Midway through June of this year, a news announcement sent ripples of surprise and enthusiasm through the film and music worlds: Marvel Studios, as part of the endless expansion of its cinematic-superhero universe, tapped the Turkish-American composer Pinar Toprak to create the score for Captain Marvel, a Brie Larson vehicle due in March 2019. Toprak, whose previous credits include the Syfy television series Krypton and the videogame Fortnite. She was duly heralded as not just the first woman composer hired by Marvel, but the first woman to score a superhero film, period—a status she had achieved already with her contributions to the 2017 DC Comics film Justice League.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise: as in the concert-music world there’s no shortage of excellent women artists involved in (or aspiring to be involved in) creating music for film, television, and videogames, only a lack of opportunity and a burning need for guidance and advocacy. It is with those needs in mind that MaryClare Brzytwa, a composer and the executive director of the Technology and Applied Composition department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, has implemented and fostered a program in which the majority of students enrolled are women.
Recently, National Sawdust Log asked Brzytwa to chat via Skype with Laura Karpman, a prominent, award-winning composer who has worked extensively in concert music, opera, film, and television, about the state of the industry, its prospects for women, and the goals of the San Francisco Conservatory program. The lively conversation that ensued touched on issues and challenges specific to women working in the field of music for media, and the need for mentorship and community among establishing and emerging composers alike.
MARYCLARE BRZYTWA: It’s such a broad topic: the issues, from your perspective, that women face in the industry. And then I can talk from an education perspective about what we’re doing to try and remedy these things.
LAURA KARPMAN: We’re looking at a unique moment right now. I think that Harvey Weinstein has obviously, it goes without saying, sparked a huge cultural moment. And one of the things that has happened, that I don’t think I’ve ever seen, is that you see women of every single generation… like, if I sit in the board room at the Academy, I see women of multiple generations who have experienced the same problems, certainly when it comes to harassment and all of that kind of stuff. I think almost every woman has experienced something on some level at some point in her life, and I think that that is a binding thing. So whereas in the past, when we’ve looked at feminism, we’ve looked at different waves of feminism – are you second or third wave or, you know, whatever. Now we’re looking at, okay, how are we here? Why are we still talking about this? Or is this the beginning of talking about it?
I think that there are two sort of junctures… maybe more than two, but two things that seem to be emerging. There’s a kind of a desire of people to move forward and to say, okay, we’re here now, now what are we doing? Forget about the past. And then there’s another way of thinking, which is like, okay, let’s look at the past. Where were the moments like this in the past that didn’t work out? Why didn’t they work out, and how can we change things in the future? I think that there is a real desire to create opportunity for women.
Just personally I can tell you I scored three pilots this last pilot season in conjunction with Raphael Saadiq, who as you know I work with. I’ve never had a pilot season. You know what I mean? People talk about pilot seasons, and I’ve never had one. And I know Germaine Franco did one, and Heather McIntosh did one. So the studios are saying, look, we’ve got this content that we’re creating for women; we want to get a female aperture on this. So I think that that’s really, really good. Now we’ve got to figure out how we are navigating this for younger and older women.
It’s interesting, all the things you just said – I’ve been thinking about the future and I kind of get a glimpse into the future every day watching this generation of 18- to 24-year-old women in my department. A lot of these problems are deeply systemic, and we have to change our institutions at a deep, fundamental level in order to correct this behavior. But on the positive side, all of our collaborations that we do with Sony, and when we go to [sound design firm] Skywalker [Sound], there’s a generation of guys working there – and it’s mostly men, you know – but they genuinely want to help our students. And when our female students come in there to record their music, these guys are volunteering their time – full eight-, nine-hour days – and supporting these female composers like professionals, engineering, their stuff, mixing their stuff. They’ll come in at 6 a.m. and set up all these mics, so that my students can come in and be treated like a professional and have that experience. And I think they know they’re entitled to that when they leave.
I don’t know what the answer is, but from my own anecdotal observations of the world that these young women are navigating now and preparing to go into, I think it’s a mixed bag. A lot of the old problems are still there, and then a lot of people are willing to give up their time and their privileges to help change it, to support them.
You’re saying something there that I want to grab onto, this idea of giving up privilege. I think that men that want to solve this problem are going to have to do that, and they are going to have to share and give up some things. I had a really wonderful experience with a major, major composer for one of the things that somebody else ended up working on. The production company wanted him and the studio executive wanted me, and I said, let’s do it together. I called him, and he said, absolutely, I would love to work with you on it. That means less income for him, but it also means less work for him—which is both good and bad.
A lot of the guys, if they care about our society and they care about creating a future for their daughters, they ask me all the time, “What can we do?” And in a world where we’re all insecure, in a world where we’re all freelancers, one of the things they can do is share. And sharing, it’s a scary thing; even for those guys who are enormously successful and are multimillionaires, it’s a scary thing, because all these things are built on relationships and we’re all paranoid about our own relationships to an extent. But I think that that’s part of what’s going to happen.
