Classical music critic

Composer Missy Mazzoli, whose next opera will be premiered by the Washington National Opera in January. (Marylene Mey)

NPR’s recent list of the 150 greatest albums by women was inspiring — but where were the composers? In the wake of much discussion about the chronic underrepresentation of female composers on American concert programs, I came up with my own best-of list. Since I was responding to a list of recordings, I confined myself to artists active in the recorded music era, the 20th and 21st centuries — leaving out Hildegard von Bingen, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Wieck Schumann, Barbara Strozzi, Marianne Martinez, and many others. My selections are based on a combination of personal preference and some idea of what constitutes “importance,” and it was hard to winnow it down to only 35.

Meredith Monk: One of the musical pioneers of our time, Meredith Monk has been carving out her own channels through the artistic landscape since the 1960s, defying categorization with work that used to be characterized as “dance” but now is clearly “composition.” Monk’s trademark is extended vocal technique, mining the voice for expressive possibilities not contained within the established conventions of Western notation. With evocative titles like “Turtle Dreams” or “Dolmen Music,” her work has the feeling of a myth you’ve always known, rooted in our collective historical unconscious, offering a sense of deja vu in pieces that take the form of dreamlike narratives or “operas” (“Book of Days”), or of devotionals (“Songs of Ascension”). Now 74, she is working in an increasingly rich, instrument-based idiom, but has lost none of what she has called her “sense of wonder.”

Caroline Shaw: When she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, Shaw, 35, a violinist and singer, didn’t even consider herself a composer per se. But her “Partita for 8 Voices,” composed for the vocal group Roomful of Teeth (of which she is a member), a sequence of riffs on Baroque dance forms with a wide range of unusual vocal effects, got the attention of the Pulitzer jury. Shaw’s distinctive, lyrical vocal writing also got notice from the rapper Kanye West, who has both performed and released tracks with Shaw (including a remix of the song “Say You Will”). Recognition hasn’t changed Shaw’s honest, serious approach as she explores new musical idioms and forms — like her first-ever piece for orchestra (with solo violin), “Lo,” premiered by the North Carolina Symphony at the Shift festival in Washington in March. “It is a strikingly original and moving work that rethinks what orchestral writing can be,” Simon Chin wrote in The Washington Post. 

Joan Tower: A doyenne of American orchestral composers, Tower, 78, is known to many for her six “Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman,” a pendant to Aaron Copland’s ubiquitous musical prelude. However, these are relatively small works in a catalogue that has moved from early serialism to music that is impressionistic, colorful, and direct, like “Sequoia” (1981). Another signature piece, “Made in America” (2006), was performed in all 50 states before taking a Grammy award for Best Classical Composition in 2008. Tower has taught composition at Bard College in Upstate New York for 4½ decades, and co-founded the Da Capo Chamber Players in 1969 as a forum for her own and other contemporary works. (She left the ensemble in 1984.) In music, she told an interviewer in 2015, “the gender issue is nonexistent. … Now, outside the music, there’s all sorts of problems!”

Kaija Saariaho: The Finnish composer, 64, had a new wave of publicity when the Metropolitan Opera performed her “L’Amour de Loin” last season, but she came to international attention when the piece was first premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2000. Saariaho’s music is characterized by surging, luminous tones and textures, large masses of sound that move and change, more static meditations than dramatic journeys. Saariaho got her international start working in Paris at IRCAM, the computer and electronic music center founded by Pierre Boulez, and the resulting analytic sensibility and ability to consider music as sound, and sound as music has left its traces on her acoustic scores. But her work is anything but abstract, tied into a range of other human experiences and perception: sight and space, love and motherhood. “Long after the curtain goes down, you feel that you are still swimming along in her sound,” the musicologist Susan McClary told The New Yorker in 2016.

