THE WOMENS COMPOSERS COLLECTIVE, a facebook group for women composers – including female-identifying composers and their allies – have produced their first showreel.
What do you think about your piece, why did you write it, what was it for? What do you like about it and why?
ARHYNN DESCY:My track Julia is from a film (a thriller) I scored called Sea of Lies. Julia is the main protagonist in the film and this scene is one in which she makes some important decisions. It’s her theme.
KRISTEN BAUM: This piece lived in my mind for over a decade before I finally finished it. When I first read the poem, a melody immediately sprang to mind and it remained there, reminding me that I had yet to fully realize it. It took me a couple of passes to get the accompaniment to the place I really liked it. I wrote “Oh Moon” partly because it wouldn’t leave my mind. It’s my first art song. The lyrics are from a sonnet my brother Joe Henry wrote while he was in high school, which made it incredibly special to me—to create this art song based on his poetry.
RUBY CASTELLANOS: Indestructible was a piece I wrote back in 2016 following some personal hardships. At the time I was working with Razor Edge Games, a video game startup based out of Phoenix, as a voice actor. Shortly after that, I used this piece to audition for a Composer role within the Company. Fortunately enough, I got the spot. My favorite part of this piece is the brass section, I love how the lower frequencies really emphasize on that “Indestructible” feeling.
KATIE SEATON: My track was written as a theme tune for a short audio drama called Breathless, by Lindsay Harris-Friel, a writer from Philadelphia. The story is about a museum exhibition of the remains of three women who, in a past age, had been plucked from what was then called the ‘lower classes,’ trained to hold their breath underwater, then turned into exhibits at a travelling freak show as ‘mermaids,’ where they were also sexually exploited and died young because of the conditions they lived in. Two vain and vacuous young women visit the exhibition for thrills and giggles and, it being a ghost story, things don’t go well for them!
The director, Sarah Golding (who is always a good source of ideas!), wanted watery, eerie, claustrophobic music and gave me the experimental group Aquasonics as a musical reference. They have developed techniques for performing underwater in tanks (check it out: it’s weird and wonderful stuff!). I was particularly keen to bring out the idea that the identities of these three women, if we didn’t choose collectively to remember them, would be ‘submerged’ forever. I wanted the music to join the writer in asking, “will we help such women to exist, by acknowledging them in history?”
JUDE COWAN MONTAGUE: Astercote is from my 2018 album, ‘Hammond Hits’, out on Linear Obsessional, created by myself with my partner, Matthew Armstrong. We were driving through the Sussex countryside a lot at the time and the tunes are influenced by this English rural imagination. The whole album is a series of odes to and for my Hammond organ which I bought from a church in Fulham for £50. Buying a Hammond organ is no joke, not the classic tonewheel variety. Very difficult to transport. It’s a labour of love simply to move it about. But so so worth it. It’s a wonderful instrument, a beast, it’s alive with electricity.
ROSEMARY DUXBURY: I wrote ‘Light Falling’ after British composer Geoffrey Burgon suggested to me that I write a companion work to an earlier string piece. The inspiration came from comparing an inner experience of light ‘falling’ to that of snow falling lightly like soft downy feathers – forming a new brighter landscape of light – which was happening outside my window as I wrote the piece. I’m delighted it’s been performed in concert several times and also used for a film soundtrack.
Any collaborators you want to thank?
ARHYNN DESCY: I had two amazing and talented musicians join me on this film; Francina Moll Salord on the violin and Carola Krebs on the cello, with me on the piano. The score was recorded and mixed at Air-Edel by the fantastic Nick Taylor.
KRISTEN BAUM: Gratitude goes to my brother Joe Henry. Without his poem, this music would never have sprung to my mind and I may not have imagined writing an art song, much less actually doing it. Gratitude also to Beau Stroupe for workshopping it with me and to Jon Lee Keenan for singing it so beautifully on the demo.
