Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Composers You Should Know: Ruth Shaw Wylie

by sarah - June 21st, 2017

Saturday, June 24, is the 101st birthday of American composer and music educator Ruth Shaw Wylie (1916-1989).  

Born in Ohio, Wylie grew up in Detroit and considered herself to be, “a fairly typical Midwestern composer”.  After earning her PhD in composition at Eastman School of Music she taught composition and music theory at the University of Missouri from 1943-1949, returning to her undergraduate alma mater, Wayne State University in Michigan, where she taught for another 20 years.  She was a pupil of Howard Hanson, Arthur Honeggar, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, and Bernard Rogers.


Throughout her composing career she explored small and large genres, writing ballets, orchestral works, chamber music, choral works, as well as pieces for voice and piano.  Unfortunately, few of her works have been recorded – and those have only occurred in recent years.  Though many of her works have yet to be published, all of Wylie’s manuscripts, including working drafts, master sheets, and performance scores of virtually all of her compositions,  are held by California State University.  (Finding Aid is available here.)

Musicologist Deborah Hayes, who knew the composer personally, has written Wylie’s biography, which is available through Amazon.  You can also learn more in an article Hayes has published in the Journal for the International Alliance for Women in Music in which she discusses not only Wylie’s works and career, but the challenges so often faced in writing about women in music.  For example, Hayes had difficulty finding information about Wylie’s early years, a point which was pointed out in some peer reviews of her original manuscript:

These readers pointed out that, because details of Wylie’s earlier career were missing, my manuscript depicted a composer whose career was unremarkable until she retired and reached the wilds of Colorado, where it blossomed! As unlikely as that story seemed, it was all I had, and her nephew to send me a photo or two through the Estes Park house (bequeathed to him by his aunt) for something suitable. Imagine my surprise when, a few weeks later he reported finding “behind the furnace” several boxes of programs, press clippings, unpublished essays, photos, and correspondence, collected since the 1930s!

Those of us who have worked on historic women composers, and longed for such a find of boxes of materials and manuscripts hidden away, can imagine the thrill of such a discovery – as well as the disappointment that such valuable material was neglected, even discarded, to begin with!  Be sure to read the full article here.  

Hayes has these insights in describing Wylie’s works:

Like many of her contemporaries, Wylie found her initial inspiration in the and Stravinsky. Through the 1940s and American neoclassicism in their sectional forms, linear procedures, and classical titles. Searching for her own compositional voice, she explored chromatic harmony and expanded tonality, and devised what she called “planal” writing, combining planal (parallel) intervals to create distinctive harmony and counterpoint. “Consonance-dissonance values of each large sonority, as well as each smaller sonority within the individual planes, can be clearly discerned and controlled.”  She also sought ways to achieve rhythmic freedom and invention. In a 1946 paper, she wrote that rhythmic concepts found principally in Gregorian chant, isorhythmic motets of the fourteenth century, and the asym- metrical prose rhythms of the sixteenth in freeing music from the tyrannical nine- teenth-century bar line and in devoting a more tender care to the agogic accent in relation to the dynamic stress accent.”

Few of her works have been recorded – but have a listen to two pieces via Spotify below:

Monday Link Round Up: June 19, 2017

by sarah - June 19th, 2017

News to start your week!


Opera5, a Canadian opera company which is based in Toronto, will be presenting two works by Ethel Smyth – Fête Galante and The Boatswain’s Mate – June 22 through the 25th.  Smyth is remembered for her work as a suffragette as well as her work as a composer, and her political convictions can be seen in particular in the feminist opera The Boatswain’s Mate.  Notably, O5 is also boasting an entirely female production team for these performances.  Learn more here!


Brett Campbell of OregonLive writes about the coming Chamber Music Northwest Festival, and the highlight on women composers. Included in the festival programming this year are works by Hildegard, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Clara Schumann, Valerie Coleman, and Hannah Lash.  Read more about the coming festival here.


There’s a new edition of the Listening to Ladies podcast – this week featuring Beth Anderson.  Find out more information about the composer with links to her works on the LtL website, or stream the podcast below:



Rebecca Lentjes of The Log Journal writes about the responses she received after writing an article on the “Top 10 Living Women Composers”.  The lack of representation in the classical work, and the way that historic and contemporary women composers are all to often dismissed out of hand, is an important and often frustrating conversation to engage with.  Read on here.