Pauline Oliveros: Oliveros, who died in 2016 at the age of 84, was a pioneer of tape music, creating works like the poignant “Bye Bye Butterfly,” which puts a recording of Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly” through a sequence of electronic filters, or “Crone Music,” which refracts and multiplies the sound of her own accordion. She is best remembered, though, for the work that she developed under the rubric “Deep Listening,” the name for both a trio of performers and a program based on the concepts of active listening and responding to other musicians. “Deep Listening” also underlined the autonomy of the individual in deciding how to create and experience music, liberating music’s practice from the restrictions of the Western canon — particularly with regard to female composers. “They are not necessarily intended to be concert pieces,” she told New Music Box in 2000, speaking of her seminal “Sonic Meditations.” “I turned the paradigm around by saying, ‘Okay, you make the music.’ ”

Julia Wolfe: In 1987, three young composers, David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, responded to their frustrations with the academic new-music scene by hosting a marathon performance featuring music of every style and stripe — and Bang on a Can was born. The organization has since spawned an ensemble, a record label, and summer festival, as well as the annual marathon; and all three composers have become elder statesmen of what’s been termed alt-classical music. Wolfe, 58, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for “Anthracite Fields,” an oratorio about life in the Pennsylvania coal mines; she is also a recent MacArthur Fellow. Like her fellow Bang on a Can composers (she is married to Gordon), she has been moving from shorter intense kinetic works, such as “Lick” (2009), to longer narrative ones: a piece about women in American labor will be premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 2018-19.


Sofia Gubaidulina: Like her colleague Arvo Part, Gubaidulina, 85, found refuge in music from the restrictions of life under the Soviet regime, seeing music as a link to the Divine in the face of proscription and blacklisting that kept her work unperformed for many years. A difference is that Gubaidulina's music is more conventionally dramatic: like the dark outbursts and suffocated solo-line outcries of the violin concerto “Offertorium,” which Gidon Kremer helped champion in the West. Another champion was Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom she wrote “Canticle of the Sun,” a cello concerto with chorus. Drawing on musical traditions from both East and West, Gubaidulina has explored folk music and instruments like the bayan, a Russian accordion. In 1992, she moved to Germany, where she has been able to enjoy her tremendous international renown. 

Missy Mazzoli: Already an established fixture on the Brooklyn scene with her band, Victoire (which played DC in 2011), the 36-year-old Mazzoli came to the attention of a wider audience in 2016 with her second opera, “Breaking the Waves,” which brought the lyricism of Benjamin Britten through a filter of Louis Andriessen into the 21st century. “It’s so easy to create an idea of what my music is based on its labels: classical, indie-classical, post-minimal, contemporary, chamber-pop, opera, orchestral, etc.,” she said in a 2015 interview. “None of these words really tells you anything about how the music sounds or how you will feel about it.” She’s written for orchestras like the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but her signature works remain vocal: from her first, acclaimed opera, “Song from the Uproar,” to the pop-song like “Cathedral City.” Her third opera, “Proving Up,” will be premiered in January as part of the Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative. 

Jennifer Higdon: One of today’s most-performed living composers, Higdon, 54, embodies a combination particularly appealing to American audiences: She’s at once a maverick and, in a certain way, a conservative. Self-taught until college, espousing no particular aesthetic school, she writes smart music that is not ashamed to be tonal, and beautiful. “Blue Cathedral,” one of the most-performed of all contemporary works, is a lush wash of tonalities throbbing through the orchestra. A teacher at the Curtis Institute, where she got her own graduate degree, she has formed relationships with some illustrious students, writing her vivid violin concerto, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, for Hilary Hahn, and her piano concerto, which the National Symphony Orchestra premiered in 2009, for Yuja Wang. In 2015 her first opera, “Cold Mountain,” had a success in its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera. “If my music is not communicating,” she said in 2012, “I feel it’s not doing its job.”

Lili Boulanger: Most rosters of great female composers include Nadia Boulanger, the composer, conductor, and influential teacher to a couple of generations of composers. But Nadia devoted considerable energies to keeping alive the memory of her sister, Lili, a child prodigy who died in 1918 at 24, having been the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome — with a big symphonic cantata, “Faust et Helene,” that like many Prix de Rome-winning pieces is a little too cumbersome and weighty to fully reveal the strengths of a composer whose best work is packed with color and light. Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra gave a fine reading of her sun-dappled “D’un matin de printemps” when they last appeared here in January, though her best-known short work is probably the “Pie Jesu” — possibly the only surviving section of a planned Requiem she did not live to finish.