Even in the concert-music world, it would take somebody saying, No, I won’t accept this commission, but I really want you to look at these women. Or I’m not going to serve on a panel that is not inclusive, and that means if you can’t find the people, then you cannot count on my participation. Or I’m not going to go to this film festival, or I’m not going to go to this concert… I will not support this. And this is political activism. The thing is, a lot of people think that politics are here, and our business is here. But the truth is, they are inextricably bound and where we can make a real difference in what’s going on politically is by really pushing for inclusion in our own communities. It’s a really, really hard thing to do, for everybody. But we have to do it in order to have a healthy workplace.
I remember a few months back in the classical-music world, all of these orchestras put their season calendars out, and there were multiple orchestras that had no women programmed, or one woman in a diversity bill, or something insulting like that. And I remember a friend of mine trying to start a campaign where… he was a male composer, actually. He just recently passed away, unfortunately. But he tried to start a campaign saying he wasn’t going to accept any commissions from any major symphony unless there was a woman on the bill. In my program, that’s just happening naturally…
Well, it’s happening because of you. It’s not happening naturally; it’s happening because you are there with an absolute eye towards this. And I can tell you that it’s not happening in other programs, because they don’t have you and they don’t have people like you. You’ve talked about this since we first started talking, two or three years ago: this was a mission of yours, and it continues to be. And what’s interesting is that you’ve been able to build one of the strongest programs in the country, and a really desirable program, with that mission. It is absolutely a part of the DNA of your program. So it’s not happening naturally, it’s happening because you’re doing it. But then it becomes natural, and it becomes what you do, and then the conservatory sees that. Then hopefully other conservatories will see that as a model and start to get it together a bit.
I have wonder… I went to a women’s college, Mills, which has a history of experimentalism in music technology. That was a unique experience that allowed me access to this field, I think – that I went to a place, a women’s college with a mission of educating women, and I got to be indoctrinated into this very male field and learn my craft and my skills in an environment that was specifically designed to empower women. When I built our program at the conservatory, I just modeled the program that I had been to, which was designed by its nature to make me ask questions, insist on things when I didn’t understand them. It wasn’t unusual or notable for me to be a woman studying music technology, because it was a women’s college.
I can’t even tell you how many times…and I’ve been thinking about this lately: I don’t do it anymore, but 10 or 15 years ago when I used to go to Guitar Center, Westlake Music, those places…
Right, you’re laughing because you know. They would talk to me like, “This is a turntable,” and it’s like…
The women experience of Guitar Center, it’s like a sitcom.
It was so crazy.
I went in saying, I’d like to buy a 12-channel input-output MOTU audio converter: “Well, what are you going to do with this? Are you a singer-songwriter?” No. “Well, what are you going to plug into it?” Well, if you’d really like to know and building an Arduino controller with seven channels of MIDI output, and it needs to be able to be synchronized with my audio, and I have five loopers and a Max patch and I’m running… I actually tell the guy what I’m doing…
That guy had no idea what you were talking about.
His jaw was on the floor. It’s like, now will you leave me alone and get me my frickin’ MOTU?
I know, I know. And what’s funny is that it also takes us back to where we started, because this is how we grew up, in the business and as people. And it goes back to the sexual harassment thing, because we got used to that, and that’s what we expected when we went into a store. So how do we both let go of that and say, this is significant information, and this is the way that most people think about this, still. We have to unpack that, and we have to give permission to the guys to unpack it.
It was so funny: last weekend I was on a hike with my son, who’s seven, with his little classmates. And there were rumors of rattlesnakes, right? So there was a little boy in the front of the line with a whistle. I said, listen, let’s blow the whistle three times if you see a rattlesnake, and it was kind of like a jokey thing. And then a boy right in front of me said, hey, let’s blow the whistle three times if you see a rattlesnake. And I said, oh my god, he’s seven and he’s mansplaining to me. It’s like an Academy board meeting. It’s just so crazy, you know: this is a little boy being raised by totally feminist people, and it’s like, there it is baby. There it is on the hike with the rattlesnake whistle. So it’s not that we can’t still think it’s funny, and it’s not that we can’t still enjoy it, but this is what we’ve been through, so how do we unpack that? How do we unpack it for the guys?
I think there’s a certain amount of training these guys. In our program I think we’ve done a really, really good job of teaching our boys, and mostly it’s by example of the men working in our program. I’ve made very clear to them – and I wouldn’t have hired them if I didn’t think they cared about this – that part of what we’re trying to do here is build the confidence of all these women in our program and produce top-level composers. Boys seeing an example of someone they look up to that’s male going out of their way to fix this problem, and seeing it regularly. Our young men in our program, they now take pride in being part of the solution, and they know that what we’re doing has a small tinge of activism in its own very subtle kind of conservatory way: we are changing things, and it is radical. And they kind of get it that they’re part of that, and I think it’s something they’re really proud of.
