Words: Steve Smith
Long before National Sawdust opened its doors to the world, valuing, promoting, and sustaining the work of women composers, performers, scholars, writers, and entrepreneurs were among the fundamental aims for the new venue and its team. At the start of the present Season 3, National Sawdust underscored that commitment with the announcement of the Hildegard Competition, a prize created to honor two emerging female composers—and to generate further awareness of the community as a whole.
Now, we are proud to announce another new initiative meant to complement the competition: The Hildegard Series, an ongoing component of the National Sawdust Log that will focus exclusively on the stories, issues, and activities of female-identifying composers, performers, and professionals involved in the contemporary music world. The series will present a new feature weekly, scheduled to appear every Tuesday. And, in addition to shining a spotlight on women artists, we aim to provide a showcase for the work of women journalists, scholars, and critics—both established and emerging.
“Social equality does not happen naturally – it must be forged,” composer and National Sawdust co-founder and artistic director Paola Prestini asserted in a statement about the competition, which applies as well to the new Log series. “For the music field to create the most vibrant and relevant new work, today’s institutions must elevate women – and other underrepresented voices – to positions of prominence, and provide platforms for their work to be experienced.”
To launch this new initiative, we turned to some of our closest comrades and members of the extended National Sawdust family — each a sterling example of bold work, tenacity, innovation, and achievement recognized. We asked them all to answer a set of five identical questions. No restrictions were applied regarding length or tone, and no one was compelled to respond to all five questions. The answers follow, and taken together strike a bold, encouraging tone for the series to come.
ANNA CLYNE, composer: As soon as I started playing the piano at the age of 7, I also started composing and the two felt very intertwined. As a young composer, I enjoyed composing short pieces for myself and my friends to play, and as I became older I was fortunate to study with several inspiring mentors, and to work with some exceptional musicians who were excited about new music and collaborating with living composers, and this was a wonderful opportunity to learn from them – to learn the intricacies of their instruments – the building blocks of the orchestra, which has become a significant vehicle for my music as of late. Being a composer also offers an opportunity to collaborate with artists from other fields, which I find hugely inspiring, and which pushes my musical perspectives in new and fresh directions. Such collaboration has always been an important element of my music and compositional process, and continues to be a significant factor in compelling me to continue my life in music. In addition to writing music, I also very much enjoy playing the cello – being connected to the feeling of playing music is an important element in connecting to the compositional process, and remains a significant part of my musical life.
JENNIFER HIGDON, composer: I honestly felt that I had no choice… I had to, because nothing else was possible or interesting to such a degree. The drive and thrill of learning a about music was just too compelling – and remains so even today.
TANIA LEÓN, composer and conductor: My life in music began when I was 4 years old and my paternal grandmother realized that I had something to do with music. I used to listen to the radio and look for stations that would be playing music, including stations that would be playing classical music. Classical music was not a habitual music to be listened to in my home in La Habana, Cuba.
MISSY MAZZOLI, composer and keyboardist: I fell in love with classical music very young, but as I grew up I became just as interested in visual art, literature, theater, and philosophy. I wanted to find a job through which I could pursue all of these ideas. As I started writing, I found that composing music was the best way I had of processing the world, of dealing with uncertainty and putting chaos in order.
BETH MORRISON, opera producer: There was never really a question. Music is what consumed me from the time I was eight years old, when I auditioned for my first musical, The Sound of Music. I didn’t get in, but my brother did, and I went to every single rehearsal. I started piano lessons at 8 and voice lessons at 10. Later, I played clarinet in the school band. Then I went to Tanglewood at 17 and that sealed my fate: Classical music would be my lifelong pursuit. It was never in question.
PAOLA PRESTINI, composer and National Sawdust co-founder and artistic director: Since I was young, I found my solace and identity in music. Having been raised in a border town, otherness defined my early life. I have always traveled freely between two languages, two cultures, and two distinct realities. Those disparate synergies eventually formed a creative base for my expression and understanding of the world. It now provides me stability, a voice, the ability to collaborate and “hear” other people, and quite honestly, it balances my mental and overall health. I now choose my projects carefully – I often say I choose them based on topics and issues I want to explore, but just as equally on collaborators with whom I am eager to form a family.
SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER, composer and New Amsterdam Records co-founder: The realization that I wouldn’t be happy or feel whole doing anything else.
JOAN TOWER, composer and Da Capo Chamber Players co-founder: I knew from a very early age that music was my soul food and drug of choice for everything in my life. It was my saving grace. I took to it like water, and it turned out to be the best friend I could ever have.
