A Reflection on Female and Minority Representation in Concert Seasons
By Loretta K. Notareschi, PhD
In my position as a music professor at Regis University, I teach a lot of music appreciation courses. Some of these courses are about Western classical music of the 20th and 21st centuries, about Western classical music of all centuries, and about women in all genres of Western music throughout history. Often, while teaching these courses, my students will go to a concert featuring music by women, or, absent that, will discuss the phenomenon of concerts of music by women in class. Occasionally I will also make a point to lecture explicitly about other minority composers, or to assign minority composers to students to study. At some point, in the papers written about such concerts, or in the course of a class discussion, some variation of the following opinion will be offered by an earnest student: “Wouldn’t it be great if a concert would “just so happen” to feature great music by women (or by other underrepresented minorities) instead of having to put on concerts that feature these composers? Wouldn’t that be better than concert programs that are based on identity?” This is a rich vein for debate, and my students and I often have a fruitful discussion about the pros and cons of such a position. We talk about what the best strategies we have as a culture for combatting discrimination in concert music programming. And I enjoy these conversations and debates.
Recently, however, I have been reflecting on this point of view, which is not of course unique to my undergraduate students. It is in fact a common societal viewpoint that rests on the notion of a meritocracy. If, the argument goes, pieces could just be selected on merit alone, concerts that “just so happen” to feature music by women or other minorities would be natural occurrences, and we wouldn’t need the concert programming version of affirmative action.
As a thought experiment, I began to consider the necessary conditions for “just so happens” programming that would actually result in the presence of music by women and minorities on concerts. A rather amusing scenario began to emerge in my mind. It goes like this:
Location: Boardroom of a major American symphony orchestra
Characters: Venerable Conductor, Young Assistant, Earnest Programming Committee Members
Venerable Conductor: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have come together to select the contemporary music for our next concert season, which will include 10 pieces for symphony orchestra written in the last thirty years. Because we know that our programming choices will reflect on our values and commitment to justice, we are implementing a new process this year. Our Young Assistant is here to explain.”
Young Assistant: “Thank you for inviting me to this important meeting, kind sir. Ladies and gentlemen, earlier today, a forklift operator down at the dock loaded in the 100 boxes of music we will be looking at to make our choice. In these boxes are every single piece of orchestral music written in the last thirty years from around the globe. Along with my team of interns, I have blacked out the names of all of the composers and coded each with a number. I have a database of all these numbers linked to the name of each composer and their demographic identities of gender, race, sexuality, and so forth. Your task is to examine each of these pieces with an open mind and then select the 10 most meritorious pieces, which we will choose by unanimous acclamation. Only then will we reveal the names and identities of the composers. Because this process will take some time, we will be bringing in food and drink for you all and ask you to return each day for the next two months. The bathroom is down the hall to the left.”
Venerable Conductor: “Thank you, Young Assistant.”
Earnest Committee Member No. 1: “Sir, how will we determine which pieces are the most meritorious?”
Venerable Conductor: “We will use our impeccable taste, which is never wrong.”
Earnest Committee Member No. 2: “Excellent, well, I guess we’d better get started. Could I please see the first score?”
Venerable Conductor: “Young assistant, after two months of diligent work, we have selected the ten most meritorious pieces out of the 100 boxes of music. Here they are. Could you please look up the names of each of the composers and tell us their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, etc.?”
Young Assistant: “Certainly.” [Looks up numbers on a laptop]
Young Assistant: “Amazing, sir! Through the magic of statistics, your selections are a perfect sampling of the identities of the thousands of composers represented by our selection pool.”
Venerable Conductor: “Wonderful! That is what we were hoping for. Now, members of the committee, we must turn to naming our next season. What shall we call it?”
Earnest Committee Member No. 3: “Sir, let us call it the ‘Just So Happens’ Season!”
What a ridiculous thought experiment! Programming decisions don’t get made this way, do they? No, of course they don’t. While the process of making programming decisions for major American orchestras is something of a mystery to me (I’ve never been in one of those rooms), I am not afraid to speculate. These speculations are fictional amalgamations based on actual conversations I’ve had with other composers whose music has been selected by orchestras, on stories I’ve heard told by conductors, by my own experiences with smaller organizations, and a little bit of sheer guessing:
“I was friends with this composer when I was in college. Later I ran into him at Tanglewood and he showed me his score. I thought it was great, so I brought it to the programming committee.”
“This composer was the wife of one of the conductors I’d worked with before, and so I checked out her piece and thought it was wonderful.”
“I met this conductor at x festival. I happened to be making a road trip through his town and on a whim called him up to see if he’d like to have lunch. To my surprise he was available, and I ended up getting a commission next season.”
“My friend on the board of a local music non-profit told me the conductor of the local orchestra would be present at a fundraising party. I went to the party and made a donation. My friend went out of his way to introduce me to the conductor. Out of sheer chutzpah, I told the conductor I’d like to send him my music, and he warmly invited me to do so and gave me his email address. Later I sent him a score, and he took it to the programming committee.”
“We really wanted to commission a young, up-and-coming composer, so we asked our concertmaster to recommend a local composer she had worked with before.”
“I really believe it’s a numbers game. For cold emails, you get about a 1-2% response rate. So what I do is email about a 100 ensembles, and a few will get back to me.”
“I heard from a conductor of a small orchestra that he really liked one of my pieces and wanted to include it in the orchestra’s upcoming season. I said I’d be happy to be included. He said, well, we’re running an anonymous competition. Could you please submit your piece to the competition so we can select it to be performed?”
