Four female musicians

The Women Who Lead Us

One day, in the middle of a composition lesson, my teacher turned to me and asked, “Do you think that music written by women is different than music written by men?”

I faltered for a reply; we had been talking about counterpoint. “Er, no?”

“Neither do I,” he said, nodding with satisfaction. “I think that when you listen to a piece written by a woman and compare it to a piece written by a man, you can’t tell the difference – at all.” And then we continued with the lesson.

I was puzzled by that interaction for a long time. What was his point? On the surface, it seemed he wanted to assure me, an aspiring female composer, that he held no gender-related prejudices. But below it, I felt troubled by an implication that the path to quality, let alone equality, was through sameness. 

Thinking back on this interaction, it feels poignantly framed by some of today’s hot-button themes: gender roles, diversity and fear – and the extent to which they’re all related. And it also makes me wonder about my own female role models in music. Is there a common thread among them, besides the fact that we share a gender, that makes them particularly inspiring to me? Or do they bring me some new understanding of musicianship that I couldn’t have gotten from anyone else? To find out, I took a closer look at some of the women who have most influenced my vision of what it means to be a true artistic leader.

Marin Alsop



When I was an undergraduate, I spent a summer working at a small music shop in Baltimore. On the wall hung an enormous poster of Marin Alsop, and it wasn’t until a customer nodded at it and said, “Pretty cool to have her here – a conductor that makes history,” that I realized that’s what she was: historic. Thus I had the localite’s distinct pleasure of realizing that something that I considered normal was, in fact, a big deal. 

But that’s what trailblazers do – make the unusual usual – and Alsop is nothing if not a trailblazer. She’s the first female conductor to lead a major American orchestra, the first woman to win the Koussevitzky Conducting Prize – the list of firsts goes on. And throughout her career, she has tirelessly advocated for other female conductors so that, as she said at the BBC Proms Finale, there can be “seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths, hundreds” to come. 

When I had the opportunity to speak with Alsop during last summer’s Cabrillo Festival, I asked how she has handled opposition throughout her life. She was adamant about focusing on positive progress. “People say, well, things are changing. But we have to be vigilant about change. For me, rather than focus on negative things – because you can’t change people – I think trying to be part of a world where everyone is treated with respect, and where everyone has similar opportunities, is what interests me.”

Julia Wolfe



I believe that artists should be nonjudgmental about what inspires them. Still, for a long time I was afraid to embrace my own love of rock, pop, hip-hop, etc., along with my classical music life. Then I got into Julia Wolfe, and I realized what a waste it would be if I continued to compartmentalize myself. 

Wolfe doesn’t. She frequently describes herself as influenced by both Led Zeppelin and Beethoven, but I feel like she leans perhaps a little farther into the Led Zeppelin camp. Her music is noisy and reckless in the gorgeous ways of rock: Clarinets squeal and strings saw away like distortion in Big Beautiful Dark and Scary; Anthracite Fields whips out the full drum set, the cowbells and bicycle parts, the electric guitars. 

As both a composer and co-founder of the pioneering organization Bang on a Can, Wolfe’s projects have helped define contemporary music-making. But her most recent works, like Steel Hammer and Anthracite Fields, excite me the most because they boldly expand the role of the composer into something more like a journalist or an anthropologist. I think that the courage it takes to reshape a discipline, as Wolfe has done, is nothing to sneeze at. And Wolfe will continue that composer-as-documentarian trend in a new work for the New York Philharmonic, which focuses on women laborers in the garment industry.

Kaija Saariaho



Artists are supposed to traffic in innovation, but the solitude – the plain-like, treeless exposure of going out on a limb – can be prohibitively terrifying. One person who did not cave to insecurity is Kaija Saariaho, who at many points in her life was the only woman in her circle. 

In her native Finland, she first felt the need to “get out,” saying she “started to be labeled right away as ‘the woman composer,’ because there were no others.” That led her to Germany, where she met a rare female compatriot – who then in turn led her to Paris, and then IRCAM, the institute founded by Pierre Boulez to research electronic music. There, Saariaho was again the only female composer. But at IRCAM she began to find her true voice as a composer, launching a body of orchestral, chamber and operatic works that have pushed spectralism into lush, colorful, intuitive grounds; she was also among the first wave of composers to bring electronic music to classical concert halls.

Like Marin Alsop, Saariaho has inspired overdue reflection and social progress by simply existing. But she speaks directly to the issue, too. In both a recent episode of WQXR’s Meet the Composer podcast and in a speech given at McGill University, Saariaho lamented how gender roles seem to her to be regressing, saying we “need to incorporate more of the brainpower of women to create a diverse, multidimensional society.”

Laurie Anderson



Sometimes I get an idea for a project or for a direction in life I might want to pursue, and immediately all these voices erupt, saying things like, “No, stop, can’t you just pick one thing and focus?” Then I think of Laurie Anderson, and the voices say, “Oh … why not?”

Laurie Anderson does everything. In a piece for The New Yorker, she writes, “I am what is known as a ‘multimedia artist.’ I chose that description because it doesn’t mean anything.” This happy disregard for category is what allows her to fall into so many. Anderson started life as a violinist but quit serious study at the age of 16 because the traditional life of a musician felt too restrictive. From there on, her career path includes (but is not limited to) being: a performance artist, comics illustrator, avant-pop star, instrument inventor, filmmaker, voice actor, Guantánamo-inmate-light-beamer and, of course, composer.

But what, I think, I love best about Laurie Anderson is her levity. It runs in playful contradiction to the seriousness of her work, which cycles through themes of political authoritarianism, our relationship with technology and the power of language. With Anderson, I get the sense that she wakes up each day and makes a conscious choice to engage with the world to her fullest capacity – because she wants to. It inspires me and, I hope, many others to do the same.

What do these women teach me? They are all courageous and persistent in the face of difficulty; they are all fabulously unfettered in pursuing what interests them. I also notice that they are vocal about fighting for a diverse experience, whether in their own career or, more directly, in the makeup of their community. But more importantly, I notice their individuality. 

That makes me think about what we mean by diversity in the first place. Is it assimilation? Or is it a celebration of differences? In my world, I’d want it to mean the latter, and I’d want it to begin as a feeling, an attitude of hunger for the new. Without that, what’s the point? If I “can’t tell the difference” between one piece of music and another, why should I listen to more than one piece – forever? So more than anything, these women teach me to fight against comfort and fear, and to get out of the feedback loop of my own experience. That’s when true progress happens.

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure

Elizabeth Nonemaker

Elizabeth Nonemaker is a composer, writer and managing editor for She writes about classical music for The Baltimore Sun and has worked for Children’s Radio Foundation and KPCC’s “The Frame.” As a composer, …more 

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1 Response

  1. “But below it, I felt troubled by an implication that the path to quality, let alone equality, was through sameness.”
    I would be much more bothered if the path to quality/equality was through “other-ness.”
    Anyway, that’s not even what your teacher said. “Not being able to tell the difference” between music written by a male or female composer is not the same as “It all sounds the same.” Do you think he meant that music by, say, Claude Vivier, Robert Ashley, William Schuman, and Brian Ferneyhough (four male composers) sounds “the same”? I doubt it.
    What I’m sure he meant is this: When you are judging an anonymous composition competition, there is no way to know whether any given piece was written by a woman, man, or trans composer.
    How is that a troubling implication?

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