JULIA WOLFE, composer and Bang on a Can founder: Music has always moved me – spiritually and physically. I would play the piano for hours. Work out my teenage moodiness by playing Debussy, play show tunes and my mother would come into the living room to sing, strum out my own Joni Mitchell-like folk songs on guitar, entertain my grandmother by playing Fiddler on the Roof as she sat in the big arm chair and closed her eyes. In college I accidentally walked into a music class called Creative Musicianship. We listened to all kinds of music – Bach, Brubeck, Byrd, Riley – and wrote a series of little pieces, and honed our music skills. I got the bug there!
LIDIYA YANKOVSKAYA, conductor: I’ve loved music my entire life, but I went to a liberal arts college and studied not only music but also philosophy, languages, and more. However, I soon found that when I had the choice, I always chose music – I just couldn’t live without it. In opera, I found a way to combine my love for music with my love for history, language, philosophy, and culture, all while collaborating with some incredible people from across all disciplines and across the globe!
ANNA CLYNE: My mentors have been my most inspirational role models. Whilst I have composed music since a young age, it wasn’t until my third year of university that I began composition lessons – with Marina Adamia at Edinburgh University, and later with Julia Wolfe at Manhattan School of Music. As a female composer, I am frequently asked to share my thoughts upon “being a female composer.” I really do not think of myself as a “female composer”, but simply as a “composer.” With hindsight, I wonder whether my experiences of studying with two such exceptional composers and mentors, who are female, rid me of the baggage of gender.
DU YUN, composer and performer: I cannot stress enough how important role models and inspirations are. And for women composers, and colored composers/artists in which classical music field is not the status quo for the career to be, it seems that role models serve more than just an inspiration. They offer this wonderful oasis, a place that you know you can always return and land safely, wherever and however you dare to free-fall. And then you can soar as high up as possible, because there is that oasis place in your heart. These people offer the alternative way of to be or, sometimes, not to be.
JENNIFER HIGDON: First and foremost, my flute teacher, Judith Bentley, who started me down the road of composing; she has been an extraordinary teacher, in all aspects of music. Immediately following on her heels is Robert Spano, who was my conducting teacher when I was an undergrad; I probably don’t have to explain how that was so… he remains a mentor and example to this day. After those two, there have been quite a few women composers to whom I have looked for guidance and examples, and who have opened doors for so many women: Ellen Zwilich, Joan Tower, and Libby Larsen. In addition, I find my colleagues who are currently working in the field to be inspirational as well.
TANIA LEÓN: Again, at the time of my upbringing in music, I had no role model to look up to. I brought classical music home. Most of my studies were centered in a European repertoire. Of course, I would listen to and play popular music, doing my own arrangements or hanging with the group of music students during our weekends. We would arrange the tunes that were popular in the island, and would improvise accordingly. A way of growing up as a musician, following the music curriculum offered by the Conservatory and at the same time an open learning process through the gathering of music students outside of the conservatory.
MISSY MAZZOLI: I discovered Meredith Monk’s music when I was 15, and she has remained my most significant role model and mentor to date.
BETH MORRISON: Early on it was my choral director, who also gave me voice lessons. She brought the brochure for the Boston University Tanglewood Institute that changed my life when I matriculated as a student at 17 and discovered classical music for the first time. She and my band director drove me down to Boston for the audition and played for me. She taught me “Deh vieni non tardar,” and I got in.
PAOLA PRESTINI: I emigrated to the United States from Italy at a very young age. My family owned a business making reed instruments and the decision had been made to move the company to the Arizona-Mexico border. I was surrounded by song, and that had a huge influence on me. I have returned to Italy often, fascinated by its complex identity, with its abundant layers of invasion and empire building. As a land that is at the nexus of emigration and immigration, it has become a metaphor for today’s debate and global struggle with borders. These themes have deeply informed my compositional work-borders, cultural understanding, and the human voice and an overall sense of curiosity for the world allows me to keep growing. My parents also were quite adventurous and self-built, so I guess my ability to live out of the box comes partly from them!
SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER: I didn’t know of any female composers when I was a child. None of my music teachers ever mentioned them to me; I didn’t know they existed. But from an early age my dad played Joni Mitchell records, and she became something of a goddess to me. As I got into my late teens and early 20s I drew inspiration from women in the rock/pop worlds who were doing interesting things: PJ Harvey, Sleater-Kinney, Bjork, Liz Phair, Sinead O’Connor, Kate Bush, Rachel Grimes, Sarah Dougher. These women were not just interesting musically but socioculturally; they bucked conventional gender roles. When, at age of 24, I decided to pursue composition seriously, I discovered the work of Meredith Monk, Julia Wolfe, Sofia Gubaidulina, Kaija Saariaho, Annie Gosfield, and Joan Tower, and it was a revelation. I played cello in my high school orchestra, and its conductor was a woman — Gail Edwards. The conductor of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra was also a woman, Portia Sonnenfeld. These women were so highly regarded by the community and seemed so naturally suited to their roles that I blissfully had no idea female conductors were a rarity. Their leadership helped me see the world of classical music as more gender-inclusive than the rest of my education might have led me to believe.