Augusta Read Thomas, 53

An unabashed high modernist — no concessions to pop music here! — with a lyrical and even antic streak, Thomas writes uncompromising but engaging works with evocative titles drawn from her extensive reading of poetry. A former composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, she is first and foremost an orchestral composer whose work has been extensively performed — but because of union contracts and the fact that many of her premieres happened before orchestras such as Chicago started fielding their own recording labels, her work has been notably underrecorded. She got tenure at Eastman when she was only 33; she has since had other teaching posts and is now on the faculty at the University of Chicago.

Germaine Tailleferre, 1892-1983

The only female member of the group of French composers known as “Les Six” (which included Poulenc, Honegger, and Milhaud), Tailleferre was prolific throughout her lifetime but is best known for the work she wrote in the 1920s and 1930s when “Les Six” were most active. Although “Les Six” were partly conceived as a reaction against Wagner and the impressionism of Debussy, there is a French lightness to much of Tailleferre’s work. She moved between France and the United States a couple of times, leaving many of her manuscripts behind during the war years, and much of the music she wrote in the last decades of her life, when she taught music to children at a school in Paris, was not published until after her death.

Ruth Crawford Seeger, 1901-1953

The first woman to win a Guggenheim fellowship (in 1930), Crawford Seeger was a hugely influential American modernist composer whose string quartet left its mark on Elliott Carter and others. She became a significant figure in American music after Henry Cowell put her on the board of his New Music Society in the 1920s, with a host of significant compositions — her Three Songs set to poems by her friend Carl Sandburg represented the United States at the 1933 festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Amsterdam. Yet as the demands of family and her involvement with preserving American folk music took over (she was married to the musicologist Charles Seeger; Pete Seeger was her stepson; and Mike and Peggy Seeger, two of her four children), she gradually moved away from art-music composition to more folk-oriented work, from collections of folk-song adaptations to pieces such as “Risselty Rossolty, an American fantasy for orchestra,” written for an educational radio series.

Du Yun, 40

Her second opera, “Angel’s Bone,” with its haunting use of chorus and electronics woven around the solo voices in a searing story, was awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in music. Born to factory workers in China, initially trained as a pianist, Du Yun has parlayed degrees from Oberlin and Harvard into a career as a teacher and administrator — she is artistic director of the MATA festival, a cutting-edge event for new music — as well as a composer. Her piece “Dreaming of the Phoenix,” a contemporary take on the early Chinese-opera form kunqu, was performed at the Sackler in 2013; in The Washington Post, Stephen Brookes wrote that her “delicate and ethereal score . . . seemed to come alive with the shimmering mystery of a half-remembered dream.”

Anna Clyne, 37

London-born, Brooklyn-dwelling Clyne writes well-crafted music with close links to narrative, which makes her a natural for the ballet stage (“Rift,” for example, written in 2016 for the Cabrillo festival, is described as a “symphonic ballet”). Her music often incorporates electronic components in uneasy partnership with the acoustic instruments, as in “Seamstress,” her violin concerto written for Jennifer Koh, who also premiered her double concerto, “Prince of Clouds,” with Jaime Laredo — both with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where Clyne was composer in residence for five years. A mentor has been Marin Alsop, who commissioned Clyne’s “Masquerade” for her appearance conducting the last night of the BBC Proms in 2013.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir, 40

Already boasting a Deutsche Grammophon album devoted entirely to her work, the Icelandic composer creates atmospheric pieces: physical installations, or orchestral clouds of sound, in which one can bathe in the textures and contemplate the unconventional techniques used in creating details emerging from the whole. It is intricate and meditative music and is getting a lot of play these days; the International Contemporary Ensemble performed her installation “In the Light of Air” at the Atlas in the District a couple of years back, and Alan Gilbert led her “Aeriality” in one of his final concerts as music director of the New York Philharmonic this season.

Lera Auerbach, 43

The multitalented Russian American performer-composer — who is also a published poet — writes emotional, heart-on-the sleeve music steeped in nostalgia and a deep knowledge of the canon, including adaptations of and homages to composers from Mozart to Shostakovich, but tinged with unusual colors, like a theremin. She has written for many of the world’s leading orchestras — the New York Philharmonic premiered her latest violin concerto, “NYx: Fractured Dreams” in January, and several of her works have been performed at the Kennedy Center over the years, including “Requiem for Icarus,” a reworking of the last movements of her first symphony. Also a pianist, Auerbach recently recorded her own violin-and-piano version of Shostakovich’s 24 preludes, along with her own sonata “Arcanum,” on ECM.

