Composers: The Future is Female


Luna Composition Lab’s Missy Mazzoli | Photo by Marylene Mey

Nearly half of the major orchestras in the United States will perform no music composed by women in the 2017-18 concert season. 25 of the top 30 orchestras will perform music by two or fewer women this season. That’s an incriminating, if unsurprising, statistic. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. Recently, I spoke with two women who are working to change those numbers.

“I never had a female composition teacher,” Missy Mazzoli told me. “That’s a shame.”

Mazzoli is a composer with commissions and performances of her music from the likes of the LA Phil, Opera Philadelphia, Kronos Quartet, eighth blackbird, the Detroit Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, and many others. The European premiere of her Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres), written for the LA Phil in 2014, took place at this summer’s BBC Proms.

“I would’ve loved to have a female composition teacher,” Mazzoli said. “I think the women that I did meet — meeting Julia Wolfe when I was 21, meeting Meredith Monk when I was 23 — had such a profound impact on me. I looked at them and I thought, ‘I can do this.’ I had to see it happen to imagine myself as a professional composer. I had to see a woman do it. It was really life-changing and it shouldn’t have to happen by chance that young women somehow find a female role model, or mentor, or friend.”

Missy Mazzoli is working to ensure those kinds of mentorships and connections for next generation of female composers are not left up to chance. Together, Mazzoli and fellow composer Ellen Reid founded the Luna Composition Lab, for young women from 8th grade to college freshmen.


Luna Composition Lab’s Ellen Reid

Luna Composition Lab provides aspiring young female composers with one-on-one mentorship and composition lessons with an established female composer. From November to June, each composer will write a new work that will be performed at the end of the fellowship on the concert series Face the Music at Kauffman Music Centerin New York City.

Last year was the first year for the Luna Composition Lab. Co-founder and composer Ellen Reid said the culminating performance was particularly inspiring.

“It really struck me,” Reid said, “when we saw the concert, there was this timelessness to the compositions that these Luna Lab Fellows created that was beyond what we had really anticipated. I think the goal of the program is to help those composers find that timeless seed in their music and to nurture that and see how it unfolds in their life.”

Ellen Reid is a composer and sound artists who has created work for Beth Morrison Projects, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Opera America, and the recent collaborative opera from The Industry, Hopscotch, a project conceived by recently-named MacArthur Fellow Yuval Sharon, which The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has described as, “one of the great theatrical experiences of my life.”

Reid is also this year’s Sound Investment composer at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, composing a new work that will be premiered in February. She is also writing a work for the Los Angeles Master Chorale that will be premiered in May. At 40 minutes, that work, dreams of the new world,/em>, is the largest work the LA Master Chorale has ever commissioned.

Ellen Reid told me she didn’t start writing music until she was 19. She grew up in rural Tennessee and didn’t cross paths with any composers, male or female. But, she said she likely would have started composing earlier if she had.

“Absolutely. Because I did have musical thoughts [then]. I heard that Kaija Saariaho, when she falls asleep, heard music and that’s when she knew she needed to write. And that had happened to me always until I started writing. So, I think it takes one to know one and it takes a good mentor to see a mentee deeply.”

As for the issue of representation of women on concert programs around the country, composer Missy Mazzoli says it’s a problem that can be solved.

“There’s so much work to do,” Mazzoli said, “But also it’s really easy to program women: you just do it. There’s no longer any excuse for not doing it. A lot of orchestras will say, ‘Our programming focuses on works that are from the 18th and 19th century,’ when, like it or not, women were not encouraged to compose.’ My question then is, that’s fine: what are you doing to make sure that doesn’t happen in the 21st century? And our response to that is Luna Lab. We’re going to make sure that the next generation, hopefully, does not have the same kind of problem.”

Missy Mazzoli is a composer and the co-founder, with composer Ellen Reid, of the Luna Composition Lab for young female composers. Applications are being acceptedfor the current 2017-18 season.

Below are three compositions from last year’s Luna Lab Fellows: Sofia Belimova, Michelle David, and Violet Barnum.

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