Am I a “female composer”?

I am a composer, and I happen to be a woman. So am I a female composer? Or a composer?

Firstly, it is worth considering why the phrase “female composer” exists and why you will rarely hear or see the phrase “male composer” being used. When an additional description is needed – such as female or black – it is an indication that a norm has been established and that those not possessing the characteristics of the norm need to be treated differently. In this case, there is an assumption that composers will be white and male. There are many examples of where this can be seen in the industry, perhaps most noticeably in the male-dominated programming of concerts and festivals. Consequently, the term “composer” is not neutral and that is why these words are added to it.

This reality affects both the way we tell the history of classical music and how living composers – outside of this established norm – experience the industry. Throughout history, many different types of people have fallen in love with writing music and composed a diverse range of great music. Yet, it is so often their gender or race that has dictated whether these works will be remembered. Those from the past who have not been part of the norm have been positioned as an “other” – as demonstrated by the separate history books and university modules or their complete exclusion from mainstream classical music. Therefore, despite women having written music for many centuries (this is an incredible database to illustrate the fact – ) there is a sense that women writing music is a fairly new thing. As such women are often alienated from their own history and experience an unnecessary gap between their own work and the work of women from the past. Moreover, this inaccurate version of history further reinforces the idea that male composers are the norm.  Women writing music today will encounter this imposed “newness” in a variety of ways and this, along with a number of other factors, contributes to the continued relevance of the term “female composer”.

Inevitably, each woman writing music today is an individual and will navigate this territory differently. I have met women who feel no need to name issues surrounding gender and music, and actively seek to not be identified as a “female composer”. Here there is a motivation to be seen as a “composer” and for the musical output itself to be given greater consideration, rather than the gender of the person creating the music. In addition, it is potentially a way for a piece of music not to be understood through the lens of gender stereotypes but as a piece of music in its own right. Furthermore, this position challenges the notion that women are an “other” within the world of composition, critiquing the assumption that a “composer” can only be male. It is possible that with time, calling and treating women as “composers” rather than “female composers” could greatly contribute to the normalising of women’s presence both in the educational and professional realms of contemporary composition.

Conversely other women I have encountered embrace the “female composer” identity, in the many forms it exists. In this instance, women are likely to be more vocal about issues affecting women writing music and potentially will explore and reference matters affecting women throughout society in their own work. Often this also leads to discussions about how women are portrayed in classical music history, and initiatives to challenge the severe lack of acknowledgement of female achievement in music. In addition, identifying as a “female composer” can allow women to find spaces – both physical and virtual – where they can support one another and reflect on gender-related issues they may be experiencing.

Without necessarily intending to, I have found myself gravitating more towards this identity, finding that it has given me the courage to talk about issues in spaces that are still male-dominated and to write the type of work I have been drawn to write in recent years. Inevitably, as a feminist and someone passionate about social change it is perhaps no surprise that I have taken this direction as a composer. Although I am aware my feelings may change in the future, currently I am happy to be known as someone that names underlying misogyny when I encounter it and to explore female-specific experiences and issues in my music. Inevitably there are drawbacks to this approach, particularly in terms of how my music might be perceived and valued, which is something I continue to negotiate with myself. As discussed earlier, I completely appreciate other approaches to this situation and both their immediate and long-term value. And perceptibly, the situation is not black and white – women’s thoughts and opinions on this matter will exist on a spectrum and be subject to change throughout their lives as composers.

So back to my question. Am I a female composer? Or a composer? If anything, hopefully this article will have demonstrated that the situation is much more complex and nuanced than can be explored here. I believe however women manage this situation, their decisions and choices should be respected. My premise for this article is not to demonstrate the superiority of my personal approach, but rather to consider how composers that are women are placed as an “other” rather than the norm and how this is experienced at an individual and collective level. It is beneficial for the world of composition to be aware that these divisions exist, to consider why they exist and what can be done to rectify them for the next generation of composers so contemporary classical music can continue to thrive. In other words:  how do we create a world where it is normal for all types of people to be valued as composers?

Chloe Knibbs is supported by the PRS Foundation Women Make Music Fund