JOAN TOWER: Although my father was a geologist-mining engineer, he had a true love of music and really was my biggest inspiration in my earlier years. He always managed to find a piano teacher and a piano throughout our travels in South America.
JULIA WOLFE: The teacher of that [Creative Musicianship] class, Jane Heirich, was an amazing person, so inspiring. She opened me up to so many worlds of music. She did not have an idea that there is a hierarchy in music – just that there was a rich varied world of music and it was all for the listening. Certainly, at a later stage, my partners in trouble Michael [Gordon] and David [Lang] were hugely inspirational and encouraging. But role models? My first actual private composition teacher composer Laura Clayton was an amazing role model. Then there are inspirational figures and friends like Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Louis Andriessen, Philip Glass – all inspiring in different ways.
LIDIYA YANKOVSKAYA: My high school piano teachers, Vladimir Pleshakov and Elena Winther. The duo-piano/husband-and-wife pair lived and concertized in Europe for many years and then retired to Hudson, New York, where they opened a piano museum and concert hall. I came upon them by chance, and they only had two students total. They were the most insightful musicians, who also recognized the important connection between life experience and music-making. Right before I found them, I had a bad stretch with a teacher who was very narrow in her approach. The Pleshakovs reminded me of the beauty and joy of music, and all the reasons that musicians do what they do.
ANNA CLYNE: One of my most inspiring elements of studying composition with Julia Wolfe was that she encouraged me to trust my intuition, which was a huge step forward for my music, and something that I will always be thankful for.
DU YUN: I have had many mentors: women, men, white, non-white, animal spirits… mythology figures…
TANIA LEÓN: All of my teachers were my mentors. They were enthusiastic with my progress. The piano teacher that introduced me to contemporary music, his name was Edmundo Lopez – he introduced me to the music of Bela Bartók when I was 9 years old. I began studying Bartók’s Mikrokosmos then.
BETH MORRISON: I’ve had a few wonderful mentors in my life: first off, my parents, who are both incredible executives that have given me keen advice throughout my life and career. Additionally, [Brooklyn Academy of Music executive producer] Joe Melillo and [Poegranate Arts founder and director] Linda Brumbach have been significant mentors for me since I moved to New York City.
PAOLA PRESTINI: I’ve had a few mentors over the years who have served such important roles in my life, from John Zorn, who gave me my first record-label contract, to Philip Glass, who gave me the harshest criticism I needed to hear. Philip came to one of my early shows and open heartedly told me to focus on myself – and that until I was strong, I could not cart around a community. That was the moment I changed VisionIntoArt from a collective to a production company, and also learned that in order to serve my music best and the artist community best, I needed to take time, refocus on myself, and slowly build the plan.
SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER: I had some wonderful teachers who were very supportive, particularly at Yale. Justin Dello Joio was an early mentor to me. I worked with him intensively in New York for two years; in addition to composition, he taught me everything from 16th-century counterpoint to post-tonal harmony. He really invested himself in my education and strove to give me the equivalent of a conservatory bachelor’s degree so that I could apply to graduate composition programs (my undergrad degree was in psychology-sociology). But I’m not sure that I ever had a mentor in the full sense of the word, where someone takes you under their wing and personally advises you, introduces you to others in the field, advocates for you. I think, as a woman, it would have been difficult for me to feel truly mentored by any of my male teachers, simply because they didn’t know what it’s like to be “other” in a very male-dominated field significantly afflicted by gender bias. As a mentee, you need to see yourself in your mentor; you need to feel a sense of kinship and identification. Likewise, it can be difficult for male teachers to feel comfortable forging that kind of a bond with their female students. This is one of the many reasons we need more female composers in faculty positions, and more programs like Missy [Mazzoli]’s and Ellen [Reid]’s Luna Lab. In lieu of female mentors, I’ve been lucky to have some very supportive female composer peers. We encourage and commiserate with each other. We strategize and advise each other. We provide each other the kind of support that mentors provide, minus the apprentice-style dynamic. It’s a wonderful thing and I’m very grateful for it.