Paola Prestini, 42

An ambitious entrepreneur, Prestini functions as both the mastermind behind large-scale performance projects and a kind of new-music activist, creating performance opportunities for a whole cadre of artists — most recently at National Sawdust, the factory-turned-performance-space she co-founded and runs in Brooklyn. Her own work runs to evening-length performance works and operas tackling ambitious and weighty themes about life and death and the cosmos, with music generally better than its themes, like the opera “Oceanic Verses,” an exploration of Italian folk music and the fate of women, performed at the Kennedy Center in 2012.

Unsuk Chin, 56

Born and raised in Korea and resident in Berlin, Chin writes music that reflects neither place as much as an eclectic and sometimes humorous approach of her own. There’s a healthy admixture of European postmodernism in works like “Acrostic Wordplay” from 1991, the first piece that gained her wide attention after she moved to Hamburg to study with Ligeti and others in 1985. The 2007 opera “Alice in Wonderland,” a quirky piece that definitely doesn’t follow the template of children’s opera, has been performed around the world and will be followed by “Through the Looking Glass,” scheduled to be premiered in London in 2018/2019.

Eve Beglarian, 59

An experimental composer and performer, Beglarian writes genre-defying, intimate music that resists categorization: a collage of sound and effect, voice and electronics, written for everything from a rock band to a found recording, and sometimes responding to collaborators such as Maya Beiser or a concept like kayaking down the Mississippi River, which resulted in “BRIM: the river project.” Her ongoing “Book of Days” is creating a kind of musical devotional book-cum-diary in excerpts and musical vignettes with texts by creators including Rilke the I Ching, expressed in an equally diverse musical vocabulary.

Sarah Kirkland Snider

Dense, layered, large-scale works for voice and instruments, probing the past, are a hallmark of this New Jersey-born composer. Rrecordings of her song cycles, including “Unremembered” (2015) and “Penelope” (2010), have won critical plaudits. (In The Washington Post, Tom Huizenga called “Unremembered” “a study in the beguiling power of memory.”) Snider is also a co-director of New Amsterdam Records, one of the main outlets for contemporary new-music recordings, with a de facto emphasis on the Brooklyn scene.

Laura Kaminsky, 60

Kaminsky has an extensive background in teaching and administration in addition to a long catalogue of chamber and orchestral works. The success of her first chamber opera, “As One” (2014), a poignant and effective piece about the transition of a transgender woman, has led to a new burst of activity for her on the chamber-opera scene; after “Some Light Emerges” for the Houston Grand Opera (2017), she is working on a new chamber piece for a consortium led by the San Francisco’s Opera Parrallele.

Gabriela Lena Frank, 44

Multiculturalism is an integral part of Frank’s extensive work. A sometimes member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, she often writes for non-Western instruments and explores her Peruvian heritage (on her mother’s side) in pieces such as “Leyendas: an Andean walkabout,” mingling folk feeling with compositional sophistication.

Lisa Bielawa, 48

A vocalist and composer who co-founded the MATA festival with support from Philip Glass, to whose ensemble she belonged for some time, Bielawa has written a number of pieces juxtaposing voice and acoustic instruments in small ensembles but is increasingly aiming larger with pieces such as “Hypermelodia” for big band, chamber orchestra and percussion. Her current project is “Vireo,” an opera crafted to be released in broadcast form, like a television serial.

Melinda Wagner, 60

Winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for her Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion, Wagner has been commissioned by a panoply of American orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic (her energetic trombone concerto was written for Joseph Alessi) and the Chicago Symphony (which premiered her piano concerto for Emanuel Ax). Her music is non-allusive but has an engaging, propulsive continuity.

Galina Ustvolskaya, 1919-2006

Strongly supported by her teacher, Shostakovich, Ustvolskaya was among those composers who remained little-performed under the Soviets. She worked steadily, however, ultimately moving past the audible influence of her teacher to create an oeuvre of dark, brutal uncompromising work. “Scream into Space” is the subtitle of her second symphony, which describes the sense of futile anguish evident in many of her pieces.

Shulamit Ran, 67

The second woman to win the Pulitzer Prize (for her Symphony, in 1991), the Israeli-born Ran has lived in Chicago for most of her professional life, where she was composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony Orhcestra for seven seasons and, until recently, taught at the University of Chicago. Her music draws on a wide range of material from other mediums, including literature and visual art, in scores that are now thorny, then surging with a kind of contemporary romanticism.