KATIE SEATON: The result of Sarah’s brief and my own ideas is what you hear. I made the track entirely from my own voice using various wacky recording methods (and some manipulation in a soft synth) and that is one reason why I’m rather fond of it – not often you get to put a microphone in a condom and sing with your head stuck in your own bathroom sink! The other reason is that strong message about those forgotten female and socially disadvantaged voices fading in and out of existence, which I think is made more present in the music by the way I’ve used filtering.
JUDE COWAN MONTAGUE: I want to thank Matthew Armstrong. He’s an amazing man. For moving and fixing the Hammond organ and all our other vintage organs. And for working out the tunes with me. For playing drums so regularly that people think he’s a drum machine. And for playing such excellent bass guitar.
ROSEMARY DUXBURY: I am immensely grateful to the performers, recording engineers and broadcasters who support and enable my music coming out into the world. “Light Falling” was premiered in 1993 by the Helix Ensemble (conducted by Jonathan Grieves-Smith) and in 2006 it was recorded by the Italian orchestra Sinfonica Aosta conducted by Emmanuel Siffert for whom I have great admiration. It was recorded by Renato Campajola and Mario Bertolo in Italy for my album ‘Streams’ on the Charasound label. Radio host Marvin Rosen has also been a tremendous supporter and gave it its first radio broadcast on ‘Classic Discoveries’ of WPRB Radio in America.
What are your ambitions as a composer?
ARHYNN DESCY: I write music for film and TV and that is where my heart lies. I love the collaborative nature of it. As a composer it is my job to realise the director’s vision, I am inspired by the visuals; by the acting, the sets, the colours, the pacing. I love how all the different departments come together to create a work of art that is bigger than the sum of their parts.
KRISTEN BAUM: Ambition is a funny thing and I have wrestled a lot with the concept. I can make music. I cannot make the world listen to it. My ambition when I first moved to Los Angeles was to become a film composer. I still hold that desire although I’ve widened it somewhat since coming to LA. I want to tell my stories—both through words and music now. I compose for film and write stories and poetry. My ambition is to do each of those in ways that inspire us as human beings.
RUBY CASTELLANOS: My aspirations as a composer are to one day have my music played in a variety of films and video games. Hopefully I can even get a popular orchestra to perform a piece at a beautiful amphitheater somewhere.
KATIE SEATON: I especially want to build work in the fields of audio fiction/documentary and animation – though almost all composing and sound designing interests me. I love projects that can represent subjective experience, show people the inside of other people’s heads. I’m about to finish an animation that I have produced, Suspended, that does just this for a refugee living in my area. I’ll shortly be starting on a one-act opera for St Albans Chamber Opera, which will also be a ghost story. And on the audio side, I’m learning tonnes about long-term musical development, and how it can be crafted to entwine with and enhance a well-crafted plot arc over the course of a few years, in the audio drama podcast series The Hidden People.
JUDE COWAN MONTAGUE: I am working on a Moog album, using my minimoog, it’s a Welsh minimoog made by Alex Winter and there are only six or seven in the world. Very special. At the moment my main ambition is just to finish this incredible project. And push forward the songwriting and tunesmithery into new areas. It should surprise and hopefully enchant. My ambition is to release it next year on Linear Obsessional, but these albums take time so we’re beavering away.
ROSEMARY DUXBURY: As a composer, my initial source of inspiration is from within, a place where I feel the lifeforce (which can be experienced as streams of light and sound) can be accessed. If the music inspires or uplifts the listener, and can enable them to discover that place or source within themselves, then I am delighted and feel the music has been successful. One of the loveliest things that I hear quite regularly from audiences is that they went on an inner journey through the music. People report of being ‘transported’, often getting visual experiences. I am interested in dreams, in soul and its nature, and it may be that the music helps people to access that different state where they are able to experience freedom and gain insights away from physical constraints. As well as writing for recordings and concert, I am also increasingly keen to write more for film, and work with other media such as dance.
What do you think about being a women and a composer at this point in time?