And so should they be. And it’s not a small tinge of activism; I think it’s big, because it’s local. Even if you look at the political system, where a lot of liberals have fallen behind is in local politics. We lost our state houses, we lost all of this, because we were just always looking to the national stuff. And I think that working in your own community to make things better is very, very important, because that starts to find its way up the food chain.
Something else I’ve been thinking a tremendous amount about, especially as a result of my job at the Academy – or my position; I guess it’s not a job, although sometimes it feels like one – is that I’ve looked at other crafts. I’ve looked at casting directors and cinematographers and sound designers and hair and makeup people, and I’ve seen much more sense of community in other branches of the Academy than I feel that we composers have. I think one of the reasons for that is because we’ve never had a union, so there’ve not been those committees… like, Kim Peirce, who’s a director who’s on our board, is also on the board of the DGA [Directors Guild of America] and the WGA [Writers Guild of America], and she’s served on boards with other people all the time. They’ve worked to make their community a better place.
So I think that what you’re doing at this beginning level – in the sense that these students are just learning from each other, they’re undergraduate, graduate students, who are going out into the community and creating a sense of community between and among them – will benefit our business in the long run, because we need to help each other. When we get sick, we need to help each other. When we’re not making enough money, we need to help each other. When one person is making more in a contract than another person for exactly the same job… because there’s nobody out there looking out for us, and we need to create that sense of community.
I couldn’t agree more. I’ve learned in my professional life it’s really important to can have people you trust that you can vent to when you’re confronted with some of the challenges and conflicts.
I sort of came to the realization of this sense of community through forming the Alliance for Women Film Composers with Lolita Ritmanis and Miriam Cutler. We created a community and we started talking to each other about stuff, and we’d all have the same problems, but because we were always in competition with each other for the one job that a woman composer was going to get, we were very competitive with each other—frankly, unnecessarily so. So these communities of artists are just so essential.
I was invited to speak to this Malibu Composers Club, which is really neat; they get together every Monday, or every other Monday, and have breakfast together, and just discuss a wide variety of issues. They’ve invited me up there to talk to them about some of this stuff. I don’t know quite what I’ll talk about, but I think probably what I’ll talk about is a lot of guys ask me how they get involved, what they can do to help, and let’s figure that out right now. Let’s 60 or 70 of us together figure out what we could do to make our community a healthier place. There’s harassment stuff, too… we need to have some sort of place where people can report that, and where there’s consequences for that kind of behavior.
What do you think about like mentoring? For me, professionally, I’ve had really, really great luck… I don’t know if luck is the word, but, you know, older men who want to be a part of the change and who have power and access and privilege mentoring me and going out of their way and spending time to help me, coaching me. In an ideal world, I would have lots of older female mentors, but they don’t exist as much as I would like. And I think when these guys ask you, “How can I help?” one big thing, I would say, is mentor somebody, be be a positive influence, be a positive force in someone’s development—male or female.
That’s another thing that’s happening really organically in our program: Jonathan Mayer and a lot of these guys working at Sony and Leslie [Ann Jones] up at Skywalker, they are getting to know our students and really helping them with resumes, and corresponding with them about, you know, “maybe you should do this and that on your website,” “sure, I’ll listen to your mix,” that kind of stuff. That’s hugely important to building these communities from the bottom to the top.
And that that can happen at the top, as well. I was up for a big job recently that I did not get, but I had a major composer who had worked for this company who was listening to my demos, talking to them about me, saying, “Here’s my demo, this is what I send, this is what they’re looking for.” I mean, listen, I could certainly serve as a mentor, and have served as mentor to countless people, men and women. But he was talking about a specific kind of business music-making that I had not participated in, and he was enormously helpful to me. Ultimately I didn’t get it, but it was an eye-opener. I learned from it a lot, and in some ways it was a confirmation that I know how to do this. Not that I doubted myself, because I didn’t, but as I said, this is a very, very commercial kind of music-making, which I haven’t done that much of.
So it’s not just for beginners, you know? Those of us who’ve been around for a long time, trying to break that glass ceiling and break through to the top, top levels, we also need mentoring and we need help as well. And it’s private, but especially when it comes to business dealings, these things are really, really important. Until the top layer of breakthrough, and until the real top has opened up in terms of creating a lot of opportunities, the women coming out of your program will always get stuck at a certain level. And this has been verified by every imaginable kind of research – coming out of USC, coming out of Sundance, coming out of San Diego State – that for women across all fields in the entertainment industry there is a space in which they get blocked, and it’s when a lot of money starts to come into the conversation.
