Meet the Women Composers Database (3000+ of Them!)

What will get more works by women programmed? More works by women being programmed.

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Women composers across centuries. Photo: Music Theory Examples by Women.

If, like me, you were simultaneously enraged and encouraged by the crescendo-ing discussion of women in art and society at the end of 2017, take heart in some tangible progress. The Women Composers Database (WCD), an open-source list of 3,100 (as of this writing) female composers rolled out with the new year. It is spearheaded by Rob Deemer, composer and professor of composition at SUNY Fredonia, who announced the launch on the orchestra industry blog Adaptistration.

The database simplifies discovery in classical programming, an area where the need for increased female representation needs no further discussion. According to Deemer, “one common response to the criticism that conductors and performers don’t program enough music by women composers is basically ‘we don’t know who they are or where to find them.’” The project began organically in 2012, when Deemer posted a list of 202 women composers on NewMusicBox — a flag-on-the-moon response to the “where are they?” question. Readers and friends began offering additional names; Deemer took on the work of researching entries and compiling data, eventually with the help of SUNY Fredonia students and other volunteers.

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The WCD is organized in a Google Sheet, which is as easy to share as a cat video. Anyone can contribute a composer’s name with a simple form. Each entry links externally to composers’ websites or other sources, and it’s sortable by five categories: name, living or dead, musical genre, racial or ethnic identification, and city/state/country of residence. It is a handy tool for socially conscious artistic directors looking to build inclusive programs according to specific criteria, delivered into the hands of a modern, tech-driven world.

While by no means a justification for exclusion, it’s worth noting that comprehensive research does exist on women’s contributions to classical music, though not in formats conducive to inquiry. Take, for example, the International Encyclopedia of Women Composers: it hasn’t been updated in decades, and, as Deemer pointed out to me via email, “[its] passive nature forces the reader to dig through the information with the hope of finding something useful.” More recent collections of names — from Wikipedia, the Kaprovola Society, the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette, and various other listicles — are helpful starters, but their brevity makes them inherently biased. It never ceases to amaze me that even women who have won a Pulitzer Prize in music aren’t being programmed by major orchestras.

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What will really get more works by women programmed is — well, works by women being programmed, and listeners experiencing and exploring their music. Only then will the classical canon catch up to a point where the totality of works in the canon that are considered part of the “standard” repertoire is appropriately representational. Only then will underrepresented women composers no longer need their own separate database, or encyclopedia, or binder, or what have you. I welcome this as a musician who wants to know what it’s like to play another woman’s music as intimately as Brahms or Prokofiev; as an administrator working to create experiences that audiences find relevant and meaningful; and as a human being who can’t imagine a world without the work of, say, Virginia Woolf or Kate Chopin. What great art do we not even know we’re missing?

Until we know what we’re missing, Deemer’s future plans include continuing to expand the database’s content, exploring its move to a dedicated website and building a Composers of Color Database, which is already in the works. While the WCD is still new, a sense of its potential impact is already emerging. In his email, Deemer wrote, “I can say that one of the best parts of building the database is the continual discovery of composers from across the spectrum of experience. From newly-minted graduate students who are just breaking into the scene to church musicians who have been composing for their choirs for decades, it’s fascinating to see how rich and varied the concept of being a ‘composer’ is in this day and age and to see how many women are exploring that concept.”

Let’s share far and wide and discover.