Music, math, architecture, and Jeanine Tesori

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Since the accomplishments of female lyricists, poets, novelists, visual artists, and performers of all stripes are well known and beyond question, I have long been puzzled that there is such a dearth of female composers both in musical theatre and in the classical concert hall. Women are perfectly capable of composing, but for some reason, they just don’t, at least not in proportion to their numbers. For every Clara Schumann, there are dozens and dozens of Roberts; for every Mary Rodgers, dozens and dozens of Richards. Is it the nature of music itself? Is it due to temperament or a difference between how male and female brains are wired? Is there any particularly good reason why the composition of music has to be a masculine endeavour?

At first I wondered if it’s because music is such an abstract, almost mathematical art, and girls have often been discouraged from excelling at mathematics and other sciences because “those are boy things” and “you’ll never get a man that way,” and so they’re similarly put off from writing music. Nowadays, of course, the situation at schools is changing, and women do work in maths and sciences at least on a par with their male counterparts. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I admit that while I’ve been writing music since I was eight, I’ve never really enjoyed math.

So maybe math isn’t the connection after all, but if it is, more and more women in the field of mathematics should lead to more and more women writing music. I hope so; a wider variety of voices can only enrich the art form and add to its vibrancy.

What’s a more compellling analogy, then? I’ve noticed that there are also comparatively few female architects. Maybe that’s it. Boys build things, whether because of aptitude or conditioning. Now, there are many ties between architecture and music. Music is basically architecture in sound and architecture is visible, tangible music. Architecture and music are essentially structural arts, sheet music is a kind of blueprint, and both architects and composers require other people to translate their blueprints into forms that are useful and meaningful to consumers—contractors and builders in the case of architecture, conductors and performers in the case of music.

What’s more, it takes a lot of financial resources to put up an office tower or premiere a large musical work. Someone has to pay those contractors, conductors, builders, and performers, and women have traditionally and unfairly received less funding than men. It’s a societal thing. I don’t much like it, but there it is, and it’s even worse when times are tight. If there’s less money for artists, there’s proportionately less money for female artists.

Those women who’ve had success as songwriters usually have had to work with smaller ensembles like pop bands, or acted as entrepreneurs and showcased their songwriting gifts as solo performers. Dolly Parton, Carole King, Cyndi Lauper, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Madonna—all of them are supremely talented artists, but as far as I know, none of them has written, or chosen to write, a symphony, though the first three have all had their work performed on Broadway.

Which brings me to theatre composer Jeanine Tesori. She’s truly exceptional, and I mean that in both senses of the word. At least two of her scores, CAROLINE, OR CHANGE and VIOLET, are among my favourites. She has enjoyed quite a bit of critical acclaim, but she has also confessed that she hasn’t had the easiest time making a living as a theatre composer. So while I’m pleased that her latest venture, FUN HOME, has received the usual plaudits from critics, I’m even happier that the show is playing to capacity audiences on Broadway, and I hope she receives her much deserved and overdue Tony Award this Sunday.

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