and pleasure in the widely dispersed and ambiguously bordered archipelago of styles typically prefixed by either “indie” or “alt,”  e.g., indie-rock, alt-country, and as cited above, alt-classical — you know, the crazy stuff the cool kids are doing today.

Yes, these areas are male-dominated as well, especially in the field of rock groups, still the domain of the y-chromosome.  But take a gander at the artists who go it alone, composing and performing their own music, often devising alternative noms de musique for their acts, and you’ll find a disproportionate number of absolutely fabulous females.

Since starting this blog in February, for instance, I’ve reviewed albums by such exciting artists at Leyla McCalla, Kate Soper, St. Vincent (I didn’t love her album, but it’s still important), Linda Perhacs, Olga Bell, Tune-Yards, PJ Harvey and Imogen Heap.  They run the gamut from hippie singer-songwriter to avant-garde classical, range from Haitian folksongs to a Russian travelogue, and feature three of the most compelling divas of current indie-pop.  And gee whiz, I haven’t even gotten to the new albums from previous faves like My Brightest Diamond, Grouper, Vashti Bunyan and Anais Mitchell.  As my blog’s title puts it, stay tuned…

What do these extraordinary women have in common?  Not much, musically.  But look at how each has forged a unique path, created a unique identity.  In life and music, theirs are stories of self-invention.  No one can tell them how to do or not to do their music.  They do it their way.  Would classical music afford them the same opportunity?

Here’s how Alex Ross ends his article on “Mrs. Bach”: “A classical-music world dominated by the past will, inevitably, be one dominated by men. Instead of trying to invent a female Bach in prior centuries, let’s seek her in the present.”  Well, asking for a new Bach is goin’ some, as we Yanks used to say.  Otherwise, I’m with Ross all the way.   Except rather than assume that classical composerhood is the highest calling for any talented female musician, I rejoice in the many incredibly talented women who’ve found a happy and conducive medium for their muse in other fields.  Their choice, our benefit.

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