Women Composers, Part 3 | Music Matters, December 2016

In the first installment of this three-part series exploring women composers, we began with the Medieval through early Romantic period (ow.ly/cYEa306euGb). In the second, we delved into the 20th century (ow.ly/GgfM306euLT). Here, we’ll focus on women currently pushing the boundaries of music and ­composition.


While many midcentury composers gravitated toward “difficult” music, Joan Tower’s (b. 1938) compositions are inviting and accessible. She is best known for her Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman, a five-part play on Aaron Copland’s iconic Fanfare for the Common Man. I recommend the Koch International Classics’ 1999 release performed by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra as well as Violin Concerto, Stroke, Chamber Dance (Naxos, 2015) performed by violinist Cho-Liang with the Nashville Symphony.

Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962), whom I interviewed for this column (ow.ly/­X1i4306er1W), is one of the most frequently performed composers working today. Higdon & Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos (Deutsche Grammophon, 2010) features violinist Hilary Hahn performing Higdon’s Pulitzer Prize–winning “Violin Concerto,” and chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird’s recording of On a Wire (Naxos, 2011) performed with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

South Korean Unsuk Chin’s (b. 1961) works often incorporate unusual instrumentation blending traditional orchestration with non-Western instruments, electronics, and sometimes immersive multimedia. Try 3 Concertos (Deutsche Grammophon, 2014) and Ensemble Intercontemporain’s Fantasie mécanique, Xi, Akrostichon-Wortspiel, Double Concerto (Kairos, 2011).

A 2016 MacArthur Fellow and the cofounder of the performing arts organization Bang on a Can, Julia Wolfe (b. 1958) incorporates the energy of rock music into her orchestral works, resulting in some of the most exciting and engaging classical music today. The Pulitzer Prize–winning Anthracite Fields (Cantaloupe, 2015) is a haunting work for chorus and orchestra that explores the tragic history of the northeastern Pennsylvania coal region.


A hallmark of late 20th-century music, classical and otherwise, is the shift in emphasis from composer to performer. In some cases those boundaries are virtually indistinguishable.

The youngest ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, for her intensely moving Partita for 8 Voices, Caroline Shaw (b. 1982) performs with the a cappella group Roomful of Teeth and as violinist with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. She also collaborated with Kanye West on his album The Life of Pablo. Roomful’s self-titled album (New Amsterdam, 2012) includes their performance of Partita for 8 Voices.

In addition to her tenure in the all-female cello-rock band Rasputina, Zoë Keating (b. 1972) has self-released three widely acclaimed albums. Keating is known for using software to create live sound loops of her cello. I recommend One Cello x 16: Natomaz (self-released, 2005) and Into the Trees (self-released, 2010).

Ikue Mori (b. 1953) played drums in the influential 1970s no-wave band DNA. Her compositions, often involving an idiosyncratic use of drum machines, blur the line between composer and performer as well as between rock and classical music. Well worth your time is Light in the Shadow (Tzadik Records, 2015) and One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (Tzadik Rec­ords, 2000), inspired by the iconic ­Japanese woodblock print series.


Pop and art music aren’t as distantly related as you might think. For decades, creators such as Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, and Björk have treated their craft with sophistication and artistry. Particularly in the last decade, they have gained numerous peers, particularly in the realm of electronic ­music.

Shara Nova (b. 1974), better known as My Brightest Diamond, weaves pop, folk, and art music into a beguiling tapestry. Her 2011 record All Things Unwind (Asthmatic Kitty) demonstrates a virtuosic range of eccentricities, while her opera You Us We All (Blue Sword, 2015) explores 16th- and 17th-century court masque entertainment through 21st-century meme culture.

Holly Herndon (b. 1980) is composing some of the most compelling electronic music today. I highly recommend her recent album Platform (4AD, 2015).

Norwegian artist Jenny Hval’s (b. 1980) concept-driven albums address themes of feminism, sexuality, and socio­politics. Blood Bitch (Sacred Bones, 2016) is a visceral exploration of blood through songs about menstruation, capitalism, and time traveling vampires.

Other releases worth exploring and perhaps adding to your collection are Pharmakon’s (aka Margaret Chardiet) Bestial Burden (Sacred Bones, 2014); Julia Holter’s Have You in My Wilderness (Domino, 2015); Julianna Barwick’s ­Nepenthe (Dead Oceans, 2013); and Grimes’s (aka Claire Boucher) Art Angels (4AD, 2015).

For further exploration, visit www.­audiblewomen.com, a directory of women practitioners of sound art and experimental music, and Tara Rodgers’s book Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound (Duke Univ., 2010).

Steve Kemple is a Music Reference Librarian at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

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