JOAN TOWER: I guess my strongest mentor was Beethoven, whose music I played extensively throughout my early years as a pianist. He taught me a lot about strong profiles, motivated architectures, and risk taking.
JULIA WOLFE: I would say teachers: Jane Heirich, Laura Clayton, Martin Bresnick stand out. In many ways Louis Andriessen was a guiding force early on.
LIDIYA YANKOVSKAYA: I’ve had many important mentors over the years, and in that I have been very fortunate. Each has come from a very different background and each has given me something different. Some have been celebrities at the top of the classical music field, others are high school music teachers or community chorus conductors. Each has offered me something valuable and unexpected. Most recently, I have been thankful for the mentorship provided by the leaders of the Dallas Opera Institute for Women Conductors and Marin Alsop and her Taki Concordia Fellowship.
ANNA CLYNE: Whilst it is always thrilling, and an honor, to hear my music performed by exceptional musicians, my most satisfying achievements have been working with younger composers in helping them to find their own unique voice, through developing their musical toolbox and exposing them to a wide array of musics. Two highlights were directing the New York Youth Symphony’s Making Score program and working with composer Angélica Negron to teach very young composers as part of a collaboration between National Sawdust and El Puente. It’s a wonderful experience to observe, and to be part of the process of young people discovering their musical voices and expressing themselves through music for the first time. The most exciting work that I have composed to date was Masquerade – a short 5-minute orchestral work which opened the Last Night of the Proms in 2013 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop. It was such an honor to compose music for this occasion – I had often watched the Proms on TV as a child, so to be present and part of such an exciting atmosphere is a memory that I will always treasure. It was also the first time in history that a female conductor led the Last Night of the Proms, so I am thrilled to have been a part of that.
DU YUN: I’m still dumbfounded that I get to do the things I do. I count my blessings and prepare for worse times to come (so then I can be more fearless).
JENNIFER HIGDON: Being a good human being, which I hope I’ve achieved. And on the music front, having had the opportunity to create works for so many performers who have shared my music in so many places.
TANIA LEÓN: Surprised about becoming a composer-conductor-educator, a dream that most of my family was not able to witness, only my mother. She passed three years ago; however, she was able to travel to the States and attended my performances, performances of my works, as well as the premiere of my opera in Europe, among other wonderful moments she was able to enjoy in the name of our family.
MISSY MAZZOLI: My second opera, Breaking the Waves. My entire life changed after the premiere of that opera in 2016. The three-year composition process, the rehearsal environment, and the critical response opened up a new world of opportunities, and made me feel like I could do anything.
PAOLA PRESTINI: The work I’m still trying to do: balancing life with a child, a wonderful husband, and my two babies: my large scale compositional projects and National Sawdust. I think as artists we need to not be afraid of big words, like legacy. I’m proud I guess of being tireless in the pursuit of leaving behind a better world than the one I came into. As artists, in order to remain relevant we need to take great risks and constantly discover new ways to musically say whats within us our whole life. And as institutions, we need to resolve to stay nimble so we can adjust to the needs of audiences and artists. I derive great joy from balancing the things that make me truly happy – my family, writing, creating a space for artists. I see risk and joy every day as mysterious strangers that walk side by side holding hands. They illuminate in me the difficult contradictions of being an artist… the resolve to find my happiness and my musical voice, and build it in context of the larger question of how we find space for art in every day life and how we build context for our own lives.
SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER: That I have gotten to place in my writing where I truly enjoy the process. Composition has always been my deepest communion with a sense of meaning, with what it means to be alive. But I haven’t always enjoyed the process. Writing for me used to be painfully fraught with doubt, self-loathing, and paralysis. I’m still afflicted by these things but to a more manageable degree. I have more faith in myself, which is something even my 30-year-old self never imagined I’d say.
JOAN TOWER: Stepping out and developing my own voice in pieces like Black Topaz and Petroushskates (in spite of Stravinsky). It was s lonely process, but ultimately satisfying. And having players that love to play my music is the deepest reward for me – a really satisfying achievement
JULIA WOLFE: Picking your favorite child? Anthracite Fields and Steel Hammer were both important large-scale works for me.
LIDIYA YANKOVSKAYA: The work I’ve done over the past seven years building Juventas New Music Ensemble, from a small collective of composers to a flourishing new music organization that produces full opera productions, collaborative concerts, and more. I also find every performance with Refugee Orchestra Project to be very special – it’s amazing to come together with musicians who come from across the globe but share this common experience and a goal of changing our world for the better.
If you could change any one thing about the music world, what would it be?