What did we miss?  What are you reading?  Leave a link and comment below!

Celebrating Pride in San Francisco

by sarah - June 16th, 2017

June is LGBTQ Pride Month, and what better way to celebrate than with an excellent concert from an important community organization?

The Bay Area Rainbow Symphony, a non-profit organization in San Francisco dedicated to “promoting and supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer identified (LGBTQ) musicians and composers toward the goal of broad crossover appeal and excellence in the performing arts”, will be presenting their Pride Concert on June 17.  Included on the program are Scattered and The Last Song composed by Clarice Assad, and Siren Songs by Laura Karman, which was commissioned by The Pacific Symphony and premiered in 2015.  More information and tickets available here.

For those of us who can’t make the trip, listen in below!


Composers You Should Know: Galina Ustvolskaya

by sarah - June 14th, 2017

Saturday, June 17, would have been the 98th birthday of Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006).

Ustvolskaya studied at the Leningrad Conservatory and was a pupil of Shostakovich who was a champion for her works, even though her style evolved to be distinctly different from her mentor’s.  As a developing composer she had few opportunities to hear her works in performance.  However, there has been new interest in her unique approach in recent years outside of Russia.

Known for unusual combinations of instruments, extreme dynamics, use of tone clusters, and repeated, homophonic blocks of sound, Ustvolskaya was reportedly called “the woman with the hammer” by Dutch critic Elmer Schönberger.  

Alex Ross wrote about Ustvolskaya’s works in The New York Times in 1995 in response to then-renewed interest in her works.  (The full piece can also be found on his blog, The Rest is Noise.)  In it, Ross explore’s Ustvolskaya’s compositional style and how it changed throughout her career.  His description of her writing is worth noting:

Brutality has become the hallmark of her style.  But her extremities of dissonance and timbre are always set against a bracing simplicity of texture and rhythm.  She is at the furthest possible remove from the Serialists, practicing complexity for complexity’s stake.  Much of her work is more or less tonal, or at least modal: long, regular strings of notes in formations resembling plainchant, pinned on percussive patterns.  There are also some startling stretches of untroubled lyrical repose.  Most important, every passage is given a clear and vivid place in a linear narrative.  Sounds become hard objects in space.  As Feldman approximated certain aspects of abstract painting, Ustvolskaya has made music into sculpture.

More recently, Tom Service of The Guardian offered a guide to her music published in 2013.  Service’s take on her works is also of note:

And yet Ustvolskaya’s music has, I think, a cathartic power. Just as it voices a “scream into space” – words appended to the score of the Second Symphony, “True and Eternal Bliss”, it exorcises primordial emotions of suffering and grief, and turns them into vivid, implacable creative expression. In a film made in Holland in 2005, the year before she died, Ustvolskaya spoke of the overwhelming loneliness she felt when she was writing the Second Symphony in the late 70s, and which she still feels at the end of her life. Ironically, it’s precisely because her music gives almost unbearably direct expression to this essential spiritual bleakness that it creates such an indelible but mysterious resonance in listeners today. Well, it does in me at least. Find out what you think as you experience the laser beams, black holes, and expressive radiation of Ustvolskaya’s musical world.

Learn more about Ustvolskaya – including her catalog of works, publication information, and archival information –  on her official website, and read her obituary in The New York Times here.

Thanks to renewed interest, there are several good recordings of her works.  Listen in to her distinct style through the Galina Ustvolskaya through our Spotify playlist:

Monday Link Round Up: June 12, 2017

by sarah - June 12th, 2017

News to start your week!


Melanie Zeck, music librarian and historian at the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago, writes fro The Francisco Chronicle exploring the music of the African diaspora.  Learn more about William Grant Still, Joseph Bologne (“Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges”), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and others.  Read on about the music preserved by the CBMR, and their collaboration with The Dream Unfinished, here.


Electronic musician Joanne Pollock responded directly to a festival director who claimed that it’s not possible to have a festival with equal representation of works by men and women because female electronic musician’s “don’t exist.”  Read the full story, and learn more about the continued willful blindness, at CBC News.


Congratulations to Rei Hotoda who was just named the new music director for the Fresno Philharmonic – and the first woman to hold the position.  Learn more about Hotoda and her career at The Fresno Bee, and with the video below:

What did we miss?  What are you reading?  Leave a link and let us know!