Chen Yi, 64

Born into a musical household in China but forced to work in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, Chen Yi is one of several expatriate Chinese composers who in the 1990s and early 2000s brought some of the sounds and instruments of China into the vocabulary of Western orchestras, particularly in American concert halls.

Amy Beach, 1867-1944

The first American woman to compose large-scale art music, Beach focused on composition after marriage compelled her to pull back from what had been an active career as a pianist. The Handel and Haydn Society’s performance of her Mass in E-flat gained her renown, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra subsequently premiered both her Gaelic Symphony and piano concerto (with her as soloist). After her husband died, she traveled extensively in Europe, and her writings about the European music scene remain a valuable testimony to an era; but her unpopular political sympathies (with Germany in World War I and Mussolini in the 1930s) may have contributed to her postwar neglect.

Valerie Coleman, 47

In 1997, Coleman, unhappy with the underrepresentation of musicians of color in the classical music world, founded Imani Winds, a wind quintet whose name is the Swahili word for “hope.” The group has gone on to considerable success, and Coleman remains its flutist and composer in residence with a catalogue mainly of chamber works for her ensemble as well as some pieces for other instrumentations, often incorporating whiffs of jazz and evocative illustrations of the music of the South, such as “Red Clay and Mississippi Delta,” which Joan Reinthaler, in The Washington Post, called “a family portrait in sound,” and “terrific.”

Libby Larsen, 66

A pathbreaking figure in creating a sense of community in the American new-music scene, Larsen co-founded the organization that became the American Composers Forum and was the first woman to hold a residency with a major American orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, in 1983. She has written 11 operas, from a children’s opera based on “A Wrinkle in Time” to “Every Man Jack,” about Jack London, and has a huge catalogue of choral music, in addition to several symphonies and large-scale orchestral works.

Florence Price, 1887-1953

A 1906 graduate of the New England Conservatory, Price was the first African American woman to have her music played by a major orchestra — the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which performed her first symphony after she took first place in the Wanamaker Foundation Awards. She incorporated American folk tunes and material from the African American religious tradition in her native South in expressive, accomplished works.

Gloria Coates, 78

The most prolific female symphonist — she has written 16 of them, though she says she didn’t originally set out to write a symphony at all — the American Coates has lived largely in Germany for most of her career and remains less known in the United States. Her music is a kind of impassioned postminimalism characterized by a use of orchestral glissandos and crescendos — slow steady movements of a whole body of instruments. She has also written extensively for voice.

Judith Weir, 63

The first woman to assume the role of Master of the Queen’s Music, knighted for her service to the field, Weir, a former composer in residence with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, has written a number of operas in a tonal vein, of which “A Night at the Chinese Opera” (1987), her first, has been arguably the most successful.

Cécile Chaminade, 1857-1944

Chaminade was one of those composers who were acclaimed during their lifetimes and neglected afterward. Her works, mainly piano pieces and songs, gained her a following not only in France, but also in England and the United States, where she toured to great success in 1908. She made a number of piano rolls but gradually ceased composing as she grew older.

For further exploration, look into the music of Ethyl Smyth, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Elodie Lauten, Hannah Lash, Kate Soper, Elena Kats-Chernin, Kati Agocs, Anne LeBaron, Adriana Holszky, Olga Neuwirth, Thea Musgrave, Lucia Dlugoszewski, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Judith Lang Zaimont, Tania Leon, Margaret Brouwer, Bernadette Speach, Lori Laitman, Dalit Warshaw, Elena Ruehr, Arlene Sierra, Andrea Clearfield, Ursula Mamlok, Victoria Bond, Barbara Kolb, Agata Zubel, Nicola LeFanu, Peggy Stuart Coolidge, Mary Ellen Childs, Zoe Keating, Alexandra Gardner, Rachel Portman, Betsy Jolas, Nancy van de Vate, Cindy McTee, Marti Epstein, as well as jazz composers Maria Schneider and Nicole Mitchell, and performance artists including Laurie Anderson, Pamela Z, Joan LaBarbara, and Diamanda Galas. A firm case could be made as to why any of these women should be included on this list in place of any others.