ANNA CLYNE: Offering music education to more young people from all backgrounds – both performing and composing. Programs such as the Baltimore Symphony’s OrchKids have had dramatic impacts on large communities that might not ordinarily have access to such creativity. I strongly believe that music teaches young people life-skills beyond the music itself – from communication with peers, to confidence and nurturing a sense of self.
DU YUN: If I could change one thing, I would like we composers to function more like architects, urban planners, social workers, filmmakers, novelists, visual artists… where we are not afraid to engage with the societies we live in. Obviously not treat societal topics as a muse – that would be so superficial and counterproductive – but really to find a viable way to engage. We are doing better, but not enough. And we need to rethink about social justice. I think people are afraid of talking about social justice in music. I think that social justice is not just inequality and the sufferings and the pains – it’s also the joy, the joy of living. Because of that joy, it demonstrates our dignity as human beings. It’s the dignity of living, the freedom of having that dignity to have a voice, wherever you are, whatever your obstructions might be, personal, societal, communal. It’s that equity to say that we all deserve that dignity. It’s that engagement we need to talk about, and inspire more people in the society. Again, we are on our way. I am somehow forever melancholic (ha ha) in my own music and pessimistic to the universe, but I’m optimistic in social progress. Absolutely.
JENNIFER HIGDON: That musical organizations realize that contemporary music does sell, it does speak to musicians and audiences, and that there are a heck of a lot of fantastic women composers in the world who really should be heard.
TANIA LEÓN: I believe that the many initiatives the music-education institutions and organizations are taking are contributing to expand the horizon of many children and youngsters to think of the possibility to become musicians in their near future – something I have been worried about for a long time. Also, accessibility of the arts to communities that have not been previously involved with that form of creativity. Plenty to think about – plenty to talk about…
MISSY MAZZOLI: I would inject it with a bunch of cash with the specific goal of giving young people from diverse background access to music education. It makes me sad to think that the musical world is still largely an elite territory even in educational institutions; the people who go to school for composition are for the most part white men from privileged backgrounds. The entire scene suffers when there is a persistent lack of diversity.
BETH MORRISON: I would change the fear that drives the industry and keeps people in small boxes with small ideas of how things can be. The only way for things to lift off is if risk is taken. The classical world is highly risk-averse. It will ultimately be the demise of the industry if there isn’t change on this front.
PAOLA PRESTINI: I think we need to continue to equalize the system. Social equality does not happen naturally – it must be forged. For the music field to create the most vibrant and relevant new work, today’s institutions must elevate women – and other underrepresented voices – to positions of prominence, and provide platforms for their work to be experienced. That’s the work I will always be passionate about, and will continue to devote myself to.
SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER: Early music education – the access and the quality. So many of the problems facing classical music today – lack of diversity, perception of irrelevance, insufficient support – would benefit in the long-term if music education were approached differently. Music is a language. What a different world it would be if children of all backgrounds were taught to think, read, and write in it, instead of simply playing music by centuries-old European white men (if they’re taught it at all). As a composer friend of mine recently said, “Imagine learning French but being discouraged from writing your own sentences; instead all you are taught to do is recite Victor Hugo and Voltaire and maybe Marcel Proust if you’re very lucky. Sounds ridiculous but this is exactly how we generally teach music.” If music education more inclusive, dynamic, and creative – the way we teach, say, visual art or creative writing – I think classical music would have a very different audience down the road.
JULIA WOLFE: I think things are pretty darn great right now in the field of new music. It is a very open fertile time. If I could wave my magic wand, I would wish for more individual support for artists and wish that we would develop a culture of artistic appreciation. We do not live in a culture (in general) that supports the arts. We are a bit blinded living here in New York, where there is an active arts culture. But in the U.S., less and less emphasis is put on creative thinking and artistic expression, and that should start very early! This is a big subject, and it also relates to who has access to art and who is encouraged. Francisco Nuñez is a great example of someone who is changing the world through music. He is one of my heroes!
LIDIYA YANKOVSKAYA: I think we need to break down some of the barriers that exist between musicians of various genres. I recently conducted an amazing concert with Chicago Philharmonic and the Indian classical music guru Amjad Ali Khan and his sons, Amaan and Ajaan. The performance reminded me just how universal the language of music is, even when we are performing on totally different instruments, in contrasting styles from across the world. I wish that I had more opportunities to connect with musicians not only from various cultures, but also from the pop and rock world, jazz, hip-hop and R&B, and more. I love the work that National Sawdust is doing to start making these types of connections and am excited to explore possible collaborations while I’m in residency here this season!