Features and Columns · Movies

Aural Fixation: Where Are All The Female Composers?

By  · Published on March 1st, 2012

I probably listen to more scores than most people (or even most film fans) do and I realized that while the various scores filling my iTunes range from action (LOUD NOISES!) to drama (sad guitars) to comedy (funny guitars!) one fact remains consist across the board – the majority of these scores are composed by men. In a time where the ladies are starting to make their presence more and more known in film (which, let’s be honest, has been a veritable boy’s club up until the past few decades) with Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director for 2008’s The Hurt Locker to the ladies of Bridesmaids taking some of the raunchy comedy heat from the boys, it surprised me to see such a lack of a female presence when it came to who creates the music for these films. I am a lady and I (clearly) have a passion for music and know girls have just as much musical talent as the guys – so why is my gender lacking in the “Original Music by” section of IMDb?

As I started looking into this question, I began to realize that the majority of female composers seemed to be working in television. Women seem to be much more prominent in the world of TV with The Chop Shop’s Alexandra Patsavas (who has placed the music for shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Chuck, and Gossip Girl) practically ruling the role of music supervisor and the duo of Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman (“Wendy & Lisa”) composing the music for popular shows such as Heroes, Nurse Jackie and the upcoming FOX series Touch. But when it comes to creating scores for film, as Mary J. Blige would say, where my ladies at?

Back in 2009, a panel titled the “Music in Film and Television” (organized by Women In Film) featured five female composers (including Melvoin and Coleman), most of whom had made names for themselves in television. One of the panelists, composer Lisbeth Scott, did contribute to the score for Avatar by providing vocals for the music composed (and attributed to) James Horner and while British composer Helene Muddiman had just composed the music for the film Skin, she has since only composed music for television with fellow panelist, Hillary Thomas, also having composed (and continuing to) primarily for television. So why is it that female composers seem to live mainly on the small screen while male composers dominate the silver one?

Mikael Carlsson wrote a piece for the International Alliance for Women in Music that also tackled this question of female composers and in his piece interviewed composer John Ottman (The Usual Suspects, X2 and Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer) who said:

“It’s simply been women not being viewed as having the “chops” that males have – especially when it comes to “commanding” scores, or those with aggression. The misconception is that women composers tend to be meek, less bold or daring. And if they try to do so, the prejudice against them is that their efforts are seen as contrived or forced; in other words, trying to imitate boldness and not doing it naturally. So women composers have been in a sort of “Catch 22.” Because of this, I assume there are not as many women composers even trying to get into an uphill battle because they’re discouraged being faced with a glass ceiling.”

Outside of placing pop songs into certain scenes, the need for score in television is fairly limited to dramas and action based shows which may make the idea of having someone with less experience or not as extensive a background a good candidate to take the reins to create the mood for these serials. Creating the score for a film is certainly a much larger undertaking with more money at play and may be part of the reason it is taking a bit longer for women to really get a foothold there while their presence is slowly (but surely) coming to our television screens.

But make no mistake, there are female composers who are starting to break through into the film world starting with Shirley Walker who back in 1992 composed the score for John Carpenter’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man and became the first woman to compose (and conduct) the score for a major Hollywood release. More recently, Rachel Portman has been helping to break the mold having scored (and been solely accredited for) such films as The Other Sister, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, The Manchurian Candidate and, one of my favorite scores from 2010, Never Let Me Go. Since then, Portman has scored the music for One Day, The Vow and the upcoming Bel Ami and while it is less than inspiring to see Portman caught up in creating music for films aimed at the female, rom-com demographic, the fact that she is creating good music for wide releases is how these doors get opened.

My question remains – why are these women not well-known? Where is the female Hans Zimmer or Cliff Martinez? Even in looking over the list of composers for Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions, there is only one woman (Lisa Gerrard) listed among the forty plus names. And while Gerrard won a Golden Globe for her work on Gladiator, she shared the honor with Zimmmer (who she did collaborate with on the score) and on her next big release, Ali, Gerrard shared composing duties with another man, Pieter Bourke. Again, I am not trying to discredit male composers or claim they are not talented, I am just questioning why you rarely hear about female composers when it comes to film and when you do, they seem to be paired with a man.

The simple answer is – change is coming, but it’s slow going. Those tapped into the world of film music or those who take the time to ask, “Who composed that?” may have come across some of the names mentioned here and even if you were to name the composers (male and female) who worked on the films released last year, most people would probably not recognize the names like they would a famous director or writer. Music is an important aspect of film and television, but those who create that music do not yet get the same notoriety as the Spielbergs, Nolans, and Sorkins, no matter what their gender.

So this is my siren call to all those female musicians and all filmmakers – let’s start getting some more female voices (and I don’t just mean vocals) out there holding the conductor’s baton and creating scores that will have the number of female composers rivaling (or at least equaling) those of the men.

What do you think about the lack of female composers? Was there a score mentioned here you were surprised to find out was written by a woman?

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