ARHYNN DESCY: I think it’s both a difficult and exciting time to be a woman composer. There are still far too few women being hired – and more specifically being hired on the big stages, whether that’s film, mainstream TV or the concert stage. And a lot of work needs to be done to change that, but the exciting thing is that it is actually changing. There are more initiatives, there’s more awareness and there have been wins like Pinar Toprak scoring Captain Marvel – the first woman to score a tent pole film.
KRISTEN BAUM: That’s so loaded for me because I’m both a woman and a composer and I can’t figure out how to be defined simply as a composer, although that would be the ideal for me. There was a brief time when I was at the Sundance Composers’ Lab that I truly felt I was just that — a composer among composers. No one reminded me I was a woman composer during the whole first week. And it felt wonderful to simply be one of the composers. One of the Fellows. The next week, one generous and kind person told me, “We’re all rooting for you.” And it threw me for a loop. I didn’t know what to do with it. It was so kind and at the same time, it felt like suddenly a spotlight had been aimed at me and I was a pink elephant at the circus and there was that kid pointing and saying, “Look, Mom. That one’s different.” At the time, I didn’t understand the depth and breadth of that statement—we’re all rooting for you. I didn’t understand what was behind it, which now, looking back, I am beginning to grasp. It said so many things, not the least of which was, “We acknowledge you are fighting a difficult battle, that you are an invisible segment in this arena who is daring to say, ‘Look at me. I do this, too.’ And ultimately, it said, “We want you to succeed, too, despite the odds we see.”
I don’t mean to imply that it’s easy for my male colleagues to build careers in film composing. Simply that it’s more possible for them. And having it be more possible is a huge thing. The world can visualize it. The world can affirm it, rather than say, “Oh, that’s different,” and move on, not assimilating the information that women are as capable as men. One thing Geena Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, is constantly promoting is the idea that if she can see it, she can be it. And that means we have to let women into the fields they are still excluded from, we have to allow them to shine, to rise, to be, to do and we need to show the next generations coming up that not only are they capable, but that they will be allowed by society to hold those positions just like their fathers and brothers and husbands are allowed to do. Women are beginning to study composing more and colleges are willing to teach them composing whether the world will be able to see them as composers or not.
At the same time, it seems there’s a shift in our society. There’s a movement, and women are coming together to say we do this, too. And we have done this for a very long time. I think of Hildegard of Bingen, who was a composer (among other things) during her lifetime, 1098-1179. Then Clara Schumann springs to mind, who married Robert Schumann; both were equally talented composers though he is better known and more widely performed. And then there’s Fanny Mendelssohn, who’s music was sometimes passed off as her brother’s at the urging of her father and brother. This type of behavior is not okay. It’s not a hobby for us and we don’t want to be passed over or marginalized or patted on the head for it. We are as serious about composing as our male colleagues. And we would like the same opportunities that have been afforded them. We would like the same level of recognition. The same respect and treatment. I, for one, would like women’s works programmed on concerts with the rest of humankind. As a woman, I don’t want to continue supporting concerts that continue programming solely men’s work while at the same time giving lip service to how much respect they have for women while continuing to exclude them from the programs. When I see new works in which women’s experience is translated by men, it stirs me up. I find the male lens to be so prevalent that most of us don’t even register when female experience is being told through a male filter.
JUDE COWAN MONTAGUE: I want to encourage more women to think of themselves as composers. Many women say they are songwriters but do not consider themselves composers. I say, take that leap of faith, and think of your skills seriously. And songwriters and all composers, push yourself as well, don’t try and write something that you think fits the idea of what a popular song is, develop your own voice. Be interesting!
ROSEMARY DUXBURY: It’s an exciting time for women composers, because their music is now starting to be more fully explored and valued. When I first started out, at times it was hard to be taken seriously, but composing is my life’s work, and I just see myself as an individual dedicated to working with the ‘sound current’ and bringing music into the world.
Listen to Katharine Seaton’s work for audio-drama: https://hiddenpeoplepodcast.com/