Are any of these scenarios particularly surprising? Do they seem wrong or unpleasant? Do they seem immoral? Probably not. (Okay, maybe the last one, which is sadly an exact anecdote told to me by a prominent composer.) But the fact is that much of what they revolve around is right-time-and-place stuff, luck, who you know, who you’re introduced to, whom you’re willing to cold email, and so forth. What they don’t demonstrate is that certain, je ne sais quoi, quality, of “it just so happens.” Even if you reduced the ridiculousness of my thought experiment to say that the Young Assistant pre-selected the 100 best pieces of music written in the last thirty years and the Venerable Conductor drew 10 of those pieces out of a hat, it would still be ridiculous, because there isn’t anything random or “blind” about the actual piece selection process by ensembles. Someone, in fact lots of someones, are always putting their hand on the scales, weighting the process in favor of a composer who is…well…favored.
How does a composer become favored? Let’s assume an all-other-things-being-equal situation, where Amazing Composer A is favored and Amazing Composer B is not. Maybe Composer A went to a prestigious school with fellow students who ended up founding ensembles, or maybe they had enough money to attend prestigious summer festivals and drank every night with members of prominent new music ensembles. Maybe Amazing Composer B had to work a day job and got married young and had small children whose needs kept Amazing Composer B from sending 100 cold emails a week or attending fancy fundraising parties.
And who is being favored now? Luckily, organizations like the Institute for Composer Diversity (ICD), are doing some great research that tells us the answer to this question. On ICD’s website, composerdiversity.com, they present an analysis of the 2019-2020 orchestral seasons of 120 League of American Orchestra member organizations. Among this group, 4047 announced performance of works are analyzed (Covid cancellations are not accounted for here). Of these 4047 performances, 8% were (to be) by women and 6% by underrepresented composers. The argument is often made that these dismal numbers are primarily due to the lack of women and minority composers in the past and orchestras’ emphasis on older music. This argument is actually based on a misperception described succinctly by George Lewis as “the myth of absence.” But, for what it’s worth, the Institute of Composer Diversity states that the total percentage of pieces by living composers last season was 16%.
So where does that leave us? What are our choices? How do we get beyond a status quo where music of women and minorities is largely ignored in favor of music by well-connected white men (living or dead)? How do we avoid tokenizing people based on their identities but still craft concert seasons that are more representative of the population as a whole? How do we put aside our own implicit biases when we compare music by a person we know to that of a person (maybe a minority person) we don’t know? I am not sure what the perfect answer to these questions are, but I am quite sure that it is not to stick our collective head in the sand and pretend we can have well-balanced “just so happens” concert seasons if we just try hard enough to judge every piece on merit alone and ignore the identity of the composer.
One suggestion to improve the process of selecting new music for orchestra seasons, as well as for selecting composers to commission, would be to operate more like small-budget, new music ensembles do. It is less common among orchestras, especially well-established, multi-million-dollar orchestras. What I am thinking of is a process whereby composers “apply” for spots in an orchestra’s season or for upcoming commissions. They could be invited to send in the portfolios of their best compositions and recordings (in a simple online process with PDFs and links to recordings and low or no fees), and programming committees could actually go about doing something more akin to my thought experiment—actually looking at more than the pieces, in other words, that they already know from their personal and professional connections. From this they could select pieces for their seasons or choose composers to commission. Perhaps (probably) this would result in an unwieldly number of applications, and so orchestras could make deliberate choices to put their hand on the scale in a way that represents their values and priorities. This year an orchestra could solicit music by local composers and Latinx composers. Next year could be black composers and trans composers. The following year could be European-Americans and Native Americans. Instead of implicit bias, we’d have explicit bias, hopefully in a way from season to season that would reflect a variety of biases, and thus become, paradoxically, less and less biased over time.
I can just hear the objections now. What about artistic merit? What about genius? The point is, artistic merit and genius are found in all subgroups of people. We’d still be looking for those elusive qualities, with our naturally impeccable taste, but among bodies of work that may be less familiar to us. If we don’t deliberately take a look at an ever-expanding list of these identity groups and their works, we’ll never find the pieces of merit and genius because the default “music appreciation” composers and their modern-day lookalikes will continue to dominate among our elite, expensive institutions, where change is slow and groupthink is real.
I tell my students to end their essays by answering the question, “So what?” OK, Dr. Notareschi, so what? Why should we care whether orchestras and other elite institutions have diverse programs, representative of the populations that they serve? Isn’t Beethoven good enough for you? Don’t you love traditional orchestral music? Do you just have an axe to grind? Are you just an angry feminist?
You’re damn right. I love Beethoven. I love traditional orchestral music. AND I am angry. AND I am a feminist. AND I’m trying to learn to be a better ally for people of racial, ethnic, sexual, and other minorities. In the past week, people have been out on the streets of my city protesting the murder of black people and getting tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets. Our president brags about grabbing women by the pussy. Do orchestras murder black people and do they sexually assault people? No. But their continued disdain for underrepresented groups is part of a cultural continuum of white supremacy and misogyny. And that needs to change. Enough is enough.
 I heard him use this apt phrase at his keynote speech to the Chamber Music America conference in January 2020.
 At least that’s what right-thinking people should believe, according to me and, sorry not sorry, all other right-thinking people. If you’d like to argue, like my graduate school classmate did, that there is “always something wrong” by music that isn’t by, say, men (or whatever your preferred group is), keep on moving, because I don’t have time for you. You write your own essay and see what happens.