5 Questions to Elisabeth Blair (Listening to Ladies)

In a country whose preeminent opera house can go a century without programming any women composers, and whose president-elect has been accused of sexual assault by a dozen different women, thank goodness for Listening to Ladies, an online showcase and podcast highlighting the work of women composers. Listening to Ladies was launched in 2015 by founder and director Elisabeth Blair, who was concerned by the Met Opera’s 113 male-only years and stats indicating that, during the 2015-2016 season, the top 89 symphony orchestras in the U.S. dedicated only 2% of their programming to music composed by women. Listening to Ladies not only promotes music by non-cis-male composers, but also draws daily attention to gender disparities in the classical music world, both in person through a concert series, and online via social media presence.

You started out as a Facebook page but have expanded to a daily showcase, concert series, and podcast. What was the process like for organizing such a rapid expansion?

Well, when you say ‘organizing’ it sounds pretty important. As it actually happened, I stopped going to grad school full time (I took only two credits last semester and I’m taking just one credit this semester), got financial help from my family, applied for a bunch of grants (haven’t gotten any yet) and threw myself into doing as much of this as I can, with as much of my time as I can spare. I strongly believe in the value of raising awareness of women who compose classical music. This area of the arts has missed out on much of what the 20th century had to offer vis-à-vis feminism and equity. The Victorianesque state of affairs in the classical music world stunned and appalled me when I discovered it (I was coming from a background in the much more up-to-date visual arts and folk/rock music scenes) and frankly, it pissed me off. And I remain pissed off. 

My friend, singer-songwriter Krystee Wylder, has helped me with the daily showcase on the website for over a year now, and I have just started getting some great help in data collection and organizing from composer Maria V. Paterno, but as far as the podcast is concerned, I have thus far been working alone. So, what has the process been like? All-consuming. Passionate. Full of sacrifice and full of blessings. I’ve been so honored both to receive these women’s stories and to have this opportunity to share their voices. 

To me, intersectionality is the most important issue facing feminists today. How do you (and how can we) work to ensure that the music not only of women, but people of color, trans and nonbinary people, and disabled people can be more equitably represented in the contemporary classical music scene? 

It takes work. You can’t just wish it and have it be so. You can’t just be “woke” and assume that things will therefore unfold in a nice, tidily diverse way. It takes actual elbow grease. To make a new syllabus for your music history course, it’ll take you extra time and energy (work). To create a more equitable concert program, it’ll take research and outreach (work). To make my podcast, I started with an ad on The Composer’s Site in September 2015 asking for women composers to contact me. Out of the many who contacted me, I happily gathered up a dozen whom I thought were good candidates. It was a few months before I managed to notice they were all white and that most were between the ages of 20–40. I wish it hadn’t taken me that long, but so it was, and I got to noticing eventually. I then had to do work— to find and reach out to other communities. I’ve gotten my list of interviewees down to a pretty good mix at this point, particularly with regards to age and race, but there is more I could be doing, and there are more communities I haven’t yet reached out to.

That brings me to the second most important ingredient needed to build equitable representation: humility. Be willing to admit you could improve, and be willing to seek out new knowledge, new communities, new tactics, and even new ways of thought in order to do better next time. Then repeat that process for the rest of your life, every single time you are in a position in which you hold power or are a ‘gatekeeper’ of any kind—whether you’re on a selection committee, or you teach, or you write, or you’re a radio host, or a podcaster, or you’re just choosing what pieces you’ll be performing in your student recital. These are all moments in which you hold power—the power to either showcase diverse voices or to omit and thereby help silence those voices. The choices we make in those moments are incredibly important.

The final ingredient (if I’m going to go along with the faux-tidy bullet-point approach here for what is actually a complex process) is to teach. If we have learned something, we need to share it. That’s why humility is so important—without it, we’ll hide our mistakes and others won’t get the benefit of them. I’m speaking here especially to white cis individuals like myself, but also to larger organizations. There is a great organization in Canada, the Toronto branch of the Canadian Music Centre, who are actively working on listening to people and finding solutions. To give one example, they saw that the gender ratio for some of their workshops was poor and they sent out feelers asking why. It turned out that a lot of women who would like to be involved were mothers who found it difficult to obtain childcare, so the CMC began finding ways to offer childcare during their workshops. That’s a valuable process they went through—identification of the problem, humility in exposing it, asking for help, and creative problem solving to arrive at workable solutions. 

So we need to be sharing our solutions, but just as vitally, we need to share our problems, because until we see there is a problem, we won’t be engaged in fixing it. We have to compare notes. The goal is not to save face—the goal has to be equity.

Elisabeth Blair--Photo by Dan Diffendale

Elisabeth Blair–Photo by Dan Diffendale

How do you strike the right balance between “established” composers and composers who might be described as “emerging”? 

Regarding the podcast:

One thing I’ve learned is that many excellent composers stay “emerging” for their entire careers. They do not get the recognition that is given to male colleagues of the same generation with similar backgrounds. This disparity ranges from a lack of high-profile performances to a lack of a decent Wikipedia article (or even the existence of an article at all).

When I’m deciding who to feature in the podcast, I’m thinking about whether the composer is devotedly making music with all the time and energy they can spare, and with a true professionalism. I am not particularly interested in who has the most impressive resume. I’m interested in who these women are—these women who choose to spend their lives composing music regardless of the amount of success it’s garnered. Where do they come from physically, socially, emotionally, community-wise? What goes on in their minds? What do they hope to communicate with their music? I’m interested in their stories as much as (or possibly, secretly more than) their music. 

Regarding the online showcase:

I have very few restrictions for the daily showcase. It basically needs to be classical/new music (encompassing acoustic and most electroacoustic works, and often electronics, though not works that fit more into the category of ‘sound art’) or film music, and it needs to be professionally presented.

What do you see as some of the next steps as the initiative continues to grow? 

On a practical level, I need help—in the form of both funds and hands. I need to find a way to make this work sustainable, and I need money and volunteers to make more positive events (like concerts, calls for scores, and more podcast episodes) happen more regularly. One possibility is to become a nonprofit organization or to partner with a nonprofit, and I’m currently exploring my options in that direction. I also have a Patreon page where people can offer a subscription donation to the podcast.

Assuming the practical foundations were in place, I’d love to continue to do calls for scores in partnership with all manner of ensembles and venues around the world. I do the administrative work and they do the selecting and performing. I would also like to do some live podcast episodes, conducting an interview in front of a live audience with a small chamber ensemble performing short pieces composed by the interviewee. Longer term, I’ve been thinking about establishing a mentoring program, possibly based online, for girls and young women who want to compose. Several of the composers I’ve interviewed have said they’d love to be mentors, so that’s heartening.

Anything to say to online haters who can’t compute the concept of a women-only call for scores?

It is difficult to convince someone who believes they are right that they might be mistaken. It takes that aforementioned humility, which doesn’t come easily to most of us, and I include myself here. I would urge anyone who is dismissive of initiatives like this to give it more than just a passing thought before turning away. People like me don’t do all this work for free because it’s fun, or because we have nothing else to do. I do this because I believe there is a serious problem and I want to work towards fixing it. 

I think this question touches on what we are all being asked to do right now on a larger socio-political scale: to make genuine and ongoing efforts to see the validity of other people’s concerns, even—and especially—when they differ from our own concerns. We have to keep listening and learning, even while we are teaching and protesting. It’s the only way forward.