In this series, OnMilwaukee checks in with female composers from around the globe who are participating in a rare, women-composed concert put on by Present Music called "In The New Chamber."
It's no secret that female composers are often overlooked and underemployed. For the first time in its 145-year history, The Met recently commissioned a woman to write an opera. And of the 1,445 classical concerts that will be performed around the world by the end of the year, 95 percent won't include a single piece composed by a woman.
Present Music – Milwaukee's internationally acclaimed new music ensemble that commissions, performs, records and tours the work of living composers – significantly surpasses this lack of recognition year after year. In 2018 alone, 50 percent of the pieces performed were female-composed.
The ensemble kicks off 2019 with, once again, extremely modern chamber music that's rarely performed elsewhere. "In The New Chamber" features music entirely from women and non-binary composers living in places from Iceland to Australia.
The concert, curated by Present Music's Eric Segnitz, takes place Feb. 21-22 in the Jan Serr Studio, 2155 N. Prospect Ave. (sixth floor). The shows start at 7:30 p.m.
The Thursday night performance is fancier and includes an intimate reception along with the concert, and the Friday night show is more casual.
OnMilwaukee recently chatted with composer Jessie Montgomery, a violinist, composer and music educator from New York City. Her piece "Voodoo Dolls" will be performed during "In the New Chamber."
OnMilwaukee: How long have you been a composer? What or who inspired you to become one?
Jessie Montgomery: I have been composing technically since I was about 10 years old, professionally now for about 10 years. My father is a musician and a composer. A regular day at my house included hours when he would sit in front of his Atari computer and midi interface (archaic equipment at this point), positioned next to our upright piano and clarinet within close reach. He and I spent a lot of time together and I think I just picked up his vibe, so to speak. He and my mother wrote an opera together called Congo New York and I remember being impressed by the progression of them creating the piece to the performance.
We also had a really strong composition program at my music school, the Third Street Music School Settlement, and I got to hear my compositions come to life in concerts twice a year. It was an exciting and rewarding feeling and I was hooked.
Why haven't more women composers' work been recognized / performed?
Well, firstly, this is changing now, I am happy to say, through these kinds of discussions and new relationships with forward thinking artistic directors that have been developing over the past several years. We see more women in positions of power within the arts administration sector who have pushed for more representation by women and non-binary composers in the field and it is a very exciting time.
Historically, it is the same problem as with all of our social constructs: white maleness has lived in our collective consciousness as the best attribute for human progress and ability – the way forward – for hundreds of years. It's a flaw in our view of the world at large and we are finally becoming more aware of the need for change. As a result of female oppression / suppression, those talents weren't nurtured as often, perhaps, and certainly not publicly recognized or taken seriously, so we have had to dig through our history to find these voices.
Who are some of your favorite composers, living or dead?
Bach, Ysaye, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Bartok, Alberto Ginastera, Caroline Shaw, Jorge Amado Molina, Leonard Bernstein, Augusta Reed Thomas, Joan Tower. Not a lot of women here, I know.
What do you love about composing?
I love hearing back what I imagined – when it "works" just as I intended. And when it doesn't work, I enjoy the challenge of problem solving that comes from that experience. I think all composers have a desire to solve problems with minutiae. A little obsessive, maybe. I also enjoy the idea that something abstract such as music can transform into a realization, a discovery or insight by the listener, which may or may not be related to the initial point of inspiration by the composer. So in that way, it is another form of conversation.
What would you say about your music to someone who loves music, but listens primarily to mainstream music?
I draw from a variety of styles including popular music! So you may hear elements of that here and there. I believe rhythm is the most natural visceral point of entry for any listener, and rhythm is a main focus for me. Cyclical things, reference to the familiar, whether through song or common stories, is a recurring theme for me.
I would also say, if you are a true music lover, hopefully you are willing to give all music a try to see what clicks with you.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.