So mentorship in terms of… like, Sundance is mentoring established women in terms of financing, in terms of deal making. When you’re raising money for your first or second feature, and then finally you’re trying to break through to the studio level, you know, you haven’t had that experience, and you might be embarrassed to ask for that help. Someone like me, I’ve been around for a long time, I have many awards—I don’t want to admit that I need help with something. But then, I just did [laughs], so, there you go. I’m always learning and I’m always evolving, and I’m grateful for somebody saying, “On a major studio film, this is what’s expected. This is how it’s done. This is the kind of team you need to assemble. This is who I think you should work with.” That’s useful.
How have you learned how to negotiate, over the years, on the money side of things? It’s one thing to mentor someone on their craft; it’s another thing to mentor somebody and open doors for them that will help them financially.
It’s a very uncomfortable space for me, I’ll be honest with you—I gratefully have an agent who has been great with that. But I’ll tell you a recent example of something I heard about: A woman composer had helped out a male composer, someone who was beginning in the business coming out of the pop world, right? He was just starting out doing some scoring, and she had helped facilitate that, knew a lot about scoring, adapted the thing. The picture was paid hourly. So a music supervisor reached out to her about doing this for another artist. She called me, and I said, you can’t be put in that position. I said, you do it as a co-composer or you don’t do it at all—a 50/50 co-composer. There were a lot of kerfuffles, and she had to be willing to walk away from the whole thing, but it worked out.
So I think it’s also about knowing sort of where you are in the scheme of things. She had gone from being in a position, three or four or five years ago where what she did for that other guy was appropriate for her and her career stage at that point, but had gone beyond that, had accumulated some major credits, and it no longer was appropriate for her to work in that capacity.
I can imagine myself in that position. Without having somebody to reflect it back to me and say, “you’ve earned X, Y, and Z, you’re at this level now.” It’s really hard to do that for yourself.
It’s very hard to do that for yourself. And that’s why – getting back to these communities – why it’s so important to establish that. A lot of people will pick up the phone and call me, especially women who are working on projects or don’t understand how to get to the next level. A woman called me and was very well established, but she had done mostly non-union scores, and she finally got something that was union and wasn’t sure how to proceed, and if she should do it that way, and how she should do it. I told her the information that I had, and was glad to. Even for women at more established levels, I think that we have found that to be very useful with each other, and there’s a group of us, maybe five or six of us, who frequently consult with each other now.
That’s great. Next time you come to visit us, I would love if you could tell my students how you guys set that up, and how that group has evolved over time.
I’d be glad to. It was sort of a subset that kind of evolved out of the Alliance, and now has become just a kind of… we talk to each other.
Vanessa Ague talks to composers Gemma Peacocke and Cassie Wieland about the music they created for a Kinds of Kings residency concert at National Sawdust in March, now postponed and awaiting rescheduling.
https://nationalsawdust.org/thelog/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Kinds-of-Kings-2020_photo-credit-Susanna.png641964Vanessa Aguehttps://nationalsawdust.org/thelog/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/national-sawdust-log.pngVanessa Ague2020-03-17 15:00:092020-03-17 15:56:51Inside National Sawdust: Kinds of Kings Explore Meyer Sound
Rebecca S. Lentjes looks back on the first three orchestral programs of "Project 19," the New York Philharmonic's ambitious initiative celebrating the centenary of women's suffrage with new works by 19 distinguished composers.
https://nationalsawdust.org/thelog/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Project-featured.jpg600900Rebecca S. Lentjeshttps://nationalsawdust.org/thelog/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/national-sawdust-log.pngRebecca S. Lentjes2020-03-06 18:00:432020-03-06 18:18:13New York Philharmonic: Project 19 Opens with Captivating Works
DIrector Joel Ivany and composer Michelle DiBucci talk to Olivia Giovetti about 'Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup,' the timely chamber opera Against the Grain Theatre is workshopping in residence at National Sawdust.
https://nationalsawdust.org/thelog/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Grain-banner.jpg8001500Olivia Giovettihttps://nationalsawdust.org/thelog/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/national-sawdust-log.pngOlivia Giovetti2020-02-12 11:46:272020-02-12 12:30:12Inside National Sawdust: Against the Grain Theatre in Residence
Martin Johnson reviews the premiere performance of 'Idiom VI,' a long-form composition Anna Webber presented in the Stone Commissioning Series at National Sawdust in January.
https://nationalsawdust.org/thelog/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Anna-Webber-banner.jpg8001500Martin Johnsonhttps://nationalsawdust.org/thelog/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/national-sawdust-log.pngMartin Johnson2020-02-05 16:08:422020-02-05 16:09:15In Review: Anna Webber Idiom VI